I am Third

I have seen the expression “I am Third” before, but the most recent time it inspired me to read more about it. Based on those insights, I felt it was a great follow up to my previous blog, Enlightened Self Interest. I Am Third, is a saying that represents the basis for every faithful life: “God is first, others are second, and I am third.”

Gale Sayers, the great Chicago Bears running back, wrote his autobiography back in the 1970s, called “I am Third”. He chose the title based on his philosophy about life. When he was a sophomore at the University of Kansas, he had seen a sign on the desk of his track coach, Bill Easton, with the inscription, “I am Third.” His coach told him that it meant – “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.” When Gayle made it to the NFL, he had a medallion made bearing the words “I am third,” and wore it around his neck throughout his career. This is the attitude that lead to the inspirational and heartfelt story of “Brian’s Song” about his road roommate, Brian Piccolo, who died too young of cancer.

Johnny Ferrier was a highly decorated Air Force pilot, who flew with an air exhibition team called the Minutemen. On June 7, 1958, in Dayton, Ohio, the Minutemen were flying in an airshow when Johnny’s rudder stuck, and he began to spiral. Knowing that ejecting from the plane would result in it crashing into the houses below, Johnny held tight to the stick and crashed into an empty lot, sparing lives. It was a bold and courageous last act.  But it was not an act alien to the nature of John T. Ferrier, who had been awarded one of the nation’s most outstanding medals of courage and bravery for risking his life “beyond the call of duty” in Korea.  After the crash, Johnny’s wife went through his billfold and found the well-worn card which he had received at a youth camp many years before and always carried with him, “I’m Third.” He lived that creed to the very end.

Many of us live in a “Me First” age of social media, selfies, and instant gratification where personal comfort reigns. We get hung up on our rights and personal freedom, losing awareness to the concept of others before self. The obvious example is choosing to not wear a mask, which is truly done for the benefit of others. This selfishness, comfort, and apathy fight against greatness. Building a team of ‘3rd’ in culture of ‘1st’ is no easy task. This election cycle was about winning and only winning over those who disagree with us. As I read in a friend’s recent Facebook post, “when did we the people become us and them?”

“If you help enough other people get what they want, you can have everything you want!” – Zig Ziglar

If we want to get ahead, we first need to get behind others. Consider Charlie DeLeo, a Vietnam hardened tough kid from New York’s Lower East Side. He took a job as maintenance man at the Statue of Liberty, making sure that the sodium vapor lights are always working and that the 200 windows in the torch and the crown are always clean. Even though he is unable to afford fancy clothes or go out much, he sponsors six orphans through a children’s organization. Charlie decided to put God first, others second, and himself third. He boasts that decision changed his life forever. He wrote his own prayer that he recites nightly:

O Lord, I don’t ever expect to have the faith of Abraham,

Nor do I, O Lord, ever expect to have the leadership of Moses,

Nor the strength of Samson, nor the courage of David, nor the wisdom of Solomon…

But what I do expect, O Lord, is your calling on me some day.

What is your will, I shall do, what is your command, shall be my joy.

And I shall not fail you, O Lord, for you are all I seek to serve.

Mother Theresa expressed it as, JOY is Jesus, Others, Yourself.

Serving through love is emphasized by Jesus. We are familiar with the scripture from Matthew 22:34-40 – When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

The defining elements of our lives is this two-fold commandment of love; God and neighbor. By placing ourselves third, we have things in the right order and are living a life that will bring the greatest good to others, and unexpectedly, to ourselves. The intended connection between God, others, and us is not a zero-sum relationship. It is a dynamic in which God wins, others win, and we win.

Paul reiterates Jesus’ words in his letter to the Galatians (5:13), “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.””

Meanwhile, the Apostle John, in his first letter (1 John 4-20-21), stresses that knowledge of God and love for one another are inseparable. To paraphrase, how can we love a God we cannot see, if we don’t love our brothers and sisters we can see?

If God is truly first, then our values will be Divine-values, and our choices will reflect that. Few of us will ever have the platform of a Hall-of-Fame running back and even fewer will have to make an ‘in the moment’ decision of sacrificing our life for others. Yet, all of us can emulate Charlie DeLeo. An outcome of making decisions that honor others is that we will genuinely be the humble servants of God –  and third.

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