#1: Make a List

A few months ago, I was writing daily to-do lists with my four-year-old daughter. (#1 on my list: Make list with Evelyn.) “Okay, Mommy. One, play with play dough. Two, make a fairy house outside. Three, call Nonny. Four, watch Curious George. Five, read Angelina. Six, walk to Steve Park. Seven, wash my bike.”

I reminded her that she would also take a nap, put the silverware away, match the socks, and play with her brother, Judah. Was everything ever crossed off her list? Not my daughter.
After all, I’m her role model. My daily lists often look like they’re weekly, even though I intentionally leave things off. So many ideas, millions of joys, countless ways to join in the work of God’s kingdom . . . and only 24 hours.

Usually I can manage these tensions on my own, but then I get to reading (#4 on my list and, probably, one of the more dangerous activities in which I participate).

One day, picking up a book about children’s literature, I read: “The housework can wait. The dishes can wait. Read to your children.” I wanted to ask the person who wrote that little quip, “For what, exactly, can the dishes wait?” Could they wait for the maid to start her shift? For my kids to grow up so they can do the dishes? For me to do them at 10 p.m. after the children are in bed, the time I normally enjoy devoting to #5, R&R (watching Call the Midwife on Netflix), all the while resenting my precious gifts of God while I scrub rubbery mac and cheese from a saucepan? (Mental list additions: #5: Read more to Evelyn and Judah; #6: Scour saucepan.)

#2: Feel Guilty

I was so frustrated—and, yes, guilted—by this “dangerous” reading I’d been up to that I mentioned it to my spiritual director. (#8: Meet with Sharon.) Sharon wisely reminded me that reading to my children is good, as is doing the dishes, and that it’s not a dichotomy. God is there when we read to our children. God is also there when we do the dishes and our children play LEGOs. God’s even there when we do the dishes and our kids watch old-school Sesame Street episodes that now bear parental-warning labels. (Well, she didn’t say this last part, but I implied it from the context.)

In other words, my spiritual director was saying, “Don’t be so afraid you’re going to get it wrong because God is with you!” Sharon’s words reminded me that we can so easily forget about God and instead focus on our fear of making mistakes; we forget the Spirit’s presence in our lives and obsess about things that may be as small as which bathroom stall to enter. Rather than living in God’s present calling, we second-guess our good actions and motivations. This undermines our ability to live in a moment-by-moment experience of God’s love, grace, and mercy.

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I wonder if “Be afraid of making mistakes” is the invisible #9 on my list. Perhaps this fear of getting it wrong is a combination of birth order (I’m first-born), family of origin, and my own spiritual and mental make-up—but I don’t think I’m the only one with fear on my list. While I may be afraid of getting things wrong, others are afraid of missing out (#FOMO).

I think social media may be contributing to these fears. When I log on and scroll through my Facebook, I’m bombarded with the curated success stories of others:

She organized her children’s books (So should I).

They took a family trip to Chicago (So should I).

He volunteered in the oncology ward (So should I).

And these are good, right? It’s important that our homes don’t look like an episode of Hoarders. It’s important that we provide opportunities for our children to explore new places. It’s important that we visit the sick. That one’s even in the Bible (Matthew 25:31–46)! (Mental list additions: #10: Organize bedrooms; #11: Plan trip to Chicago; #12: Volunteer at hospital.)

Once I’m at this point, my list is taller than I am, nothing is crossed off of it, and Evelyn’s bike is dirty. It’s time to call in the big guns. (And by “big guns,” I mean spiritual theology.)

#3: Be Still

When facing a list that’s longer than you are tall, the practice of stillness seems paradoxical. However, this discipline provides an opportunity to encounter God in the present. Albert Haase, a Franciscan priest and spiritual director, writes in Coming Home to Your True Self that the desire (compulsion?) to be productive is one of the ways we try to fill our spiritual voids. Instead, we are invited into what Haase calls being “Present to the Presence.”

In this practice, we “deliberately focus our attention and awareness on God’s abiding presence, which dwells within and in which we dwell.” This practice invites us into the awe of God, resulting in the opportunity for adoration. After all, does crossing everything off my list ensure more of God’s love for me? Does it make me “better” or “more forgiven”? No.

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Being “Present to the Presence” is an opportunity for me to remember that I have way less control than I prefer to imagine. It is a reminder of whose I am, that “I am not my own but
belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”

#4: Rest

The fourth commandment, “Remember to observe the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy,” can be easily overlooked (Exodus 20:8). We don’t want to be legalistic, right? I’ve read literature about Sundays in “old-fashioned” families in which children were only allowed to read the Bible, not play. (#13: Read the Bible.) It sounds awfully restricting and completely un-fun. But that’s not the point—nor is that what a Sabbath needs to look like.

Sabbath-keeping is an invitation into the announcement of Psalm 24, that the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it. The earth is not ours. So, we pause together and remember. We
pause together and ignore our lists as we participate in corporate worship, this “royal waste of time” (as coined by Marva Dawn).

We practice demanding less from ourselves and, therefore, remember “not to demand excessive work from others,” as Dorothy Bass wrote in Practicing Our Faith. This is wise. When I have a big list, when I expect five feet and nine inches of tasks to be completed by me, I then expect my husband to complete six feet of tasks. And I expect my daughter to at least wash her bike.

#5: Do Not Fear

When the angel Gabriel visited Mary of Nazareth in Luke 1, Gabriel only gave one command to her. Remember what it was? “Don’t be afraid” (Luke 1:30–33). What he doesn’t say is, “See, Mary, I have a plan to help you out. Tell your parents this . . . tell Joseph that . . . (and wear your other dress when you tell him). God will inspire a neighbor to drop by with a bunch of fabric for you so you can sew some baby clothes. We’ll get this done!”

No. Not a single action step; simply “Don’t be afraid.” That angel crossed fear off her list, and he didn’t give her a new list. He didn’t tell her how important it was for her to tell stories to Jesus, or how she should co-sleep or give him tummy time. No. It’s enough that the Lord was with her, that the Holy Spirit would come upon her. Mary didn’t dwell in fear; she had the Spirit.

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Sure, Mary had fewer options than we do. But the Spirit is the same. Cross fear off your list, friends, for I tell you the truth:

1. You won’t get it all done.

2. God loves you.

3. God wants you to pause and be present to his presence.

Maybe God is nudging you to take a break from lists altogether. Or maybe it’s to add a new item to your list: stillness and rest. And, if you want to add “helping someone out” to your
list, my daughter’s bike is still dirty.

Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence has perfected nothing. She is a TCW regular contributor, biblical storyteller, mother, and M.Div. student at Calvin Theological Seminary, and elder at Thornapple Covenant Church Find her at PathlightStories.com.