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WORLDVIEW: Tyranny of the ‘to do’ list

EDITOR’S NOTE: Visit “WorldView Conversation,” the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com/. Listen to an audio version at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/119/11973/11973-66255.mp3

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–I love “to do” lists.

I’ve got a pocket calendar for home and personal reminders, a desk calendar for work-related tasks and several notebooks for longer-range stuff. I employ the prehistoric pen-to-paper variety, but I’m sure all the digital gizmos on the market help their forgetful users, too.

To be honest, I’d get little accomplished without “to do” lists. My brain no longer seems to retain or organize practical information, although I can recite the roster of the 1982-83 Los Angeles Lakers on command. They had the greatest fast break ever, by the way: Magic Johnson racing down the middle, whipping no-look passes to James Worthy or Michael Cooper, who levitated to the hoop for vicious dunks over the hated Celtics. If the break wasn’t available, Magic tossed the ball to the big guy, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who casually launched his unblockable “skyhook” from almost anywhere on the court.

Wait … I’m getting off task again. Got to focus. That’s why I need “to do” lists. They bring order to the chaos of life — or at least create the illusion of doing so.

But “to do” lists have a dark side. Getting things done doesn’t mean you are living a productive life. Marking items off the list feels great. Failing to mark them off, however, induces frustration, guilt, a sense of failure — almost as if you are still living under the law.

The list grants no grace, no mercy. If you allow it to take over, it becomes a little tyrant, taking the joy and spontaneity out of your life. It can even become an idol, taking the place of God’s daily direction.

I imagine the priest who hurried by the wounded man on the side of the road (Luke 10:30-37) had an early version of the “to do” list. The Good Samaritan might have had one, too, but he didn’t let it keep him from stopping to minister to an injured stranger.

The digital zombies who walk down the street these days, slavishly reading their text messages, wouldn’t notice the stranger if they tripped over him.

The challenge of daily life for a follower of Christ is balancing the legitimate demands of your “to do” list — written or mental — with His divine “to do” list. If you don’t pay spiritual attention, you won’t even notice His list, much less make yourself available to respond to it.

I find it comforting that a wiser servant encounters the same struggle I do with conflicting lists.

“The past two weeks have been frustrating,” writes Guy Muse, a Southern Baptist missionary to Ecuador for more than 20 years, in his Oct. 17 blog post (see http://guymuse.blogspot.com/2010/10/interruptions-are-my-ministry.html).

“For every item I am able to cross off on my ‘to do’ list, two or three more are added. Calls needing to be made, reports overdue, projects waiting attention, documents needing translation, individuals needing counseling…. Why am I getting so little accomplished these days? One word. Interruptions! People dropping by the house, calls, meetings, requests from individuals…. Night and day, it never lets up….

“But what if God also has ‘to do’ lists? What if God has on His list for Juan to call me and see about our getting together for coffee at 2:15 today and talk about his problems? When I seriously pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done …’ am I not in effect saying, ‘Lord, your list has priority. Your agenda is more important than my own’? …

“(P)eople often hide behind the excuse of thinking, ‘I am too busy with real ministry. I simply do not have time for unplanned, spontaneous ministry from people interrupting my busy schedule.’ … Was that Christ’s attitude, who left the crowds and made time to go eat at Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19:1-10)? To heal blind beggar Bartimaeus (Luke 18:35-43)? Stopping in His tracks … when an unknown woman touched the hem of His robe (Luke 8:43-48)? Taking time for children while leaving the crowds to wait?

“Ninety percent of ministry happens when we seize those spontaneous opportunities that come disguised as detours or interruptions.”

Missionary surgeon Martha Myers, who died at the hands of a disturbed gunman in Yemen in 2002, had a similar perspective. Her motto: “Things don’t matter, people do.”

For Myers, “things” included not only possessions but schedules — the stuff, in other words, on her “to do” list (if she had one). She alternated marathon days and nights treating patients with unscheduled “house calls,” extended excursions into far-flung mountain villages to visit Yemeni families no one else cared about. The long talks around teacups, the love she expressed, were even more important than the medical care she provided or the new surgical procedures she pioneered.

If Jesus had the time, we have the time. Don’t submit to the tyranny of your “to do” list. He has a more important one.
Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board (imb.org).

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  • Erich Bridges