Lighting the Way

It’s the time of year for making lists: lists of whom to send Christmas cards and presents to, lists of the things that need to get done to get the house ready, wish lists, shopping lists, lists of ingredients for the lists of food, lists, lists, lists. Lists help keep us grounded this time of year when it seems like there’s more to do than time to do it. Even when we don’t have much planned, the lines are always longer, so everything takes more time than it normally does. It pays to be organized. For the past few months, we have been spending time in our house with lists of our own: lists of homework and due dates, lists that help us figure out what needs to get done by when, how to prioritize and plan. It seems that, with all of the progress in technology through the years, whether you type it in your smart phone or write on a piece of paper, the to-do list has never gone out of style.

How many of you use to-do lists? And how many of you have thought of four more things to add to that list as you’ve been reading? Now, how many of you have a “to don’t” list?

This is what I’d like to explore today. The whole idea of a “to don’t” list can be a foreign concept to us self-reliant, reliable, caring, sophisticated, accomplished residents of the 21st century. The thought that we might not be able to do it all can feel like a personal affront, a suggestion that we are not nearly as capable as we like to think of ourselves. But the truth is that having a “to don’t” list can keep us as grounded as, if not more than, the “to do” list might. And for any of you who feel like you have more to do than there are hours in the day to do it, you might seriously consider taking this on as a practice.

The truth is that all of us would do well to recognize our limitations. None of us is meant to be perfect – thank God – and each one of us needs to remember this. I was once attending a workshop where we attendees were taking furious notes, trying to write down every drop of wisdom fearing we might miss something. Halfway through his talk, the presenter told us to stop taking notes, get out a fresh piece of paper, draw margins down each side of the page, and keep our notes within those margins. “Margins are there for a reason,” he said. “Without them, you run out of room. And that’s not only true of your note-taking; it’s also true of your time.”

That stuck with me. And while I might not always live up to it, I need that recognition that running around from place to place means that I run out of room. And when I do, it means that I am more likely to give God the short shrift. And in the season of Advent, the possibility of cutting God out of the mix is a dangerous risk.

In Advent, in this season that leads up to Christmas, we always read the story of John the Baptist. John was Jesus’ older cousin, having been born just a few months before Jesus. The gospel writers saw John as the fulfillment of prophecy, coming in the spirit of Elijah, the precursor of the promised Messiah. John cuts a wild figure, eating locusts and wild honey, wearing rough clothes, baptizing, and preaching repentance so that a refined way of life would reflect the desire for a closer relationship with God. And all of this he does in order to “prepare the way of the Lord.”

And one way to prepare is to start making a “to don’t” list, to be honest with ourselves about what we don’t need to be doing, drawing those margins on the sides of our lives so that we can make room for God.

If we’re honest, the prospect of doing such a thing is overwhelming. If we are so busy we don’t have time, how are we going to find time for making lists?!?

One practice I would recommend to you is the Examen. The Examen is a fancy way of saying “examination” and was first developed by Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit order, in the 16th century. Here’s how it works:

Each evening, take a few minutes to write the answer to these two questions:

  1. What gave you life today?
  2. What drained life from you today?

Track your answers for a couple of weeks. And soon, you will begin to recognize a pattern. You will see that God is in the places that give you life, and that God wants you to withdraw from the places that drain life from you. And the more you reflect on these two poles, the more you can make determined decisions about where God wants you to spend your time. After all, we are told that we are to have life and have it abundantly.

For some of us, the things we need to knock off of our to do lists are obvious. There are those toxic relationships that wear us down and bleed us dry. There are the frivolous things we spend time, energy, and resources on, knowing that they are more life-taking than life-giving. There are very concrete issues, like addictions, things that we need to avoid at all costs because they will eat us alive. These are the things that kill the image of God within, things that defeat our self-worth and humiliate our God-given dignity, things we do not need to be doing.

Don’t get me wrong: creating that “to don’t” list is not talking about making life easy. Instead, it usually requires far more self-control, because it can be about putting aside those life-long, destructive patterns imprinted on us from an early age. It’s not about living a self-centered life, either. Often times selflessness can be the most life-giving thing we can do. Instead, it’s an embodiment of that simple principle of the oxygen mask. You need to be able to breathe first in order to help those who are gasping for air.

All of this came into clear relief for me this week. Like many of you, I listened to and read news story after news story about Nelson Mandela. The former South African president will, no doubt, go down as one of the most important historical figures of the past century, that unique revolutionary who became a head of state. In his own transformation, he transformed a whole nation and gave hope to a continent and the world.

There are so many parts of his life that speak volumes; but there was one in particular incident which grabbed me as I heard the remembrances, and that was his inauguration to the presidency in 1994.

More than thirty years earlier, Mandela was charged with sabotage. Percy Yutar, the prosecuting attorney, argued for the death penalty. Instead, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, eventually transferred to isolation on the foreboding Robben Island. In 1990, President de Klerk released Mandela as the country began to move from Apartheid to Democracy.

In 1994, the first free elections were held, and Mandela was elected president. At his inauguration, as a sign of his desire to set a new tone for the nation, he hosted former president Botha, prosecuting attorney Yutar, and his Robben Island prison guard James Gregory as his personal guests. He continued this tone in appointing his cabinet, including former president de Klerk as his Deputy President.

Given everything Mandela had endured, it would have been an easy thing for him to proclaim victory over Apartheid and seek recompense for all of the personal and national wrongs suffered. It would have been a predictable thing for South Africa to go down the path of a Nigeria or a Zimbabwe. Somehow, he knew instinctively that he needed to model hope and freedom for his people, and that the best way to do so was to put aside resentment in order to embrace forgiveness. Doing so was not weakness, but bravery. “Courageous people do not fear forgiving,” he said, “for the sake of peace.”

What is it that you need to put aside? Where is it that you need to be courageous? What is it that you are holding onto that holds you back? What is it that you need to put on your “to don’t” list to lighten your load and light up the way for the infant Christ in your life?

Start you're "to don't" list. Since it's personal, I don't suggest you do it in the comments below, but to take out a piece of paper. Be sure to put margins on the left and right sides. Write down at least one thing that you need to avoid or minimize, and how you are going to do that. Spend a minute or two thinking about it – something concrete that you need not to be doing, a feeling that needs to be transformed for the sake of abundant life – and how it is that you will move this from “to do” to “to don’t”. After all, we cannot level the mountains and raise the valleys to make God’s way clear in our lives if we keep throwing up obstacles and encroaching on the margins.