Cutting Back Part 2

I wrote a short article for GiftedforLeadership.com in December 2008 that is, essentially, “Cutting Back Part 2” — a continuation of the discussion on the questions I asked in my last post. How, practically speaking, can we figure out if we are doing too much? How can we pare back our commitments to form a more healthy, focused way of life?

This article, “Taking a Sharpie to Your List,” candidly describes a moment I had when I was overwhelmed and needed to re-evaluate my commitments. It describes the painful conflict we feel between our need to please others and a determined focus to honestly ask God, “What do you want me to do, God? How do you want me to invest my time right now?” It involves letting go, giving up, being patient with dreams, and being content with God’s calling . . . for you . . . for today. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this article!

No offense, but I’m crossing your name off my list with a big black Sharpie.

I’m not crossing you out of my life — just off my list.

It’s not crossing you off because you’re unimportant or because I don’t care or because I don’t think you’re cool.

Blackening your name off isn’t easy for me, but I’ve got to do it.

It’s not you; it’s me.

And I’m not superwoman.

Sorry, but I’ve got to do this . . . 

 Screech!(Sound of Sharpie on paper.)

This one-sided dialogue was repeated in various forms in my mind throughout a revolutionary hour I spent with a blue index card, a pencil, and a big, bad, black Sharpie.

Before that hour, my life looked a bit like this:

There were the various groups I was already a part of: a book club, a ministry group, a home group, a Sunday-school-class group, and a few various committees peppered in here and there. Then there were the groups I felt interested in joining or guilty about not participating in or somewhat pressured to be a part of: women’s Bible study, a mentoring program, three more committees and ministry groups, and various parent volunteer groups at my kids’ schools.

There were also all sorts of various relationships I was trying to maintain: “outreach” relationships with neighbors, relatives, friends, international students, and a regular Jehovah’s Witness door-to-door visitor. Then of course there were the close friends who live far away in Portland and Boulder and Istanbul and Grand Rapids and Chicago. Then there were the Christian friends who are close by, from my present church, from my old church, from MOPS, from book club, from here, there, and everywhere. Then of course my family: my husband, my son, my daughter, my sister, my brother, my sisters- and brothers-in-law, my nieces, my parents, my parents-in-law, my aunts and uncles, and my fabulous seventeen-year-old cousin. Oh, and there were the people I’m trying to invest in and encourage, like a couple we go on double-dates with, the single mom I’m encouraging, a younger Christian I studied the Bible with on occasional Friday mornings, the mom-friends who I swapped parenting advice with and?well, trust me, I could go on and on.

 And along with groups and relationships, there were spiritual growth habits, exercise goals, personal aspirations, various other neglected hobbies, work commitments, and household tasks. I felt like Bilbo Baggins when he told Gandalf, “I feel… thin. Sort of stretched, like… butter scraped over too much bread.”

 Ignatius of Loyola outlined the spiritual practice of examen or “examination of conscience” in his Spiritual Exercises written in 1522-1524. In essence, examen is the habit of prayerfully reflecting, with God’s help, on your thoughts and actions during a given period of time and considering how your life matches up with what God desires for you. Christians from various traditions throughout the centuries have practiced the habit of examen in various forms, from formal Ignatian prayers to John Wesley’s brutal accountability questions to simple private reflection on the life-giving and death-dealing moments of one’s day.

 I knew I needed to assess more than one day. I needed to look with God at my pattern of living over weeks and months and years. I knew that rather than living with purpose, I was aiming for hundreds of targets and missing most of ?em. Rather than living richly, I was left spiritually and emotionally poor. Rather than enjoying deep and meaningful relationships, I’d become thin, listless butter.

 Hence, the appointment with the Sharpie for some lifestyle-examen.

 I filled that card with every commitment I’ve got, every person I’m trying to care for and encourage, every task or person I feel guilty about not attending to, and every dream I’m neglecting. I jam-packed every centimeter of that poor little card. And then I sighed.

 And then I prayed.

 “Lord, help me,” I prayed. “Help me get a grip. Help me get a grip, first, on my outrageously huge view of myself. (I am not Atlas — nor do I want to be!) Then help me see your vision for my life and grasp onto it.

 “Then Lord, help me loosen my grip on all those other things I’m holding on to and trying to do but just . . . well, just can’t.”

 And after some prayer and after some silent staring and after quite a bit of inner wrestling with self-imposed guilt, I put that Sharpie to work.

 I crossed several commitments and goals off that list. (That wasn’t so hard.)

 But then I literally crossed several people off that list. (That was hard. It felt very . . . mean.)

 But that blacked, blotchy, barely legible card became a target for me. A clear, defined target to focus on that freed me to obey and follow God’s leading rather than chasing after all my own notions of what it means to serve him and live life.

 So if I crossed you off my list, I’m sorry. You’ll never know you got crossed out because I’ll still be kind and I’ll still enjoy being with you and I’ll still meet you for coffee if you ask.

 But I’m called by God to invest my energies elsewhere.

 And if that’s fine with him, it’s fine with me.

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