When I die, I want my weekly to-do lists to be framed and displayed at my memorial service. They are works of art.
This is my system. I keep a yellow legal pad, and I list everything I want to accomplish that week in a narrow column down the left hand side. Some things I need to do everyday, like update my class website - I put five small boxes next to those things, one for each day. Now, at the beginning of a new day I highlight that day’s tasks and cross them out when finished with a thick-tip black Sharpie. Things that don’t get finished carry over into a new column - next week’s list.
To you non-listers, I can’t adequately describe the satisfaction of a Friday afternoon with a yellow legal pad that looks like a heavily censored CIA memo.
But in all seriousness, it’s probably not difficult to diagnose the spiritual difficulties this accomplishment-based mindset brings with it. It’s finishing things, getting results, that fuels the list maker, but our work as disciples and co-laborers with God is never done, and the results are often far off.
In Eden, Adam worked before the Curse. Work is good for us, it’s part of our purpose and make up. Adam’s assignment was to garden, to tend, to mimic the work of God in bringing order out of chaos. I’ve been working on and off for the past year to clear a vastly overgrown rectangle of land on our property to make a sitting garden, and it continually brings me back to Adam, and the way his work mirrors the creation narrative:
“And the Earth was without form, and void, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the deep.”
You don’t have to look far, I’m afraid, to find chaos around you. In nations, families, relationships, work, chaos is all around us, and our natural reaction to it is either to avoid it, or strong-arm it into submission. Neither is effective. Instead, God calls us to reach into chaos, not just like him but with him, to be a holy and ushering presence of grace, love, and unity in the disorder of the world.
It sounds simple, but I have been disheartened lately at the insane difficulty of this. After all, ever since the curse, everything tends toward disunity, toward chaos; this is why “cursed is the ground” and “in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” Our work is work. And the weakness in me wants to see something that I can cross of my list.
But this week God gave me the beginnings of a new perspective. As I was bearing this and praying about it in church, our worship team played Gungor’s “Beautiful Things.”
All this Earth
Will all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come up from this ground, at all?
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us
This, I thought. This is exactly what I’ve been feeling. The work is tiring. I wondered if what I was doing to serve God was enough. Did I have the stamina in me to do this for another ten years, much less twenty? Thirty? I was focused on the work I was doing, the results I wasn’t seeing. But then the ending refrain began.
You make me new
You are making me new
You know those moments when God gives you a kind of epiphanic moment that was right there the whole time, and you are struck by your child-like need to be reminded of the simplest things over and over when you’ve imagined you are somehow beyond that?
It’s not about a list. It’s not about crossing things off. It’s not about numbers. It’s not even about what we accomplish as co-gardeners in the kingdom of God.
It’s about participating in the work and being molded by the process.
The prophet Jeremiah had two converts in a lifetime of ministry, but he was engaged in the process, and his participation was vital. The work and the harvest belongs to God, but when we participate, we never stay the same. We grow, we plant, we learn to rely more deeply on our Father, and that is why we do it.
It’s not about the result, it’s about participating. The rest is up to Him.
I’m hoping this will be as fresh of a perspective for you as it was for me as you go about tending your small corner of the garden.
As for me, I’m not ready to throw it out, but I am rethinking this to-do list…
Tyler Russell lives in Central Pennsylvania with his wife, Cat, and their 5 children where he teaches high school English and explores the connection between faith and art. His writing has appeared in Apiary Magazine and at RelevantMagazine.com, among others. He and his wife have also recently become active in the fight against human trafficking.