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December 19, 2008

Taking a Sharpie to Your List

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: Wednesday morning women's Bible study, a mentoring program at church, three more committees and ministry groups at church, 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 17-year-old cousin. Oh, and there were the people I'm trying to invest in and encourage, like the newlywed couple we go on double-dates with, the single mom I'm encouraging, the new Christian I studied the Bible with at Starbucks 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 them. 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.

Related Tags: acceptance, busyness, confession, over-commitment, spiritual disciplines


Well said, sister. I'll be breaking out my own Sharpie momentarily.

I also appreciate how God gives us natural breaks to evaluate life and make decisions about where to pour our energies. I can't help but think of the yearly New Year's resolutions ritual. How many of those stick? Some, sure, but not many. And then there are the physical breaks that force you to evaluate your commitments, i.e. moving to Kenya... or Beirut. :-)

The bottom line is that God doesn't call us to be everything to everyone. We can't. We're not able because we're not God. So I have to ask: WHY, WHY, WHY do we try to do that? I think it's time to feel the freedom to say, "Thank you, but NO." God calls us to be disciples, not doormats.

Very intersting and a good reminder. My struggle is the amount of time it takes to really make meaningful relationships--I don't feel I have strong, deep ones (and I LONG to deepen the ones I have) yet everyone I know (including me) doesn't have the time to invest in each other to make those deeper. Partly because we're all busy serving in the church or doing all the extra things parenting brings...and at this stage in our lives we all feel we need to do this to have time with our families. It's a struggle--thank you for the reminder to take time and prayer over ALL our commitments.

We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful.
We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.

(Mother Teresa)

thank you Kelli. You beautifully articulated what I've been thinking and praying about.

Wow, I can so relate! I think we are all bombarded every day with something new to do or join! In the enlightenment of how to get a grip on the spiritual and non-spiritual targets in life, I think the “examination of conscience” should be a frequent occurence to help us define our unique purpose that God has each of us. Thanks Kel for this insight especially during this time of the year....and even if it is's so what is needed!

Great article, Kelli! I've been thinking and praying about doing the same thing. I usually spend January 1st planning the new year. I always think about what I should do but now I'm inspired to think about what I shouldn't do as well. Thanks for the encouragement!

Oh how I needed to hear this. Wish I could say something more profound.

Thank you.

Fantastic post. Should be required reading for every pastor's wife and lady in leadership.

I think it is particularly difficult for women to eliminate relationships in our life. It is freeing to realize that I don't have to be there for everyone in my life, but instead need discernment as to who I should invest in. That requires time to listen to God as he directs my time use with others. One of the lasting directions from God to me, has been directing me to invest in the people that I regularly have contact with - I call it the "efficiency of God". For me, that means my small group at church, my fellow soccer parents, and my office mates. When I get the occasional guilt attack about not making time for someone, this helps free me from feeling bad. It also alerts me to spend some time discerning when a relational request is made from someone out of my normal life orbit.

What a great article! I wish I could say I'm running to get my Sharpie right now...but I'm not quite there yet. I get to this point (overbooked and overburdened) every so often, and need the reminder to scale back and calm down. But it's hard!

Nevertheless, I love the way you wrote about this process and know the image of the Sharpie will stay with me as long as I struggle with overcommitting myself (you know, for forever!).

If all of us pastor's wives could practice this on an ongoing basis just think what it would teach the gals in our churches who want to follow us and be like us. It would be a revolution!

It's all in the choosing, isn't it? I've had to pull out the Sharpie from time to time. It gets easier with practice and a listening heart to God's voice. There are seasons for all things in our lives. The trick is to know when to add something and drop another (from the active list). Thanks for reminding us of how important it is to listen to God and not to our own hearts.

I go through this every year, however, I think this time is different. Now I prayed and God is leading me and showing me where he wants me to be. I'm learning to say "no". Thanks Kelly ... I sent it to a couple of girlfriend who are going to feel related to it.

I find younger people love to expand their number of Facebook friends, the number of parties they go to, and so on. As we get older, we're more likely, like Kelli, to get out the Sharpie, narrow our number of contacts, and focus on better relationships with fewer people.

In light of Kelli's comment on the "Catch-phrase Christians" post, do you think taking the Sharpie to your list is another generational thing?

I think you made a lot of interesting points. We are humans with finite time and energy, yet we often forget this. I wonder if part this busyness is a result of our feelings of pressure and guilt for not doing more. The world seems to admire the person who is "always busy". But busy doing what? Sometimes we are busy doing ministry and positive things and that makes it difficult to take out that Sharpie.

But there is wisdom in having limits and boundaries. Just as the heart pumps blood first to itself and then to the organs, so also we must take care of ourselves. It's so basic, but that's probably why the lesson eludes us.

Thanks for the permission to do what I've been saying I needed to do for a long time. Time to make an appointment with my own Sharpie!

That was soooo needful! 2009 is truly a time for me to rethink and redeposit my all back into the Father's hands.

This is so good. Only when we realize we are missing out on that precious time to be filled with His Holy Spirit and be in His prescence, will we come to the place where even those things that look important really are not and there is no guilt in marking them off.

Those calendars, datebooks, and journals are quickly filling up. What a great challenge as we head into the new year ... let's find out what's non-negotiable and go for it! Instead of being people pleasers, let's make it our goal to please Him (2 Corinthians 5:9).

This is such an important topic..not just for pastor's wives or church leaders. We all need to know how to pull back and only do those things that God is calling us to do. Too much spiritual activity and not enough relationship is deadly.

I write about this on my blog almost everyday. Check it out if you need some refreshment or encouragment!

Beautiful and informative post. I, too needed this word. I can think of many women in the ministry that need it. Your post truly inspired me.

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