Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tyranny of the "to do" list

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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

“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.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Miriam's story

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“Leave!” her father shouted.

Just like that. Thrown out of her house, out of her family, out of her world as she had known it. She had nowhere to go, nowhere to find shelter, no immediate way to survive.

Miriam* is 20, but that’s more like 17 in the Muslim country of her birth, where most girls and women depend on their fathers or husbands for everything — even their identity.

What angered her father enough to cast his own daughter out?
Miriam had always been intrigued by stories about Jesus Christ. A certain TV channel occasionally featured programs about Jesus’ life. She would sit and watch for hours as a young girl. Her father noticed her fascination with the programs and canceled the channel.

Sometimes Miriam would wonder, “Could I be a Christian? No, no, of course not. I’m a Muslim. But maybe ... .”

She tried to put the idea out of her mind. But she couldn’t forget about Jesus. There was something about Him, something pure and loving, something she wanted.

About two years ago, Miriam’s mother met an American woman where she worked. The American visited their home for a few meals and soon became a family friend. Miriam asked the woman if she believed in Christ. Yes, she replied. Miriam was doubtful; she had heard a lot about Americans who claim to be Christians but live immoral lives. With time, however, she saw the woman was a true follower of Christ. One day, the woman gave Miriam a Bible in her own language.

Miriam drank in the Word like a parched wanderer in the desert. About a year ago, she befriended another believer from her own country. Under her guidance, Miriam decided to follow Christ as her Lord.

Eager to share the truth she had discovered, she began to tell her classmates about what she had read in the Bible. One day she received a letter threatening her because of her new beliefs and her connection with Christians. Scared, she hid at home for a time — and started doubting her faith.

The doubts lasted for a few months. Then Miriam’s mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Her Christian friends heard little from Miriam during her mother’s illness. They began to wonder if she had abandoned her faith. When they arrived at her home to join other mourners the day her mother died, Miriam calmly told them, “God is with me. I’ll be OK.”

Her mother’s death marked a major turning point for Miriam.

“I’m not sure what was going on inside of her, but after her mom passed, she got very serious about studying the Word, serious about wanting her family to know and serious about being in fellowship with other national believers,” says a Christian friend.

Miriam pored over the New Testament Book of Acts, which recounts the rapid growth of the early church in a hostile environment.

“She was interested and eager about the idea of multiplication,” says her friend. “She noted one of the major themes of Acts is that the people didn’t just hear God’s Word; they did it. She wanted to do it.”

That’s when her father discovered the many hours she spent reading the Bible. He demanded to know if she had become a Christian. She told him the truth, almost relieved she no longer had to hide her faith from him.
“Leave!” he said. It could have been worse; at least he didn’t kill her for the “shame” she had brought upon the family.

Homeless and alone, Miriam sought out local believers who had lived through similar circumstances. She moved in with another female friend.
“As far as I know, she’s still living with her,” says her Christian friend. “Apparently, her father now lets her back into his house so she can have contact with her younger sister. They are the only two children, so you can guess how incredibly traumatic this last year has been for her.

“It has been difficult for me to get in touch with her recently. I think she is afraid to show me when she’s not doing well. Perhaps she’s doubting things as she counts the cost in a new way and she’s ashamed. I’m not sure.”

Miriam’s story doesn’t necessarily have a “happy” ending. It’s still unfolding. Will she stay faithful to Christ, no matter the cost? Will her father relent and allow her to come home? Will she renounce Jesus in order to win back her father’s approval and protection?

These wrenching choices are common for young Muslims who decide to follow Christ. Pray for Miriam — and many others facing similar challenges — to be strong in faith. Pray that the reality that they are blessed when they are “persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10, NASB) will lift their hearts and comfort them in difficulties.

Pray for the many Muslims who, like Miriam, want to know more about Jesus but fear the consequences if they act on their desire. They need to know that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5: 6) are also blessed — and will be satisfied.

* (Name changed)