Lose Your To Do List

Reading: Ross Gay’s Loitering

Sermon: Lose Your To-Do List

Growing up, I learned a special way to mark time at this time of year. Even better than the “Christmas Countdown app.” I learned to mark time with an Advent Calendar.  

In my family, we had a relatively elaborate Advent Calendar. Homemade by one of our family friends using felt. 

It was big, and green, with all the days of December marked out on the bottom, and a blank space at the top – where each day, we would add a piece of the nativity story, so that by the end of the month, the whole scene was there. 

Each day was actually a pocket, that held the different nativity characters and scenery – plus a paper with a story snippet corresponding to the felt you’d be putting up.  

And also, of course, a treat. 

Sometimes chocolate or candy canes.  Sometimes Barbie clothes. You never knew. 

It was all part of the magic.  I mean, the treats, but also, the repetition, the re-creation of the story, every year.  We knew it so well but we also loved acting like we didn’t. 

Where will Mary and Joseph stay? Where will she have the baby?

And why is there a dog in the nativity? Were there dogs in ancient Jerusalem?

Every year, these same questions.  

There’s something about repetition like this at the same time each year that helps you with the marking of time. 

Sometimes Unitarian Universalists can be overly committed to novelty; but there’s a lot of wisdom in tradition – Sean’s going to explore this more in a few weeks.

How turning to something familiar at the same time, in the same way – clues your brain, your body, your heart in to the passing of time – and in the telling of these ancient stories, locates you in a greater story, too.

It’s what Ross Gay is getting at when he talks about “taking one’s time.”  As in, claiming ourselves in time, to know this day as the day we have, this moment, this hour, this life – as ours.  And to know ourselves as a part of the great arc of all time, past, present, future. 

Advent calendars, and wreaths, and the whole idea of advent – are all ways to mark time –both in the countdown sense, and also to mark ourselves – where we are and when we are – which in turn, connects us more fully to who we are – in time, and in life.  In the greater story of life.

Fitting for the Christmas story of a baby arriving at an inconvenient time and inconvenient place – marking time in advent is much like the marking of time while pregnant.  Pregnancy too has countdown apps these days – but even without an app, pregnancy means being constantly aware of time: the months, and then the weeks, and the days remaining –  the baby growing, yes, but also the things you have left to do in that time so you can be ready – even though the whole time you suspect there’s nothing you can do that would make you ready.

You might think, given this core story of advent, that the text in Christian churches today – which is the first Sunday in Advent – would be the story of Mary’s pregnancy.  But because sexism, it’s another story – also about marking time.  

It’s a text known as the “little apocalypse,” because Jesus tells everyone that SOMETHING IS COMING SO WATCH OUT – KEEP AWAKE he says. 

Except he doesn’t really say what that something is.  He says there will be angels, with trumpets, on clouds.  Or, he says, there won’t be.  Instead, maybe it will come without warning, like a “thief in the night.”  So live all the time READY – BE READY all the time – even though there’s probably no way to really be ready. It kind of reminds me of…. 

“You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout…”

It’s not just Christian households that mark time differently this season, with a sense that we need to get ready for SOMETHING THAT’S COMING…

The world around us, the stories within us – deep stories, I mean childhood stories – create in us a sense of urgency, and even vigilance, to hurry, to get all the things done, get ready – SOMETHINGS COMING. 

So we shop, and decorate, bake and celebrate, sing and gather with family, rush to holiday concerts and school plays, wrap presents, lose the scissors, shovel the walkway, travel cross-country, buy new scissors, trim the tree, pull together end-of-the-year reports, find the scissors you first lost, hurry to office holiday parties, watch the grandkids, light the menorah, ski (not enough!), drink hot totties and eggnog lattes (too much!), fill up on pecan pie and mashed potatoes, and don’t forget, pass back and forth the holiday cold.

Especially in a year where Thanksgiving is compressed so closely with Christmas…..Instead of marking time with the steady, intentional presence I learned as a kid through my advent calendar

The magical marking of time that links when you are with who you are – many of us instead mark this time of year with a mad dash of activity and consumption and production until we don’t know what day it is, or even our own names…

…. I mean, I’d have to guess at least a few of you received the notice about our worship series “Slow Down” in your email in box this week – and were like: you’re kidding. 

 It’s why, when my partner heard that the title of my sermon for this week was “Lose Your To Do List,” she responded quickly with: “that gives me anxiety.” 

And I’d bet she’s not alone.  

How many of you would call yourself a “list” person? 

I love lists, actually.  Lists are a way that we keep track of all those things that need to get done – but that haven’t gotten done yet – it’s a way to manage the anxiety of all that remains unfinished….Because without a list – you might forget to do the thing by the time it needs to be done; or just as bad, you might obsess about the fact that it’s not done yet, so you keep turning it over and over in your brain with increasing anxiety and adrenaline…

Sound familiar?

This anxious response to our unfinished business is what’s called the Zeigarnik Effect. 

Remember I said a couple weeks ago how the brain likes things to be resolved – similarly, it likes things to be finished. Once we start something, our brains want to keep bringing it up into our short term memory over and over – until it gets done.  Now you officially understand the entire Netflix Marketing Strategy.  (Next Episode…)

This Effect was discovered through a study on food servers in restaurants.  You know how amazingly your server can remember all the details of your order…? But what’s interesting is that after you’ve paid, they forget all about you.  Every table blurs into another. 

Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik picked up on this, and through a series of studies figured out that before the tables were “done,” the servers turned the orders over and over in their short term memories – adrenaline, anxiety – but then as soon as it was done – huge relief – they could forget all about it. And they did. 

This is explains what I was describing can happen in the mad-dash of the holidays – you get to mid- January and you’re like – what happened?! What did we even do on Christmas this year? Who am I?! 

It’s not just the holidays though that we have to figure out how to live with “unfinished business.” All those things – you know need to be done, but aren’t…yet. So much of life is about learning this lesson – or at least, it’s the lesson my kids have been trying to teach me every day for the last 14 years….which IS the whole of their lives.  

My children love to come breaking in to whatever thing I’m trying so hard to finish – dinner, a sermon, a conversation – whatever I’m trying to GET DONE, and provide me, instead, with an alternative

They are, as one author put it, a constant invitation to be “willingly distracted by the present.” And occasionally…rarely – by some combination of grace and luck and lots of prior investment in my own spiritual health I sometimes manage to relish their lessons – and somehow sometimes I manage to remember that unfinished business is actually a sign that we’re doing life right….

Afterall, as Reinhold Neibuhr said, “Nothing worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime.”

And so “taking our time” can also mean letting ourselves take up to do lists that will take longer than our own lives – letting ourselves feel a part of the larger arc that will keep moving, and dreaming, and doing, and being – long after we are gone. 

To live with “unfinished” things means knowing that even at our last breath, we will be growing and changing and striving – that is, still learning, still healing, still becoming – that we will be still living, for our whole lives –  which is the hope, right? Unfinished business is a sign of a life well lived….which is beautiful, except for our brains! 

Because our brains still love all things to be resolved.  So they are at work – all the time to get us to clean up those “loose ends” –  whether we’re talking about unfinished holiday shopping or unread emails or an unresolved relationship – all this unfinished business can occupy a huge amount of mental energy, and creates an inflated sense of urgency – whether we realize it or not – it gives us a sense that we’ll never have enough time. 

Which means, we can never really relax, let alone “loiter.”

Because we need to hurry and get done – whatever it is we’ve left undone.  Especially things we’ve actually started – even if that’s in a hypothetical way, as in, we’ve thought about them a LOT, written them down, maybe transferred them from one list to another…and another…and another….with the guilt growing with every transfer, and the dread of having not done it, needing to do it, wanting to get it done…..

Which is why – it’s true, we may be better off losing our to do list. 

Don’t panic. 

Because think about what happens when you lose your to do list.   First, if you’re like me, you might freak out a little. But then, you take a deep breath, and a get a clean piece of paper, and you start from the top

And you ask yourself – what is it that I need to do?

If you want to torture yourself, you try to remember what was on that old list, sure you’re forgetting something. 

Or, instead, and this is my invitation to you, not just in December, but across the whole of our lives….you can open the question up, in a fuller way – so that you access the deeper thought process, the slow thinking part of your brain, your heart, your body – the part of yourself that knows itself “in time,” and that knows in a deeper way what it means to “take your own time.” 

The invitation of this season, and the challenge is to linger here, in this slow space.  To remember that dream that is just yours. A dream that lives in your inhale, and your exhale, that will go on long past your last breath – a project that you will spend the rest of your life not-finishing. 

This is the thing to record on your new list. Record it first, and then again, and again. 

Start here, and then return here.  

Because in this life – that is inevitably filled with unfinished business – it matters what we leave undone.  

This is what the Zigarnik effect teaches us most of all – whatever is left on our to-do list is what is left on our heart.  And so we need to be so careful about the work we pick up, the work we begin, the work we call ours – because it will be what our brain turns towards over, and over, and over.

Which if it’s the right thing – can actually be for the good – after all, any big, complicated achievement, any work worth doing – relies heavily on the obsessive nature of the Zigarnik effect. 

It is the opportunity of this season – to mark time in this slower, more intentional way. To know when we are in a way that connects us to who we are. So that we can know – long after the light returns, and the walks are clear and dry, that we are not perpetually out-of-time but that we are held in time, connected, and whole, and enough.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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