I’ve done it for years. Decades, really. I’ve made lists. You know the kind— where you write down all the tasks you need to accomplish as a wife, mom, employee, homemaker, all of the above? I actually got pretty good at it over time. I use a business system to help me track and organize my various to-do’s. I create weekly and monthly goals that connect to my daily planner. And once, in a highly creative but mercifully short-lived phase, I color-coded my list according to priority. Yep, that’s me: A list-maker supreme.
So it only came naturally to me when I reverted to the Catholic faith five years ago to approach my spiritual growth in the same structured manner. Soon I found myself making a list of books I wanted to read, jotting down virtues I wanted to explore and develop, and later, noting elements of the faith I wanted to re-learn (better this time). And I made prayer intention lists— lots of prayer intention lists. But more recently I began penning things I thought the Holy Spirit was nudging me to explore— in particular, ways I could maybe help build the kingdom using the talents and gifts He’s given me.
Sometimes the spiritual list-making worked. I checked off several important milestones in my faith life and I felt like I had accomplished some significant goals. But then…
Fast forward to this recent Lenten season. I specifically prayed for a spiritual breakthrough. I was feeling not quite stuck, really, but dulled. Quieted. Dutifully plodding along instead of on a spirited adventure with Christ. I had been looking for something “to-do,” but my lists offered no solutions. What do you want me to do next, Lord? This…or this…or this? I asked, oh-so-generously offering a few of my own ideas to the Creator of The Universe. Give me a sign, give me the word and I’ll put it on my list. I was clearly ready for a new assignment from God; all he had to do was answer, right?
He answered. And oh my, was it ever a breakthrough.
He told me to ditch my to-do list and just be a pencil.
This message evolved through the pages of my prayer journal one morning. I repeated my request for a breakthrough. And deep in my soul, I experienced a light-bulb moment, a Holy Spirit-fueled shift of perspective: Instead of asking for items to add to my list and check off, I need to throw out the paper altogether. I need to ask instead for greater softening of my heart and to let the Lord fully take over. To allow him to fill me to overflowing with his love and be my guiding force at all times and in all things. To cooperate, not control.
I realized I had taken my ask-and-answer, to-do list mindset too far. I was more focused on results and not focused enough on my primary relationship with God and my role as his obedient follower. When I get so busy methodically planning in my head, I am not graciously receiving in my heart. It was time to give up my need to call the shots and instead become an instrument, like a pencil in His hand.
“I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world,” said Saint Teresa of Calcutta. It’s one of my favorite quotes; I have it posted above my desk. The deeper meaning of her words is just now starting to sink into my stubborn brain: If I let God love me fully and mold me and shape me as he desires, I too can be a fruitful pencil in his hand. Then I can stop worrying about what to write (figuratively and literally!). If I can learn to be a pencil, what I am to “write” will take care of itself. And through God’s hand, the result will be far more eloquent and beautiful than what I would have come up with on my own, that’s for sure.
Control vs Surrender
This whole idea of ditching control and just letting myself be his pencil amps up the need to trust him. This, not surprisingly, makes me nervous. It requires an unwavering commitment to total surrender, something I struggle with constantly (for proof of this glaring weakness, see the prior suggestion little old me made to the Creator of the Universe). But I know this is how you bear fruit and help build the kingdom. You have to yield to Him before you can yield for Him. He is the vine, we are the branches. Not the other way around! Apart from him, we can do nothing.
My Lenten season breakthrough comes down to this, dear Sistas: I need to work on being a better pencil.
Sounds like the perfect “to-do” for my Easter season, doesn’t it?
Mary Beth is a 50-something magazine editor, a family humor columnist and an author, but her favorite form of writing is prayer journaling. Praying with a pen every morning for years
dramatically strengthened her spiritual life, even drawing her back home to the fullness of the Catholic Church after several decades away! She recently published a book with Beacon
Publishing/Dynamic Catholic titled, “Praying with a Pen—the Girlfriends’ Guide to Stress-Free Prayer Journaling.” Married for 30+ years to her witty and wonderful husband, she’s a mom to two adult children: one a seminarian studying in Rome and the other a happily married school social worker who promoted Mary Beth to grandma status in March of 2018. Mary Beth is a member of her church choir, loves to sing at big Catholic weddings and has recently begun facilitating Catholic book studies and retreats for women. With a background in corporate communications and marketing and a Master’s degree in Business and Organizational Leadership, she has spoken to over 100 groups on the topics of leadership, family humor, writing and prayer journaling. Mary Beth has a borderline unhealthy attachment to her little dog, Sammy and, when the mood strikes her, she blogs about prayer journaling (and Sammy) at www.prayingwithapen.com.