From Jailbird to Free Bird:
The Prison of Procrastination

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached November 13, 2011 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Proverbs 6:6-11: "A little sleep, a little slumber ..."
Matthew 25:14-30: "I went and hid your talent in the ground."
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song this morning comes from a band formed back in 1967 in San Francisco by a guitarist and songwriter named Steve Miller. The Steve Miller Band has had a string of hits since including Space Cowboy, Take the Money and Run, and this morning's song "Fly Like an Eagle." This song went to #2 on the Billboard charts back in 1977.

Tick, tock, tick, do- do- doo-doo (repeat)
Time keeps on slippin' slippin' slippin' into the future

Refrain: I wanna fly like an eagle, to the sea.
Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me,
I want to fly like an eagle, 'til I'm free.
Fly right through the revolution.

While I was killing time this week until a meditation came to me, I was surfing the Web and I found something called "The Procrastinator's Creed." I'm sure that these are the words written on the wall of the prison of procrastination. Here are parts of the creed:

  1. I believe that if anything is worth doing, it would have been done already.
  2. I shall never move quickly, except to avoid more work or find excuses.
  3. I will never rush into a job without a lifetime of consideration.
  4. I shall meet all of my deadlines directly in proportion to the amount of bodily injury I could expect from missing them.
  5. I firmly believe that tomorrow holds the possibility for new technologies, astounding discoveries, and a reprieve from my obligations.
  6. I truly believe that all deadlines are unreasonable regardless of the amount of time given.
  7. I will never put off tomorrow, what I can forget about forever.
  8. If at first I don't succeed, there is always next year.
  9. I shall always decide not to decide, unless of course I decide to change my mind.
  10. I shall always begin, start, initiate, take the first step, and/or write the first word, when I get around to it.

We laugh about procrastination, but it is a real problem - and a very real prison for so many of us. I usually avoid writing sermons by doing laundry, or the dishes - just anything else that needs to be done - or doesn't need to be done - to keep me from having to do the real work of writing a message for you all.

We all do it - we all avoid hard or unpleasant work - put it off until tomorrow, or the next day, or the next - hoping it will go away - hoping we won't have to complete that hard or unpleasant task. We procrastinate in many ways - putting off work, putting off decisions, putting off anything that makes us uncomfortable or seems insurmountable.

When I don't want to deal with something I go into full resistance mode. I'll ignore emails that ask me to do something I find hard or unpleasant. I'll avoid making a decision if it's something I don't want to do in the first place. I'll avoid doing things that I know I have to do, but might disappoint others, or put others off, or go against what others may want me to do. I put all these things off hoping my indecision will make them all just go away.

But, all the while, I churn inside - the indecision takes its toll. My stomach rolls, my head hurts, I can't concentrate on other things while I'm avoiding some decision or task.

In short, I'm in the prison of procrastination - reading the creed on the wall - and not really avoiding being uncomfortable. While I thought avoiding the situation or decision would make me happier - it doesn't.

An online survey by the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Canada (only in Canada!) did an online survey and found that 46% of those who responded said that procrastination had a negative effect on their happiness "quite a bit" or "very much," while 18% reported an "extreme negative effect." (The other 36% will respond when they get around to it.)

We think that avoiding that hard or unpleasant chore will make us happy - but the opposite is true - procrastination puts us in prison and keeps us from enjoying true happiness - as time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin, into the future.

Time keeps on slippin' slippin' slippin' into the future
Feed the babies, who don't have enough to eat,
shoe the children, with no shoes on their feet.
House the people, livin' in the streets. Oh-- there's a solution.

Refrain: I wanna fly like an eagle, to the sea.
Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me,
I want to fly like an eagle, 'til I'm free.
Fly right through the revolution.

"Sluggards" are what the author of Proverbs calls those of us imprisoned by procrastination. Even among our ancient Hebrew kinfolk we find those who have taken the procrastinator's creed, finding excuses not to do their work, putting things off until whenever they get around to it, and waiting for new technologies to be discovered to do the work for them.

The price of procrastination is clear:

"A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond, and want like an armed man."

Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin, into the future while the sluggard sleeps and slumbers and folds their hands in rest. A few chapters ahead in Proverbs, the author uses this ditty again: "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest" to describe the poverty of another sluggard who allows his vineyard to become overgrown.

The message is clear - procrastination is a costly habit - a habit that brings about poverty - whether it's in the form of an overgrown vineyard, or in the form of an overgrown spirit. Procrastination robs us of our vitality. It robs us of our ability to be effective servants of the Holy in this world. It robs us of the motivation we need to feed the babies who don't have enough to eat, to shoe the children with no shoes on their feet or house all those people living in the streets. Not just our wallets, but our very spirits can become impoverished if we choose to remain in this prison of procrastination.

"Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise," the author of Proverbs advises. "Without having any chief, officer or ruler, she prepares her food in the summer, and gathers her sustenance in the harvest."

This is good advice that we should follow even today. Ants are amazing creatures - able to lift and carry 3 times their weight - they are hard workers. Ants started farming some 50 million years before humans did, developing ways to control mold and fertilize their crops. Some ants even grow mushrooms which requires intricate tunnels and vents to get the humidity and temperature just right. Ants don't do a lot of procrastinating - perhaps because their life expectancy is can sometimes be just a few weeks.

Ants know a lot that humans don't know - mainly that our time here is short. Procrastination may keep you from finishing a dreaded task or making an unpopular decision, but it won't add one more moment to your time here on this blue boat we call home.

Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin, into the future whether you're making the most of your time here or not.

The best wisdom we can gather from this little ant, however, is that they are zealous for their community. Ants don't usually go it alone. Instead, they are enthusiastic about being in community - because that's where they accomplish their most amazing feats. One ant may accomplish a few things - but thousands of them can carry away half of your refrigerator. Ants understand that there is strength in numbers and that they can accomplish more in community than they can alone.

We may feel overwhelmed by the hungry babies, the shoeless children and the homeless people in our world. That feeling of being overwhelmed can lead us to hide in the prison of procrastination - wondering how one little person can even make a dent in all that despair.

"Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise." The ant knows that on her own she won't accomplish much - but in community everyone is all served - no one goes without, and that empowers them all to work harder for the good of the whole community. It is that commitment to community that throws open the door of the prison of procrastination and transforms you from a jailbird to a free bird.

Breathe deeply.

Tick, tock, tick, do- do- doo-doo (repeat)
Time keeps on slippin' slippin' slippin' into the future

Refrain: I wanna fly like an eagle, to the sea.
Fly like an eagle, let my spirit carry me,
I want to fly like an eagle, 'til I'm free.
Fly right through the revolution.

Tick, tock, tick, do- do- doo-doo (repeat)
Time keeps on slippin' slippin' slippin' into the future

The biggest reason we remain stuck in this prison of procrastination is one of avoidance. Sometimes life just gets to be too much and we don't want to deal with all the crap that life seems to deliver to our door on a regular basis.

Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm says when that truckload of dung gets dumped at our door, we go into full avoidance mode. There are three things to know in this situation:

  1. We did not order it. It's not our fault and we say, "Why me?"
  2. We're stuck with it. No one, not even those who love us dearly, can take it away - even though they may try.
  3. It's so awful and it destroys our happiness. The pain of life's crap can be overwhelming.

There are two ways to respond to this new dung at our door. We can procrastinate about it - and carry that dung around with us wherever we go. We can stuff it in our backpacks, our purses and in our pockets - but we lose a lot of friends in the process. Carrying around that dung - procrastinating about life's crap - can lead to depression, negativity or anger. When we do this, however, that pile of dung at the door never gets any smaller.

Our other option then is to use the dung. Instead of sinking into procrastination, we get out the wheelbarrow, the fork and the spade and get to work using that dung to fertilize the garden of our lives. This can be slow work, plowing all that crap into the ground of our being - but one day, after all that work, we'll survey the garden we call life and notice bright green shoots coming from the ground. Even later there will be fragrant flowers blooming all around us - and fruit trees bending low with the abundance of the harvest. Our garden will be so beautiful that we'll find more and more people gathering around us to admire our beautiful garden and rest in its serenity.

You'll also notice that the pile of dung at your door starts to get smaller and smaller and you open yourself up using life's tragedies and crises as fertilizer for your life. As we dig in our gardens, day by day, our pile of pain lessens - our procrastination ends - and the doors of the prison spring open.

One day, when you get really, really good at using the pain of life as fertilizer to grow your own inner beauty, the next time a pile of dung appears at your door, your response will not be a groan, but instead you'll say, "Whoopee! More fertilizer for my garden."

That's when you know you're no longer a jailbird but a free bird. Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from Indiana singer and songwriter Carrie Newcomer. She has released 15 albums over the years including a new one with the proceeds going to the Interfaith Hunger Initiative - so we can consider her a Jubilant by proxy. This song came out in 2008 and is called "If Not Now."

If not now, tell me when.
We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when.

I see sorrow and trouble in this land
I see sorrow and trouble in this land
Although there will be struggle
we'll make the change we can.
If not now, If not now, tell me when.

In our Jesus story, we find our guy doing what he does best - telling parables, or stories. Today's story, however, is one of those that have been misused by many preachers to teach lessons that I think miss the point of Jesus' message here.

First, a little clarification. The "talents" given out by the master in this story does refer to money - and it refers to a large sum of money. The master is very generous to his servants, given them monetary wealth. This fact has led many prosperity preachers to use the parable of the talents to herald the joys of capitalism. If you have a lot of money and you use it wisely, you'll have plenty more money. If you sit on your money and don't do anything with it - you'll lose what you have and more and be cast into the pits of eternal torment. So, they reason, being wealthy is a sign of God's blessing in our lives and the poor are obviously damned - not just in society but by God.

It is that judgment piece that seems to get the most play with our more conservative preacher friends. They love to use this story as a cautionary tale - especially when it comes to stewardship sermons. If you don't want to go to hell, you'd best be using your money to build the church!

Another problematic piece in this story is the seemingly harsh picture it paints of God - punishing one servant without any recourse for redemption of forgiveness.

All of these interpretations, however, miss the deeper meaning of this parable - and what it means for those of us locked away in the prison of procrastination. In our rush to get to the judgment piece of this story, we fly right by the fact that this master - who Matthew paints as Jesus - and not God - is offering his servants abundance - so much abundance that the table of life is overflowing. Jesus offers this abundance of life and trusts us to care for it. Not only that - the story tells us that Jesus has entrusted the abundance of life to us for a long time. So, along with all the other joys of life, we've been given the gift of time.

This is the gift that we squander the most when we are inmates in the prison of procrastination. Instead of using our time wisely we take time off, we call time out, we waste time, we kill time, we mark time, we have time on our hands, we let time run out, we may make it in the nick of time, and time flies while we wonder why we're not having any fun.

It's because we are like that third servant - wasting the gift of time that we have been given by curling up on our bunk in the prison of procrastination.

When we procrastinate we squander the gift of time that God has given us. When we procrastinate, we withhold the amazing talents that we have been given. What Jesus calls us to do through this parable is to put our talents - and that means everything - our wealth, our time, our skills, our work - into making this world a more just and equitable place for everyone.

This is the key to springing ourselves from the prison of procrastination - recognizing that we have been given a precious gift of time - and if we decide to squander it instead of living into it fully - it is not really God who condemns us in that outer darkness - but we put ourselves there by choosing to remain in the prison of procrastination.

We have a choice, Jubilants. We can continue to procrastinate, or we can use our gift of time wisely and hear Jesus say, "Enter the joy of your master." If not now, Jubilants, tell me when?

I may never see the Promised Land.
I may never see the Promised Land.
And yet we'll take the journey
And walk it hand in hand
If not now, If not now, tell me when.

If not now, tell me when
If not now, tell me when.
We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when.

How would it change your life, Jubilants, if instead of taking time for granted, you started to see it as a gift? How would it change the way you lived, Jubilants, if, instead of seeing life's troubles as an excuse to put things off, you used that dung to grow your spirituality and life fully into the life the Holy has given us?

How would it change the way you lived, Jubilants, if you saw this parable, not as a story of condemnation or a lesson in wealth building - but as the Holy's invitation to enter into the sheer joy of life and enjoy the abundance of love and grace that God continually offers?

Ah, but that prison of procrastination can get pretty cozy. Putting ourselves out there - stepping out into the sunlight of living into our gifts and talents - can be daunting. We can lulled into complacency so easily - "A little sleep, a little slumber" as the author of Proverbs writes - can seem so inviting. Let someone else take on the work, while we take some time off.

Let's be honest, though, we often procrastination as a way to defend our self-worth. If we don't try, we won't fail and we get to keep feeling good about ourselves. But, it is in the failure that we grow. It is in the trying and falling flat on our face that we learn the most valuable lessons of life. By not stepping out of the prison of procrastination, we doom ourselves to a false sense of self-worth.

Jesus is clear - when we choose the prison of procrastination over the gift of time - we bury ourselves - we condemn ourselves. We sentence ourselves to a life in prison - where there is no joy - where there is only darkness and wailing and grinding of teeth.

It takes a change of heart, Jubilants, to move us out of the prison of procrastination. I invite you to come into the light - to leave the prison of procrastination and use your talents and gifts to bring a new Jerusalem - a new way of living - into this world. It will take a lot of work and investment on your part - but, Jubilants, your gifts and talents will not grow by hoarding them. No matter what the investment bankers say - our gifts only grow when they are given away - freely and often. Our garden only grows into a fragrant, fruitful place when we take the dung of life and transform it into Holy fertilizer.

Instead of using life's troubles as an excuse to retreat to the prison of procrastination, I invite you to see challenges as gifts - gifts of time, gifts of fertilizer, gifts you can fashion into the key that will make you a free bird. If not now, Jubilants, tell me when?

Breathe deeply.

So we'll work it til it's done
Every daughter every son,
Every soul that ever longed for something better,
Something brighter.

It will take a change of heart for this to mend.
It will take a change of heart for this to mend.
But miracles do happen every shining now and then
If not now, tell me when?

If not now, tell me when
If not now, tell me when.
We may never see this moment
Or place in time again
If not now, if not now, tell me when.
And, miracles do happen every shining now and then.
If not not, if not now tell me when
If not not, if not now tell me when

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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