Learning to Write in Pencil

Michelle Van Loon

For the first 56 years of my life, I welcomed each new year with a blank calendar and an abundance of fresh hope. The heroic words of architect Daniel Burnham emboldened my Type A penchant for scripting my life: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized.”

I crafted big goals out of big dreams, broke them down into actionable bits, and scrawled them in pen on each new calendar, along with the “little plans” of my daily life: meetings, deadlines, and reminders to pick up the dry cleaning.

During the last year, I was forced to begin inscribing all my plans, both large and little, in pencil on my calendar. Pencils are for beginners, or for those taking tests.

The irony of the shift in writing implements was not wasted on me. I’d just finished writing a book entitled Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith, in which I had noted, “I’d like to suggest that our watches and DayTimers and Google calendars are not the measure of our worth. We who belong to Jesus understand (at least in our heads) that we are not our own. Our eternal God has given us this slice of eternity, right here and now, in which to live for and with him.”

Connecting to a worship calendar that anchors me in God’s story is a powerful antidote to the continual temptation to inflate my own sense of self-importance.

Even so, a life-changing diagnosis of a rare immune system disorder a few months ago underscored how deeply embedded was my notion of control over my future. When I look back at my 2016 calendar, I am amazed at how frequently I had to cancel or reschedule dates with friends or meetings. The only appointments I was able to keep without a Plan B (or C, Q, R, S, or Z) were my numerous appointments with doctors.

In his epistle, James confronts those of us who are a little too enchanted with our plans and the ambitions driving them:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them (James 4:13-17).

James isn’t counseling fatalism here. He is asking believers to peel back the faux spiritual veneer covering their self-serving motivations, recognize the brevity and fragility of their lives, and submit themselves wholeheartedly to God.

My shorthand for these verses: write plans in pencil. Pencils have erasers. This is more than a statement that flexibility can be an asset, though it can. Writing plans in pencil is an acknowledgment that my time is not my own, but a gift from God.

This planning-in-pencil is a wildly counter-cultural approach, particularly for those of us who’ve worked in academia. I’ve been a staff member at three colleges, and, until my diagnosis, a part-time seminary student. Consider how driven by the calendar higher ed is. From application deadlines to syllabi, from planning meetings to faculty retreats, our lives are driven by deadlines. Excellent time management and organizational skill is essential to succeed in this culture. In the whirl of our busy days, it takes intention and reorientation to train us to write our plans in pencil. In my case, the reorientation came in the form of a life-altering medical diagnosis.

The prayer found in Psalm 90:12 has also been used to pry the planning pen out of my clenched fingers: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” I can’t order my days, but I can surrender them. An 1861 portrait of Reformer Martin Luther by artist Sir Joseph Noel Paton shows the fiery reformer hunched over a desk holding a stack of books, a cross, and a skull. I’ve heard Luther kept a skull on his desk to remind himself of his own mortality. The cross, a reminder of the gift of eternal life purchased by the body and blood of Jesus.

I have been grateful for the way the historic Jewish and Christians calendars have invited me to the intersection of eternity and temporal time. Both calendars have connected me to the single arc of God’s redemptive work in history. The festal calendar prescribed by God in Leviticus 23 has discipled and sustained the Jewish people for generations. The early church adapted some parts of this calendar and added additional days and seasons in order to tell the story of Jesus’s life and ministry through a yearly worship cycle. Neither calendar is about me — but both have tutored me as I’ve begun to learn during the last year to write each day’s plans in pencil.

I suspect most of us are looking at our blank 2017 calendars with a fair measure of uncertainty. The political, cultural, economic, and spiritual landscape seems to be shifting around us in ways we can’t anticipate, and at a rate we barely have time to process. As we prepare to inscribe our plans in paper planners or online calendars, consider the spiritual practice of choosing to write them in real (or virtual!) pencil. In doing so, we remind ourselves that our time is not our own, but has been entrusted to us by our Eternal God.


The Well is giving away a copy of Michelle’s latest book, Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith. To enter the drawing, comment on one of our articles and send us an email with your name and mailing address by January 10.

Michelle Van Loon is the author of four books, including Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith. She writes for Christianity Today's CTWomen and maintains her own blog, Pilgrim's Road Trip, on the Patheos Evangelical channel. For more about Michelle, see her site: MichelleVanLoon.com.

3 comments

Such a timely lesson for me, thanks for posting! I've been a fan of planners and calendars because beside doing my masters, I tend to be einvolved in many activities... add to that having attention deficit issues... this reminds me that many times I struggle with my intentions and with surrendering my plans to God even if it would seem to be the opposite to the rest of the world. Thanks!

Jan 3, 2017 4:44PM by Tanya Bradanovich

Thanks for sharing Michelle. I've only written with a pencil for the past 10 years. I found myself in a similar valley to yours, and discovered this thought by Mother Theresa; “I am a little pencil in God's hands. He does the thinking. He does the writing. He does everything and sometimes it is really hard because it is a broken pencil and He has to sharpen it a little more.”
another word of encouragement in pencil vs. pen writing; When the rainstorms pound, and soak your notebook, ink runs and becomes illegible whereas you can still read pencil...

Jan 3, 2017 1:22PM by sandy

I love the quote from Mother Theresa. Thanks for sharing it here, Sandy.

And I appreciate the reminder that ink runs in the rain, but pencil stays legible. :)

Jan 3, 2017 4:35PM by Michelle Van Loon

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