Do not say to your neighbour, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’ - when you have it with you now. Proverbs 3:28
Wahay! - yesterday was a highlight of my 2016. A day of rejoicing and celebration.
So what happened? Crystal Palace signed Lionel Messi and Louis Suarez? Er, no. A letter came telling me a long-lost aunt had left me a million pounds in her will? Nope, ‘fraid not that either. My name’s been pulled out of a hat to win a luxury round-the-world cruise? Again, no.
I’ll tell you. I walked up to the local post office and posted my annual tax return. Oh, what joy! What lightness! What a sense of relief! Filling in that soul-destroying, mind-numbing, hysteria-inducing form is something I’ve been putting off for weeks.
Quite why I still need to fill in a tax return I’m really not sure - I am, after all, retired, and into my, ahem, late sixties (actually, within touching distance of seventy: eek!). Being on pension, my financial affairs are extremely simple. Yes, I do earn a bit of money by preaching - though you might be surprised to learn that visiting preachers don’t quite command half a million per engagement, like retired prime ministers or high-profile football managers... That, minus £499,960 perhaps.
(I could tell you a story or two about church treasurers reimbursing visiting preachers. But I won’t, of course...
Oh well, all right then: there was the time I was asked “May we have fellowship with you in the petrol?” - to which I nearly replied “Sorry, I haven’t brought my swimming trunks.” Or the time I was asked “Do you have any travelling expenses?” - to which I nearly replied “No - I sprouted wings and flew.” Not to mention the time the treasurer forgot me altogether - though a kindly lady in the congregation sent me off rejoicing with a very toothsome pot of rhubarb chutney. Or the time - no! Stop it...)
What I’m leading up to is that the job of filling in my tax return is one I devoutly hate: give me an hour in the dentist’s chair any day. It’s an absolute torment, and I’m never sure I’ve got it right anyway (will the tax police turn up one day and lead me off in handcuffs to the debtors’ prison?). It’s a job I put off and put off and put off...
So sticking that buff envelope in the letter-box is a moment of great joy.
Procrastination - that’s what I’m talking about. (At last: I’ve got there.) Putting off until tomorrow the things you should do today. Are you, like me, a past-master of this maddening skill?
The Bible doesn’t have much to say about it - but this verse from Proverbs, in a much more serious vein, certainly touches on it. You owe something to somebody? Then you should pay it now: it’s wrong, unjust, to keep them waiting. (The same point is made even more forcefully in Leviticus 19:13 and Deuteronomy 24:14-15.)
I have a friend, hard-working and totally honest, who used to run his own small business. It eventually went bust, and he told me the main reason was debtors who withheld payment until the very last moment (if, that is, they paid at all).
Perhaps, then, this is a word to all of us, both as individuals and as churches - it’s a great witness to our materialistic world if we pay our debts promptly.
Even more seriously, we have 2 Corinthians 6:2: “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation.” A little earlier Paul has said: “We are... Christ’s ambassadors... We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God”. Implore: there is an urgency about making our peace with God.
A hymn we used to sing had these words: “Help me, oppressed by things undone, O thou whose deeds and dreams were one.” Oppressed by things undone: yes, that puts it perfectly.
So, whether we’re talking of eternal things, like coming to Christ in faith; or moral things, like paying our debts and offering help when needed; or trivial things, like my tax return, the message is simple: Do it! do it now!
My book of quotations reinforces the message...
Edward Young (1683-1765) wrote the words I imagine most of us are familiar with: “Procrastination is the thief of time”.
The poet Don Marquis (1878-1937) wrote: “Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday”.
Apparently there’s a Spanish proverb: “Tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week”.
And this from Augustine of Hippo (354-430): “I could give no reply except a lazy and drowsy, ‘Yes, Lord, I’ll get to it right away; just don’t bother me for a little while.’ But ‘right away’ didn’t happen right away; and ‘a little while’ turned out to be a very long time”.
If your response, like mine, is “Ouch” - well, we know what to do, don’t we?
Lord God, help me to value every minute of every day as a precious gift from you, and to use my time responsibly, honestly and thoughtfully. Amen.