A couple years ago during this same week of Lent, Lutheran (ELCA) pastor Nadia Bolz Weber wrote back-to-back blog posts on the spiritual practice of saying, “No,” and the spiritual practice of saying, “Yes.” The spiritual practices, indeed arts, of saying no and saying yes are applicable throughout the year, but Lent is an especially good time to focus on our priorities.
Lent is a time of examination, a time to shed old, destructive habits, and create practices that foster new life. A particularly destructive habit in our American culture is the habit of busyness. We spend so much time talking about how busy we are, how we never have enough time for ourselves, for our friends, for our families, even to practice our faith well. In truth, we probably both are overly busy and we like to think that being busy makes us important, that the world would collapse without us doing ALL THE THINGS.
Bolz Weber talks about our self-imposed pressure and anxiety to do all the things. To say yes to everything asked of us, especially as Christians who are here to help people, right? If we say no, people might think we are rude or selfish, so we keep saying, “Yes!” And this might work for a while, especially if you have a lot of energy and an open schedule. You can probably say yes to a fair amount of little things with a few long-term commitments, and sail along just fine.
Until you can’t. Until your family or work life adds additional or unforeseen demands. Until you can’t cross off some of those little things as you wait on other people, and they pile up. Until something unexpected comes us, throwing your whole tightly-woven schedule out the window. Until you realize you never should have said yes to that thing you couldn’t or simply didn’t want to do.
We feel so much shame around the things we say yes to and cannot complete. What if we started saying, “No?” People might be disappointed (getting volunteers is often not easy), but it is better to say no up front to something we likely cannot accomplish, than to say yes, and not be able follow through.
You can start being honest with yourself about your time, your abilities and the limits of those abilities. Just because someone asks you to do something doesn’t mean you can or should do that thing. Perhaps if we can’t find enough volunteers for something we need to rethink how we are doing it, or whether we need to do that thing at all. It can be a great opportunity for the people and organizations (including the church) around you to think about their own priorities and limits.
Saying no also leaves room to say yes. Yes to new opportunities, yes to things you want to learn or try that you didn’t have time for before. Yes to challenging projects that will take more time and concentration than you might have if you didn’t say no to a few things. Yes to simply taking time to stop and breathe, to remember why we do all of this anyway (hint: God – and right at the top of God’s commandments is the commandment to observe the Sabbath).
Lest you think this is a modern problem, consider the references in Scripture to making your yes yes, and your no no – Jesus in Matthew 5:37, Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:17, James in James 5:12. This is not simply about not being busy, but about being truthful about our boundaries so that we can be true to our yes, we will not let ourselves and others down, which can harm relationships, and so that we can live life in abundance – both taking time to enjoy God and what God gives to us and be ready for new adventures. And it is clearly a human problem, not a modern human problem.
Let us say no. So that we might also say yes.