Saying yes and saying no...

I have a friend and colleague who recently said to me, "I just don't have the time or energy to
worry about people who make up their own issues. There are too many people I know and love who are hurting and sick and I can only do so much..." Let me add a hearty "AMEN!" to both that sentiment and reality: any thing else is a prescription for burn-out. And I know - I've been burned-out - or to paraphrase Arlo, "I been hung-up, brought down, inspected, dejected and rejected!"

That's one of the hard things for both clergy and dedicated congregation members to come to terms with but sooner or later we must own that the church is NOT about being nice. It is NOT about getting your own way. Yes, there is comfort to be claimed in the liturgy and community, and these blessings are God-given and human-centered. At the same time tissue-paper feelings and an over-abundance of entitlement are not the same thing as authentic human suffering. Compassion, you see, is about sharing bread with those who are wounded, being with another to ease their loneliness or simply listening without judgment or even a spoken response. It is about giving shape and substance to the face of Christ in the here and now. It is also about knowing how to say yes and no. 

In her book, Practicing Our Faith, Dorothy C. Bass includes a chapter on Christian asceticism - including learning how to use our energy, time and passions for the cause of Christ.  Life in a consumerist culture makes this practice complicated. We have grown accustomed to having everything we want - or mostly - whenever we want it. "But having said yes to the acquisition of so many material things, we are unable to say yes to the demands of the spirit. Slowly, perhaps even bitterly, we come to realize that we do not own our possessions, they own us...To say yes and no means taking on responsibilities and obligations. Saying yes and saying no are companions in the process of constituting a whole and holy life." (p. 65) The text goes on to quote T.S. Eliot:


The endless cycle of ideas and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.  
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But dearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? 


Being a companion for the journey involves our time, our mind, our heart and soul but it is one hundred and eighty degrees from being used, abused, taken for granted or becoming an unwilling substitute target for an other's inner demons or boredom. Young clergy often feel they must be available 110% of the time. Older, more seasoned clergy, are often shamed when they practice saying yes and saying no. In my early days in Cleveland, a spiritual director once asked me about a few old people who regularly complained that I didn't visit them often enough: "What are they doing to solve their own boredom?" When I confessed my ignorance, he went on to say, "Look, I served parishes for over 40 years and here's the skinny: you could visit them every day for an hour and as soon as you left they would be bored and lonely. Your presence - or not - in their lives is not YOUR problem. It is their problem!" This wasn't cruel or harsh. It was saying yes and saying no.

I faced something similar in Arizona when a beloved woman complained that I didn't leave enough time in worship for her to be in quiet prayer. I asked, "Do you spend any time during the week in introspection or contemplation?"  Bewilderment first passed over her face and then frustration, "No," she said bluntly, "I am too busy. That's why I come to church." I sat with that for a moment before responding, "Well, one hour of public worship can never satisfy your need for quiet time. How about nourishing that before complaining about how I organize Sunday morning?" She looked insulted - and rarely came back to worship after that. Which, I suppose, was a good thing because at least for 60 minutes she had the solitude she said meant so much to her soul.

Over the past six months I have become a huge fan of Barbara Brown Taylor. Right now I am slowly reading through An Altar in the World. In the introduction she notes that at this point in her life - middle age - "there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth... What is saving my life right now is become more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world." That rings true to me and I am slowly living into this wisdom, too. She goes on to note that if you are truly going to be a companion with another on life's journey - if you are going to share compassion and bread - you must have the ability to honestly pay attention - and that takes time.

Most of us move so quickly that our surrounding become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable... (but) reverence requires a certain pace. It requires a willingness to take detours, even side trip, which are not part of the original plan.

Once upon a time, I was full to overflowing with energy and enthusiasm. These days I get tired.
Sometimes my back hurts. Or my head throbs. Often my heart breaks. And periodically I need a nap. Every day I have to practice saying yes and saying no. I just don't have the energy or ability to try to do it all. Today, for instance, I had the opportunity to be with a few people who needed a companion and a prayer. They needed a loving embrace and someone to listen and take them seriously. I also had the chance to sing with our choir. This not only helps the musicality of our Sunday worship, it gives me the chance to be with 15 people who would not ordinarily cross my path in a week. It helps me share my time in a way that feeds my soul, too. 

Those who are not introverts don't get that about their minister: in any day or week there is just so much energy to go around. To make a judgment call about how I can stand and deliver is a matter of faithful stewardship on my part. Most of the time there is precious little time or inclination to schmooze. As another spiritual director said: "Vanity visits are not high on any one's list of priorities if you take ministry seriously." There is a place for being present in the quiet times, potlucks or fellowship hours. And there is a time when being fully present in the hospital - or for a late night beer or on the phone - takes precedence. It really is a matter of practicing saying yes and saying no.

The Hebrew Bible records this challenge:  I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30: 19) Tonight I give thanks for the chance to share love and prayers with people who needed a reminder that they are loved by the Lord. Tomorrow I get to celebrate Eucharist midday and then prepare for Sunday worship. Lord, help me choose life.

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