saying yes and saying no...

Here's a follow-up thought to my post about Fr. Martin and the wisdom of asking people who want and/or need help to take their commitment seriously: the nature of commitment always involves community rather than simply personal ethics and convenience. That is, a commitment puts you in relationship with others who not only count on your regular participation, but are also nourished by your presence.  So why is that over and over I find that people treating commitment as if it is primarily a personal conviction with essentially solitary implications?

Some have suggested that our culture no longer helps us know how to "say yes and say no." Rather than lament this truth, folks like Dorothy C. Bass at Valparaiso University have chosen to help us treclaim and refocus attention on this as a spiritual practice. Note the emphasis on practice - not only is a practice something we need to work on - but something we address on a regular basis. What's more, a spiritual practice avoids the currently complicated sound of the old words: spiritual discipline. In Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a  Searching People, Bass grasps that one of the reasons contemporary life feels so uprooted has something to do with our inability to say no. Or perhaps it is our uncertainty over what saying yes really means in a way that gives shape, form and structure to our lives and those whom our life touches.

Throughout Christian history, it has been clear that spirituality is not a spectator sport. Tough decisions and persistent efforts are required of those who seek lives that are whole and holy. If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of life that God intended for us, and we must follow through on our commitments...We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds God out and saying yes to a way of life that makes space for God. 

Saying yes and saying no--it is an important part of life and especially the life of faith. Have you heard about the little boy? Someone asked him his name and without any hesitation at all he replied, "My name is John Don't." "John, don't! No! No!" He didn't want any "nos" in his life, because his parents had enough for all of them!" But parents soon realize that it becomes necessary to say "no" to their children. Often, it's a matter of urgency. If we don't say "no," they might burn themselves on the stove, run out into the street or drown in the swimming pool. And so parents, speaking on behalf of their children, learn to say "no" to some things so that they can say "yes" to others.

There is a bit of a "John Don't" in all of us, and as we grow and mature, we learn to say that "no" for ourselves. As students we say "no" to one elective course, so that we can say "yes" to another. Those who marry learn to say "no" to all others so that they can say "yes" to the one person with whom they will spend the rest of their lives. This past Tuesday was Election Day and when we cast our vote we said "no" to one candidate so that we could say "yes" to another. Those in the military say "no" to many things throughout their career, so that they can say "yes" to their country. We honor them this Tuesday which, as you know, is Veterans' Day. In so many ways, you see, we exercise our God-given free-will whenever we say "yes" and "no." In her essay, Shawn Copeland says:

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.

One of the hardest things for me in my pastoral office involves consciously saying no to some people while saying yes to others. Or saying yes to some event but no to another.  Even as I was writing my IPhone just went off with my "prayer bell alert" inviting me to say no to busyness for a moment so that I might say yes to God's love - and why I am alive!

Robert Bly and Marion Woodman wrote a book, The Sibling Society, in which they lay out one source of our phobia with yes and no. With so many corrupt and broken models of maturation in our Western world, more and more of us have tried to avoid growing up. We don't want to become like momma or daddy - or Father This or Sister That - so we choose NOT to make choices. We stumble through existence and let others clean up after our messes. We avoid connections where commitments and choices are essential. That is, we remain children - siblings rather than adults - who rarely engage in the hard work of saying yes and saying no wisely. Oh, we may do it capriciously - or passionately - or in ecstasy or anger - but not consciously as an adult who takes responsibility for self and knows how our decisions touch other lives. In a word, we choose to deny the value of earned wisdom - and act like perpetual adolescents singing "we want the world and we want it... now!" 
(I love this song - and the Doors - but their self-absorbed convictions didn't serve them or anyone else well over time.)


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