Saying Yes, Saying No, Saying Nothing

I want to take time this Lent to invite all of us, especially me, into a reflective time of paying special attention to God.  I am thankful to Larry Thomas, pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Issaquah, WA and leader of a retreat for the Wellspring Colleague Forum, for beginning my reflections on the helpful and humorous practices that shape our lives as fully devoted followers of Jesus.

Now for the spiritual aerobics to accompany our Lenten Luncheon.  “Christian asceticism is not spiritual boot camp, but neither is it effortless.  Learning when and how, to what, and to whom to give our yes or our no is a life long project” (M. Shawn Copeland, “Saying Yes and Saying No” @

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one (Matthew 5:33-37, NRSV).

Part of learning when to say yes and no is learning when to say nothing at all.  Mahatma Gandhi had a continuous practice of not speaking at all on Mondays throughout his work for Indian independence.  Saying yes and no also means learning when we are required to have an opinion and when we are not.  Steven Sample, in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, describes a need for leaders to “think gray.”  Thinking gray means: “don’t form an opinion about an important matter until you’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force you to form an opinion without the facts (which happens less frequently than one might imagine)” (The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Jossey-Bass: 2002, p. 7-8).

Now thinking gray is a difficult thing and when we leap without thinking we learn new lessons.  Comedian Stephen Wright says in his dry style: “Experience is something you get just after you need it.”  And this gem is found in the film All the Pretty Horses: “Behind every dumb thing I have ever done in my life there was a decision I made before that got me into it.  It was never the dumb thing.  It was always some choice I’d made before it.”

Learning to say no is one of life’s great challenges.  Eugene Peterson suggests:

“Following Jesus means not following your impulses and appetites and whims and dreams, all of which are sufficiently damaged by sin to make them unreliable guides for getting anyplace worth going. Following Jesus means not following the death-procrastinating, death-denying practices of a culture that, by obsessively pursuing life under the aegis of idols and ideologies, ends up with a life that is so constricted and diminished
that it is hardly worthy of the name.

Grammatically, the negative, our capacity to say no, is one of the most impressive features of our language. The negative is our access to freedom. Only humans can say no. Animals can’t say no.  Animals do what instinct dictates. The judicious, well-placed no frees us from many a blind alley, many a rough detour, frees us from
debilitating distractions and seductive sacrilege. The art of saying no sets us free to follow Jesus” (“What’s Wrong with Spirituality?” in Christianity Today, July 13, 1998).

Following Jesus when he beckons is when we are called to say “YES!” At other times we must use prayerful discernment in saying yes, no, or nothing.  Saying “yes,” saying “no,” or saying nothing … where are you wrestling today?