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August 19, 2008

When Yes Means No

Remember the song Ado Annie sings in Rogers and Hammerstein's musical Oklahoma? "I Can't Say No"? Some of the lines go like this: "I'm jist a girl who cain't say no; I'm in a turrible fix. I always say, ?Come on, let's go,' jist when I orta say nix!" The song's about relationships, or physical intimacy more specifically, but I think a lot of women who don't have a problem saying no to men can identify with Ado Annie's dilemma because we also like to say yes. We say yes to other things, though: yes to people, to church, to responsibility, to requests for favors, to real and imagined needs.

It feels good to say yes because it feels good to be needed, and it feels even better to be able to respond to those needs.

When I was growing up, my youngest sibling and only brother gave my mother a wooden plaque with alphabet-soup letters pasted on it to read, "I love you because you keep on juggling all those balls." My mother would regularly comment about how she had to juggle her roles to maintain order and sanity in her life. Perhaps rather than "balls" my brother could have said, "hats." Off goes the cook's hat; on goes the mother hat. The cook's hat joins the teacher hat, chauffer cap, pastor's wife's bonnet, maid white thing, and nun's habit on the shelf until the roles change again.

Many roles are par for the course for most of us. Currently, I am a writer, sewing teacher, seamstress, small-group leader, spouse, cultural critic, Christian, cook, and maid. (My husband shares the roles of cook and maid with me, in case you were wondering.) These roles do not include my hobbies, and I'm sure many of you have more roles than I.

Saying yes, taking on more responsibility often means accepting a new role. And because yes does not result in the receipt of more hours in the day as compensation, yes to one thing means no to something else. This something else could be trivial: it could be television watching, magazine reading, surfing the internet, or vacuuming your house every day. But it also could be critical: it could be time spent with family, much needed sleep, or time for silence and meditation.

Saying no and yes require discernment, and though there is nothing wrong with saying yes, there is a certain humility that can be learned by saying no. Sometimes, saying no is an admission that I can't do it all. I can't have it all. I can't save the world. Thankfully, it is not my job to save the world. "Savior" is a role I'll never have, and I thank God for that.

The question many women ask, "Can I have it all? Can I have a great career and a great family?" often overlooks the simple fact that we all only have 24 hours in a day. We all only have one body. None of us can travel through time or space in a magical way. We are not super-women. Saying yes to one thing always requires saying no to something else.

So, when you have an opportunity to say yes, take it seriously. Consider what you would be saying no to. Have you? When have you said yes or no?

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Thank you for this post. I couldn't agree more. As women we put so much pressure on ourselves to do it all. Add on the leadership role- and suddenly there's an extra set of demands along with its ensuing guilt! For me, saying no had to come after a depression break down. Talk about finding humility- ouch! Since then, some positions that I held have been taken by others who Christ had been nudging to get involved. I am blessed to see how my saying no has been beneficial to another's stepping out in faith.

The Lord has been dealing with me on this very same subject. Imagine how unusual and liberating it is when you hear the Voice of the Lord telling you to say "No" and to "Trust yourself" more often! Unfortunately, He's actually had to revisit this teaching with me on more than one occasion. Learning is painful and slow, but I am learning.

I think we often know when we should be saying "no." But we fight it and think we're being unsubmissive and rebellious. Maybe that's what many of us have been taught. The Lord seems to be re-teaching many of us the same thing.

As women, we "buy into" lots of things in our secular culture--and we can start by just saying NO to most of them--and set OUR standards. Say, for example, notice the 98%tile model on the cover of Christian Woman magazine--yes, just a couple of inches up and left...and EVERY MONTH, too.

Men enjoy beauty, and so do women--but can't we say no to ridiculous standards? I'd suggest that the woman pictured has a gift, but she probably spends plenty of time maintaining it--and maybe it's being exploited a bit, too. Certainly, it doesn't do a great deal to help other 50 yr old women to feel good about themselves.

In providing "stuff" for our kids, there are literally thousands of ways to say no to the constant stream of advertising.

And, I can think of one particular area where it's just NOT a good idea to say no to a husband. This particular area of bonding is extremely important to them--I'm thinking that saying no to carpet sweeping and laundry standards and their timelines should definitely take a hit LONG before the very important marital congress.

What was I thinking? When my pastor asked me to become editor of the church newsletter, I said yes! But I should have said a "holy no." I worked full-time as a legal secretary, had a 3 hour round-trip daily commute to work, had to work once I arrived, and was a full-time seminarian working on dual Master's degrees in divinity and education. What was I thinking? The truth is, I wasn't. Figured the Lord would make a way somehow.

Well, in less than a year of taking on the editorial position, He directed me to a 10-day hospital stay because of an intestinal blockage. He had to make me lie down! That was the only way I could hear what He'd been trying to tell me for some time -- "I can't use you when you're run down."

It's been five months since that episode. I'm still working at the law firm with the long commute, but have learned to ask for help when I need it. While I didn't graduate from seminary in May as planned, I did complete my studies this summer. Yippee! And I'm still editor of the church newsletter. People continuously ask me, "What are you going to do now that you've finished your studies?" My response: "Be still and wait on Him."

When I look back, I realize my plate was very messy. It was so full there wasn't any room for me! So I'm taking things really slow right now. My priorities will be processed through Him and not by man or my eagerness to show what I can do. I have been deeply humbled.

As a woman in leadership, my challenge is to find others who will step out in faith and say, "Yes, Lord." There are many who are all too willing to let someone else do it.

In the book _Practicing Our Faith_ (ed. Dorothy Bass; pub. Jossey-Bass), M. Shawn Copeland writes a great chapter on saying yes and saying no as a type of spiritual discipline. I return to Copeland's thoughts often;
"[S]pirituality," Copeland writes, "is not a spectator activity. Tough decisions and persistent effort 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....We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds God out and yes to a way of life that makes space for God."

Later in this thought-provoking chapter, Copeland suggests examination of conscience (also called examen) as an avenue of developing the habit of responsibly saying yes or no. Copeland suggests that we honestly ponder questions like:
"What motivated me to say yes or no?"
"Do I understand that in saying yes to every invitation or opportunity, every task or assignment, I limit the possibilities for my growth in other areas?"
"Do I have adequate spiritual nourishment or emotional support for the yes I seek to say?"

I think that the question of motivation is a powerful one. I find that I often say yes to work commitments (for which I should say no) because I'm motivated to trust in my own ability to provide for myself rather than more fully trusting in God's provision. I find that I often say yes to ministry commitments (for which I should say no) because I am motivated by a need to feel significant rather than by a true sense of God's calling to a particular ministry role.

Lately I've been thinking about the idea that Copeland alludes to in the first quotation I've included -- the idea of making space for God. This, first, should consist of time specifically set aside for personal spiritual growth -- prayer, Bible study or meditation, journaling, or other spiritual disciplines. But I believe it means much more -- it means having empty, open, un-crammed, uncrowded time in our lives in which God can speak to us, guide us, comfort us. In other words, God shouldn't need to make an "appointment" with us because we're so over-scheduled!

I said no to two different things over the past month -- one was a work opportunity and one was a ministry volunteer role. It is easy to talk about, but it was very very very difficult to actually DO. But the relief I felt after having made the RIGHT decision rather than saying yes out of wrong motives was immense.

I do understand Gram's comment (above) about the importance, also, of saying yes. It is painfully true that too often people are spectators in the church rather than participants. Many important jobs go undone when Christians refuse to fully participate.

At the same time, though, it seems that those of us who've been gifted as leaders end up picking up the slack for all the spectators and saying yes to WAY too many things. When we do so, we are unable to faithfully keep our commitments, we don't have enough space for personal relationships, our emotions run thin, and often our spiritual life with God suffers.

Thanks for this thought-provoking post.

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