The Gift of “No.”

Sometimes “no” is the right answer. We are not a culture that likes to hear, or to say, the word “no.” But, as any parent of a young child can tell you, “no” is a pretty important word for our safety, and for our sanity.

We like to imagine we are limitless. How many outdoor sport companies, soft drink commercials, and computer ads use copy like “live without boundaries?” We like to pretend the possibilities are infinite. Especially those of us who identify as “progressive” often bristle at rules, at systems, at borders.

Today’s lessons from scripture talk about boundaries.

I AM the Lord your God, you shall not…

Our English language makes the ten commandments a little flatter than they are in the Hebrew. In the original language eight of the ten start with the word “No.” The grammar doesn’t translate well in English because it would read literally: “No having other gods.” “No murdering.” “No adultery-ing.” Our language makes the translation tricky, but know “Thou shalt not” is a linguistic compromise. In these ten or so commandments, God tells the people “no.” Again and again, “no.”

We carry some reluctance around the ten commandments. I’ve seen some of you fidget in your pews as we’ve recited them at the beginning of the service up to this week. Never fear, next week we’ll start with the “summary of the law.” Some of that reluctance around the big ten, for me, comes from not wanting to associate with the “culture warriors.” From a judge in Alabama to lawsuits by the ACLU, the ten commandments have become a rope in the tug of war match that is American religiosity. Part of me wants the folks who are so concerned with erecting stone monuments to simply read the bit about “not worshiping graven images.” Let the monuments go.

But, as with most things pertaining to faith, I don’t want to let the cultural warriors have the last word on the meaning of God’s commandments. The judge in Alabama and I may have very different interpretations of God’s commands, but we agree on something fundamental. Human beings fair better when they pay attention to the divine “no.” We are healthier, and lead fuller lives when we can accept some boundaries.

This morning, I want to talk about the spiritual gift inherit in the word “no.” I intend to touch on the personal and the societal dimensions of the blessing of boundaries.

First, the personal dimension of “no.”

Throughout the season of Lent, a group is gathering at Holy Communion each Wednesday evening to talk about discernment. We spent much of the first week just defining that word, “discernment.” We are looking at various characters in the Bible, at their experience of God’s call in their lives. We are thinking about life’s big decisions, the kind of choices that shape a biography: what career do you choose? What college? Who do you marry? Where do you choose to live, to set down roots?

Discernment is the practice of opening those big questions, and all of the little questions that build up to the big ones. Discernment is the spiritual practice of opening our questions up, to spending time with possibilities, and listening to how God might be inviting us to move. Discernment is an art, not a science, and so we’re looking at how some of the characters in Scripture heard God’s call. (The short answer is that, for most of them, God had to call again and again).

One truth about discernment is simultaneously frustrating and freeing. In order to really say “yes,” to say a deep and lasting “yes,” to one of life’s big questions, we have to say a lot of “noes” along the way. This is obviously true in a marriage. We promise to “forsake all others” and to “be faithful.” To be married is to say “no” to the full development of other relationships. At times, these “noes” can feel like losses, it’s true. It’s better to be honest. But from my own marriage I can say, the “yes” of a marriage commitment is deeper, fuller, and more life-giving than I could have ever imagined. Loving another person, and committing to that love, partnership opens something profound in life. “No” opens a deeper, fuller “yes.”

Discernment works similarly around questions of career. We often have to make sacrifices for the sake of our work. We won’t all be renaissance professionals. Very few people are MD, PhD, attorneys who also dabble in sculpture and poetry. Many of us make sacrifices in our work for the sake of our families. I once had the privilege of attending a graduation with the family of one of my immigrant parishioners. They wept big happy tears that day, partly because her parents had to leave behind their own educational plans in order to provide for their daughter. She honored her father and mother as she received her Bachelor’s degree cum laude.

Discernment in life often involves not only saying “yes” to God’s call, but saying “no” to all sorts of other potentially fun, enriching, and engaging opportunities. To deeply say yes, sometimes we have to say no.

Before I leave the personal behind, I do want to touch on one particular commandment in the list. This commandment is the first in the list that does not begin with “no.” “Remember the sabbath.” We need to be told to remember what we are prone to forget. Remember that your whole life is not about work, about productivity. Remember that your time does not belong only to your job, to your employer. Remember that others have a claim on your hours, your family, your friends, your God. If you are a manager, remember those claims are also true for your workers. They should have a full life beyond work.

The healthier and fuller life is outside work, the happier employees tend to be on the job. Remember, sabbath is important. Sabbath is also about saying “no,” saying “no” to be constantly available via email, or text message. Sabbath is about saying, “no” to the weighty anxiety inducing responsibilities from time to time for the sake of enjoying life, loving others well, and having time to rest and reflect. Remember the sabbath.

When we exercise the spiritual gift of saying “no” well in our personal lives, it helps us to be healthier participants in a wider society.

Boundaries are important in a healthy society.

The researcher and writer Brene Brown, who I always like to point out is an Episcopalian, was recently interviewed by Krista Tippet for NPR. She said something profoundly theological about our interactions with one another:

I don’t think [being our best selves is simply] what’s possible between people. I believe that’s what’s true between people. And I don’t think we have to work to make it true between people. I think we just have to get the stuff out of the way that’s stopping it from happening.

Think about that, a major researcher in human behavior has said, “being our best selves” isn’t something we have to really work at. Instead she said, we have to get the “stuff” out of the way. What is that stuff?

I want to contend that stuff is as old as the Bible, older even. Lying, cheating, murder, covetousness. Brown says that, according to her research, people usually act from their lesser selves, they violate covenants and boundaries, not out of ego or avarice, but out of fear. We are afraid of one another. If I worry I am going to be cheated on, well then I better cheat first. We try to avoid pain, and we end up causing pain.

So, Brene Brown says, if we are going to make progress as a society, if we are going to make it out of the mess in which we find ourselves, we have to learn to trust one another. We have to get back to the basics, and to trust. And we are going to have to agree on some boundaries.

Part of the pain we are feeling at this moment is the public recognition that boundaries have been violated. For decades we have treated women as sexual objects in the workplace and the town square. We teach that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, and yet we have treated some with less dignity. Black bodies are more heavily policed and incarcerated. LGBTQ are more likely to be assaulted and their aggressors exonerated. We are at a moment where we are recognizing boundaries which have been violated, a moment where whole classes and categories of people are standing up to say “no.”

“No, no more.” Sometimes the word can be heroic, and healing, and bring wholeness in a society. All of us will be healthier for this work. Our society will be stronger when women are heard, black lives matter, and queer people are honored. But the work is far from over. We will have to continue to hear, and to say “no” to old habits, and to hateful repression.

The Gift of “No.”

On a hill outside the old city of Jerusalem stands a Catholic basilica called the “Abbey of the Dormition of Mary.” The structure is a monastery, a building full of monks who live by a “rule of life” from the sixth century. They honor their founder, St. Benedict of Nursia, with a statue above one of the chapel altars. The great rule-giver is seated. In one hand he holds a scroll. His other hand is held firmly forward, like a crossing guard, saying “stop.”

The Benedictines regard the rule of St. Benedict as a gift. I admit, I have a love hate relationship with rules. admire the Dalai Lama who said, “you must know the rules well, so you can break them properly.” Yet, that image of Benedict above the altar also captures my imagination. I suspect the monks might be right. There is a certain gift in divine boundaries.

How can we receive the word “no” from God as a gift? This Lent, could we practice saying “no” that we might also learn to say “yes” more deeply?

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

2 thoughts on “The Gift of “No.”

  1. I think that realizing that it’s okay to say “no” starts at a young age. Small things like letting your child know its okay to say no to sharing their toys with another child or not wanting to share snacks or play with someone else. Yes, we all want to be nice but we have to draw the line at being amenable. We don’t always have to do what others want us to do for fear of seeming difficult.

  2. Intelligent, thought provoking words. “No” is such a gift. Each week you heal my heart and soul. Profoundly grateful!

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