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The Spiritual Practice of Saying Yes and No

Learning how to respond to life’s many invitations

I've written two books. If I were asked to write a third book, I don't know if I would say yes or no. I would have to discern. I would have to listen to know what would give me life in this season. Right now, starting a book feels less appealing than the invitation to notice the myriad of transcendencies just out my door. Still, I have said yes to the invitation to write some "shorts" on spiritual practices for Gifted for Leadership. These short articles might leave me time to dabble in the transcendencies. But how did I come to the "yes?"

Saying yes is part of my nature. (Saying no is part of my husband's nature). I came from the womb saying yes. It is a congenital propensity. My mother says I said yes to everything. Yes to climbing corn cribs; yes to hauling my brother onto farm equipment; yes to putting him under the gasoline spigot; yes to filling his overall pockets with eggs from the chickens. It hasn't changed. I still don't want to miss out.

Have you heard of the acronym FOMO? Fear of Missing Out? A chaplain at Harvard told me FOMO accounted for the compulsive busyness of students and faculty. I suspect FOMO fuels more than students and faculty. It fuels "yeses" of every possible ilk. FOMO keeps us at it. We accept every invitation we get. We burn the candle at both ends. We strive, we work, we travel, we win so we can say we've been there and done that. We have lived.

Isaiah the prophet had something to say about this nearly three millennia ago:

"Listen, you who are deaf! Look and see, you blind!…You see and recognize what is right but refuse to act on it. You hear with your ears, but you don't really listen." (Isaiah 42:18-20).

It seems people way back when were so caught up in saying yes that they didn't really see what they saw or hear what was being said. They missed what life was trying to tell them. When you get invitations, are you afraid of missing out? Do you automatically say yes or no or "I'll get back to you"? With two small words, yes and no, we make our days. With yes and no we engage, or pull out, or dig in, or do the first thing that pops into our head.

Learning when to say yes and no is a spiritual practice. Life is filled with invitations. Some invitations come from God. Other invites come from culture, friends, and our own internal compulsion to not miss out. Of course, not every yes or no has the same weight. Yes, I have to do laundry and fill the car with gas. But there are other choices that require more discernment than needing clean sheets and wheels to get around. Furthermore, I may go with my gut and say yes to one bowl of ice cream—but do I say yes to two? And if I say no to going to the movies this week, does it mean I say no every time?

Jesus said, "Just say a simple, ‘Yes, I will,' or ‘No, I won't.' " (Matthew 5:37). But do you know which you want to say? Jesus didn't want to say yes to the cross but he did. He didn't do what came automatically. He listened to God—he discerned that the future of everyone hinged on whether he said yes or no to his father's agenda.

Learning to say yes and no is a fundamental part of discernment. This week begin to listen to God on the level of yes and no.

1. Notice your default response. Are you addicted to saying yes or no? For instance, do you find it hard to stop saying yes? When I realized that my automatic response was yes, I went on a "no spontaneous yes" binge. I felt I needed remedial help in saying no. So even if the response could be automatic, I'd still say, "I'll call you back in 60 seconds." I didn't do this forever—just long enough to make me aware that I had a choice. I didn't need to say yes to everything and everyone.

2. Notice what's going on beneath the surface.

• Do you really want to say yes or no? What's your motivation?

• Does this yes bring you life or drain it away?

• Does your yes or no lead you into the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, and self control?

3. Notice where your yes and no make space in your life for God to show up.

We can get so busy doing good and useful things that we hardly notice that we don't have time to hang out with God any more. Notice this week where you said yes to God and where you said no. Ask for help to discern what matters.

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun currently co-pastors Redeemer Community in Wellesley, Massachusetts, with her husband, Doug. She is the author of Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us.

May07, 2012 at 2:49 PM

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