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The Spirituality of Saying No

Posted by The Rev. Mary Lynn Coulson on

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus…Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’
(Luke 1, NRSV)

To be alive is to be busy. Something is always vying for our attention. Emails, to-do lists, projects, appointments, phone calls, text messages – the list goes on.

Now it’s winter. Each day is shorter than the last as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ. The Church teaches us that this season – Advent – is a season of waiting, quiet and darkness. The scripture we read each Sunday calls us to contemplate the quiet miracle of the Incarnation; the almighty God taking on flesh, as a small, helpless child.

But the world around us doesn’t feel so quiet. Rather than inviting us into rest and prayer, the world around us is becoming more stressful as we move closer to Christmas. For many this is an even busier season, as the calendar is quickly filled with holiday parties, the stress of work, or final exams in school; not to mention shopping for presents for everyone on the list!

Being busy is the modern plague. When I was in high school, I was told that I would get into a better college if I took more honors classes and participated in more extracurricular activities and volunteer hours. In college, the lunch table was where we would commiserate about our busy schedules. It became an implicit competition to prove who had gotten the least amount of sleep, or who had the most amount of homework. Even now, it’s tempting to schedule every hour of my day with a meeting or a task. Each opportunity is a good thing! How could I say “no” to an opportunity for ministry?

Our culture rewards those who are busy. We praise them for being multitaskers. We marvel at their ability to “juggle” all the aspects of their lives. We wonder how they “balance” family, work, volunteering, friends, exercising, and all the rest.  

We as the church are guilty, too. We somehow have come to a point where the more ministries you’re involved in, the “better parishioner” you are. Church involvement often contributes to our culture of busyness. Do you relate to this? I’ve come to realize that the fuller my life and calendar become, the emptier I feel.

This Advent, look to Mary. She embodied the spirituality of saying “no.”

Of course, we call Mary a saint because she said “yes” to God. She said “yes” to God’s crazy invitation, which she only partly understood. In our lives of faith, we are called to respond to God’s voice with a resounding “yes!” So how is Mary an example of saying “no?”

God came to Mary and made God’s home with her. Literally, she became pregnant with God. God is asking you to do the same – say “yes,” and invite God to make God’s home with you. Advent is the season when we become pregnant with the presence of God, and anticipate the birth of Christ in our lives.

In order to say “yes,” Mary had to say “no.” She had to say “no” to the life she was planning on. She had to say “no” to her good reputation, to the assurance of her community’s acceptance of her. She had to say “no” to her plans and dreams for her marriage. She had to say “no” to her own plans for her life, in order to say “yes” to God.

In my life, saying “no” is hard. Whether it’s to a friend, to someone I work with, to a good cause, or to my partner, it’s difficult to say “no.” I don’t want to disappoint anyone, and there are so many good things to do!

We must say “no” in order to give Christ room. Christ will take root in our lives, as long as we move the furniture, sweep the floors, and open the door. The work of Advent is to look at what takes up our days and honestly ask God – what would you have me do? What must I say “no” to?

Perhaps you might pray this prayer this Advent:
God, thank you for making your home with me. To your indwelling spirit in my life, I say “yes!” Help me to know when I am doing too much, working too much, giving too much. Remind me to be still, and like Mary, to say “no” to all that distracts me from you. Amen.

~The Rev. Mary Lynn Coulson

Tags: advent, christmas, mary, mother of god, overbooked, saying no, busy lives