(41) saying no

“God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting.” (Meister Eckhart)

“A being is free only when it can determine and limit its activity.” (Karl Barth)

“Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce–that even if you spent one whole day being good for nothing you would still be precious in God’s sight–and when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so, remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment. Your worth has already been established, even when you are not working. The purpose of the commandment is to woo you to the same truth.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World p. 139, emphasis mine)

practice saying yes to freedom

In a culture that values busyness and multitasking and production, it is indeed counter-cultural to make a choice to stop and say no and focus. It is also “counter-intuitive” in my own behavior patterns. I love being productive. On a frighteningly deep level, I feel highly successful and valuable and purposeful when I make great movement through my own to-do list. Occasionally I’ll feel the same way about externally imposed to-do lists. I do not value “doing nothing.”

But I’ve been making my way through Taylor’s incredibly moving book An Altar in the World, which basically feels like an advanced course in spiritual disciplines, and a day or two ago I read her chapter on practicing Sabbath, or as she titled the chapter, “The Practice of Saying No.” In the past when I have practiced a literal Sabbath, forcing myself to take a break from work-related activities for a day, I still tried to be highly productive, just productive doing activities that pleased me or felt fun. Maybe this is why her quote above resonates with me so terrifyingly and so deeply: Do I dare test the premise that I am worth more than I can produce?

And then I look around and wonder, do I dare to not test the premise? At a crossroads with saying no, the alternatives seem stark. Taylor gives a short history of Sabbath practice, showing how the rise of consumerism in the United States overtook the traditional culture that still valued one day off a week where nothing was open. Decades ago, you could not go out and buy flour on Sunday because no stores were open for you to visit! So the practice of saying no is not just countering the epidemic of busyness and hurry and stress and success, but also the strong currents of greed and consumerism. If I do not wish to be carried over a precipice of debt, if I wish to live against the seductive whispers and blaring shouts of advertising telling me that I need this one more thing to be happy, then I must practice saying no. This spiritual practice means saying no to everything else so that I may say yes to God. And isn’t that what I really want?

Taylor doesn’t make this connection, but I also see in myself this conflict between saying yes and saying no when it comes to technology and media, particularly social media. More than once while reading her book, I have caught myself skimming over paragraphs, reading this incredibly deep spiritual exploration with the same distracted, fluttering gaze I employ when reading a Facebook News Feed. Do I want to cultivate endless distraction and multitasking or allow short snippets of fact and fiction to substitute themselves for real ideas and ponderings? This is a grim alternative to that of making space in my life and mind to go deeper into knowing God and self and neighbor. How does one live in the world and not of it? An intimate knowledge of social media and a willingness to endlessly update status and content is now a marketable job skill. Maintaining an up-to-date and prolific blog and Facebook and Twitter accounts seems to be inextricably tied to becoming a successful published author. I am afraid of becoming outdated, of getting behind on the technology, of my imaginary teenaged children laughing at my ineptitude in whatever the current technology of that decade will be. Yet that is the choice I am making when I continue to avoid starting a Twitter account.

There is much at stake here. I long for more of God, more depth, more wholeness, more contentment. Keeping the Sabbath or practicing saying no is one of the original 10 guidelines for being a God-following person. Am I willing to test the premise that I am “worth more than I can produce”? Am I brave enough to laugh in the face of advertisers bent on convincing me that I’m not good enough or sexy enough or organized enough or happy enough? Am I strong enough to use social media tools when needed, but to know when to turn off the phone, computer, TV, and just be? Do I have the courage to say no, to make space in schedule, finances, mind, for more God? I hope so. I think so. At least I know that, even if I look stupid or unsuccessful from the outside, I am certain that the practice of saying no will carry me closer to where I want to end up, to who I want to become.

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