The Gift of No

A friend, who is a divorced Catholic, told me of having to leave a social gathering because she got so agitated when she realized one of the men was “working up the courage” to ask her out. “I didn’t know what to say to him,” she said. “I’m just not interested in dating.” I joked with her, “Let me teach you a two letter word to handle situations like that — NO. You can add ‘thank you’ but that is optional.”

I have been thinking about that on and off all week — about my own difficulties saying “No” (with or without the thank you) when I am asked to do something. A difficulty shared by many women and, maybe, especially by many older women in denominations like the Catholic Church.

And here was my personal insight this morning: The ability to say No is a gift that we give to others. It frees others to ask us without worrying that they will be imposing. I think of my friend and how careful I am about what I ask her to do because she will not say No unless it is literally physically impossible for her and even then she will apologize repeatedly and feel badly. So that shifts the burden of judging the appropriateness of a request to me.

Exercising the right and ability to say No is not just a matter of personal liberty (although it is most assuredly that), it is also a great and good gift that we give to others.

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Third Grade Theologians

With my third graders last Sunday, I told the gospel story: Jesus’ parable of the two sons whose father asked them to work in the vineyard; one said “no” but then went and worked; the other said “yes” but never got around to going to the vineyard. Jesus asked, “Which one did what his father wanted?”

We talked about what Jesus meant to teach us. I asked how many had fathers who owned a vineyard. No one. How many went to work with their father every day? No one. So does this parable have anything to do with us?

“Well, God is our Father too,” offered one child, “so maybe Jesus is telling us not to just say prayers but to do God’s work.”

“That’s good. A good answer'” I said, “So the next question is, What is God’s work?”

This took some discussion to figure out. “Going to church?” “Helping poor people?” “Doing what our parents and teachers tell us to do?”

It took a while, but we got there. Together we decided, as one girl suggested, that God’s work is love.

“Yes,” I said, “God wants us to love God and love each other.”

“OK,” said Elise, “as long as that doesn’t include me loving my 5 year old brother. He’s impossible to love.”

“Why is he impossible to love?” I asked.

“Because he’s mean. He is always mean to me. He does mean things to me every day.”

“And when he is mean to you, are you mean back to him?”

“Not always. Not usually. Sometimes, but I try not to be.”

“Well, Elise, every time he is mean to you and you are NOT mean back to him, you are loving him.”

“Uh? But I never FEEL like I love him.”

“That’s OK. The love that God wants from us is not a feeling but an action. There’s a saying ‘Actions speak louder than words.’ God doesn’t care if you ever say or think ‘I love my little brother.’ God cares how you ACT.”

Of course, at that point, someone else wanted to talk about mean words, bullying words, and how sometimes people can act nice in front of others but sneaky say mean things to you. So that got us into a whole other discussion about words and actions, bullying and protecting, only seeming nice and really being nice.

Continuing to reaffirm my belief that third graders are the best theologians.

My Mary

An angel describes,
Passionately,
How great her son will be.
A teenager asks,
Sassily,
“Aren’t you forgetting one thing –
I’m a virgin.”

A mother speaks to her grown son,
Gives him THAT LOOK.
He sighs,
And takes care of the wine problem.

A woman stands erect and unmoving,
Defying Romans, Jews and grief itself,
To watch her son die a criminal.

The church statues?
No time for them.
The meek mild ever virgin?
No need for her.

Mary the impudent,
Mary the importunate,
Mary the brave,
She is my Mary.

For My Own Good

I have been preoccupied lately with the extent to which USA culture has shifted towards belief that life is a “zero sum game” – when you gain, I must lose. Compassion and generosity then require “self-sacrifice” and we become fearful of losing too much. But Jesus taught that only by losing do we win. Losing is not sacrifice but gain. Compassion and social justice are not just to benefit others but are the highest good for ourselves.

Freedom from Thought

I read about Ignatius’ three types of people exercise and, as I tried to think my way through it, I began to feel that my faith wasn’t “good enough.” I think because I misunderstood the exercise.

Then, believe it or not, Divine intervention came through Facebook. I saw a link on Facebook to an interview with Karen Armstrong and in that interview I read this, “thinking can only take you so far. Action, behavior, especially compassionate behavior, is more important than thinking. By constantly exercising compassion, the golden rule, you enter a different state of consciousness. This rather than thinking will get you to enlightenment.”

And there it is. There’s the freedom that God wants from me. Freedom from attachment to always thinking my way through life.

The Limits of Words

God is an ideal. Pure good, no faults. Eternal, unchanging. That is beyond any human reality. Maybe by focusing love on a perfect God, we actually make it more difficult to accept imperfect reality, to love imperfect people (including ourselves).

Can God be both light and dark? How do we understand the world of light and dark, the people — the real, flawed people — we are called to love, as the beloved creation of a God of all light, of steadfast love?

How do we learn to love the imperfect through the adoration of the perfect?

Is this why the psalmist so often has God changing, growing angry or simply forgetting him? Is it easier to love people if we don’t hold too closely to an image of God as unchanging perfection, always worthy of love?

Perhaps the proper focus of words is this world. God cannot be approached in words. My thoughts, my words neither contain nor define God.

Words are bricks and mortar. We can use words to build strong and true and needed houses to live in. Houses of ritual and dogma. But we cannot use words to feed us, to sustain us. Not through words do we grow, not usually and not easily. Even as bricks and mortar, words become more prison than home if we are not careful.

Thoughts and words are our homes, our shelter.
God is our earth and sky, our food and water.

What I Learned in Sunday School

In a voice barely above a whisper, one of my third grade boys asked, “Will there be tests?”

“There are never any tests in Sunday School,” I reassured them all. “And here’s why: Teachers care if we pass or fail tests; God doesn’t care if we pass or fail; God only cares that we try.”

And so, once again, Lady Wisdom blessed my teaching and used it to lighten my own darkest doubts with a spotlight on the essential. It’s enough that I keep trying. Success is optional (and by no means guaranteed).

And so, once again, the Paraclete teaches through me and to me.