Thursday, October 14, 2010

"No" Is a Freedom Word

Thomas Merton wrote that anyone who, every time they have a desire, says "yes" to that desire and follows it, is not a free person. For example, Linda and I ate in downtown Ann Arbor last Friday evening. It was beautiful and warm and we ate outside at a Greek restaurant. This is when I heard a voice say, "John, you want me, and you know it." Inwardly I responded: "Yes."

After eating we walked up the street toward where we were parked. As we passed a store, I stopped. "You want me... come inside..." And I obeyed. And there it was. The vanilla bean cupcake with the soft cream-cheesy icing looked at me with loving eyes. How could I refuse its invitation? As we walked out of The Cupcake Station I was not a free man. I could not say "No."

Anyone who wants to follow after Jesus will use the word "No" many times over their lifetime. Eugene Peterson puts it this way.

"There is always a strong ascetic element in true spiritual theology. Following Jesus means not following your impulses and appetites and whims and dreams, all of which are sufficiently damaged by sin to make them unreliable guides for getting any place worth going. Following Jesus means not following the death-procrastinating, death-denying practices of a culture which, by obsessively pursuing life under the aegis of idols and ideologies, ends up with a life that is so constricted and diminished that it is hardly worth the name." (Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality, 12)

Recently a friend and leader who comes to Redeemer said to me, "Coming to Redeemer will make everyone, at times, uncomfortable." He smiled approvingly as he said these words. Jesus didn't come to trick and seduce religious seekers to "become Christians" by offering them free cupcakes. Taking up the cross of Christ daily means, logically, laying down things that would prevent you from cross-carrying. It means saying to a number of things, "No, I will not carry you another inch!" Eugene Peterson once more:

"Grammatically, the negative, our capacity to say No, is one of the most impressive features of our language. The negative is our access to freedom. Only humans can say No. animals can't say No. Animals do what instinct dictates. No is a freedom word. I don't have to do what my glands or my culture tells me to do. The judicious, well-placed No frees us from many a blind alley, many a rough detour, frees us from debilitating distractions and seductive sacrileges. The art of saying No sets us free to follow Jesus." (Ib.)

The person who is able to say No to follow after Jesus is far from a repressed person. "Ascetic practice sweeps out the clutter of the god-pretentious self, making ample space for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; it embraces and prepares for a kind of death that the culture knows nothing about, making room for the dance of resurrection." (Ib.)

Free people use "No" many times every day. What are such people like? Eugene Peterson, once more... "Whenever we are around someone who is doing this well, we notice the lightness of step, the nimbleness of spirit, the quickness to laughter. H.C.G. Moule wrote that these dominical negatives "...may have to carve deep lines in heart and life; but the chisel need never deface the brightness of the material." (Ib., 12-13)

Just say No. You'll sleep better, walk lighter, and maybe lose some pounds in the process.