Saying No

People talk a big game about about how they want their life to be more “balanced.” They wish they had more time. They always feel tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. They don’t sleep enough. Finances are tight. They don’t see friends as much as they’d like, etc… Actually, I feel like this an awful lot of the time, and I’m starting to realize that it often comes down to one thing:

    I have limited time, money, and energy, but I act like I don’t.

I pretend I have unlimited time when I stay up late instead of going to sleep. I act like I have money to burn when I go out for dinner with perfectly good food in the fridge. I imagine that I am a machine and not a human being when I schedule friends, work, errands, and out-of-town trips back to back for two weeks solid.

I originally drafted a very long post that dug into each of those three resources – time, money, and energy. I discussed how to quantify them and leverage excess amounts of one to make up for a deficiency of another. I had a long lecture with a bunch of math in which I concluded that you get about 40 hours of disposable time a week after doing the bare minimum of sleeping, eating, and working a full-time job, so you should use your time accordingly. But after writing lots of what amounted to pretty obvious “life-hacking” tips, I realized that it’s pretty much all about saying “no.”

Some of us, some of the time, are good at saying “no” to spending money when we can’t afford it. That is basic financial responsibility, and it’s generally understood that you shouldn’t be allowed to be an adult until you possess it. What very few of us are good at is saying “no” to spending time and energy when we can’t afford it. Unfortunately, almost every adult I know – including myself sometimes – is not only pretty awful at this, but doesn’t even consider it an important skill.

Imagine a friend invites you along on a weekend trip to New York. You are short on money lately, and Manhattan is an expensive place to visit. It’s hard, but you have to say no. You say “I wish I could, but I just can’t afford it.” Your friend does not argue that you technically could make it happen – by borrowing the money, skipping paying your bills this month, or acquiring some credit card debt. That would be extremely stupid and not worth it, and both you and your friend know it.

Now imagine the same situation with one difference: you have money to spare, but you have been very worn out lately and not getting much sleep. Do you tell your friend “I’m sorry, I’m just not up to it. I don’t have the time or the energy?” Even if we do, I think most of the time our friend attempts to convince us (and does not have a hard time doing so) that we could totally make it work. We agree to the weekend trip and – without really thinking about it or meaning to – decide that we will just do all the sleeping, resting, housework, shopping, errands, seeing friends, and everything else we would have done and need to do that weekend “some other time.” We don’t figure out where that time is going to magically come from. And we don’t consider that we will be even more worn out after a couple nights in the big city and not up to hitting the ground running on Monday to make up for lost time.

We make ruinous, bankrupting decisions with our time and energy while carefully stewarding our money. We even save up money for unforeseen needs, but have you ever “saved up” time or energy? I usually spend mine as soon as I get it – and then spend some more that I don’t have. We are so careful with money, which can buy goods and services, but utterly frivolous with the resources we need to function as decent, effective, creative, and loving human beings. Being short on money may impact my credit rating, but being short on energy impacts my marriage and being short on time impacts my friendships. I can love my daughter and be an encouraging co-worker with $0 in the bank, but when I am sleep deprived and burnt out I can’t do either of those things no matter how much cash I have on hand.

If God wanted us to have more hours in a day or require less sleep, he would have built humans or the world differently. He didn’t. We need to learn to say “no” wisely and without guilt. Only when we do so are we able to say “yes” to the things that matter most.

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The Kingdom of God is like…

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God.

But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”

Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.

He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”

Usually, when Christians reference the mustard seed metaphor they use it to say this: “Mustard seeds are TINY! Mustard trees are HUGE! The kingdom of God starts out small but it grows and grows from a tiny seed into a HUGE tree!”

True. But I don’t believe this is the point that Jesus is making. First, because mustard plants are not. that. big. From what I can tell, they’ve got a similar size range to sunflowers. They aren’t trees, and they aren’t nearly the biggest plant around in Palestine (which would probably be the olive tree).

“He said therefore…” The parable of the mustard seed is a direct response to the events surrounding his healing of the crippled woman. The reason Jesus stops to explain what the Kingdom of God is like is that he just witnessed a perfect example of what the Kingdom of God is NOT like.

Let’s call the ruler of the synagogue “Steve.” Steve’s job is to teach, guide, comfort, and heal the people of his synagogue. Jesus shows up at Steve’s church and heals a woman who has been crippled for years and now Steve is upset. Why? Because Jesus is making Steve look bad. “The sabbath isn’t for healing!” Steve cries. “It’s for praying and reading your Bible!” What Steve would like to say is “Get out of here, Jesus. You’re actually doing my job right, with the heart that I should have, and you’re showing me up for a fraud and a hypocrite.” Unable to criticize the obviously good thing that Jesus has done, he instead turns his abuse on the people he is supposed to shepherd: “You’re doing it wrong! Come on the other days of the week for healing, not during my church service.”

“No, Steve.” Jesus says. “You’re doing it wrong.”

Jesus wants to explain what the Kingdom of God should look like, and as he racks his mind for a suitable metaphor, he comes up with two pictures: one in which a small seed grows into a home for birds, and one in which a bit of yeast makes a meal of bread. What is the kingdom of God like? It is like food for the hungry and a home for the wanderer. It grows from tiny beginnings into ordinary but life-giving means of love.

Literally, yes – there are homeless and hungry people on the streets of my city. And there are also other kinds of hunger, other ways to be without a place to rest and belong. Jesus’ call, before anything else, is a call for his people to meet those needs in love. I think it is not out of line to say that if, like Steve, our vision for the Kingdom of God doesn’t place this first and foremost, we’re doing it wrong. We have missed the point of the Kingdom, and we are just as deserving of Jesus’ criticism as Steve the Synagogue Leader.

Christians today feel beset by troubles. Diminishing influence in society. Hypocrisy on one side and fanatacism on the other. The gay marriage debate (and which side of it we’re supposed to be on). We’re losing the young people – no wait, we’re losing the old people! It is genuinely hard to know what the way forward looks like, where there is solid ground to stand.

But I encourage you to stand on Christ the solid rock. And to agree with him that before all these things, we are a church that is a home and a meal to those who need them. Our first and highest calling is to give life and love to the people God puts in our lives each day. The other questions are not unimportant, but they are secondary and count for nothing if we do not first love like Jesus did.