This past Monday Pope Benedict XVI renounced his position. He reached the decision with what he called “full freedom" and with awareness of the "seriousness of this act." He is the first pope to resign in over 600 years and the first to do so voluntarily since 1294. He explained that to be able to fulfill the role of pope, "both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” After resigning at the end of the month, he will move to a cloistered monastery and devote himself to a life of prayer.
While his resignation was a surprise, pope Benedict alluded to it in the past, providing a rationale for such a decision. In 2010, he told a journalist that "if a pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign." (www.arkansas-catholic.org/news/article/3335/Analysis-Popes-resignation-a...).
I don’t know if there are any hidden reasons for the Pope’s resignation that were not included in his public statements. I have no doubt there will be those who criticize his decision and those who laud it. No matter what we may think about the papacy, this Pope in particular, or the Catholic Church, the Pope’s decision is to say the least, a big deal. It has historic implications.
Not every decision will have such large historic implications. That doesn’t make them any less important. Among other things, what Benedict’s resignation does is raise questions about how and when to say “yes” and “no.” Gandhi said, “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.”
How and when do we walk away from significant responsibilities? How do we know which things to commit to in the first place and when it is time to let go of those commitments?
The Pope’s decision, borne of what I’m sure was a difficult and prayerful process, has something to teach us about the complexity of our obligations. Sometimes we are obliged to say no. Is it possible that by saying “no” at the right times we can actually say “yes” to life more fully. As a teacher used to tell her students: “Your ‘Yes’s mean nothing until you learn how to say ‘No’.” (“The Halfhearted Yes: Why We Don’t Say No and How to Start, Sonya Derian, of Om Freely).
Learning when and how, to what, and to whom, to say “yes” is an ongoing process. Learning to be intentional in our decision making is to recognize that what we do with our lives matters. Maybe we aren’t the Pope making an historic decision to stay or go. But we are creating a life by the choices we make and don’t make, by what we do and don’t do. Rather than simply allowing ourselves to be bounced around by life and events, we can see ourselves as walking a sacred path.
While I love my work as a minister, I am the only active Unitarian Universalist minister in town, actually in the whole county. That means I regularly get called upon to participate in interfaith events, peace rallies, Pride-related activities, city council once a year, union dinners, even liberal political dinners, as well as other community activities. I get calls from our Unitarian Universalist district and colleagues asking me to serve in various ways.
Saying “no” comes with the territory of my position. It also comes with the territory of living. I hear this from friends, colleagues and members of this church. Many of us are being asked to take on more and more. And we also find ourselves surrounded by many choices. At any given time, we have hundreds of tv channels, books at our fingertips, friends on facebook, electronic games, restaurants, religious communities, volunteer opportunities in the community, and work assignments.
Many of us feel pressure to agree to do more even when we don’t have time. We put this pressure on ourselves. Sometimes it comes from other people’s expectations. Sometimes we make commitments that later on are too difficult or ill-fitting to fulfill. Many of us have had the experience of having said “yes” to something and later discovering, due to changes in our lives or a greater understanding of the expectations, that we cannot continue.
We regularly have to figure out when to “yes” and when to say “no.” Because if we say “yes” to everything, we will eventually feel burned out and resentful, and quickly discover we’re not able to do anything as well as we would like. This applies to our personal lives and our professional lives.
Some people keep on saying “yes” until they are dragging themselves around trying to figure out how they got into this mess in the first place and how to get out of it. Plenty of people can’t and won’t commit to anything and keep on saying “no” to just about everything and everyone for fear of missing out on something better that might come along later. Both of these approaches are spiritually and emotionally unhealthy. They do not make us more alive. They do not honor the depth dimension of life.
In addition to being a person who is often asked to do more, I am also a person often asking others to take on responsibilities. I do that here at church, as many of you have experienced firsthand. I’ve also recently agreed to serve on a board nominating committee for UUPLAN. Unlike many people I know, I actually like to recruit volunteers.
I like it because asking people to volunteer is a way of offering them a possibility that just may enhance their lives, that may be a good spiritual fit. It is a genuine chance for an individual to serve and also to grow and develop. It is, however, only one possibility among many in a person’s life. Whether a person answers “yes” or “no” will impact their life in all sorts of ways, both large and small. When someone makes a commitment to one thing, they will need to say “no” to another. Conversely, saying “no” to one thing will make it more possible to say “yes” to something else.
When I invite people into volunteer positions, I spend time in reflection beforehand. I don’t ask individuals who I know are in the midst of a life crisis, or who have just told me they are too busy to serve on a committee, or who I think for whatever reason are not well-suited to the particular task. When I ask, I usually explain why I am asking and invite the person to consider whether it’s something they can and want to do. I encourage people to say “yes” when they can and “no” when they must. I expect the person I am asking to spend time in discernment, discovering what this possibility may open up in their life.
I am not leading up to a sales pitch by the way. This sermon is not going to end with me asking you all to volunteer for something, though the collection does follow the sermon.
The thing is, when we say “yes” or “no” without taking the time for deep listening, reflection, and discernment, we fail to heed our own deepest needs and longings. We can miss out on the very opportunities for which we are best suited. We’re not talking about things like whether you want cream and sugar in your coffee. We’re talking about what will make your spirit come to life.
This process of spiritual discernment has to do with getting in touch with what matters most to us. This is the point. It’s a process of setting life priorities, spiritual priorities. This is not the same as creating a big to-do list or making New Year’s resolutions. It isn’t even really about setting goals. It has to do with listening to life, to what is stirring beneath the surface of things, to the voice of God, to uncovering what inspires and motivates us. It asks: what breathes life into your day-to-day living? What creates meaning and purpose? What makes you happy?
I take time regularly to try to figure this out. I consider what I already feel most passionate about and the activities that are feeding and nourishing my spirit – as well as those that are draining me. When I am completely overwhelmed and busy, which is when I feel I have the least time for it, I step back and ask myself whether I am using my time in a way that is in line with my own values and espoused commitments. After my sabbatical, I used this process to decide on where to make my social justice and outreach commitments. As a result, I’m now serving on two Unitarian Universalist leadership positions in addition to helping with some ad hoc local community efforts related to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues. And I’m facilitating a course here on multiculturalism.
The discernment process is a way of figuring out what can wait, what can be eliminated, and what to commit to. There are some things that need to be done at a practical level, and that’s a reality. At some point, the garbage has to be taken out, the car needs to be inspected, and the lawn has to get mowed. Whether we love our work or not, we also need employment in order to support ourselves financially. There are large and small yeses and nos. And there is a balance we need to strike between living out our most heartfelt desires – our big yeses - and meeting our responsibilities.
When we get off-track, it’s a good time to reconsider what is essential spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. This may be parenting, helping others, learning, creating art or music, attending to our physical well-being, or something else. Attending to these stirrings is a way of making a larger embrace of life. It is an expression of the words we sang in our opening hymn: “Just as long as I have breath, I will answer yes to life.”
To be able to answer “yes” with conviction to our deepest needs is to meet each day with hope. Howard Thurman, the great African American theologian said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that because that’s what the world needs, people who have come alive.”
There will surely be times along the way when we will have to say “no.” May we learn to discern well when we must say “no” with conviction so that what we say “yes” to will make us come alive.
May it be so. Amen.