This reflection comes from conversation in a time of prayer and three other conversations, all of which happened across two days. The topic comes up fairly often, for a number of reasons related to the sheer demands upon my time and the unusual firmness with which I articulate myself on this matter. For others, it is maybe not such a serious concern. For me, it is one of those things in relation to which I find myself most often having to defend myself. You see it in this blog over the years, here and here and here.
As so often in this place (and in my academic writing too!), I have written for me – in an attempt to disentangle what I think and to subject my suppositions to questioning. God deals with each of us differently, it seems to me, and so though what I articulate below is the way it is between him and me, please understand that I am not necessarily claiming that he should deal the same with you. Perhaps my wrestlings will encourage you as you process this for yourself; perhaps they will simply make me seem slightly less of an enigma to some who know me. Who knows?
I find myself surrounded by need. And by friends who want that need to dictate my choices.
Yet I stand firm.
Often these friends, I think, may judge me for my choices. They tell me that I am gifted and that the need demands my response. They frame it, perhaps without meaning to, as if a No is a sin of selfishness. It becomes spiritualised. To refuse to serve this need is to refuse to serve our God.
And I wonder it, too. If my No is sin of selfishness. Yet I stand firm.
My commitment to right nay-saying is unusual and it is clear. It is clear because of my personality type. For me to fudge my No feels like a sin against integrity. I do not want to mislead you. I want to be known as a woman of purest integrity. And when your world is cast mainly in tones of black and white, and when most of what you do feels in danger of being less than white, it is the purity of white you seek beyond all else. This might be holiness but it is more likely, I suspect, the pathology attributable to a personality like mine.
One of them, anyway.
I know how it seems, this No which I say. It can sometimes come fast and strong, with barely a moment’s consideration. I have seen it wrongfoot more than one person, felt guilty for not at least appearing to think about it more deeply. I have seen, too, the reaction it creates.
And, more than this, when myself on the receiving end of such a No from others, I have seen the subtle ways in which I am tempted to read their No as a criticism of my Yes. I have seen how the No of someone well-differentiated from the system in which they serve can trigger me to defensiveness of myself and judgment of them. And I have seen how none of this is even quite conscious.
I know how it seems, this No which I say, because I have also received such a No from others. Yet my No is sure and quick because I have spent hours discerning my Yes. Week after week on a Friday, I make space to seek wisdom. Month after month, I spend six hours in silence in the summerhouse. Year after year, I take five days of silence with the guidance of wise women. New Year’s Day after New Year’s Day, I review the year gone by and listen for a whisper about the year ahead.
For I am not my own and I have been bought at a price. My Yes is no longer mine to give. All that I have is to be stewarded in the service of one. If he does not say Yes, then I must say No. There is, for me, no automatic discretion unless he happens to give me freedom in the matter.
Others see it differently, I know. That he deals with me in this way is a function of personality and spirituality and gifting. Others hear him differently, seek him differently, walk out their calling differently. And each of these paths is beautiful in his sight.
Yet with this daughter of his, it seems that she is to be led by his eyes upon her. And, for this path amongst the many other possibilities, there is no alternative to hours and days in the place of silence. Those times, week after week, month after month, and year after year, in discernment conversation also with the wise ones who hold me, ground a sense of identity and direction so deep that my Yes is clear.
And so – in those split seconds between vocalised expectation that I will meet a need and the words of answer – when I have no sense that this task chimes with the things he has been speaking, and when no new witness of the Spirit comes in the moment, I ask one more question. What is the cost of the Yes they want from me?
If the cost of that Yes is small, I may conclude that I can offer it without stealing from the one in whose service I find myself. Stealing, I know, is strong language. How can you steal from God by engaging in acts of service which are ostensibly for him? Again, that I see it this way is function of personality and spirituality and gifting. Others will see it differently and that is between them and him, for he has made each of us to glorify him differently. But, for myself, I believe I am bound to do only what he is asking me, only what I sense him already doing. Not what I want to be doing. Not what I think he should be asking me. Not what others are asking of me in his name. For though I am friend – and, oh, how I celebrate this! – I am no less slave. And slaves, who have no master but one, set their eyes only upon him for his every whim.
So sometimes the cost of even a small Yes is too high. A training in recording my time has taught me this. Every six minutes (the units of time which I had to record in my former City-girl life!) adds up to an hour, a day, a week. And six minutes on this small Yes may be six minutes stolen from the greater Yes.
In the end, since I cannot do everything, I must do one thing. For some, that one thing is discerned as the thing in front of them, whatever that is at whatever stage of life they are in. And, for them, it may well be at the end of life looking back that they can identify, in the goodness of God, the thread of what turned out to be the specificity of secondary call* in their lives. For others, perhaps especially the prophetic ones, doing that one thing means a discerning based not on what is in front of them but based on a listening and seeking out of a known and specific one thing. And, for these, they may not have to wait until the end of life to discern what was secondary call but may perhaps see glimpses of this thread before it unfolds, may say their Nos in confidence of glimpsing already their truer Yes.
Mine, mostly, seems to be about glimpsing what is unfolding. It is no better or worse than the other. It works to make my Yes clearer and my No stronger, but it also makes the grace and charge to sit long in the silence weightier.
So I will continue to let the silence hold me. I will continue in my aggressive discernment of the Yeses. I will say the Nos as act of faith that to honour my limits, to love them even, is to honour him.
And I will continue to pay the price of that, whatever it is. I know that I may be utterly wrong and thus in a sin of selfishness unawares. But if so, then I sin boldly for I say my Nos as act of risky faith in alignment with the Yes which I believe he is speaking over my life right now. And like the Philippians I trust that, holding fast in what I have attained, he will make even my sin clear to me. May it be so.
* Secondary call is a way of speaking of the specifics of time and place and activity by which a believer lives their primary baptismal call to love and follow Jesus.