Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

What do you think is the most difficult word in the English language? Would it be “lachrymose” (causing tears, tearful) or “contumacious” (insubordinate, rebellious) because we use them so rarely? Would it be “hemacytometer” (instrument for counting blood) or “boanerges” (skilled orator) because they are tricky to spell? Or would it be “Asseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary” because it is one of the longest words in the English language (it refers to a structure of the human body, by the way)? I think that, if forced to choose, I’d take a different route, suggesting that the most difficult word in the English language is also one of the shortest, easiest to spell, and most common: “no.”

I remember watching as my then-toddling children first learned how difficult “no” is. “No, you can’t run ahead of us into the street.” “No, you can take that toy from your sister.” “No, you can’t play with the knobs on the stove.” No. We don’t like it because it is, well, just plain negative. Even more, it stands in our way, negating our immediate desires and wishes, withholding something from us that we want.

My children, now in middle school, still struggle with the word “no” — as do, truth be told, their parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and, I’d wager, everyone in their larger human family. We want what we want for a reason, and “no” always runs contrary to those reasons, wants, and desires.

At the same time, as we mature we recognize the value of “no,” not only for others but even for ourselves. By saying no to the extra helping of dinner we stay healthier. By saying no to television before studying for the exam we earn a better mark. By saying no to claiming the dubious tax exemption we retain a greater sense of honor and contribute to the public welfare. The other side of freedom, we come to recognize, is responsibility, being able to say “no” that we can enjoy a greater “yes.”

As practiced as we may become at “no,” however, there is always the palpable tension between what we want in the moment and what we know is better for us. This is the struggle the Apostle Paul describes in today’s reading, a struggle that is part and parcel of the human life. Which is why, according to Paul, God gave us the law. We tend to think of law negatively because we experience it as enforcing something we do not want. But for Paul, the primary purpose of the law is to urge us toward life, toward that which is healthful, life-giving, and of true value … even when we, lured by immediate desires, would rather seize those things which lead to death. For Paul, this tug between what is right and what is immediately gratifying is not only descriptively accurate of the tension-filled nature of human existence, it also points to our need for help, for encouragement, for forgiveness and, ultimately, for God. The law, in this sense, has two functions, both to hold out for us what is life-giving and to make us aware of our need for grace. Little wonder that Paul declares the law holy (v. 12, just before today’s reading).

There is, of course, a clear theological dimension to today’s reading that some preachers may want to explore: the nature of the law to steer us toward life and to make us aware of our penchant for death and consequent need for God. (And if you go in this direction, you should probably begin the reading at verse 7.) But this week I’m interested in a more practical question: How do we help each other say “no” in a culture that seems only to understand “yes.” There are a whole host of ways this question gets played out. I’ll name just three.

1) How do we say “no” to children who are used to getting almost everything they want? While I realize that none of us set out to raise our children with a sense of entitlement, I’ve also observed that many of us, having greater resources than our parents, have delighted to give our children many of the things and opportunities that we weren’t afforded. The question then becomes how, now that they are getting older, do we teach them that they can’t always get what they want, that many times you have to work and wait for things of value, and that happiness doesn’t come from getting what you want but from wanting what you have? These are hard questions that I know most parents struggle with. Might we talk about them at church?

2) How do we say “no” to ourselves when our credit cards make it so incredibly easy to say “yes.” Credit cards, by their very nature, tout the goodness, not of delayed gratification, but of delayed payment. Little wonder that one of greatest problems most families struggle with is credit card debt and that some economists say the potential future default on those debts may dwarf the housing-mortgage crisis from which we are just beginning to emerge. How, then, do we help each other learn to set budgets, live within our means, and to save for what we want when the whole culture seems to promote the value of spending rather than saving? It is so very easy to become possessed by our possessions and devalue what we actually have in light of what advertisers teach us to long for. Might we find at church a place where we can talk about these struggles and encourage each other?

3) How do we say “no” to ourselves as a nation? The national debt has never been higher and there are no signs that anyone wants to make the sacrifices necessary to live within our means. Don’t be fooled by the political rhetoric: both Democrats and Republicans alike have advocated deficit spending, just on different things. So the question becomes not whether to live with less but how. How, that is, do we reward politicians who demonstrate the courage to find a mixture of tax increases and spending cuts that helps us balance the budget in a way that distributes the responsibility for doing so equally rather than placing the disproportionately on the shoulders of those who are most vulnerable? Might our congregations be places where we can discus such matters with equal measures of seriousness and respect?

Some might say that such discussions are better held at home than at church. But given that increasing numbers of Christians report difficulty in connecting their faith tradition to their daily lives, I’d suggest imaging a more practical bent to some of preaching, as we help people think about the issues that concern them both as persons of faith and with their faith community.  In this case, it may be helpful to remind our people that, according to Paul, saying “no” is difficult, runs against our nature, and requires help. But saying “no” is also requisite to saying “yes.” You can’t, that is, say “yes” to being in relationship with one person without saying “no” to all others. You can’t say “yes” to one dream without saying “no” to some others. We will not, of course, solve any of these problems perfectly, but we will be better for trying and, even when we fail, we are invited back to the mercy and grace of the God who stands ready to love, forgive, and encourage us in this life and the next.

Thanks for your faithful ministry, Working Preacher, and blessings on your proclamation!

Yours in Christ,