Saying No

Sarah Richards
January 3, 2016

Saying No

Happy New Year! We have come, once again, to the season of taking stock, of wishing well, and for some, making resolutions. This seems to be a hotly contested issue on social media, people vehemently opposed to resolutions as harmful or meaningless—one Facebook card I saw said, “I can’t believe it’s been a year since I didn’t become a better person.” And there are others adamant about making a fresh start, seeing an opportunity to set positive intentions and attainable goals: “My New Year’s Resolution is to follow through with my New Year’s Resolutions.” Perhaps you are resistant to make New Year’s Resolutions, or perhaps you welcome the chance to focus on self improvement. No matter which camp we are in, New Year’s resolutions, and marking the New Year at all has to do with how we deal with the “Ceaseless Flow of Endless Time.” We seek to give it meaning, we seek to gain some measure of control.

“We’ll view the past with no regret, nor future with dismay,” we sang a minute ago. What a calming, Zen statement about the passage of time. No regrets, no dismay, just live in the present…simple but not easy, because it means we must let go of our resistance to the passage of time, let go of our resistance to time’s effect on our minds and bodies, let go of our resistance to changes we don’t want to recognize. As the Buddha said, “Change is never painful. Only resistance to change is painful.” Or for you Trekkies–to paraphrase the Borg, “Resistance to change is futile.”

So to turn it around, change can be seen as resistance to stasis; resistance to standing still. Author Jhumpa Lahiri writes about change of the self over time as metamorphosis.

“One could say that the mechanism of metamorphosis is the only element of life that never changes. The journey of every individual, every country, every historical epoch—of the entire universe and all it contains—is nothing but a series of changes, at times subtle, at times deep, without which we would stand still. The moments of transition, in which something changes, constitute the backbone of all of us. Whether they are a salvation or a loss, they are moments that we tend to remember. They give a structure to our existence. Almost all the rest is oblivion.[i]

The moments of transition, in which something changes, constitute the backbone of all of us. Whether they are a salvation or a loss, they are moments that we tend to remember….

Sometimes we can shape those moments of transition through decisions and actions that we take, and sometimes—maybe most times, they are out of our control. We spend a lot of energy resisting understanding of ourselves as shaped by those moments of transition, and I think this is why we hear a lot about the practice of “Saying Yes” – say yes to change, challenge, invitations, all the unknowns that present themselves in order to expand past your comfort zone, in order to grow. You may have heard or read Shonda Rhime’s bestseller, “Year of Yes”—but hers is only maybe the most recent, most famous take on what can be seen as a path to spiritual growth (and successful social life, career path, wealth). This is a variation on the power of positive thinking approach to life. Saying yes is about overcoming resistance and fear, and is very UU in its affirmation. “Just as long as I have breath, I must answer “Yes” to life,”—sound familiar? It’s the first line of a favorite UU hymn that ends, “If they ask what I did best, tell them I said, “Yes,” to love.” Pretty great.

But we are not singing that wonderful hymn this morning; this sermon is titled, “Saying No”, not saying Yes. And that is because, when we ask ourselves, “What Does it mean to be a people of resistance?” we know the answer isn’t all negative and fearful. Saying no can be just as important as saying yes in making change—whether we’re talking personal, social, or global metamorphosis.

In his book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann invites us to resist the cultural lure of busyness, multitasking and consumerism that breeds anxiety and spiritual emptiness. He writes,

[Some people] keep Sabbath, all the while scheming for commodities. This is an epitome of ‘multitasking.’ In my horizon, the most unwelcome form of multitasking is with the cell phone — on the phone while at dinner with a guest or while driving. But a much more poisonous form of multitasking is taking notes during a church service . . . not notes on the sermon but a grocery list or calls to return or deals to make. Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness. Such practice yields a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.

Jesus offers an ominous characterization of ‘multitasking’ …:’No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Mt 6:24)’

To serve God and wealth at the same time is impossible. It is like keeping Sabbath and at the same time planning for commerce. It is like making deep love but all the while watching the clock. It is like praising Jesus while preying on the poor. Such multitasking with a divided heart means that there is no real work stoppage, no interruption in the frantic attempt to get ahead. Doing tasks of acquisitiveness while trying to communicate humanly is the true mark of the ‘turn to commodity.’ We all become commodities to one another, to be bought and sold and traded and cheated.[ii]

Here are some of Brueggemann’s “instructions” or qualities honored during the Sabbath:

  • You do not have to do more.
  • You do not have to sell more.
  • You do not have to control more.
  • You do not have to know more.
  • You do not have to be younger or more beautiful.

What would it—or does it–feel like to say no in this context, to create and maintain Sabbath time?

We don’t have a hymn that tells us to say no exactly, but resistance to a status quo of inequity and injustice is part of our liberal religious identity. One great example of this push and pull of resistance to cultural norm is found in Debby Irving’s book, Waking Up White, our CUF Common read. (Our discussion of the first part of the book is this Wednesday.)

In this excerpt Irving describes her feelings after learning about racial injustice in American history, and in her own family story. She writes:

Waking up felt like stepping out of a dream, a fantasy world I’d been living in since birth…Leaving behind the bubble of white ideology and stepping into a new shockwave-laced reality came with a strange mix of alarm and wonder. I couldn’t shake the feeling there must be more I didn’t know. What other errors and omissions might I stumble on?

Every fiber of my being had once believed that the rule makers and system operators in America were good people, leaders who looked out for everyone, who would never make selfish decisions. Wasn’t that why people like Richard Nixon stood out? Wasn’t his selfish greed an aberration? People were good. My family was good. I was good, right? …..Learning about how racism works didn’t challenge me just because it was new information. It was completely contradictory information, a 180-degree paradigm reversal, flying in the face of everything I’d been taught as a child and had believed up to this moment. America’s use of racial categories seemed fraught with unfairness, cruelty, and dishonesty. Yet my parents’, grandparents’, and entire extended family’s life philosophy, as I understood it, had revolved around fairness, compassion, and honor….For years, as I contemplated the plight of those “less fortunate,” of all colors, I had pangs of guilt. As I became older and increasingly aware that others had so little, it felt less comfortable to have so much. Learning the ways in which racial categories had been used to elevate the status of whites in relation to all other humans, however, mitigated my sense of passive guilt. Guilt got crushed by culpability. Seeing myself in a system with people as opposed to a sympathetic observer on the sidelines changed my relationship to the problem. I understood then that it was possible to be both a good person and complicit in a corrupt system.[iii]

For Debby Irving, resistance takes the form of questioning the previously unexamined aspects of her life and culture—resistance as curiosity. Irving may not be UU, but she describes a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, (our fourth principle), in pursuit of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations (our second principle).

What would it—or does it—feel like to resist the cultural messages of White Superiority in your life?

Friends, as we welcome 2016, may we let go of our resistance to the passage of time, but sharpen our resistance to inhumanity and injustice. May we recognize all the “yeses” and “nos” that shape our moments of transition, those moments in which something changes, which constitute the backbone of all of us.



[i] Lahiri, Jhumpa. “Teach Yourself Italian”, Ann Goldstein, trans., The New Yorker, 12/7/15, p. 36.

[ii] Brueggeman, Walter. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Accessed 1/1/16

[iii] Irving, Debby. Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. Cambridge, MA: Elephant Room Press, 2014, pp. 95-9.