No is a Complete Sentence

So I’m doing this sermon series called “What’s Love Got to Do with It: Creating Functional Families and Communities of Peace.” We’re dealing with the command to “love our neighbor” and looking at some of the complexities of that (it sounds simple but it’s not, eh?) I have not yet donned a Tina Turner wig…

Anyway, here is this week’s offering:

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
September 19, 2010
What’s Love Got to Do with It: Sermon Series
Exodus 18:13-27

No is a Complete Sentence: Setting Healthy Boundaries

The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?’ 15Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.’ 17Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. 18You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.

19Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.’

24 So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people, as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. 26And they judged the people at all times; hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves. 27Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.

I love this story and I don’t understand why we don’t hear it more often. The situation is such a modern one. It would make a great addition to one of those “Jesus as CEO” management books, in a chapter called “The Importance of Delegating.” The story has such a genuine ring to it—these biblical heroes so often seem too good to be true—or too dastardly—but here we see just a little bit of Moses, the stressed-out middle manager. He doesn’t have it all figured out. He’s a bit of a workaholic. He doesn’t know how to say no. My pastoral care professors in seminary would say, he doesn’t have good boundaries. It feels like it could have been written last week… except that we don’t meet a lot of people named Jethro anymore. Which is a shame, because everybody needs a Jethro.

Jethro takes one look at Moses and sees all the signs of trouble. Maybe it’s the bags under his eyes. The brittleness in his voice as he snaps at others. The way he slumps his shoulders and can’t find enjoyment. Moses is overworked.

Jethro says, What are you doing? And Moses, perhaps a little defensively, says, I am doing God’s work. The people need me. This is important stuff.

Moses has fallen into what I’ve heard described as the Messiah Trap: a net that pulls people in because they believe these two lies: “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done,” and “Everyone’s needs take priority over mine.”[i]

And Jethro says No to that. In one of the most blunt statements in all of scripture, he says, “What you are doing is not good.” Remarkable. Moses is doing good! And yet something about it is not good.

Do you have a Jethro? Someone who can take a long loving look at your life and say, “What you are doing is not good”?

I have a few Jethros—people who help me not to be consumed by good work. But my most effective Jethro is one who is no longer with us. As most of you know, my father died suddenly many years ago. It was two days after accepting my first call to ministry, and two weeks before becoming a parent. Dad died of cardiac arrest. It was shocking, but if I’m completely honest, not truly surprising. He generally ate what he wanted. He didn’t really exercise regularly. He used to be a faithful blood donor until the Houston Blood Bank started putting the cholesterol count on the cards as an “added service”—he didn’t want to know. And he worked too much in a very stressful job.

There’s something powerful in the timing of his death, wedged as it was in between two of the most important events of my life, ordination and parenthood. So he’s my Jethro. At the end of the day, when I am faced with the decision of making just one more phone call, or walking on the treadmill, I think of him. Or when I have an article to write, and the kids want me to read them a story, I think of him.

Who is your Jethro?

* * *

I spoke last week about how we are created for harmony—we are created for community. So I’m not suggesting we remove ourselves from the needs of others. There are people who depend on us. But we can’t let ourselves be consumed. “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.” –Thomas Merton

We have to say No sometimes.

One of the ways we say no, one of the ways we set a healthy boundary around our time, is through the practice of Sabbath: taking time each week to rest from our labor, to let everything go for a little while to rest and to remember that the world will turn without all of our good works. Sabbath shows up two chapters later in Exodus, when Moses receives the Ten Commandments. I have to think that his conversation with Jethro helped him to receive more graciously the commandment to keep the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath day is a gift for the Jewish people even to this day, because it reminds them of the time when their ancestors (Moses’ generation) were slaves to Pharoah’s command—when they were forced to work, not five or six days a week, but every day of the week. There was no freedom, there was no relief, just constant expectations of doing more, producing more, building more. Thus the Jewish observance of Sabbath is not really about “time management.” It’s not even really about resting and recharging one’s batteries. It is an exclamation to the world:

We are not slaves to the empire any more! We are free!

We make that declaration as well when we observe Sabbath time, when we say No to overwork, when we set healthy boundaries for ourselves. To be able to choose not to be captive to constant work—that is freedom. Sabbath is huge for me and for our family. Our Sabbath time fluctuates each week, but it is one of the most important spiritual practice we do as a family.

But it’s not easy just to lay everything aside and simply Stop.

One of the things I try to do is reframe those loose ends that don’t get done. Rather than looking at an unfinished task and seeing something I’ve failed to do, I see instead what that unfinished task represents: namely, something else that’s important that I have done:

For example, when I look at our stack of unread newspapers, I think about the hospital visit I did this week. Or when I see the unanswered e-mail piling up, I think about the trip to Baskin- Robbins I took with the family instead. When I look at a mountain of unsorted and unfolded laundry the size of Everest, I see the delightful novel that I read with my feet up the night before!

…Because saying No to something allows us to say Yes to something else.

Moses gets this, I think—Jethro says, By letting go of some things now, you’ll be able to endure in your ministry much, much longer. Moses stops being a Lone Ranger for the sake of longevity. Notice also that Jethro urges Moses to delegate the little things. He’s still in charge of the big stuff. And this may be a good starting point for those of us who have a hard time saying No. Start with something small! (Yesterday at the International Children’s Festival, someone asked me to fill out a survey. I always do those things, but this time I said “Thank you, but No”! It was so small but felt sooo good…)

Now, up to now we’ve talked about setting boundaries around our time. But we also know that there are sometimes people in our lives who are toxic. I’m not talking about dropping people who are inconvenient or even difficult. I’m talking about destructive relationships that drain the joy and purpose from our lives.

It’s hard to know the faithful response to these situations. I heard an incredible story this week from a church member who had a terribly abrasive colleague. She faced a choice: do I ignore, do I fight back? She decided to smother her with kindness. It was a true “slap on the cheek, offer the other one” experience. And that approach with her colleague improved, and opened up some incredible opportunities for her career.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Many of us grew up with the “good girl/good boy” syndrome. We were taught to be nice. We don’t want to make waves or raise our voice. However, to quote a colleague and friend, “It will not shock you to learn that sometimes the response to constant sweetness and niceness and affirmation is not honey but, in fact, vinegar. Sometimes you must raise your voice to be heard. Sometimes you have to hold up your hand and interrupt and say ‘You may not speak to me that way.’ Sometimes you even have to say No. [But] nobody thanks you for setting boundaries, it turns out. They don’t gush, ‘Oh, that was so nice of you!’”[ii] And so it’s hard. And yet it is vital work, being firm and enforcing boundaries. Sometimes, it is precisely the work to which God is calling us.

Read with me, if you will, the poem on the front of your bulletin. It is a favorite of mine and many other folks; I know people who have practically made this their personal mission statement:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

–Mary Oliver, “The Journey”

I think there’s something in many of us that bristles at that. “But people are counting on me! I have to save them too!” Yes… and no.

I think the poet knows, as perhaps Jethro also knew, that the command to love our neighbor as ourselves only works… if we love ourselves! I don’t think it’s possible to truly love our neighbor effectively unless we love ourselves.

What’s more, I think loving ourselves is one of our ways of loving God. Not that we are God, but we honor the One who created us when we treat ourselves with reverence and care.

Maybe you’ve heard the mnemonic J.O.Y.—Jesus first, others second, yourself last. That’s the key to JOY, the saying goes, to put the needs of others first. I guess that works for some people, but I have seen that backfire in tragic ways, usually among women. I know a woman named R. who grew up with that message. I led a retreat one time on Sabbath and she argued with me—“I’m sorry, too many people are counting on me; I can’t afford to take time for myself.” Sadly, her health started to fail, but she refused to deal with it until it was too late. She passed away in her mid-50s. Now, there were many factors that led to her death. But I am convinced that the “others always come first” message played a role.

Love your neighbor… as yourself.
You will wear yourself out.
What you are doing is good… but you are doing too much, and therefore it is not good.

* * *

I’ve recently rediscovered what many know as the “serenity prayer.” It’s come back into my life in recent days, and I’ve realized that it’s really a prayer about setting healthy boundaries. Let it be our prayer today:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.


[i] When Helping You is Hurting Me: Escaping the Messiah Trap, by Carmen Renee Berry

[ii] Many thanks to “Juniper” for this excellent blog post: http://possiblewater.blogspot.com/2009/09/baby-with-teeth.html

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3 thoughts on “No is a Complete Sentence

  1. Dot says:

    This sermon was exactly what I needed to hear at this time in my life. I am going through some health issues which have caused me to step back and say “no” to several things which I’ve done in the past. It has made me feel sad and a little guilty because they are things that I did for others but also made me feel good about what I was doing with my life. I know saying “no” is the right thing to do and your sermon helped me accept this with a different perspective. Thank you!

  2. […] I preached not long ago: Rather than looking at an unfinished task and seeing something I’ve failed to do, I […]

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