Learning to say no

At least once each year, I will reach a state of mental exhaustion, where I am running largely on fumes and stubbornness. I last felt that way in mid-October. I was serving as a staff member at a men’s conference in Kentucky and I had nothing left to give. I was grateful for the leadership; a few of them checked in with me, encouraging me to make sure to care for myself.

Admittedly, these times are largely the result of my own choices. In October, I chose to go to Kentucky two weeks after returning from Nashville, with intermingled ministry work in between. I choose busyness, increasingly aware of its toll. I love my day job. I work as a clinical neuropsychologist, so I spend my days helping people unravel why they think, feel, and act the way they do. I help them to understand their brains so that these things begin to make sense. But I am also a pastor, what some call a “bi-vocational” or “tentmaking” pastor. I felt called to this work before I had ever even heard the term “neuropsychology.” I serve my church with joy. Though working with the embodied brain is a remarkably unique and fulfilling career, it cannot hold a candle to helping people to know Jesus better. I am privileged to preach frequently, every few weeks on average. I just finished four weeks in the pulpit, first teaching on “daily rhythms” and then preaching one of my favorite series ever (truth-goodness-beauty). But just as neuropsychology involves a lot of “behind the scenes” work, so too does pastoring. There is preaching, of course, but also sermon preparation, spiritual direction, meetings, and prayer for the congregation.

I was reflecting with my wife this morning that each of the last four days, I have been out of the house by 6:00AM or shortly thereafter, and I am typically home by 5:00. I do not envy my medical colleagues who must do evening and weekend call. However, this time of the year, evenings are often occupied as well–high school group, life group, leadership training, and Friday church when we decide to go. Certain weeks, it’s hard to catch my breath.

Having said all that, I am increasingly recognizing how elements of my personality contribute to these patterns. I am a 2 on the enneagram, which suggests that I like to help. At its best I can be encouraging, giving, and other-centered in a way that is not self-damaging. However, I can also have a hard time saying no to people. I thrive on needing to be needed. I am a people-pleaser. When attending to the needs of others without caring for one’s own needs, a host of difficulties may arise from bitterness to physical illness. I am also sensitive to the potential effect upon family, the people lest likely to express their desire for time with me.

As I continue to learn about myself, I recognize that one of the most important spiritual disciplines I could practice would be learning to say “no,” to recognize that I do not have to be…even cannot be…all things to all people. Time is finite. If I fail to set limits if I do not prioritize my commitments, if I do not learn to say no, I fear the damage will not be limited to me alone.

Why do I share this? Perhaps in hopes that you will pray for me. Perhaps in offering me grace when I say to no to you. Perhaps it is simply an acknowledgement, to myself principally, that I too am finite.

A Thanksgiving Prayer

Heavenly Father,

We thank you today for your relentlessness.

As often as we wander from your presence

you lovingly bring us back.

When indwelling sin rears its ugly head,

your steadfast love never fails.

Let us live with confidence and gratitude,

thankfully remembering that your son Jesus

once and for all crushed death to death,

and with hope that one day

all remaining remnants of sin

shall one day disappear.

Let us live today

and everyday

with a thankful awareness

of your presence in all things:

the gathering of your saints,

a conversation with good friends,

the enjoyment of a good meal,

whether a sumptuous feast

or simple piece of bread.

Let us remember that all creation

attests to your glory,

raising hands and hearts

in grateful praise every moment

of every day.

To you be all glory and honor and praise.


Go gently today, don’t hurry

or think about the next thing. Walk

with the quiet trees. Can you believe

how brave they are—how kind? 

Model your life after theirs. 

—Julia Fehrenbacher

I must turn away from books, put past and future behind, to come into the presence of this time. -Wendell Berry 

In difficult times you should always carry something beautiful in your mind.-Pascal

The Old Coat

A man was walking alone down a dusty path.  He lived hard and it showed.  Each line in his face made up a tapestry revealing a lifetime of difficulty.  Earlier in this journey, there was a bounce in his step, but no more.  Now, with each step, his knees ached and his joints creaked.  He could scarcely remember those days when things seemed so easy.

The old coat he wore showed the wear and tear that he felt in his body.  Frayed at the cuffs. Patched at the elbows.  The grime from the road was set in deep.  He used to try washing it, but now it was useless.  The filth permeated every thread and there was no hope for the return of its vibrant colors.  The dirt was a part of the coat in a way that it seemed as though it always had been.  Indeed, much like his body, he could not remember what it was supposed to look like.

In the distance, he saw a stranger approaching him.  He hated these encounters.  It was so much easier to be alone with his own thoughts.  No doubt this man would look upon him with disgust.  Weary old men were rarely looked upon with honor, especially when they had lived hard like he did.  And why should he be honored?  He was unworthy of it.  He made up his mind to draw his coat tight around him, keep his eyes averted and prayed that this approaching stranger would just pass him by.

Though he did not look up, he could sense the man drawing nearer.  Something seemed different.  He longed to look up at the man, but he could not bear the inevitable shame.  He heard the man slow and then his feet stopped.  What could he want?

“Greetings.”  The man wondered, did he just say something to me?  Was there someone with him that I missed?  Again…“Hello.”

The old man ventured a glance.  Unlike him, the stranger was clothed in white. The man wondered why someone would wear white on this dusty trail, yet this man’s clothes seemed impervious to the dirt.  How could that be?  He longed to ask him, but he feared the conversation that would inevitably turn to his own dirty apparel.   Moving on would be best, so he stepped forward.

The stranger reached out and put a hand on his arm, “may we talk?”

The old man hesitated.  He sighed deeply, debating–“What do you want?”

“I was watching you approach from a long way off.  You look like you have been walking a long time.”

“I have.”

“You seem weary and worn out.” 

“I am.”

“Your jacket has seen better days.  Is it able to keep you warm?”

“Listen, it’s the only jacket I have.  I’ve tried repairing it. I’ve tried cleaning it.  I even tried making a new one.  I know it is threadbare and filthy and compared with your beautiful coat it is disgusting.  But, this is the one I am stuck with, so please just let me be.”  He began to move on again, this time with greater urgency.

The stranger called to him again, “I would like to offer you my coat.” 

He must not have heard him right.  “What did you say?”

The stranger said again, “I would like for you to have my coat.”

The weary old man dismissed him, “Your coat is beautiful, but I have no money.  I have never been a wealthy man and I suspect your coat would cost more than I could ever hope to earn. Thanks anyway.”

The stranger replied, “There is no cost. I am offering to give you my coat.” 

“But what would you wear?”

“I will wear your coat instead.”

“Sir, have you seen my coat? It is dreadful.”

“I have seen your coat, but I have come to give you mine in exchange for yours.  The dirty for the clean.  The old for the new.” 

“But why?”

“Friend, I have been watching you for a long time.  I have seen you try to fix this old thing yourself.  I have watched you try to make a new one.  With each passing day, I have watched your discouragement grow. For many years, I have wanted to give you my coat, but you were not ready until today.”

“I said I don’t have any money.  What can I offer you in return?”

“Brother, it is a gift to you.  You cannot buy it from me.”

Hesitantly…“Are you sure?”

“I have always been sure of it.” 

Slowly, the old man took off his coat while the stranger did the same.  They exchanged their garments.  The old man, filled with gratitude, put on the white coat.  He saw his old coat on the stranger and, more than ever, he was aware of how filthy it really was, which made him all the more thankful for this gift.

As they parted ways, the old man began walking again, newly confident in what lay ahead.  His new friend, the one who now wore his old coat, took a different path up a hill topped with three trees.

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