Saying No: The Essential Gesture of Stewardship

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It’s Advent! That means that Christmas is just around the corner! And that means that it’s time for another post from me in which I try to figure out how I’m going to avoid getting completely overwhelmed this time around.

As I’ve mentioned before, this is one of my favorite times of the year, but it’s also the liturgical season that I find it most difficult to observe. It’s hard to prayerfully, calmly prepare for the birth of the Lord when there are Christmas parties to attend, presents to buy, gingerbread houses to make, lights to string around the house, and a whole host of other seasonal activities that could easily keep me twice as busy as I normally am.

As I work to keep my priorities in the right place, I keep thinking of a talk I once heard by a professor named Steven Tomlinson on the subject of balance. He gave an excellent mini-seminar about how to how to keep your to-do list from crowding out the things that are really important in life; and of all the great points he made, one line jumped out at me the most, and has stuck with me ever since:

To say no is to protect what you’ve already said yes to.

He referred to the act of saying no to new commitments as “the essential gesture of stewardship”—i.e., if you’re going to be a good steward of the responsibilities you’ve already been given, you must learn to set limits on how many other responsibilities you can realistically take on. You must learn to say no.

I thought this was a refreshing way to look at it. I used to think of turning down requests to get involved in some new activity as a bad thing; I’d always have the lingering sense that if I were a good friend / mother / daughter / parishioner, I would always say yes to whatever was asked of me. When I turned down potential projects or activities, it felt like I was doing something wrong. But thinking of it in light of my existing responsibilities changed my perspective: When I say no to hosting a neighborhood cookie exchange at my house, I’m really saying yes to the commitment I made to have our family spend more quiet time together this season. When I say no to writing an article about praying more during Advent, I’m saying yes to my goal of actually praying more during Advent. And so on.

So the questions I’m asking myself right now, this first week of Advent, are:

“What are the essential things that I should be saying yes to this season?” And, therefore, “To what do I need to start saying no?”