WorshipWeb: Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

Opportunities to Say Yes

By Nathan Ryan

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
—Howard Thurman

For forty days, I refused to say no.

Last year for Lent, I decided to say yes to any request. I had only two rules: the request must do no harm, and to keep the practice authentic, I couldn’t tell anyone about it until it was over.

When I came up with this Forty Days of Yes, which I thought of as a fast, I prepared myself for transformation. I imagined gathering sermon-worthy anecdotes that would melt hearts and change souls. I silently dared people to ask me for things that would lead me on great adventures, and confront my assumptions.

Ash Wednesday came and went without a single request. Then several more days passed without a chance to practice my fast, then weeks.

In fact, I made it all the way to Easter without really having to honor my fast.

When I wondered how I went forty days without anyone making a request of me, I dismissed the self-congratulatory explanations (like, maybe I live a life of yes so consistently that I rarely tell people no).

More likely, it’s my identities, both assigned and chosen, that are the culprit. I’m male and white: very few people ask me for things. Add “clergy” to the mix, and my guess is that people feel uncomfortable asking me for things.

On the rare occasion that someone does request something from me, I’m too often absorbed in my own privilege to even notice. Being a white man, for example, it’s easy to forget the power I carry with me. Because I’m able to ignore the potential risks that a person from a traditionally marginalized community takes by asking me for something, I’m certain I overlooked opportunities to say yes because they weren’t phrased as explicitly or directly as my cultural privilege demands.

I’m prone to think of my Lenten practice as a failure: I didn’t pick something rigorous enough to help me grapple with the realities of my own mortality and the temporary nature of all of existence. Then again, maybe transformation shouldn't be measured in forty-day increments. What I do know is that to this day, I’m much more likely to say yes when someone asks, and I’m slightly more aware of my privilege.

God that we know when we experience love and justice and compassion, bless your people. Help us to be more compassionate, more engaged, and more committed. Help us to know the world as it is, and to work for it as it could be.

About the Author

Nathan Ryan

Rev. Nathan Ryan was called in November 2020 as the Senior Minister of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge. A Louisiana native, Nathan makes a mean red beans & rice, and believes that good food goes a long way toward world peace.


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