Saturday, February 18, 2006


At the very end of James Joyce’s mammoth novel, Ulyssess, Molly Bloom surprises herself by falling in love. In the very last words of the last chapter of the novel Molly muses to herself about the sheer unlikeliness of it all: ‘and I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes … and I put my arms around him yes … and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes’.

Isn’t ‘Yes’ just about the most wonderful word in the English language?


Just think about all the times in your life that doors have opened for you when you have heard the word ‘yes’ from somebody, when your heart was in your mouth while you waited for the answer that might just change the rest of your life. The yeses and nos of other people are like the traffic lights of our lives that close off some directions, some dreams, and bring other dreams to life.

But the yesses and nos of life aren’t always consistent or clear. Remember the TV show, The Vicar of Dibley? And the old character on the Parish Council, old Jim who responds to every question with a well-considered ‘No – no, no, no, no. Yes’? – my Dad used to do something a bit like that, he never even realised it until someone asked him once, ‘why do you start off every question by saying ‘no’?’ I remember he had to think about it for a while, because what he thought he was saying was ‘You know?’ It had become so much a habit that it just came out as ‘No?’ When yesses and nos get mixed up, when we come across people who say yes when they really mean no, or whose yesses and nos seem random or inconsistent – that’s when relationships become difficult.

Child psychologists tell us that for children, security means being sure of what a parent’s yesses and nos are about – when I became a dad myself, I realised how much attention my twin boys paid to my yesses and nos when one day after a sustained bout of pestering I finally said ‘well, maybe’. And they fell silent for a bit. Then from the back seat of the car I heard Joseph whisper to Ben, ‘Maybe means yes’. I hadn’t actually realised that, but of course he was right. Children whose parents’ yesses and nos aren’t fixed and dependable start to lose their moorings. Sometimes – in fact fairly often – a parent’s firm but consistent and loving ‘no’ is what the child really needs to hear. Sometimes a parent’s ‘no’ means ‘yes’ to what really matters.

At the beginning of his second letter to the church in Corinth, a letter that seems to have been written at a time when relationships are strained almost to the breaking point – St Paul interrupts his somewhat defensive self-justifications by reflecting on the ‘Yes’ of God in Jesus Christ. St Paul’s not being naïve - he doesn’t think that God always says ‘yes’ – in fact, elsewhere in the letter he reflects on the ‘no’ we sometimes seem to get from God [1] - but here he says that God’s ‘yes’ is dependable and that Jesus shows us and acts out for us how God’s promises are a ‘Yes’ to life.

You see, there’s a pattern to God’s ‘yesses’, God’s ‘yesses’ are always consistent with what brings life. Have you ever noticed how a sunflower turns itself throughout the course of a day so that it always faces the sun? The need for light and the yearning for light is woven into the sunflower’s DNA. And in the same way, St Paul reflects that the ‘yes’ of God strikes a corresponding chord in us. God’s ‘yes’ he says, encounters at the deepest level of our selves, a corresponding ‘Amen’. Like the trembling delight of Molly Bloom when her ‘yes’ encounters the ‘yes’ of a lover, God’s ‘yes’ resonates and echoes within us whenever our lives take a turn towards what brings us light and life. God’s ‘yes’ is woven into our own DNA as the divine permission and divine intention for human joy.

Is it at all surprising to hear that in church? Is it at all surprising to hear that God intends you for joy, and that joyfulness is the very best indication that you are oriented towards God? Maybe so, because historically the church has not been very good at preaching the ‘yes’ of God. Too often we focus on the ‘thou shalt nots’, on the cost of being a disciple. At the cost of living lives defined by judgmentalism and narrow prejudice, we forget the exuberance, the life-affirming irrepressible ‘yes!’ of God that we see all around us in the goodness of God’s creation.

Our gospel reading today shows us just what St Paul means, Jesus saying ‘yes’. And I just want to pick up on just one point of this wonderful, jam-packed gospel reading. It’s about knocking down the barriers that get in the way of God’s ‘yes’. Metaphorically as well as literally and, the paralysed man can’t move. Luckily he has some lateral-thinking friends. Maybe here paralysis stands for more than physical disability, maybe it stands for everything that keeps us immobile. Sometimes it’s the self-paralysis of shame and guilt that prevents us from living freely and joyfully. And I think Jesus recognises that this man’s deepest need is spiritual, not physical, because he says, ‘your sins are forgiven’. And only after that, ‘get up, pick up your bed and walk’. Jesus never presumes, as most people of his time did, that physical illness is linked to sin – but he has a fine eye for what really has people pinned down. ‘Be free of what has you trapped’, is what he’s saying. ‘The whole reason I am here’, Jesus tells us, ‘is so that you might have life in all its fullness’. [2] That’s God’s ‘yes’, and because human beings are oriented towards God, because we are made in the image of God, God’s ‘yes’ finds an echo inside us.

The sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuit order, St Ignatius of Loyola, has got the same idea, and he teaches us how to listen for God’s ‘yes’. The spiritual method St Ignatius teaches is simplicity itself. ‘You want to know where God is, where God is leading you?, asks St Ignatius. Just notice what delights you. Be guided by your deepest joy. Don’t be fooled by this – as an ex-soldier, Ignatius imposed a military discipline on his priests – this apparently simple question is more tough-minded than it looks! Ignatius suggests to us that when the currents of our life are flowing in the direction that God is leading us, then the result is joy at the deepest level. Joy that persists and that is enough to sustain us even in the middle of the hard circumstances and the sad losses of our lives. God, who knows us through and through, the God who knows our failures and our lost potential and the smallness of our capacity to love, keeps saying ‘yes’ to who we are and what we might become. It’s a word that all too easily gets drowned out by broken dreams and negative self-talk. So you have to work on it. Reflect daily on what gives you life. Notice the pattern of when God’s ‘yes’ has encountered an answering ‘yes’ within you. Listen together for when our life as a community has resonated with God’s ‘yes’ for us. Learn from the times when it hasn’t.

Expect to be surprised by joy.

[1] For example 2 Cor 12.8 ‘Three times I appealed to the Lord about this …’

[2] John 10.10 ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’.