By Maria Liu Wong
It is a gift to be able to say “no.” And it is a gift also to be able to say “yes.”
No matter who I talk to — whether women leaders in Christian theological education in Africa, Asia and North America, a collaborative mentoring group of female colleagues who are alumnae from my doctoral program at Columbia, or the local church women’s fellowship group I host and lead — the pressure, internal and external, to achieve holds our lives in sway. The world tells us it is normative to be known and valued by our actions and achievements.
A counter-narrative to this is expressed in the solace: Be still and know that I am God. Our identities do not come from what we do or what we have done, but who and whose we are. Yet as much as we may be able to say this aloud, to fully embrace this knowledge in our hearts, minds and bodies is another thing.
Recently I was at my father’s surprise 70th birthday party. I saw aunties and uncles I hadn’t seen in years, and they affirmed me for raising three kids while working full-time and going to school. In fact, part of my mother’s introduction included recognition that we were also celebrating my graduation (tomorrow!) with a doctorate from Columbia. My sister shared about the ways she had seen my father supporting my mother’s gifts and calling, how both were role models showing us we could live out our dreams. Yet while we were celebrating a lifetime of dreaming and achieving, I also thought about the cost of this drive to achieve on our health, spiritual life, and relationships with others.
The itch to say “yes” and please others is part of my cultural inheritance, as a Chinese American daughter of immigrant parents. But the need to say “no” has become a part of who I am as a child of God, one who loves her parents, but discerns that “yes” is not always best. In fact, being able to set boundaries enables the possibility for flourishing in other areas of life — something I came to discover in my doctoral research.
My defense was last December and graduation is tomorrow. In the five months in between, life in all its color and opportunity has come flooding back: all those things I couldn’t get to — those things I had to say “no” to in order to get done. New opportunities to publish, speak and collaborate on research have arisen. The itch to say “yes” lurks near. But I need to hold on to that truth, however simple and profound: Be still and know that I am God.
Caring for myself is also caring for others, and setting the priority to dwell in Christ as He dwells in me should make things clear. So when the invitations come, the first thing I remember is not – “do it!” Instead, I live into the wisdom of who and whose I am, a child of the Almighty who knows me better than myself, and celebrate the gift of saying “yes” when it is right.
Be still and know that I am God.
Maria Liu Wong serves as Dean of City Seminary of New York in Harlem, NYC. She also leads a women’s fellowship group and volunteers in the children’s ministry at Redeemer Presbyterian Church Downtown. She recently successfully defended her dissertation at Teachers College, Columbia University, and will graduate this spring. She lives in the Lower East Side with her husband and three energetic little New Yorkers, volunteers on the School Leadership Team at her younger son’s school, and enjoys creating ways to make time and space for students, faculty (and herself!) to learn from and with each other.