The Second Most Important Word In The English Language
"The word is very near to you; it is in your heart for you to observe." Deuteronomy 30:14
In my first church there was a man whom I shall call Norm, who was a recovering alcoholic. In the years of addiction he had lost his family, his home, and his job. He finally hit bottom and reached out for help. Help he got—new friends, a new apartment, a new church, and a new life of sobriety.
It wasn't easy. Then, just after his first anniversary, he died of a heart attack. To many of his friends who had put so much help and energy into his new life, it didn't seem fair. They felt wounded and cheated by his death.
As I thought about Norm in preparing a eulogy for his memorial service, I realized I wasn't sad about Norm's fate. I missed him, but I didn't feel that his death was tragic. I remembered a conversation I'd had with him shortly before his death.
Norm had been saying to me how much the church meant to him. It wasn't that they had caused him to turn the corner, it was just that people in the church had let him know they cared about him. While he was in a clinic, later looking for a job, an apartment, people from the church kept bringing him flowers, stopping by from time to time with a gift of special coffee, sending him apartment ads from bulletin boards at work, inviting him home to dinner every now and then.
At first, he said, he found these acts secretly made him feel guilty and angry. Somehow these generous acts complicated his effort to say "no" to alcohol.
But one day, Norm told me, it occurred to him that the very problem was the word "no." Throughout his life and struggle he had been trying to say "no" to his addiction, but he had had no corresponding "yes" to give his "no" power and meaning.
"My yes'" he said, "began the day I accepted the gifts from the people of the church. They were telling me they accepted me. They were just saying `yes' to me. When I said `yes' to them, I began to feel like I could say `yes' to God, too. And God showed me the power to say `no.' It was there all the time, right behind the `yes.'"
So I said to the congregation at Norm's memorial service that though we all missed him, he had left us a legacy to live by. Norm's gift to me and to them was that the second most important word in the English language is "no." And the most important word is "yes."
Peter E. Heinrichs Springfield, Massachusetts