|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
November 13, 2011
Roosevelt said, “One's philosophy is not best expressed in words;
it is expressed in the choices one makes.... In the long run, we shape our
lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And,
the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” 1
The idea that you have a choice about what shape your life will take – that you are not merely a powerless pawn moved about the board by the hands of destiny – is one of the unique contributions of the Judeo-Christian faith. When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan, they found it populated by people who believed that their lives were controlled by the whims of the gods. If one of those gods woke up in a bad mood that morning and you happened to cross his or her path, you were doomed and there was little you could do about it. Offering sacrifices to the gods might improve their tempers and lessen the likelihood that they’d start throwing lightening bolts around but the Canaanite gods didn’t really care for human beings on a personal level. They didn’t care about your moral worth, your humanitarian deeds, or how good a mother or father you were. If your life ended up peaceful and filled with joy, you were just lucky, that’s all.
The idea that there is a God who loves us and cares about what we do with our lives was unique, and the idea that the choices we make can affect the outcome of our lives was revolutionary. When Joshua confronted the Israelites and demanded that they make a choice between the God of Abraham and Moses and the gods of the Canaanites, he was in effect asking them to decide between two very different belief systems: did they believe that they had control over their destiny, that their choices had real consequences, and that there is a God who cares whether you love or hate, whether you heal others or hurt them; or did they believe that nothing you do matters because you are ultimately merely pawns in the hands of fate?
The Israelites insisted that they would choose God. They declared in effect, “We choose to believe that our actions have real consequences. We choose to believe that we have some control over who we become. We declare this day that we believe that every time we choose goodness over evil, healing over hurt, peace over war, mercy over vengeance, and love over hate, that those choices will blossom and flourish to shape our lives into a source of blessing for ourselves and for others. And we believe likewise that when we choose to do evil instead of good, when we choose to hurt someone with words of spite or anger instead of healing them with words of understanding, when we choose to make war against our enemies instead of seeking a path to peace, when we allow our wounds to simmer into vengeance instead of doing the hard work of learning to forgive, when we choose to hate our neighbor instead of loving our neighbor, that those choices diminish our lives and the lives of those we encounter.”
What do you believe? What do you choose?
Joshua stared the Israelites down and taunted them: “You say you believe that but you don’t really, do you? When you come to the end of your life and you are sitting all alone with no friends and nothing to show for all of the days you have spent on earth because you lived it selfishly and without regard for others, you are going to whine and sulk about how unfair life is. You are going to blame everyone else for how badly things turned out, especially God, and refuse to take responsibility for your own choices, aren’t you?”
In a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, six year old Calvin tells his friend Hobbes, "Nothing that happens is my fault! My family is dysfunctional and my parents won't empower me! Consequently, I'm not self-actualized! My behavior is addictive functioning in a disease process of toxic codependency! I need holistic healing and wellness before I'll accept any responsibility for my actions!"
Hobbes replies, "One of us needs to stick his head in a bucket of ice water,” but Calvin smiles smugly and says , "I love the culture of victimhood." 2
We supposedly live in an era of enlightenment in which we no longer believe in a pantheon of gods who play carelessly with our lives like toys subjecting us to the whims of fate. And yet at the same time, we are all too ready to see ourselves as victims of our past, of others’ behaviors, and of society. We are still all too ready to absolve ourselves of our responsibility for who we have become.
Joshua stared the people down and challenged them to take responsibility for their actions. He said, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve God,” and the people promised, “We are our own witnesses. We will blame no one else for the kind of people we become. We will not blame our neighbors, nor an unfair world, nor the failures of our parents, nor the whims of fate – we take responsibility for the choices we make and the kind of life we end up with and we pray that God will give us the strength to live the life God wants us to live so that we may become the people God wants us to be.”
What do you believe? What do you choose?
One author writes of a man he encountered who organized his entire life
around this choice: “Michael is the kind of guy you love to hate,”
the author writes. “He is always in a good mood and always has something
positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would
reply, ‘If I were any better, I would be twins!’
“He replied, ‘Each morning I wake up and say to myself, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or ... you can choose to be in a bad mood. I choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or...I can choose to learn from it. I choose to learn from it. Every time someone comes to me complaining, I can choose to accept their complaining or... I can point out the positive side of life. I choose the positive side of life.’
“’Yeah, right, it's not that easy,’ I protested.
“’Yes, it is,’ he said. ‘Life is all about choices. When you cut away all the junk, every situation is a choice. You choose how you react to situations. You choose how people affect your mood. You choose to be in a good mood or bad mood. The bottom line: It's your choice how you live your life.’” 3
Faith is the belief that God cares about the choices you make and because you believe, you will choose to live each day in love and joy, choosing life over death, blessing over curse.
But what if your problems aren’t that simple? In Wednesday book group, as we discussed the call to choose blessing, Heather Meacham asked, “But what about people who don’t really have choices? What about people who live in poverty or who are dying of cancer or people who will never be able to afford a good education for their children and are trapped in the lowest rungs of society?”
Heather’s question is a good one that reminds us of the danger of a gospel of self-responsibility. The fact is that while we all can choose whether to focus on the good or the bad in our lives, there are some people who just have a whole lot more bad than others and overcoming the limitations of their circumstances might require more than just a positive attitude. It would be patronizing for me to go up to a man in a soup kitchen and say, “Buck up, boy. Instead of focusing on the fact that you have no job, you are living on the streets, your teeth are decaying because you don’t have access to dental care, you only get one square meal a day, your boots have holes in them, and winter is coming, you should focus on the blessings of that bowl of soup in your hands. Choose to be in a good mood and your life will be better!”
When we move the gospel out of the realm of personal piety into issues of social justice, a gospel of self-responsibility becomes patronizing. And the Bible itself struggles with this dilemma. On the one hand, there is truth in the biblical claim that we are moral agents responsible for the consequences of our actions and therefore we should choose goodness and love if we want our lives to end in goodness and love. On the other hand, we see Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, and especially the book of Job struggling with the reality of sickness, poverty, and oppression, realities that limit people’s choices and leave blessing elusive for some regardless of their personal moral integrity. To tell a person who was abused as a child to “get over it and look on the bright side” is patronizing. To tell a person who is dying of cancer to count their blessings is cruel. Maybe we do live in a culture of victimhood where most of us need to be reminded to take responsibility for the choices we make, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still real victims out there who can be as good and as kind and as morally upright as possible and still end up cut down by circumstances beyond their control. What does the gospel have to say to them?
Let me go back to the story of Michael, the guy you love to hate. His story didn’t actually end where I ended it. I ended it where most people want it to end, with the reminder that if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. That’s not a bad prescription to a happier life.... unless you are trapped in a situation so desperate that no amount of lemonade on earth is going to help. But, as I said, the story didn’t really end there and it is in the end of Michael’s story that we see the move from Joshua and his gospel of self-responsibility toward Christ and the gospel that can save us all.
“Several years later,” the author continued, “I heard that Michael was involved in a serious accident. He fell 60 feet from a communications tower. After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, he was released from the hospital with rods placed in his back.
"I saw him about six months after the accident. When I asked him how he was, he replied, 'If I were any better, I'd be twins.'
"Amazed at his attitude, I asked him what had gone through his mind when the accident took place.
"'The first thing that went through my mind,' he said, 'was the well-being of my soon-to-be born daughter, but as I lay on the ground, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live or...I could choose to die. I chose to live, but when they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared. In their eyes, I read 'he's a dead man'. I knew I needed to take action.'
"'What did you do?' I asked.
"'Well, there was a big burly nurse shouting questions at me,' said Michael. 'She asked if I was allergic to anything.
"'Yes, I replied.'
"The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply. I took a deep breath and yelled, 'Gravity'.
"'Over their laughter, I told them, "I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead. '"4
Michael not only chose life for himself but he demanded that others give him that choice as well. He called upon the doctors and nurses to see him as a man with a future and in so doing open up possibilities for him.
Jesus proclaimed a gospel of life. He called us as Joshua did to moral responsibility but he pushed us a step further. He called us also to social responsibility. He called us to treat others as if they too are capable of love and life, as if they are worthy of our attention and care, and in so doing open up new ways before them.
Where others looked at Zaccheus and saw only a man doomed by his crime, Jesus saw a man open to change and treated him as someone worth Jesus’ time and love.
Where others looked at the adulterous woman as someone condemned to die for her sin, Jesus saw a woman who could be turned to new ways and offered her life giving water.
Where others looked at lepers and saw only men and women doomed to die of their disease, Jesus saw the hearts beating beneath the bandages and reached out a hand to heal them and restore them to their community.
Where others smelled only the stench of death in Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus saw the possibility of resurrection and lifted Lazarus to new life.
We condemn people to their poverty, to their crime, to their disease,
to their sin every time we look at them and see only unsalvageable categories
– the poor, criminals, the sick, and the morally corrupt –
instead of human beings with potential. Jesus worked to restore their
humanity to them, to give them a future and real choices, and calls us
to do the same.
Choose it in your homes, in the way you treat your children, your parents, your spouses, and even your crazy Aunt Sarah.
Choose it in your workplace, in the way you listen to your colleagues, return judgment with grace, and learn to forgive.
Choose it in your community, in the way you respect those who are different from you and look for ways of peace.
And choose life and love for every person you encounter, working always
to open new doors and bring more choices to those whom the world is too
quick to condemn or forget.
1. From the forward of You Learn by Living, by Eleanor Roosevelt, 1960
2. From "Calvin and Hobbes" by Bill Waterson
3. This story is on the Internet in several places but an author is never cited so I cannot verify if it is based on a factual episode or was written as a narrative. Even if it was not historically true, however, its point is true which is why I have chosen to use it.