In 2010 our church was coming to its fullness in number and effectiveness. This speech reflects how we were forming a sense of “alternativity.” Serious people.
A little late in the game, I imagined someone asking me what this week’s final FAQ was. When I told them it was, “Is choice a spiritual problem?” They said, “Oh wow, you are going to tackle abortion this week! Interesting. But I don’t think I will invite my mother.” It did not even dawn on me that people might think I was talking about a woman’s right to choose, or about the opposite argument that is often voiced on the bumper sticker as, “It’s a child, not a choice” – choosing for the choiceless.
Drowning in choices
But it should have dawned on me, because the preoccupation with choice, to the point where it could be boiled down to a slogan about someone’s right to choose, is just the spiritual issue I want to talk about. Maybe I am on a subject that is just too abstract to be understood. But I am focusing on the general opportunity or even the obligation in our society to choose.
We have a lot of choices to make and every one seems to include more options all the time: Make a phone deal. Buy a car. Shop in the King of Prussia megamall. Endlessly swipe for a mate. Be entertained by something on a screen. Or visit my favorite example of the proliferation of choices: the cereal aisle. I was at Pathmark yesterday. To get some cereal, one must sift through an amazing array of choices, most of which are some variation of corn.
In the movie the Hurt Locker (2008), we see Sergeant First Class, William James, come back from his tour of duty in Iraq. First we saw him go through the amazing, traumatizing craziness he endured as the number one cowboy on the bomb-defusing squad. He has total PTSD and he’s trying to cope with normality back home. His wife Connie asks him “Do you wanna get some cereal and I’ll meet you at the checkout stand?” Her patient smile tells us that she is challenged by having to live with this guy who has become an alien from having all his choices be life and death ones. There he is in the aisle facing a new kind of enemy that he can’t defuse – too many choices. He has a little minor explosion before he gets out of the aisle, as you will see.
What I want to say is that the choice presented and demanded by the cereal aisle is no friend to the Jesus-follower. The choices in themselves are not necessarily bad or good – that is not really the spiritual problem. It is the implication that we need to choose all the time and that choice, in itself, is a great good. Even worse, it is the implication that we have a right to choose, because what we choose is what makes meaning.
We will see if I get all the way to what I want to say.
But choice is basic, isn’t it?
It is a little ironic for me to be complaining about choice as a Christian, because it is basic to our story that once we had no choice and now we do.
Here is a version of our common story: We were imprisoned in sin and death. There was no way out. We were dead in our sins. We were groping around in that dim-light-before-night-falls-completely thinking it was the only light there was. But the light of the world came to us and freed us. We had no choice but to sin and die. Now we have a choice to live.
John and Charles Wesley used to take that story out of its confinement in big fat Anglican churches in the 1700’s and go tell it to coal miners who were in slavery to the man, who were doing an incredibly dangerous job. They lived near death, poor, illiterate, basically slaves, choiceless. The Wesley’s high-class friends were scandalized by their mission. Charles put their message into music. One of my favorites songs of his fits here, you might help me sing it.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? — Psalms and Hymns, 1738.
The coal miners would stand in the fields after work and listen to the story of Jesus and tears ran down their cheeks and left streaks in the coal dust. They were not doomed after all. They were free. They could choose to follow Jesus; their chains were off. It was revolutionary. A lot of the human rights and freedoms Western democracies have built into their laws are influenced by faith in Jesus undermining the domination system. [Here is the hymn extracted from its original context).
But this freedom to choose has become a problem because people took out God and grabbed for the freedom without him. It is a little bit like when Aubrey left Brendan with baby Nat the other day for thirty seconds and suddenly Brendan had freedom to parent the baby the way he wanted without mom’s guidance or participation. By the time she got back, Nat had sippy cup water all over his head and Brendan was blowing it around his face with a flute of some sort.
Freedom boiled down to choosing
Once this intoxicating sense of freedom and human worth got built into the laws without any regard for God, Christians responded by fighting for the choices people were allowed to make. American Protestants, in particular, made an aggressive sales pitch for Jesus and demanded that people stand up in public and make their choice known.
My favorite example of this adaptation is probably Billy Sunday. Here he is making front page news in 1915. I like Billy Sunday because he had been a professional baseball player (he even played for Philadelphia) before he came into the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, heard about Jesus in a way he could understand and not only surrendered his will to the Lord but became one of the most famous speakers in the country from 1893 to 1935. He was not sophisticated—he was famous for his theatrics: jumping, shouting, posing, and hitting the pulpit. He also took an aggressive stand against the evils of his day – especially booze. Here’s a famous quote: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile, but public, definite enlistment for Christ makes you a Christian.”
He boiled becoming a Christian down to making a choice. And you could express that choice by simply walking down the aisle to shake his hand. Up to our day, most people seem to think that being a Christian is all about one’s personal choice — like choosing your favorite cereal among the brands of religions. If you are more advanced, it is choosing bits and pieces of religious-like thinking and concocting one’s own personal collection of choices into a playlist on your spiritual ipod. In the end, the Christian becomes no different than the world at large, who think that having a choice and making a choice is not only a right, it is how one makes a life for themselves. People think we are the sum of our choices. It is a spiritual problem.
I am trying to set up my simple discussion by highlighting the problem we need to solve or processes we need to face. The choices in themselves are not necessarily bad or good – that is not really the problem.
- What we need to consider is the implication that you need to choose all the time and that choice, in itself, is a great good — that is the spiritual problem.
- Even harder, we need to consider the implication that you have a right to choose, a psychological obligation to choose well, because what you choose is what makes meaning — I think that is a huge spiritual issue.
Jesus has many important things to say about this spiritual issue. I want to give you two. Let’s see if I can bring it down to two sound bites.
Being chosen is more important than choosing well
The main spiritual issue we have today is not ‘choosing well,” it is surrendering to being chosen.
You did not choose me, but I chose you — John 15:16
Jesus frees us for this surrender. Before Jesus presents us with the gift of being chosen, we are basically stuck in whatever choices we make. As we see recorded in John, Jesus was about to leave his disciples, and before they got the wrong idea, he wanted to make sure they knew who they were – chosen by him to be his disciples and to bear the fruit of a life in his Spirit. Each of us has been called by Jesus. The story of Jesus calls us into our destiny. We are chosen people.
The other day I shared a psalm I wrote with Gwen and she laughed at the line that said, “I still feel like a fat girl asked to dance.” She could not imagine me relating to that. But I have had many girlfriends who thought they were fat even when they weren’t, and really suffered at the hands of men when they were. I can relate. God help me, I am still shocked when Jesus comes across the dance floor of the universe and chooses me, fat, ugly me waiting over here to be considered valuable. Before I take his hand, I am imprisoned in whatever I can choose to do to make myself safe and not go crazy from feeling alone and unwanted. I’m helpless, really.
One of the main spiritual issues of our choice-ridden day is to stop choosing and be chosen. You do not have to choose. You don’t need cereal or anything else they say you’ve got to decide about, you’ve been chosen.
Not being choosy is more important than choosing well.
Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? — 1 Corinthians 4:6-7
Paul was talking to people who were well-acquainted with life in the Spirit. But they still got tripped up when their teachers seemed to be competing and they seemed to be asked to choose. They began to choose which camp they belonged to, like we might, as well: “I’m of Rod or I’m of Joshua or I’m of Nate” or “I’m too holy to bother with your petty distinctions – I’m of Jesus.” Paul is trying to ramp down this natural choosiness. He said, “You are acting like you can choose a better life for yourself than what someone else gets from God. Why are you acting like you got something more than anyone else when Jesus chose you?”
It is so tempting. We have become so automatically choosy and we think it really matters whether we have a Droid or an IPhone, a bike or a car, a mate or not, cool Bellagio glasses or contacts, urban life or country life, on and on. We are always on the edge of a slippery slope to thinking we are making ourselves by what we choose. The Jeep commercial before the new George Clooney movie (not good) celebrated the recovery of the American car industry by saying that what we make makes us. We think things like that: what we do makes us, what we choose makes us. Not so.
The discipline of not choosing
A main spiritual discipline of each day is to sit down and be chosen and work at not choosing for a while. Work at opening up space in our hearts to receive. Gain some receptivity. Do some nothing so God can give you life. Stop thinking that if you choose the right path, choose the right book, choose the right church, choose the right day to come to the right church with your right mate it will all be OK, as if you could choose from the good things God has to give and make it all good, or worse, just give up on that and say, “Its all good.”
This is not the only way you can do that, but why not spend this next week having no other choices for your daily time with God than just the two portions of scripture I have given you tonight. Starve your lust for more, craving for new, anticipating of what’s available next. Just stay with God until you have what you can receive from what you’ve been given already. Someone took me up on a challenge like that a week or so ago and it was quite revolutionary for them.
In closing, I beg you not to get me wrong, I am not saying our choices don’t make any difference so just do “whatever.” I am ultimately saying exactly the opposite. Now that I have been chosen and I have given up making the world be all about my choosing, what I choose really makes a difference. My true-self expression just keeps getting better. When I come to you, I am a lot more like Jesus who came to me knowing he was chosen. I am more like Jesus who obviously was not too choosy when he decided to love me and serve me, even serving to death.
When I have received my place with Jesus, I stick out among the people of the world because what I choose comes from somewhere more than just the right to choose. I am not on an endless treadmill of my endless choices. I actually come from somewhere and get somewhere, my choices make an eternal difference. I don’t fear them; I look forward to them, no matter how hard they are. Some of us might feel scared about being that important, but that is how God sees us. He is endlessly interested in how we are going to turn out, because what we do in relation to him makes all the difference in eternity.
Let’s have some dialogue about all this and see if I got close to where you thought I should go.