“______ if You Do, _______ if You Don’t”
February 13, 2011
One of my favorite “Far Side” cartoons shows a man facing two doors. The devil—and we all know what the devil looks like, especially in those cartoons: pitchfork, horns, tail and all—the devil stands to one side. Flames are all around.
One door reads: "Damned if you do."
The other door, of course, reads: "Damned if you don't."
And the devil—as usual—pushes for a decision, saying: “Well, which one is it going to be?”
A lot of people feel that way about many decisions in their lives. There's an uneasy sense that no matter what is chosen, it's going to be a mistake, perhaps a very hellish one.
Last year’s elections are a distant memory and the 2012 campaign is already gearing up. In spite of the very real differences in candidates, how often do people regard voting as choosing the lesser of two evils?
You meet with the doctor to discuss treatment for an illness. Surgery has its risks, as does a medical approach. And there are also risks in doing nothing at all.
Maybe you remember the old song that asked, "Should I stay or should I go?" adding, "If I stay there will be trouble, if I go it will be double."
Probably everyone remembers agonizing over a course of action, fretting over making a commitment—or breaking a commitment. Maybe you've come here this morning feeling torn in two or three directions, knowing you must decide, you must make a choice—and dreading it.
A friend once told me—he was young and in his twenties at the time: “When I start thinking about the future, start planning—it seems like for every door you walk through, five or six other doors slam shut.”
Maybe so. Our actions and our inaction—all our choices have consequences.
Do you think about decisions and hear doors slamming?
We all have to make some devilish decisions at times. The good news is that by the choices we make, we can learn more about ourselves and about God.
As human beings we have a sometimes scary and yet always exhilarating freedom. We are not pieces moved about on a chessboard. We are men and women who make choices.
In faith we affirm that we are created in God’s image. I love that phrase because it is both open and undefined. Among all sorts of other things, being created in the image of God means, I think, that we have our own ability to create—our own freedom to make choices—as does God. As finite human beings, we are limited. But as free human beings we are not the victims of blind fate or circumstance. We are free to shape our lives by our choices.
We have countless options for acting and must select between them.
Yes, you can decide not to decide.
You can choose to have no choice.
But our decisions do define who we are. Our choices give shape to life.
Look at your checkbook. You’ll see how your decisions about where you spend your money both reflect who you are and influence who you are becoming.
Look at your calendar. Your choices about how you spend your time speak about your values, about what is important to you.
Where you live, where you work, say volumes about the person that you are.
And yet, while choices define us, bring us into focus—it may be that some of our decisions are less limiting than people often think.
Rather than thinking of choices as doors that open and close—usually permanently—perhaps choices can be pictured as bricks used for building. One decision is put down, allowing others to be added on top or put along side. Corners can be turned, new directions can be taken. Doorways that weren’t there before can be built. New windows can be created.
A lifetime of brick upon brick and we build the house that is our life. And there’s good news here: how it looks is up to us.
The Book of Deuteronomy is presented as the farewell address of Moses before he dies and the people he has led for forty years enter the Promised Land without him. In a lengthy sermon—it fills twenty-six chapters, so consider yourselves fortunate today—Moses reminds the people about their past: slavery in Egypt, the Passover and the Exodus through the Red Sea, receiving the Torah, the “way” of God, and four decades in of wandering in the desert.
The people listened as Moses laid out what it meant for them to love God with their heart, mind, and soul. Such a life would include “canceling the debts of the poor, pushing the government to guard against excessive wealth, limiting punishment to protect human dignity, restricting those who can be drafted, offering hospitality to runaway slaves, paying employees fairly, and leaving part of the harvest for those who need it.” As one person put it: “When Moses looked back, he saw that life was best for the Israelites when they were trying to please God.”[i]
As Moses nears the end of his sermon and the end of his life, with all this in mind, he gives the people a choice: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may life, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God, for that means life to you and length of days.”
Choosing life and blessing is the foundation on which all other bricks will be placed. The choice is given to each of us—and it always comes with the immediacy of today.
When I was in divinity school I occasionally came across a graduate student named John Barnwell. He was working on his Ph.D. in chemistry. I didn’t know until several years later that he suffered from neurofibromatosis, a serious, progressive, disorder of the central nervous system, that is generally fatal, and proved to be so in Barnwell’s case.
Shortly after receiving his doctorate, it became clear to him that teaching was taking a physical toll on his body. Ready to resign from his job during his first semester of teaching, he reconsidered and wrote in his journal:
“There is another option available to me. I can choose to ignore my physical illness and continue teaching. This path has far greater risks. I have a strong feeling that my life will necessarily be filled with physical anguish. No matter what I try to do, what activity I attempt to pursue, I will always find this pursuit puts my physical health at risk. I will often be able to choose a physically more secure, less hazardous path. And so I feel that I have chosen life over death, continued mental activity over greater physical security. Being alive,” he concludes, “Being alive means taking chances."
We can choose.
We can choose life.
We can choose blessings.
This is to say that we can love God with all our being; we can give to the poor; we can continue the struggle for justice; we can care for the hurting; we can feed the hungry.
The list, of course, goes on. One person reflecting on Moses’ call to choose life suggests that such a choice involves a myriad of sacred possibilities: Enjoy simple things. Laugh often, long, and loud. Cry when it is time to cry. Be patient with your own imperfections and the imperfections of others. Surround yourself with what you love—whether it is family, friends, pets, music, nature, or silence. Quit doing what is not worth your time. Do something so someone else will not have to. Stop arguing. Apologize to someone, even if it is mostly his fault. Forgive someone, even if she doesn’t deserve it. Have patience. Stop having patience when it is time to tell the truth. Figure out what you hope for and live with that hope. Live in the joy beneath it all. Let God make your life wonderful.[ii]
You get the sense.
Yes, all of our choices will be flawed. None of our decisions will be perfect. There will be uncounted costs, unconsidered consequences.
That's good news, really, because it means we can expect wrong choices rather than be surprised by them. And there’s no need to cover up our mistaken decisions. They are a part of life.
If you've ever bought a home, you probably know about buyer’s remorse. It’s the feeling that wakes you up in the middle of the night after the closing asking: “What have I done?”
Major decisions are opportunities for major mistakes.
And at times there is the haunting feeling that, not only was the decision wrong, it was sinful. Still God does not take away our freedom but is ever present to forgive.
The Far Side had it wrong.
In the Bible we are shown an even stranger world than that cartoon one in which the devil always appears to be wearing a Halloween costume. We find the world in which the grace of God is offered at all times.
In the realm of God, the doors read:
Grace if you do.
Grace if you don't.
No matter what our choices, we will stand in need of God's lavish forgiveness. And no matter what—hear it again—no matter what, God will forgive.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not our good and noble choices, not our flawed and failed decisions.
We can trust our choices, limited and flawed as they will always be, because we can trust God.
Yes, we will be wrong
We will too often choose the ways of decay and death, not life.
We will be wrong—and forgiven.
We will be wrong—and still encounter the abundant and sufficient grace of God.
God’s energy will be there so that we can start anew—one brick on top of another, defining and shaping who we are as children of the living God.
[i] Brett Younger, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, pg. 341.