It’s breakfast time.
Oatmeal or granola? Sourdough toast or a bagel with cream cheese?
Since it’s winter, my favorite choice—and I love to contemplate this while thinking of friends in frigid Nebraska or icy Wisconsin—involves sauntering a few steps from my kitchen. Should I drink OJ from the supermarket or head outside to determine which oranges are ripe on our backyard trees? After grabbing a few, I’d then squeeze dee-licioius citrus nectar into a glass!
Choices for each person are more bountiful than the hairs on our head, the sand on the beach, the stars in the sky, or other clichés I could keep using. Tree-ripened or store-bought? Leaded or unleaded? Arise or punch the snooze button? Peets or Starbucks? Packers or Steelers?
The 6th Sunday of Epiphany – for February 13, 2011
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 live . . . (Deuteronomy 30:19)
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life,” Deuteronomy declares, blatantly speaking for the Holy with ancient words that are as fresh as the oranges dangling from my tree. Life or death . . . choose!
If only choices were that simple.
In 2010, Hurt Locker received the Best Picture Oscar. Though it holds the dubious reputation of being the least seen of any Best Picture, I believe it deserved the award. Of its many startling scenes (and I’m not spoiling the story for the zillions of you who didn’t see director Kathryn Bigelow’s flick), one that still lingers a year later comes toward the end. William James—actor Jeremy Renner—home from war, home from disarming bombs on the streets of Baghdad, goes shopping in a local supermarket. For long, long seconds, James stands in an aisle, surrounded by breakfast cereal. I set before you life and death. Choose: Cheerios or Cap’n Crunch or . . .?
Choice transforms society. I’m old enough to recall the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling on Roe v. Wade. Then, no one questioned it would change “everything.” There’s also no question it’s an issue, generations later, inspiring conflict that could be rated by the Fujita-Pearson tornado scale. The bumper sticker messages of pro-life vs. pro-choice both sound innocent, but are steel-plated positions to defend. And yet, the legal choice of abortion, and the global arena where ideology and theology are debated, can never address the anguish of a solitary woman—like a flesh and blood twenty-something who’s just made the mistake of her life and now may make a choice that could become the mistake of the rest of her life. Our daughters and mothers and sisters confront decisions where Deuteronomy’s “blessing” or “curse” cannot be neatly discerned.
Some choices are obvious. A dozen years ago, I was a hospice chaplain when my Bishop asked me to become a church’s senior pastor. Anyone who has heard my personal stories knows how hard that choice seemed. I prayed about it, talked to friends about it, took long walks to contemplate it. Hospice is an under-the-radar ministry, shared with professionals in various disciplines, where death is confronted every day. Going to the parish my Bishop wanted me to serve meant engaging in a high-profile ministry. Like hospice, and like all congregations, it would include supporting the dying/grieving, but that church also involved speaking publicly on gay rights, working with one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and—always a joy!!—evening meetings, grumbling lay folk, and mind-numbing administrative work.
I chose the church. Was I responding to God’s call? To the Bishop’s plea? To the vanity of the senior pastor title? To blessings? To curses? To this day, I don’t know if I made the right or wrong choice. But it was a choice as blatant as the opening of Robert Frost’s classic poetic dilemma:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Rarely are there only two choices. It’s not “this” or “that.” Instead, it’s this or this or this or this. And we end up like Hurt Locker’s William James: overwhelmed.
At most, I only cling to this . . . in Matthew’s lectionary passage for this day, Jesus declared, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” As I understand those ancient times, bringing the gift to the altar represented a necessary obligation to faith. Give to God the good gifts! Honor the Holy! But Jesus dared claim that reconciling with another was the greater, better choice. Leave the altar. Go, and alter the anger or mistrust or hurt that your brother or sister (and you) are part of.
And so, with many of my choices, I make a faithful guess. Will this be a way to reconcile with others? Will this be a way to serve the neighbor? Answering that question can be easy, or numbingly difficult, but it’s faith’s best path.