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On Friday, Ian had a cross-country meet. In Claremore. And here’s the fun part. TPS can no longer afford to provide buses for cross-country meets. So guess what I did on Friday? Yup. Drove to Claremore. Now, when I get directions for new places, I like to know the starting point and the ending point. Then I get my own map and sort of “fill in” the gaps. It doesn’t always work. I make wrong turns, I have to backtrack, I probably eat up more time than I should. These days, many of us use those GPS devices to help us along our way, the metallic voice handling our mistakes with a gentle, “Recalculating…” But in life we don’t get such minute-by-minute instructions, we have to make our own guesses, our own choices, and with limited vision. Such is the life of faith…like driving down a long, winding country road on the darkest of nights, with only our headlights to guide us. We are only be able to see a few feet in front of us, but if we trust in that, we can get all the way home that way.
Deuteronomy, scholars have discovered, bears a striking resemblance to ancient treaties that conquering states compelled the conquered to ratify, including a formulaic series of blessings and curses. If you cooperate, things will go well for you; if you don’t, there’s going to be trouble. They also believe that Deuteronomy was written sometime slightly before, during, or just after the exile of 6th century BCE, when the ruling class of Jerusalem was taken away to Babylon, causing a HUGE theological crisis since they were forced out of the land that God promised them after all. So, these words, born out of a theological crisis and a deep familiarity with the ways that empire works, are placed in the mouth of Moses as a way to give them credibility at a time of great anxiety. This is just another way of working God out, of imagining how the Holy might operate – and using the world around them to do it.
It’s no surprise that Deuteronomy, written at a time and in a place very much impacted by the ebb and flow of empires – Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek or Roman, to name but a few. The duality would have made sense to them, for this is how they saw power function – choose this or choose that, do this “right” thing and live, do the “wrong” thing and die. The issue is not this version of God, it’s that we’ve taken this version of God, oversimplified and “imperial” and made it the only version of God, at least for some. And this “follow the rules” reading has been used with all kinds of twisted agendas over the centuries to insist that if you follow God’s rules (always as interpreted by the same person making this claim) then you will prosper. But if you deviate from my instructions, oops, I mean God’s instructions, well then. Remember that just after the attacks of 9/11 religious figures were on TV saying God had “lifted the veil of protection” and allowed the enemies of the United States to “give us what we probably deserve.” They are operating from this old model of God, which was once new. We should view that realization as a chance for us to reimagine God in our time, to seek for the ways that the divine is interacting with us now and to use our best understanding to set our path forward.
So before I give this passage over to a single interpretation, I want to look it over a bit. After all, the words still ring true. And we don’t have to believe in a God who rewards the obedient and punishes the wicked, something I think does not withstand any objective, honest review, in order to find meaning. We know that our choices matter. We know that some choices are easy, some are hard and some are made for us. But the choices don’t come out of a vacuum. Note that the passage says I set before you life and death, now choose…but then goes on to talk about walking with God, about a certain set of guidelines, like, Micah would later preach, seeking justice, loving kindness and walking with God in humility.
Every moment of every day I have choices to make. Do I hit the snooze button or get up and exercise?On a nice cool morning like this, getting out of those covers is hard! Do I have another cup of coffee? Do I spend 30 minutes I don’t have listening to the story of the man who has come seeking assistance, or do I just write a check and move on? Do I pause to pray before I make a decision, or do I act like it’s all on me? Will I put away my phone long enough to see the person standing in front of me at the cash register, or my co-worker, or my own child?
Maybe most of the choices we make in the day-to-day really aren’t as dramatic as “choosing life or death”, are they? But, then again, very much like that single turn can really make a difference in a long drive between point A and point B, even the “little” choices we make lean towards life or death, at least the way that this passage speaks about it. One of the lessons we use in the education program at the county jail is helping people to recover a sense of responsibility. Using an exercise we teach that being responsible is not a predictor of success, nor a guarantee of a positive outcome. But history shows, even our own personal history, that when we behave responsibly, we at least set ourselves up for a better outcome. When we make our choices in a certain direction, it doesn’t mean we won’t suffer, it means that the possibility of life remains at its strongest…that we lean that way.
We can choose to engage with people around us, rather than the sometimes easier path of ignoring them or retreating into our shell, which is made infinitely more possible these days with the myriad tools of distraction that we have at our disposal. But when we choose to engage, to embrace the messy and often awkward path of life, we are leaning a certain direction. And that lean helps us when the choices are bigger – on the day you have to choose between staying in a relationship, or a marriage, or a job that is not affirming anything life-giving, but leaning you towards death. Or on the day you will need to confront someone, to find the courage to speak the truth, even when you know the consequences for you will be hard. Or the day when the comfort of what we now have known is shattered by the terror of the unknown and we have to choose again – will we retreat into our anger and fear, for we know where that leads, or will we reach out to that which is life-giving at our most vulnerable and broken moment? The easy choices help us make the harder ones, and the wrong turns, especially the ones that are easily recoverable, help us to know that we can still recover, still make something from the broken pieces, still lean towards life, even in the midst of death.
I caught the broadcast of Rick Steve’s travel show on NPR the other day, but, like many times with NPR, I was in between appointments, my mind not really focused and I heard only bits and pieces. But now, thank you internets, I can go back and listen to the program, as I did in the welcome cool of Saturday morning on my porch. It was an interview with poet and author Terry Tempest Williams, in which she described being across the street from the White House on a book tour on the morning of September 11th, 2001. She ended up being evacuated, but stayed in DC. Later she had trouble dealing with her anxiousness, with the rhetoric that she heard around her and out of her own mouth with harsh and sharp edges and she felt no comfort from it. She had, as she said, “lost my sense of poetry and polemics are not persuasive.” She stood on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean almost on the 1st anniversary of the attacks and prayed, “Give me just one wild word, God, and I will follow.” The word that came was – mosaic. And she thought…uhhh, no. That’s not the one I was looking for. Am I doomed to a life of breaking my dishes and making bad collages?
She ended up studying in Revenna, Italy with, as she said, a dunce cap on, breaking up stone for artists in an art restoration project. They were in churches, where, hundreds of years ago, the broken stones of the mosaics in the windows would not only create a beautiful homage to honor God, but would literally bring light into a dark world, the outside sun reflecting off the broken pieces, illuminating the darkness. It was the imperfections that made the light, the broken pieces that refracted the glowing star that the Creator has placed in our sky, a light which we have no control over and for which we did nothing…it is a gift…a gift whose light we can reflect in the world.
15 years ago our hearts stopped, our hands covered our mouths, our eyes opened…those buildings bursting open burst us all open to a new world. Now going to the airport, getting a passport, crossing a border, shipping something internationally, all of those things have changed, but more than this our hearts have changed, sometimes paralyzed by indecision and fear. But everyday we are at that same fork in the road, deciding which way we will point ourselves, towards fear and death or towards hope and life. We get to choose if we will retreat into isolation and intolerance or reach out to listen and try to understand. We get to choose if we will hear the words of people who have been and are being oppressed, or simply discount them as they have been discounted before. We get to choose if we will seek wisdom, compassion and a willingness to risk love, or a juvenile retreat into arrogance, pride and an insistence on being right. We get to choose to stay on a path of death, or say yes to the ways that lead to life…refracting light through our own imperfections, our own brokenness…creating beauty not in the world as we would have it, but in the world as we find it, leaning towards God, towards life, on the path that leads to life…eventually. For the action of God is not in the momentary event, but in the aftermath, the pieces put back together, the healing of the wound, the mosaic assembled from the broken pieces.
We don’t always make the right choices. Sometimes we don’t make a choice at all. But choice always exists for us, again and again…and when we take a wrong turn, we can listen for the voice of God quietly saying, “Recalculating”…and return to our path. This is our eternal choice. The choice of God’s grace. Thanks be to God.