The passages of the New Testament we have were not written, in the main, with an eye to posterity. Their authors had no conception that they would form a part of Holy Scripture. They were written in the moment, for the moment, out of the moment. They are occasional in every sense of the word. ‘Military directives sent along to the outposts on the battle front’—this is how we may describe them. They are meant to encourage, to shore up, change, to augment and foment conversion.
At virtually every point they invite a new response in faith to life. They are a fight song of faith, played in various keys and with various verses, with accompaniment by various instrumentalities. To our hearts and minds they propose a question.
How do you deal with decision?
The long weeks of wilderness which form our yearly Lenten pilgrimage prepare us. We deal with division, decision, and derision, with Jesus, in the wilderness.
Notice that John has rearranged the furniture of the gospel. He has placed the temple cleansing at the outset of the story.
We become who we are by daring to decide. We discover the power of imagination by daring to find the courage to decide.
Some years ago, following a dark re-enactment of the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, a ten year old, guided by his mother, asked, of the Jesus so depicted, ‘What did he do that was so wrong?’ What was the linchpin for the move to the cross?
Well, I mumbled something about blasphemy and treason.
But Matthew, Mark and Luke, the gospels other than John, mark Jesus’ downfall at the temple. As he attacks inherited religion, as he cleanses the temple, his doom is sealed. In John, it is the resurrection of Lazarus, long chapters later, which seals his fate. But John too sees the power of decision in Jesus’ appearance in the temple. In fact, in the second chapter, John opens with Cana, and the promise of incarnation enshrined in that wedding, and closes with the temple, and the forecast of the cross, the hour, the word, which is his abiding interest. Jesus is himself the temple which others will destroy. Here, he gives his new view of the future, not to be awaited somewhere in the clouds. It is taking place now in the life and destiny of Jesus. All throughout, throughout his life, and throughout your own, there is the struggle for truth and grace. This too is Jesus’ struggle. He becomes himself, his own most self not his almost self, in dealing with decision, in this today’s decision to affront and confront inherited religion.
Faith is finding the courage to choose. Faith is dealing with decision.
Memory is our aid here. Remember Proust comparing the low and shameful gate of experience, and the other… the golden gate of imagination’ (RTP, 401). Memory feeds imagination. Faith is finding the power, receiving the power to choose, to reflect on choosing, to take responsibility for the choice, to learn with choosing, and to address the consequences of choice. Dealing with decision means dealing too with regret and failure. This too is faith in action. Listen again to the regret in Yeats’ poem…
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort,
Observant old men know it well
It is the heart of living to deal with decision.
The long wilderness days, biblical and personal, may prepare us to deal with decision. John opens his gospel with the temple decision, the others close their gospels with the temple decision and its portent. You will want, now Sunday, to consider the manner of decision. Here are six practical suggestions. When you decide:
Think and pray with some care as you deal with decision.
Go ahead and use the time honored tactic of making a simple list of pros and cons.
Solicit the insights and thoughts of five or six close friends.
Consider whether or in what ways the choice is reversible, and what that means.
Consider whether, or in what ways the choice is universalizable—could all be advised in this situation to do this?—and what that means.
Test your prospective decision against the real dream of your ownmost, utmost self.
And here are three spiritual warnings…
Real decisions are real hard.
They are hard enough without a whole lot of self-denial thrown in. Sloth. There is a kind of self-abnegation that is a form of sloth. It is an unwillingness to do the hard work to say what you need. It is a kind of laziness, though sloth is so much more than laziness. The hardest, worst things are the things that everyone knows and no one says.
Some years ago I remember a young woman who came to talk in tears. That December her life had changed.
For two and a half years she had been in relationship, in love, with a young man. I elect to name him Bill. She and Bill were very happy, they loved each other and they were in love, and she simply adored him. She gave to him and gave to him. Yet there was no decision about the future. When the matter of commitment came up, the subject was unwelcome, and was dropped. Bill loved her, he said, but he just could not think about getting married.
That winter, she finally went to him in a serious mode. She confessed her love. She extolled his virtues. She reveled in their affection. She kisse
d and hugged him in tears. Then she said something that was very, very hard to say. She said that she needed something from him, some commitment, or she would need to depart. She would always love him. But she knew in her heart that she wanted the fullness of life that commitment, in their case, a commitment to marriage, alone, could provide. If he could not step up to that choice, then, for all the pain it would lastingly involve, she would have to move on. And she could directly say that this was as much for his sake as for hers. It would not do him any good, she said, to leave him listlessly in the doldrums of an endless adolescence. For his own sake, he needed to decide how he was going to live. She made and need have made no apology for this. Life is short. Season gives way to season. There comes a time to choose. “I need you to make a decision, to choose”. That is what she said. They parted, and she departed. This caused her immeasurable pain.
She spent four long, lonely years before finally finding, and being found by, a lasting love, which could be adorned by a commitment.
Please do not hear this as one size fits all counsel. It is not. It is intended to convey a much bigger reality. It may be that some part of your life has yet to open up, because you have avoided a choice. You have good reasons to stall. There is pain in choice, and no one likes pain. And sometimes the faithful choice is not to choose at all, for a time. But recognize that for what it is: a choice, still.
When Jesus guides us through the wilderness, he announces, among many other things, a time to choose. You have one life to live. Your life will be fashioned, to great measure, Sunday by Sunday, in the decisions you make. You need to make some decisions, come Sunday, come Lent. I do not say so to bring pain, though pain there is in any choice. I say it for your soul. For your health. Will you make some bad decisions? Probably. But when the time is right, and the season is ripe, you need to make a choice. Plan for the worst, hope for the best, then do your most, and leave all the rest. To do so, you will have to have a little faith. And faith isn’t faith, finally, until it is all you have to go on. Which is the bitter truth, when it comes to choices. You will have to have a little faith.
Real decisions are real hard.
They are hard enough without a lot of bad religion mixed in. Falsehood.
Last spring, as sometimes I do, I went late to Fenway, buying a reduced price ticket for the game, from the second inning on. I sat with a young family, with two young children. They, the kids, transported me back to a gone epoch of our own children, wild with life, full of joy, for whom hot dogs and the crack of the bat and crowd roars bring ecstacy.
My phone rang and it was a dear young friend. I found a deserted stair well where I could barely hear her. With the undulation of fan adulation roaring and pounding above, she asked what I thought. They had struggled, she and her husband, for two months to decide. Should they stay in the midwest? Should they move to the east? Stay? Go? They had one more day. I could only barely hear. Red Sox nation was part of that muffled reception. More of it was that no one else really knows what you are going through when you decide. Even those who know you best and love you most. We have this saying in English. ‘It’s up to you’.
Which? Comfort or adventure? Security or novelty? The new or the tried and true? Which?
They had already used up the six point advice proferred earlier.
In tears she asked, ‘which is the will of God’? I tune in when religion rears its head. Huddled in the stair well of New England’s religious capital, Fenway, I tuned my ears. ‘How do we know which is the will of God?’
‘You mean, which is right’? Which is the good, the right, and the true?
I said this. ‘You know, honey, while this might not always be the case, in this and in many, most cases, you are free. You are truly free. What you choose—east or west—whichever you choose, that will be, will become the ‘will of God’, the right and the true and the good. In part, because you will work to make it so. What you choose is what is right.’
So choose. Jump. Like Redford and Newman, in that iconic moment for one generation, with some humor and some daring, jump. Choose.
In your choice the future opens.
Real decisions are real hard.
They are hard enough without a covering of pride mixed in. Pride.
Our neighbor New Hampshire Senator has caught my eye this winter. He accepted then rejected a cabinet position.
There are other reasons to admire Judd Gregg. His openness, for one. His frugality, for another. His industry, for a third. I don’t know him from Adam’s house cat. Never met the gentleman. But it takes a kind of courage to re-decide, to think twice. Second thoughts are important, especially when you realize, in hindsight, that they should have been first thoughts.
In the wedding business, we call this the ‘flowers are already bought’ syndrome. ‘I have a feeling this is not right, come to think of it, but I already have my dress and the flowers are already bought, and the invitations went out last month.’
Once you are convinced of the primacy of the second thought, you have to face your pride. You have to face the difficulty of admitting you were wrong. As in, ‘I was wro…’ Hard to say. But the judgment and insight of the primary second thought is worthless without the courage to banish pride and change course.
Judd Gregg had that courage, and faced down that pride. On a big screen, on a high wire, which makes it all the harder. ‘It just didn’t feel right. It just isn’t who I am.’ He made a decision about what was his almost self—the cabinet—and what was his ownmost self—the Senate.
Life will give you ample practice in choosing between your almost self and your own most self, and you will not always get it right. Sometimes, you will need to think twice, to find the courage to face down pride, and to pay the florist and donate the flowers to the nursing home.
It is never too late to change your mind. It may be very costly, but your mind is your mind. What? You don’t want to change your mind because you might offend someone? You don’t want to chang
e your mind because you have to make a hard phone call? Really.
I remember a friend telling me that at age 20 he had to drive from Northern New York state down into Canada and retrieve an engagement ring he had given a young woman six months before. It just wasn’t right.
How was it? I asked him.
Not pleasant. He replied. But it was the rest of my life on the line.
Now you don’t want to remake every decision mid stream. Some apprehension and uncertainty goes with every choice. That is what faith is fully all about. If you were certain you would not need any confidence. You are not certain, so you need a little faith.
You see. Real decisions are real hard. Be sober, be watchful.
Avoid pride, sloth and falsehood.
Remember the greatest blunder of our nation in this yet young century, as a warning, and take heed. Our decision to go to war in 2003 epitomize pride, sloth and falsehood. It was fed by the falsehood of an arrogant nationalism, sold on the basis of sloth, unfinished work and faulty information, and carried forward on the strength of an overweening pride that dared not, lacked the courage to think twice, take a second look. Such a cultural cloud makes all lesser, personal decisions, all the harder, unless, collectively, we may learn, express contrition, grow up, and move on.
The Scriptures are written, as the good news itself is preached, ‘from faith to faith’.
In the teeth of their detailed intricacies, it is possible to forget or mistake the conversion invited by our lessons. Where are you headed? You are asked, today, to deal with decision.
A. N. Whitehead, of all people, at Harvard, of all places, wrote:
“The essence of Christianity is the appeal to the life of Christ as a revelation of the nature of God and of his agency in the world…There can be no doubt as to what elements in the record have evoked a response from all that is best in human nature. The mother, the child, the bare manger; the lowly man, homeless and self-forgetful, with his message of peace, love, and sympathy; the suffering, the agony, the tender words as life ebbed, the final despair; and the whole with the authority of supreme victory” (Adventures of Ideas, 170
To this manger, I invite you.
To this man, and his friendship, I invite you.
To this message, and its persuasive power, I invite you.
To this long-suffering, and its redemptive healing, I invite you.
To these tender words, and their encouragement, I invite you.
To the authority of this victory, I invite you.
One opens such an invitation by dealing with decision.