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Choose Life!

Rev. Ken Ziebell
Sun, Jun 17

The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Deuteronomy 30: 15-20

“Choose life!” These words from Moses' farewell address to the people of Israel have been used, and sometimes misused, in slogans to promote a wide variety of issues from nutrition and weight loss to the death penalty and everything in between. For many of us in recent years, perhaps we've seen them most often in the form of a bumper sticker promoting a viewpoint that ironically has as its principal aim to deny freedom of choice.

For Moses and the Israelites, though, there was no ambiguity about the options before them. Moses tells them that after being their leader for some forty years, wandering in the wilderness, he is now simply too old to lead any farther. They are on the verge of making their final entry into the land they know as Canaan, the land they believe God has promised as their future home.
Moses announces that their new leader will be Joshua, and that now is the time to move forward into Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. If they refuse to move forward now, they would be destined to aimless and indefinite wandering in the wilderness.

Moses tells them, ”Today I am giving you a choice between good and evil, between life and death.” There are only two options, he says. The choice is life or death, move forward or give up in defeat.

We all know something about facing choices. Decisions are a constant reality of our lives. Not every choice we have is as earthshaking as the choice faced by the Israelites under Moses. But every hour of every day we make decisions about the use of our time and the use of our resources. When the to-do list is long and the time available is short, it's a choice. What job do we do next, and what job risks not getting done?

We do indeed always have choices. One of the privileges that was offered by my years living in Vienna was the opportunity to meet Austrian psychotherapy author Viktor Frankl. Prof. Frankl was a survivor of the World War II Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz and was the originator of an approach to psychiatry he called logotherapy. It was his teaching that the most powerful motivating force in human life is the will to find meaning in life, in contrast to previous psychoanalysts who had taught that the dominant force is the will to power or the will to pleasure.

One evening a small group of us were gathered to hear more from Prof. Frankl about his concepts and their implications. Of particular interest, he told us how his theories had helped him survive the Holocaust experience, and how that experience has further shaped his ideas. He observed the attitudes of other prisoners from his perspective as a scientist. He said that the prisoners who kept active and energetic despite the oppressive and miserable tasks they were assigned were the most likely to survive the camp. On the other hand, prisoners who felt only despair and dejection as they faced those same gruesome circumstances had little chance for survival. It was a choice everyone faced every day. The Auschwitz experience taught him, he told us, that everyone always has choices.

At that there was a hush in the room, as members of the group glanced nervously at one another around the circle. We were all pondering the obvious question. Finally one person dared to put it into words, “But surely, Prof. Frankl, when a prisoner is being led from his cell to the gas chamber, he then has no more choices left.” The answer came quickly, as if the professor was really waiting for that question: “Oh but he does have choice, perhaps the most important choice of all. It’s the choice of meaning.” Does his coming death mean that his life has been wasted, of no value, or is he going to his death a witness to faithfulness to his heritage, to his values?

In other circumstances our natural inclination would be to dismiss such assertions as hopelessly naïve and idealistic. Coming from Prof. Frankl, though, considering his experience and the sources of his thinking, one cannot avoid taking his proposal seriously.

The guiding principle of his thinking was that life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. In his words, everything can be taken from you but one thing. The last of the human freedoms that no one can take from you is the freedom to choose your attitude in any situation.

It was Prof. Frankl's teaching about finding meaning even in death that naturally made his thinking attractive to Christian theologians and Christian pastoral counselors. After all, a central affirmation of Christian faith is that Jesus’ death was in no way a defeat but was rather an event that has meaning for all of us for all time.

Yes, we always have choices. If you ever come to the point where your future looks so bleak and hopeless that you see no choices for yourself, then by all means get yourself as quickly as possible to talk to someone who can help you take a new look at your situation. Another person’s perspective can enable you to discover more options for your future than you can see for yourself.

We always have choices. But our choices are not unlimited. You can’t choose to have everything you want!

When Moses challenges the Israelites to choose life and to move forward into the promised land, he doesn’t say that the way ahead will be easy. In fact, he warns them that the struggle will be hard. Still, he assures them that with God’s help it can be accomplished. An easy entry into Canaan is not one of the available options.

After all, if our choices to move forward in our lives were easy, the decisions would be easy. But such is not the case. What if you have suffered a permanent injury or an incurable disease? You do not have the choice of whether to experience the injury or to have the disease. But you do still have choices. You have the choice how to respond to that situation. You alone have the choice of the attitude you take toward the unavoidable suffering ─ what Viktor Frankl would call the meaning of the experience.

Our choices are limited in other ways too. For one, our choices are limited by the resources we have available. You may have your heart set on a 10-room mansion on the seashore, but find that you have money only to afford a three-room apartment in a crowded city. You have choices. You can choose to be content, grateful that your apartment gives you a roof over your head. Or you can make yourself miserable by your inability to have everything you want. We have a way of confusing wants and needs. We want many things, but we don't need everything we want.

It has been said, “Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” It's a helpful rule of thumb. It's true in national policy and in many other spheres as well as in personal affairs. A partial success may be the best achievable outcome. It shouldn’t be a source of discontent and resentment that we can't have the perfect solution of everything we want
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Whatever may be the choices before us, the decisions we make do make a difference. For the Israelites confronted by Moses’ challenge to “choose life,” the choice to move forward into Canaan would enable them to begin a successful life as a nation under God's leadership. If they refuse the challenge, they are destined to endless nomadic wandering in the desert. This choice makes all the difference in the world for them.

Through the history of the Bible, there are other decisive choices that make a crucial difference. The Scripture lesson from the Gospel of Mark that we heard earlier in the service was one decisive moment. Jesus challenged his disciples with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter spoke up to say, “You are the Christ.” What a difference it made that the disciples recognize Jesus as someone unique, not just another religious teacher. As a result, they devote their lives to following him even after his crucifixion.

We have an idea of the difference our choices make in our own recent national history. If the elections of 2000 or 2004 or 2008 would have had different results, we can only imagine in each case how our national history might have developed differently. This year's election is certainly no exception to that pattern. The candidates’ views offer stark differences in the role of government and the use of resources. The choice we make will clearly make a difference.

Sometimes though, the consequences of our choices are not immediately evident. You thought you had made a good and responsible choice, but the results that followed seemed to be a failure. As discouraging as that may be, it may not be the end of the story. If you have been faithful to your principles, there may emerge a yet greater value.

The hymn we are going to sing in a few minutes offers a potent reminder that the value of our choices is measured not by short-term impressions but by long-term values. What first looks like a failure may prove in the long run to be a profound achievement.

The text of the hymn is adapted from a poem by 19th-century Cambridge poet and some time Harvard professor James Russell Lowell. It says:

“Once to every heart and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side.

“Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong,
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong.

“Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown.
Standeth God within the shadow.
Keeping watch above his own.”

Indeed, there are enough examples in the world today of conflicts where evil seems to be on the throne, and good people seem to be experiencing something like suffering on the scaffold. Yet, Lowell says, reminding us of the example of Jesus, it is that scaffold that sways the future. “Behind the dim unknown” is the achievement of longer-term ultimate blessing.

To choose life means moving forward, not backward; accepting the good option when there is no perfect option; striving for the longer-term good, not the temporary advantage.
When former Vice-President Al Gore was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his work to rescue the environment from global warming, he used as the theme of his acceptance speech at Oslo this phrase from Moses, “Choose life!” In his address he reminded his listeners: “We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency…. The earth has a fever. And the fever is rising…. Science is warning us that if we do not quickly reduce the global warming pollution,… we are in danger of creating a permanent ‘carbon summer.’” So, the Vice-President said: We have before us “a choice between two different futures ─ a choice that to my ears echoes the words of the ancient prophet, Life or death, blessings or curses…. Therefore, choose life,… that you and your descendants will live.”

Indeed, life confronts us with an unending series of choices ─ choices in our personal context, in our national context, in the world context. What are the choices you face right now? The message of our text is a clear call: Choose the way forward. Choose the long-term value. Choose life!

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