Choices and More Choices

“Chicken, beef or vegetarian?”

The text was from the planners for an upcoming banquet. My meal choice was needed and I quickly shot back my answer. I was hungry.

Ahh, wouldn’t it be nice if all decisions in life were that easy?

They’re not. Most the time I hate being pushed into issuing a verdict. I often try to put off coming to a conclusion as long as possible because I naturally doubt my initial conviction. Yet it seems there’s always some kind of decision I’m being asked to make—financially, vocationally, relationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, medically, nutritionally, etc., etc. Some feel easy, some seem irrelevant, while others overwhelm me as completely impossible. And I must remember that procrastination and even not choosing at all are all choices. I can’t get away from them!

Following Jesus is the choice I want to focus on. It’s actually a decision made up of many choices: daily, hourly and even minute by minute. They determine what I believe, think and do, as well as how I react, love, hate, give, trust others, and distract myself, all in light of truly being a follower of Jesus.  And sooner or later an outcome chases after each one—outcomes, that for better or worse, I must own.

Consequences

Joshua said it several thousand years ago, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). He was fed up with the people of his country waffling on important issues like who their god was going to be. I find, however, that I so dread the thought of being stuck with the results of a bad choice (I don’t have all the information after all) that I look for ways to avoid committing at an intersection in life. Saying ‘yes’ to one thing means saying ‘no’ to one or more others. What if a better option comes along? Can’t I just hold off and sit here for a while, no obligations? Of course I can; that’s a choice. And it will eventually produce some kind of consequence.

As a result, it’s easy to just let life happen, which is releasing others to make choices for me. That then becomes my choice with its own set of consequences. I’m sure that some who were listening to Joshua were thinking, if not saying out loud, “But what if a better god comes along?” Hmm. And how did that work out for them?

They’re Ours to Own

The irony of making decisions is that while we want, and even fight for, the right to make our own choices—resisting the commands of those “Joshuas” who want to control us—we also struggle with it. There are many times we would rather someone just tell us what to do. Choosing can be hard and confusing work. It’s nice to have someone who’s figured it out give us the answer. And if in the end their judgment was wrong then it wasn’t our fault. Right?

Unfortunately, for that way of thinking, an irrefutable law stalks us: everything about our choices belong to us. We choose, whether we realize it or not, how we respond to everything that is thrown at us, even the things we didn’t choose: our DNA, our upbringing and all those crazy, painful outside circumstances or abuses. Though it feels like we don’t have a choice, we still must decide our response, our attitude and our actions. What we do with all that is given or thrust upon us is ours! And as much, if not more, these choices are what make us who we are, for good or for ill.

 A lot of Choices to Examine

I want to use this blogging space going forward to talk about what it means to move through every day as a follower of Jesus, depending on His grace but recognizing all the choices before us. There’s actually many to look at because walking with Jesus involves our entire life—every part. And like so many other choices, not committing or half committing our lives to Him (is it possible to half-commit to my wife?) has an eternal consequence.

So, take Joshua’s challenge and choose. Some choices will be as simple as deciding between chicken or beef. Others will force you to search more deeply, determining WHO you’re going to serve each day. And your options are quite limited on that last one. For, as the Bible communicates and one of our American cultural prophets, Bob Dylan, has said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

The choice is yours.

Reflections

  • What are some of the choices I regularly make that I rarely if ever think about?
  • In what ways do my everyday choices reflect my level of commitment to following Jesus?
  • What is the most powerful influencer of my choices? Circumstances? Feelings? Values?

Choosing the Way of Hunger

I despise fasting. I hate the way it makes me feel: grumpy, irritable, distracted with thoughts of burgers, pizza, and ice cream when I’m trying to do something important. But most of all, it makes me feel hungry. And hunger tells me I need something to fill and nourish an emptiness inside. It isn’t the way I was meant to live. No one was meant to live perpetually hungry.

But yet the Bible refers to fasting multiple times. Jesus fasted, along with the Apostles. Early church writings refer to fasting as if it is expected to be a regular part of the life of a Jesus follower. It has often seemed strange to me, though. How am I supposed to focus on my relationship with God when all I can think about is the next time I can pop something into my mouth? And now there’s this trendy thing called “intermittent fasting” that’s supposed to help a person lose weight and get healthier.

I recently decided to take a second look at fasting after talking with several people who claimed it has improved their health. The intermittent kind can take a couple different approaches. One can regularly refrain from eating for a couple days out of each week (sounds awful). Or, a person can restrict the time periods during each day in which one does eat. This means that someone might not eat for 16 hours out of a day and eat only during the other eight hours. I read that besides losing weight, this can help lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes. So, with gritted teeth, I decided to try it.

Nourishment By Going Without?

It wasn’t fun. I would resist food up until 12 noon each day, and then eat nothing after 8:00 in the evening. The morning hours were especially challenging as I was constantly glancing at a clock to see how much time I had left until I could stuff my face. After about a month, I was about to give up on it, despite the supposed health benefits, when I heard God speak to me. It was in the form of a very strong impression that there was something important He wanted me to learn from this experience. He used Deuteronomy 8:3, part of the ancient speech of Moses speaking to the Israelites after they had wandered in the desert for 40 years.

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Choosing Well . . . in the Dark

I was five years old when I had my tonsils removed. A lot of medical concerns and procedures were different back then. They had me spend the night before surgery in the hospital. I remember my initial impression was that of getting to do a sleep over at a hotel without Mom and Dad. Kind of exciting!

It all seemed great until I was taken in to be prepped for surgery early the next morning before my parents arrived. Everything quickly went blank when they put a cup over my nose and mouth. My strongest memory of the entire episode was a growing awareness of an intense sore throat while still in complete darkness. A disconcerting panic arose as confusing conversations from unseen bodies were taking place around me. I desperately wanted a light to be turned on. But there was nothing. Finally, one voice among the many stood out. My mother! And though I couldn’t see her, I knew she was there and that made all the difference. I was then able to be at peace. Everything would be okay because someone who I trusted to care for me was with me even though I couldn’t see.

When There’s No Light

Darkness stirs an assortment of emotions. Yes, there is the glory of the nighttime sky with the brightly shining stars or the beauty of a full moon casting its silver lining across the edge of a black horizon. But when it comes to navigating a path or figuring out what’s going on with no stars, no moon, and no lamp of any kind, the lack of light can be terrifying. Total darkness seems to scream that there are unseen terrors hidden nearby. Some kind of illumination is needed, something to guide, something to comfort. And so, we grasp at anything that might shine light on our path, even a tiny bit, to provide some sense of control.

Many years ago, I came upon a scripture in the Old Testament that I have returned to often.

“Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God. Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.” (Isaiah 50:10-11 ESV)

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Choosing to Live Sensibly

Most people have done things they look back upon and view as a bit wacky. “What was I thinking?” Sometimes they were done for love. Sometimes they were done to relieve boredom. Sometimes they were done for the thrill and attention. And sometimes they were done because of personal convictions. Then there are the things done that are downright insane with potential life-threatening consequences.

  • A stuntman named Freddy Nock is known for walking on tight ropes over mountain gorges, often on an upward slope without safeguards.
  • Skydiver, Luke Aikins, jumped from 25,000 feet (7,620 meters) without a parachute in 2016, landing in a giant net and setting a world record. Yes, he could have easily missed the net.
  • Then there’s a man named Amou Haji from Iran who hasn’t showered in more than 60 years. He believes that bathing will make him sick. And, of course, he doesn’t live with anybody.*

It Makes Sense to Me

Interestingly, every one of these and others that have done or are doing things considered weird or “off the deep end,” believe they have “good” reasons for their actions. That which is seen as reasonable, justifiable, and positive is always determined according to an individual’s values and worldview. Amou, the non-bather, has explained the reasoning behind his position. He got quite sick after taking a bath when he was young. Because he values feeling well, it logically followed in his mind to never wash himself again.

The same idea can be applied to how a society or an entire generation thinks. Common thought processes and unique patterns of logic develop in groups that make sense to the members but many times not to “outsiders.” We often look back in history and negatively judge people for their stupid actions or beliefs. But many individuals we think of as nutty or deranged were actually quite intelligent, maybe even more so than ourselves. It’s the way they viewed the world, understood reality, and determined values that shaped their dubious and sometimes atrocious behavior. Beliefs are the machines that produce our actions and lifestyles.

Glad I’m Not the Crazy One

But before we divide the present population between the right-minded and the crazies, maybe we should ask ourselves some questions.

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Choosing Patience

I always saw myself as a laid-back, easy-going person. That was until my first year of teaching remedial English to 8th graders in a California inner-city school. My carefully composed lesson plans were sabotaged daily by 13 and 14 year olds who derived perverse pleasure from watching my frustration grow. I would come home each afternoon exhausted and dreading the next day. A few years later, after I had transitioned out of teaching public school and into working with Youth With A Mission, God had to deal with my heart. He revealed to me that I was holding onto hatred for some of those kids. And to be truly free of the torment I still carried, I had to forgive each of them by name and pray blessings on them. It was not a fun process, but it was necessary. And out of it I grew to understand more of how God wants His Holy Spirit to work in my life. I am to take on more of His characteristics.

We are told in Galatians 5:22-23 that there are certain God-given qualities called the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. I have talked about love* and Joy** in past posts and will soon post one on peace. But the quality that I have been pondering lately is that of patience. An older name for it is long-suffering, which always sends uncomfortable chills down my spine when I say it. Is it really necessary?

We don’t produce it

The first thing that comes to my mind is that patience is a FRUIT of the Spirit. One of the definitions of fruit is “result” or “effect.” Thus patience, along with the other qualities on the list, is evidence that the Holy Spirit is living and active in me. The other thing that comes to mind is that fruit must be cultivated to grow; it does not suddenly appear fully ripened and ready for harvest without a caretaker making sure the plant or tree is properly nourished and dangerous pests are eradicated. In other words, once the proper seeds have been planted and the environment suitably prepared, the fruit will naturally come . . . eventually.

I often hear people (especially Americans) talk of their need for more patience. Most of us intuitively desire the valuable attributes of being able to wait, endure, and stick with something when results do not appear as quickly as we prefer. However, I have been warned of praying the “dangerous” prayer of, “Lord, make me more patient.” Afterall, there’s nothing magical, mysterious, or instantaneous about growing patience. Difficult and painful circumstances along with delayed gratification are always necessary for this particular fruit to form into maturity. And God seems to value this quality to such a degree that He is ready to answer this prayer with plenty of opportunities for it to develop.

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Choosing God’s Way of Perfection

As a kid, I loved to do pencil drawings. I received so much affirmation from my sketches that I decided at a young age that I should learn to paint and become a professional artist when I grew up. But the problem was that for every drawing or painting I completed, there were 10 I abandoned part-way through. They just never looked right. I became unsure of my ambition to attend art school once I realized that I couldn’t distinguish certain shades of color. My younger brother burst into hysterics one day over a self-portrait that I considered perfect. He pointed out through howls of laughter that I had painted myself green. That pretty much ended my dream and at the same time assured me that I couldn’t trust my own abilities.

I realize now that my idea of a perfect drawing or painting was so narrow that I could never fulfill it. In my belief system at the time, there were only two ways to create a picture, the right way and the wrong way. Unfortunately, my understanding of art wasn’t mature enough to question any unarticulated definitions of right and wrong. And so, my old sketchbooks are littered with abandoned and incomplete drawings. I’ve often wondered what could have been if I had learned to relax, appreciate the process, and creatively discover something new rather than fixating on a specific end product and the fear of not attaining it.

Avoiding Failure

What is it that lures people into the perfectionistic trap? I’m sure there are many answers to such a question, depending on the specific task at hand. Some might say they just want what they do to be the best it can be. Others link their personal value to achieving specific goals. What they accomplish, however, rarely matches what they believe ought to be.

For me, perfectionism has always manifested when I narrow down success at a task to a razor-thin definition. If I don’t see how my expectation can be attained, I usually stop trying. And when it comes to making decisions, my greatest concern is to avoid making the wrong one. Therefore, I tend to procrastinate. Putting off a conclusion as long as possible feels like a better option than failure.

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Choosing to Not Turn Myself into an Object

During my senior year in high school, my football coach referred to me as a “great athlete.” I was shocked but ecstatic that he would say such a thing. That was NOT how I saw myself. I had had minimal interest in athletics most my life, never finding deep personal fulfillment on any particular team, preferring to spend time reading books. Playing sports (when I did) was mostly a pathway for acceptance from peers. But with those words, uttered from a man who had driven us hard into the Oregon State Quarter Final Playoffs (where we were soundly defeated), I felt as if I had found myself. Soon after the season ended, the same coach encouraged me to try out for a college team (albeit a small one). I was pumped with a new and alluring picture of myself: Jeff the athlete!

What am I, really?

It wasn’t until a long conversation a month later with my girlfriend (who would eventually be my wife) that I faced what was really going on inside. I didn’t really want to play football. It was the newly-embraced athletic image that I was seeking to maintain. Even then, however, I did not yet realize that I was seeking a narrow, two-dimensional picture of myself that could easily answer the question, “who am I?” Being an athlete was such an easy, ready-made handle that was difficult to let go of.

I ended up not playing any sports in college. And the answer to my question remained elusive. Even as I tried various activities and jobs over the next few years, I was unable to compress myself into a neat and tidy manageable understanding of who or what I was.

Lesson learned: The longing for a clarified identity never leaves. I always feel driven to center my self-understanding on that one thing that makes me feel unique, that I can do better than those around me, or that just makes me feel good.

Child of God at My Core

Many years passed before I began to explore what an identity centered on being a child of God truly means. Seeing myself as God’s son changed everything. But I had overlooked it for so long. There are many biblical references to this being what God’s intention had been all along. And slowly, I came to realize that embracing this identity protected me from turning myself into an object. As a child of God, I would not be dependent on any biological, emotional, intellectual, financial, sexual, or vocational quality that may or may not be there when I would need something solid to hold onto.

I saw that the implications of this identity are enormous.

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Choosing to Hope in Resurrection

Grim news continues to come out of Ukraine. Mass graves are being discovered. And stories of torture and executions are multiplying. Not since World War 2 has Europe been the site of such atrocities. But now, with another apparently unhinged despot doubling down on justifying his aggression, there are nuclear weapons of mass destruction at play. What were at one time far-fetched plots for military thrillers, now are daily headlines. And to add to it all: is the pandemic really over? Could a new strain of virus be around the corner, along with the uncertainty of how to deal with it? Runaway inflation? I feel depression knocking at my door, and I can’t see how it’s going to end.

“Hope” is a nice word for such a time we’re in now. But how does that word play out in this season of war and potential mass destruction? How do we find real hope when most the news coming at us feels dark with no reliable light at the end of the tunnel?

What Does It Actually Mean?

An online dictionary defines hope as “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best.” While this is how most people generally think of hope, I have a problem with this definition. It reduces hope to a mere feeling. And if I’ve learned anything about feelings, it’s that they’re unreliable and rarely stick around through every season. For such a time as this, I need something that works apart from my emotions and that I can rely on regardless what I’m feeling as I scan the news.

I prefer to understand hope as the belief that there is good in the future. Beliefs can be felt at times, but they aren’t dependent on feelings. To believe that there is something ahead that can give me a kind of goodness that will make my present pain and confusion melt away gives me strength to endure today. Hope is more than wishing for something to be true. It’s the confidence that the way things are now is not the way they’re going to remain.

Not Everything is Worthy

My definition, however, requires hope to be rooted in something that can deliver the goods. Sometimes I put my hope in things that do not have the capacity to produce what I am ultimately longing for. “I hope I can make more money and finally find peace.” Or “I hope I can find a ‘significant other’ and finally feel secure.” And even, “I hope a certain person gets elected as president so I can finally feel good that my country’s problems are going to improve.” None of these, though they involve significant issues that impact my life, are worthy of my hope. They can’t deliver the bottom line of what my heart is longing for. Unfortunately, many of us have built our lives on a series of false hopes. We believe that if a particular thing will change or can be added, or be taken away, then we will finally be able to have good lives. Yet, even if on the surface we get what we want, sooner or later we will once again feel disrupted, agitated, or empty.

Hope, however, is a necessary ingredient for life. There are many things we can live without, but hope is not one of them. And so, we continue to seek things that are solid enough to hold life-sustaining hope, things that can withstand the uncertainties of life in this world. Deep down we know that our lives and the ability to keep going depend on it. We’ve got to have hope.

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Choosing a Messiah

I just finished reading the novel Dune, by Frank Herbert. It had been on my to-read list since I first heard about it back in high school (a long time ago). Now, with the most recent rendering of the story on film in 2021, I decided I would read it before watching the movie.

The book, published in 1965, is said to be the best-selling and most influential work of science fiction ever. And after reading it, I understand why. It’s an imaginative tale of adventure set in a galaxy far, far away (sound familiar?). But at the same time, it delves into political, economic, and ecological theory. In addition, religious and philosophical thought abundantly permeate its more-than 800 pages of storyline and appendices. It is overall a ponderous yet intriguing read. The idea that caught my attention and imagination, however, was the author’s presumption of what an effective savior must be. A good story, in my opinion, needs some kind of rescuing hero. And this one provides that.

In Herbert’s tale, the protagonist is a messianic figure. A young man rises up to liberate an entire marginalized and oppressed people group. He is trained from infancy to lead, strategize, fight, and is endowed with supernatural-like powers that set him apart. I won’t tell you what happens (although I haven’t seen the movie yet), but it involves epic battles, mysterious prophecies, power-hungry villains, and giant sand worms the length of multiple football fields.

Anointed for a Task

As a follower of Jesus, my ears perk up when I hear the word, messiah, mentioned. I used to think it was unique to Christianity. The word originally comes from Hebrew and means “anointed one.” It was translated into Greek as chrīstos. And thus, Jesus Christ means Messiah Jesus. In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, and kings had oil poured over their heads (the anointing representing God’s Spirit) to indicate that they had been set apart for a unique heavenly task. Therefore, when the Jews started looking to the future for The Anointed One to come, rescue them from their oppressors, and reestablish proper worship of God, they were waiting for The Messiah, the One to make everything right. And many of them are still waiting.

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Choosing to Declutter

Is “spring cleaning” a real thing?

For some, this annual purging is what marks the official emergence from the dark survival mode of winter. It’s a time to step into the bright and hopeful newness of a fresh season. It’s a regenerated start, embracing warmth, sunshine, flowers, and cleansing breezes fluttering the curtains in open windows.

But when did all this grime on the glass clouding my vision accumulate? This layer of dust stirring up my allergies? Actually, there’s a whole lot of debris, disorder, and unnecessary stuff in here. A deep cleaning is in order. It will surely reinvigorate and help inspire a new perspective on life!

Yes, this is how some people think.

But not everyone.

Few people, if any, consciously enjoy dirt and disorder. There are, however, situations and conditions that predispose individuals to accept the accumulation of crud and inconsequential items as necessary, or at least preferred over expending the energy needed to do dispose of it all. Effective cleaning, be it ridding a room of useless kitsch, allergen-carrying particles, or sickness-causing germs takes intentionality as well as a bit of passion. One must hate or at least strongly dislike the negative impact of accruing unnecessary stuff. The Mayo Clinic website has as article describing what is called “Hoarding Disorder.” Excessively acquiring items that are not needed or for which there is no space. It creates health, safety, and social problems. And when the person cannot see it as a bad situation, it typically gets worse and doesn’t usually end well, on multiple levels.

While I am not an impulsive cleaner, I have come to appreciate an uncluttered and sanitized house. This is primarily due to being married to someone who is passionate about cleaning and organizing (and not just in the springtime). I sometimes argue with her about the things she wants to get rid of. “We may need that someday.” “It will feel weird to not have that.” “But that reminds me of things I don’t want to forget.” Or “That just sounds like too much work.” In the end, however, it feels good to have a living environment that is free of unnecessary stuff. And rarely do I ever miss any of it (especially the dirt).

Another Level of Cleaning

The house of one’s heart can have the same needs as a physical home. We accumulate spiritual pathogens as well as emotional baggage and debris over time. Especially through the dark winters of life, unhealthy stuff clings to us. And many of us just continue to live with it all, even when deep down we know it’s time for a seasonal change, not realizing that there is a cleansing process available.

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Choosing Redemption for My Imagination

It was a cold night in late October when I saw Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia with my own eyes. I was carrying my one-year-old son, and my wife had the hands of our other two small children as we hurried across Red Square. We had only one evening in Moscow before heading home, and we wanted to see the changing of the guard at Vladimir Lenin’s tomb. The sun had already set, and we were late for the beginning of the formal procedure. But once we got there, it was the cathedral off to the left that drew my attention. I was struck with a sense of awe. I had seen photos all my life. Yet it was when I stood there next to it with the multiple spotlights illuminating the bright colors that I was overcome with the wonder and beauty of this 16th century piece of architecture. I remember thinking, “This was at one time just an idea in somebody’s head. And now, here it is, a physical reality!”

From what I have read, the first Czar, Ivan the Terrible, commissioned it to be built. But the architect remains unknown. One story says that Ivan, in his determination to make sure the cathedral remained forever unique, had the nameless designer blinded so he would be unable to duplicate his masterpiece. Yes, there are reasons Czar Ivan carried the unpleasant name that he did.

Seeing What Does Not Yet Exist

Remembering Saint Basil’s Cathedral gets me pondering the wonder of the human imagination. What did God have in mind when He gave people the capacity to create? The act of generating something new involves bringing into being that which was previously an intangible idea. Ultimately, everything that has been made or shaped by human hands at one time was merely a notion in someone’s thoughts or dreams.

Stuff that did not exist became “realities” through the process of imagining “What if?” There was a time when things like gunpowder, the compass, the airplane, the space shuttle, and even the internet were not. But the movie screen of the human imagination pictured them, or at least the need or desire for something like them. And from there, individuals simply started acting on what they “saw,” and new things, wonderful things, came into existence.

Creativity is so cool!

The Dark Side?

But there’s another aspect to it. The “What if?” question that is so closely linked to the imagination can have a less desirable application as well. When the movie screen of my mind is allowed to project potential scenarios based on fear, anxiety, pain, selfishness, or just plain evil, things more ominous can come into being. Similar to positive creation, all it takes is for me to begin to act on the darker images flashed onto the walls of my mind, and grim realities that weren’t there before begin to take shape.

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