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 a Soft Heart in Worship

Some stories in the Bible have struck me as unfair, and at times I have found myself sympathizing with the “bad guy.” Take for example the parable of the three servants who received money from their master to invest while he was gone (Matthew 25:14-30). I can relate to the last servant who was given only one bag of money, compared to the other servants, with one receiving two and the other five. Of course he felt less important than the other two as well as unmotivated, feeling he could never be equal with them. And then the master treated the single-bag servant so harshly. In another version of the story, the master took the one bag of silver from the chastised servant and gave it to the one who already had 10 (Luke 19:11-27)! Unfair! Unfair!

I have, however, come to appreciate the lessons from this parable (like the consequences of comparing myself with others). Yet I’m still uncomfortable with how my natural sense of fairness is rarely affirmed in the Bible. It seems that God is more often interested in what goes on inside a person (the part others can’t see) than what is judged as right or wrong from outside observation. He sees and seeks to deal with a person at a heart level.

For No Apparent Reason

Another one that has bothered me over the years is the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16). The two brothers each brought gifts to the LORD as part of their worship. Cain was a farmer, and so he presented a sampling of his crops to God. Abel was a shepherd who brought a lamb. Makes sense so far. But then God responded by accepting Abel’s offering and rejecting Cain’s. Cain was angry and depressed about it. There’s no further explanation. No explicit commandment that was disobeyed. Cain became so ticked off at his younger brother that he killed him, the first murder. And while of course Cain’s response was evil, some have suggested that God provoked him. Why would God arbitrarily welcome one gift and accept another, especially when both were apparently brought as an act of worship? I have been tempted again to cry “unfair!”

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Choosing a Secure Confidence

It has become a beloved classic. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, although written by C.S. Lewis as a children’s story, has powerfully communicated the Gospel message to many adults as well. Aslan, a lion and a Christ figure in the story, has a way of getting behind some of our unhelpful stereotypical images of Jesus and God. In one very memorable scene, the four Pevensie children are questioning Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about this lion they have just heard about and are having a difficult time understanding his appeal. “’Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”

Lucy’s concern about this powerful being that she and her siblings are just learning about is similar to that of many Jesus followers. Am I safe in God’s hands? Do I dare allow myself to fully trust Him with my entire life? Will I in the end get hurt or regret making myself vulnerable to Him? These are fair and very natural questions. But ultimately, I don’t think they allow us to explore God to the fullest or open the door to know Him in the way He desires to be known.

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Choosing to Just Read It!

Full disclosure: I am a recovering English teacher. It’s been many years since I stood in front of a class of middle-schoolers and attempted to convey the beauty of past participles, gerunds and the joy of diagramming a sentence. The response was almost always less than rewarding. Honestly, I never personally liked anything grammatical. It was just part of the job. And focusing on grammar never seemed to produce more motivated readers anyway. But I do find myself every once in a while, as I read, breaking apart a sentence to see if there might be anything hidden a little deeper in the text. This can be helpful when I attempt to comprehend the pithy thinking of a philosopher or theologian. Typically it sounds boring and labor-intensive, so it doesn’t happen often.

My grammatical antennae recently went up, however, as I was reading the Bible. It’s a book that is not always easy to appreciate, especially if you venture into the non-stories. It easily feels like theological gibberish and takes some work to comprehend what’s being said. But the payoff for making the effort can be enriching for a Jesus follower (and even those who are not yet following Him). Unfortunately, I don’t know the original languages of ancient Hebrew or Greek to help me in the process. But as my eyes passed over the text last week, some insignificant English words caught my attention and got me wondering. Suddenly I was seeing prepositions and actually asking myself what they meant. And that can be a bit unsettling, even for an English teacher.

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Choosing to Mature God’s Way

I only have to look in the mirror to be reminded of the many birthdays I have experienced. It’s funny how my excitement and attitude toward turning another year older have changed since I was young. Birthdays used to be the happy focal point for my entire year. It’s easy now to slip into a dark gloom as I count down to those milestone dates that mock my youthful days. What is there to look forward to as the number of candles on my cake moves well beyond a half century?

Other than increased body aches and my age corresponding with the decade that gave us lava lamps and bubble wrap, I haven’t minded getting older. I have experienced benefits, and I try to focus on those. The youthful angst is gone. I care less about what others think about me and feel freer to be and do life according to how God made me. I thoroughly enjoy solitary moments but believe more than ever that I have valuable things to offer others. And as I reflect on what has been the most important ingredient contributing to my growth from a shy, foolish, insecure boy to a man who is less shy, less foolish, and less insecure, I realize there’s been an anomaly at work.

A paradox is a statement or idea that seems contradictory at face value but when examined more closely is quite true. It’s easy to overlook such things since much of the time we don’t probe beyond the surface of an idea. The paradox that so many miss, and that I believe to be a key to greater wisdom and maturity while aging, is that I must become more like a child. Yes. I’m confident that valuing, embracing, and living out qualities that we typically attribute to children will change any life for the better.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15, NLT).

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Choosing From Where I Seek Help

For some reason it’s painful to admit that I’m not a handyman. Sure, I have taught myself how to fix some things around the house. But, I have also created a lot of messes. The bottom-line issue has almost always been to save money. Time is usually less expensive for me than hiring a trained professional. So, I have been motivated to figure it out myself, or find convenient and cheap advice. My do-it-yourself plumbing jobs and electric wiring projects, therefore, have rarely been completed without mishap. Yet I’ve had just enough successes to keep me feeling “I’ve got this one.”

The writer of Psalm 121 said, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” This is an ageless question. Where should we look when we need some help? We all require it, regardless whether we admit it to ourselves or not. Whether it’s how to fix the bathroom faucet from dripping, or how to climb out of a massive hole of credit-card debt, or what to do with the confusing questions surrounding identity, purpose, sexuality, past, future, etc. Sooner or later we all ask ourselves, “From where does my help come?” How we answer greatly determines where we end up down the road. The source we seek help from today will either create greater messes or lead us toward a life-giving, peaceful future.

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Choosing an Incarnated God

At the beginning of my senior year in high school, my family moved to another state. It was difficult for many reasons. The hardest one was that I was leaving a girlfriend (who would eventually become my wife). This was back before the internet and FaceTime. Cell phones were still a thing of the future, and long-distance calls were expensive. Yet Christine and I somehow managed to keep our relationship going, eventually attending the same college. But I can say this with conviction: long-distance relationships are difficult.

Zoom meetings (though they got old) made the COVID pandemic, with all its isolation, more tolerable. Yet, the longing for almost everyone was to be with others in person. There are some things that can only be communicated, imparted, and received when we’re together in the flesh!

Christine and I enjoyed our overpriced phone calls and hand-written letters during that last year of high school. But the real thrill came counting down the days to each visit when we would actually be together (and we managed several throughout that year). Those were the moments when I paid attention to every movement, posture, facial expression, fragrance. Her words and smile resonated in my mind and heart in a way that wasn’t possible over the phone. Those visits cemented our love for each other and are part of the foundation of our relationship to this day.

What a Loving Creator Will Do

God began His love affair with humans in person, in a Garden. But through our own fault, we were separated. He provided an opportunity for a long-distance relationship with willing people through laws, regulations, and other communications of His expectations. But while these commandments revealed some aspects of God’s desires and character, intimate connection was painfully difficult to develop merely through a written code. 

And at a certain point in human history, God decided it was time for a visit.

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Choosing the Way of the Magi

Christmas stirs my imagination. Not only can I endlessly ponder the significance of our eternal God becoming a full-fledged human, I am intrigued by the variety of responses in the Bible to this event: Bethlehem shepherds awestruck by an angelic light show; Nazareth residents scandalized by an unwed pregnant teenager in their tight-knit community. Jerusalem’s citizens and king confused and disturbed that a new king is being announced when the old one is still on his throne. But the characters who arouse my curiosity the most are the Magi from the East. Depending on the Bible translation one uses, they are also referred to as kings or wise men in the Gospel of Matthew.

So, what makes them special?

As I have researched these guys over the years, the main thing I’ve learned is that we really don’t know much about these travelers. We can make some educated guesses taking a historical look at who the Magi were known to be. And those guesses can open a whole new appreciation of what these mysterious characters were all about and what their motivations might have been.

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Choosing to Call Out Courage in Another

I was in the third grade when I painfully discovered something about myself. A teacher was giving a math lesson on the multiplication table using a chart with colored geometric shapes. She asked for a volunteer to provide the answer to 3X3, referring to the colored circles on the poster. I raised my hand, was called on, and enthusiastically shouted out, “Nine blue circles!” I knew I had the right answer. But the teacher’s response confused me. “No, they’re purple. What’s wrong with you?” She then asked another child to provide the “correct” answer. Everyone in the class was looking. That was the first time I remember feeling such shame. Something was wrong with me. A year later at an eye doctor’s appointment, I was diagnosed with a type of color blindness. Certain shades of blues and purples, among other colors, looked virtually the same in my world.

On the surface, this shouldn’t have been an event that left a scar. Yet more than 50 years later, it’s still quite vivid in my memory. I forgave the teacher who callously humiliated me a long time ago and have since learned to laugh off most of my color-blind blunderings. But the incident also highlighted for me the difference between merely calling out people’s weaknesses versus calling out courage for them to grow beyond their weaknesses and walk out their destiny.

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Choosing to Be Holy

The word “holiness” has always fascinated me while at the same time making me feel uncomfortable. Throughout the scriptures, it is used to describe God, His Spirit, His dwelling place and many of the things he does and has done. My discomfort comes from the fact that I can’t relate.

To be holy gives me the impression of being disconnected from reality, in a way that sounds extremely boring and a little scary. Yet on the more attractive side, it has sometimes stirred a sense of mystery within, mainly because I feel there’s more to it than I have experienced or understood. Something or someone that is holy seems to be in another realm that is definitely not of this world. “Otherness” or “indescribable purity” come to my mind. If true, it could be kind of fascinating to experience. But, practically speaking, why would I want it?

Most definitions I hear equate being holy with being “set apart.” Most the examples of “holiness” that I have been shown over the years, however, have centered on what a person didn’t do (and were usually proud of it). People who were serious about holiness didn’t wear certain clothes, especially the kind that were popular or trendy. They didn’t touch alcohol, tobacco or drugs—at least so others knew about it. They stayed away from expressions of any kind of sexuality, never even talking about it. And for the overachievers, women wouldn’t wear any makeup or jewelry, the men grew no facial hair, there were no tattoos, and everyone avoided going to dances or watching movies. And then there were those who seemed to see it all as a competition. That was my impression.

No thank you. I can live without “holiness.”

There’s more to it?

But then, as a Jesus follower, I find the word all throughout the scriptures. What am I supposed to do with it? One verse in particular gets me: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14, NIV). This appears to say that holiness is a requirement for getting close to God. Really? It sounds like God thinks this is pretty important.

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Choosing to Believe Anyway

“He will order His angels to protect you.” 

These words from Psalm 91 are a great comfort for many people right now. It says in verse 6, “Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness, nor the disaster that strikes at midday” (NLT). What a reminder that COVID with all its variants, and every other potential disease outbreak, are not outside God’s jurisdiction. Neither is the threat of nuclear war, nor a sinking economy. The  promises here are meant to stir up our confidence in our Heavenly Father’s love and power today in the same way this Psalm encouraged the original hearers nearly 3,000 years ago.

But interestingly, this Psalm has also been used as a tool of temptation. We’re told in Matthew 4 that when Jesus was tempted in the desert, Satan quoted scripture at Him, portions of Psalm 91. It was the second of three temptations (read post, Choosing to Not Take the Bait). The devil took Jesus to the highest point of the Jerusalem temple and dared Him to take a leap. “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone’ ” (Matthew 4:6 NLT). This might sound reasonable to some of us as a way for Jesus to prove He’s the Son of God—performance of a superhuman feat! But Jesus did not give in to Satan’s use of this Psalm.

He responded: “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the LORD your God’ ” (Matthew 4:7 NLT).

Testing God?

What is that supposed to mean? I personally have never felt the slightest temptation to throw myself off any tall edifice to see if an angel would catch me. Curious? Maybe. Temptation? Definitely not. So, how am I to relate this incident to my own life? Is it testing God merely when I stupidly get myself into a dangerous situation and expect Him to snap His fingers and get me out? 

No. I think there’s much more to it.

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