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Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life that you may live.”Deuteronomy 30: 19.
What a strange thing to say – choose life! Isn’t life automatic, a given? I am alive because many years ago through a process even the youngest now understand, I one day came into being, came alive. And one day, just as surely, I shall die, cease to live. How is it possible to talk about choosing life? How is it possible to say I will most truly live only if I make a deliberate choice today?
The words suggest that there is a “life” that is more than biological heart beat and lung breath. And with only a moment’s reflection, we all recognize that this is the case. A cartoon in the New Yorker makes the point with a picture of a sedentary man slumped in his easy chair staring vacantly out the window. Behind him on the sofa sits his wife with a friend. The wife is saying, “Last week, I think he had a near-life experience.”
So real human life is more than biological. We say of someone, “He certainly has a lot of vitality. She is full of life.” When we talk this way we make clear that life is a matter of quality, of energy, of enthusiasm. We all want to be fully alive. We all want to live with intensity and spirit. But is this finally a matter of choice? This old faith insists that it is. Because a life of spirit and enthusiasm, a life of intensity and vitality, comes only as we make certain kinds of choices, decide for a certain way of being in the world.
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First of all, embrace of life is embrace of law. Moses, for example, couples the choice for life with a choice to live by certain commandments, statutes, ordinances. Now I admit that these are not very lively sounding words. But this ancient way insists that without a certain kind of structure to our lives consisting of moral standards, good habits, sound principles of living, we will end up less than alive. We will end up dissipated, confused, unmotivated.
But this runs contrary to the way our culture sees life, thinks about life, imagines what makes for life. I think one of the most counter-cultural phrases in the Bible is the words of the Psalmist, “Oh, how I love Thy law, O Lord.” Can you imagine a contemporary sixteen year old identifying with this sentiment? Bob Green, once of the Tribune, had an insightful column in which he argued that the two most influential Americans in the 20th century were Elvis Presley and Hugh Hefner. “The major difference between America in 1950 and today is a certain looseness; a slackening of standards, a freedom of self-expression that is excessive and unhealthy. Nevertheless, this change in lifestyles is the most significant thing to happen in the US in the last 50 years. It will affect the country in years to come more than all the political upheavals, more than all the scientific breakthroughs … Quite simply, Elvis Presley and Hugh Hefner let Americans know that they could behave in any way they please. Conventional ideas of morality didn’t matter; the standards of one’s parents didn’t matter. All that mattered was that feeling good became an end in itself, pleasure and self-gratification could bring riches and happiness.”
Fortunately there are also intelligent protests against this cultural drift. Gene Koppel, Professor of English at the University of Arizona, writes, “Man fulfills himself by leading a humane, rational, responsible life in organized society. Further, one’s individual nature develops, or fails to develop, to the extent that he follows this moral law. In other words, if a person lives as a giving responsible individual, his unique selfhood will be realized; if his existence is self-centered and irresponsible, his human potential will be stunted. And if this self-indulgent life continues, the man’s heart will become hardened; he will become increasingly incapable of responding to what is good and human and beautiful in life.”
If there is any attitude that needs to be changed in our day, especially with the young, it is the attitude that religious and moral restraint, guidelines, rules, are a damper on real life, a limit to our fun. There is no real life, indeed no meaningful fun, without moral principles, guidelines and limits, ordering and directing us. Deciding for life means to decide for personal discipline and structure.
But, of course, choosing life means more than this. Structure and order by themselves are not enough. If real life consisted only of rules and commandments, it would be a pretty deadly thing. These, in and of themselves, do not give life. Real life also requires the spirit that Jesus brings to the rules, the commandments, and statutes and laws. He said to the law givers of his day, “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” But what kind of life is it that Jesus brings to the party, this so-called abundant life?
The words about life abundant come in the middle of a conversation in which Jesus accuses the religious leaders of his day of having turned the old faith into a security blanket, a tight knit and exclusive community of safety, walled off against the outsider, cut off from the world, focused on avoidance of failure, compulsive about keeping the letter of the law. They were not unusual. Religion in any age always risks the temptation to turn itself into a fortress rather than a launching pad, a safe haven from the world, rather than an adventure into the world.
The life Jesus brings is not a life that by-passes law, that negates the need for structure, but that goes beyond these in the spiritual qualities of trust and love and hope. You see, everything depends upon why we seek to live the good life, why we seek to be responsible, why we cling to our principles, why we want to live. If it is out of fear, if it is to play it safe, if it is to exclude and condemn, if it is to be right where others are wrong, then structure and principle can turn life into a prison as it had for Jesus’ opponents. If it is out of trust in God, love of his purposes for us, care for one another, hope toward the future even in the worst that life can throw at us, then we learn real life. In other words, if it is life lived with something of the spirit we see in Jesus, the spirit he came to make real in our lives, this we discover is the only real life, the only life worth living.
And it seems to me that the spirit of Jesus is an interesting combination of acceptance and courage. Embracing life is the willingness to embrace our lot. Jesus is able to accept where he is and what he must do, as God’s will for him, and in that he achieves a real freedom and peace. So this, also, is to choose life. It is to choose our lot. As David Grason writes, “Joy in life seems to me to arise from a sense of being where one belongs. All the dis-contented people I know are trying frantically to be something they are not, to do something they cannot. Contentment, and indeed, usefulness come as the infallible result of great acceptances.
How do we learn abundant life? By choosing again this day to embrace who we are and where we are, the relationships and duties, the circumstances and tasks which are there for us, as God’s will for us insofar as we can tell, for now. But this is not stoic passivity. Jesus does not simply acquiesce in what comes his way. He meets what comes his way with faith and courage and thus transforms the duties and relationships that are there for him. Choosing life means both acceptance of who and where we are and the courage to seek to transform who and where we are.
We were in Europe recently and it struck me again how American culture has conquered the world. I admit I am ambivalent about how. One travels to discover difference. MacDonalds everywhere, and Pizza Hut, and, yes, KFC. It used to be called Kentucky Fried Chicken until Madison Avenue discovered that fried food is a “No, no.”
But it reminded me of the story behind it, which is a story about choosing life. The man was born in Kentucky. He was able to go only through seventh grade because, as he later said, He ” couldn’t figure algebra.” During his succeeding years he was a streetcar conductor, a fireman on the railroad, an insurance agent, and finally a restaurant owner. It was called Sanders’ Cafe in Corbin, Kentucky. When he was over sixty he was offered $200,000 for his restaurant, but he turned it down because he loved the business and wasn’t ready to retire.
A few years later at age sixty-five he had lost everything. The re-routing of an interstate had put him out of business. All he had was a Social Security check each month. Many would have been crushed by this turn of events and would have hunkered down to ride out the rest of the years. But this man got to thinking about his mother who had been a widow for many years. She peeled tomatoes in a tomato factory and sewed for a living.
He remembered the great fried chicken he had grown up with, and the impulse came, the push, what he would later call “his call.” He kissed his wife good-bye and set off in a battered old car, going out not knowing quite where he was going; with a pressure cooker and a can of specially prepared flour, set out to sell his idea.
It was tough going. A lot of self doubt. He often slept in his car because there was no money for hotel rooms. But he persisted. He called on restaurant after restaurant until finally he found a man in Salt Lake City who was willing to accept a franchise. In two years, he had sold two hundred franchises. In seven years, he had sold five hundred. So the business prospered. But he never seemed to care much about the money. He finally sold the business for two million and was hired back as a PR man, the picture of a gracious, loving, kindly gentleman of the old school, known to us as Colonel Sanders.
How do you explain such courage, such energy, such life? Well, on his 80th birthday, he spoke in Louisville, Kentucky and explained himself. He began with the comment that he had probably killed more chickens than anyone in American history. He told how they were killing chickens one day and came to an especially appealing chicken. The executioner said, “I like you, little chicken. Before you die, is there anything you would like to say?” And the little chicken said, “Yes, as a Christian chicken, I just want to say that I forgive Colonel Sanders.” Then he went on to say, “The secret of my life is that I am a follower of Jesus Christ. And because I try to follow him I have learned to think. I never had much education, but I once read in the Bible these words. ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.’ And I pondered that. I figured that it meant to think without hate, without frustration, but with courage and hope, and so I have tried to live.” When he died at age ninety, newspapers all over the world carried the story. He was editorialized as an example to youth the world over.
Choose life. Can we, against all the voices we hear around now that say that real life depends upon other people, upon my circumstance, upon my fortune good or bad, now even my genes? Francis Fukuyama, in a recent article entitled, “Is It All In The Genes?” argues that, until recently, we have been taught that we are victims of our environment, our parents, our poverty or wealth, but the new voices are now telling us that we are all victims of our genes, our genetic programming. “Just as people excuse themselves today by saying that ‘society made me do it,’ tomorrow they are likely to plead that ‘my genes made me do it,’ and to find support in the expert testimony of a host of biologists armed with charts and statistical regressions.”
So can I believe that I decide whether I will really live or not? This word of truth, this word of God says, “Yes, you can, you really can.” In spite of all the forces within and without that impinge upon you, you retain the freedom of which this old faith speaks, the freedom Jesus offers and to which he calls each one of us; calls you. Even as did Larry Robb, one of the most successful stock brokers in Texas (in the 60’s).. He was injured in a plane crash, suffered third-degree burns over most of his body. He said later that he realized he had a choice to make as he was lying so burned in deep snow. Should he lie there peacefully and let nature take its course or should he try to get up and somehow find help? His surgeon said later that the severity of his burns gave him a one-in-a thousand chance. And yet somehow with the help of a team of skilled physicians and a lot of faith, he survived.
When called a week later after the accident, his comment on the phone to a friend was, “I’m doing great, pal. I’ve had a little, temporary inconvenience here that has slowed me down for awhile … but no problem.” Larry endured sixty operations, took to wearing a ski-mask in his home town. Wondered how they would handle that the first time he went to his bank.
After years of agonizing therapy and treatment, legs rebuilt with skin grafts, scar tissue that formed around his mouth surgically, he went back to work as a stockbroker, successful as ever. But how did he explain his power to hold on through this ordeal. He said that if you have faith in God and know yourself from the inside out you don’t get so discouraged when the unexpected comes. He says, “It is much easier to get back to being who you know you are than it is to become like someone you don’t know. You can’t always dredge up faith and hope when the roof falls in, unless you have learned to choose and live these, learned to choose life on sunnier days and in easier times.” So these must be chosen; law and lot, structure and spirit, must be embraced and affirmed with each new day. Today I must choose to trust against my anxieties. Today I must choose the right and moral way against my own convenience and self-centeredness. Today I must choose to hope in God’s power and purpose, against my tendency to despair and give up on life.
Jesus said, I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly. So today let us again this day choose life, his life, that today God may bless us and we, one another.
Copyright 2007, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.