Choosing Well

V. Rev. Steven A. Peay, Ph.D
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live….”

Some years ago Barry Schwartz wrote an interesting book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. What he concluded is that the vast varieties of choices available to us in modern America are not making us happier. Rather, they’re making us less happy, because the burden of choice is more than we wish to take on. Schwartz recounts his experience of going into a GAP store and naively asking for a new pair of blue jeans. The clerk asked if he wanted slim fit, easy fit or relaxed fit; regular or faded; stone-washed, or acid-washed; button-fly or regular fly. Spending much longer in the store than he’d planned, investing ‘time, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety and dread,” he eventually settled on ‘easy fit.’

Piqued by this experience, he made a loose inventory of his local supermarket, where he found 85 varieties of crackers and 285 of cookies, 230 different soups, 120 pasta sauces and 175 kinds of salad dressing. A book on American consumerism told him that the typical supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. He began to suspect that at some point “choice no longer liberates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

Let me give you yet another example. A number of years ago the mustard industry was changed by the folks who make ‘Grey Poupon.’ Originally it was a one hundred thousand dollar a year business and hardly French, save the name and the style of mustard – you can find out more at the mustard museum in Middleton (where you can find over 400 kinds of mustard) — the mustard seeds for Grey Poupon are from Canada and it’s made in Connecticut. Still, savvy marketers – remember the Rolls Royces and the “Excuse me. Do you have any Grey Poupon?” commercials – brought a change from plain old yellow mustard. Now there are shelves of mustards.

I suppose it’s summed up well by Schwarz when he makes the point elsewhere in the book that, “Remember that ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’ is a bumper sticker, not wisdom.” At root, he helps to remind us that part of our task is choosing well and not allowing the process of choice to overwhelm us.

Choices abound and each day we have to rise and make choices that not only affect ourselves, but others as well. We not only have to make choices about what we will do to make a living, what we will ‘be’ when we grow up, now it seems we can also choose never to grow up, but also about how we will live, what we will eat, wear, and on and on. Soren Kierkegaard, the existentialist philosopher, referred to choices overwhelming us as the source of two kinds of despair. The despair of possibility, he tells us, comes from the lack of necessity. And the despair of necessity comes from the lack of possibility. Those living in the two-thirds world may suffer from the second, but those of us in the United States, where life is a matter of choice, certainly can understand the first – even when it comes to something as simple as shopping for groceries or for shoes, or even blue jeans, as Barry Schwartz discovered.

While we can comment on the situation in our own time, we cannot think that this concern is one unique to us. After all Kierkegaard lived in nineteenth century Denmark and he was confronted with the difficulty of choosing well. It must be a part of the human condition. Perhaps that is why Moses spoke what he did to the people of Israel, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” What we read from Deuteronomy is all about choice and change, and we are reminded that we are active participants in the process. Moses calls “heaven and earth” to witness against Israel, and us, that we have had the choices set before us.

And because we are an active agent in our formation we react to the opportunity. We are gifted with the freedom of will and the ability to make choices. Most of the created world does not have the opportunity that we have as human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. For example, clay cannot choose to be anything other than what it is and must stay that way until it is formed into a vessel or some other piece; not so with us. We may have been made from the “dust of the ground,” but we have had “Divine breath” blown into us and have become “living souls.” We can choose to make ourselves into something other than what the Creator desires precisely because we have been given the freedom to choose.

When Jesus addresses the crowd that follows him he reminds them that they must make a choice in doing so. Jesus may choose whom he wishes to be his disciples, but the disciple must first count the cost and realize that the demands that are to be made upon him or her will be real. Jesus uses some very difficult hyperbolic language here to make his point. While we can see the hyperbole in the call to “hate father, mother, wife and children,” we can’t get away from the importance of what Jesus is saying. The one who chooses to follow Jesus must relativize everything else in life. Everything, including the human relationships that are most dear to us, becomes secondary to the love and service of God. We make a choice to follow and that involves our keeping faith with our action in the way we live, in the way we relate to other people, and in the attitudes we hold. Jesus’ call to “take up the cross” is no small thing.

For Jesus the cross is more than a metaphor for the difficulties one encounters in life. The cross is a total offering of self on behalf of others, it is loving without measure, and it is complete devotion to God. In short, it is the way of discipleship and it tells us that half-hearted discipleship isn’t. The follower of Christ is not one who seeks the lowest common denominator or the path of least resistance. So, how do we make sure we choose well and follow Christ?

Those who choose to follow Jesus are in a constant process of formation – we are always becoming what we are to be. Being a Christian isn’t a “one and done thing.” We don’t just “give our hearts to Jesus” and there’s an end to it. No, that is just the beginning. All you have to do is look at the Baptismal Covenant in the BCP. There you see what we pledge ourselves to do – and if you haven’t looked at it, may I suggest you do so from time-to-time, it’s a great spiritual exercise To make the right choice and to follow is to also to choose a life that involves study, prayer, and active service. We become better followers by every day opening ourselves to formation, realizing that God is far from finished with us, and by seeing each day as an opportunity for growth, for change, for improvement. We are possessed with the freedom of conscience, but we are called upon to form that conscience and to use it in the right way.

We see an exercise in conscience formation in Paul’s letter to Philemon. When Paul wrote this brief letter to Philemon, he was inviting him to change. I wish we had time to just explore the wonderful puns that are here in the Greek, because they add to the subtlety of the argument. Suffice it to say Paul calls Philemon to make a choice, a choice for change, a choice for the good. He asks him to take back Onesimus, his slave who had run away, and to take him back not as a slave, but as his equal in Christ. In short, Paul is asking Philemon to make a radical choice to change his way of being, his way of looking at the world, and at the society in which he lives. Paul, echoing Jesus, is saying, love people who are different from you in the same way you love your very self. The extraordinary choice Philemon is called to make is the ordinary demand of Christian life, to live out responsible freedom. It’s a call to change again and again, until we become perfect – complete, as God is.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letter to a Young Poet, “People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult.” What he wrote is true for the Christian. Our choices are not the easy ones, but the difficult because we’re called to something more, something better. We don’t want to end up like Barry Schwartz, settling for “easy fit,” especially when we are called to choose well and follow Christ’s way of self-giving love.  So….choose….and live.