Choose Life!

From Cloud Cult to Wham! in one short week!  I’m resisting the temptation to put up a photo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley (who will forever be known as “that other guy from Wham!”) sporting the iconic T-shirt of my adolescence, but surely you can Google that if you missed out on the 80’s.

I think people often read this week’s text from Deuteronomy with as much subtlety as a Wham! song. In Deuteronomy 30:15-20, we seem to be offered a stark choice between “life and prosperity,” on the one hand, and “death and adversity,” on the other. Our day-to-day choices seldom seem that clear-cut.  Most of us experience life as a mixed bag of adversity and prosperity, and while we often notice when we seem to be getting more than our fair share of adversity, we think less often about how we’re faring as a community and the work we’re called to do together. In our individualistic culture, it’s easy to read this passage as a formula for obtaining God’s official stamp of approval on our personal aspirations, and lose sight of the practices God is calling us to embrace as a community.

I remember, about eight years ago, spending the night with Paul’s brother and sister-in-law. As I was getting settled into the lovely bedroom they had insisted on giving up for us, I spied a copy of The Prayer of Jabez on the nightstand, a book that for many epitomizes the “prosperity gospel.” It seemed to be working out pretty well for them. My brother-in-law and his wife had recently taken a huge risk. They had given up their good jobs and their beautiful home and moved with their two children back to Minnesota to take over the old family farmstead. Within a couple of weeks, both had found jobs that were perfect for them. Just as quickly, they settled into life in the idyllic little town and became instantly beloved pillars of the community. They were rapidly employing my sister-in-law’s excellent taste in restoring the old farmhouse and grounds, and after a few short months it already felt like the perfect warm, homey extension of their truly wonderful family.

Meanwhile, our own lives were in shambles. We had spent the past four years plowing through one medical disaster after another and we were still reeling from the death of our four-year-old son from a rare and cruel cancer. Our cramped house was a mess of neglected projects, our neighborhood was deteriorating, and we were growing weary of life in our noisy, crime-ridden pocket of the city. Lying there in my in-laws’ graciously appointed featherbed, listening to the old windmill whirr pastorally in the distance, I was consumed with envy. I stared at the cover of that insipid book and wanted to fling The Prayer of Jabez against the tastefully decorated wall.

Thank God our loving families bore with us through those bitter times! The happy footnote is that every summer Paul’s siblings and parents take turns descending on one another’s houses to help with DIY projects.  Together, we built a massive porch on that farmhouse, and when we sit on that porch, sipping our lemonade in the summer breeze, it’s a grace-filled reminder that when we invest in one another’s lives and build up ever-widening circles of community, we all share in God’s true prosperity. And God has much bigger projects in mind for us than porch-building.

Terese Lewis

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2 Responses to Choose Life!

  1. BC Gordon says:

    Terese, you’ve written a very honest essay here. It is a beautiful depiction of our humanity. You mentioned that you experienced “envy” while staying at your in-laws home. The comparison of your story at the time, against their prosperity makes it hard to be-grudge you that envy.

    I was raised in a strict Evangelical background. The Church used all sorts of words to simplify our attitudes and actions into something that could be addressed with a simple scripture. Envy was one of those words (along with the six other deadly sins). Yes, you were envious of your in-laws prosperity, but I think that your feelings were both more complicated and at the same more simple than the word “envy” gets at. You were experiencing your humanity. Yes, it was not a positive aspect of humanity, but it was part of what made you the human that you were at that time. I think that it’s important to embrace those moments, and face our “weaknesses”. These moments of actually looking at ourselves in our complete sense (both good and bad) help us to be useful to others who experience similar times. These are the building blocks of empathy. True empathy, which goes far beyond sympathy. If you labeled your attitude “envy” and, as in my simplistic faith childhood, ask for forgiveness for this “sin”, then it makes you utterly useless to others that can’t make such a profession in their dark times. Seeking forgiveness is certainly not a bad thing, but in my mind it is only part of the process. The first part is to realize that as a human you will be confronted with attitudes that are not positive, and you can’t always brush them away with a prayer (not that you are implying that you did). I really enjoyed your story. It makes me feel better about my moments of envy and jealousy. I have friends who seem to always have things going for them. Perfect lives in comparison to mine. But you’re story gives me hope that we can come together. We can build something together. But we can only do this if we allow ourselves to truly be ourselves (and all that implies), and that can be challenging sometimes. Thank you, again, for your story.

  2. Lisa Wiens Heinsohn says:

    Terese, I so value your willingness to share this story. The loss of a child to a cruel disease has to be one of the most painful things one can suffer in this life. Bad things, even terrible things, really do happen to good people. I too would like to fling easy “prosperity” theology against the wall. The ancients understood theology to be medicine. It can also be poison when it is not “good news.”

    I struggle with understanding the ways of God in this world, and knowing how good / evil and prosperity / abundance vs. suffering fit into those ways. I appreciated where you went with your blog–that God’s “true prosperity” was around community: being WITH one another in good, and bad, times. According to Karl Barth, Jesus was the “true Human” who was, simply, “God with us.” For me personally, I understand his torturous death simply as an extravagant expression of God’s willingness to suffer the worst with us without being overcome by it, and a model–and much more–of how we are called to be with one another.

    Hopefully we can enter into one another’s stories with complete empathy. Marshall Rosenberg, author of the book Nonviolent Communication, describes empathy and connection as the goal of human living. Theresa Latini, professor of pastoral care at Luther Seminary and leader in the field of nonviolent communication, reminds that humans are made in the image of God–which means being-in-encounter with one another. We are made, and called, to see each other truly, authentically, and with love.

    Thank you for opening the door to such encounters on this blog. May we “choose life” in the form of willingness to share one another’s joys and burdens without judgment and with love.

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