It’s not often enough that I make the time to read fiction these days. This is so, in spite of the fact that a well crafted story — factually true or not — awakens my imagination and pushes me to measure my own life’s choices in ways little else does.
And so it was a couple of weeks ago I spent a few days living alongside the two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle in Kristen Hannah’s The Nightingale. Set in Nazi Occupied France during World War II, this remarkable novel is based loosely on the legendary life of one of the two sisters who devoted her life to the work of the underground — specifically that of rescuing downed British and American pilots. Throughout the story we hear how these two women make hard choices, day after day after day. And on many days? It seemed circumstances created a climate which meant there was not necessarily one good, ‘morally pure,’ right choice. And yet, they kept moving forward, attempting to ‘choose life’ in the best way they could.
My life is clean and easy compared to the world I lived in alongside Vianne and Isabelle for a few days. Even so, it surely helps me to dwell in such stories for such as these remind me of the ways in which my choices, too, reflect my values, my hopes, my dreams, — and hopefully, most of all, my faith.
Indeed, the story I offer now is an old one and is in some ways yet unresolved. And while it is so that it was a large ‘choosing’ that was mine to make then, it serves as but an example. Without a doubt, we also’choose life or death’ in small ways every single day.
This is how it was. I was 20 years old and a sophomore in college where I was majoring in political science. It was in a course which focused on international relations and the power of multinational corporations where my eyes were opened to the sometimes abuses perpetrated by entities whose bottom line is always monetary profit. Now one doesn’t have to work hard today to realize that much of what you and I consume is done so ‘cheaply’ at the expense of impoverished workers the world over. This was news to me then, though. It was but a footnote in a larger textbook which pointed out this sort of abuse by one such corporation in a country in the southern hemisphere. That company also had an operation in my hometown. Indeed, that very company in its local expression in a small town in Northern Illinois helped pay my way through college by giving me a summer job.
I remember still how my heart fell when I put all those pieces together. I remember the internal struggle I had for even though I was hardly out of my teens I sensed that I was somehow complicit in all of this. I wondered then what to do. Was I wrong to build my own future on a foundation which was literally destroying the lives of families not so many hundreds of miles away?
I made a decision then which I still mull over from time to time. At the end of the school year I returned to my home town and went back to work my summer job in the same place I had the year before that and the year before that. I reasoned to myself that my refusing to work there would not have any impact on the decisions of a big company like that. Especially in the low end job I held. I came to the conclusion that I would be better off finishing my education and maybe one day I would be able to make a difference in significant questions like these.
It’s not that I was entirely wrong those many years ago. Given the scarcity of options even then for kids like me to work their way through college, perhaps I did not have much of a choice. It’s just that now — these 35 years later? I still haven’t found a way to make an impact on these sorts of injustices. I still haven’t found a way to “carry my cross” in the way that Jesus calls us to now into this particular matter. Indeed, when it comes to this, those choices which are before me still seem like small ones which likely won’t make much of a difference at all.
And maybe it is so that this particular challenge is not what I am called to address even now. Perhaps there are other every day challenges where I am meant to stand alongside and raise my voice and affect change. For it is so, today as always, that there is no scarcity of injustice to be addressed.
Either way, you and I are charged with dong precisely what Jesus calls us to today as we seek to follow him: We are to measure our options. We are to estimate the cost. We are, in the words of Deuteronomy, to wonder and to act day after day on the question of what will lead to life and what will lead to death. We are to do so, always, carrying the cross which is ours to carry.
As I think back on the decision to stay in a job I had questions about some 35 years ago, I realize that at least twice since then I have been able to make a different decision — actually picking up and leaving work where I felt I had to compromise too much of who I was called to be and what I was called to do. In both cases I came to the painful conclusion that I could not change it so I decided to move on. What was different was that both of those times I actually had other choices. Most importantly, in a way that was profoundly different from when I was a young adult, both times I was surrounded by communities of people who supported me as I discerned my way in attempting to choose “life over death.” And yes, both times, I paid a price: in at least one case in dollars and reputation both.
It all costs. All of it. And just like two sisters in a novel I read a few weeks back, the choices may never be clean and easy. Even so, those choices are ours to make. Day after day we seek to cast our hope on the side of life. Oh, there will be days when we will side with death for the cost of life may seem just too high. And there will be days when the line between life and death is not entirely clear. On those days — in all of our days —- may the gift that the One who promises life also freely grants forgiveness and strength for a new day sustain us then. And may we awaken tomorrow with a heart renewed to try again to choose life. Whatever the cost.
- What does it mean to you in your life to ‘choose life?’ Can you think of a time when the choice was not easy? Can you recall a time when you made the wrong choice? How do you find yourself thinking about that today?
- What difference does a supportive community — perhaps even members of Christ’s church — make in terms of how you choose? As I indicate above, it has made all the difference to me.
- What has it cost you to ‘choose life?’ How has that compared to the cost of ‘choosing death?’
- In my reflections on this scripture in this space three years ago, I offered a number of ‘real life’ concrete examples of ‘estimating the cost.’ You can find my thoughts at “Estimating the Cost.”