“We left violence and war behind us. We wanted to live a peaceful life.” (Daily Chronicle, February 4/5, 2017, p. 10)
These words of Awni Alkarzon, director of international recruitment at Northern Illinois University, reflect the choices of countless people who have taken or would give anything to take the risk to resettle somewhere far from the terror which marks too many days in too, too many parts of the world. For their own sakes. And surely for the sake of their children. Indeed, this desire is surely reflective of Moses’s intent for the people of Israel who, as Moses spoke, were on the verge of entering the “Promised Land.” For he was urging them to ‘choose life.’
No indeed, one does not have to look far to find stories of people who have sought to ‘choose life,’ but their choosing has been impeded by the recent executive order regarding immigration. In fact, the quote cited above is from a front page story of our local paper which highlighted the experience of twenty Northern Illinois University students from the seven countries specifically named in that executive order. These mostly young people are here on student visas. In recent days, their whole lives have been turned upside down. Indeed, one after another, these young people tell stories of seeking ‘better lives’ than what they otherwise would have had. And while their stories may not all be as extreme as those held by refugees the world over, it does bring the situation home when I see it playing out in the faces of my neighbors.
And yet it is so that what is experienced by millions of people all over the world is not necessarily reflected in the lives and experiences of those who will gather for worship at First Lutheran Church this next Sunday. Most of our ‘choices’ between life and death are not necessarily stark ones. In fact, it may often be only as we look back over our lives that we realize that we were choosing at all.
In fact, over these last couple of days I have been reflecting on the ‘choices’ made by one woman who died at the age of 93 last month. Her family will gather in a couple of days for her memorial service. As we do so we will remember and give thanks for her life and her faith. And yes, we will remember her ‘choices…’ And while in their details, her choices may look different from most of ours, perhaps we can still see ourselves reflected in them.
Amy was born in 1923 in England. As a young woman she worked at a munitions factory by day and spent too many nights wondering if there would even be a world to wake up to the next morning. Her son tells me the factory ran night and day, day and night —trying to keep up with the demand for weaponry in a world at war. On one occasion the factory was shut down, though. Sure enough, it was bombed that night — making it clear that those in charge of making such decisions had made the right choice. Choosing life…
In 1967, Amy and her husband and three children immigrated to the United States — following her husband’s work. They settled in DeKalb, Illinois. She left behind a beloved sister who had raised her since the death of her own mother when she was small. While she would see her again, it was not long before she died, too. She grieved this death for the rest of her life — and maybe most acutely in these last years when life slowed down and she had time to remember. She chose life in coming here. She also left life behind in her choosing…
A few years ago I went to visit her in the hospital. She had broken her pelvis. Laughing she told me that she had gotten up in the night. When she turned on the light she saw a centipede scurrying across the kitchen floor. She grabbed the broom to try to kill it and lost her balance. She shook her head, wishing she had chosen to just ignore that centipede. Even so, she chose not to lose her sense of humor as she reflected on her choosing.
Just over a year ago, it was evident that Amy’s memory was failing and so her son and daughter in law decided to move her closer to them where she would get good care and where it would be easier for them to drop in to see her. Simon, her son, tells me that he was grateful for those frequent visits — times when she could sit and tell old stories at leisure — a luxury they had not shared when his visits home were few and far between.
Choices. Sometimes we don’t know if they are for life or for death until we look back. Unlike too much of the world’s population, the choices we face are not stark ones. In the midst of our choosing perhaps we simply do not always see what will lead to death and what will lead to life in the options we face.
It is into our lives of ‘choosing’ that the words of Moses resound today as he is telling the people whom he had accompanied in the wilderness for forty years to choose life. Only Moses reminds us that the choosing isn’t necessarily about where we will live or how we will spend our days or where we will work. No, Moses seems to be saying that one can live in the wilderness or in the promised land and it won’t much matter when it comes to ‘choosing life.’ Rather, the choice for life which Moses puts before us now is one that has us choosing worship of God over all the other smaller gods which clamor for our attention and loyalty. This ‘choice for life’ has to do with paying attention to all the seemingly small choices we make every day in light of this and only this:
Is this choice and the next one and the one after that in keeping with the commandments we have been given? Is it in keeping with the command to love God and love neighbor?
Because you see, I expect that for the most part most of us won’t have a sense of where a lot of our choices will lead until we’re looking back on most of the lives we have been given to live. All we have is this simple guide which we are promised will lead to life:
In this choice am I loving and worshiping God?
In this choosing am I loving my neighbor?
Indeed, perhaps as I “choose life” with these questions as my guide it may lead to making a difference for 20 students (and their families) who are my neighbors here. And for those countless others wherever I may meet them for whom the choices between life and death are starker than I may ever be able to imagine. Indeed, what does loving God look like as I seek to love them? And how are we called to do that together? And so I wonder now…
- As you hear Moses’s urging to ‘choose life,’ what do you hear?
- Surely Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel helps to round out Moses’s urging with real life examples. As you read through Jesus’ words today, where do you find yourself being drawn to ‘choose life’ in a way you perhaps have not before?
- Where might you find a neighbor whose choice between life and death is stark? On your local college campus? In the hospital emergency room? At the grocery store? In the office next to yours?And what will it mean for you and me and for all of us together to ‘choose life’ for the sake of those who are seeking to ‘choose life’ every single day?