Given a choice between life and prosperity or death and adversity, it’s surely almost a forgone conclusion what a person would choose, or is it? When God offered the people of Israel that choice he also asked that they obey his commandments in order to access that prosperous life. Jesus was even more stark in what he said. He came to give us life in all its fullness but he said that those who would follow him and access this life must take up their cross daily. The toddler or teenager in us stamps our foot and says ‘No!’ to any perceived constraint and yet it is that very constraining influence of following God’s way, in Jesus’ footsteps that gives us the abundant, prosperous life which we seek in all the wrong places.
The readings at the 2pm SLT service on Tuesday were Psalm 1, Deuteronomy 30:15-end, Luke 9:22-25. My reflection on choosing life follows:
One morning, some years ago, the phone rang at about 8am. We don’t often get calls at that time and I had a pretty shrewd idea who would be calling. I was right. My friend, a single parent with a 10 month old daughter, was on the phone. Her childcare arrangements had fallen through so could I care for her daughter? Luckily I had no commitments away from home that day and so it was fine to help out.
Half an hour later a very stressed mother arrived at my door with a screaming child and a bulging bag full of all the necessities for a day with a baby. The little girl had not slept well during the night, she had refused to eat breakfast, and she was generally out of sorts. A couple of minutes later the front door was closed, grateful mother was heading to work, and I faced the prospect of dealing with a very distressed child. She was too tired to eat and too hungry to sleep – an unpleasant combination.
I have four children of my own so that helps enormously in situations like this. Really the little one was out of control and I needed to re-establish some routine for her. There was no way I would get food into her and even if I did I couldn’t make her swallow it so sleep was what was needed. How was that to be achieved with a near hysterical child who had just been dumped into the arms of someone who was not her mum? I had one advantage – as an adult my strength was superior to hers. So I held the screaming bundle very close to me, so she was moulded against my chest and kept very firmly in place. She could wriggle but her movements were restricted.
In the end, she used up a lot of energy fighting me and gradually she stopped crying. I spoke to her soothingly and walked up and down with her, swaying a little to try to lull her to sleep. After about 30 minutes I achieved success and my screaming baby had turned into a sleeping cherub. An hour or so’s nap and food went down fine. The rest of the day was great.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about boundaries in recent days. My friend’s daughter needed to feel secure, with some of her freedom removed, if her life was going to seem ok again. While she was free to kick and scream she was actually very unhappy. It’s much the same with toddlers. Their first word is often ‘No’ and they use it enough to wear it out but they are looking for who they are and where the edges of freedom are. In practical terms, without restriction they are unsafe – how easy it would be for a small child to run into the road if she didn’t have someone holding her hand. In emotional terms, children feel insecure if they don’t know how far they may exercise their choice. I remember a family with two children of 6 and 8. Their parents told me that they always allowed the children to choose what they would do. On the face of it that looked like loving parenting but the children were obviously unhappy. They whined and cried, and had comfort blankets well past the age when most abandon them. They had been given too much responsibility too soon. They needed appropriate boundaries to protect them.
Of course teenage is a rerun of toddlerhood, writ large. ‘No’ is replaced by ‘You can’t tell me what to do!’ but the meaning is the same. Sometimes it doesn’t take until the teens to expand on the simple ‘No’ of a toddler. I still clearly remember our youngest son at the age of four saying to me, ‘What right have you to tell me what to do?’ Obviously teens need freedom but with no control being exercised over them at all, no limits, it’s so easy for them to get into a bad crowd, adopt gang culture, take drugs, get pregnant, drop out of school and so on. What looks like freedom becomes a limited and damaged life, with sometimes a horrible, sad and premature death and pain for all involved.
In the passage from Deuteronomy, God says that he is offering the people a choice between ‘life and prosperity, death and adversity’. You would think this is a very easy choice to make. Who wants to die or live in adversity when they can have prosperity and life? What makes the choice less easy is what comes next. In order to have the wonderful life God promises, he tells the people that they must walk in his ways, obeying his rules. At that point the teenager or toddler in us says, ‘No!’. The mere thought of rules brings with it a sense of limit and restriction, a taking away of life rather than the giving of a prosperous life. The people of Israel often turned against God’s laws and went their own way, only returning when things went wrong. That same pattern has been repeated in every generation.
Like a good parent, God knows what’s best for us. He knows that unlimited freedom is not the way to live, that it brings with it insecurity and fear. People who throw out old ways of doing things, thinking they are beyond living by childish rules, often end up in a mess. Their freedom leads to empty lives, to depression, debt, divorce, perhaps prison, addiction, anxiety, meaninglessness, self-loathing, self-harm. The list can go on and on.
Perhaps Jesus’ advice to us is even less palatable than God’s. We are told that we should take up our cross if we want to follow him. We don’t just have to take it up once but daily, time and time again. The cross was a cruel instrument of torture, causing a lingering and agonising death. Why would anyone choose such a thing? The Gospel so often turns our common sense upside down. Down the ages many people, those we remember as saints and martyrs, and those whose names have not survived, have come to an understanding that in laying down their lives they are actually gaining their lives.
Not all are called to actually forfeit life by taking up their cross but they may forfeit certain freedoms in order to follow Jesus and live by his commandments. In doing so they prove to themselves what Jesus said: ‘those who lose their life for my sake will save it’.
In the topsy turvy world of Gospel truth, boundaries make for true freedom. They allow us to become all we were intended to be and to have life in all its fullness. As Jesus said of those who choose to live free of constraint: ‘What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?’
God said: ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor