It’s the Season of Lent and one can find guidance for dealing with good and evil in many different places. One can hear spiritual wisdom at a retreat or a special class or presentation. If one follows the Lent Madness website one can learn all kinds of things from the holy women and men of the church. And then, there’s the advice of Mae West. In “Klondike Annie,” as the “Frisco Doll,” she suggests that, “Between two evils, I generally like to pick the one I never tried before.” (Klondike Annie, 1936)
Mae West points out the reality of life—we have choices to make, and we make them. This doesn’t mean we always have good choices. We know that sometimes it’s like the person who responds, “We have no good choices. This is our best bad choice.” And yet, even in the most dire of situations, there are usually still a few choices that we can make. At the very least (or is it “most?”) we can choose how to feel. We can choose how to view our situation. We can choose how we will respond to the consequences of our decision.
Life is full of choices. Faith is full of choices.
We are often confronted with whether to choose God or some other god, as in last week’s Gospel with Jesus tempted in the wilderness. We’re confronted with whether to choose the way of faithfulness or what might appear to be a quicker way of safety and comfort. And, finally (practically and personally) we’re often confronted with whether to choose blessing over curses.
In our first reading (from Genesis) Abram has to choose whether he’s going to keep on listening to this God who insists he is the One, True God or whether perhaps it’s time to try some other god. He hasn’t become Abra-ham, yet. He’s not totally convinced yet. He hasn’t come to that point of conversion, marking a decisive change in his following God that even comes with a name change. It’s still early in the game. But God has promised. “Your reward will be very great,” God says. And so, Abram is wondering when the good stuff is going to start rolling in. “Where’s IS that reward, God? You’ve promised me children, where are they?”
But just at the point of Abram’s possibly choosing to go a different route, God answers. In this case, God saves him from making a bad choice. God says, stop doubting, stop worrying, just be faithful, hang on a little bit. “I am the Lord who brought from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” (In other words, I am the Lord who brought you out of the middle of nowhere into SOMEwhere. I know you, and you know me.) Lucky for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Abram chooses God.
In today’s Gospel, the choices are subtle and hidden beneath all the action. The religious and secular leaders are feeling threatened by Jesus and so they try to run him out of town. But Jesus tells them to send a message to the leader. “Jesus isn’t going anywhere.” He’s staying put and he’s staying faithful.
But Jesus knows that there are others who will decide to follow a different way. He mourns over the city of Jerusalem, a city that has rejected prophets in the past—a city that represents so much, a city with wealth, power, tradition, sophistication, creativity, diversity—but it seems to be choosing to reject Jesus, and in so doing, rejects the movement of God.
Saint Paul describes this kind of rejection in graphic terms. He speaks of those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” those whose “god is the belly,” … whose “minds are set on earthly things.” But for us, Paul says, we who choose to follow Jesus (whether we follow well or poorly) Paul assures us that “our citizenship is in heaven,” and from there comes our savior Jesus Christ.
That’s a choice for us. We choose that citizenship in heaven. Sometimes our parents choose it for us at baptism, but we grow to a point where we choose Christ for ourselves. The choice may come at some formal occasion, such as a first Communion, or confirmation, a marriage, a funeral, or at some unexpected time. We can find ourselves choosing Christ in the midst of worship, or in the midst of prayer, or in a crisis, or in a time of emotional or spiritual intensity.
Sometimes the choices for being faithful come daily, if not hourly. Robert Morris, an Episcopal priest in New Jersey, describes an insight about this that came when he stubbed his toe. Wrestling with Grace: a Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Nashville: Upper Room, 2003).
He describes something most of us have probably experienced. He remembers walking through his house and accidentally stubbing his toe on a step. With his first breath, he yelled something along the lines of “God…” and he may have even added a few other words. But with his second breath, it occurred to him that the words he had already said were really a kind of prayer. To cry out, “God” – no matter what else may be added on is a kind of prayer.
That’s all in what Morris calls “the first breath.” But then there’s the opportunity of a second breath. In the second breath, we make a decision, we make a choice as to whether the prayer is going to be a blessing or a curse. When Father Morris stumped his toe, he realized that he had begun a prayer, and so he might as well finish it. “God” turned into “God bless,” “God bless my toe, God bless me in my clumsiness, God bless me and have mercy on me.”
Think about all the situations that come up for us daily in which we have the opportunity to turn first breaths into second breath prayers—the person on the other end of the phone, the person across from us at the meeting, the child who is ignoring everything we say or do or ask, the neighbor next door, the boss who can never be pleased, the family member who (after all these years) still doesn’t get it… They all can drive us to frustration and we can respond with a blessing or with a curse.
All deep religious practices, at some point, pay attention to the breath. Yoga, tai chi, Christian meditation and Centering prayer all teach us to notice our breathing. Christ invites us to pay attention to our first and second breath prayers. The first ones are from the gut, they’re reactive. But the second ones can come from a place of faith and reason and openness to God’s Spirit. By paying such attention, by choosing blessing over curse, we begin to pray like Jesus prayed. In so doing, we choose to follow Jesus Christ, we choose to turn toward Jerusalem (and even the Cross), and we choose to turn toward God.
Choices surround all of us—but whether it’s about a career, or a special person, or finances; vocation, or how to respond to someone who makes us mad—may the Holy Spirit guide our choices, help us to watch our breath, and to live toward the way of blessing. Any choice will have consequences as life plays itself out. But with faith, the only bad choice is the one we make without God. As long as we chose WITH God, God moves us toward blessing— with Abraham and Sarah, with St. Paul, with St. John and the Blessed Virgin Mary and the disciples, and with the faithful of every age—into the eternal blessing of Christ’s presence and peace. Thanks be to God for the gift of choosing.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.