In the passage we heard this morning from Deuteronomy Moses is addressing the Hebrew people before they cross the Jordan to begin their conquest and occupation of Canaan, the land they believed their God had promised to their ancestors. He urges them to stay true to their God and warns them of the supposed consequences of their not doing so. I’m not going to go into all the theology in these verses, theology that frankly I find quite problematic. I want only to focus on one thing that Deuteronomy’s Moses tells the people to do. He says that he has set before them the ways of life and of death. He tells them they must choose between those two alternatives. He tells them to choose life. When I read this passage in preparation for being here with you this morning I thought: OK, but what is life? What does it mean to choose it? Those are the questions I want to address with you this morning.
Now, if we’re going to choose life, we’ll have to start by understanding what this life is that we’re supposed to choose. When you tell Google to define life you get, “the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter…” and “the state characterized by the ability to get and use energy, reproduce, grow and respond to change.” Not exactly helpful, is it. So what else can we say life is? It’s the opposite of death of course, but surely Moses meant more than that when he told his people to choose life. Yes, life is being alive not dead, but I think we’re going to have to look beyond that obvious platitude to find what it would mean for us to choose life.
This life we’re supposed to choose of course includes biological life, but it is also spiritual life. By spiritual life I mean the kind of life Jesus meant when he said he had come “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10. To choose life is to make the decision to life as fully as we can into the life to which God calls us. OK, but what does that mean? Perhaps some of my own life story will help us understand it.
As some of you know, I used to be a lawyer. At first I found being a lawyer truly exciting. My first law job was with a big downtown Seattle law firm. I remember walking around downtown, seeing the tall buildings, and hardly being able to believe that I was actually there and actually practicing law. After I had been practicing for about eleven years, I left downtown and opened my own law office in Edmonds. At first that effort went OK, but by 1994 I was running into trouble. I was finding it difficult to make myself actually do the law work I had to do. So one day I did a psychological exercise I had read about. In that exercise you clear your mind, quiet down, and ask yourself about whatever it is that you’re having trouble with. I asked myself, “Why am I having so much trouble practicing law?”
Immediately, and I mean with no time whatsoever having past and without my having given the answer to the question any thought, from somewhere deep in my psyche the answer came roaring up to me: “You’re not a lawyer!” I was stunned. Of course I was a lawyer. I argued with the answer. I said I’m sitting here in my law office with law work to do. There’s a sign on the office door that says Thomas C. Sorenson, Attorney at Law. Of course I’m a lawyer! Once again something deep inside me roared, “You’re not a lawyer!” I thought, I don’t know who or what is telling me I’m not a lawyer, but OK. I asked, “What am I then?” Again an answer came instantaneously. “You’re a preacher!” Again, I was stunned. It had never occurred to me that I was a preacher. I certainly had never thought of becoming one. I ended the exercise and continued trying to practice law.
Big mistake. Over the next couple of years I got to the point where I had virtually no law work to do. I’d sit in my office mostly playing computer solitaire. One day my wife Francie (of blessed memory) and my daughter Mary, then still in high school, sat me down in our living room. Mary said, “Dad, you’re depressed.” She was right. Not long after that I got a diagnosis of moderate clinical depression. I took antidepressants and kept trying to practice law. I didn’t know it then, but I had chosen death over life. I don’t mean physical death. I had depression, but I was never actively suicidal. I mean that I had chosen a life that for me and my spirit was dead. Totally unproductive. Going nowhere. Dragging me down and making me, I’m sure, no fun at all to live with.
Then the miracle happened. In the summer of 1997 the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry created a Master of Divinity program for Protestant students. Somehow I knew I had to enroll. I told Francie I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what I’d do with it, but I knew I had to go to Seattle University to earn a Master of Divinity degree. That’s the degree the UCC used to require for ordination. I had no idea what I’d do with that degree. I just knew I had to get one. And I did.
I didn’t think of it in these terms at the time, but I had chosen life over death. I had chosen what for me would become an abundant life. Not financially of course. You don’t go into ministry for the money. But I had chosen to leave behind that life in which I was spiritually dead. I had chosen to embark on a new life that brought me spiritually alive. That decision to go to seminary changed my life. It was, by the way, while I was a seminary intern here at Prospect that I said to God: “You’re kidding!” This is what I’m supposed to be doing? I’m supposed to be a parish pastor?” And I was. After I got my first call to serve a church as its pastor, and not long before she passed away, Francie said to me: “I’m so glad you finally are who you really are.” She was right. I finally was who I really am.
That, my friends, is my story of choosing life over death. I’d be surprised if none of you had your own stories of choosing life over death. Or maybe some of you are struggling with something in your life that is keeping you from the abundant life Jesus came to give you. To choose life is to choose to be who God created you to be. Sadly, many people never discover who that is. Many people spend their lives trying to be someone they aren’t. There are, I suppose, lots of reasons why people do that. We try to live up (or down) to what our culture says we should be. Or we feel so obligated to support ourselves and our family financially that we convince ourselves we can’t do anything other than what we’re doing or be anyone other than who we’re being. Or we have some idea of what we are called to do and who we are called to be, but we convince ourselves that we aren’t capable of actually living into that call, that we lack the skills and talents to do it. So many people do what I did for so long. I told myself over and over again that I was too old and couldn’t afford to do anything other than what I was doing. For at least three years I talked myself into staying in a life that wasn’t really life for me. Maybe some of you are doing the same thing today.
Well, here’s the thing. What that move looks like is different for each of us. What we have to do to move from where we are into an abundant life is different for each of us. But if you are having that struggle, know that God will be with you every step of the way as you move from death to life. Know that God calls you to that move. Know that whatever that move takes for you, it will be worth the effort.
Of course I know that most of us aren’t exactly young. I know that some of you live with health challenges that limit how active or even how mentally sharp you can be. But I also know that it is never too late to choose life. What that choice and that life will look like will be different for each of us. But I know that as long as we are physically alive there is some way we can choose life. Even if we have only a short physical life left to us, we can fill that time with abundant, spiritual life. Some of you have certainly already made the choice for life, the choice to live into who God calls you to be. If you have, God bless you. If you haven’t, I pray that with God’s help you will find a way to make that choice for life. The choice to be the person God created you to be. God calls each and every one of us to an abundant life as who we really are. With God’s help, may we all answer that call. Amen.