Although I love to write, the sermons I post here on my blog are meant to be heard. So instead of posting the text for my most recent sermon, I decided to share the podcast. You can hear me preaching my Ash Wednesday sermon by following this link. The sermon is called “Choose Life” and it is based upon Deuteronomy 30:15-20.
Do you believe life is a choice? It doesn’t feel like a choice. Life feels more like something that just happens—something you can’t control. Life propels you forward and you just swim along, doing the very best you can. Then sometimes life is too much—too hard. Someone close to you asks, “What’s wrong?” and you can’t tell them—because it’s nothing and everything—and because you don’t know. All you know is that life is too much and you can’t deal with it. You just want to make a little nest for yourself and crawl in, lie down, and go to sleep for a day, or a week, or a month. But you can’t, because you have kids and responsibilities—because life just keeps pushing you forward.
Kathleen Norris, the poet and memoirist, writes that this state of lethargy, or weariness of life, is what the desert monks might have called, “acedia” (a word that can be translated as “indifference”) and in the Middle Ages it was considered sloth, but these days is most often named, “depression.” Kathleen Norris knows this state herself. She writes, “I had thought that I was merely tired and in need of rest at year’s end, but it drags on, becoming the death-in-life that I know all too well, when my capacity for joy shrivels up and, like drought-stricken grass, I die down to the roots to wait it out. The simplest acts demand a herculean effort, the pleasure I normally take in people and the world itself is lost to me. I can be with people I love, and know that I love them, but feel nothing at all. I am observing my life more than living it.”
Norris’ words resonated with me because I’ve suffered from depression off and on my whole life. If I don’t take care of myself, especially during times of extreme stress, it can get pretty bad. For a long time, I thought I was alone on this island of depression. But I’ve become increasingly aware of how prevalent “acedia” has become in our society. I counsel college students suffering from it all the time. Sometimes their depression is situational—they are extremely stressed about their classes or their future and the stress just takes them down. Other times the depression comes as if out of thin air. It’s something chemical—an imbalance that they may have inherited—and for which they need to get some help. I’ve known farmers who suffer with it, affected by the winter’s lack of light, prompted by the stress of trying to predict Mother Nature’s whims, or just trying to survive their general daily grind. Older adults know it too, those who are alone for a majority of their day with little to occupy their minds and their time.
So, in our text for today, when I read of God laying out a buffet of choices for the Israelites who are about to enter the Promised Land saying to them, “I have set before you today life and death, blessings and curses” and then implores them to choose life—I wasn’t sure I quite understood (or agreed). Is life a choice? Certainly we have the power to choose death over life because we have the power to end our own lives and the lives of others (through acts of violence.) On the other hand, though, life can be a form of death, we can be alive physically, but dead spiritually, emotionally, psychologically—the depressed person knows this well. And this state of death-in-life isn’t always a choice. Sometimes it just happens.
But I do understand why God would implore God’s people to choose life, because the temptations to escape to a state of death are everywhere. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death led a group of us at the college into an interesting conversation about addiction and temptation. Hoffman apparently died because of an addiction to heroin—which, I learned in this conversation, is a drug that offers a high like no other. Heroin is one of the most addictive drugs because its effects are so euphoric. As I sat there listening to heroin’s euphoric high described, I remember thinking—wow, that does sound pretty good. To just escape life for a little while—go on a little euphoric trip and leave all your worries and responsibilities behind. Of course I never would do heroin because it is clearly a choice of death. But I might sit down with a glass of wine to melt my worries away…or hit the mall for a little retail therapy….or (as I found myself doing last week) raid the refrigerator way too late, dipping spoonfuls of frozen yogurt into a container of vanilla frosting and then slapping it on a cookie to eat. These temptations don’t rival the evil of heroin, but they could still lead me to a physical, spiritual, emotional state of death if I excessively indulged…and kept indulging. The temptation to escape life is huge—especially when you are tired, or stressed, or—depressed.
And I imagine God knows this—which is why this scripture feels more like an imperative than a statement. “Choose life” God implores, “so that you and your descendants may live.” There’s passion in these words. There’s love in these words. There’s almost a sense of desperation in these words because God knows that life can be hard and that the temptations to escape life are so strong.
I come to understand God’s sentiment even better when I started to think about these words from the perspective of a parent. I wouldn’t say these words to myself so much….I wouldn’t implore myself to choose life over death (especially if I was feeling depressed) but I certainly would my child. I can picture my children, Isaac and Ella, going through life, encountering its hardships, struggling with defeat and stress, even tragedy. And I can see the temptations to escape looming around them. Perhaps they will be tempted by drugs or alcohol or wild nights out. Perhaps they will be tempted to overindulge, to drown their sorrows in Happy Meals and chocolate milk shakes. Perhaps they will turn away from God and the church and from the community that cares for them in search of something else.
The parent knows the value of her child’s life because the parent knows how much that child is loved. The one who created you, labored over you, and bore you into this world knows how much you are loved and knows how valuable your life is.
And as my own children face all this I imagine myself saying to them, with the same passion and the same authority as the God who made all of us, Choose life, Isaac and Ella. Choose life over all that is dark, and death-like, and tempting. Choose life, Isaac and Ella, because you are extraordinary and you are valuable and your life is a gift—even when it is hard. So don’t give up. Always push on. Choose life.
 Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, pg. 130-131.