August 28, 2022
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
One of my favorite Christmas movies, though I don’t know that it technically fits that category, is called The Family Man with Nicholas Cage. He plays a mega-successful Wall Street playboy who has it all, or so he thinks. The movie begins with him in an airport saying goodbye to his college sweetheart. He’s about to take a job in London for one year and she begs him not to go. She believes she won’t see him again. But he goes anyway, and her fear turned out to be true. Years later it seems he’s living the dream, until he has a strange encounter with someone who appears to be a street person. Take a look (video clip)
I like this movie so much because it came out when our girls were the ages of those children in the movie and I thought, “Yes, how did this happen to me? I woke up one morning and here I am a father!” In this movie Jack gets to have the experience of knowing what life would have been like had he chosen differently.
If you could have a significant choice back in your life, would you take it? If so, what would it be? A college choice? A job choice? Whether or not to get married? A particular move?
And if you would have chosen differently, here’s a second question, Why? Why would you have chosen differently? What is the outcome you believe you would have had?
The answer to those two questions says a lot about us, and indirectly says a lot about our faith.
A few years ago a Mexican beer company ran a series of ads about “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” It said, “he once parallel-parked a train; if he mailed a letter without postage it would still get there; Cuba imports cigars from him.” Well one of their lines was this: “His only regret was not knowing what regret feels like.” Well, with all due respect to Dos Equis beer, I think there is an even deeper quality to living an interesting life: to know what regret feels like and still be able to live fully. Now that’s interesting!
Last week we started a series called Transitions. We looked at the challenge of forced transitions in life, changes we had no say in, and this obviously struck a nerve. I got lots of responses from people asking, “How can I experience God’s help and presence during a time of transition?” A great way, of course, is to invest in your spiritual formation. We have a great way to do that coming up at St. Luke’s. The Upper Room Academy of Spiritual Formation offers a number of experiences depending on your time and commitment. Next month they are coming to St. Luke’s for a one day “taste and see” kind of experience…
Today we consider a very different kind of transition in life: the ones we choose. Not all transitions are forced on us. Sometimes we choose the job change, we leave the relationship, we select to move to a new home. And like all transitions there are snags along the way. We hit obstacles and challenges. And when this happens as a result of changes we initiated it can be very easy to fall into the trap of second-guessing. What do you do when you choose to make a transition in your life that doesn’t seem to be working out the way you thought it would? Do you play “What if?” What if I chose differently? What if I hadn’t made this change? What if I went with Plan B? How can our faith help us when we second guess life?
Well, let’s return to our example of the Israelites in the wilderness. Their prayers were answered. God liberated them from bondage to the Egyptians, but that didn’t mean life got easier. Every time they hit an obstacle they complained to Moses that they should have stayed in Egypt. We heard it again in today’s scripture lesson. They finally arrived at the edge of the Promised Land. They could see it. They sent spies to do reconnaissance. They reported that the land is better than expected but was inhabited by large people. The community wailed over this news. They thought it would be easy, so they say, “Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain and go back to Egypt.”
“Go Back to Egypt” became a kind of campaign for the Israelites. As I pointed out last week part of the problem was they never brought closure to Egypt. They didn’t put an end to that period in their lives. But the cry to go back reflects something else: they second guessed the decision to follow God’s leading and march to freedom.
In one respect, the Israelites demonstrate a natural reaction. When we face a challenge as a result of a choice, it’s easy to second-guess and wonder what if we should have chosen differently. It is a human reaction. But if we are not careful, we can dwell on regrets to the point that we prolong our stay in the wilderness. That’s what happened to this generation. Those who entered the wilderness never entered the Promised Land. It is possible to what-if? And what-if? And what-if? away the life we have without ever living the life we can have.
Sometimes the reason we do this is because we want to believe that a right choice will be an easy path. That is seldom the case. You could call this the Tyranny of the Perfect Path. This is the idea that there is one right choice to every decision. Do I marry this person? Do I take this job? Do I buy this house? And if I make the right choice then things will be perfect. There won’t be any problems. My spouse will always be someone it is easy to love. My job will always be rewarding and life-giving. My house won’t have cracks in the foundation or a roof that needs to be replaced. It will be easy. And when uneasy arrives we naturally assume, “I made the wrong choice.”
To be transparent, this is the sermon in this series I most need. I regularly second guess. I buy something and second guess if I could have found it cheaper somewhere else. I cook something and second guess if I should have used a different recipe.
One time Susan and I were in the car and the interstate came to a shut down. I was driving and traffic backups are like torture for me. Susan got on her phone’s GPS and said, “It looks like it clears up in a few miles ahead.” But I couldn’t wait. I thought we could get around it, so I took the exit. We drove fast and free for several miles to a turn we needed to make, but a sign blocked the road. It said, “Closed for repair.” We followed several detours and what turned out to be a much lengthier route home. I spent the time going over my mistake. “I shouldn’t have gotten off the interstate. I should have trusted the GPS.” I did this for miles. Finally Susan said, “You may be right, but we also could have just enjoyed the ride through the beautiful countryside.”
She just didn’t understand!
I fall prey to the myth of the perfect path. If there are obstacles I must have chosen the wrong road. But the truth is if a road doesn’t have any traffic on it and never needs any repair, it is probably a road that doesn’t go anywhere significant.
God had the Israelites on a road that led to significance but they thought it was supposed to lead to satisfaction. Where do you want the road you are on to take you? Satisfaction or Significance If you want satisfaction you may have some arrivals, but I’ll bet you’re going to have a lot more detours. However, if you want significance, I believe you’ll discover that more important than where you arrive is what happens to you along the way.
In John Ortberg’s book All the Places To Go he writes, “It’s better to go through the wrong door with your best self, than the best door with your wrong self.” His point is that when we focus on our purpose in life, on living a significant life, not just a satisfying life, then there aren’t really any wrong transitions. We don’t have to waste time second guessing, because when we focus on being usable, being faithful, then God will use us wherever we are, and what might at first appear like a bad choice is just a new location to live out our purpose.
Remember the story of Paul in Philippi? Because he liberated a slave girl he was put in prison. He and Silas were chained to a wall, but instead of fussing and complaining how they never should have gone to Philippi, they sang hymns of praise. Suddenly an earthquake broke open the prison doors and their chains fell off. Now talk about a clear choice! Walk out the door. Go to freedom. That’s the satisfying choice.
But Paul doesn’t do that. He stays in the prison, because he sees a different opportunity. The jailor is going to commit suicide because the prisoners went free on his watch. But Paul stops him. He keeps all the prisoners there. He witnessed to the jailor about a freedom he can have in Christ. Think about that. The prisoner is telling the jailor how to be free. And the jailor has Paul baptize him and his whole household. A life was literally saved because Paul focused on significance not satisfaction.
Who are the people around you who might be blessed because you quit focusing on your satisfaction and instead focused on significance?
A couple week’s ago one of my theological heroes, Frederick Buechner, died. In his book The Sacred Journey he wrote, “To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake—even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death—that little by little we start to come alive.”
That’s worth pondering for a moment. It is much like what Jesus said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it.” (Matthew 16:25) When we spend too much time focusing on our own happiness and reaching our dreams, and second-guessing whether our decisions have turned out the way we wanted, we lose life. We lose energy and focus for the life we’re living.
Mike Krzyzewski, known as Coach K, retired from Duke last year. As a Duke fan, I know some of you groan when I mention Coach K, but he was, perhaps, the greatest basketball coach of all time! (see how people respond!) Anyway, Coach K had a two-word phrase players were to shout after someone made a bad play: Next Play! If a player made a mistake on the court, rather than berating himself or dwelling on it, everyone shouts, “Next Play!” Because if you focus too much on the mistake you made you miss the next play and allow the mistake to worsen. Don’t focus on what just happened. Keep playing the game you’re in.
We all have a game to play. That’s what the Israelites would learn from their time in the wilderness. They thought they were on the way to their dreams, to a place that was about their comfort and satisfaction, but what they would learn is they are on their way to a mission. God will want to use them in that land to be a light to the nations.
The wilderness wasn’t a delay to their dreams, it was a time to prepare them to fulfill dreams for others. They were learning to trust God. They were learning laws and values and standards that would make them distinct. They were being formed in the wilderness. What felt like a delay, what felt like a bad decision on their part, really turned out to be purposeful. God used that time to prepare them for the next play.
When we understand that our lives are made to love, honor, and serve God then we never want to go backward. We just want to understand how what is back of us can make us useable where we are, to let our dream be about the people we can bless around us.
So let’s go back to Jack. Jack thought he was living the dream on Wall Steet, but he got to experience life had a different choice been made years before in an airport. In the course of having his dream life interrupted, he found he had a chance to get his Wall Street job. He can have both. He can be a family man and still live the dream that was about him. He tries to convince his reluctant wife this is what he really wants. Take a look at this scene…(show clip)
“I love you and that’s more important than our address.” Jack thought his dream was about an address, a place he wanted to get to. And he discovered the dream was about who he became, a person who chooses to live for others.
I think its interesting that this movie was cast at Christmastime. It didn’t have to be to make its point. It could have been any time of year. And did you notice back in the first clip at the start of the sermon the symbol of the cross on the building over them? It is a subtle reminder that all of our lives are part of a grander script. It is so easy to get lost in our own narratives, and whether we are getting where we want to be in life, and forget we are part of a much bigger story being told by a God who comes to earth to say, “I choose you.” And God wants to employ us to let others know they are chosen too.
If you are caught up in some second-guessing about your life, the best way to break free is to find something to do that helps others. Right now in the church there are several ways you can do that. We need volunteers in our children’s ministry…
Volunteer in Children’s Ministry – Contact Amy Boles
Coming up on Sept. 17 is our I Love My City Day – sign up www.stlukesumc.com/city
Help with much needed building upgrades at St. Luke’s Midtown Campus – contact Minidie Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Israelites were called God’s chosen people. Being chosen doesn’t make you better. It means you have a job to do. When we know we are called by God to carry out God’s work of letting people know they are chosen too, we never have need to second guess, because where we are right now is the place God wants to use us.