Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost — September 4, 2022

Reflecting on the life of Presbyterian writer and theologian Frederick Buechner as well as Moses' last words to Israel, Teri McDowell Ott urges readers to "choose life."

Pentecost 13C
Deuteronomy 30:15-20

As I write this reflection, news of Frederick Buechner’s death at age 96 has filled my social media feeds. The books of Beuchner, a Presbyterian pastor and acclaimed writer, sit on the shelf of every preacher I know. One of my favorite tributes I’ve read is a 1997 republished Christianity Today article about Buechner’s life and work by Phillip Yancey. Yancey paints a picture of a pastor for whom writing is his ministry — specifically writing about the ordinary, unexpected moments of grace where Buechner believed God would most likely be found. Moments like parking on the side of the road in a time of personal crisis only to observe a passing car with a license plate that spells, “T-R-U-S-T.” Haunted by his father’s death by suicide when he was ten, Buechner’s central message included a determined choice of life. In his book Now and Then, Buechner wrote:

“If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

The Bible also urges us to choose life. Take, for instance, Deuteronomy 30:15-20 — the conclusion of Moses’ farewell discourse to the people of Israel and his last chance to influence them before they cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. On the brink of death, Moses implores his people to “choose life.” Moses’ speech takes the form of an imperative, a command that insists on the possibility of renewal for Israel. In the past, they had strayed from God and succumbed to the temptation of idols. Now, Moses declares, they have another chance. He lays out their options: “life and death, blessings and curses.”

Which will they choose? Which will we choose?

Death in the midst of life is not uncommon. In her book, The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris writes about a state of lethargy, or weariness of life, that the desert monks called, “acedia” (a Latin word from the Greek “akedia” that can be translated as “indifference”). In the Middle Ages, this state was called “sloth,” but these days can be most accurately named “depression.” Norris knows this state well. 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 am observing my life more than living it.”

I’ve experienced the death grip of depression myself and become aware of how prevalent “acedia” is in our society. I’ve counseled college students suffering under its weight, farmers trying to survive their daily grind and lonely older adults. Life often feels overwhelming and heavy, something we’d much rather choose to escape than embrace.

When we feel this way, recalling these words from Deuteronomy might help. Through Moses, our God implores us to “Choose life so that you and your descendants shall live.” There’s passion in these words. There’s love in these words. There’s a sense of desperation in these words because God knows life can be hard and the temptations to escape strong. The life God wants us to choose is full of promise — a new land of opportunity just across the border of our despair, not only for ourselves but also for our descendants who follow us and benefit from our choices.

Still, it can be hard to believe the difficult and treacherous journey is worth it. Melancholy and self-doubt plagued Buechner. He’d pray, “God, if you only knew who I am” in answer to the call to write as a ministry to others. His father’s suicide haunted him, a constant reminder of the choices that are always before us. But Buechner chose life, even when life was hard.

In his article, Philip Yancey describes Buechner returning home to Vermont after a winter holiday to find a message on his answering machine. “You don’t know me but I am a fan of yours,” the message began. “I just wanted to tell you I have twice in the last six weeks contemplated suicide, and it was because of your books that I didn’t do it.”

That message, Buechner said, “meant more to me than winning the Nobel Prize.”

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, feelings, images or memories arose as you read this passage?
  2. What are some ways people choose to escape life, and what can help people choose a healthier path?
  3. What are some ways people “choose life” when life is difficult? How can the church encourage these choices?

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