Christmas Advent HERO

Killing off our future selves

Among the many joys of serving as University Pastor is the honor of being with students in a time of life when they are making important decisions, frequently for the first time as (semi) independent people: what to study, where to seek employment after graduation, who to marry. It’s frequently a longish list.

For many of us, these questions of choice-making are engaged under two overarching assumptions about life and the way it works.

  1. We can do anything we want to do and be anyone we want to be.
  2. God has a plan for our lives that is specific and pre-ordained in divine foreknowledge, down to the smallest detail.

In their extreme, these ideas are mutually contradictory. If God has a detailed plan for my life and it’s my desire to live in a manner that is God pleasing then I can’t be anything I want. I need to figure out what God wants me to be. But how do I do that with any certainty? It doesn’t help that we have mentors and others who retrospectively describe their lives as God-led, right down to the details of career path and spouse, even geography! What they recognize in hindsight we, with decisions to make, would like to see in foresight. But we can’t.

I wonder if this idea of the God-pleasing path isn’t a mask for something else, namely our own anxiety in the face of the freedom to make choices. We’re always in this space between who we are at present and all of who we might be in an unknowable future. If we think about it a lot, it can induce a kind of vertigo.

I’ve been reading a lot of Kierkegaard lately, for a class I’m taking (something I didn’t foresee doing a year ago), so I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Abraham and the story of the binding of Isaac. It’s the one where Abraham is called upon by God to kill his favored son as a sacrifice. He’s already driven off his first-born son and his mother in an effort to appease his wife. It’s a disturbing story, one that raises more questions for us than it provides answers even though it resolves in a commendation from God for Abraham and a renewal of God’s promise of blessing.

It seems to me that, apart from the significant horror of divinely ordered pedicide, Abraham is being asked to risk killing off his hopes for the future. Isaac is the key to Abraham’s legacy. In the crisis that God creates, it’s not until Abraham is willing to risk the elimination of his own potential that God steps in with actual blessing.

I wonder if our anxiety in making big decisions is, in part, driven by the fact that any choice to do something is a choice not to do all sorts of other things. We stand at the crossroads of a major choice and we can only take one path. Sometimes folks try to ease our anxiety by reminding us that no one just does one thing anymore for their whole life and that we are free to “reinvent ourselves” in the future, but that doesn’t change the real experience of today.

Every choice we make for something is a choice against dozens of other possibilities. We are binding up and sacrificing versions of our future selves. But it’s only in leaning into that risk that the blessings of the days not-yet-here will arrive.

With Abraham, we’re called to trust that the God who is present for us will bless this gap between our past and our future.

Blessings as you go,

Pr Jim

Oct. 17, 2018

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