Accepting What We Did Not Choose
October 04, 2020
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
I would like to speak to you about one of the most important decisions we make in this life, and among the most difficult: the decision to accept what we cannot change and did not choose--those hard things we would never choose for ourselves or wish upon someone else.
We resist this acceptance at first, for good reason. We only accept what we did not choose when we’ve done everything to change it and fail. We accept what we cannot change when we are, at last, persuaded that we have no other choice.
Accepting what we cannot change and did not choose sounds, at first, a lot like giving up. It has a fatalistic ring to it, suggesting a passive resignation. But that’s not the kind of acceptance I’m talking about, for there is nothing passive or resigned about it. No, it’s an acceptance that actively engages with whatever we’re faced with precisely because we’ve accepted that this is what we’re faced with. There’s no turning away, no turning back. The only way out of it--whatever it is--is through.
I was once on an airplane that experienced the kind of turbulence that made us all wonder if we were going down. The captain spoke to us from the cockpit: “Folks, as you can tell, we’ve hit a rough patch of air. And I’m sorry to say that there’s no getting around it--so hold on tight. The only way out of this one is through.”
In early January 2019, my sister called to tell me that her life partner, Jack, had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. The prognosis wasn’t good, but his doctors weren’t without hope. With their encouragement, Jack began treatment, which included several regimens of chemotherapy. Along with the way, he was frequently hospitalized with multiple complications. My sister’s life turned on a dime. Her days were filled with trips to the hospital, either to bring Jack for treatments or to keep him company when he was too sick to come home. She and I would often talk by telephone in the mornings when we were both in our cars--I driving to work; she on her way to the hospital.
One day she told me that she now knew every corner of the large hospital complex where Jack was staying, from the lower levels of the parking garage, through the labyrinth hallways, onto numerous floors. “This wasn’t in my plan for 2019,” she said laughing a bit, “but I guess this is what God wanted me to learn.”
I was amazed at her matter-of-fact acceptance. I’ve always admired my sister for her strength and resilience. Now I watched her care for Jack with a determined, gritty love. There was a brief respite for them after his chemotherapy when Jack was cancer free. My sister made sure Jack went on a fishing expedition and she took him on his dream vacation through Yellowstone National Park, all the while dreading the day when the tumors would return. When they did, Jack continued to fight for his life, and because that’s what he wanted, my sister supported him even though she knew time was running out. Eight months after his initial diagnosis, Jack died. Chrstine accepted what she could not change and did not choose. She had no choice about her situation; she could choose how she would live through it. I watched in awe as she chose love.
For the last three weeks in church, we’ve been hearing passages from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s one of the shortest letters of the New Testament, only four chapters--if you read it on your own it would take about fifteen minutes. It’s worth doing, especially if you’re struggling with the acceptance in your life and could use a bit of encouragement. You’ll find a good word on every page.
The most astonishing thing about Paul’s letter to the Phillipians is that he wrote it from a prison cell when he had no idea if he would make it out alive. He had the sense, in fact, that he was nearing the end of his life, and he goes so far as to say that he would prefer to go and be with Christ. He was tired and ready to die. Yet he sensed that Christ needed him to persevere in life for the sake of others, and he accepted that, although it wasn’t his choice. I haven’t had the experience of being ready to die, but I know what it’s like to want to quit, to let go of a burden or responsibility yet having the sense that I was needed where I was, that God was asking me to keep going.
The gift that comes to us through acceptance is a costly one, but it’s real. It's at the heart of what Jesus came to teach us, and make possible for us in his life and death. His life, as Paul describes in Phillippians 2, was one of constant self-emptying, taking on human likeness for our sake and showing us the path of sacrificial love. His death wasn't what he wanted: remember his words in the Garden of Gethsemane--”Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. But your will, not mine, be done.” He accepted it as God’s will. Through his life and death, God revealed in Jesus the power of what Dr. King called “redemptive suffering.”
As his followers, and as members of the human family, sometimes we’re called to share in the suffering through which healing comes, through which reconciliation can come, through which good prevails over evil and light shines in darkness. We may never see the fruits of our offering--the goodness and healing made possible through our acceptance of what we did not choose may be for someone else.
If you’ve been watching morning TV shows lately, you might have seen a familiar face, or listening to the radio, you might have heard the warm cadence of a voice you know well. Our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry has just published a new book, Love is the Way: Holding Onto Hope in Troubling Times. If you heard the presiding bishop preach when he was with us last January, or when he offered the sermon at the Royal Wedding, or spoke out for justice at the border or in response to incidents of violence across the country, you’ll recognize the message of his new book. Bishop Curry believes with all his heart that unselfish, sacrificial love is what will heal us. That kind of love will transform us from the people we are into the people God created us to be, and transform this world from the nightmare it often is into the dream God has for all his children.
In the book he gives example after example of people who chose love as their response to painful, seemingly hopeless situations--from the people in his family and church who cared for him when his mother died when he was 12 to public figures like Fannie Lou Hamer and Francis Perkins who fought for justice all their lives. Before they could respond in love, every one of them had to face the pain that required love’s response, and accept it--not as an expression of God’s will, but as the arena in which they were called to embody God’s love for someone else. “Love is not always easy,” he writes, “but like with muscles we get stronger both with repetition and as the burden gets heavier. And it works.” 1
What he means by “and it works,” is that love is God’s way. When we choose love as our way in response to what we wish we could change but can’t, when we choose love as our response to the world as it is, not as what we wish it were, when we choose love over denial, or anger, or cynicism and withdrawal, we share in God’s redeeming of our world. It doesn’t make the work of acceptance and perseverance any easier, but it gives our efforts a sense of purpose that can carry us through. Through our imperfect efforts to embody this love, God’s grace shines through us in ways we may never know or fully understand.
If during this time that I’ve been speaking, you’ve been thinking about a situation in your life that you cannot change, did not choose, and must now accept, take a moment now to lay it before God. God knows how much it costs you. God knows how much it sometimes hurts. God isn’t asking for perfection from you, or that you deny what you feel. Hold it all before God, and invite the loving presence of Jesus into that space. Then ask for the grace you need to keep going.
This is, as I said, among the hardest things asked of us as human beings and as followers of Jesus. It’s also how we draw closest to Jesus, as we walk with him the way of the cross. It’s a high price to pay, but in the face of what we must accept, it provides a way forward with a love that will see us through. We needn’t worry if we don’t always get it right--we never do. But in our acceptance and our willingness to stay engaged, God knows that we’re in--we’re in this faith in Jesus for real. Our capacity to love will grow and through us God will work quiet miracles that help keep hope in troubling times alive.
1 Michael Curry, Love is the Way: Holding Onto Hope in Troubling Times (Penguin Random House, 2020).