See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in God’s ways, and observing God’s commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
“Brown suit or blue suit? Or maybe a jogging suit?”
“Red power tie or paisley tie? Coffee, eggs, bacon, and toast, or just coffee and toast? Shave or not shave? Socks and shoes or sandals and no socks?”
“This was all he kept mumbling,” she said. And no matter how she tried, she just couldn’t get him out of bed. He was well rested. He wasn’t physically ill. He simply couldn’t face another day of decisions. Decisions, decisions. Everywhere he turned he had to make a choice and he finally reached a point where he could no longer cope. He couldn’t even decide whether to get out of bed or not. Of course by not deciding, he was deciding to stay in bed. Theologically speaking, you might say he was bowing down to the god of anxiety.
I can sympathize with him, can’t you? Each day is filled with a whole series of decisions, large and small. They come at us from every angle, at every hour of the day. Sometimes the decisions are routine or automatic, and we don’t worry much about the impact of our decisions. Other times we fret over the long term affects of our decisions so much that we are too overwhelmed to choose anything. We fantasize how the lives of others will be impacted by decisions or how our choices may change us beyond recognition. This love or that love? This job or that job? This career move now, or wait until something better comes along. We tie ourselves into knots trying to see far enough into the future to make a good choice. We try and discern whether our decisions are in alignment with the desires of God, if they fit into the terrain of God’s landscape. We speculate, calculate, estimate, and evaluate until we are blue in the face.
“Choose,” the writer of Deuteronomy says. “Decide.” God has “…set before you life and death, blessings and curses,” which path will you follow? This passage reminds us that some of our decisions have life or death consequences; that deciding for one thing and against another can cause us to flourish or to wither. How do we “choose life,” that which connects us to the abundance of God’s love, mercy, and justice?
Psychologist, neuroscientists, and even economists for decades have been studying how people make decisions. The science of decision-making examines how the brain functions, how social structures are involved, and how willpower and addiction are involved when people are making choices. When making choices with uncertain outcomes, brain mechanisms as well as emotion systems are involved. Let’s just say the scientists agree: it’s complicated.
In their book Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath explore the recent research on decision-making. The Heath brothers provide a framework for decision-making, which takes into account a variety of the complicated factors that impact our choices. They call the framework WRAP, which provides a simple device to help you remember. WRAP: widen your options, reality-test your assumptions, attain distance before deciding, and prepare to be wrong.
Here is an example of how they use WRAP to explore the question “Should I break up with my boyfriend/girlfriend?”
Widen your options: Are their options other than breaking up, such as discussing the things you are dissatisfied with or talking to friends who have worked through similar problems or seeking couples therapy?
Reality-test your assumptions: you might be stuck in a “confirmation bias, meaning you are only seeing the negative things your partner is doing. If you keep a relationship diary and record every time your partner does something nice or kind or helpful to you, and the list is longer than you expect then you might reconsider breaking up, if the list is short or non-existent, then maybe it is time to break up.
Attain distance before deciding: Step back at look at the issue from up in the balcony. You might ask, “What would I tell my best friend if they were in this situation?” What are your life goals or core priorities, does this person help you to grow into the person you want to become?
Prepare to be wrong: If you do decide to break up, do it kindly. “You don’t want to make an enemy” and if a few months later you discover this person was your soul mate, you haven’t burned the bridge.
God sets before you life and death, blessing and curse, which will you choose? The Heath brothers “WRAP” approach might sound a little kitschy, but it gives us a way of thinking about our decisions in a new way, a way that invites collaboration between our best thinking and the work of the Holy Spirit to bring us to the place where we are more likely to choose life and blessing.
Speaking of big decisions…as you know, the OCBC Pastoral Search Process is now officially underway. The profile is completed and ads for the position have been posted and resumes are starting to show up in the Search Team’s inbox. The reflection process we have been through over the past two years has surfaced the hopes and dreams of this congregation as well as the anxieties OCBC has about its future. One anxiety, which at times is just alluded to and at other times is spoken out loud, is some version of this: “What if we make the wrong choice? What if we make a mistake and choose the wrong pastor? We can’t afford to make such a mistake.” That kind of anxious thinking is guaranteed to bring out the “twitchiness” in a system.
Twitchiness is resistance and reactivity that shows up in all kinds ways: not trusting the Search Team to do its job, foot dragging about making a decision, waiting until the end of time for the “perfect” pastor to come along, hiring the FBI and CIA to scrutinize the potential candidates to within an inch of their lives, arguing amongst each other about this or that, deciding not to decide...the list could go on. A system can get so twitchy around its fear of making a wrong decision that it can’t think clearly enough to make a creative, life-affirming choice.
Whether you are aware of it or not, I think OCBC has already been incorporating elements of the Heath brothers WRAP process into your Pastoral Search Process. Your openness to a wide variety of possible candidates, geographically as well as racial ethnic backgrounds, experience, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, etc. shows that you are Widening Your Options. At this point you are not saying we want just this or just that type of candidate. You’re open to a variety of options. The process of being open to having an outside Intentional Interim come in who has helped you to look honestly at your strengths and weaknesses, trying to identify and look beyond self-serving confirmation biases suggests an effort to Reality-test your assumptions. As you ask: “What does Harvard Square need you are “attaining distance.” You can continue to try to Attain Distance as you ask: “What are our core values and ministry priorities and what kind of leader does OCBC need to lead them into the next phase of their life?” You are seeking to attain some clarifying distance when you ask: “Is OCBC going to call the pastor they need or the pastor they think they want?”
The last category in the Heath’s process, prepare to be wrong, might be a little harder to get our head around. We might think we know what the future may hold but the truth is we really don’t know how things will play out. The Heath brothers suggest that we should prepare for bad outcomes as well as good outcomes. The OCBC leaders have been working to set structures into place that will help deal with difficulties that might arise between a pastor and the congregation: setting up a Pastor Parish Relations committee which will be a place to both support the pastor and to sort out conflicts that might arise between pastor and congregation; a Personnel team that will develop best practices of ongoing effective evaluations of both pastor and congregation; a Behavioral Covenant that will provide guidelines for having crucial conversations and developing healthy relationships; a Safe Church Policy is now in place to assure that OCBC is safe for all people.
It is also important to prepare for good outcomes, to think through what the options are when OCBC has a fantastic relationship with its next pastor and the church grows and thrives and is able to make the part time position into a full time position. What then? Hopefully thinking through your approach to choosing OCBC’s next pastor will make you slightly less anxious about the choices that lie before you, and more capable of making a thoughtful and spirit-led decision.
Maybe it would be easier for us to make decisions if we believed that we don’t have to make perfect decisions. In fact, if there was such thing as a perfect decision, I doubt if we’d be humanly capable of making a perfect decision. If the desire to make the perfect decision tangles us up in trying to do or say or choose the perfect thing then we will most likely just become overwhelmed and stay in the bed of paralysis.
I don’t think God is looking for us to make perfect decisions. God might be satisfied with many different shades of decisions. In fact, God might be pleased if we make any decision at all that reflects something of our sincere desire to love God, to live out God’s justice, and to serve God in faithfulness.
Rabbi Ed Friedman, the guru of using Bowen Family Systems Theory as a lens to look at how congregations function, used to say about decision-making that the choice one makes often matters less than how one functions once they have made the decision. So we do the best we can to choose life and blessings, and with God’s help to function as healthily as we are able after we have made our choices. And we pray that God will be with us in all of our choosing, in all our deciding, drawing us forward into God’s abundant future of grace and mercy. Amen.