Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany


February 16, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

This week, I'm wondering what the phrase, "choose life" actually means in practical terms. I'm struck by the fact that we sometimes don't perceive ourselves as having choices that we do have, and–at other times–we see more choices before us than we know how to manage. Take a look at the lessons and then you'll find the collect and my reflection.



Arts & Architecture

Michael Knows Why the Point System Is Broken

The Good Place


Scene from The Good Place about the complexity of human’s choices

Listen to the implicit choices embedded in the decision to buy a tomato.

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Education & Communication

The Paradox of Choice

Barry Schwartz

TED talks

TED talk in which Scwartz explains the pitfalls of too much choice.

Pay attention to minute 17:08 and following

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What are the challenges embedded in our capacity to choose?


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 him, and holding fast to him; 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. Deuteronomy 30:15-16

Like some of you, I am lamenting the fact that The Good Place is now over. In fact, at our house, we are drawing out the process of watching the last few episodes to make it last just a little bit longer. In today's arts and architecture lesson, in one of my favorite episodes, the judge meets Michael and the others at the IHOP (not earth’s IHOP), so that he can explain to her his revelation about why the point system of getting humans into heaven isn’t working.

“Life now is so complicated,” he tells her. “It’s impossible for anyone to be good enough…these days just buying a tomato at a grocery store means that you are unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, contributing to global warming. Humans think they are making one choice, but they are actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they are making.” The judge isn’t impressed by the argument. That is, until she goes to earth and experiences the complications first hand.

The problem Michael describes is precisely what makes today’s reading from Hebrew scriptures hard for me to comprehend in practical terms. “Choose life,” the writer tells his reader.

This admonition comes after exile for 40 years, after the destruction of Pharaoh and his armies after battle victories against Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan.

It comes as a cautionary word against the presumed temptation the people may have to worship false idols as their enemies have done. It comes with examples given of those who did so to their own peril. It comes with the accompanying threat in the preceding chapter that Yahweh will not forgive such behavior.

So, the writer says, Uvacharta bachayim. Choose life.

Here’s my problem. Why on earth would anyone choose otherwise? There is the argument that people choose otherwise because we are evil, or weak, or utterly lost.

But even when those things are true, it is too simple an answer to offer one of these conditions as the reason we choose something other than life. Sure, there is that tiny percent of people who seem somehow to prefer the destructive and harmful choices to the life giving ones. But even in those cases, if you dig deep enough, you can find–not one–but many reasons for their actions.

And the truth is, in many of our actions, we do not perceive ourselves as having much choice at all. Or, if we do, we only experience a fraction of the choices bound up in that one action, as Michael illustrates using the example of buying a tomato.

Professor Barry Schwartz makes the case, in today's education and communication lesson, that too much choice can paralyze us and trap us in a kind of longing for perfection that quickly becomes the enemy of the good. The plethora of choices we have today makes it difficult, as Michael notes in The Good Place, to know when we are actually choosing the good.

Schwartz and other psychologists talk about the difference between "maximizers", those who hold out for the best choice, believing such exists, and "satisficers", those who make a choice based on what they believe will suffice–or satisfy a particular need, adequately, if not perfectly.

It seems to me that these categories correlate reasonably well to the distinctions often made in faith communities between being perfect and being faithful. If choosing life means choosing that which seems to be the best choice we can make in the moment, given what we know, then following this commandment is actually possible. It's important to keep in mind that the admonition to choose life is given as an alternative to running after idols. The text invites the reader to become clear about what really matters.

The Hebrew word for "choose" has as one of its meanings "to clarify." Perhaps choosing life entails simply doing our very best to be clear about what matters within our very real limits–of time, of resources, of energy, of knowledge, of understanding.

"Choose life." I hear this as a moment by moment proposition. Not an all-at-once, high stakes, grand gesture.

One of our greatest idols is our insatiable quest for the "perfect" and our fear of what we will miss out on if we fail to attain it. What if we just make the best decisions we can with what's in front of us? And then, breathe. What if that is choosing life?