I. The Decision-Making, Action-Taking Continuum
When it comes to decision-making and action-taking
there are two extremes. On one end of the continuum, there is the person who for hosts of reasons has great difficulty making any decision; thus, she or he waits around for just the right inspiration or just the right information to cause making the decision that needs to be made easy to do or making the next step so evident that anybody, they imagine, would know exactly what to do in those circumstances. Brendan Francis said: “Some persons are very decisive when it comes to avoiding decisions.”
Some of these types of people wait so long to decide that, frequently, decisions are made for them by others involved or by circumstances that take over; subtly, this may be what Polly or Paul Procrastinator wants. However, when someone else decides FOR us, we lose all ability to shape our lives in the present and in the future. Thus, some wise philosopher has aptly said: Not to decide is to decide.
At the other end of the continuum, there is the person who weighs no facts or evidence before jumping headlong into a decision, even a decision of great import. We all know people who have committed to a relationship before they really knew the other person. We all know people who have made financial investments before they really weighed the information particularly about risks for a given type of investment. We could list many situations in which a person finds herself or himself in a difficult or compromising situation because she or he did not take the time to study options and only then to make a carefully crafted choice.
- The person–teenager, young adult, middle-aged person, senior person–has little or no experience at making a decision of importance. Up to the point of the moment of decision, other people have made decisions for this person. Part of bringing up our children well is giving them opportunities to make decisions and to live with the results, we could say the consequences, of their decisions. We should begin as early as feasible because the longer we wait to teach that lesson the more challenging it will be to have our point made, for our kids, with as little pain or frustration as possible.If you go into your sister’s bedroom uninvited again, you are going to have to go to your own room and stay there alone and without television or video games or cell phone. Yes, I know that’s totally inhumane, but it is your choice and your choice alone.”
- The person used to be fine with making decisions, but made a doosey of a wrong choice at one life juncture and has been after that petrified to make another decision. Sometimes, we see this only in the area where the bad choice was made–in the realm of relationships, for example; but sometimes the fiasco has made the person who made the wrong choice in one area to be afraid of decisions altogether.
- There really are those decisions that have to be made for which there isn’t a good alternative. Many of us have gone to the polls to vote across the years and not had a candidate for whom we were truly enthused. Sometimes we felt that we were choosing the lesser of two evils, and I don’t mean evil for the most part in terms of someone’s moral character. I am mean evil in terms of the maxim–in this case, what we anticipate as an absence of viable leadership skills and dreams for our nation and our world.
On a much more personal, day to day note, the same damned if you do and damned if you don’t dynamic applies. There really are situations in which we find ourselves, very often through no fault of our own, in which we have a complete lack of good, positive, healthful, happy-ever-after alternatives.
The principal says to the student who has accumulated an over
the limit supply of absences. Both the student and the principal
realize that the student’s parents know about some but not all of
those absences. The principal says to the student: “You’re
going to be suspended from school for one full week with no
privileges for makeup work. You can explain this to your
parents after I get them on the phone for you, or I can just go
ahead and tell them. You decide.”
The model decision-maker, action-taker is right in the middle of the continuum. She or he neither waits too little nor too much in the face of a need to make a decision. This person weighs the evidence, considers a timeframe during which to make the decision, and manages to decide, however difficult the process, within the timeframe–thus claiming all of her or his own independence and influence as a decision-making individual. Theologian Paul Tillich shared this insight: “Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free.”
II.The Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip the Evangelist
The biblical story that charges our imaginations for much of today’s consideration is, on the surface, a meaningful narrative, an important one, but there’s much more to it if we go just below the surface–which we definitely should do. It’s a story about evangelism and the early church, specifically during the time when Paul was busily at work spreading the gospel in the Greek part of the world with tremendous success. By the way, “evangelism” is not a bad word, and I look very much forward to preaching a sermon on the topic of progressive evangelism when my summer sermon series begins the first Sunday in May.
This has been an unpaid, nonpolitical announcement. Now, back to our story from the book of Acts.
It is kind of embarrassing to talk about the main character in this story from the early years of the developing churches. And I say that because the main character is not named. He is only referred to as the “Ethiopian Eunuch.” We don’t know if that was an oversight on the part of the storytellers initially making it impossible for those who followed them down through the years to report this person’s name; eventually, all of us treated the matter as unimportant. It would be similar to referring to someone today as that Black waiter or that Asian clerk or something to that effect. I try my hardest when I have to identify someone whom I have seen but whose name I do not know to avoid falling into a lazy racial designation rather than pressing my brain just a little bit harder and coming up with a non-racial way of referring to her or him. “Hello? Yes. I dined with you all today, and I think I left my umbrella on the floor of the booth where I sat. My server was wearing some really nifty red shoes.”
The story of the Ethiopian Eunuch in the eighth chapter of the book of Acts is filled with potentially conflictual information, which is probably a sign that it is an absolutely authentic story at least at its core. The first thing we notice is that this Ethiopian Eunuch who was something like the CFO of the nation of Ethiopia when Queen Candace was the monarch was accepted professionally but kept at arms length personally because of his sexual situation even though he had absolutely no control over that as far as we know. He could get all the professional attention he wanted, but when he left the office he was as ostracized as anyone else with an atypical sexual attribute. Ever since I was a little boy I wondered who it was in Bible times checked to see who was circumcised and who wasn’t, who was a eunuch and who wasn’t. I still don’t know who, but somebody had that job.
Anyway, second, he was a believer in Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, the God of the Jews–though he was not a Jew. Further, when we come upon him, he is returning from a worship visit at the great Temple in Jerusalem. Sounds interesting, but the problem was according to the laws of exclusion in chapter 23 of the Hebrew scriptural book of Deuteronomy, a eunuch–and we are back to the genital checkers again–would have been excluded from worship in the Jewish Temple. Bad huh? Yet the Temple by its very architecture was set up for exclusion.
At the very outer perimeter, Gentiles, dogs, anybody could come in–no problem. Moving inward next came the court of women; Jewish women could go there, but no Gentile man or Gentile women could go in. Next court–the court of men. Jewish men could go in but not to Jewish women or men of any other race or ethnic background or religious conviction. On in, there would be a place where only priests could go, and in the very center of the Temple there was the place where parts of the ark of the covenant that housed or had housed the tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been written were kept, and it was considered such a holy place that only the high high priest could go in there and only once per year at that.
So the notion of exclusionary practices at the Temple was hardly something to have raised an eyebrow over. Perhaps for this Eunuch, entry into the court of the Gentiles was sufficient from his unique point of view; at least he was at the Temple, perhaps finding his own little area at which to pray.
Another incongruity in the story is that he was reading when the Christian evangelist Phillip from one of the Isaiah scrolls, which had absolutely nothing to do with Christianity. Phillip found him and asked if he needed any help understanding the Isaiah scroll. The Eunuch responded, “Yes, I do, but how can I get that kind of help unless someone is willing to teach me?” Remember that none of the Temple personnel were going to risk affiliating with a kind of person on the official REJECT LIST.
Much to the Eunuch’s surprise, and the surprise of most of the early hearers of this story, evangelist Phillip ignored the REJECT LIST, though he knew the tradition well, and said, “I happen to be trained to assist you with scriptural learning.” So, Phillip in his teaching role, explained Isaiah to the Eunuch and used it as a starting point to get to a message about Jesus of Nazareth who had a vision of a God who is love and whose love embraces all of humanity–priests and rabbis and eunuchs and monarchs.
My friend Solomon is Ethiopian, and he tells me that the Ethiopian Church had its inception based on the experience of that Eunuch. He also points out the fact that the Eunuch was reading Hebrew Scripture proving that the Ethiopians were believers in Yahweh as were the Jews; the Eunuch was not an anomaly in that respect. Solomon goes on to point out that Ethiopia was the first major empire to embrace Christianity as its state religion, before the Roman Empire.
Every Ethiopian child in church school is certain to be in introduced to the to the Eunuch and that admiration for the Eunuch doesn’t stop there. There are hymns about the a eunuch–for example, one song during the season of Epiphany has congregants singing about how the Ethiopian Eunuch brought communion to the first Bishop of Ethiopia. There are hymns about the a eunuch–for example, one song during the season of Epiphany has congregants singing about how the Ethiopian Eunuch brought communion to the first Bishop of Ethiopia–obviously a spiritual experience or vision as they were temporally separated by some 300 years. Still a very profound image.
So the Ethiopian Eunuch makes a very powerful personal decision, which moves him ahead. He was willing to leave behind what was religiously acceptable in his home country Ethiopia as well as in Jerusalem where the God as taught of in Hebrew Scriptures was embraced. He was willing to move beyond that to the perception of God taught by Jesus. The Eunuch was willing to embrace the God who is love and whose love embraces all of humanity–straight Jews and gay Ethiopians in the mix.
For our purposes today, how do we know when and how to take the next spiritual step? Well, in the case of the Ethiopian Eunuch the next step was joyfully obvious. If followers of Jesus after having embraced divine love were supposed to be baptized, the Eunuch decided that he too should be baptized. He therefore asked Phillip, “What hinders me from being baptized?” Phillip the evangelist had the correct answer: “Not a thing.”
III. The Moment to Decide
Peter Drucker said this about business though I believe it applies to many arenas of endeavor: “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.” By courageous, I think Drucker meant the courage to take a risk or to keep taking risks. The successful business person or the successful academic or the successful scientific researcher or the successful trapeze artist at least once took and often continually takes risks.
There is frequently a time element in the process of making a pertinent decision…or not. There are some decisions confronting us about which we have to decide within a given time frame if we’re going to decide at all. There are deadlines on business deals. There are deadlines on dissertations and other major academic projects. There are deadlines for applying to schools and deadlines for seeking grants. There are deadlines on performance schedules. There may be a deadline on offering a marriage proposal, or of responding to one. There are times when we must get off the fence and make a choice or lose out forever.
Want about making a spiritually significant shift as the Ethiopian Eunuch did? There are untold numbers of people for whom religious conservatism of whatever flavor stopped working, a week ago or a decade ago. Some of those thought it was too late to make a change, too late to brother by the time they had the realization. They said, “I will just sit in church and act like it is meaningful.” Some of those said the whole spirituality thing is a sham, and I’m out. Some said, “I know there must be some place out there (Silverside Church) where I can join a seekers’ journey and keep moving and growing. I will find out! What hinders me from shedding what does not work and putting on new clothes suitable for a seekers’ journey?
Poet James Lowell:
Once to every soul and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.