Second choice world
None of us gets exactly what we want, all the time, every time. How do we learn to live in circumstances that are not of our choosing? In this extract from his new book, Singing in Babylon, Jeff Lucas shows us how to live in the real world.
I’m dreaming. I’m a contestant in one of those so-called reality TV shows. My fellow cast members and I have been dropped into a hostile jungle location, where an alarmingly hungry number of creepy-crawlies vie for the epicurean opportunity to snack on humans. It’s a competition, and there’s a handsome prize for the most enduring soul in the group.
It’s my dream and I’ll win if I want to.
I brave the slithery horrors of the snake pit. I wolf down a surprisingly crunchy maggot tart, and I am now declared winner.
My prize? My wife, Kay, and I can now relocate to anywhere we want to live in the world, the first year there all expenses paid. Our choice.
My first choice would be Hawaii, one the most remote groups of islands in the world, around 2,500 miles from the nearest continental landmass.
Thanks to frequent flier miles, I’ve been there a few times, and I love it.
Warm, soft, white sand underfoot, crystal clear blue water lapping at your toes as you stroll down the beach for your morning cappuccino. Glorious sunsets where, like a laughing, slightly crazy artist, God lobs buckets filled with hundreds of shades of orange and red all over the fading blue canvas of sky, and the distant sun seems to settle, sizzling, into the sea.
The fresh after-rain aroma of the flora-perfumed air.
A gentle evening breeze that refreshes and never chills.
First choice. It doesn’t get any better than this.
But stop right there. It seems that paradise is flawed.
There have been issues with rumbling volcanic activity, and not just the “vog” that can shroud the sun and stain the air with the rotten egg stench of sulphur dioxide, a toxic gas. Running from a fast-moving stream of bubbling molten lava (1,200 degrees hot) would not be my first choice.
Last time I was in Hawaii, I viewed a surfboard, structurally revised by a passing peckish shark that took a huge bite out of it. No harm was done to the surfer, but the beaches were closed for two days. Suddenly I can hear that menacing theme music from the movie Jaws.
Okay, perhaps it’s unlikely that I’d bump into a hungry shark or suffer cremation courtesy of an angry volcano.
But there are other challenges. Living in such a remote place sounds idyllic, but being far from the madding crowd also means living distant from family and friends. One could easily be lonely in paradise.
Then there are those pesky tourists, lots of them. I’ve been one of them, but as a newly settled resident, I’d bristle when they crowd and litter the beach, grab the last table at the cafe, and purloin “my” parking space.
I know, these are very much first-world problems, the minor pains of the privileged few. For significant second choice challenges, I could have pointed to the millions who don’t have enough food to feed their children today. My point is this: even when life looks close to perfect, it’s not. Real life is a combination of first and second choices. Every day includes some of both.
And, to emphasize the point, that is true for all who live on this beautiful yet broken planet, including those who follow the King whose rule is breaking in, but is not fully here yet. That Second Coming day will dawn, but in the meantime, we all have to live through mean and menial times.
We’d do well to face the truth, that in the trivial and the tragic, the irritating and the devastating, second choices—circumstances that we would not choose, given the chance—are part of living. But that reality check is often hindered by the way some portray the life of faith.
The preacher was working up a sweat now, dark patches appearing in the armpits of his otherwise immaculate suit. Arms flailing, he paced back and forth across the platform, barking into the microphone. His sky-blue eyes were wide open, his smile broad, revealing perfect white teeth.
What he offered sounded very good indeed. Bible open in hand, he proffered what everyone with a pulse wants: a wonderful life. Briskly weaving contemporary examples of victory and breakthrough with a practiced delivery of memorized Scriptures, he told us that God wanted us—each and every one of us—to be winners, not losers.
We were to be the head, not the tail.
Triumphant over the circumstances, not cowed down by them.
Strong and healthy, not withered by sickness.
Financially prosperous, never short of cash.
Yes, please, I thought.
For a few moments, I believed it and tried to ignore the fact he had wrenched some of those Scriptures completely out of context. His rapid-fire, staccato delivery made it hard to keep up. But my discomfort increased as I looked around the congregation. Like hungry baby sparrows, beaks wide open for a tasty titbit, many of them were swallowing this whole.
But then I glanced over at wheelchair-bound Sue, and before I could look away, she caught my eye. She just looked back at me, a fixed stare, yet not harsh. And then I realized what was behind her expression: quiet despair. Her look seemed to probe me for some kind of silent response to the performance on the platform. Would I shrug, roll my eyes, shake my head? It felt as though she was alone, marooned, and now some gesture from me might lessen her stricken isolation.
Sue’s condition has gone downhill fast in recent years. She has received prayer for her multiple sclerosis many times, but without noticeable effect. Once, another enthusiastic visiting evangelist loudly declared her healed and attempted, without success, to persuade her to vacate her wheelchair. She tried so hard to oblige, but couldn’t even stand up straight, never mind take a step. She slumped back down heavily into the chair, a picture of defeat. The evangelist had no problem with his walking, darting to the next person in the queue for prayer.
Unwilling to commit to a gesture of response to Sue, I wondered if I was being wise or cowardly. I looked away, and my eyes fell upon Bill, who has been unemployed for a very long time. After decades of working for the same company (and refusing lucrative offers along the way because he is loyal), now he’s been rudely banished in the company reshuffle, with the news he’s now overqualified. He’s too old, it seems; younger blood is needed. He lives daily with the harsh knowledge he has passed his sell-by date. His loyalty wasn’t reciprocated.
Sitting next to him is his best friend, John, who is currently at the head of the proverbial tail, at least in career terms. Handsome and brilliant, he is racing through promotions at meteoric speed. With no money problems, he and his wife, Christine, enjoy the comforts of a beautiful home.
At first glance, they’re living the dream. But John and Christine are currently navigating heartbreak because their oldest son has marched away from Jesus and is playing fast and loose with hard drugs. They pray for him each night before they vainly pursue sleep, terrified at the thought of a phone call in the small hours from the hospital or police.
Then I look across at the gaggle of smiling teenagers sitting cross-legged close to the platform; minutes ago they were bopping away as the worship band strutted their stuff. They recently completed high school, and the guest speaker at their graduating ceremony told them they could do anything they dreamed; if they believed it, it could be done. Now they were getting the “Christian” version of the same speech from our guest speaker.
It was then that I wondered: Were we setting these young people up with the expectation they would always experience a first choice world?
Where, if they put God first, they would get a life of comfort and abundance?
Where opportunity would knock but tragedy not stop by?
Where the sun would warm their backs but never burn their skin?
Bluntly, to do so is to indoctrinate them with a lie. Little wonder some struggle—and tragically, some even opt out of life—when it doesn’t work out that way.
Nobody gets a life of endless first choices, be they billionaires or barely scraping by, be they anonymous faces in the crowd or feted celebrities.
If in doubt, eavesdrop on His prayers in Gethsemane. His first choice was for the cup of suffering to be taken away. He got second choice, which involved a cross.
Second choice living: we all experience it.
If in doubt, ask Sue.
Ask John and Christine.
But here is some good news. When life offers us second choice, not only can we survive, we can thrive. We can flourish when the weather turns wintry.
I know those last couple of sentences sound like fodder churned out by one of those motivational speakers that I mentioned earlier, sloganlike rather than substantial. But as one who views the Bible as the core foundation for life, I’m convinced there’s good reason for that claim. Can we learn to blossom in the wilderness or, to switch back to our familiar metaphor, could we sing a joyful song in Babylon?
Perhaps there’s a way.
Here’s another dream, more a nightmare.
You are living happily in the location of your choice. Life is good, comfortable, happily predictable.
War suddenly breaks out, and a totally unexpected defeat comes at the hands of a foreign power. Ground troops invade the country that you thought was yours, swooping across the land like ravenous locusts. Terror grips you as you watch the doom-laden newsflashes, because the headlines are apocalyptic. Rumours abound about the brutality of the advancing soldiers, who are rapidly approaching your area.
The dreaded day dawns. Enemy soldiers arrive, and pound on the door. They order you to pack your things: your home no longer belongs to you. Not that you will be homeless. It looks worse than that, because you are being deported, shipped off to that foreign country, together with some other leaders and influencers from the community. All your plans, hopes, dreams—your whole life—all has been snatched from your grasp.
Choices? You have none right now, and the horizon looks bleak. At last you arrive in the place where you will be forced to settle and make your home, but it is an alien place, where everything is unfamiliar. Again, you have no choice. Nobody is asking what you think, if you like it here. You’re a commodity. You’ve been trafficked.
You wonder: Where is God in all of this?
Is He there?
Worse still, if He is there, does He care?