Crises force choices.
When we face adversity – whether as individuals, peoples, institutions or nations – we face choices. Scarcity of money, of opportunity, of time or energy, compels us to decide what to act on, where to add what value we can, who we treasure.
Much of the time we tell ourselves that our choices are deliberate, and that we know about them before we make them. We believe that when the time comes, we will weigh the issue, consider the options, reflect on our values, and act accordingly.
Yet decisions are often only clear to us in retrospect. We emerge from the chaos of a crisis in our life and discover we have embarked on a new vocation, or we have made a succession of choices which lead to opening up or closing down opportunities, relationships, possibilities. We persist through day to day challenges, expecting the moment of decision to come fully signposted – only to realise that our everyday decisions have already slowly, gradually, built up into a significant decision about who we are, what we value, and how we will act.
One of the prayerful practices I try and stick to is the daily examen: a brief time of stillness last thing in the evening, in which I replay the day that has just passed and wonder where I experienced God. One of my prayers as I do so is that I become more aware of the choices I made today. Often it surprises me. I am reminded, with some shame, of the person on the street I ignored because I was on the phone, who I did not notice at the time and yet still chose a way to act towards. I am reminded of my decision to stop writing the emails I felt I had to do, and to spend a brief moment praying for my family. It felt obvious in the moment, like something welling up in me, and yet it too was a choice.
Such choices reveal who I am. Sometimes my choices feel distant from what I say I believe or value; sometimes I am relieved to discover much closer alignment. I am not always proud of what I discover, and so I am grateful for the grace of God who forgives and renews. And yet I am glad to realise how many choices I am making, because in doing so I become more aware of them and more able to choose actively, to recognise the choices before I’ve made them – sometimes only microseconds before! This begins with the work of the Holy Spirit in me, but it is made concrete in my choices.
Central to our practice in community organising is the one-to-one conversation, through which we discern how a person’s choices align – or don’t – with what they say they value. How do people spend their time, money and power? Part of our development as leaders – and our discipleship as Christians – is to help close the gap between what we say we want to do with what we have, and what we do.
As we live through the global crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are faced with many choices: as individuals, as churches, as nations. One of our tasks as praying people is to allow God to help us become aware of the choices we are already making which we do not recognise, but choices still which will shape who we are becoming and what kind of communities, neighbourhoods, and nation we will be.
Many people are talking now about ‘building back better’ and imagining the ‘new normal’. It is good to talk openly about our aspirations and hopes. But we must also reckon with the fact that we are already making choices which will shape what the ‘new normal’ is.
This week the news is about significant cuts to the UK’s international aid budget – much of which is spent on global public health – while spending on arms is increased. And it seems like a very long time ago we were concerned as a nation about the situation of low paid ‘key workers’ who it transpired our society and economy utterly depended upon. Our choices reveal who we already are; they communicate what we already value.
In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis observed on women’s rights that “We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story.” The gap between our choices and the stories we like to tell is often wide. This is true of nations, but also with each of us as individuals too. May we have the wisdom to pay attention to and recognise the choices we are already making – in our lives, in our churches, in our nation – and the courage to see that they might be telling a different story to the one we’d like to speak about. And then let’s ask, how can the Holy Spirit help us change that?