Choose Your Own (Spiritual) Adventure

As a Gen-Xer, I fondly remember growing up with a series of books, written by Edward Packard, called Choose Your Own Adventure. They were unlike any books I had read before. I could read one a dozen times and each time get a different ending depending on the choices I, the reader, made. At the bottom of each page were instructions based on the narrative. For instance, the first decision offered in The Cave of Time is:

If you decide to start back home, turn to page 4.

If you decide to wait, turn to page 5.

The plot of Journey Under the Sea involved a deep sea hunt for the lost continent of Atlantis. In one reading I became lost at sea, in another reading I fought under-water creatures, and in another reading I became an attraction at the Atlantean zoo. That one really took me by surprise.

Some Choose Your Own Adventure books had a dozen endings, others more—you never had any idea how many possibilities there might be. One book had 44 different endings. I kept going back to the beginning to see what other endings awaited me. Sometimes a daring choice would end in certain doom: story over. Other times, a safe choice would end in boring conclusion: story over. So there was a balance between learning and exploring, between daring and caution.

Bear with me… you’ll see where I’m going with this.

There were several types of endings. Often there was one highly desired resolution involving a handsome reward or the death of the antagonist. Some endings resulted in the death of the protagonist or their companions, or both. Other endings might be kind of boring, and occasionally a set of choices would throw you into a loop where you keep winding up at the same page. Life sometimes feels that way: a pattern that keeps ending on a similar page. These books have a lesson: sometimes you have no choice but to restart the adventure.

Isn’t this what you’re going through right now with your interim ministries? What choices are you making? What adventures will you choose?

One of my favorite Choose Your Own Adventure books required me to cheat to get the one desirable outcome. I kept reading Inside UFO 54-40 over and over, never getting to anything good. The story revolved around the search for a paradise that no one can actively reach. I knew there had to be a page where you find paradise and live happily ever after. I learned that the ending could only be found by disregarding the rules and either going through the book at random, or scouring it page by page for paradise. When I found the page, I was congratulated and told that the only way to true paradise, a place in the book called Ultima, is to find it by accident, or to ignore the rules.

The author wrote: “As you can see, there is such a place after all… though very few from Earth’s universe ever reach it. No one can choose to visit Ultima… nor can you get here by following directions. It was a miracle you got here, but that is perfectly logical, because Ultimate is a miracle itself.

Find it by accident or ignore the rules. It’s a miracle itself.

There’s also a somewhat secret, spiritual history of the CYOA books.

The belief system at their core can be traced to their publisher’s brief stint at Yale Divinity School in 1958-1959 where he became acquainted with the school’s chaplain, William Sloane Coffin.

Coffin was a liberal Protestant in the Social Gospel tradition and believed that being a minister of the gospel required him to be an activist and an advocate of social justice. He preached often on courage, as his Times obit noted, calling it the virtue that “makes all other virtues possible.”

[Publisher Raymond Montgomery once reflected that] we as individuals and as societies make choices all the time. The history of our species is amazing: fire, numbers, alphabets or pictographic language, medicine, architecture, money and banking, art, music, laws etc. Choices got us there. We are still making choices both as individuals and societies. Not all of them are good—but, we can change the bad choices, we hope.…

As all of this suggests, our personal spiritual journeys often feel like these stories—both our individual stories but also our collective experiences as church communities. What spiritual adventures will be next? How are our choices going to influence that journey? What are our responsibilities as congregations of faith? What choices does Christ require of us?

This interim period of your ministry to Napa and the larger community can be a time to reflect on the choices you make. Play it safe? The outcome may be the status quo. Take bold risks? The outcome may take you places you never thought possible. An interim period is an opportunity to examine the very purpose of a church. Why are you here? For yourself, your children, the homeless on the streets, the rights of immigrant workers who toil in nearby fields? What are endowments for? To make sure the building is in tip top shape? To expand programming to meet more people hungry for Christ’s message of inclusion and love? What kind of ministry do you want next? The comfort of one who looked like your last one? Someone like your interim who I know personally as an amazing pastor? Or that person who challenges your notions of what church is about, who you are, who you can be?

Yes, being a part of a church, this church, any church, is an adventure: To create an adventurous space where you can nurture a relationship to something larger than yourself. To create an adventurous space for children to learn about themselves as spiritual beings, curious about the cosmos and their places in it. To create an adventurous forum to address the big ideas of life and death, love and fear — because it’s really all about how we live and how we die, how we respond to love and fear. We dream of making our lives and the world better. We imagine that transformation is possible and that hope is worth the effort. It’s all about how we live and how we die, how we respond to love and fear.

Says the author of his work, “Don’t be afraid. Understand that we are all confronted with choices everyday of our life. And it’s new, it’s exciting, and sometimes it’s really, really hard. “

These spiritual choices are hard because they’re also human choices. One reason I love the Hebrew Scriptures as a teaching text is because they are so human. Sure, there’s God, but unlike other ancient scriptural texts from the Near East, where the supernatural deities are the main characters, in the Hebrew Scriptures, humanity and its choices takes center stage.

Take the story of the Exodus from Egypt, for example. It is certainly a grand adventure story, and for Moses and the people of Israel, it was a “choose your own adventure.”

Let’s try it out: Pharaoh ignores the cries of your people. Choice one: You follow Yahweh’s call and lead them from bondage.

Choice two: You chicken out and go back to brick laying.

So many choices change the course of the narrative:

How about this? Your people are hungry and want to go back to Egypt.

Choice one, You agree and go back to brick making.

Choice two: Tell them to eat that nasty fungus growing under rocks, called manna.

Choice three: Throw the stone tablets God just gave you on the mountain at them.

The riskier choice, if it doesn’t end the story, always leads to more interesting adventure. Take the parting of the Rea Sea, for example. You approach the roaring waves. Pharaoh’s army on chariots is in pursuit.

Choice one: Tie a white flag to your staff and surrender your people’s hopes and dreams for freedom and the promised land, story over.

Choice two: Strike the sea with your staff, and move along.

That’s the usual narrative: That Moses struck the sea with his staff and it parted. But there’s another version that tells us more about the power of human choice in the face of life and death, love and fear. The Jewish tradition something called the Midrash which presents a different narrative than the Charleton Heston version, and the story puts the choice to be made with the people, not Moses, not the leader.

The story goes like this: The people of Israel escape Egypt with Pharaoh’s army on chariots in close pursuit. They arrive at the banks of the Red Sea, Moses hits the waters with his staff, and nothing happens. The people wail and cry out. They lament. They await certain capture. Then, one man, a captain named Nashon, gets to choose the adventure ahead. Instead of crying and wailing and turning for Egypt, he starts walking. Up to his knees, nothing. Up to his waist, nothing. Up to his neck, nothing. He walks until the waves are over his head, and then, only then, does the sea open up. Life opens up only when one person has enough faith in their mission to walk out into the sea as if it were already open.

How about today’s Gospel text from John 14. Let’s see what choices it gives us. We are told to love God.

Choice 1: Reject that love and feel despair.

Choice 2: Embrace God’s love and receive the Spirit of Truth.

We are told to keep Jesus’ commandments.

Choice 1: Reject the mandate to love one another as Jesus loved us. We’ve all been stuck in that rut once or twice.

Choice 2: Embrace others as Jesus embraced everyone, especially the downtrodden and lost souls of his day—embrace others as Jesus embraced everyone… and love will be revealed to you. Embrace others in love, and love will be revealed to you.

In this passage from John, we’re also told if we love God and keep God’s commandments that we will be provided an advocate. Another translation of “advocate” is “comforter.” Comfort isn’t just a fuzzy warm blanket. It is also the knowledge that you’re OK, you’re on the right path, you are right with God just for turning your gaze toward love and all that it requires of us. The Gospel says, “You know him because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” God loves you, right now, no matter what. God’s love is boundless, overcoming all.

What an adventure awaits when you take the risk of Love, because it is risky. Love leaves our feelings vulnerable. It’s risky because the word itself is so huge and can mean so many things. Eternal Love. Omnipotent Love. Holy Love.

What adventures lay ahead for this congregation? It’s a question, a choice, not a conclusion. Will you answer God’s call, embrace the Love we’ve been given, and take that first step, like Nashon, like Jesus asks of us?

Love is not love unless it’s shared, and where your spiritual journey and the life of this larger community intersect is where you build your story. Here you build the narrative not only of your lives but of the world. Here you take part in the moral history of our times.

Take the risk. Read the choices at the bottom of each page of life as they’re offered, and always choose the one your heart knows lead to paths of justice, compassion, and righteousness. You know them when you see them. Choose wisely, turn the page, and continue your adventure. And so we pray,

Dear God,

We pray for all who search for you:

may they find their way in you.

Bless us with lips that sing your praise

and lives that tell the stories of all that you have done for us.

Open our eyes to find you among us

as we share your love with others.

We pray for all who are oppressed,

for those whose voices are not heard or believed,

those with no one on their side.

Bless us with a joy for justice

and the strength to persevere as we work toward
creating your kingdom on Earth.

We pray for all who hunger,

and those who worry each day how they will care for their families in these times.

Bless us with the gift of faith,

that we may know you and love you,

and enjoy life shared with you,

the one true God. Amen.


Go to celebrate all that God has done

as Christ breathes new life into you,

sending you out with the Spirit of forgiveness and faith

for the life of the world.

May you be filled with the grace and peace of the God

who is and was and is to come,

and with the Spirit of Jesus Christ,

God’s faithful witness,

who loves us and sets us free. Amen.

Delivered at the Presbyterian Church of Napa

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