The Next Right Thing

Last spring, I bought I book I thought I didn’t need. It was called The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman, and it was about decision-making. I didn’t think I needed it because I felt that I was a decisive person and willing to make changes. I rarely agonized over choices, and found confidence relatively quickly in my decision-making process. But through the last year since I first bought The Next Right Thing, I have had to make many decisions. Some felt obvious. Some felt agonizing. Some I felt were right, some I still think were wrong.  In this time, I have read through The Next Right Thing twice and listened to dozens of episodes of Freeman’s identically-named podcast. I’ve quit a job, said no to many things I wanted to say yes to, and said yes to others that I only wanted to run away from. A year later, I feel like a very different person than the one that ordered The Next Right Thing from Amazon on a whim. In many ways, I am.

Now, about four months into the pandemic and a few more in an era of greater awareness of racial inequality, I doubt any of us can say we haven’t changed from who we used to be. We have had to make many choices the last few months: to stay at home, to leave a home. To make a visit, to cancel plans. To admit we need help, to actually ask for it. To set a goal, to let it go. To think critically, to speak honestly. To change our opinion, to ask for forgiveness. To offer grace, to accept it, too. To ask what the next right thing is, and to move towards it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the latter part of phrase Freeman repeats throughout the book and her podcast, “Do the next right thing in love.” Admittedly, there are many days when I feel totally overwhelmed about what the next right thing is, probably because the world’s future feels more uncertain to me than it has ever felt previously. It is a great temptation for me to wish for stuff to go back to how it was before, or for the present to pass by quickly, or for the future to become exactly what I envision. I want to get to the next right thing, and get there without a lot of pain along the way, preferably. But if I’ve learned anything from Freeman and the last year of my life, it’s that God is more focused on not the first part of Freeman’s phrase, but the latter. It’s not “do the next right thing,” but “do the next right thing in love.” 

When I think about how God calls us to love in the world we live in, I often find my mind wandering back to a favorite poem by Wendell Berry called “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” A portion of it reads like this:

“So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.”

Right now, I feel very powerless in contributing to and influencing the decisions our world needs to make to stop the pandemic, to abolish systemic racism, to bring restoration instead of destruction in a world where more and more seems to crumble each day. Maybe you feel the same way. But just as there are many things I cannot change about the past and present, I can do my next right thing in love. I can ask the hard questions, invest in a future I cannot and will not live to see, find joy and laughter in the midst of the pain of our past and present circumstances. I can tend to the field I have been given, and show special care to it in the process. I can continue to hope and pray for the world I can see and the situations I cannot. And most importantly, I can practice resurrection: that mysterious and miraculous event that changed and changes and will change everything.

A recent essay I read by Esau McCaulley captures the importance of framing our lives around the invitation to practice resurrection. He writes:

“Where does my hope come from? Not from the usual places. Not from the fact that we’ve added more faces to our marches. My trust goes much deeper—to the Resurrection, and the way in which it reconfigures our spiritual imagination. God has a long history of giving his people a belief in the seemingly impossible….Let me be clear. This doesn’t mean that God is our genie and that we can rush into any arena assuming that he will rescue us from any folly or grant every request. It doesn’t mean that Christians can never feel discouragement. Here’s what it means: Our limited imaginations do not form the boundaries of what God can do. Humans have limited power; we can maim and kill or be killed. We can make promises of social unity that we often lack the power to actualize. But a God who has defeated death—and called to himself a people who understand the full scope of his victory—is unstoppable.

…I must confess that much of my life has been spent doubting the Resurrection. I don’t question whether it occurred—I am convinced that the tomb remains empty. But I do often wonder whether the world is truly a different place. Things seems to go on as they always have: The rich exploit the poor. Evil triumphs over good. Going low appears to be much more profitable than going high. Racism sweeps our land, and the weakest among us suffer the most.

As I watch the news these days, I see genuine expressions of sympathy for the black situation in America. But I don’t simply want people to feel sorry for us. I want freedom. And in my best moments, I remember where that hope for freedom resides. It resides in the God who conquered death. Although the full fruition of that freedom will not come on this side of heaven, nonetheless, I am not forbidden the beginnings of it here and now. By desiring freedom now, I am not turning America into the kingdom. I am demanding the right to live and love and work as a free black child of God.

The defeat of death is God’s great triumph. It reshapes the Christian imagination, forever obliterating the limits we place upon our Creator. As the protests press on, then, I pray today and every day that we remember the Resurrection, when the entire cosmos became something different. We have yet to realize the full scope of that change.”

I do not know what choices our world and me personally will face in the days to come, in the days of change where voices cry out and decisions are made and consqeuences are felt. But I hope and pray for a life and a cadence of choices that are held together by God’s spirit—a life that always has a perspective and posture of love. As the sun sets on the third day of summer in Kent, Ohio, my next right thing is this: to fix my eyes on the steady light—the light by which all things came, all things are seen, all things grow, all things need to be brought out of the darkness. May the scales drop from my eyes to better see the people and possibilities before me. May the brilliant, beaming light of the Lord help me do the next right thing in love. 



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