Moving Past the Judgment

One consequence of spending almost three weeks of the month of June in retreat houses – first directing at OshKosh and then doing my own retreat at San Alphonso – was a lot of sacraments (in the capital “S” Catholic meaning of the term).  In addition to daily Mass, in the month of June I’ve had three anointings (one at OshKosh and one at each of the two group retreats that went on at San Alphonso during my week of private retreat) and received the sacrament of reconciliation twice.

You would think that spending so many days in a retreat house would mean little occasion for sin, but I found myself at San Alphonso lining up for confession for the second time in two weeks.

My arrival at San Alphonso coincided with a women’s retreat weekend that included about 120 women.  Because I was doing private retreat, I was fortunately given a room far removed from the rooms occupied by any of the women – “fortunately” because the women almost never maintained any silence.  They chatted seemingly incessantly, even in the chapel and some, even during Adoration.

One of the things I confessed to the priest was my judgment of the women and their failure to keep silence.  I added that I tried to be charitable, that I did realize it was a blessing that some of them were on retreat at all and many were perhaps doing the best they could.  But I could feel the judgment.  (Having the previous day heard about the resignation of the Archbishop of the Twin Cities, I also confessed that I had not always been charitable in my views toward him, but that I had been trying that day to keep him in my prayers.)

What the priest said in reply was perhaps the single most useful thing a confessor has said to me in a long time.  He began by observing that we have been given brains and we will make judgments.  The problem is not the judgment arising, it is not moving past the judgment to prayer (as I had done in the case of the Archbishop) or some other positive response.

Brilliant in its simplicity and so clearly right.  And I know this from my prior years of Buddhist (particularly vipassana) meditation.  We can’t stop or prevent feelings or thoughts from arising – they will rise of their own accord.  What we can control is how we deal with them.  Do we hand onto negative judgments (or e.g. feelings of jealousy or envy, etc.), follow their story line, and allow them to grow in strength until they drive out any space for wisdom.  Or do we move past them.  Any potential “sin” lies not in the judgment, but in what we do with it.

So perhaps the priest said nothing I didn’t already “know” at some level, but what he said had an enormous impact on me.

How We Judge Others

People tend to have a single metric by which they think everyone should be measured. That metric tends to include things like going to a good school, getting good grades, getting jobs in the categories we deem to be “important” ones, excelling in activities on our list of “the right” activities.

The problem with that is that it leads to comparative judgements of other people that can be very harmful. When we have a single metric, the conclusion that A is not as strong as B on the metric (e.g. A was not a good student or didn’t go to college) too easily leads to A is not as valuable as B. B is somehow “better” than A. Sadly, we give no thought to the effect of those evaluations on the the people who come up short on the metric – particularly when those judgments are made about young people.

Single metric evaluation fails to recognize that we each have different gifts and each of our tasks is to identify our gifts and use them to the best our ability. My gift is not “better” or “worse” than someone else’s gift; we are all parts of one Body and everyone’s gifts have a part to play in furthering God’s plan.

If we are tempted to focus on others, we could use that temptation in positive ways. Often we can be of enormous aid in helping other people to recognize their gifts, and, when we have the opportunity, helping them to develop those gifts. That would be a whole lot more productive and loving than focusing on people’s failure to satisfy our metric.

Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus teaches the crowds via a parable that likens the kingdom of eaven to a man who sowed good seed. After sowing his seed, the man discovers that his enemy has sowed weeds all through the wheat. As a result, when the crop grew and bore fruit, weeds grew along with the wheat. When his servants ask if they should cut down the weeds, he says no: pulling up the weeds might uproot the good wheat along with the bad. Thus he instructs them to wait for the harvest and collect it all, burning the weeds and gathering the wheat in his barn.

How do we read that?

One interpretation is: Don’t worry, at the end of the day the bad guys will get their due. They will get pulled out and burned as they ought.

Another lesson may be that while they are growing, we don’t always do a good job identifying the wheat from the weeds. We often draw conclusions about people based on our observations, which are partial at best and which don’t afford us the opportunity to see into another’s mind and soul. So perhaps we ought let God take care of sorting things out at the end of the day…especially since unlike a weed, which will always be a weed, people grow and change and can be pruned by God (directly and through others) to bear beautiful fruit.

There is also, though, a broader promise in the parable. A promise that there will come a time when evil will be defeated. However strong the effects of evil look in the world today, there will be a day when evil is completely destroyed.

Judging Each Other

In his homily on yesterday’s Gospel, John’s account of the woman caught in adultery, Fr. Dan Griffith spent some time talking about judgment. Not Judgment Day, not God’s judgement of us, but our judgments of each other.

He distinguished between false judgment and authentic judgment. Often we engage in the former. Judgment that arises from pride, from our putting ourself in place of God. Judgment that is motivated less by concern for the other person than with elevating ourselves and minimizing (or demonizing) the other. And it tends to distance us from the object of our judgment, to cast them aside.

Authentic judgement is the product of prayer and arises, not from pride, but out of compassion. It’s is intended for the good of the person being judged. It unites rather thans separates us.

I think we are all guilty of false judgment, some of us more than others. It is, after all, so easy to judge each other. And I think Fr. Dan was correct in saying that our false judgment often is a product of pride; you can almost feel yourself physically separated from whoever it is we are judging when we engage in false judgment.

Fr. Dan’s sermon invites me to pray for humility and to pray, not to avoid judging, but to let my judgments be authentic, always motivated by compassion and the good of the other. I suspect I will fail in that more than I like. (Any other hi “J”s on the Myers-Briggs out there?) But it is a worthy aspiration.

Let God Take Care of the Judging

My friend and colleague, Mark Osler, an Episcopalian, wrote a piece for CNN the other day explaining that he is in favor of gay marriage because of his Christian faith. The piece has generated an enormous number of comments at Huff Post and at a lot of e-mails sent to Mark.

Leave aside whether or not you are persuaded by Mark’s argument or think it is impossible for a Christian to support gay marriage. What I’m more interested in for present purposes is one form of response. One person e-mailed to Mark the following (an excerpt from a much longer piece):

You must repent, admit, and confess to God that you are a sinner misusing the Holy name of his beloved son Jesus Christ to advance the homosexual agenda, and he will forgive you, and God will give you a new heart that will be willing and able to follow his Commandments.

However, if you refuse, you will be thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulfur with unbelievers, idolaters, liars, thieves, self-seekers, murderers, witches, warlocks, pedophiles, zoophile lesbians, and homosexuals, and with those that love and practices falsehood.

I don’t know about you, but I feel completely unable to judge how God will deal with each of us on judgement day. I don’t feel I have any qualification to judge whether anyone will be “thrown into a fiery lake of burning sulfer.” My hope is that no one is. But whether or not that hope is realized, I know the judgement is not mine to make.

I think we’d all be a lot better of if we let God be God and didn’t try to fill that role ourselves.

It’s Not All Black and White

We have a tendency to see things in binary terms – things are black or white, people or actions are good or bad, noble or ignoble, and so on.

Those are easy judgements to make when we are sitting on the outside, so to speak, judging something or someone apart from ourself.

A young friend of mine posted a poem last week titled No Room for Grey that invites us to think differently about such judgments by asking a simple question: what if we are in the equation?

Here is an excerpt of his piece:

We are all raised
To believe there is:
Good and bad,
Law and Chaos,
Black and White.
Bright, shining heroes,
Bathed in sunlight.
Evil, haunted villains
Under a heartless moon….
No room for grey
In the human psyche….
But what if we’re in the equation?
Not like we’ve ever killed,
Or saved a life,
Or started a war,
Or stopped a killer….
We are told
In the library,
In the theater,
In the classroom,
In our minds,
That there is good and bad…
But what if we’re in the equation.

My young friend’s poem (the entirety of which you can read at the link above) invites us to see that when we are not judging from afar, things look very different. When we are in the equation, it becomes a whole lot easier to see shades of gray rather than black and white. Of course we’re not all good, but that doesn’t mean we are bad. We’re not heroes, but neither are we villains.

The question is, can we judge others with the same lens with which we judge ourselves?

Trading Assumptions

I suspect we’ve all heard it quipped, “Don’t assume – making assumptions makes an a__ of your and me.” I hear a sermon yesterday that made me think we should perhaps rephrase that advise.

The priest at St. John’s Episcopal (where I attended the morning Mass before a session of the program I’m currently giving there) spoke during her sermon about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard from yesterday’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew. This is the passage where the landowner upsets the laborers who have worked for him all day in the fields by paying those who worked only an hour the same full day’s wage he pays them.

This is a tough parable for many, because it is so easy for us to identify with the workers who toiled all day. It’s not fair to give those who only worked an hour the same as the hard working folk who began work early in the morning, we think.

Part of our reaction stems from a set of assumptions we make. One is about the workers who came late. Lazy bum, we think. Where were they in the morning, when the others started working? Sleeping off a hangover, we probably think. Another is about what constitutes equity in these circumstances – assumptions about how a just landowner should behave?

But what if instead of assuming the workers who came late were shiftless and lazy, we allowed the possibility of this scenario suggested by the priest: Perhaps there was a worker who was up all night with a sick child. And so he slept late. By the time he arrived at the worksite, everyone was gone, so he went home. But with a sick and hungry child and no food in his house, he goes out again later in the day – with no real hope of getting work, but desperate to try to find some way to bring some food home. And he meets the landowner who offers him work for a fair wage. The worker agrees, expecting to be paid very little, but happy for whatever he gets.

The story caused me to focus on the fact that we get to choose our assumptions. We can choose assumptions that lead us to resentment and tightness or assumptions that lead us to generosity and love.

The problem with the advice quip I started with is that, consciously or not, we all make assumptions. I’m not sure we can avoid making assumptions. But perhaps it is worth seeing what it is like to walk around with a new set of assumptions, some of which are truths that we say we know…but we sometimes forget. The priest suggested that we assume we are made in God’s image. And assume that God loves each of us endlessly. And assume that God’t can’t love us more or less than God does and that we don’t have to do anything to earn that love. And assume (and here is the harder one) that we are all doing the best that we can. And (implicit in what she said) that appearances can be deceiving and that we quite often have no way of knowing what explains the behavior of others.

Try consciously adopting those assumptions and see if it makes a difference in your feelings and your judgment of others.

What Do We Make of God?

We’ve been listening in our first Mass readings to the account of the Israelites after God frees them from captivity in Egypt. This week, we have three readings in a row (Tuesday through today) from the Book of Numbers in which God inflicts punishments on His people.

On Tuesday, we heard that in response to Miriam having spoken against Moses, God turns her into “a now-white leper.” Yesterday, God responds to the grumbling of the people by promising them that “here in the desert they shall die to the last man.” And this morning, because Moses did not follow God’s instructions for getting water from a rock (striking it twice rather than ordering it to produce water, God tells him that he “shall not lead this community into the land [God] will give them.”

While it is true that in each case God is responding to some transgression on the part of the people, God seems almost petulant in these passages and his punishments (particularly in the case of Miriam) seem quite harsh.

I’m not sure what to make of such passages. This does not sound like that God who is “slow to anger” and rich in forgiveness. It doesn’t sound like the God of my experience.

As I looked at the three passages together this morning, I had no clear answers, only questions. Was this really what God was like before the Incarnation? Did the people just push God to the end of His rope, so to speak? Or

Are these stories the people’s after-the-fact attempts to understand what caused certain things (e.g., the fact that Moses, who led them from Egypt, did not accompany them to the Promised Land)? Or

Is there some point God was trying to make by these reactions?

As I said, I have no clear answers to which of these it might be or whether something else is at play. But these readings are here and so I think we need to grapple with them.

How Will I Be Judged?

In today’s second Mass reading, which comes from the latter part of Saint Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul evalutes his life, recognizing that the time of his departure “is at hand.” He writes “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

They are words all of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ want to be able to say as we approach the end of our lives. Having a tendency toward self-evaluation and self-judgment, I ask myself, what will it take to be able to say those words when I near the end of my life? To have confidence that I will hear God say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”?

I know it won’t require that I have lived a perfect life, one lived without mistakes. I’ve made many over the years and doubtless, despite careful discernment and best efforts, I will continue to make many more.

I know it won’t require that I have moved mountains or solved all the world’s great problems.

I know it won’t require that I accomplish more than anyone else did.

Two things come most readily to my mind when I read these words of Paul’s and think about what it would require for me to feel like I’ve “competed well…kept the faith.”

One is the response Thurgood Marshall gave when he retired from the Supreme Court. When asked what was his greatest accomplishment, he replied not that he had argued Brown vs. Board of Education (the Supreme Court decision that resulted in school desegregation) and not that he had served as the first Africa-American member of the Supreme Court. Rather, his response was, “I did the best I could with what I had.”

The second is something an adult friend wrote in my 8th grade graduation albumn that I have always remembered: “When through one man a little more love and goodness, a little more light of the truth, comes into the world, then that man’s life has had meaning. May your life have meaning.”

If I can say I did the best I could with what I had, if I can say I’ve done all I could with what I had to spread some love and goodness and truth in the world, then that will be enough. Maybe others will have done more, maybe others less, but neither matters to how I will stand before God.

Different Path vs. Wrong Path

A friend recently raised with me the question of the difficulty of drawing the line between where people are just different from the self and where another is truly on the wrong path. This is not an unimportant distinction. Many of us are involved in helping others discern their vocation. And even those who are not so involved tend to make judgments about decisions other people have made. So, for all of us, the ability to distinguish between “X is not a good path for me” and “X is not a good path for anyone” or “X is not a good path for a particular person” is necessary and not always easy.

As I reflected on the question, I had a number of thoughts. The first is that merely recognizing the difference among those questions is important. I think for many people, “not right for me” becomes too easily translated as “not right.” So to recognize the difference between other people being different from me and other people being wrong…and to approach the issue of another’s calling with humility…is itself important.

The second was the recognition that I have no problem saying that some paths are simply wrong paths for anyone. I am quite comfortable, for example, saying that one reliable criteria for judging the action of another is: if the person is taking a path that brings harm to himself/herself or to others, it is a wrong path. That is, that it is never right to do something that inflicts self-harm or harm on others. (I recognize there may be disagreement about whether certain things are harmful to the self or others, but I assume no disagreement with the general conclusion that harming self and others is wrong.)

The next question I asked myself was: what other criteria can we bring to this? What else is helpful in distinguishing between not right for me and not right for another?

One criterion seems to me: from my observation and knowledge of the person, does this path best utilize his/her real/unique gifts? For me, this question is theologically based. That is, I view our gifts and talents as gifts from God that are given to us to use. Under that view, our gifts are a sacred trust that we abuse by not using them as well as we can. However, even if one does not share my theological basis, the question seems a valid way to approach the issue.

Obviously answering that question requires that I can accurately evaluate the person’s gifts and talents and that I have the ability the fit between a set of gifts and a particular job. But assuming I can, I don’t think I have any hesitation speaking up to someone who seemed bent on a path that seemed wildly disconnected from his gifts. Harkening back to the humility observation, before doing so it seems to me important to ask myself: am I sure that I am evaluating this person’s gifts and the job requirements fairly? Am I sure I am not projecting my own views here? But I do think it is possible to make that distinction.

Similarly, with the same caveats about checking my own ability to judge and ensuring that my own biases are not operating, I might ask myself: from my observation and knowledge of this person, from the times I have seen this person most alive, does this seem a path that will bring them joy, that will be life-giving to them.

You might come up with other formulations, which is fine. (I probably will to as I think about it some more.) The point is, there needs to be some conscious way of distinguishing between wrong for me…wrong…and wrong for a particular other person. If we are not conscious about those distinctions, wrong for me can to easily be the standard by which we judge everyone else.