faith

Sunday Reflection, 2022-07-10

Following up about a service I had the privilege to present, I am happy to say it went well and my laptop didn’t fail me and I enjoyed speaking publicly, which is another thing I often doubted I’d ever do.

I’ve wondered whether it was necessary to share the words I put together online as well, or just leave them entirely ephemeral, having been written for the purpose of being delivered out loud, to a small group, and then to fade away. Maybe that’s where sermons get their power from: everything is for that present moment, and not for posterity. I don’t know.

I was fine leaving the words hang and then disperse, but then I have been trying to not let second-guessing rule my life this month, and so I thought I would share this particular reflection here, in case it’s of use. I like calling it a reflection rather than a sermon, since I have no credentials, and the word sermon has a different meaning to me.

If you happen across this while trying to put together a sermon or reflection of your own, feel free to use whatever parts of this make your job easier – I have benefitted from the words of many strangers myself, while trying to put my own thoughts together for these things, so I would be happy to pay it forward, in some small way.

I would probably edit a few parts, were the service still upcoming, but this is what I got around to preparing in time for the day.

I had these words at the top of my service cheat sheet, to remind me to slowww dowwwnn… something I was given very kind and helpful feedback about, following my previous service:

BREATHE AND DON’T RUSH.
NOTHING IS NOT ON FIRE.

The reflection was preceded by the following verses:
Matthew 7:1-5
Colossians 1:7-14


The topic of this reflection is judgement.

SPOILER ALERT: I have to admit up front, I don’t come to any tidy conclusion about judgement by the end of this reflection. It’s a big topic and my capacity to judge well is a work in progress. I’ll just share my thoughts from these past two weeks, and pray that I have exercised good judgement in putting these words together for you, today.

[The Underlying Worry]

There were four recommended readings for today:

  • Amos 7:7-17
  • Psalm 82 (or the Psalm of Asaph)
  • Paul’s letter to the Colossians 1:1-14
  • Luke 10:25-37 (the story of the Good Samaritan)

I wanted to choose from one of these recommended readings, but I was unsure which one to pick. I wanted to choose wisely, and then maybe say something helpful and wise.

I worried that I might fail to do this well. That I might write something boring or too long, or too short, or off-topic.

I worried that I might misinterpret the scriptures, or consult bad resources online, and then say something flat-out wrong-headed, counter-productive, or misleading.

I worried that God would judge me for misquoting His book, or the congregation might judge me for wasting your time.

I worried that I shouldn’t be talking about myself and my own problems quite so much, when I’m supposed to be talking about God, and what God might want.

I worried about a lot of things that I might do wrong.

I had started judging my own performance before I had even begun to perform. I was failing in a handful of imaginary ways already, and I hadn’t even written a single word. I had worried myself into a corner, and judged myself prematurely, as unlikely to succeed.

I had an uphill battle to contend with, and it was of my own making: I had been judged unfairly. Never mind that it had been me doing the judging. I was the victim and the perpetrator.

To be plain, I have some anxiety issues! At the start of this month, my worrying about everything in the world and judging myself too harshly finally came to a head, when I realized that I was both worried about worrying too much, and also worried about worrying too little, or about the wrong things.

Was I being too anxious, or too careless? I couldn’t even tell anymore. My worries had tied themselves entirely into a knot. I was tangled up, and didn’t know what to worry about anymore.


[The Experiment]

A new month had just started, so I decided to try an experiment, for my own peace of mind, and the peace of mind of those around me. For the month of July, I was going to behave differently in some way, and then expect different results. This seemed to make sense. I had to somehow address my relationship with worry, self-doubt, and self-judgement, and I needed to do it kindly, and with God’s guidance.

So I made up some rules, and I kept them simple, but that isn’t to say they haven’t been challenging:

RULE #1: No coffee – caffeine is said to make people jittery, and I could use a little less of that.

RULE #2: No judging myself for being fallible and imperfect, because that’s what I am.

RULE #3: Have Faith that things will improve, because they can improve.

These items were my homework for July, and still are.

So I decided to believe that God would clear a path for me through the month of July, while I put my head down and proceeded to do these three things, to calm myself down, and let myself off the hook. I could put down the burden of being my own judge, if only for a few days, and practice believing that God still had my back, while I did it, and wouldn’t judge me for trying something different.

I’m ten days into my experiment. I’m happy to report that the no-coffee thing has been manageable. Tim Hortons does a passable green tea, and I have no real complaints.

Faith is going to be a struggle my whole life, I’m already aware of that; that seems to be its nature – it’s like a muscle, it’s never done needing some exercise, it’s often put to the test, and sometimes it gets mighty sore.

It’s the no-judgement challenge that has been most perplexing, and the thing I want to say a bit more about, because a common theme running through the scripture recommendations for today, which stands out to me this month, is the big topic of judgement.


[Judgement]

Once I had given myself the permission to not judge myself for a whole month, I soon realized that I would have to extend that courtesy to others as well. This seemed only fair. I wouldn’t judge myself, or anybody else either. We’re all in this together.

It became apparent very quickly how much I do both of these things – judging myself, and judging others – and how hard it is to stop. I’ve found myself pumping the brakes frequently these past few days when I notice that I’m starting to judge somebody, for something or another.

Judgement feels like a weight on my spirit – it adds its own momentum as I move through the day. It drags and pushes me around, it directs how I’m going to feel next, it gets my heart rate up, it follows old routes of negative thinking, as it hauls out well-worn maps, telling stories about myself and other people, and all their problems.

Judgement chips away at my freedom to choose, because it chooses for me.

When I judge, it’s the stories I’m telling that are in control of where I’m going. At least, until I pump the brakes.

What might I achieve with all that opportunity and energy and freedom, if I could kick the habit of judging myself and others? I would have time and space for other things, wouldn’t I? What would that feel like? I had never really thought to try this before, so I don’t really know.

Judging can seem like a natural and proper thing to do, if you don’t think about it too hard – to respond to what somebody does by passing a judgement about that behaviour, and therefore, that person – well, that’s just natural, isn’t it? If you behave badly in somebody’s eyes, expect them to judge you for it.

But can it be just as natural and proper, to not respond to a person’s behaviour by judging them? I don’t know yet how natural that might feel.

Try this experiment when you go home, if you’d like: Try getting through one day without judging anybody – not yourself, not your partner or your family, not your neighbour, not the stranger you met in traffic this morning, not the politician you’ve come to thoroughly dislike, or the protester you powerfully disagree with… not even your perceived worst enemy. Can you just decide not to judge them at all, for one day? Can you stop judging yourself as well, as a reward for doing that?

Can you stop telling the stories of people’s shortcomings for a single day?

I can’t, I admit. But I’ve only been practicing for a few days, and I’m curious to see how I’ll feel about this by the end of the month. Maybe I’ll be better at not judging by then. Maybe it will even begin to feel natural. Maybe I’ll extend the experiment into August, and then who knows?


[What does the Bible say?]

When considering the readings, and how they might provide some insight into this July challenge, I can see a few kinds of judgement at work in the Bible:

One is the kind we mean when we say, use your best judgement – like in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where he prays that they, in his words, through perfect wisdom and spiritual understanding, reach the fullest knowledge of God’s will; or in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus challenges a lawyer to judge which of the three characters who encounter the injured man turns out to be that man’s true neighbour.

This kind of judgement is about discerning truth, by using one’s heart, mind, and what they believe about God’s will – that is, what is right – to evaluate a situation, and come to a good decision. It’s imperfect, because we are imperfect, and don’t have all the facts – but we can get better, though practice.

Another kind of judgement happens quite often in the Bible – God’s judgement of humankind. This comes in the form of consequences, admonishments, and warnings, such as Amos’s visions of God’s plumb-line, which he hold up to us, to measure how rightly we’re living, or whether we’re leaning this way or that; or the Psalm of Asaph, where God gets critical of those he’s entrusted to positions of authority over others, for how their judgements, ostensibly made in God’s name, have become corrupted.

To Christians, this kind of judgement – judgement of humans – is naturally reserved for God alone, since God alone is the author of the rules of right and wrong, and no mortal can be above those, or have the perfect knowledge to know for certain who it is they are judging, and what their own prejudices might be bringing into their judgement.

And then there is the judgement of others and oneself, which Jesus warns about in the Sermon on the Mount, when he famously says, Judge not, that ye not be judged.

In reading more online about this famous statement by Jesus, I was warned against making the common mistake of misinterpreting this statement to mean that no-one should ever judge anyone else for anything. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not saying, never judge what a person does.

And this is where the challenge of avoiding judgement gets harder – when is it proper – or even called for – to judge yourself, or another? When is it not proper to do so? Is there a way to tell for sure? I need to know, in order to do my experiment correctly. How do I judge what is the right way to judge?

It might be a distinction between judging someone’s being and judging someone’s behaviour. Maybe that’s the key difference.


[Judging vs. Judgement]

Making a judgement about your being, as an imperfect being myself, is a bit self-righteous and presumptuous of me – It ignores all the blind spots that I don’t even know I might have. Who am I to judge your inherent worth, or character, regardless of what I think of your words or actions?

Judging my behaviour is something you might be trusted to do, provided you, in Paul’s words, through perfect wisdom and spiritual understanding, reach the fullest knowledge of God’s will. In other words, if you’re being sufficiently fair and informed about it, there’s nothing un-biblical about you judging my behaviour to be in need of adjustment. You might even be called on to tell me so: Mike, Smarten up, stop doing donuts in the parking lot, somebody could get hurt.

I don’t see anything wrong with that kind of judging others – it’s their actions, not their spirit, that you have an issue with.

It’s a mystery to me how we achieve that fullest knowledge of God’s will, but for Christians anyhow, we’re meant to glean them by considering Jesus’s lessons as best we can.

When do we have the right and responsibility to judge another’s behaviour? Certainly when they are breaking the law, provided the law is just and sensible . Certainly when their actions endanger themselves or others. Certainly when their actions impinge on the human rights of others. Beyond those things, I must admit, I just don’t know. Who am I to judge?

When do we have a right to judge another’s being? We don’t – that’s not our right, or our burden.

[Conclusion]

I have no tidy conclusion to make about judgement today, but my encounter with scripture during this exercise has forced me to reconsider what constitutes using good judgement in evaluating a situation, which can include the actions of others, and what constitutes being just plain judgemental.

Being less quick to judge seems like a wise move, in the absence of perfect understanding.

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