It seems that Pope Francis’ question, “Who am I to judge?” has attracted answers from everyone with access to the internet. Now, I’m as smitten with this humble pontiff as a Southern Baptist girl can be, and I could not be more charmed with the world’s response to his embodiment of Christianity. I’m pretty sure he was responding to a specific question about gay priests, but somehow the idea has taken hold that maybe being judgmental isn’t a hallmark of the followers of Jesus after all. Glory, halleluiah!
The Hebrew Bible tells us that God’s people were originally ruled by judges, but being envious of the nations with kings, they wanted one of their own. The prophets tried to tell them that this was not a good idea, but if we learn anything from the Bible it’s that people never listen to the prophets. If you think they were foolish to envy being under the thumb of a monarch, then you must be one of the 11 people in the United States who did not get up in the pre-dawn hours to watch Will & Kate’s vows --- a phenomenon made even more amusing by the fact that the USA exists because people were sick of their king. Reading I & II Kings reveals some Israelites who got really fed up with theirs too.
Judging others is not necessarily a bad thing. I remember an adult Sunday School class where the “Who am I to judge?” topic came up. Considering that one member of the class was a federal judge, it was obvious that some people are qualified and even required to judge others. Sometimes we appreciate this, and sometimes it knocks the luster off our affection. I was a fan of both Steven Tyler and Martha Stewart until they entered the reality show realm-- he as a judge and she as a subject to a ridiculous judge with a hideous comb over. It just hasn’t been the same with us since.
I’m a study in dissonance when it comes to judging and being judged. No skill is more easily mastered than the ability to judge the flaws of others. Not only is this skill a delight to practice, it has the added bonus of confirming my own vanity. But I seldom welcome criticism directed at me, not even the constructive kind ---especially not the constructive kind. It’s a tricky subject to address because warning people about being judgmental can come off sounding very judgmental. Take it from the Pope, “The reality of vanity is this: Look at the peacock; it’s beautiful if you look at it from the front, but if you look at it from behind you discover the truth. Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them.”
My husband has been fortunate to have a car donated for his use during much of his coaching career. The latest is a snazzy candy apple red BMW with enough blue tooth capability to handle basically everything in our middle aged lives. (And yes, I realize that label implies an assumption that both of us will live past the century mark.) During a recent ride we had a question about the music features. I immediately looked in the glove compartment but the car, like my iPad, understands that actual printed owner’s manuals are so 20th century. Our next bright idea was that it was probably stored somewhere in the car’s computer and when we managed to call it up it gave us a polite message that we shouldn’t be reading instructions unless the car was in park. I’m sure the view from the front of the car would show it indulgently rolling its headlights at our efforts. Finally my husband solved the problem by saying, “I’ll just ask Tyler.” As if this needs explaining,Tyler is a 20something co-worker who has never been in the car, but will know the answer immediately. It reminded me of a lady who once stopped my daughter on the street with the question, “You look young. Could you fix my iPod?” My daughter saw that the woman had accidentally set the device to play the same song over and over again. She reset it and the woman thanked her and left happy.
Recently a Los Angeles school district launched a $1 billion project to provide each of its students with an iPad fitted with security settings by school administrators. It took the first students who received the devices a week to alter the settings, get on social media, and teach all the other students how to enable the capabilities that the adults had protected them from. The project was immediately halted, because what should be done when innovative educators are out-innovated by the students? Not only that, but any teacher who could teach a skill at near mastery level to one of the largest school systems in the country in a week’s time would undoubtedly be hailed as teacher of the century. It was like the ending of every Scooby Doo cartoon when the adult lamented that his plans were perfect if it hadn’t been for those pesky kids! Then, the adult often pulled a mask off his face, which confused me as a child because I had never seen this happen in real life, but it seemed like a great idea to the cartoon perpetrator almost weekly.
Every generation thinks that the previous one is out of touch and the following one is out of control. If anything is different now, it’s that the latest generation has the best toys of all time. As an educator, it feels like uncharted territory. As a parent, it’s a relief that I can ask my kids for help. As a church goer, it’s obvious that we can’t just project PowerPoint slides in the sanctuary and call ourselves cutting edge. Influencing the next generation may involve a little more humility than we can comfortably muster. I guess I'd better get used to house bands instead of choirs and preachers in skinny jeans and fashionably wrinkled shirts. Insert an audible sigh here. On the bright side, the young church attendees seem to consider faith without works to be dead and to value people over social norms --- sounds awfully Biblical to me.
He was helping her out of the ditch when I slowed my bike to a stop on the Ladiga Trail. She righted her bicycle, brushed herself off and explained with one word, “squirrel.” I nodded my understanding. My friend Rene once spent some time on crutches with a cast on her ankle for the same reason. When those bushy tailed rodents stop in the middle of the lane and do their little shimmy dance, why do we swerve? People can not out-reflex squirrels.
My father taught high school driver education in addition to many other hats he wore during 30 years with the Birmingham City Schools, and he used to quiz me about driving situations. The one I always got right was probably the most useful too. Question: “What if something is in your lane and you don’t have time to stop?” Answer: “Hit it.” Dad was convinced that swerving while driving a car could make any accident more serious and he wanted to train my first thought to be “Hit it.” The rule came in handy when a ladder fell off the truck in front of me while driving on I-20 in heavy traffic, and also when assorted wildlife darted in front of my vehicle over the years. Swerving can cause a lot of trouble, and frankly, it almost never saves the deer either.
We can’t always weigh every option when faced with a quick decision regarding an obstacle in our path. But what about the things in life that are more important than bicycles, ankles, cars or deer? How do we know when to take a stand and when to keep the peace? I’ve always been a big fan of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was one of the first Christians to stand up to Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer became so frustrated by the lack of action among his fellow clergy that he became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler. As it turns out, good Christians do not always make good assassins and evil dictators have a much higher success rate when it comes to killing off their opponents. I’m not an advocate of assassination in general, but you have to admit Bonhoeffer decided not to swerve.
WWJD? Jesus seemed to have an inordinate amount of patience with some people and a very short fuse with others. He compared respected teachers to whitewashed tombs --- pristine outside but dead inside. He invited outcasts to eat and chat. He was no stranger to verbal barbs nor to words of compassion that surpassed anything the world had ever seen. And of course there was that incident in the temple with the overturned tables.
So how to know? Maybe when I feel like telling someone off I should show love, and when I feel like melting into the woodwork I should speak out. Courage is an interesting virtue… one you may not know you have (or don’t have) until faced with a dictator or a table that needs to be overturned.
My grandparents always planted their garden on Good Friday. I never asked why. It was just one of those things like the Frigidaire or the chester drawers. I was grown before I realized that it was pronounced “frigid air” and was a brand name, not a synonym for refrigerator. I’ll blame the prevalent Southern drawl for converting “chest of” to chester, but again, it took years to sink into my thick head. My understanding of the Good Friday planting has arrived more belatedly still. It dawned on me as I was planting my garden this year. As I dropped the seeds into the ground, covered them, patted down the dirt, and wondered how long it would be before they sprouted, the proverbial light bulb snapped on over my head. Of course! The seeds were being buried to rise again. I was proud of myself for figuring this out until it sunk in that it had taken me over half a century to do so. I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed.
When someone asked St. Paul to explain resurrection he said, “We have a parallel experience in gardening. You plant a ‘dead’ seed, and soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed…You get a hint at the diversity of resurrection glory by looking at the diversity of bodies not only on earth but in the skies – sun, moon, stars – all these varieties of beauty and brightness. And we’re only looking at pre-resurrection ‘seeds’—who can imagine what the resurrection ‘plants’ will be like?” [from 1 Corinthians 15, The Message translation]
Beyond the seasonal life and death cycle of my plants, there is a daily hint for this mystery as well. Every night I die to consciousness and rise from sleep the next morning. During a significant portion of my life, I am completely unaware of my own existence. I literally provide a visual aid for resurrection every day. Not to get all new-agey about it, but if there is no context for an answer in our known experience, maybe spiritual awareness is superior to rational arguments when it comes to finding the truth. Who can imagine? What lies beyond may even be superior to homegrown tomatoes and okra. Wow.
Roy Nelson didn’t do anything in a small way. When he brought pecans to share, he brought a grocery sack full of them. He bought ice cream by the gallon, never the half gallon. And when he played bridge at the Methodist church, he played by the rules until they prevented him from bidding as high as he wanted to.
He loved to give things to people. He called me one morning to ask if I wanted a baby squirrel that he’d found. I did not. When he found out I liked figs, he brought me a bucket full every week during their season. Four years ago he brought me a seedling so I could plant my own fig tree - - - which I did. Too close to the house. Knowing Roy, I should have expected something way too big and unruly, but well, live and learn. The tree has completely blocked the view from my kitchen window and is taking over my deck. After the birds and squirrels get their snacks, there are still figs to pick twice a day.
The gospels of Matthew and Mark record an odd incident of Jesus cursing a fig tree. It seems that Jesus was hungry and saw a fig tree, but when he went to pick some fruit, the tree had only leaves, no figs. Jesus cursed the tree and it immediately withered away. The disciples are said to have “marveled” at this spectacle. I guess so. It makes me wonder how often I have professed a pious front, and practiced a fruitless faith.
When I went to Roy’s funeral, printed in the program was a prayer that he had written out and placed in his Bible. It reads: “God, whether I get anything else done today, I want to make sure that I spend time loving you and loving other people — because that’s what life is all about. I don’t want to waste this day.” When I got home, I cut the prayer out and put it in my own Bible. I think Roy would be amused by my gigantesque fig tree and that makes me happy. It’s a frequent reminder of one whose kindness was bigger than life.