JUDGING (First Week in Advent)
Rick Pyburn was sick and tired of motorists speeding past his home in a quite village. He and his neighbours had fun standing in a conspicuous place holding hand-held speed detectors loaned from the police but when they weren’t there, drivers simply reverted to their former speeds.
Then, one day, Rick got an idea. With the help of a local sign company, he used plywood to build a two-dimensional image of a police car. He set up the decoy in some bushes next to his home. “With that just in view of the road, the transformation was amazing,” he said. “The traffic, even when it wasn’t breaking the limit, slowed immediately.”
Many Advent Sunday readings contain admonitions that we should check on our lifestyle and behaviour because a time of judgement is approaching. The signs are there, they warn us, that the Son of Man will soon appear and woe betide us if we’re caught unprepared. Like the drivers through Rick Pyburn’s village, our initial reaction might be to pull up our socks. These days, though, it’s harder to take the danger of that kind of judgement seriously because so many generations have passed without any sign of it.
Perhaps more effective as an incentive than external threats is an inner longing for a different kind of life. The picture more likely to stimulate us is not one of God the authority figure warning of punishment but one of Jesus showing us what human life at its best can be like. Advent can be a useful time for reflection on what motivates us and what changes in our lives or attitudes might make us more fulfilled and effective human beings. In that process, the baby in the manger is a much more effective agent for change than a plywood cut out or signs in the heavens.
Read: God has destined us not to receive his anger but to obtain liberation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5.9)
Rejoice: that God didn’t just tell us how to live; in Jesus’ life, he showed us.
Reflect: What changes would I most like to make in my life?
Remember: Just wanting to be different is sufficient to give God something to work with.
Resolve: to be open this Advent to any changes God might want me to make.
The National Trust once launched a campaign to find the country’s ugliest vegetable. Gardeners were encouraged to submit anything ‘from two legged carrots to corkscrew runner beans’. Entrants were given a year’s notice to produce something ugly. “We want to counter a trend among retailers for stocking perfect-looking fruit and vegetables, regardless of its taste,” said a National Trust representative.
Most gardeners preparing produce for a show would want to enter what looked best. Indeed most of us want our lives and what we do with them to look as near to perfect as possible. This is the path, we might feel, towards gaining people’s respect and developing self-esteem.
Jesus did teach that one way of judging people is by their ‘fruits’ but that, at a deeper level, it is the inner person God’s interested in, not what they have, or have not, done. And even when what’s inside is less than appealing, God doesn’t turn his back on anyone. The elder son in one of Jesus’ stories laid claim to recognition because of his thorough and committed work on the farm. But it was the younger who had prodigally spent his inheritance for whom a banquet was thrown, in spite of his ugly and destructive behaviour.
Many of us feel an inner pressure to make everything we do, and indeed ourselves, perfect. But we’re also aware how unrealistic that is and know that that isn’t what God’s most interested in. In fact we can be ugly both inside and out and God will still be glad he created us. So if we fall short of what we expect of ourselves, we shouldn’t judge ourselves failures in God’s eyes, or in our own.
Read: The Pharisees said of Jesus: This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. (Luke 15.2)
Rejoice: that God isn’t put off even when I seem to be consistently failing.
Reflect: Am I too concerned about doing well in any of my current activities?
Remember: that God gives me permission to stop trying to be perfect.
Resolve: not to lower my standards but to be more relaxed about achieving them.
On one occasion in Cornwall a parking warden clamped a van belonging to a dead man and then refused to waive the £350 release fee. In Kristiansand, on Norway’s southern tip, a motorist unable to move because of rush hour traffic got a parking ticket. The officials involved would clearly have benefited from more training – perhaps the little-known BTEC qualification for ‘immobilisation operatives’. Described as a course to assist clampers and parking wardens with communication skills and conflict resolution, let’s hope it also equips them to make less stupid decisions!
It’s not only parking wardens who do stupid things; and a thirty-hour training course wouldn’t make much difference to our tendency to make silly mistakes or behave foolishly. Careless speech or clumsy behaviour can leave us feeling very red in the face, even when only we know about it.
Occasionally embarrassment is the only appropriate response. But often, there is a reason why we have done or said something stupid. It may be a sign that we are over-tired, or that we are feeling threatened, or that something not yet identified is making us uncomfortable. It’s sensible in such circumstances not to berate ourselves but to make careful judgements about why we might have behaved like that. We can make something creative out of a faux pas if we pause to reflect on why this normally sensible person suddenly does something silly; and then do something about it.
Read: You discern my thoughts from far away….Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely (Psalm 139.2,4)
Rejoice: that God’s response to our mistakes is unfailingly forgiving.
Reflect: What underlying cause can I spot for any recent uncharacteristic behaviour?
Remember: that God is there to help us when we’re trying to understand ourselves.
Resolve: to practice the art of seeking out the hidden motivations which drive my behaviour.
Dutch TV company Endemol were out to break their own Guinness World Record of 3,992,397 falling dominoes. They had worked for weeks setting up more than 4 million dominoes when a sparrow flew in and knocked over 23,000 of them. The common house sparrow, a species on the national endangered list, was chased into a corner and shot by an exterminator with an air rifle. An Endemol representative defended the action: “More than 100 people from 12 countries had worked for more than a month setting them up. It was very frustrating”.
The sparrow posed a threat to Endemol’s project. Indeed human plans and good intentions are often threatened and undermined. Sometimes it’s other people whose selfishness or disturbed behaviour interrupts otherwise previously peaceful lives. Sometimes it’s more inside ourselves – we are aware in our own lives of doing or saying things which often seem to emerge unbidden from our subconscious but which cause hurt to others or are destructive of our best endeavours. Then, looking back on how we behaved, we’re often angry with ourselves for being or acting like that and fearful because we don’t know how to stop it happening again.
God doesn’t deal with such human failings in the way Endemol dealt with the sparrow. Nor is his main response the frustration we often feel with ourselves. He may judge much of our behavior to be damaging but he doesn’t express his disappointment by acting impetuously. Instead he comes to share in the human struggle to deal with our destructive behaviour and on the cross became its victim.
When we’re conscious of something inside us that’s undermining our lives and our loving, remembering that God has come to help us deal with it is more likely to engender change than just getting frustrated.
Read: I do not understand my own actions…. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do …. Who will rescue me…? (Romans 7.15, 19, 24)
Rejoice: that Jesus came to take our human self-destructiveness in hand.
Reflect: Am I sometimes too hard on myself?
Remember: that I am loved by God in spite of myself.
Resolve: to seek God’s help if I feel any of my behavior is damaging me or someone else.
Australian John Fleming worked for a company that makes road signs. Among them are those warning motorists about kangaroos of which there are more than 57 million in the country. They account for more than 70 percent of animal related accidents. Sadly for Mr Fleming’s motorbike, and for the kangaroo, he ran into one of them recently. “I was riding my motorbike with my mate when the kangaroo jumped straight into it,” he told Australia’s Herald Sun newspaper. “The guys from work sent me a get well card – it showed a kangaroo warning sign.”
It seems as though spending all day surrounded by warnings about kangaroos is no protection from them. The publicity surrounding Mr Fleming’s experience was probably far more effective in preventing future accidents than warning signs. It’s unlikely that those who heard what happened to him will, for a while anyway, need road signs to remind them how dangerous kangaroos can be.
The prophets whose words are recorded in the Old Testament were constantly challenging the people of Israel to take seriously the consequences of their behaviour. Yet they seemed incapable of living their lives in a way even remotely resembling what God wanted from them. God’s choice to come in Jesus seemed to be saying: if warning signs won’t persuade you, perhaps seeing the effects of your refusal to listen to me in the experience of an innocent man might be more convincing.
When we do what we shouldn’t or fail to do what we should, we don’t generally need to be told. Like Mr Fleming, we know perfectly well what’s sensible and right. What we need is help to change. Seeing on the cross the effects of our human refusal to listen to God and Jesus’ forgiving response is more likely to achieve that than any number of warnings.
Read: Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow (Lamentations 1.12)
Rejoice: that Jesus never strayed from God’s ways.
Reflect: Can I identify any consequences in my life of my failure to live God’s way?
Remember: Jesus never criticised people for failure to achieve high standards, only for pretending that they had.
Resolve: to keep in my mind the thought of God’s forgiving love expressed on the cross.
One year a hotel chain offered couples named Mary and Joseph a free night’s stay over Christmas. Travelodge said it was trying to make up for the hotel industry not having any rooms left on that first Christmas Eve. The offer came with just one proviso – to claim their free night’s stay Marys and Josephs had to prove their identity. That of course was why the original Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem. They had to register in the town Joseph’s family came from. If they weren’t counted there, then as far as the government of the time was concerned they didn’t exist.
Many people feel they don’t count: homeless people, those rejected by their families or those they thought loved them, those who do menial jobs, are unemployed or mentally ill. Then there are those who don’t quite fit in socially. ‘I just hope our Marys and Josephs don’t bring their donkey,’ said a Travelodge representative. We all know people whose presence creates a slight social awkwardness.
The default response to people like this is avoidance. It’s more comfortable to make the same judgement about them as everyone else. But it would be more loving if we were to imagine, or even find out, what lies behind their situation. It’s likely then that we’d want to help them feel they did count, and even if we didn’t entirely sympathise with them, somehow to make them feel less excluded. The innkeeper who found space for the pregnant woman and her husband is a good role model for us all.
Read: See (says the Lord), I will bring them home,…the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labour; a great throng. (Jeremiah 31.8)
Rejoice: that no one is excluded from God’s care.
Reflect: Is there anything more I could do for those on the fringes of society who need support?
Remember: If opening myself to someone else’s situation feels frightening, I can be sure of God’s backing.
Resolve: to notice people who are feeling side-lined and find ways of drawing them in.
When Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of England in 1653, people were not allowed to celebrate Christmas. It had become a holiday of celebration and enjoyment but Cromwell and his fellow Protestant Parliamentarians wanted it returned to a religious celebration where people thought about the birth of Jesus rather than ate and drank too much. In London, soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and take, by force if necessary, food being cooked for a Christmas celebration. The smell of a goose being cooked could bring trouble. Traditional Christmas decorations like holly were banned.
People with strong views about religion still try and impose those views on others. Sadly some even use force to do so. But there’s an intolerance that doesn’t include violence too. Religious people sometimes criticise those who have no faith. Those whose outlook is entirely secular sometimes revile believers. Such judgmental approaches not only create hurt – they also prevent creative dialogue.
When they do it with open-mindedness, the variety of different ways in which people articulate their spirituality can be a source of delight. We might use the proximity of Christmas to encourage conversations about why we believe what we do or for less personal exchanges of differing opinions on religion. Anything like Cromwell’s attempt to take the secularism out of Christmas would be a non-starter today as then, but we could perhaps play our part in putting the religion back into it.
Read: Paul said: ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way….I found among you an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown God”. (Acts 17.22-23)
Rejoice: in the way other people’s spiritual understanding has helped me develop my own.
Reflect: Does the secular celebration of Christmas add anything to my spiritual experience of it?
Remember: Jesus was often critical of people for being too “religious”.
Resolve: to have a conversation on what life’s about with someone who might feel differently from me.