Withholding Judgment

Nobody, even Tina Fey, wears judgment well.

Nobody, even Tina Fey, wears judgment well.

“Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Mt 7:1-2)

“Do not speak evil of one another, brothers. Whoever speaks evil of a brother or judges his brother speaks evil of the law and judges the law. If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is to save or to destroy. Who then are you to judge your neighbor?” (Jas 4:11-12)

“Therefore, you are without excuse, every one of you who passes judgment. For by the standard by which you judge another you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the very same things.” (Rom 2:1)

Passages such as these are easy to come by in the New Testament and secular culture alike. Find me a person who has never quoted, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” or “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?” or “He who has not sinned cast the first stone.” It’s nearly impossible. The admonition against judging others is so pervasive in the New Testament that its practice would seem to be intrinsic to Christianity, and thus, the Western world.

And yet, I find myself judging others on a regular basis. I don’t believe that I am alone in this. As Christians, we are a people with high ideals regarding justice, morality, and faith. We believe that we should act a certain way, and that others should act a certain way toward us.  We believe that we hold the Truth, and that God is on our side. This may in fact be the case. Unfortunately, it does not resolve the issue at hand: what do we do when the world around us, or even the world within us, does not match the world we are hoping for?

I think that we are called to get to know the world.

The problem with judging others isn’t that we are incapable of knowing the Truth. While we may not know everything that is true, God has revealed to us at least some of it, and there are at least basic things that we can assert. The problem with judgment is that it is often done without true discernment, and it unnecessarily creates divisions in the human family. When we are quick to judge, we build resentment and ruin relationships.

The fact of the matter is that each and every one of us brings to every situation a lifetime of unique experiences that has formed our conclusions about the world. Undoubtedly, some of these conclusions will be misguided and distorted. But there is a difference between condemning our neighbor outright for a wrong conclusion and entering into a discussion to understand what may have led them there and in what ways they may actual bear the Truth in a light different from our own. To believe that we or anyone else is ever COMPLETELY right or wrong, that we are without sin or blemish, is preposterous. In this way, there is a true sense that if we are ever going to grasp what is the Truth, it is going to be something we do together, open to understanding even the most condemnable people around us.

Which brings me to a resolution I have for this year.  Recognizing the resentment and condemnation I build up in myself because of failed ideals, my goal for the year is to withhold judgment of my brothers and sisters, to live comfortably in the tension between asserting the Truth I have found and being open to my understanding of that Truth changing. I wish withhold judgment as long as possible, and even when I have come to certain conclusions, I wish to remain open to God’s grace in a new way. The Bible is filled with stories of unexpected people (dumb, lame, dirty, foreign, etc.) bearing the Truth for a whole people to hear, and yet I still find myself judging people prematurely, writing them off before I am able to know them, and ultimately cutting myself off from the grace God has worked through them. I guess in the end, I hope to withhold judgment from my brothers and sisters because I’m ever thankful that God has chosen to do the same for me. If I’m still growing, learning, and failing, it seems only fitting that I be able to recognize that in my neighbor.

The Patience to Serve

As Francis continues to remind us, we are called to serve, not be served. One of the ways is listening.
As Francis continues to remind us, we are called to serve, not to be served. One of the ways is listening.

A few times a month, the simply professed meet together for a presentation and a discussion about relevant pastoral issues we may encounter in our life as a friar.  A few weeks ago, we were given a presentation about interacting with and empowering the laity, focusing heavily on our need to learn from the ones we serve.  It was a great message for all of us to remember, and something that Pope Francis has reiterated heavily for months now, emphasizing service as the priest’s primary duty.

We are often told about the young, zealous priest, fresh out of seminary and ready to change the world, who goes into a well-functioning church of faithful people and tries to “fix” things that don’t need fixing.  There are even more stories of a church changing pastors and the new pastor dismantling everything the previous pastor did for the sake of his “vision”.  Sometimes it happens to even the most well-intentioned and capable priests: they walk into a situation with a spirituality unlike their own and, unable to recognize the merit in the congregation’s expression, either become indignant or apathetic.  In these cases, there is a need to wait, to listen, and to learn from the people of God.

As we discussed our experience of this issue further, we stumbled upon a dilemma:

How, then, do we reconcile this with our emphasis on studies, requiring everyone to get a Master’s degree in theology and/or pastoral studies? It would seem that the reason we do this is so that we can be a source of knowledge and guidance for the people we serve. If this is the case, what do we do when, informed by our many years of studies, we find that there is something being done that is objectively wrong and potentially harmful to the people we serve, but they do not recognize the problem or are unwilling to change?

There are definitely situations in which something is legitimately wrong, and there needs to be someone able to teach, inspire, adjust, or even force change. If a priest enters a new parish and the choir isn’t singing the songs he likes, this might be something to leave alone. But what if the majority of congregation is praying the rosary during mass; the choir sings “O Come O Come Emmanuel” during Lent because they really like the song; or the church as a whole engages in no ministries outside of mass and devotions, refusing to help the poor, care for the sick, or visit the imprisoned?  These are extreme examples (and thankfully have never experienced myself) but I think they prove a point: there would seem to be situations in which change needs to be instituted, and sometimes, these changes will not be at the instigation of the people we serve. What do we do when our will is not that of the people we serve?

For some, the first inclination would be to use one’s credentials as a way of claiming authority and using that authority to be the decisive leader.  This is a less-than-ideal first move, especially in regards to faith.  An authoritative approach that makes changes without consultation, even if in the name of orthodoxy or orthopraxy, is a well-intentioned way of alienating those one serves and driving people away from the church.  Because faith can be a very personal and touchy thing for most people, telling someone that he/she is wrong (no matter how wrong he/she actually may be!) is a terrible approach, at least at first, because it will most likely result in denial or resentment, not greater faith.

So where is the balance for us as ministers?  How do we teach without making everything we do a reflection of our personality and preference? How do we remain open to an experience of God in the “real world,” an experience that cannot be learned in books, without an “anything goes” policy?

As is usually my answer to conflicts, I think that education and patience are the best solutions.  As ministers of the people, our highest aim must always be to foster a relationship between God and the people we serve.  The best way we can do this is to invite, to inspire, and to model people to a deeper experience of faith.  Instead of telling someone that he/she is wrong for praying the rosary during mass, we can be a witness of the power of the liturgy by singing and being fully engaged.  Maybe we could begin with a question such as, “What do you get out of the liturgy?” and then share what we get out of it by participating with the priest and congregation.  It pains me to think about how uninformed the average Catholic is, but this will never change without opportunities for questions, invitations, sharing of one’s own experience, and information sessions.

More importantly, there needs to be the recognition that things will not change overnight.  We must not become impatient judges wondering why everyone is not where we are and resort to sweeping authoritative measures to “fix” the problem. The problem of uninformed or apathetic faith may appear resolved in its superficial external expressions, but the root of the problem cannot be fixed with rules and administrative decisions.  This is a problem that can only be solved with tireless efforts to invite, inspire, and model, and unwavering patience when it doesn’t work.

I’m not naive to think that this solves the problem of having to make decisive (and even divisive) decisions.  Issues of great importance, whether it be liturgical, canonical, financial, or personnel, cannot be democratic, and there are times when things simply need to be done a certain way.  But (speaking from my ignorance) I don’t think that there is ever a situation in which at least a few members of the laity are not informed about and consulted for their opinion, because, quite frankly, it is their church.  When we are given an assignment in a new place, they will remain there.  Our role is to recognize this and to serve the needs of the people as best we can.  For this, may God give me patience and humility.

Humble Ambitions

tumblr_m54ipjGvoB1rokkrlo1_500I’m a pretty ambitious guy. Understatement of the blog, right? Ever since I can remember, I have had a clear sense of what it was that I wanted to accomplish, the vision to set both long-term and short-term goals, and the discipline to stick to them.

Ambition is a great American value. For some, it is the only one necessary: if you have the determination you can accomplish anything you want! Behind every great accomplishment, innovation, record or praiseworthy individual, there lies the unbridled passion to make something of oneself, and the skill to make it happen.

I bought into this with everything I had very early in life: I could have been anything I wanted, all I needed to do was work hard. Even after I began to understand that physical, economic, psychological, and social barriers make the “American Dream” little more than a fallacy, i.e. that often times the hardest workers are not the most successful, I could not shake the imbedded ambition to succeed. It’s simply a part of who I had been socialized to be, and who God had called to this life. (There have been enough situations in which my ambition for something selfish ended up leading right to this vocation to know that God knows the best way to use who we are to move us one way or another.)

But how can someone be a follower of Christ in the way of Francis of Assisi, seeking a life of humility, simplicity, and obedience, and at the same time remain an ambitious, success-oriented American? Surely, one would say, God has used this vice of mine to call me to conversion, to shed the old me in order to be born anew. One might also say that ambition is a gift, something that God could and would clearly want to use for good.

And so I searched for answers. The first one I came to was through both Richard Rohr’s writings on the Enneagram and my former campus minister: transform the ambition for self into ambition for God. Rohr says, “[We] are overly concerned with building our own kingdom and seeking our own fame… Keeping the Sabbath reminds [us] that the meaning of life does not consist in action alone” (Discovering the Enneagram, 228). Rather than attempt to change who we are, we need to orient who we are toward God so that our many gifts may point back to the one who fashioned us. It’s a reminder that “success” does not have to be personal or selfish, (e.g. wealth, fame, gratification, and power), but rather communal and altruistic (e.g. full churches, upheld dignity of neighbors, peace, and educated people). In this way, my former campus minister has argued that, not only is it possible to be 100% humble and 100% ambitious at the same time, it’s necessary. The way he put it, being a humble servant means giving all that we have and working for all that we can for the sake of building God’s kingdom.

Unfortunately, the problem I’ve found with this mantra, “Build God’s kingdom, not my own,” is that it more often serves as a justification than it does a conversion. At least, that’s what I my spiritual director and I realized was the case for me. You see, whenever my spiritual director and I spoke about the future, I found myself beginning every sentence with “I would really like to. . .” or “I don’t feel called to. . .” or “I would be good at. . .” I believed that I was seeking to build God’s kingdom because everything was about his church, his people, his ministries; subtly, though, it became apparent that all of these things were being filtered through the self, and that my success, my image, and my reputation were informing me as to what God’s kingdom needed me to do. “I wonder if there’s a way to take the ego out of it,” he would say. Ouch. He had a point though: it was the “I” and the “I” alone that made these questions difficult:

  • Would I feel that I was “building God’s kingdom” if I were assigned to a nursing home or Hospice care, my only responsibility being the comfort of near death individuals?
  • How important is recognition to my ministry?
  • Why do I subconsciously believe that a bigger ministry is better than a smaller one?

So how could I take the “I” out of it, to stop looking at how ministry could make me the most comfortable or fulfilled (in essence, stop seeking my own ambitions) and focus entirely on what God had in store?

I think the key for anyone with high ambitions is to keep a balance between relationships and tasks. Otherwise, even the most well-intentioned goals will end up trampling people and ruining relationships. For me, that meant two new mantras:

  1. All I’m called to be is a brother.
  2. Love God’s people for him.

In both of these, I’m called to focus less on the task, the goal, the potential accomplishments (either God’s or my own), and more on the opportunity for relationships before me. There becomes no need to struggle for power or authority, no reason to worry about the big picture, and no recognition to be had. The goal is a person. The ambition is charity. To fully accept either of these mantras is to realize that spending time to share a meal with even one hungry and lonely person is as important to building God’s kingdom as is leading a crowd of people in prayer; that taking the time to listen to a person in their brokenness is as life giving as a well-attended Bible study; that Hospice care is as important as peace and justice missions. There is a need to remember that building God’s kingdom is not separate from loving those in it. It is not a task to be accomplished, but rather a people to be loved.

Ultimately, what I’ve come to understand and have struggled to implement is this: you don’t need me, you need God. I need to fully accept that my role in ministry is to provide God to everyone I meet, not myself, and whether it be through innovative, big-picture goals, or through loving, careful relationships, building God’s kingdom takes many forms. And so I offer this conclusion for those with a similar ambitious nature: be a vessel that works as hard as it can, with unrestrained creativity, with no limits in sight, not taking no for an answer, and completing things that have never been done before, and do not for even one second forget that God could equally have used a pile of rocks to accomplish the same thing. Humbly recognize that you are simply a rock, an open vessel willing to do God’s work. That’s the humblest ambition I know.

A Chance To Teach, Learn

This film is one of the teaching tools I will be using this year. It's actually quite good!

This film is one of the teaching tools I will be using this year. It’s actually quite good!

While in school, simply professed friars like myself are given the opportunity to get experience in ministerial settings. Each year we’re assigned to a different ministry, and the ministry opportunities are far and wide. There have been catechists, hospital chaplains, retreat coordinators, prayer group leaders, peace and justice advocates, visitors to nursing homes and a many more that I am simply unaware of. The purpose is to get us out of our studies and into the real world, to interact with people and to hone our pastoral skills.

One of the areas that I has caught my attention over the past few years has been religious education, both of children and adults. I won’t say that Catholics don’t know their faith, as some would posit, but I will say that Catholics are much less confident in their knowledge of their faith than others because they possess a very different skill-set than our Protestant brothers and sisters. As I see it, It would not take much to give people the tools they need to be active and confident sharers of their faith, and most of all, interested to continue learning even after the requirements are over.

Thus, this year I have chosen to be a religious education teacher at St. Camillus Church, helping out with their newly reorganized faith formation program. Put simply, there are two categories of courses for teenagers and I am teaching one of each. The first category is called Confirmation Prep and it is designed for students that have been in religious education in some form for many years and are ready for confirmation. There’s a high expectation for classroom assignments, memorization of prayers and teachings, and a general grounding in faith that is meant to be matured and matured.

The RCIY (Rite of Christian Initiation for Youth) class on the other hand is for students who are being introduced to religious education or church for the first time. Because there’s no guarantee as to how much any student will know coming in, and the fact that many students are probably a bit apprehensive about being around church, this group is much less of a class than it is quality time with teenagers. In fact, for these students, I am refraining from ever using the word “class” to describe our time together as it presents a very negative image to many of the students, and it doesn’t adequately describe what it is we hope to accomplish. Ultimately, our goals with these students is to 1) introduce them to church through community building and personal relationships, and 2) provide them with a basic understanding of our Catholic faith with the hope that they will continue on in their journey, wherever it may be at the moment.

Splitting the classes up in this way helps to meet the needs of everyone involved without exclusion for sure, but from a teaching standpoint, it also offers the opportunity to have two wonderfully different experiences of faith formation. At this point, everything is very new, and there’s still a lot that needs to be worked out as far as curriculum goes, but the whole experience is very exciting. Obviously the teaching aspect will be a great test of my interpersonal and organizational skills, but the opportunity to walk with teenagers in their faith journey, whether it be a first introduction to Jesus or developing an adult faith, is a tremendous blessing. In no way am I delusional enough to think that it will be an easy time, but what worthwhile experience is? I’ll keep you posted.