I Will Always Be A Rule Breaker

Over the years,  through a process of prayer and discernment I’ve become more aware of how I judge others.  Don’t let the word discernment intimidate you.  Discernment is really a fancy name for taking notice of our choices in life, and asking for (then interpreting and following) God’s advice.  In many cases, it’s where our gift of human reason gets sprinkled with some Divine Intervention.  Through this process we learn a lot (sometimes painfully) about others and ourselves.

One painful experience I had with this process took place a few years back.  I was waiting to pick my kids up at school and saw a young mom standing with a child on her hip, waiting for her other children to be dismissed from school.  On her shoulder, I noticed a tattoo of  a giant feathered wing of some sort (I presumed part of an eagle) and some writing as well.  I couldn’t read the writing at all, but upon seeing this enormous  (and, in my opinion– obnoxious– tattoo) I did a mental eye roll and turned away at the sight of it.

Ugh.  Tattoos!  I thought , Why do people think they need these??  And what kind of mother goes around with a giant one on her shoulder, like that?

It was that second sentence that, moments later, stung me the most.

As the woman moved closer to me, I could make out the words on the tattoo.  It turned out the wings were not those of an eagle, but of an angel.  And the letters spelled the name of her dead son.  I knew his name because it was unique, and I’d noted it as I’d read about him in the newspaper only a few weeks before.  The article had been about his battle with brain cancer, and their family’s struggles as they balanced jobs,  three other children, and his illness.  It ended with his losing the battle before  he’d celebrated his second birthday.

In that moment, my own thought came back at me with a stinging slap and I realized exactly  “what kind of mother she was.”  She was “the kind of mother” who had experienced depths of sorrow and grieving beyond anything I could even imagine.  She was “the kind of mother” who had seen her infant son’s face twist and wrench into pangs of terror and shrieks of agony beyond anything humanly imaginable.  She was the “kind of mother” who had to answer the difficult questions  of why from her three other children, as they struggled with the loss of their brother, doing her best to answer when she herself couldn’t even really know.

And I wondered why I’d thought it logical and acceptable to cheapen and limit the depth of her motherhood all because of a tattoo.

In that moment of facing my horrible judgment of another, I realized I had a choice.  I could either dismiss and defend my thought by saying to myself something as ridiculous as, Well, even so, I would never get my child’s name tattooed on my shoulder!”   (I mean, while that’s probably true because as a matter of preference I still don’t like tattoos–I also don’t like  skinny jeans or crocheted toilet covers– that was hardly the point).   The point is that her tattoo, in memory and honor of her angelic son, was also a simple matter of her personal taste.  The fact that I’d tried to judge her personal taste to be a reflection of her  ability to parent, was my problem not hers.

I could only think of one thing to do.

I searched deep within my heart and asked, What would You have me do now?   And the answer came so swift and sure, I had no doubt:  pray.

So I did.

Every time I saw her.  (And, not by accident I’m sure, I saw her nearly every day).

Of course, I’d see her mostly at school pickup, but sometimes randomly around town, too.  And each and every time, no matter what kind of frenzied pace I was keeping in order to conquer my day’s activities, I would slow down, at least for a moment, and pray.  I prayed for her, for her children at home, for her spouse, for their health, and for their son in heaven.

I also prayed for me.  I prayed for forgiveness of my petty judgments (including those yet undetected), for the blessing of motherhood, for the gift of healthy children, and for the need to be reminded (often!) of the fact that despite our personal tastes, despite our harshest criticisms of others, the truth of the matter is that most of the time we’re all just doing the best we know how with the cards we’ve been dealt.

As a result, I no longer worry about “breaking” the rule that says, “Do not judge.” (Mt 7:1)  In my fallen human state, I doubt I’m any more likely to follow that law to the letter than I am of driving the speed limit.  Instead, I do the only thing I know to do:  I observe my judgments as I become aware of them, and I ask in the depths of my heart, What would You have me do now?

And what I get in return is never the finger-wagging reprimand with a harsh command to stop judging, that I feel I deserve.  No.  Instead, I most often get the simple gift of seeing how my harshest, pettiest judgments can be turned into loving actions for others (and even myself).

And that is a “breaking” of a whole other sort.

It’s judgment transformed.

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“Do Not Judge!” (Oh,But I Do…)

The older I get, the more I understand that any rule I am given out of concern for my own well-being, is worth taking a second look at.  Especially because such rules, at first glance, are ridiculously easy to understand, (i.e., go on green, stop on red), but many more, while just as easy to comprehend are far more difficult to carry out  (i.e., while I understand a speed limit of 55 mph means that 55 mph should be my maximum speed for the safety of myself and those around me, I very often go 60 mph because that is the speed that I deem will keep me “safe” from getting a speeding ticket).   Such rules, then, as we grow more confident and comfortable with the intention of them, quickly become something we dub to be “rules of thumb” rather than “hard and fast” rules (i.e., don’t drink and drive).

Many of the rules that Jesus gives us can begin the same way:   easy to understand, but difficult to follow.  Most recently, I came across this passage in my Bible study class on the Gospel of Matthew:  “Do not judge” (Mt 7:1).  And upon reading this, I was hit with two thoughts:  Yikes!  That sounds impossible!   and almost at the same time:   Thank goodness I don’t judge people as much as some people I know!  (Read that sentence again if you missed the irony of it).

The truth is that both of my reactions to this rule are just that:  reactions.  And reactions,  by their very nature, don’t take into account the larger picture of the reason for the rule.  Reactions don’t cast light on the myriad of ways in which we judge others, ourselves, and even God.   In fact, because I was so busy reacting, it wasn’t until I read the passage a second time that I was even able to comprehend the rest of the sentence–the part that  explains WHY we shouldn’t judge– “so that you may not be judged.” (Mt 7:1)

I was reminded then of how, years earlier, I’d made a Lenten promise to “give up” my sins of judgment and jealousy.  Now, I knew this would be a challenge, but I thought I could at least go a day or two before I would really be tested in the process of “giving them up.”  Much as He always does, though, God had other plans.

Ash Wednesday morning, (a.k.a. the FIRST DAY of Lent), I had a petty thought about a friend of mine:  I immediately “predicted” she would fail to “properly observe” the Holy Day by wiping off the ashes on her forehead after attending morning Mass.  (As Catholics, we are taught from a young age that doing so is a big “no-no”).  I’m embarrassed for having entertained this thought now on so many levels, but at the time, I didn’t see my “prediction” as a judgment at all.   I merely saw it as a “logical prediction of future behavior based on past behavior” and all but accepted it as “fact.”   Later that day, when I bumped into my friend,  I was shocked to see the ashes still on her forehead.   Shocked only because I’d been proven wrong.

After some introspection, (a.k.a. an inner tantrum-throwing fit whereby I attempted to vehemently defend my inexcusable judgment of my friend to God), I was able to be grateful for the gift of having been shown my fault.  If my friend had behaved as I’d expected, I would likely have been able to go the course of the entire day patting myself on the back for having successfully “given up” my sins by having made no judgments at all.  It was only in being proven wrong, that my eyes were opened to the fact that I’d judged my friend.

To this day, I think that being wrong about such a “prediction”  of my friend’s behavior on the first day of Lent was one of the best things that ever happened to me.  I shudder to think about how long it may have taken me to realize that I was judging someone else if my “prediction” had been “right.”