This morning, as I was walking past our small barn admiring the beauty of the autumn colors and the unusual warmth of the November breeze, I noticed a runner approaching and wondered who it was. We don't get too many folks out here on our road, since we're about four miles from the nearest town (consisting of a post office, a bar and a trailer park). Turns out it was the pastor of our most popular local church out for his early morning exercise.
In the moments after we exchanged friendly greetings, I had a wave of compassion flood through me for this man who, I have to admit, I have judged in the past. Let me explain….
I was born and raised, and now again (after several long-term sojourns out into the "big world") live in a rural, conservative, Christian-centered county in the Sierra Foothills of California. There are pro's and con's to living here. The pace is slower, it is quieter, the Sheriff's Log reports such incidents as "suspicious person seen near gas station," folks don't have to lock their doors and most folks know each other. There are also a lot of big trucks and rifles, a clear lack of diversity and tolerance, and numerous bumper stickers stating "Flatlanders Suck." Needless to say, it can be a bit "vanilla" around here. When I was in high school, the only two darker skinned students were bi-racial brothers, and that was a big deal.
Things are changing, however, albeit slowly; with an influx of transplants from places like the San Francisco bay area, there is a little less of a "Leave It to Beaver" feel here, but sometimes I still feel like we're about 20 years behind the times. To illuminate, I remember, at my 10-year high school reunion, one of the guys asked me where I was living at the time, and when I answered, "Berkeley," he remarked, "Oooohhh," as if I had some sort of contagious disease, and slowly backed away.
The thing is, I was raised here in this sleepy little county in what was, at the time, very likely the most left-wing family in the county. I am a "flaming liberal," as one of my daughter's more conservative friends likes to say with great gusto - a card-carrying member of an extended family that is progressive to say the least.
However, even with all of my progressive ideals about equality and social justice, I have been known sling mud along with the best of them. Even though I was raised to find the best in people, to not make assumptions, to ask questions if I had them and to always give someone the benefit of the doubt, I have still bought into the cultural soup of media-saturated behaviors that permeated every area of my life. It seems inescapable and I don't even watch television!
We grow up learning to judge, dismiss, ignore, belittle and sometimes even abuse others. It's part of our culture and our psychological structure to make ourselves feel better at others' expense. But at what cost?
As I was walking home after this friendly exchange (and they have always been friendly with Dave), I began to think about all of the ways in which I had judged, said negative things about their church, and even avoided contact with folks I knew from that congregation, all because of a couple of experiences I had had with some of his members over 10 years ago. In feeling judged by some of the members of his congregation, I in turn judged the entirety of that group for being exclusionary, judgmental and fundamentalist.
I have no idea what makes this man tick, or what he is passionate about. Actually, in every interaction I have had with him, I have always walked away with the feeling that he is a good man. I have no idea what their church does for its members, for our community or for organizations it may support around the world. I do know, however, that I have judged them simply on the basis of a couple experiences and the hearsay that runs around the more liberal camps in our small community.
If that is what I've been carrying around, knowing my friend's response at my 10 year reunion (and subsequent rolled eyes during conversations with some not-so-like-minded folks over the years), what are "they" thinking, saying and avoiding about me? I'm not saying this because I care on a personal level (I used to… a whole lot) but because, if I am thinking, saying and doing these things and "they" are thinking, saying and doing these things, how in the world can we expect to heal the larger rifts in our communities, states, nations and world when this happens on such a microcosmic level?
I mean, even at the beginning of this article, I was guilty of judging the people in my community as "bad" or "less-than" for carrying rifles and driving big trucks, implying that their behavior and choices equal ignorance and intolerance. We make judgments all the time; it's part of being human.
So, what if we all admit that we have judgments, but instead of letting them run us, we acknowledge them and move toward those we judge in order to find our common ground? Isn't that what our President Elect is asking us to do? Can you imagine a world where we know we judge, but we don't let that get in between us as people, as members of groups, organizations, communities, even nations? What kind of healing could occur then?
I believe that we are all working toward the same goals, we all want the same things – a decent living, good schools for our children, to be healthy, to live lives that have meaning, to be of service in some way, to make the world a better place. How we do that may look very different. But is the how what we should be focusing on or should we be focusing on the fact that we could begin to work together, despite our differences, and actually support each other in reaching these common goals?
I believe it is time that we all come together, not only in word but in deed, recognize our differences and celebrate them. Just because we may have different paths to God/Christ/Heaven or enlightenment doesn't mean that we have to belittle each other for our chosen paths.
As the Zen story says, it's not the finger pointing at the moon that is what we need to focus on- how different it is from ours, how bony or fat, whether or not it is well-groomed- but rather the fact that it's pointing to something outside ourselves, outside of our ego structures, outside of our stories of how our path is better than someone else's path.
I am certain that this congregation, with its committed, passionate pastor, wants everyone to feel welcome, wants everyone to know the blessings of the joys they experience in knowing God in the way they do. It is not up to me to judge them for being on the path they are on, nor is it up to them to convince me that the path I am on is wrong. It is up to all of us to love and celebrate each other and carry and transform the burden of these trying times together, creating whole, healed and loving communities.
It is time that we chalk up our bad behavior to immaturity and lack of knowledge, get over our little egoic selves and come together. If we don't do it here, in my tiny little town with its liberal and conservative camps, tent stakes firmly planted in this common ground, then we have no hope for doing it anywhere else. And we have no right to judge what happens in Israel and Lebanon, Ireland and North Ireland or anywhere else. We must begin here. We must be wiling to step across that line we have drawn so arbitrarily in the sand and grasp each other's hands in a gesture of humility and hope.
I think I owe that pastor an apology.