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Judgment Days        

Albert Camus wrote, “do not  wait for the last judgment my friend. It takes place every day”. Camus is considering the nature of judgments, both cosmic and commonplace. So much of our daily lives are taken up with judgments large and small. What are we to make of the admonition in the western world’s most influential book, thought by hundreds of millions to be the literal Word of the Creator, that tells us to refrain from judgment?  

“Departed to the judgment,
A mighty afternoon;
Great clouds like ushers leaning,
Creation looking on.

The flesh surrendered, canceled
The bodiless begun;
Two worlds, like audiences, disperse
And leave the soul alone.”
    - by Emily Dickinson


Reverend Wiley advised me not to divorce him
 For the sake of the children,
 And Judge Somers advised him the same.
 So we stuck to the end of the path.
 But two of the children thought he was right,
 And two of the children thought I was right.
 And the two who sided with him blamed me,
 And the two that sided with me blamed him,
 And they grieved for the one they sided with.
 And all were torn with the guilt of judging,
 And tortured in soul because they could not admire
 Equally him and me.
 Now every gardener knows that plants grown in cellars
 Or under stones are twisted and yellow and weak.
 And no mother would let her baby suck
 Diseased milk from her breast.
 Yet preachers and judges advise the raising of souls
 Where there is no sunlight, but only twilight,
 No warmth, but only dampness and cold --
 Preachers and judges!


 I preached four thousand sermons,
 I conducted revivals,
 And baptized many converts.
 Yet no deed of mine
 Shines brighter in the memory of the world,
 And none is treasured more by me:
 Look how I saved the Blisses from divorce,
 And kept the children free from that disgrace,
 To grow up into moral men and women,
 Happy themselves, a credit to the village.

    - From the Spoon River Anthology  by Edgar Lee Masters

In the beginning . . . there was nothing.

And the Creator judged this inadequate.

And as nothing inferred the possibility of something . . . He made it so.

But still He judged this as inadequate.

So to serve as the observer and recorder of his creation . . . the Creator brought forth mankind.

And as He reserved such sentiments for himself, the Creator admonished mankind to Judge Not.

But mankind surveyed the Creator’s work and found this directive to be laughably impossible. The remarkable cerebrum of man compelled him to evaluate the Creator’s work relentlessly and with abandon.

But mankind didn’t feel good about it.

And I certainly don’t feel good about many of my critical judgments either. But, like the rest of mankind, I just can’t help myself. 

And I assume that mankind will continue to judge with abandon until the Creator makes the call to return us to nothingness.

Given the human compulsion for judgment in spite of the Creator’s critical admonition, and, given that I am behind a pulpit, perhaps we should reflect upon the phenomena of judgments.

I fear that I find some behaviors appalling. I occasionally submit to the desire to judge them accordingly. For the purposes of this service I will mention that behaviors like heavy drinking, incessant bar hopping, visiting “gentlemen’s clubs, sexual recklessness, patronizing gambling boats - are all behaviors that I disapprove of. They disappoint me.  Call me an old testament religious skeptic. Don’t misunderstand. I think what people do with their own lives is their business. Unlike many who share my judgments I don’t think my disapproval should be forced into the law of the land. It is just that there are so many positive ways to spend your time that it strikes me as ludicrous to spend your time in such destructive foolishness. So I judge accordingly and acknowledge a hint of unflattering smugness in my judgments. But who knows what events push people into the behavior they indulge in? Perhaps had my experiences been different, my genetic recipe containing other flavors, I would view things differently. I am loathe to suggest my point of view is superior, for there is ample evidence to the contrary. 

For better or worse judgments help us determine behavior. I don’t go to gambling boats for example, because I have judged that they demean the human spirit. They provide entertainment by suggesting falsely that it is possible to get something for nothing. In fact, they generate fantastic profits for their owners utilizing a favorable set of probabilities less wavering than the speed of light. Far too often, these profits come at the expense of people who can least afford their losses. This is my opinion, based on my observations. Thus, I find my entertainment elsewhere.

My observations include the fact that many people whom I respect and admire find some of their more satisfying moments aboard the gambling boats and on trips to Vegas. They love the thrill of the occasional win, revel in working the games to increase their probabilities ever so slightly, and while they are aware of gambling's dark side, don’t dwell on it or allow that reality to deny them something they enjoy. They, as opposed to me, are well adjusted, and don’t stare at their belly buttons to a fault.

I have mentioned behavior rooted in a moral judgment. We always wonder about the source of behavior. Few mental parlor games are more pervasive than trying to figure out why people do what they do. A day doesn’t go by that we don’t ask ourselves “why do people do what they do?” You might argue that an entire science, psychology, has been built upon the consuming idea of determining why people do what they do. We like to think that behavior is the result of a complex set of factors that defy analysis. Humans are complex beings after all, none more so than ourselves - so why we do what we do must be based on a staggering set of permutations of possibility.

Then again perhaps not. An anecdotal example of the source of behavior was told to me long ago in a psychology class. Via the wonder of the internet, versions of this story now litter the digital ether. The story concerns a young woman, recently married, who was making her first roast beef dinner. She preheated the oven, put the meat on a cutting board, cut off the ends, placed it in a shallow baking dish, and put it in the oven. After closing the door, her husband, curious, asked her why she cut off the ends of the roast. She answered, “Because my mother always does.” The husband went to his mother-in-law and asked her why she always cut the ends off her roast beef before placing it in the oven. She answered, “Because my mother always did.” Fortunately, his mother-in-law’s mother, his wife’s grandmother, was still alive, so he went to her with the same question. She answered, “Oh, I never had a baking dish that was long enough for the roast, so I cut the ends off so it would fit.”

Think of the countless examples of people whose behavior exists just because someone else did it that way. Behavior doesn’t come out of a vacuum. My years as a counselor, my years observing young people as a teacher, watching my own children, has convinced me that virtually all behavior is a result of people repeating what they have observed, repeating what they have experienced. I am further convinced that what a student learns from a teacher has less to do with the subject matter than it does with observing how the teacher behaves. Mimicked behavior can be as innocuous as cutting the ends off of a roast, or, at the other end of the continuum it might be soul crushing in nature. Rarely does racist, bigoted behavior arise from any source other than watching others exhibit it. Rarely does violent behavior arise from any source other than watching others commit it. 

Consider destructive behavior that continues generation after generation because of events far back in history. People in the Balkans often hate and kill each other because of events that occurred in the 12th century. This is repeated in countless places around the world, in fact is one of the hallmarks of human history. The moral of this awareness is surely that we should examine all of our beliefs and behaviors and determine whether they truly represent who we want to be, or whether they are unexamined and potentially damaging artifacts of our upbringing. We should never define ourselves by the misguided behavioral patterns of others, whose judgments haven’t stood up to the light of day, or to the test of time. As Thoreau said, The unexamined life may not be worth living - or, if I may paraphrase, an unexamined life may make you live stupidly.

But we have come a bit afield of my initial discussion of judgments. I began by establishing what a prude I am. And if you listened closely you may have noticed a bit of uncertainty in my tone. I judge but I have enough doubt in absolutes that I judge then waver, essentially neutralizing the raw thrill of judging. I am a wishy washy moralist. There surely is a reason for this rooted somewhere in my past.

I would like to share a story that illustrates the conundrum of judgments. 

Early last century a group of righteous conservative folks became proactive about one of their obsessive concerns and the result was the complete prohibition of alcoholic beverages throughout America. In one neighborhood of a small town, as with countless other neighborhoods around the nation, the lack of a legal way to drink alcoholic beverages brought out the entrepreneurial spirit of one thirsty soul, and he took it upon himself to begin making moonshine liquor in the shed behind his house. Across the street from the moonshiner was a young couple trying to raise a growing brood of children to the best of their ability. The family didn’t attend church regularly, but the parents, in spite of the coarse language that was part of their working class background, had something of an old testament attitude towards human behavior. I believe it was Mark Twain who noted that, under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer, and this was evident in this young family. In any event, the father in particular was driven to distraction by the knowledge that a moonshiner was open for business across the street from his family. There were numerous incidents between the young father and the moonshiner’s clientele, confrontations that involved strong language and threats of recrimination and even violence. The fact that many of the people stumbling out of the shed on a Saturday night, singing bawdy songs and laughing at the top of their lungs were pillars of the community who would be found in the pews of the town’s churches the next morning only added to the man’s contempt. You could say he had judged the Moonshiner and his customers harshly.

And had he known that his young daughter had snuck over and peaked into the shed one evening he would have been apoplectic. For his young daughter, intrigued by the goings on in the mysterious shed, had looked through a window and seen there in the shed’s interior, a group of men, red-faced and drunk, sitting around a corrugated tub in the center of the shed’s single room. The tub was filled with home brewed beer and the men dipped their mugs into the tubs for refills. And sitting in tub was a neighbor lady, a friend of the family, stark naked and laughing hysterically at some drunken riposte. The young girl was so shocked, her view of propriety so seismically altered, that she never told her parents, and indeed didn’t share her observations with anyone until many decades later. Had the father known what his daughter was exposed to, heaven knows what his reaction might have been.

This state of affairs continued for some time, the father growing ever more exasperated by the goings on across the street. Since the sheriff and mayor were among his customers, the moonshiner had nothing to fear and accepted the occasional confrontation with his neighbor as part of the price of doing business. 

When the young family’s first son was about a year old a respiratory illness spread across the small town. The son caught it, and in this age before important medical breakthroughs, the illness settled in his lungs and he developed pneumonia. Pneumonia today is a serious illness, but back then, in the absence of antibiotics, it was often a death sentence. For 2 weeks the young boy teetered on the abyss of death. The father was a laborer, struggling to simply put food on the table, and had little money for doctors. A family friend who was trained as a nurse would stop by each evening and do what she could to help the tiny boy with his breathing, but little could be done. Finally the evening came when the nurse knew that the crux of the illness had arrived. She told the despairing young couple that this night would determine if the child lived or died. She told them that the best she could do was to keep him in her prayers. As she left the little frame house, almost as an afterthought, she said there was one thing they might try. She knew it was against the law, she said, but if they could somehow locate this elixir, a couple of tablespoons of whiskey might help the boy expel the strangling mucous from his lungs.

And so the young father was faced with an archetypical moral dilemma. He disapproved  of the demon whiskey, he loathed the moonshiner for his amoral behavior and the pall the illegal drinkers placed over his humble home. But his first born son lay in his bed, fighting for breath, on the cusp of death.

He knew that his moral judgment no longer had meaning. He only wanted his son to live. So he went across the street, literally with his hat in his hand. And he knocked on the door and saw the moonshiner gaze at him with a tired and wary expression. His eyes downcast, the father explained to the moonshiner that he needed to buy whisky in the hopes it would help his desperately ill son.

The moonshiner left for a moment and came back with a bottle. When the father tried to pay for it the moonshiner refused. He simply said he would pray for the boy. The father mumbled his embarrassed thanks and returned across the street.

He filled a tablespoon with whiskey, as the nurse had directed, and put it to the boys lips. The boy wheezed and sucked the whiskey down.

There was another louder wheeze and the boy fought to draw a breath but no breath came. He struggled to draw air into his lungs but the burning whisky had other ideas. He began to gasp and turn blue. Time stood still. Then just as the father and mother were about to become hysterical with the fear that they had only accelerated their precious son’s losing struggle to breathe, he began to cough. The cough deepened, he fought for a breath as each cough became more violent, and after what seemed like an eternity a huge plug of mucous expelled from his mouth. And once the mucous was gone, for the first time in 2 weeks he drew a full, life nurturing breath of air into his lungs. At long last the crisis had passed. In a matter of days he was regaining strength and it wasn’t long before he was once again a healthy, rambunctious little boy.

So here we have a story that vividly illustrates the folly  of judgments. Judgments are an exercise in abstraction, an exercise in vanity. We judge because we feel a moral superiority, a superiority that may or may not be valid, since it is based on projecting our own values onto others. We need to remind ourselves before we judge, the philosopher Goethe’s admonition that “If everyone swept in front of their own door, the whole world would be clean.” 

The story vividly  illustrates that the abstraction of judgment can become a liability when a loved one’s well being is at stake. For example, I consider myself a pacifist, I hold people who start unnecessary wars in contempt. Yet I know that my pacifism will become an easily discarded abstraction if someone physically attacked one of my loved ones. I am sure I would defend them by any means necessary.

By the way. You might wonder how I know the precise details of such a personal story as the one I just told. I know it because the little boy was my dad. The story was told to me 60 years after the fact by his big sister, the one who looked through the window of the moonshiners shed and kept her experience from her father, my grandfather. He and my grandma lived into their 90’s and I never saw so much as a drop of liquor being drunk in their house in the countless times I visited them. Yet I never once heard them comment negatively on this habit in others. Their experiences, unlike mine, gave them cause to forgo that particular judgment. So without the moonshiner’s whiskey my father quite probably would have died and I would never have been born, I would not have experienced the miracle of life, the miracle of my children’s birth, and we would have had a void in the pulpit this very day. Please feel free to indulge yourself in the judgment of whether that would be an improvement or not.

Columnist Jimmy Breslin, who has written extensivelyabout the September 11th murders, notes that when the people in the towers who were above the flames realized they could not possibly survive, their response was universal. Almost without exception they used phones to call family and friends and tell them they loved them. This horrible tragedy, in a perverse way, served as a control group for an experiment into what really matters in life. When thousands of people stared into the void, they didn’t rail about the unfairness of their fate, nor even pass judgment on the circumstances that led to their fate - their response was to let the people in their life know they were loved.

In the moment of truth my grandfather faced, in the moment of truth the victims of 9/11 faced, abstractions like judgments ceased to matter, things like whose vision of God is more precise, whose behavior is more righteous, whose arguments have more validity, these become meaningless indulgences - what matters is our loved ones. 

This realization gives me hope, gives me strength, because I think it is an indicator of what is important. It gives us much needed guidance. It tells us where we should place our focus as we struggle to decide what our priorities in life should be. When life gives us a quiz with competing possible answers, if one of the options assigns a secondary priority to family, you know that answer is incorrect. The correct answer to any test life gives you is to focus on loved ones. Without exception.

Judging is an inescapable fact of life. It is part of the human condition. In moderation and in the proper spirit it can even be entertaining. But more often it derails us from the really important aspects of our lives. We must never mistake it for a real examination of what is important. In the cosmic game of rock, paper, scissors, judgments always lose to kindness, always lose to compassion, always lose to love.

The Creator wasn’t being completely realistic with his admonition to refrain from judgment given the many quirks of His Creation. But the advice is perfect as an ideal and idealism is the noblest of goals.

So if you slip, as I too often do, and find yourself judging one of your fellow man harshly, recall my grandfather and his moral dilemma. Recall those phone calls from the twin towers. We are fellow travelers on the often difficult journey of life, and the source of the kindness, compassion, and love that we rely on to make our way is independent of judgments, independent of such foolish human conceit.

What is important in life transcends judgments.

So may it always be.

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