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I like to think that one of my gifts — my ministries, really — is prayer. I’ve always prayed vigorously for others, and I believe that prayer is powerful. That’s why I was so affected by a recent situation, one that dramatically revealed the limits of my charity.

“Pray for them,” my friend asked me. But I couldn’t do it; not the way she wanted me to. She was speaking of her employers, oil investors who grew used to a lifestyle that includes three mansions, dozens of vintage automobiles and a lifetime of lavish spending. And why not? They were making in the mid-five figures every month. Then the oil market took a downturn.

Suddenly, they find themselves having to contemplate selling one of their homes, liquidating a coin collection, borrowing from family. They’ve hinted that they might have to cut my friend’s hours. (My friend is 76 years old, supporting her grown children, with no retirement date on the horizon.)

I don’t mean to disparage these people. They may very well be much better people than I can ever hope to be. My friend certainly idolizes them. So what was my problem? Why did I say, “Yes,” even as my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth?

Praying for the oil market to return to its former profitability wouldn’t just help my friend’s employers. There are lots of good people who work hard for oil companies, who deserve raises and steady employment. It would be good for the economy of certain states whose coffers could use a nudge. But I still can’t mouth the words that would potentially help them.

I don’t think reliance on oil is good for the environment. But that’s not my real reason for not praying. It’s this: I simply cannot pray for the rich to get richer. And that says more about me than them.

Am I jealous? Maybe. It would be nice to have that kind of money. Am I too busy judging them to pray? Yes, certainly. That they did not save money, that they frittered it away, bothers me. But who am I to judge someone else’s spending habits? My own savings are ludicrously small.

In the end, it comes down to this: I am at ease praying for those on the margins, the struggling, the poor. White, wealthy and powerful? Not so much. God doesn’t judge, but apparently, I do. And that’s a problem.

Like my post of two weeks ago, I didn’t write this for assurances that I’ve done the right thing; it’s a genuine wonderment: When someone asks you to pray for something you don’t like/condone/care for, what do you do? If you do pray, do you worry that it is inauthentic? How do you keep judgment out of it?

I’ve settled for praying that my friends’ employers will find a way to live within their means without causing deprivation for my friend. It’s not what she asked for. It may even be sinful of me. But it did provide me with a moment of self-revelation.

I’m not altogether comfortable with the results. Maybe I need my own miracle, of the heart-softening variety. Maybe someone should pray for me.

There was a women’s march last weekend. Then, there was a backlash. (Of course there was a backlash.) Most of the content of that backlash centered on the marchers themselves — specifically, their looks. Certain male politicians characterized these women as “ugly” — a word often consigned to feminists — or “fat.” These men know how to push buttons. They know exactly how to hurt us.

And yet: To look at these naysayers objectively, it is clear that we are not dealing with young Paul Newman lookalikes. There is nothing beautiful, graceful or aesthetically pleasing about them. They are, as my mother would say, “as homely as a mud fence.” You could tell these men that, but they wouldn’t care. Because it doesn’t matter. A man doesn’t have to be beautiful. His entire worth to society — to the world — isn’t bound up in his looks.

But ours (as women) is.

Why? Why? The question keeps ringing in my head like a plaint. Because you see, I know women who marched — in D.C. and other areas. They are beautiful inside and out. More importantly, they are smart. Most importantly — and I use this adjective with the gravity it deserves — they are holy. Which is a darned sight more important than beautiful. Which is, in fact, much harder to obtain.

I vacillate between gentle, head-shaking wonder and furious rage when I examine the dichotomy between what we say we are as a nation and what we do. Politicians, especially conservative ones, like to call us a Christian country. But what would God think of building a wall to keep people out? I’m talking about the God who sent his son to say, “What you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” What would God think about denigrating whole swaths of people, trying — quite calculatedly — to shut them up and shut them down?

I have been told a hundred times to “accept” what is happening politically. To smile and accentuate the positive. But this isn’t about policy differences. It’s about opposing what I see as evil. I will never back down from opposing evil. It is my moral right — my moral imperative — to oppose it.

It is also my imperative to disabuse the notion that a woman’s looks define her. Until we are all judged by the content of our souls, no one here — or anywhere — is free.

There are two kinds of people. Wait, that’s not true! There are millions of kinds of people. But I’m going to talk today about two of them: bowls and sieves. “Sieve” people, like their kitchen counterparts, like to force others through their net of acceptance, straining out their faults and foibles, whereas “bowl” people tend to accept others exactly as they are, warts, pips, lumps and all.

My BFF since fifth grade is a “bowl” person. She adopts stray people (like me), accepting them wholeheartedly, despite their flaws. She is outgoing. I am introverted. I didn’t know until the seventh grade that you’re supposed to look people in the eyes when you talk to them — she taught me that. I just figured people knew when I was talking to them. She loves everyone — well, with one exception (in grade school): In her nightly prayers, she would ask God to bless “everybody in the whole, wide world…except Sister Judith” — though to be fair, Sister Judith had it coming. My friend is an open book, a walking hug.

I, on the other hand, tend to be a “sieve” person. I pick people apart. I strain against the bits of them that make me uncomfortable. I judge. It’s not that I want to be this way — quite the opposite — yet I find myself analyzing others, shying away when I notice an area of prickliness or strangeness or radical difference from myself. Which is wholly unfair — I’m no paragon. Far from it. I wouldn’t want to be friends with me. Yet I find myself thinking, “She would be so great if she weren’t so conservative.” Or, “How can I be friends with a cat-hater?”

I know other “sieves.” They reject potential life partners based on lack of a common religious background, though spirituality is fluid and can radically change over time. They swoop down in judgment against random comments on Facebook. They want people without pits, without tough outer rinds, without seeds. And that can make them very lonely.

I’m not sure whether “sieves” can become “bowls.” It may be inborn, or perhaps tied to certain types of learned behavior. But they can — with prayer and patience — learn how to loosen up. They can learn to let go of petty differences. They can widen their nets.

It requires taking a page out of Jesus’ book. Jesus is the ultimate “bowl,” loving sinner and saint equally, tax collector and apostle, leper and scholar. It doesn’t come easily. It takes constant presence and awareness and willingness to be a part of someone else’s journey, no matter where it takes you. Do it enough, and it can so radicalize a person as to make them prefer the folks with the most pits and pips, lumps and seeds.

I’m far from this lofty goal. Though my current best friend is a cat-hater. And I’m okay with that. So is she. There are bigger things to love about one another. We just had to find them.

Scanning the headlines this week, I found myself leaping to conclusions and making assumptions. Before I knew it, I was psycho-analyzing public figures I don’t even know.

Governor Paul LePage of Maine found himself in hot water last week when he left a profane, threatening voicemail for a Democratic lawmaker. He’s ignited a lot of controversies lately, most of which are exacerbated by his brash style. I came to the conclusion that LePage was still fighting battles from his hardscrabble childhood. Okay. Figured him out. Next subject.

Flipped over to the Entertainment Section and read that actress Blake Lively had a baby shower that singer Taylor Swift attended. Hmm. That Taylor Swift has been collecting famous friends for years now. Probably a direct result of Kanye West ruining her VMA award moment.  Must be trying to prove that people really do like her. Okay. Figured her out. Next subject.

Of course, it did occur to me that these are people I’ve never met, and never will meet. The only “facts” I’ve got at my disposal are those found on the internet. I have no degree in psychology, so everything I’m assuming is just my own best guess.

One of my favorite sitcoms is The Odd Couple with actors Tony Randall and Jack Klugman. In one episode, Randall’s character, Felix Unger, says, “Never assume. When you assume, you make and ass out of u and me.”

We all make assumptions about each other, but we don’t know the whole story. It’s a good idea not to take our own meanderings too seriously. Lest we forget, people are making assumptions about us, too.

So even as I find myself putting on a judge’s robe that I never earned and banging a gavel in my own mind, I’ll also send up a quick prayer. “Bless them,” I’ll ask. “And forgive my little lapses.” I’m more grateful than ever that God’s grace is such a big umbrella!

Golden rule, schmolden rule. It comes down to this: In absolutely every situation, love ought to rule. If you have a decision to make, choose the more loving path. If you have something to say, let it be said lovingly and with love as its sole content. If you have the chance to intersect your life with the life of another, whether person or animal, let that intersection be of, with and about love.

I didn’t say it would be easy.

Unless you live under a rock, you know about Cecil the lion, who was lured out of his protected territory and shot by an American dentist (whose name I will withhold, though it’s all over the news), so the magnificent beast’s skin and head could adorn the surfaces of said dentist’s Minnesota home. This wasn’t a case of hunting for necessity, for food. It was acquisition at the cost of a life. It was a bad, bad thing.

The man who committed this act is certainly feeling its effects. Social media will do that. He has shut down his practice, issued an apology, and is generally lying low. He has received both death threats and vituperative scrutiny of his manhood. I understand these reactions; I felt them, too. Social media provides an outlet for rock-throwing unheard of since Biblical times. I admit it; I tossed my pebble with everybody else.

I am glad that I grew up before social media became a thing. Nowadays, any foolish thing anybody does is promptly recorded and preserved for all time. It never goes away. I would not want to be judged on the single, stupidest thing I ever did. No one would. But people are, every single day, on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.

I am not excusing the gentleman in question. What he did was reprehensible. But who am I to throw stones? If love is really the law, why are people’s lives devastated because the public decides to play vigilante? The woman taken in adultery was owed her stoning, by ancient Hebrew law. But Jesus said no. Jesus made it clear that, whether the mob in question is on line or in the angry, vengeful flesh, only God can be the final arbiter of guilt or innocence. Only s/he who is without sin may cast the first stone.

I believe in karma, and to some extent, the justice system. But I believe most fervently in God. In the end, it is up to God to judge us, whether our crime is catfishing or lion-killing. Online or off, God sees us, sees our deeds, knows our hearts. What this hunter did will catch up to him. In the meantime, we should follow the rule of love and put our stones back into our pockets. We may certainly condemn his actions. But we must not condemn his person. Not if love is the law.

 * With apologies and deep gratitude to The Suburbs, whose song by the same title has been a fave of mine for more than 30 years.

There’s something in the air. Easter is almost upon us. But before we get there, let’s take a moment. Let’s remember Christ crucified, Christ beaten and belittled and spat upon. Christ bleeding and gouged and broken. Let’s spend a moment with the deep terribleness of Good Friday.

Why? Because we can’t fully appreciate the joy of Easter without acknowledging the horror of what came before. And because it is a timely reminder of Jesus’ love and understanding for us. We all suffer. We all feel broken and forsaken. It is good to remember that Jesus felt this way too, and that he continues to feel for us in our most hurting moments. Jesus understands pain. He feels it with us, even though we are the ones who caused his pain to begin with. That’s a huge revelation. It is a portrait of forgiveness and love that points the way for our own lives.

I recently watched a video wherein homeless people read mean tweets written about homelessness and homeless people. I watched them sob as they read the cruel, dismissive observations of those more fortunate. This is why we must remember the crucifixion: Because the moment we lose our connection with our fellow human beings, and with their suffering, we become less than human. Jesus sides, and will always side, with those on the fringes, those who have less, those who are ridiculed and dismissed. Before we judge another human being, it would do us well to remember that.

Keep the cross in mind. Watch for the invisible crosses that those around you carry. Allow yourself to feel empathy for them. Help them if you can.

There is no resurrection without the crucifixion. If you can’t embrace the beaten Christ — and the beaten Christ in other people — you cannot, and will not, embrace resurrection. Amid the good tidings of Easter, let’s keep this in mind.

At this time of year, one would expect to read a post about thanksgiving — that is, about giving thanks for the blessings and bounty of one’s life. My contribution is a little different. I am grateful this year for pain; specifically, the pain in my left knee, of which I am reminded every time I cross my legs. I am grateful because this pain reminds me, over and over again, just how harmful, corrosive and painful passing judgment on others can be.

Years ago, I broke my ankle in a dramatic and gymnastically spectacular fall down a short flight of steps. I also injured my opposite knee at the same time. My employer, a generous man who worried about my well-being, sent me to his doctor, a specialist, to make sure my ankle and knee were well attended to.

My husband came along — I couldn’t drive with my cast, and I wanted his loving support (as I do in all matters, great and small). The doctor was polite to my spouse, but downright curt with me. When I described my knee pain, he grabbed the offending joint and wrenched it, hard. I shouted in pain. “Well, you might need surgery for that down the road,” he said.

My ankle had lost a triangular-shaped piece of bone. It still aches terribly in the cold. And my knee still bothers me — not enough to pursue something as radical as surgery, but just enough to remind me about how that doctor treated me. I was mystified by it at the time, and for a long while after. And then it came to me. This was the same doctor that my boss had sent other employees to, only these employees were dear to him for other reasons: Specifically, he was dating them.

What must that doctor have thought of me, sitting on his examination table, holding my husband’s hand? He must have thought me the worst of harlots, the most shameless of hussies. No wonder he was so brusque.

He was dead wrong, of course. I was, and am, an excellent worker, but I am also the most loyal of spouses. Yet in one stroke that doctor judged me guilty and meted out justice in a bedside manner most unbecoming to his profession.

Strangely, I am grateful for the pain left behind because it reminds me what judgment does to others. Judging is hurtful. It is not my place to judge anyone, nor is it theirs to judge me. I also think God gave me this experience for a reason. I can be overly judgmental, pointing fingers mentally at what I perceive as others’ spiritual flaws…without remembering that these flaws are not my business; they are God’s. My responsibility is for my own flaws, to tending my own soul’s garden.

And if I ever need reminding, I can just cross my legs.

stainlessAs much as I enjoy using things with a “past,” like my grandfather’s magnifying glass, I have to admit that my grandmother’s silver chest remained in a basement closet, ignored.  I told myself it was because on those special occasions when I might bring out the good silver, I just don’t have time to polish it.

That isn’t the whole truth.

Part of it is also how her silver came to me after she died.  As is so often the case, we were cleaning things out and sorting. Who would get the silver?  The china?  The crystal?  Where is her dinner ring?

A female relative popped the chest open, then she pursed her lips. “You take it.  We don’t want it.  It’s just plate.”

As much as I wanted it, simply because it had belonged to my grandmother, now it somehow felt like it was worth less.  I was getting the discards.

Today, I was getting something else out of the closet and pulled down the chest.  Laying it on the freezer, I opened it up, amazed at the lack of tarnish.  I’m still not sure how it kept its polish because it’s been down there for over 5 years, but just seeing it made me smile.  At first I thought that we both had it wrong and that it might be stainless, but then I saw the label inside the chest.  Community Plate.

It might be plate, but it isn’t worth less.  Why?  Because as soon as I opened the chest, I remembered Christmas dinner, Easter, birthdays, the table always set with this flatware.  I remembered the love with which my grandmother opened up her home.

My grandmother was a deeply devote woman who made room in her day for her family, her friends, and prayer.  She often reminded me, that we are all forgiven, even the people who annoy me.  We have all been cleansed because of Christ.

I need to remember this as I go about my day, so that I don’t harshly judge the driver who ignores my right-of-way or the teens whose conversation is too loud in church.  I need to remember this as I remember the boy who bullied my son and the relative who only let me have something precious because she didn’t want it.

We have all been cleansed.  Because of Him, we are all stainless even when we aspire to be silver.

–SueBE

Years ago, I worked in the communications department at a pharma company, and it was time for my performance review.  “You’re doing a great job,” my manager said. “You’re a quick learner, you’ve got great energy… overall, I have to say, I think you’re terrific.”

“So do I,” I said in return. I realized that it sounded like I was saying that I agreed; I AM terrific!

She laughed and said, “Self-esteem isn’t an issue for you either, I see!”

“Oh!  You know what I mean.  I think you’re terrific too.”  She said she knew what I meant and we went off to have lunch.

I suppose on the scale of self-esteem, it’s better to have too much of it, as opposed to not having enough.  But what is about the display of healthy self-esteem that sometimes makes us pause?

On Twitter, I was going to follow Reba McEntire but stopped short – on her own profile, she described herself as a “Country Superstar.” Capital letters and all.

Hmph!  I sniffed.  There’s one gal who really thinks highly of herself!  Miss Thing really toots her own horn there, doesn’t she?

The thing is, though…. when you think about it…. she actually is a country superstar.

Would I prefer the false modesty of someone with powerful pipes like that saying, “aw shucks, I can sing a little”?

A link on Twitter took me to an article quoting Beyonce on her recent performances.  “I felt very proud because this is my legacy,” she announced.

Well!  I never.  Maybe Princess would like a tiara with that “Halo?” The thing is… she did sing at the President’s inauguration, and then was the featured performer at the Superbowl, so I guess…even though it is a bit over-the-top for her to say it… maybe it is her legacy.

I like the way Tom Hanks describes himself on his Twitter profile:  “I’m that actor in some of the movies you liked and some you didn’t.  Sometimes I’m in pretty good shape, other times I’m not. Hey, you gotta  live, you know?”  He doesn’t mention his Oscar or his bazillion dollars.  He seems humble. That’s how a celebrity should be, I said to myself.

I finally got my head out of the Twitterverse and administered the only known cure for grumpy grumbling: a Bible verse.

“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”  Proverbs 16:24

Lesson for today: be gracious toward everyone, and think of it as a good thing when people think highly of themselves.  Be glad that they’re blooming wherever they’re planted, and leave the pruning up to God.  Live and let live.  Love and let go.

So I woke up the other day and scrutinized myself in the mirror.  “Hmm…” I thought.  “My hair is a bit long for someone my age.” I shook my head at my reflection.  Tsk-tsk’ing myself, I said (out loud), “I need to cut it or pull it back.”

But what I really needed to cut was the self-judging.

And what I ought to pull back is the fear, not the hair.

The fear that someone else will assess me in the same critical way and think less of me.  Because the length of my hair isn’t consistent with the RSS – Recommended Societal Standards for a woman over forty.  After all, if you listen to advertisers and media moguls, I only have three viable years remaining as a member of the coveted 18 – 49 age group.  And then, I suppose, I cease to exist.  That’s one of the many boxes I find myself in.

And isn’t this what we do every day to ourselves and to each other?  We do the surreptitious size-up.  You know what I mean… that up-and-down glance at other people to try to fit them into boxes in your mind.

□ Who are you?  □ More important, who do you think you are?  □ How do I compare to you?  □ How do you seem to think I compare to you?

This kind of us-versus-them, keep-up-with-the-Joneses mentality can be exhausting, can’t it?

So why do we do it?  Mainly, I think, because everyone else is doing it and it’s what we’re used to.  It’s a cultural norm.  Fancy name for what we’ve all tacitly agreed is the way we do things around these parts.

Here in central Jersey, we all sat in judgment on the Tanning Mom, Patricia Krentcil, for baking herself like a beef jerky.  It wasn’t that we really believed she had endangered her child; it was about the way she looked.  But if somebody’s got deep-seated issues, as she probably does, why don’t we all decide to drop the subject and let her heal?  Then I thought, why shouldn’t this rule apply to everyone?

What do we have to know about someone before we treat them with kindness?  Does there have to be a reason for the way they look or act – a condition, a brain tumor, a death in the family – before we give them a pass and decide not to pick them apart?

I’m giving this new approach a try, starting with myself.  I’m going to put down the gavel and give the bench of judgment a rest.  You be you.  I’ll be me.  We don’t need to be reasonable facsimiles of each other to be valid.  I’m going to blaze my own trail, think outside the box.

Maybe I’ll even let my hair down.

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