Representing "Christianity"


I had the chance to step into a friend's place (he was recovering nicely from a heart attack but wasn't up to travel) representing "Christianity" at the Louisiana Judicial College. It's the place where state district judges earn their required continuing education credits. Rabbi Arny Task of Alexandria did a great job outlining the connections between the Hebrew scriptures, the Talmud, the Mishnah and the judicial role. Imam Rafeeq Numan described the Muslim judicial tradition. Rather than talk about a Christian judicial tradition, which I am completely unqualified to do, I based my comments in more of a pastoral role following conversations with the judge who was setting all this up. Thanks for the opportunity to be part of this gathering. I've had the chance to work closely with several of our judges in central Louisiana, and I have firsthand knowledge of the fact that they are smart and decent people working hard to do a very difficult job. For six years I also had the responsibility of working as a community member on hearing committees under Mr. Charles Plattsmier at the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.

I've learned that most people don't think about it, but it's a costly thing, being a judge. In a brief time I've noticed several kinds of brokenness that judges have to live with. Stress is the modern word, but it doesn't quite capture what I want to say. "Stress" is an engineering term for bridges and buildings, implying that you can twist a knob or reason out a way to make the stress go away. I think the situation you deal with is much more profound than that. I think the word "brokenness" does a better job of describing the everyday experience of a judge.

Judges have a ringside seat to the brokenness of the world. You see things you'd rather not see; you hear things best left unheard. You're somewhat like doctors in that respect: you do the best you can to bring some degree of healing and wholeness to broken lives and broken relationships. Sometimes your available options aren't very good. You know that even the right decision will cause grief. Some patients just cannot be healed, though you probably wonder whether there was something else you could have done to patch things up. You do the best you can, you take a deep breath, and you move on to the next case.

Like all of us humans, you also have your own brokenness to deal with. We're all human: simply said, we make mistakes. Sometimes our mistakes cause pain or hardship for others. It happens. The more important your job, the greater the potential for damage from your mistakes. Sometimes people withhold crucial bits of information until after a decision has been made, and now you see things in an entirely different light. Oops. Sometimes you can fix that; sometimes the damage is already done.

Whatever else faith may be, I would submit that faith is the work we do to come to grips with brokenness, both our own and other people's. That's why I would submit that faith has a critical role to play in the life of a judge. I believe firmly in the separation of church and state, but I also believe that you are all human beings.

To deal with brokenness, you have to work from a place of wholeness. You have to experience some degree of wholeness before you can help others find their way to it. A part of the way that you do that is your knowledge of the law. Your education helped to give you an ordered mind.

And yet I also suspect that even with a legal education and a well developed mind, there are times you very much still have your own existential understanding of the concept of brokenness.

People often use courtroom metaphors when they talk about faith. God is the judge, we're the defendants, and usually the devil gets cast as the prosecuting attorney. (Sorry about that.) I'd like to offer a different metaphor than the courtroom in order to point to greater wholeness in dealing with the courtroom. This other metaphor has been used not only in Christianity but in Judaism and Islam and Hinduism. Rather than the metaphor of a courtroom, many of the saints have used the metaphor of the bridal chamber. Faith should bring us joy. Faith should bring us a sense that we are united with what is most real in the universe, however we understand that reality.

You deal with brokenness by uniting that which has been separated. Part of the human experience is the feeling that we have been cut off, isolated, from the universe. Particularly in the modern or postmodern world, we often have a deep sense that we are alone, cut off from something we feel that we once belonged to.

One of the central ideas in Christianity is the Incarnation - God with us. God became flesh and dwells among us. It's a scandalous way to look at God, and it requires that you hold different realities together in tension, rather than neatly resolving the tension by ignoring or disposing of the inconvenient bits.

At its best, prayer is the experience of unity with the God who is with us, whatever your theology or however you understand God. There are different kinds of prayer:

There are prayers where you do all the talking and advise God about what his next steps should be.  But then we're just projecting our own brokenness onto God. 

There is prayer where you pour out your heart and your pain and anger and fear, getting it all out on the table.  That's a more honest prayer than the first, and while it may seem disrespectful at first to talk to God that way, it's probably a step in the right direction.  Real spirituality is about being honest, not maintaining a fantasy world. 

And then there's prayer that uses no words at all. This isn't just a Christian phenomenon by any means, but it has a long history in Christianity. It got put on a back burner sometime around the Age of Enlightenment, when we were busy disenchanting the world and, too often, reducing religion to a new kind of rational scholasticism. Prayer without words is enjoying something of a comeback today thanks perhaps to Catholic monastic traditions such as the Trappists, the Franciscans, and the Oblates, to name just a few, though ironically people think we're borrowing it from Eastern religions. Quakers are newcomers; they've had a tradition of prayer without words for only 400 years. Other Protestants today often talk about silent prayer today as part of something called "the emerging church." Paradoxically, what's called the emerging church is often reclaiming some very old Christian insights, older than Protestantism itself.

You can call it centering prayer, contemplative prayer, or just give up and call it meditation. If that sounds too 'new age' for you, remember that Paul talked about this kind of prayer when he said that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us "with groanings too deep for words." There's something going on in prayer that our words just don't capture.

This kind of prayer can't be prayed; it's experienced. Words aren't much use here. The point isn't to be right or to get your way. The point is actually to be quiet, to still the voices in your head so that you can awaken to the presence of the God who is with us. If you prefer, we can use the language of modern theologian Paul Tillich and say that we are trying to reconnect to the ground of our being.

Learning to awaken to the presence of "God with us" is a transformative experience. You experience yourself as part of a much larger reality. You can begin to see the truth that 'life is not about me. My job is to be about life.'

This practice of silent or contemplative prayer is just that: it's a practice, as in you have to keep doing it. Transformation is not a once-and-done thing. In a life of faith and active prayer over time you will probably notice that you have begun changing in small ways, and then perhaps the small changes become larger changes. You begin to be more humble and compassionate. You begin to see the image of God peeking through people who are otherwise demonstrably the biggest jerks in town. And you know that you and they are all part of a much larger whole.

The journey of transformation is the way you enter something that Jesus talked about a lot: the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a strange place where normal rules don't apply. For example, it's a place where people love their enemies and act with kindness toward people who are mean to them. Jesus was always inviting people to the kingdom. He told honest seekers, "you are almost there." He told the big important people that "the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom before you do." The tax collectors and prostitutes knew they needed transformation; the bigwigs never seemed to see the point. The first become the last, and the last become the first.

So judges, as the duly appointed representative of all Christianity today, I invite you to come to grips with brokenness by journeying toward unity with the God who makes us whole. We can do this through prayer as simply as drawing breath and realizing that every breath is a gift. There is no Christian way to breathe, any more than there is a Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist way. Draw breath, give thanks, and be still for a while. Let God do the praying.

David Britt