Walking The Fine Line


Whenever the same theme keeps popping up in my life again and again, I credit it to the Spirit trying to tell me something. I’m kind of a slow learner…I’ll often miss the message the first half dozen times.

But lately, for the first time in my life, the message is confusing me. Because it seems to contradict one I’ve been struggling to internalize for quite some time now.

In the Catholic Lectionary, these last few weeks leading up to Christ the King and the start of the new liturgical year on Advent 1, all the Scriptures focus on preparing for the second coming. They’re about judgment and forgiveness and what happens when we withhold what has been granted us. And they urge us to speak up and tell those around us when they’re screwing up.

Now, my family has a long and not-so-glorious tradition of telling it “like it is”…or at least, our perception of it. My own weakness in this area led to an estrangement of more than a year from one of my sisters. I’m a lousy liar. I can’t even withhold information—it all feels like dishonesty to me. And I’m less than competent at the little gentle misleading things we say to keep from hurting other people’s feelings, because I can’t even lie with my face. My expressions give away what I’m thinking, even if I manage to keep my mouth shut.

So naturally, I hurt people’s feelings sometimes. The only good thing I can say about it is that because of it I’m well practiced in apologizing, too.

I bring this up because it took me literally years to learn that I have to moderate my own rhetoric. I have to look for the other person’s point of view, because no situation is ever as black and white as I first perceive it to be. This is the origin of my whole philosophy about living in the middle. I’ve learned that absolute, unshakable certainty in the face of disagreement is a sign of self-righteousness, not Godliness. There are a few black and white issues in the world, but not nearly as many as we’d like to think. This goes for matters of politics, faith, interpersonal relationships…pretty much everything about human existence.

I have come to believe that words are not the most effective evangelizers—that walking around spouting religious language is the best way to alienate those you’re trying to convert. That action is the true evangelizing force in the world, and action involves humility—bearing with things you think are just plain wrong. That question, “What would Jesus do?” is a lot harder to answer than I used to think, watching it flash by on bracelets. Because Jesus hung out with a lot of people others thought were unclean and evil, and we don’t always hear him wagging his finger at them. I can’t help thinking that some of the time, he was just hanging out with them, loving them back to God without ever speaking a word.

This has been a hard lesson for me to learn, requiring unpleasant humility and lots of nights tossing and turning beneath unpleasant self-analysis. So when I hear homilists and Scripture readings exhorting me to tell my neighbor of his misdeeds, I tense up. I get the message. I do. It’s just that I don’t see how to do so without appearing, and indeed being, self-righteous. Which is inherently not a holy, Godlike attitude.

So how do I tell it like it is when I no longer feel that unshakable sense of certainty that I know how it is?

I suppose my hard-won philosophy is itself the answer here, too: God lies somewhere in the middle. But I have no idea how to make the rubber hit the road in this instance. How do you run the gauntlet between being a self-proclaimed mouthpiece of God and being nothing but an appeaser?