Recently I was asked to give a sermon at Garden Grove United Methodist Church, the church I belonged to before I met and got married to my wife, Grace, and I was truly happy to do so. So when you have an opportunity to speak on a topic of your own choosing in church, what would you talk about?
Well, I reflected for a while on the subject, and eventually landed on the theme: We are Christians – does it make any difference? Of course, there are significant differences because of Christian theology, and the story and teachings of Jesus. But are there any other differences as well? And if there are, what are they? See if your answers are the same as mine.
I began my talk by saying that I recently had published a book on judging in an attempt to pass along to new judges any wisdom I had gathered from my 25 years on the bench. And the first sentence of the preface of that book said that the best decision I had ever made in my life was choosing my parents. Of course, the benefits of that “choice” had made enormous differences in my life. My parents were a huge support system, and they provided me with love that was both unconditional and unending.
I confess that sometimes I put that love to the test. For example, when I was 10 years old I once attempted to shoplift a bag of Tootsie Rolls I got caught, and then was forced to inform my parents. They stood by me without recrimination, but I could tell that they were as disappointed in me as I was in myself. Since that time I have never again stolen anything from anybody, and I also have not been able to look another bag of Tootsie Rolls in the face!
But what a gift my parents gave me with this love and support! Of course, I believe that gift also came with a moral obligation to help those people on this Earth who did not “choose” their parents quite so well.
Like me, most people at least originally became Christians only by accident of birth. Thereafter, many people actually focus on the teachings of Jesus, weigh the Christian theology against that of other religions, and then choose to continue to follow the Christian faith. But many people did not choose to stay as Christians any more than I actually chose my parents. In fact, if their parents had been Hindu, the odds are overwhelming that they would still be Hindu to this day.
Did God choose us? Well, I certainly do not know the answer to that question – it is well above my pay grade. But I do know that God did give us choices in life, and then, just like my parents, is proud when we choose well, and disappointed when we choose poorly. But He still loves us regardless of the choices we make, without condition and without end. And that is a difference, in fact a big one.
As we discussed previously in this column, our attempts in peer court to have high school students focus on the fact that we are not a thief not because we fear being caught, but because we are better than that! Even if no one else in the world will know that we had taken some other student’s watch from his locker, we would know. And our parents did not raise us to be a thief! And, as Christians, neither did our Father who art in heaven.
Like many other people, I have tried to live the type of life that would allow me to be satisfied when I looked back on it from my deathbed, just as St. Peter would as we try to enter the Pearly Gates. So if I could give myself some advice from that position at the end of my life, it would be three things. First, love the people who treat you right, and absolutely forget about those who don’t. Second, if you get a chance in life, take it! In that regard, try to make the lyrics of the song “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” as your motto. “Until my number’s up, I’m gonna fill my cup / I’m gonna live, live, live until I die.”
And third, treat people like people. In so many ways, my wonderful father was my role model in this regard, as well as many others. When he was a federal judge in downtown Los Angeles, he would know the names of not only the custodians who kept our office spaces clean, but also the names of their children. And they loved him for it.
So without thinking about it, I naturally followed his lead. One day when I was a federal prosecutor in the same courthouse, I saw one of the men who worked on our floor, and said, “Good morning, Mr. Wicks.” At this point, this man completely stopped what he was doing and said, “Mr. Gray, I have been working here for 18 years, and you are the first person ever to call me by name.” What a shame. (As a further but irrelevant part of the story, I later found out that this nice and hardworking man was the father of Sidney Wicks, the All American basketball player for my treasured UCLA Bruins.) This experience also resulted in my lifelong tendency to try to leave bigger tips for people who wait on tables at cafes and who clean our hotel rooms. They work hard, but are generally taken for granted and unappreciated.
Similarly, my mother told me that one time she had accompanied my father on a trip to inspect Lompoc Federal Prison.
It so happened that the inmates had a talent show on the day of the visit, and my parents stayed to watch the show. As such, my father was seated with the warden on one side and my mother on the other. But next to my mother was an inmate who struck up a conversation with her by saying that my father happened to have sentenced him to prison, and that he had received a maximum sentence. With that piece of news, my mother said she literally tried to move over closer to my father and away from this inmate.
But he went on to say that nevertheless, because throughout the trial and sentencing my father had always treated him with dignity and respect, my father was his favorite judge he had ever appeared before – and he had been before lots of judges!
That is why in so many ways our state’s drug courts have been a positive revolution in our court system. Why? Because it forces judges, prosecutors, probation officers and even the arresting police officers to treat the defendants as real people. No longer are the criminal defendants who happen to be drug-addicted thought of or labeled as “hypes,” “junkies,” or even statistics. Instead, they are thought of as fellow human beings, who have the same desires, needs, dreams, and failings that all of the rest of us have. So treating people as people does not at all mean that we have to be taken advantage of by them, or that we do not hold them accountable for what they do. It just means that we treat them as individuals.
On this subject, I recommend you read the book, “The Anatomy of Peace,” by the Arbinger Institute. This well-crafted and easy-reading book discusses the difference between treating another person as a person, or as an object. If we treat others as people, we do not need to justify our own prejudices, depressions, self-righteousness, or fears, because those issues simply don’t arise. But if we treat them as objects, all of these harmful and degrading traits within us often increase and harden, which will in turn allow them to poison us. Then we proceed to use the injustices that are done to us as justifications to do injustices to others. At that point, we become our own enemies by using our mistreatments to destroy our own peace.
So it is not just the dictators of some nations of the world that inflict bad things upon others in order to get or maintain power. All of us can do that as well.
Jesus said: “If you love me, then feed my sheep.” With the blessings we have received, we can help administer to the needs of others who, through nothing they have done, are not as fortunate as we are. I think that is the answer. Oh, I know that we can’t bring peace to the whole world, and it may be naïve to believe otherwise. But we can bring peace to our world! Like the hymn says, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”
We are truly blessed. We have chosen well, or, one way or the other, we were eternally lucky to have been chosen. Our Father loves us – without condition, and without end. He cares about us, and wants to be proud of us. It matters, and what a difference it makes!
So in the time remaining to us upon this earth, we should stand up extra straight. Walk proud. And fear not. Because we are Christians. We are living our lives nestled in the arms of a loving God!
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his website at www.judgejimgray.com .