It was a grim meeting of the community garden’s executive committee. We struggled to figure out how to address a member who wasn’t paying his dues or contributing his share of the work, and who had been rude and dismissive when the group’s coordinators called his attention to his delinquency. We wished he would just disappear. We read the bylaws carefully and decided that as the executive committee, we were totally justified in deciding to kick him out. It really seemed only fair to the rest of the community, who were fulfilling the requirements.
I agreed to be the one to deliver the bad news. The scofflaw was a big guy who seemed kind of threatening to some folks, so another gardener offered to join me for protection, but I declined.
I think the offer of protection was what reminded me to stop and pray about the situation. It took a while to quiet the little mental debate I was having: What was the right thing to do, for him, for us, for the community? I needed to think about the situation from a different point of view—to get out of the little world of human personalities and even of the supposedly impersonal organizational bylaws. I wanted to try, in a sense, to see it from God’s point of view.
Long story short: redemption all around.
There is a passage in a letter St. Paul wrote to the Galatians about living “God’s way,” and about how the result, or fruit, of this spiritual way is love and joy and peace and gentleness. I thought about this passage, which is translated in The Message as follows: “What happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people” (Galatians 5:22, 23).
Whoa, slow down. If I examined our decision carefully, it had elements of self-justification that were not leading any of us toward those fruits of Spirit. I felt like we’d gotten caught in a legalistic dead end, in a “He broke the rules, so he needs to be punished” mentality, rather than one of compassion and the recognition of holiness. Yes, but what about following the rules? The last part of Paul’s advice for living God’s way really snapped into focus. The Message has it: “Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way” (Galatians 5:23).
Legalism gets in the way! All of a sudden I could feel the gap between the sense of judgment that had pushed our decision and the gentleness and joy that we all wanted to experience in our community. I felt sure that everything connected with the self-justification/quick-to-judgment aspect of the decision could drop away. What a wave of relief! Not just that I didn’t have to do something that was unpleasant, that had not felt right to any of us, but that we could choose to place ourselves securely in God’s way of being.
Long story short: redemption all around. With a sense of compassion and a conviction that every member of the community is permeated with holiness, the errant member was given a chance to turn a new leaf, and gratefully took it by apologizing, paying the back dues, and immediately completing a hefty community task. Every committee member agreed to the change in course, so we were redeemed from being stiff-necked, and our community has enjoyed a deeper, more spiritual sense of peace.
Janell Fiarman lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.