On Monday I tried to work off some of the holiday excess at the Planet Fitness near our home. On one of the walls in the work-out room is a large mural that says, “Planet-Fitness=no critics.” The core of their marketing strategy is that by entering Planet Fitness, you are entering a judgment free zone. It says that on their mission statement. I suppose that philosophy is designed to appeal to people who might be intimidated in the type of fitness center where there a lot of competitive body builders and many mirrors. At Planet Fitness you do see a variety of people there in varying degrees of fitness and body types! And to be honest I would have to say that it does achieve a very non-judgmental atmosphere in which anyone could be comfortable working on their fitness goals.
I would say that a judgment free zone works wells for a fitness center. But is it what we want in a religion?
Our scripture lessons today, and last week, indicate that Advent is not a judgment-free zone. There is no clearer image of judgment than the winnowing fork that separates the wheat from the chaff. In a judgment free zone the wheat and chaff look exactly the same. But not so in the threshing house of the Lord, where the wheat gets gathered and the chaff gets burned.
In the Advent devotional we gave out last week, Tuesday’s reading raised a provocative point. Henri Nouwen shares a line from a sermon he once heard: “We should desire not only the first coming of Christ in his lowly human gentleness but also his second coming as the judge of our lives.” Nouwen relates his sense that desire for Christ’s judgment is the key to his spiritual growth. He says that we should cultivate that desire. That certainly is contrary to the prevailing cultural winds of today.
It is often noted that the trend in our schools over the last few years is toward cultivating a self esteem that is uncoupled to performance. Depending on your point of view, that is either raising a generation of children who have a healthy sense of self, or a generation that is accustomed to a judgment-free zone. We all play on a team where everybody wins.
Let’s face it, correction has never been popular and is even less so now –especially with children who do not have the fear of authority as did their elders. It seems to me that we have an evolving social landscape where everybody thinks they are right.
As I was considering Nouwen’s statement that we need to redefine a word like judgment so we can grow in spiritual maturity, a story came to mind. I first read this story in 1991 in Proteus, which is Shippensburg University’s journal. It has stuck with me ever since. Written by Sister Helen Mrosla it has been widely circulated on the web. Here is an excerpt:
He was in the first third grade class I taught at Saint Mary’s School in Morris, Minnesota. All 34 of my students were dear to me, but Mark Eklund was one in a million. [He was] very neat in appearance but had that happy-to-be-alive attitude that made even his occasional mischieviousness delightful.
Mark talked incessantly. I had to remind him again and again that talking without permission was not acceptable. What impressed me so much, though, was his sincere response every time I had to correct him for misbehaving: “Thank you for correcting me, Sister!” I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but before long I became accustomed to hearing it many times a day.
One morning my patience was growing thin when Mark talked once too often, and then I made a novice teacher’s mistake. I looked at him and said, “If you say one more word, I am going to tape your mouth shut!”
It wasn’t ten seconds later when Chuck blurted out, “Mark is talking again.” I hadn’t asked any of the students to help me watch Mark, but since I had stated the punishment in front of the class, I had to act on it.
I remember the scene as if it had occurred this morning. I walked to my desk, very deliberately opened my drawer and took out a roll of masking tape. Without saying a word, I proceeded to Mark’s desk, tore off two pieces of tape and made a big X with them over his mouth. I then returned to the front of the room. As I glanced at Mark to see how he was doing, he winked at me. That did it! I started laughing. The class cheered as I walked back to Mark’s desk, removed the tape and shrugged my shoulders. His first words were, “Thank you for correcting me, Sister.”
Maybe our Advent journey should include a periodic, “thank you for correcting me, Jesus.” Thank you for caring about me enough to judge me. Thank you for taking me as you find me, but not leaving me as you found me.
Henri Nouwen suggests that since it is not in our nature to desire judgment, at least we should prepare for the day of judgment by cultivating a simple fear of the Lord. The passage we read from Isaiah says that the fear of the Lord brings joy and delight. This is also against the prevailing winds of culture. “Yes…I’ve begun to see more clearly how part of Christian maturing is the slow but persistent deepening of fear to the point where it becomes desire…Words like fear and desire, justice and mercy have to be relearned and reunderstood when we use them in talking about our intimate relationship with the Lord.”
Correction makes us available for something new in our lives. Otherwise we would just keep doing the same old things over and over again! If we do not submit to judgment and correction, how will ever change this dark and dreary world into the kingdom of justice and joy? How will we ever be fit to live in the kingdom?
If we set our ourselves in opposition to God’s promises and God’s will—God’s love can only be expressed as judgment. That’s because God can’t let us get by with ways in which we can destroy our lives. Let’s be clear…we are not simply talking an end time judgment. Rather, we stand before God in an everyday judgment as we make the choices that shape our lives.
When we grow in spiritual maturity we begin to know the Lord. We redefine words like fear, judgment, repentance into tools that bring us into closer communion with our God.
I go to Planet Fitness because I fear the consequences of not going. That kind of fear is a good thing. And I must say that after a while it ceases being a chore and actually is something I desire. I fear the Lord because I fear the consequences of not having God in my life. That kind of fear is a good thing. If God is going to be in my life, God will judge me. We should fear being left alone to aimlessness and sin more than judgment. A Christ-centered life is its own reward…and the longer you live it the more you desire it.
We have been claimed for a new life in Christ. By coming to earth in human flesh he re-oriented our lives and brought us out of bondage. The world no longer has the last word. God’s judgment leads to God’s promises that the old is passing away and that the new world has come in Jesus Christ. As a people judged and found worthy, we live in that new world.
Thank you for correcting us, Jesus.
 “Advent Meditations from the Writings of Henri Nouwen: Living in Hope”, Creative Communications for the Parish, 2007, p 5.
 This point is made by Shirley Guthrie in Christian Doctrine, WJK Press, 134.