We all have particular ways of running the world and other people's lives. Ghandi (yes, that one) said that the most common acts of violence are unsolicited advice.
Let that one sink in.
I suspect that what we don't read in the nativity accounts in either Matthew or Luke is all the unsolicited advice or comments that started, "Well, here's how I'd do it," or "I think..." that came like arrows to Mary and Joseph. I'm sure angelic message notwithstanding, Joseph had friends saying that he should put Mary away quietly. And Mary's little trip across the Holy Land while she was pregnant to see her cousin? Oh, that probably got lots of, "You shouldn't do that," or, "If it were me."
Except it's not me. It's someone else. Yes, I can offer perspective when asked, but I should always be aware that my perspective is simply that - mine.
I remember receiving an invitation from a parish to enter the discernment process in their rector search. When I shared it with an ordained colleague, he was quick to tell me it wasn't a "good" parish. I nodded, but felt a bit uncomfortable with the comment. A later conversation with a retired bishop named the discomfort: What right does another person have to tell you where God might be calling you? Trust that if the door is one you should walk through, it will be opened.
I replied that I thought I'd read that somewhere. He laughed, then read my resume as I prepared to be considered for that position as rector.
I was nervous, though. What if it wasn't a "good" parish? How would I know? Why would I know more than this priest? All those tiny knives of doubt that cause courageous life to flow out of us by a thousand tiny cuts were opened with that comment. And therein is the danger, the sin even, with the proclamations we make about what others should or should not do. Therein is the violence to others' souls.
Indeed, what right to we have to tell others, or especially to tell God, what they should do? Don't most of us have enough to do keeping our own lives in a holy and daring place?
I can see now if God had a committee meeting about the incarnation which solicited opinions about what everyone thought. First, none of this lowly stuff. High-born is how people would expect to see the King of Kings. And Bethlehem isn't important enough. There isn't a church large enough there to accommodate the crowds that will come, because we'll be sending out invitations to all the important people. And there should be available parking. No one wants to search for a parking space when they come to worship and be drawn into the awe of holy mystery. And did God say, "Manger?" Oh, no that will never do. Some people are allergic to hay, you know, so we'll need a room. Is it possible to replace the metal folding chairs in the birthing suite with comfortable ones?
Fortunately for us, God can dismiss our little acts of violence to humans being humans and trust in God. But we humans have a bit harder time allowing the advice of our friends and colleagues its proper place. Insight and observations from friends, from spiritual directors, and from those who know us can be helpful. Reflections on our experience in a similar situation can be useful. We all have blind spots; we all feel overwhelmed with choices; we all need other points of view.
The violence occurs when the other's advice becomes a dictum, the thing that is absolutely right and if you choose another path, you are wrong. Well, maybe so. But my wrong choices, my mistakes, and my choices that turned out less than stellar were forays into the darkness that invited me to see more deeply into the Light of God's path for me. I am where I am today, in part, because I made painful choices that invited me to a deeper sense of trust in the mystery of God.
What if, instead, we allowed others the space to discern, to sit in the mystery of the unknown? What if we said to others who are struggling with certain decisions, "You'll know what to do, and I'll be here if and when you need me"? What if we offered our experience as simply that, our experience, that may or may not be useful or insightful for the other person, instead of making decrees?
My experience is that most people, when they hand out this decree-type of advice, are really exposing their deepest fears and darkness about themselves. Their need to control other's choices says volumes about their need to validate their own life decisions, from the spandex pants they wore that day to the church in which they serve to the person to whom they are committed. It's that communal vote syndrome - when I'm unsure about a choice I've made, I like to hear other people give their thumbs-up to my decision. A search for external validation when my internal voice is saying what I'd rather not hear. And I really like to tell everyone how wonderful, wonderful, wonderful the decision was that I made ad naseum, with little or no ability to see the fullness of imperfectly perfect (cue the Disney soundtrack and the chirping birds).
When someone opts for another path, it may pull at that holy thread in me that recognizes I'm not entirely comfortable with the decision I've made. And we have a choice: to pay attention to the discomfort within us or to demean the other person's choice (and, sometimes, the other person). One is an invitation to a holy journey that can lead us on dangerous paths and a sidetrip to wander in the desert. The other is a cheap offering to ego and pride.
One of the loveliest aspects of the holy story of God and humanity that begins with, "In the beginning," and continues on to this very moment is that God can work with our successes and our mistakes. Certainty and doubt, joy and sadness, wisdom and stupidity - God paints with all of those colors. Perhaps as we begin 2012, we can recommit ourselves to our journeys, worrying less about what others do on their walk with God and focusing more about listening to the holy voice of God guiding us.
Oh, and that parish? It's where I just celebrated my second Feast of the Incarnation. And that priest was right. It wasn't good. It's simply a place where my soul sings. For me, that is imperfectly perfect.