A couple of years ago I was helping to take a group of students from our secondary school away for a 4 day residential retreat. Everything was already organised and one of my key roles was to be the driver of the mini-bus. Then when we arrived at the retreat centre I would have care of the boys in our group. When I got to school to pick up the keys for the mini-bus I was just having a chat with the team on reception when one of the senior members of staff walked past. “Hi Deacon Ian, I hear you’re off on retreat today.” “I’m looking forward to it.” I replied. “Ha, good luck with that, have you seen the list of who’s going?”
The retreat wasn’t without it’s share of dramas, but as it turned out, we had a really good 4 days, a couple of the youngsters who had some serious life questions made momentous decisions, and some unexpected thoughts surfaced that helped in changing direction for the better. But the thought that has always remained with me from that trip has been how people are labelled, and how incredibly difficult it can be for some, particularly after making mistakes, to get rid of a label that has been placed on them.
I’m sure that the reason we label people is because we feel we have a right to judge. It happens in all aspects of our life, and our roles in the life of the church are no exception to this. Even within our own parish, we unconsciously assign labels to people, and those labels tend to mean that we have certain perceptions about how individuals act or think. For example, is someone who prefers the quieter 6pm Saturday Mass a different type of worshipper to the 10:45 Sunday Mass goer with its more traditional hymns and use of incense? Does going to Midnight Mass at Christmas, as opposed to someone who attends the more children orientated 9am Christmas morning Mass, mean that they celebrate the Eucharist in a better way?
The answer is of course not, because everybody has their own individual relationship with the Lord. The relationship is still focused around the same acts of communal worship, but each of us can feel closer to God in different ways. Our understanding of the great mystery of the sacrifice of the altar isn’t diminished by the differences, but rather it is enhanced when we embrace the whole variety of our faith.
More often than not, as in the example from the school, the labels that we place on people have more of a negative than positive feel to them. “That is a difficult pupil”, “that is a troublesome employee”, “that is a moaning customer”, “that is a demanding parishioner”….
So I began to wonder, what labels would people put on me when they hear my name? What is their first thought when people hear that I’m presiding at a baptism or funeral?, what about when they see that it is going to be me preaching at the Mass?, what do the diaconal students think when they see I’m programmed to be teaching their session on the formation programme? What labels do others have for you?
I’m not sure if those thoughts are a bit egotistical, as if I’m looking for praise, but it is important to each of us, by our very nature, to receive positive rather than negative feedback. But, it seems that once we assign labels to people, it is very hard to change them, which in turn begs the question of why we find it necessary to label others in the first place?
When we reflect on it, Jesus Himself was also given a number of labels. These ranged from Messiah, Son of God, through prophet and teacher, to subversive and criminal. Anyone that gave the label had their own reason for doing it, and most often it served to suit a purpose. So which of these labels was correct? It was only after the events of the first Easter that some slowly realised that they had been wrong, they had falsely labelled Jesus as someone/thing that He wasn’t.
If I take a bit of time to think about it, how many times do I do this to the people that I come across in my life? How many times have I wrongly labelled somebody because of the small interaction I may have had with them without getting to know them properly?
As followers of Christ we are called to act as He did and to love others for who they are. By giving people labels do we actually diminish the opportunity to love someone for who they are, by prejudging them with a label? It always amazes me that people think they know the sort of person I am because I am a deacon – the same can be said for those who have an idea of what anyone who goes to church is like!
So, as we take a bit of time this week to reflect and spend time with God in prayer, perhaps we could try to untie some of the labels we have given to people, and ask God to let us see them as they truly are, not as we decide they are!
Deacon Ian Black