The wimp in me hates criticism

“Behold, my son who came out from me seeks my life; how much more now this Benjamite?  Let him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him” (2 Samuel 16:11).

There’s something about us preachers that loves compliments and runs from criticism.

We preachers can be the biggest wimps on the planet.

Maybe it’s that way with everyone, I don’t know.

Let a preacher receive an anonymous note outlining what he’s doing wrong or a phone call dissecting last Sunday’s sermon and he is done for the week. He will be needing the attention of a good therapist.

We could learn a lot from politicians and others in the public arena. I’ve read that President Eisenhower enjoyed something like a 65 percent approval rating all eight years of his presidency, the highest of anyone since.  This means 35 percent of the America public thought he was a failure.  And yet, he is lauded as a winner.

Let 35 percent of the typical church give their preacher a vote of no-confidence and he’s enduring sleepless nights, unable to focus on anything, and scheduling himself for career counseling at his denominational headquarters.

All of this was prompted by two things.

An online magazine for preachers had picked up an article from our blog urging pastors to slow down their staccato delivery style in order to be heard by thoughtful listeners.  The metaphor I used was the speed demon on a motorcycle who frightens interstate motorists by suddenly appearing at their elbow doing 90 or 100 mph.  The faster you go, the more invisible you become.  I said, “You don’t see our Lord preaching this way, overwhelming His audience with His oratorical skills, leaving them no room to think, no time to absorb what He’s saying.”

Well!  You should have read the comments.  (I read them out of curiosity, mostly.  And occasionally, will leave a response. I’ve developed a tough hide about these things, and mostly smile at the put-downs.)

The typical article in these publications will usually rate four or five stars out of a possible five; mine got one-and-a-half.  Readers’ comments blistered me for a) claiming to know how Jesus preached; how prideful is that? b) calling for passionless preaching; c) panning entire denominations whose preachers learn this staccato-style of delivery, and d) straying from my usual helpful style of writing.

I suggested in my comment that “I hope some of you have the experience of writing something for your blog, then having it lifted out and shared with 10,000 preachers of every denomination and see the sinister twists readers put on your effort. When that happens, I’ll treat you to a cup of coffee and we’ll laugh about this.”

The last comment from a reader thanked me for writing and said, “Keep it up.”  I thanked him and fully intend to.

Criticism happens. It goes with the territory.  Suck it up, Joe.

The other thing was a story about Dr. Mary Beard, Cambridge professor…

Professor Beard has authored a dozen books on the ancient Roman Empire, and is a frequent guest on television programs across the British Commonwealth.  Her husband is a professor of Byzantine art, and their two children hold PhDs in history.  Not your typical family, to be sure.  (The story was in the September 1, 2014 The New Yorker.)

Because Dr. Beard’s lectures sometimes offend some in her audiences–like how women were treated by the ancients–she comes under a lot of criticism.  And if you thought the British were always genteel and refined, think again.  The putdowns are as raw and brutal as anything coming out of any ghetto in America.  Much of it is personal, derogatory, and even obscene.

I wanted you to see how Beard deals with her critics.

She responds to online criticism. She explains herself, tells stories, and asks questions.

She invites critical readers to sit in on her classes at Cambridge.  Some she has invited to meet her for tea.  the few who have taken her up on the invitation ended up becoming her staunchest defenders.

When a university student, age 20, left a particularly obscene comment, a friend managed to locate his email address and offered to call his parents’ attention to what their son was doing.  The young man apologized and “took Beard out to lunch; she has remained in touch with him, and is even writing letters of reference for him.”  She said, “He’s going to find it hard to get a job, because as soon as you Google his name this is what comes up. And although he was a very silly, injudicious, and at that moment not very pleasant young guy, I don’t actually think one tweet should ruin your job prospects.”

Take a lesson, servants of God.

King David, insulted by a cursing Shimei as he, the king, fled Jerusalem with his family while under attack by Absalom, left us an excellent picture of how to deal with criticism.  (see the text at the top of this article)

David put the criticism in context: “My own son is trying to kill me; how much more this Benjamite.”  King Saul, whom David succeeded after years of warfare, was of the tribe of Benjamin. Saul’s people never forgave David for existing or got past Saul’s unfair animosity toward him.  Go figure.

David suggested the Lord may have sent Shimei’s criticism: “For the Lord has told him.”

He concluded, “Perhaps the Lord will look on my affliction and return good to me instead of cursing this day” (2 Samuel 16:12).

If I am merciful to my critics, David says, perhaps the Lord will be merciful to me.  In this, he was anticipating our Lord’s word, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

No one enjoys criticism, even the kind helpful brand which our dearest friend can give.

One night, after a half-hour phone call with someone who needed to talk with the preacher, I showed my wife Margaret the sketch I had done while counseling the person.  In the middle of a stormy sea a ship was being tossed about, with a ragged sky in the background.  “What do you think of my doodle?”

She said, “It looks like a doodle.”

Maybe the Lord told her to say that.

I’m thinking of inviting her to tea.

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