Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I want better criticism.

What our porch looks like on a typical Thursday night
I never knew so many people could fit in my basement - I was thankful for a hygienic crowd. It was time for another Pints and Pipes, but this Thursday evening was like no other. We were having a guest speaker whose story is so enthralling, people were willing to sacrifice all sense of their personal space in order to hear it. To make the night even more special, I was hosting some true VIPs overnight - people I've spent my entire life trying to impress. I knew once they witnessed what kind of magic unfolds in our home on Thursday nights, they would have no choice but to finally be fascinated by me.

The guest lecturer of the evening shared his story of how he left his six-figure job in order to live among the homeless. He had grown disillusioned with the comfortable religion of the suburbs, and the more he read about Jesus, the more he wanted to follow Him - living out a radical, dangerous faith. He learned how Jesus treated the people the rest of society seemed to look down on or ignore altogether, and his heart broke for homeless people. He longed to serve them well, and believed the only way he could be effective was to first get to know them on a personal level. 50 pairs of eyes listened to him intently with dropped jaws as he shared stories of sleeping under bridges and using the hand dryer in a public restroom to stay warm on frigid, rainy days. His experience transformed his life, and his faith called him into further, daily action. He started a clothing company, training women who had been rescued from sex trafficking in India to be seamstresses, and using 100% of the profits from the clothing sales to buy interview accoutrements for his friends without homes, provide backpacks for children who couldn't afford them, and meet a whole host of other needs in the community.
My friend Lauren snapped this photo of the guest speaker

Every guest in attendance appeared to be a different person after listening to his story. It was as if they were incapable of returning to their regular lives after hearing of such revolutionary purpose - the things they had spent their whole lives desiring seemed to have lost their allure. They gave generously to the speaker's organization, raising 10 times more than the typical weekly Pints and Pipes donation. Yet even greater still, new ideas began to flow as if the dam of acedia had been violently burst in their brains. The room buzzed with fruitful discussion, each person brainstorming how they could use their talents to serve those in need. I surveyed the room with a cheshire grin and deep satisfaction - generating this kind of discussion had been my vision and purpose for Pints and Pipes since its inception. The efforts were finally worth it. After the guests left, I rushed upstairs to receive the praise I knew the VIPs would be so eager to bestow upon me for setting up such a spectacular event.

Instead, the words "he doesn't actually care about homeless people" were the ones to harshly greet me, causing the noticeable joy to promptly evacuate my face. Flabbergasted and wondering if this VIP had been in the same room the rest of us were in, I asked what in the world she meant. "If he truly cared about homeless people, he would've tailored his message to convince rich people and corporations to donate to his cause. (VIP #2) is very wealthy, and could have written a huge check, but since the speaker wouldn't shut up about how his faith spurred his actions, he essentially robbed those poor homeless people of a large donation." She explained how our measly donations would never fix the problem, our discussions would never spur on true change, and nothing we did at Pints and Pipes would ever matter. I looked at the pile of monetary contributions given that night, what I once believed was a generous sum now appeared to only be the alms of a peasant. The excitement I felt for all of the new ideas being discussed downstairs faded as I accepted this person's words and realized they would never matter. We'd never have enough resources to see them through - we might as well give up now. This little Thursday night event I was so passionate about, the one I thought was actually changing people's lives, was nothing but a mere exercise in futility. Never in my life had I felt so worthless. At work I was unsuccessful, at church I was unwanted, as a community group leader I was a failure; Pints and Pipes had been the last place where I felt like I was doing something worthwhile, and now I was being criticized there, too. As I stayed up until 5am cleaning up from the event, I repeatedly asked myself what the four-letter-word I was doing with my life. I couldn't come up with anything to impress the VIPs.
I'm surprised the neighbors don't complain about the cigar smoke
Photo Credit:

I've come to learn nothing robs me of my joy more than unproductive criticism, particularly when it's coming from someone I'm striving to impress. So I've been studying criticism in order to figure out why it effects me the way it does and what I can do to battle its paralyzing hold over me. One observation I've made is unproductive criticism often stems from a person trying to discredit a conviction. I believe the Holy Spirit often uses the example of how other people utilize their God-given talents to convict us on how we should use ours - perhaps you'd call it inspiration. The problem is, using our gifts to serve God nearly always costs us our comfort, something we desperately try to keep intact. This imbalance of wanting to utilize the unique talents God designed us to use while also remaining comfortable creates a painful cognitive dissonance in our brains. So we respond by discrediting the works of the person inspiring us in order to give us an excuse for not making a necessary, uncomfortable change in our own lives. Understanding this has helped me soften the blow when I receive fruitless critiques, have compassion for those delivering the hurtful words towards me, and also seriously question my own motives when I have the urge to criticize someone else.

The Ten Boom Family
The danger here is throwing the baby out with the bathwater and ignoring all criticism, including the productive kind. I think this is especially difficult for pastors. I don't know of a single group of people who receive more unproductive criticism than pastors. Every parishioner is a Monday morning quarterback, and I can only imagine the stack of sermon-critiquing e-mails awaiting preachers on Mondays - filled with everything from allegations of heresy to disdain for their shirt choice. When you receive such an inordinate amount of fruitless criticism, I'm sure it's easy to build a thick shell and not let any affect you. Yet some of the most life-giving words my friends have ever given me have been critical ones, and I wouldn't trade those for the world. Their criticism is starkly different, though. Instead of it being something that makes themselves feel better, it pushes me to be better. Instead of attacking something I'm doing, they admire my heart for wanting to use my God-given talents, and help me see how I can make them even more effective. They never make my skills seem worthless, but rather remind me that even Olympians have to train relentlessly in order to make their already incredible innate gifts fit for competition. I pray to always have the wisdom to know the difference so I don't miss a single word of their iron-sharpening criticism.

The Hiding Place
I spent last week driving through Belgium and the Netherlands, and read Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place during the trip. The book recounts Ten Boom's experience during World War II. Even though she was just an old Dutch spinster living with her father and sister, she became the leader of the Haarlem tangent of the Dutch underground resistance. As I walked the same streets she had strolled, her stories came to life. Each day, I shared Ten Boom's experiences with my wife as we walked, telling her about her smuggling Jews to safe areas, stealing ration cards, and hiding the riskiest Jews (the ones no other safehouse would take) in her own house. My wife was amazed by the enthralling stories, and her first question was: "how did she become so involved with the resistance?" The answer was simple. People in Haarlem knew the Ten Booms were people who loved others the way Jesus did, and when the Nazis shut down a Jewish-owned business and arrested its owner, his wife came to the Ten Booms with a suitcase in hand, even though she had never met them before. Ten Boom's father said: "In this household, God's people are always welcome." From there, it was just criticism.

The discussion, and fireworks, continue on Thursdays
A local pastor chastised them for hiding Jews, offering hurtful criticism at Ten Boom, telling her she was acting with complete disregard to the lives of her father and sister. Old spinsters could never stop the massive Nazi army. He refused to help them.Yet others provided productive criticism, bringing life to their operation. One person criticized her for not providing enough food for the Jews, and helped her steal ration cards. A local architect criticized her for hosting them openly in her house and helped her build a secret hiding place in her home. Others criticized her inability to lie in the face of pressure, and would forcefully wake her up in the middle of the night and run mock interrogation drills. By accepting their productive criticism, while blocking out the unproductive, the Ten Booms simple gift of hospitality was transformed into a life-saving force. Even after someone ratted them out and the Nazis sent Corrie, her sister, and her father to prison and concentration camps, the hiding place was so well made the Nazis never found it during their raid of the house. Corrie withstood the brutal interrogation of the Nazis. Everyone who had been hiding in the Ten Boom's house when it was raided survived.

I don't want to be the kind of person whose criticism makes his friends feel worthless and small - I want my criticism to be life-giving. I want to teach people how the gifts God gave them are wondrous, unique to them, and worthy of being used. Some may be called to spend their lives with the homeless, others to invite people into their homes when no one else will. No calling is too small, and no gift inadequate. Others may poke holes in the hull of their efforts, saying their small boat isn't enough, but I'd rather spend my time helping them build a ship one plank at a time.

What I'm Listening to During this Post:

1 comment:

  1. Glad to see the blog come back, I enjoy reading these, always well written, thought provoking and above all interesting. Keep writing Jay.