Are You Stoning Your Prophets? Part 2

Last week, I wrote about handling criticism. I promised a second installment. Here it is.

Years ago I read a story, the source of which I’ve now forgotten, about a young acolyte who approaches an old saint and asks how he can be made perfect. The old man says, “Tomorrow, go down to the graveyard, choose any burial plot, and spend the say praising whoever lies beneath.”

So he does. The young man returns in the evening and tells the old man that the mission’s accomplished. And he asks again, “How can I be made perfect?”

“Tomorrow,” the old man says, “return to the same grave, only this time spend the day cursing whoever lies beneath.”

So he does. The young man returns in the evening and tells the old man that the mission’s accomplished. And he asks again, “How can I be made perfect?”

“The first day you stood over the grave and gushed praised, did the grave’s inhabitant respond?”

“No.”

“And today, when you spewed curses over the same grave, did he respond?”

“No.”

“My son, when you can do likewise with the praises and curses of man, you shall be perfect.”

I only half agree.

Frankly, I’m not dead yet, and the praises and curses of man stir in me strong emotion, and immediate reaction. I think for all of us, while breath remains in us, we will find it so. Until our dying day, our emotions, to some extent, will ride the waves of what others think of us. Maturity consists, not in being dead to others’ opinions, but in shaping our response to their praise and curses so that we gain maximum benefit from both, and do minimum damage.

But here’s what I’m tempted to do: to cancel one with the other. I tend to use praise to cancel criticism, or (especially when I’m raw and vulnerable) criticism to cancel praise. In the first scenario, I think, “All my critics are wrong, because all my fans say I’m wonderful.” Or, alternately, I think, “All my supporters are wrong, because all my critics say I’m horrible.”

Neither is true.

I have formula I use:

Discount by at least 20% the praises of a supporter, and discount by at least 80% the curses of an enemy.

Both your fans and your foes have a skewed perception of you. You supporters, by definition, over-estimate your wisdom, goodness, insight, prowess, and the like. Your enemies, by definition, underestimate these things. The top layer of a supporter’s praise is usually pure flattery. The bottom layer of an enemy’s criticism is always thick bile.

But there are two voices you should especially pay attention to:

1)      A compliment from someone who routinely criticizes you

2)      A criticism from someone who routinely encourages you

When a chronic critic says “Thanks” or “Well done,” I pay attention. And when a habitual exhorter says “What was that?” or “That’s not up to par,” I pay attention. I think both these voices approach something close to true reality.

Two quick stories to illustrate.

In my first church, the person who least wanted me to be their pastor – who voted against my coming, who came out guns blazing on every idea I proposed, who muttered and griped about my preaching – stood up as I announced my resignation, confessed to all that he never wanted me as his pastor, but wanted to be the first to say he wished I would stay.

That had my full attention.

On the other side, when a friend who’s always exhorted and defended me recently said he was disappointed in me, that got my full attention.

I’m not dead yet, and not yet made perfect. But between now and then, I want to get the most benefit out of both praise and criticism, and do the least damage.

 

How have you handled both praise and criticism? Does my formula – discount a supporter’s praise by at least 20%, and an enemy’s curses by at least 80% – sound accurate to you? What percentages would you use?

Are You Stoning Your Prophets?

 

It’s folly to stone your prophets.

Yet I see it all the time: people (I include myself here) who deal with unwelcome truth by rejecting the truth-teller. The child who denounces his mother for telling him his behavior is unacceptable. The employee who grouses about her boss for giving her a less than sterling review. The wife who harangues her husband for asking her to cease her gossip, or the husband who berates his wife for asking him to be kinder.

You know the beat.

There is some device in us that resists truth and resents those who bring it. The device is very active in my own brain. I can feel my hackles rising, my breath shortening, my jaw clenching, and my mind racing as soon as I see the slightest criticism coming my way. I start thinking up excuses before I even know what I’m excusing.

One of the best disciplines I’m learning is to turn off the device. Or at least ignore it. I’m teaching myself, not just to not resist honest criticism: I’m teaching myself to actively seek it and wholeheartedly welcome it. A question I’m asking people more and more: “Is there anything about me you wish I’d change?”

And then I take a breath.

And then I get an earful.

It’s rarely as bad as I dreaded. It’s always better than I hoped. It’s usually fair and accurate. In the end, it’s always life-giving – which the Bible says is a sign of true rebuke.

So far, I’ve been talking about criticism from people who love you. From those who want your best.

But let me push this even further. What do you do with harsh criticism? With the snipes of the cranky, self-appointed prophet – the accuser in the guise of a prophet? With the attacks of your enemy? With the barbs of the one who wants the worst for you?

Here’s a hard truth: they may be right. The day King David fled Jerusalem at the advance of his son Absolom’s revolt, an old embittered enemy – Shimei – followed him and taunted him all the way. He hurled rocks and dirt at David. He unleashed a brutal litany of curses and accusations.

David’s response? I think God is telling me something here.

God sometimes uses the mouth of an enemy to tell us what we refused to hear from the mouth of a friend. When we stone our prophets, it’s actually grace when God sends a foe to take his place.

Next week. I’ll to write about responding to criticism. But I wonder if you have a story of when God has used a friend, or maybe an enemy, to tell you a hard truth?

Do You Hear What I Hear?

 

I’ve been preaching for 23 years now (not without ceasing, though I’m sure a few of my parishioners feel that way). I think I’m at best half way there: my preaching could improve in every way, from deeper preparation, to tighter presentation, to clearer illustration, to more practical application. It’s a task for a lifetime, and I intend to spend the rest of my days getting better at it.

For those who sit under my preaching currently, thanks for your patience.

I recently enjoyed a nearly 6 month sabbatical. That meant I spent half a year listening to sermons, with only a few times preaching any. And so I’ve become freshly aware of the other side of homiletics: hearing. Jesus, after all, was far more concerned about how and what we hear than about how and what we speak (though, of course, he was concerned about that as well). “Let him who has ears, hear,” was his refrain, not “Let him who has a mouth, speak.”

I have come to believe that the Spirit of God seeks to impart two anointings during any sermon: one for the speaker, the other for the listeners. He anoints both lips and ears, tongue and eardrum. He desires empowered words, both in the giving and in the receiving. Preaching is both oratory and auditory. In Acts 2, when the Spirit falls on the church in Jerusalem and they began to speak in various tongues, the miracle isn’t so much their speaking: it’s that each ethnic group present hears the wonders of God in their own language (See Acts 2:8, 11). The spirit’s anointing is on the hearing, not just the speaking.

In my 6 months of mostly hearing and seldom speaking sermons, I learned a few things about anointed listening. Here are four:

  • Come with expectancy that God will speak. God will reveal, convict, confirm, rebuke, and/or guide us, at least in part, in every sermon we hear, no matter how eloquently or clumsily executed.
  • Leave with a resolve to act today on what God says. I think the most damnable thing is good intentions. The paving stones of hell are laid with good intentions – with ought tos and should haves and one days. Break the habit of hearing a sermon about loving your spouse, or blessing your children, or giving generously, or granting forgiveness, or repenting wholeheartedly – or whatever – and agreeing with it but not acting on it.
  • Hear the sermon for yourself. It is sermon-listening malpractice to sit through a sermon and think, “I wish so-and-so were here,” or “I am so glad so-and-so is here, and hope they’re really getting this.” God didn’t appoint you as their proxy. This word is for you.
  • Hear the sermon for others. It is equally sermon-listening malpractice to keep a good word to yourself. It is like the lepers in 2 Kings 7 who find bread and start to hoard it. When God speaks to you, tell at least one other person what you heard, preferably that day. It seals it up in your own heart, helps keep you accountable to it, and God often uses it to speak a word in season to the person you tell.

There’s more, but that gets at a few core things.

I am preaching this coming Sunday. I am asking for the Spirit to anoint my words, both on my lips and in our ears, mine included.

What about you? What have you learned about the art of listening to sermons?

Better

 

The curse of giftedness is laziness. It's complacency. It's settling for mediocrity, because mediocrity for a highly gifted person might be brilliance for a less gifted one. A one-talent person has to work hard to gain every inch. But a ten-talent person – a highly-gifted musician or chef or hairdresser or speaker – can coast for miles, and still get applause.

Recently I took a hard look in the mirror and realized I've been coasting in a few things. I'm not highly gifted in anything. But there are a few areas I've been living short of my ability.

I'm putting a plan together to change that.

Here's what my plan includes:

• Engaging in honest self-assement. I have to muster the courage to look full at myself and admit where I've become lazy, ineffective, unproductive, or deficient.
• Seeking honest feedback. I need others who love me enough to tell me the truth, no matter how unflattering, and then give them permission to tell it.
• Carving out time. No one drifts toward excellence. For me, two things are crucial to my getting better: reading, and practice. Both require dedicated time.
• Finding someone ahead of me willing to help me. I seek people who are brilliant at what I want to get better at, and I ask them to teach me or coach me.
• Deciding what success looks like. I try to envision what getting better looks like and then I set measurable goals toward it.

I'm writing this from Chicago, where I'm attending the Willow Creek Summit. This morning Senior Pastor, Bill Hybels, said we should all change our middle name to "Better," as a pledge to live up to our full potential.

I have no intent of changing any part of my name.

But I do intend to get better.

What about you? Is there any area you're living short of your ability? What's your plan to get better? I'd love to hear about it.

Shalom

Mark
 

Getting Egged

 

I once got egged in Africa.

It’s not what you’re thinking. Getting egged in Canada is supremely unpleasant – a raw egg, sometimes rotten, hurled at you with contempt. It stings. It humiliates.

That’s never happened to me, and I hope it never does.

Getting egged in Africa was very different. It was not humiliating, but humbling. It did sting, I’ll admit that, but in a deep-down healing way. 

Let me explain. I was preaching in a church in rural Kenya. The people were mostly poor. During the collection, every man, woman, and child brought something to the front to offer to God – some were dressed in suits and dresses, some in rags. Some were obviously well-fed, some gaunt with hunger. Some brought bills, some coins, and some – the really poor – brought food: chickens, cabbages, potatoes. And eggs.

All laid on the altar. All offered to God.

At the end of the service, the pastor auctioned the food to the wealthier people in the church. And then an amazing thing happened: many of those people gave the food away. To a little boy who came to church alone. To a single mom with hungry children. To an old man too sick to work.

And that’s when I got egged: someone gave me a basket full of brown eggs, still warm. I’m not sure what need they spied in me, if any. Generosity is like that: it has a logic all its own.

I think of that moment often – whenever I need a fresh lesson in humility, and especially when I need a heart check on generosity. Most my life I’ve practiced a thin version of generosity, where my giving is only a disguised form of purchasing – I give expecting something back, some service, some privilege, some influence, some pat on the back.

And then I got egged, and I got it: real giving is giving away.

I’ve been a Christ-follower for over 30 years. Since then, God has had excavate me deeply and rearrange me extensively. One of the deepest excavations and most extensive rearrangements has been in the area of generosity. He’s had to turn a skinflint into a philanthropist, Scrooge into Santa. I’m not better than half-way there, but I’m moving in the right direction. I’m not yet what I will be, but I’m no longer what I once was.

Here are a few things God’s taught me about generosity along the way:

  • Generosity is an adventure. I have more fun giving than spending. I always feel a residue of guilt and regret when I spend too much. I never feel that when I give, no matter how much.
  • Generosity is catalytic. Few things have grown me faster and deeper spiritually than giving. Let me spell out what I just said: giving is not just a sign of spiritual growth; it’s a catalyst for it. Generosity isn’t something you do once you’re spiritually mature; it’s something you do in order to become spiritually mature.
  • Generosity is generative. That’s the root meaning of the word – it generates, it creates. It brings something new into existence. Ironically, we get richer, not by accumulating, but by giving.
  • Generosity mirrors Jesus. At his core, God is a giver. The whole mission of Jesus was to give until, literally, he bled. Let me put this bluntly: unless you’re becoming more and more generous, you are not becoming more and more like Jesus.
  • Generosity is living large. Think of anyone you know whose life is infectious – who you love to be around, who you’d love to be more like. My guess is that they’re generous – with stuff, with money, with words, with time, with encouragement. Or ask it this way: Is there one stingy person you know who you actually want to be with and be like? I can’t think of one myself.

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on generosity.