Long ago, on a warm summer morning, I was in the midst of preparing for our Sunday worship gathering. This was fairly early into my time at this particular church, so I was still getting to know everybody and coming to understand the particular culture of the church.
A few minutes before the service began, I was cornered by one of the church matriarchs. This is what she told me: "Every Sunday I get up and pray that God won't let you destroy my worship by playing those bongo drums. They're horrible, and they distract us all from worship. You need to stop."
The back story: a month or two prior, we'd been working on a new song, but the rhythm wouldn't gel. The church didn't have a drummer, so it was difficult to lay down a rhythm and get everybody to feel it. To solve the problem, I went down to the local music store and bought a small pair of bongo drums, and used them to help the worship team finally get the beat of this song. And just about everybody seemed to like it.
Except this one particular person. And she didn't just 'not like' those bongos, she detested them and everything they stood for. (as a side note, here's a helpful suggestion: don't criticize people 10 minutes before the worship service starts. That's a guaranteed way to ruin the day for everybody). Later that afternoon I was telling this story to a friend, and in one of my few truly prophetic insights, said "I think she's going to try to get me fired." (She did try. She didn't succeed, but she made my life miserable.)
It's well established that any time you put yourself in the public eye, you invite feedback. Pastors, authors, musicians, celebrities all know - the moment you take on a public persona, you open the door for people to decide they don't like you, and to decide they need to let you know how much they don't like you.
Throw in the fact that pastors deal with such intensely personal issues - religion, belief, soul-work, music preferences, family histories ("we've always sat in that pew!") and it quickly becomes obvious: criticism and flack just go with the territory.
I mean, Jesus had his critics and detractors, right? So why should it be any different for those who attempt/claim to speak for Jesus?
Many of you know I write a bi-monthly column in our local monthly paper. Which puts me even more into the public arena. And I get a lot of positive feedback. I meet people around town who say "Do you write those columns? I really like them!" I've had some wonderful conversations with people who were taken by an article and wanted to talk about it further. Writing that column has been a blessing and a positive experience.
But. . .the first ever article I wrote for the KP News resulted in at least one irate phone call the morning after it was published. I wrote another article calling for civility in political discussion; one woman misunderstood my point and emailed the paper a missive declaring her anger at the way I slandered our president (I hadn't; I was quoting somebody else who had). A recent article musing on the lack of ethnic diversity in our community led to two response letters taking me to task (although, to be honest, one was from a friend of mine who was just having some fun with me).
But now I think we've reached the pinnacle. My article in the August edition has resulted in an angry, dismissive letter to the editor, declaring me a heretic, a neo-gnostic, and unfit for the pulpit in any Christian church. Apparently I'm out of step with orthodox Christianity, and guilty of challenging every doctrine from salvation to sin to creation. And the author of said letter wants the world to know about it.
It's always fun to see your name in print in that context.
I've had quite a few friends jump to my defense via facebook, but truthfully, I'm okay with it. For one, I think feedback is good for both me and the newspaper - it proves people are paying attention, and it probably drives more people to read more closely. Controversy sells, right?
For another, I'm following that classic advice, "consider the source." This particular gentleman wrote a different letter to the editor two years ago after Lakebay Community Church hosted a seminar discussing how Christians ought to relate to Muslims. Since our guest speaker wouldn't say the magic words, "all Muslims are going to hell for all of eternity because they are evil," we were denounced as teaching a false gospel of tolerance, of watering down the Bible, of being false teachers, and, if I remember correctly, I was labelled as unfit for pastoral ministry.
He's done it to many of my friends out here, he's done it to other churches, so I can't take it personally.
Years ago, I heard Jack Hayford give some advice that's always stuck with me. He said, "If you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one who barks the loudest is probably the one you hit." If I speak of the grace of God showing up in unexpected ways, and somebody reacts so negatively to that, I can only feel sadness for all the ways they must miss out on experiencing the love of God.
But this isn't so much about this gentleman; if I were to judge him here, I'd be doing the same thing he did. This is really more about responding to criticism. Maybe I'm getting wiser, or maybe I'm becoming more jaded, but it just doesn't bother me all that much any more. Sometimes I listen to the criticism, wondering if maybe there is some truth in there, if there's a lesson to be learned for the next time around. But mostly I realize that there is only One whose feedback is necessary; at the end of it all, I stand before God and answer only to him. At times he's let me know when I've crossed a line, when I've been in the wrong. At other times, I've felt God's affirmation that I'm okay, even if people don't like my bongo playing, or my political opinion, or my distaste for bikini espresso stands. I try each day to please my God, and stand in his grace when I fail.
Still, should there be anybody here still confused about this most recent article and the response, let me state once and for all:
I believe salvation is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and nowhere else.
And I also believe God doesn't really mind the bongos.
And that's all I'm going to say about that.