Today I received one of those letters. I get them from time to time…anonymous critiques. An apparent expert with scathing commentary on how my sermon, or style, or approach is missing the mark, or even causing harm. I know what I’m supposed to do with these sorts of unsigned letters. Pitch them. If it isn’t signed, don’t even bother. I wish it was that simple.
Instead, I usually just feel like I’m going to throw up. I feel rejected at the deepest level. It isn’t simply a critique of my talk, but of me. Not just my style, but my heart. “You shouldn’t read so much.” “Forget the historical commentary.” “We are suffering, we don’t need your book reports.”
There is so much implied in these criticisms. That I lack spiritual depth and sensitivity. That I am stuck in my head and have missed the heart. Too many smart quotes. Too much information. Not enough emotion.
The thing is, as I read these quotes in my sermons, I’m often choked up. I find myself giving the very best I can find. These aren’t words, they are keys that have unlocked deep truth in my own heart. As I read the letter, my heart feels trodden upon. I stoop to pick up these pieces of what was once beautiful, that is now broken and cracked, and ground into the dirt.
This is, unfortunately, an unavoidable part of leadership. All you really can give is yourself. But it is costly. It requires painful vulnerability. It is like giving blood.
I remember another time I felt the weight of criticism so heavy on my shoulders. The counselor I was seeing, with empathy and a little pity, told me I was going to have to grow a thicker skin. He was right. He told me no one learns to walk point without getting shot at (he was a Vietnam vet). The problem is, some die in the process.
One approach to a thicker skin would be to stop caring so much. But this sort of self-protection is costly. It requires creating a necessary distance from others. The boundary for safety also creates disconnection. I don’t want to lose feeling or grow callous. Instead, I want to be able to let criticism go.
I heard a story from John Ortberg where he was leaving a speaking engagement he had led with Dallas Willard. John was evaluating and replaying his talk in his mind afterwards when he heard Dallas whistling next to him. He asked Dallas how he could be so light and free immediately after having spoken. Dallas said, “Oh, I just picture all that stuff like a helium balloon. I hold it, look at it, and then let it go.”
I love that image. How I wish to be that free! So today I’m doing my best to release this balloon. I’ve heard it, seen it, and now I’m letting it float away. At least I’m trying.
I don’t want to avoid my critics. I want to listen and grow. I want to be open to feedback. But I refuse to get angry, to grow bitter, and to let resentment build. That stuff is like poison. And I also refuse to retreat, to hide, or to edit.
To whoever wrote that letter, you might be right. But all I can be is me. I’m not going to ignore it. Instead, I’ll read it, pray about it, and then, release it…and watch as it slowly disappears.