Part 2: Applying the Critique

(If you didn’t read the previous post, you might consider doing so…in case I can’t make this make sense on its own.)

Today has been a full day of blessed meetings, phone calls, and contacts…but also a day saturated with the awareness of growth. That’s all so exciting to me.

As I am typing this post, I feel lighter and hopeful. I have been able to shut the door on the negative messages I had allowed to permeate my thinking, mood, and actions.

My work with writing critique groups has been very helpful as I have struggled to understand the critique I received on my messages. Here are few important things I’ve learned about critique:

  1. When people are courageous enough to give you their perception, don’t ignore it. As weird as it may sound: it is a gift.
  2. As the receiver of critique, we have the opportunity accept or reject what is being offered. Prayerfully listening will assist in one’s ability to discern what’s best and truly helpful.
  3. This bullet may not apply to you, but it’s abundantly true for me: I do not need to be perfect. Perfection, or the expectation of perfection, can often limit our ability to grow. I will either be disappointed because I’m not measuring up, or feel defeated and just give up. My goal needs to be growth (process/journey) not perfection.
  4. There’s always something to be learn. When we stop learning, we stop living.

So how do I apply this learning from my experience with writing critique. Here’s what I know about myself.

  • I like writing devotions. I major in paring down the fat, leaving the nugget. So why should I be wounded that someone is saying I’m too long winded. Cut back on the fluff and make sure the treasure (main point) shines. Editing is our friend.
  • I teach a course to men and women preparing for leadership in the Church of the Brethren that focuses on Christian Education in the Small Church. I remember clearly telling the class that the message is not the be-all-end-all of the worship experience. Yes, I put enormous energy and study into crafting a message plan that builds on the full word of God. I give attention to my year plan and series of messages. I focus on the things that are distinctive to Brethren. I challenge myself. I listen to the Spirit. I’m sensitive to the needs of the people. But the message is just one part of the worship experience. I had forgotten this. The weight I put on the message and myself had become disproportionate. I don’t even like thinking about what it had become.

Here’s where it gets super exciting for me. The Enemy of my soul and ministry was winning while I was stuck licking my wound. Ugh. Nelson was right. I let it go on way too long. The great and wonderful news is: I’m back! I’m ready to grow. I have a new tool and I’m not afraid to use it—to the glory of God and the help of my neighbor.

Get ready church! God’s my best editor. Here come his treasured nuggets.

Brain Protection

I have learned to take critique. Thank you, Word Weavers. I have actually gotten to the place with my writing that I seek out the input of others to make me a better writer.

Sadly, this openness to input and constructive criticism had not reached other parts of my life.

Not long ago, the chairman of the commission I’m directly responsible to informed me that I need to cut back on the length of my sermons, and stick to my manuscript so that I don’t get off topic so much.

I love preaching. And I was under the impression after only glowing comments for the past four and a half years that the congregation was pleased with my style and delivery. I make a point of watching the crowd and thought I was reading them well.

Guess not.

I began to feel like I used to when I got job evaluations. The whole eval could be positive, but if there was one point where I perceived I received a negative “grade” that’s all I could focus on. And I always took it personally. That’s what coming from a shame-based family will do for you—at least it did for me.

I complied. I became a clock watcher. I finished in time for the closing hymn—whether I was done or not. I stopped short of saying, “Well, I can see we’re out of time…” I read the manuscript and held onto the sides of the pulpit to avoid walking away from the script and getting lost in my illustrations.

And I went home and cried every Sunday. And I sought solace in food.

Finally, this last week, my husband said, “Enough.” He went on to describe the disturbing depth of my funk, suggested a few options, and instructed me to pull out of my head.

In case I’ve never mentioned it here…I really appreciate this guy.

Then on Monday I pulled up several posts from my dear friend, Debby Berry. She’s going through a really tough time and is blogging some really powerful stuff. I plugged into her posts on Philippians 4:8 and what we need to be feeding our mind.

And a light came on in my brain. And it continued to shine brighter and brighter as I got ready for a bike ride. I remembered one of my favorite stories.

A long time ago, I read about a couple little kids who were going to ride their bikes. One kid showed up wearing his helmet. The other kid didn’t and he started teasing his buddy about his “baby hat.” The helmet wearer responded by asking why his friend’s parents didn’t make him wear one. His buddy had no answer. Helmet boy, shrugged his shoulders and replied, “I guess my mom loves my brain more than yours does.”

And I heard the sweet whisper of God: I love your brain. We need to work on your thinking.

Couldn’t argue with that.

So I put the bike on the rack and headed toward my favorite trail.

Half way down the road (flying down the interstate) I realized I forgot my helmet. I don’t ride without my helmet. Well, that’s not exactly true. This summer I got all the way (21 miles from home) to the trail and realized I’d left my helmet by the door. I opted to ride anyway, but the guilt each time I passed a child on their bike, riding with their parents, and wisely wearing their helmets, was huge. I kept wanting to shout an apology: “I’m sorry. I know I’m being a horrible example. Keep wearing those helmets kids!”

Right then, I decided I was stopping in at the bike shop near trail before I started my ride. I was hoping they rented helmets, or I’d be buying a new one. I got there at 9:40 and they didn’t open til 10. Wait? Absolutely.

When the door was unlocked, I went in and explained my dilemma and need to the owner who promptly handed me a helmet and told there was no charge.

And I heard that sweet whisper again: I love your brain. Ready to think better?

My favorite thing about riding is how close I feel to God as I pedal away. I found that to be especially true on this ride. I left my funk somewhere out on the trail. I came up with several creative options to my preaching critique—that’s what critique should do. Now we’ll implement them and see what works.

In case you haven’t been told lately, God loves your brain too! Be careful what you feed it.

Irritable

Lately, I’ve been feeling irritable, on-edge, restless, out-of-focus.

I grabbed my prayer book this morning and this is what I found:

Are the antidotes to my dis-ease in this simple, timely prayer? Let’s think it through:

First, have I responded in love when irritations and annoyances erupt? Nope. My anger has over-ruled and overrun my giving grace and love mechanism, like a log truck going downhill in the mountains.

If sensible people control their temper, as the writer of Proverbs admonishes, I have been anything but sensible. I have been out of my senses. I have been out of control. This is obvious in my interactions, my eating, and my disciplines. I haven’t written anything for months. My office is in total disarray. All I want to do is get on my bike and ride—hard, long, and fast.

It’s like I’m trying to get away from something. I’ve always been a runner, an avoider. Ignore something long enough and it will go away. Ridiculous thinking. I would identify it and encourage others to change, but have not been very good at owning it in myself.

As a counselor, I learned and taught classes, groups, and individuals about anger management. A basic truth for me has always been that most often anger is a protective response. People feel more comfortable expressing anger and pushing others away than owning their more vulnerable feelings of sadness, fear, confusion, or brokenness.

I’m feeling all of the above. At work. At home. In my relationships. I feel more comfortable holing up alone in my house with my dogs who don’t care what I’m going through as long as I feed them, let them out to potty, and give them an occasional scratch behind the ear.

But this is not how I want to be. And perhaps that’s why I’m so frustrated. I don’t feel like I’m allowed or supposed to feel this way. I have to be on and up for everyone. I’m not allowed to be irritated. And heaven forbid that I would express my frustration publically.

For example…last week the tree trimmers came to my house to cut my tree limbs back from the power lines. I was fuming. They’re supposed to let us know so we can pay top dollar to tree-trimming companies to sculpt rather than butcher our trees indiscriminately. We weren’t notified. They butchered my tree.

I felt violated. I was so angry, I was telling people that I was ready to chop the rest of the tree down with my teeth. Not particularly attractive talk or behavior. Upon reflection, I was mortified that I was so vociferous in my expression of my anger. I should have been gracious. After all, they were only doing their job, and keeping the electric on is important for me and for the neighborhood.

Spewing my anger over what I felt was hack job on my tree became the perfect opportunity to empty out my hoard of pent up frustration and irritation. My behavior was completely disproportionate to the incident. My ranting was unbecoming and my inability to control my expression was indicative of a deeper wounding that needs to be addressed.

That said, I have realized and reminded myself of Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians regarding anger: be angry and sin not. Anger is not the enemy. Anger is a legitimate emotion. How we release or control the intensity is what matters. Who we express it to is also relevant. Anger is energy that when channeled appropriately can result is positive change.

Typically I like to finish one of these posts in a neat package, with a tidy resolution tied up with a pretty ribbon.

Sorry, no ribbon today. Today begins the arduous work of back-tracking soul-searching examination to uncover the wound that has been the impetus to this feeling of dis-ease. I take comfort in the words of Psalm 103, “He heals all our dis-eases.”

I’m trusting in that truth, and in the ensuing process. I’m also hoping the ownership of the feelings unlocks the door to peace (completeness, shalom) so that my life and living will be a more credible witness.

Woo or Woe

Woo Not Woe

“Mom, is there anybody you won’t talk to?” This was a question my girls would ask when they were young. We’d go into the store, and I would invariably strike up a conversation with someone in the checkout line or parking lot. I never gave it much thought. I just liked connecting with people.

Several years ago I was required to undergo psychological testing as a precursor to a job I applied for. One of the tests came from a book, “Strengths Finder 2.0” written by Tom Rath. It was a very new test at the time.

Not surprising to me, I scored very high in the area of “woo.” Woo is the ability to win others over. It’s about connecting with others and involves the ability to strike up a conversation with anyone. Good trait for a pastoral/preacher type to have.

Jesus thought it was a good trait for all his followers. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus responds to a question posed by his disciples: “Who’s the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” I think they were hoping he would say it was them and not the religious establishment. Jesus turns, however, and picks up a child. Not what they were expecting—or even able to comprehend.

The disciples and followers of Jesus were constantly taken aback when his teachings and behaviors didn’t match up to their desires for the Messiah. He wasn’t what they were looking for … but exactly what they needed. 

They were focused on themselves, their plans and dreams, and wanting to distance themselves from others—so they would come out on top. Jesus was about reaching out to others, about loving the unlovely, about connecting with the disenfranchised. This was his mission before he even arrived (for background check out Isaiah 58 and 61, and Jesus’ first sermon in Luke 4).

Jesus’ response to their “greatest” question contained some strong words of warning. Each one began with ‘woe.’ Woe unto those who are so caught up in themselves that their behavior causes anyone to stumble. Woe unto those whose selfishness and self-serving behavior drives anyone away.

For Jesus the better behavior would be a wooing behavior—a drawing behavior. The kind of living and loving that is welcoming and warm. 

I don’t know about you, but I find that behavior as rare as a sunny day in Ohio recently. Our lives have been inundated with a divisiveness that is far from wooing. We live in a time when offering a cool cup of water, a tender word, and a moment of connection would go a long way to bring someone into the fullness of the kingdom.

These days we need less ‘childishness’ (self-seeking) and more child-likeness (open and trusting). I know I don’t want to be on the receiving end of Jesus’ ‘woe.’ The world watches and wants a whole lot more wooing from those of us who claim to follow the ways of Jesus. 

Let’s get wooing. 

Wading in Puke

The weekend before this one just past my husband and I took turns with the flu. Kindly, he went first. Not so kindly, he made a couple unsuccessful trips to the bathroom, leaving behind a very unpleast mess to clean up. He managed to spew on every wall and fixture.

Fast forward to this past weekend. Saturday night our thirteen year old grandson went to bed early, complaining of a queasy stomach. He made one trip to the bathroom, seemingly emptying his belly completely, he flushed away, and put the lid on the toilet down (as is the rule at his house). The problem came when on his second trip he could not get the lid up quickly enough or even have time to turn and aim for the sink or tub.

May I just say, I have never seen such a mess, in either quantity or dispersement. And I have no words for the smell.

Then, I was awakened Sunday morning by one of dogs wretching off the foot of our bed. He made a rather thorough mess of things, too.

All I could think was, “Really, God. I need this, why?”

This morning, after dropping my grandson off at school, I headed to my favorite coffee spot and writing place. I no sooner had my coat off when my phone rang. Sigh. The grandson. What did he forget this time?

When I answered the phone, I knew I was on speaker—I could hear the laughter and noise in the background. Through laughter my grandson finally asked “Mema, legit, did I puke all over the bathroom this weekend?”

“Yeah, buddy, it was the worst puke I’ve ever cleaned up.”

“Thanks. See…” And the line went dead as hysterical laughter broke out.

Only a group of 13 yr old boys could enjoy a story like that and be congratulatory. He was so proud of himself. And for one moment I forgot how awful a mess it had been to clean up.

I will confess, I was laughing, too. I quickly texted his mother and let her know what a hoot her son was. She responded right back a message filled with laughing emojis. He had been bragging to his gamer friends about the event as well.

The whole thing reminded me of a conversation I had with Eddie Jones (writer and CEO of Lighthouse of the Carolinas at a writers conference. I was telling him how much I appreciated his books for middle grade boys. He waxed a bit philosophical, and then said making sure each story included farts, puke, and practical jokes was his ticket to success. “You have to know your audience.”

So, dear audience, what can we take from this gross, yet for some hysterical set of circumstances. I can think of three things.

First, puke happens. It’s not pleasant in the moment, but we always tend to feel better when it’s over. Sometimes we need to let the roiling fear, anger, or grief out to feel better and be able to move on.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. The laughing group of thirteen year old boys reminded: you can even laugh about the grossest stuff of life. There will always be enough sadness to go around, but learning to find the humor is a solid way to pull yourself out of the downward spiral sadness tries to suck us into.

And remember to thank (profusely) the person who has to clean up your mess. Over and over my grandson apologized to me. And over and over I tried to assure him that I knew he didn’t plan on the mess. I believe his contrite and sincere apology was what enabled me to laugh after his verification phone call. His previous appreciation for what I endured in the extensive clean project enabled me laugh along with him and his buddies instead of thinking that he was making fun or laughing at me.

Who knew you could learn so much the negative consequences of the stomach flu?

But really, I think I learned enough to satisfy me for a very…very long time.

Advent: Give Big

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Day Eight: Go and Sell All…And Give

Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21, NLT)

One day a well-to-do young man came to Jesus. He wanted to know what good deed he needed to do to guarantee eternal life. In the conversation that followed the man was quick to point out his perfect keeping of the Law—I assume he was pretty proud of himself and expected Jesus to give a free-pass into heaven.

I wonder if Jesus was smiling…stifling a laugh at his arrogance and pride…and his self-absorbed confusion about what was truly important. The purpose of the Law is to make sure that we are loving God supremely and caring for our neighbor. To point out how clearly confused the wealthy man was, Jesus gave him an instruction that struck at the heart of his problem: he hadn’t done either requirement. 

Truth for the rich young man was that his amassed wealth was his god, and he wasn’t willing to part with it for anyone…even if it meant missing heaven.

Some of the saddest words in scripture (in my opinion) are attributed then to this man: he went away sad.

This Advent season we have looked into the scriptures to see  the “good thing” we need to do. We have thought about how God values small things. In a time when bright lights, sweet treats, cozy parties serve to cover our real need, we have taken time to focus on God’s valuing of honesty.  Finally, we have pondered the greatness of God’s gift in his son, our savior—and his invitation to be cheerful generous givers.

My prayer is that we have learned what “good thing” we have each needed to address, that we have made sure God is supreme, and our neighbor is cared for.

Because I don’t want any of us to go away sad.

PRAYER: O come, o come, Emmanuel. O come let us adore him…and share the joy he wants to bring to our lives, and to the world. Amen. May it ever be true. Make it true precious God. Make it true.

Advent: Give Big

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Day Seven: Cups of Cold Water

And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.” (Matthew 10:42, NLT)

I had been sick for days. The flu attacked me. I could barely lift my head off the pillow. I had moved to Kansas City with the girls to complete my Master of Divinity at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Nelson had stayed in Ohio to finish a building project. We knew very few people and had only a few Sundays prior started attending a church. I had no doctor. I wasn’t sure how we were going to get through this.

Then there was a knock on my door.

I pulled myself out of the bed, and padded to the door. I peeked around the curtain and saw a lady from church standing there with a casserole dish, and huge smile.

I opened the door a crack. Told her I was very sick and didn’t dare invite her in. She quickly apologized for waking me, and went on to say someone from church had mentioned how sick I was, so she brought over a “kid-friendly” tater tot casserole that could be warmed up in the microwave. She then issued her second apology: “It’s not much. Just a casserole.”

Maybe to her, but to me, it was pure gold. I thanked her profusely and received her gift. 

We may look at the things we do as small and insignificant—no more than a cup of cold water. But they are life-giving to ones receiving. Paul picks up on this in his letter to the Corinthians: Little is much when God is in it. 

Don’t be concerned about how small your gift may seem to you. That casserole fed my girls for two days. And in two days I was strong enough to get up and make their meals. 

Never minimize the gift God invites you to give. He’ll make it be enough. And bless you in the process.

TO PONDER: Think of a time when someone showed up right on time with exactly what you needed—shared a cup of cold water with you. Ask God to show you how you can pay that gift forward.

TO DISCUSS: What small gifts can you do, offer, give, to someone around you? A cup of cold water may end up looking like a casserole, or a ride to the doctor, or an offer to clean someone’s home. Our gifts of time and talent are just as valuable as the monetary offerings that someone else might give.

PRAYER: God, thank you for the times when someone has shone up right on time with the cup of water I needed. Thank you for the ways you are moving in people’s lives to make those gifts arrive right on time. Help me to respond when you lead me to give, how you lead me to give. Amen.