I’m an intensely private person. That’s a hard thing to be when you’ve been called to be a pastor most of your adult life, even harder when you have a lifelong calling to write! Both writing and preaching demand a lot of self-giving, expose you to yourself in ways you might not otherwise have looked for, and lay you open to other people’s judgments and demands. But I keep trying to be true to the calling and still be true to myself and my need for some boundaries. It’s been a bit of a struggle. So I want to share with you something I found yesterday that explains why I keep at it. I read the following quote from a young minister who has found wisdom worth sharing. She wrote:
“Our hunger is for words that are real and honest, that evoke our deepest emotions, that name the wilderness in which we live and enlighten us to the truth that we are not alone there…. I am being led to love my congregation – and the world – with words that matter.” *
I want to hang those words on my wall, nail them to my doorpost, and paste them on my forehead. I believe that is what people are looking for (it’s what I look for as I read other people’s work), and that’s what I am trying to give when I preach or blog. Whether I’m successful or not is another matter, but that’s what I always hope and pray will come of it somehow: that some small thing I’ve been able to say will shed some light for someone else – not on me, but on their own feelings and experiences. However trivial or personal the stories I tell, the reason for telling them is only to share something that I believe others might relate to, in the hope that they will find it stirring up some fresh understanding, a common experience, or even some clarifying difference, for their own lives.
So I’m disappointed and troubled when what I get back is commentary and critique on my life. It happens fairly often. What I hope for instead from my listeners (in the parish or on the page) is more along the lines of dialogue or (what I most appreciate) some sign that something I’ve said has resonated with them and been helpful in some way. I’m not looking for praise or criticism. I’m especially not wanting someone to tell me about my life or their opinion of it on the basis of some small snippet that I’ve shared. (I’m always a little surprised when people feel they have enough wisdom or the right to do that.)
The fact is, I have found that neither praise nor criticism is helpful to me. Honest appreciation, simple and real, is a gift. But too much praise is a temptation to pride, and criticism or feedback I haven’t asked for intimidates and makes it more difficult for me to be radical in truth-telling or risky in self-giving. Daring to be radical and risky (at least a little bit), to be thoughtfully observant, and to be personal (hard as that is for me) are all critical to being able to say anything significant at all. So pastoring, preaching and blogging have often challenged me, much as I love doing these things.
Still, I can’t give up. I believe that words are important, that they can carry light into shadowy places and can give hope and a sense of companionship in the journey. I believe I’m called to use my words for good purpose, to “love the world” with them as Pastor Otts put it. So I will continue to dare to do this radical risky thing, exposing my thoughts to a world that may not like or understand them or consider them worthwhile; loving strangers with my words who may not love me back; forgiving people who presume more knowledge of me than they actually have; and being gentle with my fences, letting some light come through. I only hope I can keep getting better at all this as time goes on.
If you are a garrulous type, eager for others to know the inner corners of your life, God bless you! May the stranger you trust always be kind to you. If you are, like me, more careful of what you share of your inner life, God bless you too. May God help us both to share what we are called to share, keep what we are called to keep, and give what we can give, as wisdom teaches us.
Grace and peace to you as we walk through Holy Week, through death, toward Easter’s rising.
*Teri McDowell Ott, “Wilderness Venture,” Christian Century, April 16, 2014, vol. 131, no. 8, p. 11