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No Apology Necessary

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel.
Zechariah 3:3 (NIV)

Over the past few years, I’ve been serving as a mentor and coach for individuals in our local gathering of Jesus’ followers who are developing their gifts and abilities as teachers/preachers. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience and it’s a radical paradigm shift for almost anyone who grew up in the institutional, denominational church.

When Paul spoke of the Holy Spirit bestowing spiritual “gifts” on believers (see 1 Corinthians 12-13) for the common good, there are no limits or caveats mentioned regarding age, education, gender, race, or occupation. Spiritual gifts are given to every believer for serving the whole. Everyone is included. No one is exempt. Our local gathering is courageously believing that there are individuals within our midst who are spiritually gifted teachers despite the fact that they have not been institutionally trained as such. Like Paul himself, who worked tirelessly as a tentmaker, the teachers I’ve been privileged to serve over the past few years represent a diverse array of day jobs including diesel mechanic, corporate executive, middle-manager, engineer, non-profit director, IT network specialist, banker, writer, realtor, church staff member, and stay-at-home mom.

The feedback I and fellow team members provide each week is both the identification of a teacher’s strengths as well as opportunities to improve. At last night’s teacher’s meeting, I shared my observation that the most common opportunity for improvement I’ve identified across the broad cross-section of apprentice teachers is our seemingly requisite need to apologize to listeners for what they are about to hear. I’ve heard apologies for lack of ability, knowledge, experience, education, preparation, professionalism, and genetic similarity to the senior pastor. The apology almost always comes out in the opening statements. It takes the form of self-deprecating humor, humble confession, and nervous admission. Yet, I’ve observed that in every humorous, humble, or honest guise, this self-deprecating statement at the start of a message asks something from the listener (empathy, sympathy, mercy), when the teacher’s main role is to give something worthwhile to her or his listeners.

I’ve pondered on this for a long time. I’ve observed that there are two common motivations for this need to self-deprecate. The first reason is the simple fear of public speaking and the terror that comes with imagining yourself saying something wrong, silly, stupid, or offensive. The second reason is more intimate, and it’s the question any worthwhile teacher asks herself/himself in the quiet before she/he steps up in front of a group of listeners: “Who am I?”

I know my tragic flaws, my shortcomings, my hypocrisies, and my secret sins. “Who am I?” I whisper to myself as I’m ready to step up to the podium, “to think I have anything worthwhile to say to these people?” And so, I lead with an apology. I beg my listener’s mercy. Immediately, with that apology, I create unwanted and unnecessary nervousness, anxiety, tension, contempt, mistrust, or outright dismissal within the ranks of my listeners.

In today’s chapter, Zechariah has a vision of the high priest, Joshua. This is part of a series of visions intended to instill confidence and hope for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and God’s Temple among the exiles living in Persia. Keep in mind the context. It’s been 70 years since the temple was destroyed, and it was abundantly clear from the prophets, like Jeremiah, that the sins of the nation (including the priests) led to their captivity and exile.

In Zech’s vision, Joshua the high-priest stands there in filthy rags (a common, ancient metaphor for being sinful). Satan (the original Hebrew is more specifically translated “The Accuser”) stands next to him. I can easily imagine “the Accuser’s” stream of whispers: “Who are you to think you’re any better than your grandfathers that got them into this mess? Who are you to think you have anything to offer? Who are you to think you can actually restore God’s temple? Do you compare to Solomon?”

In the vision, the Angel of the Lord oversees the removal of Joshua’s filthy rags, and new garments are placed on him. “I’ve taken away your sin,” Joshua is told. “I’ve made a place for you here.” Joshua was called to fulfill God’s purposes despite his weaknesses, flaws, sins, and shortcomings. There is not one person on this planet whom God could call who doesn’t have weaknesses, flaws, sins, and shortcomings.

In the quiet this morning, I’m finding all sorts of encouragement in that word picture for myself and those I serve on the teaching team. I sometimes think that we do such a good job accusing ourselves that we make The Accuser’s job easy. The truth, however, is that since the ascension of Jesus there’s not one person who’s stepped up in front of a group of listeners to share His Message from Paul (murderer, a persecutor of the church) or Peter (who denied Jesus three times) to Martin Luther, John Calvin, Billy Graham, Mother Theresa or Pope Francis who didn’t stand in the darkness of the wings whispering “Who am I?”

“You are my child, my friend, and one whom I love,” I hear Holy Spirit whisper in response. “I’ve forgiven your sin. I’ve made you clean. I have given you a gift and a calling. You are purposed for this. You have something to say.”

“Say it, without apology.”

When I open the ears of my heart to hear, embrace, and embody that message, I grow to become a better teacher.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

The Critical Discernment of Criticism

Hezekiah received the letter from the messengers and read it. Then he went up to the temple of the Lord and spread it out before the Lord.
2 Kings 19:14 (NIV)

When we left the story yesterday, the commander of the invading Assyrian army was talking smack at the gates of Jerusalem. The intent was the same then as it is today with smack talking on the athletic field, the playground, corporate offices, or elsewhere. The goal is to get inside the other person’s head, create doubt, instill fear, and win the psychological battle.

Over the past couple of years I’ve had the opportunity of working with a wonderful group of people in my local gathering of Jesus followers. These individuals are actively working to develop their gifts and abilities at communicating God’s Message in front of a large group of people. I have enjoyed the privilege of helping mentor them in their development.

Every communicator who regularly stands in front of a group of listeners must at some point confront unwarranted criticism. I encounter the occasional denier who shuns all criticism. I had someone who once told me, “the root word of ‘criticism’ is ‘critical’ which is inherently negative.” I chose not to respond, knowing that I was speaking to a person whose heart and ears were closed to the fact that “critical” is also defined as “skillful judgment” and “decisive importance.” Most individuals understand that fair, knowledgable, and objective criticism is a crucial ingredient to improvement.

I’ve come to understand, however, that some unwarranted criticism you receive is a lot like smack talking. Smack talking critics can be identified by their intent, and that’s where discernment is required. Their criticism is not an honest and loving response intended to help the recipient (as much as they will claim that it is). Their criticism is an emotional gut reaction intended to defend something that has been stirred or threatened within themselves.

In this morning’s chapter, I found King Hezekiah’s response to the Assyrian threats fascinating. He immediately took the text of the threats to the temple, to the prophet Isaiah, and “spread it out before the Lord.” What a great word picture. Hezekiah didn’t eat the words and let them sicken his thoughts. He didn’t completely and foolishly dismiss the words and the threat. His actions were a measured and calculated response. He “spread them out” with a desire to get a good, objective look, wise counsel, and divine wisdom. What is true? What is not true? What is the intent of the message? What should I take from this? What should I ignore?

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the amazing story that plays out in the rest of the chapter. The “word of the Lord” through Isaiah was that God was going to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrians. Over night the Assyrian army was miraculously decimated and forced to withdraw. This was a historical event about which speculation and theories still abound.

This morning I’m reminded of my need of criticism, and the equal need to learn discernment with the unsolicited feedback I receive from others. I need to recognize and dismiss the misguided smack talk of people unconsciously reacting out of their own stuff. I also need to seek out and embrace the wise, honest and helpful reflections from those who love me and desire my continued, healthy development. It’s not just a good thing, it’s critical to the process of my maturity.

Everyone’s a Critic (and, Appropriately, Should Be)

2013 05 04 Dominies WifeTo one who listens, valid criticism
    is like a gold earring or other gold jewelry.
Proverbs 25:12 (NLT)

A little over a year ago I wrote a blog post entitled 10 Ways Being a Theatre Major Prepared Me for Success. The post went viral and has found its way into some very interesting places, for which I’m both surprised and grateful. That post sprang to mind this morning as I read the proverb above.

One of the most important lessons I learned being a theatre major (one, that for some reason, didn’t make my list) was the ability to accept and provide appropriate criticism. My theatre prof taught us to solicit criticism as actors. He once told us, “never blindly accept when a person tells you ‘you did a good job.’ Always ask ‘what exactly did you find good about it?'” If you did something well you need to understand what it was so that you can repeat it. If you missed the mark in some way, you need to know that too. How can we improve unless some one can observe and provide us with appropriate feedback?

Last weekend Wendy and I performed in a one-act play at the Pella Opera House for the local Tulip Time festival. With each show our director provided me with valid and crucial piece of criticism. Before opening night she told me that with one long line in which I explode in anger I had exploded too soon in the previous dress rehearsal and peaked out early in the line rather than building to the explosion. She was right. Before another performance she told me that I’d allowed too much dead air before another actor’s entrance and needed to fill it with a line. She was right. Rather than getting defensive and feeling like her criticism was inherently negative and destructive, I embraced what she was telling me. Her criticism, even in the late stages of production, allowed me to improve my individual performance and the overall quality of the show.

Looking back over the years I realize that seeing and thinking critically has been a crucial part of the successes I’ve experienced along life’s road. Having the character to weigh and accept criticism of others, and learning to provide valid, useful criticism to others is a tremendously important component of growth, maturity and wholeness.

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“Ham Buns” Presented at the Missouri Playwrights Workshop

Last week while Wendy and I were on vacation, we enjoyed a wonderful evening on the campus of the University of Missouri. Dr. David Crespy had invited me to present my script Ham Buns and Potato Salad at the Missouri Playwrights Workshop (Since we own a place in Missouri, I guess I’m technically grandfathered in as a Missouri playwright). We arrived in the early evening and were treated to dinner with Dr. Crespy and some of his graduate students at The Heidelberg.

The workshop is very simple. Each Tuesday night students, professors and the public are invited to gather at the Student Union, read a script together, and then discuss it. While Ham Buns has been through a couple of informal readings locally, I was excited to get feedback and critique from both the theatrical and academic community who aren’t as familiar with the rural Iowa Dutch small town culture which provides the setting of the play. Admittedly, there is always a bit of nervousness when you present a script in an open public forum like this.

The reading went really well, and I was very pleased with the quality of the feedback I received. It was enjoyable for me to experience the laughter of the participants and to sense that they were falling in love with the characters. I got a lot of positive feedback. The characters and the story were well received and I was assured that it was an enjoyable show. For some time Wendy and I had felt that there were some things that were not quite right with the script but we hadn’t been able to articulate exactly what they were. The best thing that came out of the workshop for me was the feedback which clearly defined some of the vague weaknesses we’d felt but had been unable to define.

The 90 minute drive back to the lake from Columbia flew by as Wendy helped me process all of the feedback I’d received. I now have a laundry list of things to edit and some fairly major structural changes I need to make. That’s good. The workshop gave me clarity of what I need to do and a renewed vision for where I need to go with the script, and I’m confident that the result will be an even better show for audiences to experience.

A special thank you to Dr. Crespy for his hospitality and to the students of the University of Missouri for their encouragement and feedback. Write on!

Chapter-a-Day Proverbs 28

By Justified Sinner via Flickr

In the end, people appreciate honest criticism 
      far more than flattery.
Proverbs 28:23 (NLT)

While studying theatre in college, my professor worked hard to teach us the value of honest criticism and temptation of listening to empty flattery. After a show you’ll have a throng of people tell you “good job,” but that hollow compliment does nothing for you. When someone tells you “good job,” my professor said, your response should be “What was good about it?” A specific praise about a moment, an action, or a decision you made on stage that struck them positively is something from which you can learn and build on. A simple “good job,” profits you nothing.

Better still is when someone gives you the gift of an honest piece of criticism. A character in the script I’m polishing up is given a very specific age to play. After reading the play, one of the readers commented that the lines and stage directions seemed too young for the age described. When she said that it was like a cloud parted and I saw it for the first time. She hit the nail on the head. I completely rewrote a bunch of dialogue and action to fix it.

I don’t understand people who think criticism is a bad thing, inherently negative, and something not to be tolerated. I may not like some of what I hear, but if I understand what’s not working for people I can fix it or at least I can better communicate why I’m doing or saying or acting the way I do so that others can have a better understanding of the decisions I’ve made.

Today, I’m grateful for those in my life who are willing to be honestly critical with me.

Chapter-a-Day 2 Thessalonians 1

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Dear brothers and sisters, we can’t help but thank God for you, because your faith is flourishing and your love for one another is growing. 2 Thessalonians 1:3 (NLT)

“How am I doing?”

As a child growing up, I wanted to know the answer to that question. School gave me regular feedback in the form of grades to help gauge where I was doing well and where I needed to put in extra work. When I entered the work force I soon learned that employers often built in regular feedback loops to help employees know how they were doing in their jobs. Much of the work I do today is part of my clients process of giving employees regular feedback regarding the quality of the service they are delivering to customers.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, there are precious few feedback loops. If I want feedback on how I’m doing in my spiritual journey I need to actively seek it out. It is usually going to come out of some kind of friendship that grows deep enough to bear the fruit of loving transparency, honesty, and accountability.

I thought about that as I read the verse above from today’s chapter. Paul’s gratitude for the Jesus followers in Thessalonica was spurred by two visible traits. First, their faith was flourishing. Second, their love for one another was growing. What a good litmus test for spiritual growth.

Is my faith flourishing? How so? In what ways? What’s the evidence?

Is my love for others growing? How so? In what ways? What’s the evidence?

Today, I’m asking God to help me determine where I’m at, how I’m doing, and where I need to grow.