Slowly Learning to Love My Critics

On Monday night we hosted a ReImagine conversation called Imagine Peace. Five storytellers shared amazing accounts of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. Below is a story I shared about my journey to bless those who curse me:

It was a hot and humid Texas evening in July. I had been traveling the country in an RV with two other authors promoting our books through a wildly conceived 32-city tour sponsored by our publisher. After our18th show in Fort Worth, two young men approached me and said they had a few questions to ask. During the show I had told a story about my unlikely friendship with an eccentric 63-year-old homeless transgendered addict who called himself the Emperor. The two young men asked me why I hadn’t “witnessed” to the Emperor. I explained that the focus of my story was on what I had learned about my heart motives and the unconditional love of God. “But why didn’t you tell him the truth–that because of his sexual sin, he was going to hell?”

I was taken off guard by their accusing tone, but managed to offer a simple response, “In the gospels Jesus didn’t seem to spend time trying to convince vulnerable people that they were wrong, but instead restored their sense of dignity, worth and hope.” They persisted in questioning me about my views on scripture, salvation and theology. Finally I stopped them by saying, “I thought you were sincere in your questions, and I’ve tried to be truthful in my responses, but it seems like you have an agenda that is beyond the story I told.”

A week later, a google alert I had set up for my name, notified me that one of the young men had posted a scathing account of our conversation on his website. The site also mentioned that they were in the process of writing a book exposing the danger that I and others pose to the church. I spent hours crafting and posting an appropriate response for the comments section of the website. Eventually I decided it would be more constructive to have a private conversation, so I emailed him We exchanged several long and detailed messages over the following weeks and months. I tried to be gracious and personal and they softened a bit in their approach. But at a certain point the dialogue no longer seemed productive, so we discontinued communication.

In many of the churches I attended and served in my early life, certain public figures were regularly condemned from the pulpit and through forwarded emails and gossip around the church office. We were warned about religious leaders who associated with the wrong people or causes. We were afraid of what we didn’t understand. We wanted to be right and that meant that other people had to be wrong. I often didn’t find evidence for these accusations, but to be safe, I stayed away from certain authors and groups that were on those watchdog lists.

So, it was quite a shock when my name began to appear on those lists and heresy hunting websites. In my early thirties I began receiving angry letters from former congregants and church leaders accusing me of being “new age,” legalistic, unorthodox, or, worst of all, following “the social gospel.”  One person said they’d heard a rumor that I ascribed to the false teachings of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code novel, which, in reality, I had not read. Others said that it wasn’t my beliefs that concerned them, but the fact that I associated with questionable characters and organizations. Churches I had served and partnered with dropped their support and forbid their members from volunteering with me in the inner city. Pastors and leaders who heard a recording of one of my talks or read an article where I was quoted condemned me from the pulpit and in print and sent letters of warning to their networks. As a result I’ve been disinvited from speaking engagements– though often because of the vocal opposition of just one person. Friends from my younger years stalk me on facebook apparently just to see if the rumors they’ve heard about me are true.

Every negative letter, comment or cold shoulder cuts me like a knife. I am notoriously thin skinned when it comes to public criticism. My stomach clenches up. I can’t eat and I lose sleep over every slight, even when the comment is anonymous or I know that the person is a mentally disturbed ex convict. There is always the possibility that their assessment of me is valid and then I should really pay attention.

It hurts to be misunderstood. It hurts to be misrepresented. It hurts when someone is talking about me instead of with me. It especially troubles me when the person accusing me is not open to further dialogue. It pains me most when that person is a friend, former associate or relative. My natural reaction is to become angry and defensive. I’ll hash over their comments with my wife or a close friend. With the mind of an attorney I’ll craft a letter of rebuttal to every point they’ve made– and then, if I’m lucky, press delete before it’s been sent.

I’ve had to ask myself why it bothers me so much to be criticized or misrepresented. My reaction perhaps reveals something about my own disordered attachments– that I care too much about what other people think of me. I’m humbled that my sense of belovedness can so easily be called into question by the smallest comment. I’m also reminded of how often I’m tempted to speak ill of people I don’t understand or anyone who would dare to disagree with my opinions. I have to admit that I am eager to believe the worst about people who offend my sensibilities. It’s the same black and white, us versus them, scapegoat thinking that I’ve often been wounded by.

Believe it or not, my experience has been mild in comparison with other public figures I know–and I’ve learned a lot by watching these friends handle public criticism with incredible gentleness, grace and patience. They remind me of the radical wisdom of the scriptures:

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you…rejoice and be glad because great is your reward, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” 

If we take the life of Jesus as an archetype for the spiritual life then it’s natural and perhaps necessary to move from the acceptance of the group into the loneliness that can lead to a deeper confidence in the divine presence. At times, even his own mother and brothers thought he was crazy, and eventually his best friend turned him over to be executed. So why do I believe I deserve to be loved and affirmed by everybody?

On good days, I forgive, bless and pray for those who have persecuted me. I give up my right to be right and the need to control my image. Most of the wounds I’ve endured have healed over time. I am able to see that being criticized and even slandered can be a gift that calls into question the defensiveness, ego and insecurity of my false self. As when Shimei cursed king David, I wonder if accusers are sent to humble me, purify my motives and sensitize me to the fault lines of understanding in our society. My own actions are never wholly right or wrong– and I have to live in the tension of that ambiguity which opens me up to the mystery of divine love.

I am learning to hope that my accusers can become my friends. A few weeks ago, I got a surprise note in my inbox:

Mark, 

You probably don’t remember me. To be honest, I hope you don’t. I was reading through some old articles I posted on my website and came across something I wrote about you. It was a while ago (2008). My friend and I thought we were being loving to you and being holy by “correcting you.” If you don’t remember it, all the better, because I was quite the ass. If you do, then I just wanted to let you know that I’m sorry. 

I guess that in 4-5 years, my views have changed and matured. I look back at what I criticized – you simply loving a homeless man who was broken and in a hospital bed – and I really have no explanation for what I did. My views have changed quite significantly since then. 

Anyway, you came up in my thoughts and I wanted to apologize and seek your forgiveness. I hope all is going well with you and if I ever get the chance to meet you in person again, I hope it’s okay if I give you a hug and ask for your forgiveness again, even if it’s already been given. 

Best wishes

I don’t think I needed to hear from this person in order to forgive him. But his note did remind me that sometimes a person’s strong reaction to me isn’t actually about me, but about a struggle inside themselves. This note reminded me to always imagine and hope for greater understanding, reconciliation and peace.

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