July 23, 2012

Criticism and Confidence

Many of you have probably read the recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times about General Convention and about the future of the Episcopal Church. While I think these articles are flawed and problematic, they have generated many thoughtful responses from Episcopal bloggers and leaders. It is a reminder that if we are prepared to ask ourselves difficult questions, then any criticism, even poorly thought out criticism, is an opportunity to clarify, engage and grow.

Occasionally, someone will read something I’ve written and give me a less than enthusiastic response. “I think you missed this point,” they’ll say, or “This paragraph is confusing.” My inclination is often to get defensive, or write them off because they just don’t get it. Most of the time this is not a useful or fair way to respond. Their criticism is a signal that I need to find some way to communicate more clearly.

Absorbing and responding to criticism requires confidence in our calling. I believe, for example, that I am capable of writing clearly, so if someone does not understand what I am trying to say, I haven’t done my job. We must trust that we are doing the work Christ has called us to do, and that we are capable of doing a better job. If we believe that, then almost any criticism is useful to us. There is always room to improve our message and our methods. If we only listen to those who like what we’re doing, then we’ll have trouble growing.

I am reminded of Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew. She is looking for help, but Jesus responds that he was only sent to the house of Israel. “It is not fair to take children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” When she responds “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table,” Jesus heals her. Throughout the gospel Jesus engages, teaches, rebukes, and sometimes learns from those who disagree or criticize him.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we need to respond to every critic. Some people are simply out to hurt others, and should be ignored. Still, they remind us that we are living in a wounded world that needs the unconditional love we have to offer.

Even God, who loves us unconditionally, does not do so uncritically. We shouldn’t expect that from anyone else. We need those who won’t just accept our flaws, but spur us to be better. And that’s what I hope is happening in the Episcopal Church right now. We’re receiving some criticism, some of it deserved, and we’re processing and responding to it. Not everyone will love what we do, and how we respond, but our work will be better for it.