We find ourselves in the eleventh chapter of Acts, verses one through four and eighteen. Acts is known for the great story of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was moving, and the church was growing. New converts were being welcomed, including Gentiles. There is really nothing to complain about, but this is the church. Drama has been part of church from the very beginning.
According to the text, Peter had returned to Jerusalem. His spirit must have been high. After all, everyone wants a growing church, or do they? According to verse three, he is greeted by some negative voices. The author describes them as circumcised believers. We would call them “Completed Jews.” They want to know why Peter had broken a long-standing rule about associating with Gentiles. Peter defends himself by simply telling the truth. In the verses between our reading, Peter tells them exactly what happened. I looked at it in my previous blog, The Day the Law Died. God summoned a Gentile, Cornelius, to invite Peter to his community. When he arrives, he tells the group about Jesus, and before the end of the day, they are all converted. It is God who welcomed the Gentiles into the church by the sending of the Holy Spirit. There is not much to say. If God is for it, then who can be against it? Verse eighteen says it clearly, “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” I wish I handled all my critics so easily.
I fell in love with this story the first time I read it. The point of the story is painfully clear. Peter is considered one of the greatest figures in the early church. Just think of everything he did for God. He followed Jesus for three years and experienced the Master firsthand. He was part of the inner circle, so he received special instruction. He was bold enough to get out of the boat and walk on the water for a few precious steps. He announced to the world for the very first time that Jesus was the Messiah. It was Peter who ran to the tomb on Easter morning to witness it for himself. It was Peter who spoke to the crowd before the winds of Pentecost blew. It was Peter who spoke to another crowd after the wind blew. It was Peter who healed the cripple (Acts 3). It was Peter who welcomed the Gentiles. Peter did so much; Peter was so much to the early church. If there was anyone who did not deserve to be criticized, it was Peter. But, in the story for today, Peter was criticized by people who had done nothing notable at all.
It reminds me of the story of George Whitefield (1714-1770) He was an Anglican cleric and evangelist who was one of the founders of Methodism and the Great Awakening in America. However, that does not mean he was not without his enemies. He was not really concerned about them, because he was more interested in pleasing God. At one point, Whitefield received a vicious letter accusing him of some wrongdoing. His reply was brief and courteous. He wrote:
I thank you heartily for your letter. As for what you and my other enemies are saying against me, I know worse things about myself than you will ever say about me.
With love in Christ, George Whitefield
I wish I could handle my critics so easily. Let me ask you two questions.
When was the last time you were criticized? When was the last time you criticized someone else? It happens all the time. Everyone gets criticized. That is what makes being in a position of authority so difficult. Let me ask you this series of questions.
Have you ever criticized a doctor?
Have you ever criticized your local school board?
Have you ever criticized a politician?
Have you ever criticized a professional athlete or celebrity?
Have you ever criticized your minister?
Have you ever criticized God for the condition of our world?
It is my experience that people in positions of authority have grown deaf to all the criticisms. They know most critics lack knowledge or skill. They know most criticisms come from passion, not expertise. You can admit it. Everyone gets criticized. Everyone criticizes. It has been that way from the beginning of time. Aristotle (384 B.C.- 322 B.C.) once said, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” The goal is not to eliminate criticism. The goal is to handle criticism well. How well do you handle criticism?
One summer I returned to my church after vacation and discovered someone had mysteriously put up a suggestion box. I few days later the suggestion box mysteriously disappeared. Did you know the idea of the employee suggestion box started in Japan in 1721? That means it is 302 years old. Did you know, according to the NASS, the National Association of Suggestion Systems, only 3% of American companies have a suggestion box? I wonder why there aren’t more, because those companies who use suggestion boxes have saved two billion dollars. Could it be 97% of American companies don’t have suggestion boxes because they don’t want to open themselves up for criticism? That is why my church’s suggestion box mysteriously disappeared.
How open are you to criticism? I hope you are not like 97% of American companies. I hope you are open to criticism because constructive criticism can make you a better person. I learned years ago there are three things you must do when you find yourself being criticized. First, the next time you are criticized, evaluate the source. There are some people you want to listen to and some you don’t. Just because they have an opinion doesn’t make them an expert. You would be a fool to take advice from a fool. You would be a fool to listen to everyone. That sounds exhausting. Second, the next time you are criticized, evaluate your core values. That is what Peter did in today’s story. He was more concerned with pleasing God than man. Everyone’s core values are different. Did your action support your core values? In other words, who are you trying to please? Third, the next time you are criticized, evaluate your action. I do not want to shock you, but you do not know everything. You do not do everything perfectly, nor do I. The people who offer you productive criticism are the most valuable people in your life because they want you to become a better person. It is not easy to do but respect their honesty. In the scripture lesson for today, Peter didn’t run from the criticism. He didn’t ignore the criticism. Peter embraced the criticism and reminded himself that what he did was right! You may not be perfect, but there are times when you did the right thing! The best thing you can do with criticism is forget it.
In the spring of 1989, I was interviewed to be the pastor of a United Methodist Church in Garfield Heights, Ohio. I remember next to nothing about that interview, except the greatest challenge facing that church. It was a stagnant, aging congregation. They were hoping to rebuild their congregation. (Does that sound familiar? It sounds like every congregation in the mainline Protestant tradition.) Over the next five years, we experienced some success. We welcomed many new members, and I learned a great deal.
It did not take me long to discover why this church had been stagnant for so long. It had nothing to do with demographics. However, the community was predominantly retired Catholics. It had nothing to do with visibility. The building sat on a busy road. It had nothing to do with commitment. The people were devoted to their church. That congregation hadn’t grown for the same reason most churches don’t grow. A small group had seized control and smothered any new life. The small group does not mean to be controlling. Usually, they are sincere people who believe they know what is best for the whole. Sometimes, the controlling group includes the pastor. Sometimes, it does not. In that church’s case, the pastor had very little control. The controlling group was one family. I have changed their name to protect the guilty. Let me just call them the Peabody’s.
They ruled by intimidation. That family consisted of two generations. There was the father and mother. They had two adult sons, who had married nice women. The six Peabody’s dominated every committee within the life of that church. The church could have been called the Peabody United Methodist Church. If that church was ever going to grow, then the Peabody’s had to be dethroned from power.
I only had one thing going for me. I was the chair of the nominating committee. In my first two years in that parish, I nominated anyone who wasn’t afraid of the Peabody’s. The Peabody’s were controlling, but they were not stupid. They knew what I was doing. They confronted me in every way to hold on to the power. One thing was clear. The church had to choose between them and me. Without the support of other church members, I would have been gone. One man made it possible for me to stay. He changed my life and saved my career in the United Methodist Church. My last three years in Garfield Heights were wonderful, because the Peabody’s were gone. They left in a pile of ugly words pointed at me. They wrote those words down and sent them to the church’s administrative board chair, the Cleveland District Superintendent, and East Ohio Annual Conference Bishop.
I never heard from the District Superintendent or the Bishop. However, the board chair called me, and we met. Alone, he read me the letter with the ugly words. In colorful language, they said I was the problem because I was suffering from some kind of mental illness. He asked me if I wanted to respond. I responded by saying, “Maybe they are right? They are not the first to think I am crazy.” We laughed and the topic never came up again. When I left church, it was growing because the Peabody’s were gone. Let me end with three questions.
Question #1: Have you ever been criticized? The answer is yes. You might as well admit it. Everyone has been criticized. If you don’t want to be criticized, then do nothing at all. Then, people will criticize you for doing nothing. Being criticized is just part of the human experience. Perhaps, question #2 is a better question.
Question #2: How do you handle criticism? You only have two options. Either you can ignore it, or you can embrace it. Dismiss the criticism that comes from fools or people who have an agenda. Embrace the criticisms that come from people who are trying to make you a better person.
Question #3: How long do you hold on to criticism? I hope not long. The best criticisms are designed to improve your life, not damage it. This is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it. Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993) once said, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”