I am a life-long basketball fan. Ever since I was old enough to pick up a basketball I've enjoyed the game. Until a couple of years ago, though, I thought that the best coaches on the face of the planet were the ones you hear about all the time. Coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, Pat Summit or Phil Jackson who led teams to NCAA or NBA championships. They were the best... until I started coaching a team of kindergarten-aged kids.
5 year olds on the first day of practice have absolutely no clue as to what they are doing. Forget teaching them how to dribble or pass... just helping them figure out how to get in a straight line to keep them focused until the next water break is a challenge. Phil Jackson might have won eight NBA titles, but let's see him teach a five year old girl how to set a pick. That just takes a whole other level of coaching.
I was reminded of this yesterday when for the first time, Xavier's team took to the court for their first practice. Rick Rosado and I coached our two older boys when they were on the same team three years ago, and yesterday we got to figure out how to do it all over again. I know it wasn't just us. Two coaches of another team at the other end of our court spent by estimation about 20 minutes just trying to get kids to do a lay-up drill. Shooting, dribbling, rebounding, and passing (not mention switching lines) all at one time. Eventually, after much frustration and yelling (as if the problem wasn't that the kids were totally lost, but rather that they just had hearing problems) they gave up and instead started teaching something more basic like not running with the ball.
The key I've found to coaching kids who can't do a simple lay-up drill is to not get hung up on what they can't do, but rather to simply look for that moment you can praise the child when they do something right. Otherwise you'll end up coming down on them all the time, which in the end, won't result in much else but the kid associating sheer misery with what is supposed to be a fun game. Life can be pretty miserable all on its own... no sense creating that kind of tension for a fiver year old. So, when they actually make a good pass, or get in line, or don't dribble the ball off of their foot, it's an opportunity to build them up.
And that's what, I believe, the Lord wants us to do. Build each other up.
The prophet Isaiah says that beautiful are the feet of the one who brings good news... and if you think about it, that's true. People who bring us good news all of sudden take on an aura they never had before. I remember way back in the seventh grade the day Jay Sommerville invited me to his birthday party. He invited five us to come play three hours of video arcade games at Arcade City.... NO QUARTERS NECESSARY. FREE ARCADE GAMES!!! To a seventh grader, that was good news. Three hours of all the Pac Man and Centipede you could play. And you can bet that whatever impression I had of Jay... that intelligent, gracious, humorous, enlightened soul... only improved with that invitation.
But if it's true that feet become beautiful if they carry to us good news, the opposite is also true. Feet that carry bad news aren't beautiful. Far from it. They're just butt-ugly, smelly feet.
There are some people in this world who have butt-ugly, smelly feet that consistently bring bad news about how we look, how we work, how we think, how we play, how we take care of ourselves, how we raise our kids, and generally, how we live our life. They see the world through ashen colored glasses. Their entire modus operandi to tear down others with criticism.
Now before I go any further here, I want to make it clear that criticism in and of itself, isn't a bad thing. Solomon was right when he wrote the proverb that only a fool refuses to listen to criticism. How on earth are we to get better as people if critical comments made by others are only taken as insults or personal attacks. Thinking critically about yourself and the world around you is a gift given by God. It's the wise person that can hear those critiques, and put them to better use.
I mean, did you hear what's going on in New Orleans? After last year's BCS debacle where Jim Tressel decided to treat this team like grown responsible adults and give then 10 days of virtually no curfews in Glendale Arizona, he found that the college kids often don't act like responsible adults. And, I mean, they found enough to keep them out until the wee hours in Glendale, Arizona, which isn't exactly, you know, a den of iniquity. So what's he do this year? The team arrives only five days before the game in a town where nightclubs have fought in court to trademark the name "Den of Iniquity", and every night they have to be in by 11pm.
Hopefully, late Monday night, in the wee hours, we'll see that bit of wisdom pay off, eh?
Criticism, then, is in and of itself not a negative thing. And if we can't hear it - any of it - then the problem is ours. We have somehow placed ourselves above everyone else, above and beyond the rest of humanity, to a place where accountability is no longer operable. Or worse yet, have been beaten down mentally, physically, and spiritually, that we can't hear criticism because it only affirms what we believe to be true, which is the worst. And God did not create us to believe worst about ourselves or others. That's a lie you need help to break. Help from someone you trust who can begin to help you recognize both the positive and negative in the light of truth. That's what Jesus and his followers can do, if we'll let them. Help us see what's really true.
But that's not what I came today to talk about. I'm more concerned with the butt-ugly smelly feet of the destructively critical person.
You know Jesus came in contact with all different types and kinds of people: thieves, liars, murderers, addicts, prostitutes.... people who until this day are generally blamed for most of society's ills. But for these people he always seemed to not only speak the truth, but show a great deal of compassion into their hearts. Society in Jesus' age wanted to stone adulterers to death. But he thought it better to show the adulterer compassion, and simply tell them that their world would be a whole lot better if they would quit sleeping around. No diatribes or threats. No anger or malice. Just compassion and taking advantage of those moments to speak a little truth into their lives.
No, Jesus never got angry at anybody except those who should have known better. So-called religious authorities - teachers and preachers - who used as their main weapon relentless criticism. Relentless criticism of even the most minute details of people's lives designed to create uncertainty and second-guessing to the point that the people being criticized would seek to please the critics by doing what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted it. It is on these teachers and preachers that Jesus takes on passionately and furiously. Because they only way people begin doing what what others want, when they want, how they want it, is when they have been crushed spiritually to want anything on their own.
That's the kind of critic I'm thinking about today. The person who relentlessly criticizes in an effort to crush the spirit of others. The person who looks for weaknesses in others with the intent of blowing them all out of proportion in order to create uncertainty that at best, makes living or working with that person miserable, and at worst, can literally rob the will for anything right or good out of their life.
Don't think this is possible? It's said that in the months leading up to the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana, that Jim Jones, slowly losing his mind as he continued to binge on barbiturates and cocaine, would keep his followers up nights on end, accusing them of unfaithfulness to his cause, to God, the lofty ideals he purported to have about how humanity should treat one another. Worn down by the constant criticism, more than 900 people couldn't see much difference between life and death, hence only 25 escaping into the jungle to save themselves. The rest were beaten down to the point they were ready to drink the Koolaide.
That makes sense given that Jesus says this kind of critic and this kind of criticism leads too nothing. He likens them in a metaphor as being uprooted plants and blind guides. Persons whose efforts to create hopelessness will come to nothing and lead to nothing, if people listen to what they have to say. And he tells his disciples that the way you deal with people like this, spirit crushers, is first to discern the presence of a critical person, and secondly, recognize that the depth of things these people dwell on is the not the depth of things God wants us to be concerned about.
You see critical people only dwell on what can be seen by the naked eye. They'll go after what can be observed just like little kids. Do you remember junior high or high school. My friend Mike liked playing endless hours of Dungeons and Dragons, ran cross country, read endlessly, and always had the highest grades in our class... so, of course, he was picked on by bullies for being imaginative, intelligent, and caring about his physical fitness. Of course, now he's a dermatologist, happily married, who's in great shape thanks to the training he does to run multiple marathons every year... and as adults most of those bullies are trying to raise their kids to live out the values Mike lived out as a teenager, but that's the secret of the critical person. They nit pick at what you say, or how you look, or what you've done. They take outwardly observable details that can be twisted or magnified, while playing on whatever sense of uncertainty we possess about ourselves, to create the illusion of failure... and ultimately crush your spirit so that their words can hold weight they don't deserve.
So, live a life concerned with weightier matters than that raised by the critical person.
You know yesterday I buried a great man. Dr. Dwight Becker was a great man. Anybody who knew him I think would bear testimony that he was truly remarkable. He practiced medicine until he was 80 years old, the last 22 years of which he spent serving in the ER at Lima Memorial Hospital. He served on numerous committees and boards in this community charged with concerning themselves with the health and welfare of others. He served here for a number of years as our Ad Board Chair, and spent a good many years in Amadeus Sunday School class and the church choir. He was an army veteran, just barely having missed being sent to the Japanese Theater, his deployment nixed after the Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He was great because he was good, and he measured his life by how deeply the depth of that character was buried into his heart and soul. It was a character of goodness shaped by his deep religious convictions and the knowledge that the scariest thing that can happen to a person in the middle of the night is a 2 year old child spiking a high fever and not being able to do anything about it. Dwight was a good man because he knew more than likely he could do something about that fever, and was willing to do so even in the middle of the night. He did it to help the child, and to renew the spirit of the parent. And he didn't do it to the point of creating an aura of self-importance.
His was a life of spirits, not crushed, but renewed.
A life spent pondering the magnitude of what can come out of the human heart, and wanting to maximize such things as to renew hope in the spirit and soul of others is immune to the critical person. They have no time for that kind of foolishness. Their strength of character and depth of understanding go below what the critical person can touch. That's why when others, including the disciples, cower in the presence of the Pharisees, Jesus in turn grows weary, and even angry, that they would be wasting their time on such trivial matters.
A life of humble, yet determined service, where you can cry with people in their grief and sorrow, and laugh and celebrate them in the midst of great joy, where what you do is taken seriously, but you aren't, is the best defense I know of against the critical person. A life spent not focusing on all the things people do wrong, cause heaven knows that list is a long one, but rather watching for a moment to offer praise for something done well. I think that's the place Jesus wants to take us as his disciples, for our own good, and the good of the world.