On October 5th, 1971 the Rock and Roll star Rick Nelson was invited to play at Madison Square Garden. He opened his set playing his well known classics. The audience cheered, applauded and sang along. However, halfway through the set he switched to a newer sound, including a countrified version of a Rolling Stones hit. The crowd turned vicious, booing and jeering him until he left the stage.
He wrote a song about the incident called “Garden Party.” The low key, melodic chorus teaches us the lesson he learned from the fiasco: “You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”
As a Christian pastor I definitely relate but I also disagree. Anybody who works with people quickly realizes that you can’t really please anybody. As I have been in ministry I have learned that on an instinctual level most people want control. They know insulting others is the best way to gain control. This is true even of myself. We don’t even realize we are doing it. We just sense that we are not in control and we begin to criticize others as a way of gaining it back.
So as a pastor I have learned that criticism is unavoidable. In fact the measure of my faithfulness is not if people are booing and jeering me off the stage but rather what they are booing and jeering me for. If I can’t avoid criticism, I would rather be criticized for the things that matter.
On that note I have been accused several times of being too “nice.” The people offering that criticism have good intentions. They truly believe that if I were just a tad bit more confrontational, a tad bit meaner, a tad bit more firm than the church would grow, the kingdom would come and everybody would get saved and sanctified.
Sometimes this criticism has appeared amidst personal conflicts. Someone is mad at someone else and they want me on their team. So they argue I am being too nice to “them” and if I would just grow some pastoral cahones I would be mean and confront that person with their “sin” and all heaven would break loose. At times I have quietly reminded that person that the minute I start being mean and judgmental I am probably going to start first with myself and second with them.
At other times I have broken down and actually decided to be mean and judgmental and not surprisingly the people who criticized me for being too nice were the first to cry foul when I was “too mean.”
Then there are the more academic critics who have said the reason I am too nice is because I am too afraid. If I would just be less afraid I would be more confrontational. They read that in some psycho therapy book and assume it applies to me.
I am not going to say that there isn’t some truth there. To deny I am afraid would be to deny my very humanity. There is a type of person that does scare me and I do avoid them in order to protect myself from severe harm. I am still not entirely sure I should but in this fallen world it is the only option.
But beyond that my “niceness” does not come from fear. It comes from a life devoted to the Scriptures, particularly Paul’s epistles. My “niceness” comes from passages like 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 12, Colossians 3, Ephesians 4 and Philippians 4. I could also include the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Jesus in Mark 8-10. These passages teach me that God is patient, therefore I must be patient. God is kind, therefore I must be kind. Jesus was silent before his critics and accusers. Therefore I must also be.
I am not passive, patient and kind because I am afraid. Quite the opposite my passive, patient kindness is borne out of hope. Yet it is not the hope that patient kindness might be the most effective manipulation tool. I am not that naive. I know that passivity and patient kindness get you crucified and that quite often. People take advantage of me constantly. Even my closest friends and family members take full advantage of my kindness. They take me quite for granted. People in my churches have and continue to get away with things they wouldn’t under a more manipulative leader. So my hope is not that I will somehow control people more if I am passive. This is not a political strategy like “non violent resistance” or what we blandly call, “pacifism.”
Instead my hope is in a coming Kingdom, a coming glory, a coming King. My hope is that some glad morning when this life is over the trump will resound and the Lord will descend and when it gets to be my turn to face him, he will smile at me and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Forget mansions in glory. That’s all I want, a smile from the King and a nod that says, “You tried your best, even if you did fall short.”
Maybe that means I would edit Nelson’s song to, “You can’t please everyone, so you better please the Lord.” But maybe that sounds too hokey.
Not that I have attained all this. I am not saying I am the perfect specimen of passive, patient kindness. In fact, several times over the last several years I have spent days angry at the world and angry at the people who have taken advantage of me, who have gossiped and lied and yelled and scream and booed and jeered. I have sat with my back against a wall and shaken my fist at the air and thought about all the mean emails I want to send and all the angry things I want to publicly say. Then I calm down, cry a little and ask God for the strength not to do that. In those moments I remind myself that crucifixions are what I said “yes” to so many years ago. And I have begged God for the strength to get up again, go out into the world smiling, answer the cursing with blessing, the insults with compliments, the abuse with love and the anger with patience. I’m not sure I am doing very well and sometimes God hasn’t answered that prayer and I have let a harsh and careless word slip but I have always been quick to apologize and that too has taken a toll.
But surely the fact that people are still telling me, “You’re too nice” means I am getting closer to my reward.
Come, Lord Jesus.