Rainbows over Ararat, Turkey 2010

The letter arrived nearly 30 years ago, but to this day I vividly recall the writer’s scathing words.

“I was embarrassed that so few people returned to hear Dr. ____ speak after I recommended him. What kind of pastor are you that you couldn’t get a better turnout at the evening service? And as for that wife of yours, I hated the article she wrote about that female professor at Gordon-Conwell. Women belong in the home, not teaching in seminaries.

“Neither the two of you or your church are ever going to amount to anything!”

We were new to the pastorate but my husband was willing to learn whatever he could, even from blistering criticism. He showed the letter to our deacon board and requested their advice. “File it,” the board chairman replied bluntly. “Circular file. And be sure to flush afterwards. There is nothing you can take away from this.”

Mike sent a gracious reply to the letter writer, refusing to defend himself but reaffirming his faith in the spiritual potential of the little New England church God had sent us to pastor.

“I don’t care what he says about me,” he commented afterwards, “but no one gets away with talking like that about this church. God loves this place and these people and so do I. God can do anything here, and I believe He will.”

I didn’t handle it nearly so well, brooding incessantly while taking long walks by the ocean during that beautiful autumn of 1989. It was as if Satan had his finger on a mental tape recorder while an endless loop played over and over, “YOU WILL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING.”

So you can imagine my surprise recently when my mom unearthed a letter I mailed to her written by another older man that very same fall, this one the Executive Director of a regional ministry who had visited our church on several occasions.

“Both [my wife] and I were impressed with the tremendous attitude of the people,” he wrote. “We had fairly lengthy conversations. Without exception the attitudes were the same. People are very excited about the church and the possibilities that they see.

“You and Mag are both much loved folks, and your people sense that the Lord has indeed brought you there. Quite honestly, I can’t think of anything more encouraging than that. To have your people feel that they are being especially blessed of God is ‘big stuff.’

“You have some neat folks, and with a pure heart I can say that I think you stand at the threshold of unlimited possibilities.”

So friends, so goes the tale of two letters written within weeks of each other to the same pastor new to his first church.

And which letter have I remembered for the past 30 years?

Yep, the first one. I had no recollection of Mike’s ever having received the second letter until Mom pulled it from a drawer recently where she had saved it.

Bizarre, isn’t it? Why do we allow criticism to sear our souls while affirmation slides right off?

Psychologists have a host of explanations for this phenomenon, suggesting that we don’t store “emotionally neutral” memories long term, while traumatic events stimulate the portion of the brain known as the amygdala.

So should we have consigned that first letter to mental oblivion while basking in the praise of the second?

Actually, no. Only true narcissists who refuse to consider any form of criticism as valid seem immune from getting burned by criticism. I learned from my pastor-husband to search for any nugget of truth that is actionable before disregarding criticism, even the destructive kind. While there was nothing we could apply from the disgruntled letter-writer’s complaints, the experience was invaluable in learning to handle the heat that is inevitable when you work with people.

I wish I could say that criticism hurts less today than it used to. I have prayed for years to develop a thick skin. How else can we continue to serve others?

But in God’s amazing grace, the scars of loving and serving people do toughen the skin.

And underneath, thanks be to God, we can keep a tender heart.

How about you? What has helped you cope with criticism?