If you want to avoid cancel culture, then just…
From the early days of my ministry, I’d been told by a very dear friend, an older minister, a mentor really, never to read my own press. Don’t read the positive or negative reviews, editorials or social media comments and certainly never pay attention to “likes” or “followers”.
“Why not read the positive reviews or take notice of the ‘likes’ or how many people follow?” I wondered aloud. “Wouldn’t that be an encouragement for how many people you’re reaching or that you’re doing the right thing?”
With a knowing smile, he’d responded. “You should know you’re doing the right thing before you write, speak or post anything but if you pay attention to the positive, you’ll be tempted to believe it and if you look at the negative, you’ll begin to doubt.
”Wise words indeed and ones I’d endeavored to heed through the years as the ministry had been established and grown but even so, I was aware that many church leaders didn’t agree with things I preached. It went against their traditions and what they’d been taught. They warned people to keep away from my meetings and materials but despite that, many people got excited about the good news I proclaimed. We saw mighty miracles and lives changed. Recently, I couldn’t even say why, I’d been tempted and unfortunately, I’d yielded. The negative press, comments and reviews surrounding my latest book, already an international best-seller, had caught my attention and begun to weigh heavily.
Now, after well-known and respected ministers had criticized it and attributed all sorts of negative elements to my character, calling me every possible name, I was questioning. Could any of what they said be true? Had success gone to my head? Were my motives still pure? Was the message in any way compromised? I hadn’t thought so when I’d written it, when the publisher had released it with the media push and subsequent tour and it had begun to sell, rapidly. It isn’t that I don’t have people around me to help me stay accountable, or that I’m so arrogant and unteachable that I believe I’m right about everything but is it possible I’d gotten off, even a little? If I was, no one was telling me to my face but sometimes when you become as successful as I have, people will tell you what they think you want to hear. They mean well, of course, but aren’t forthcoming with anything contradictory. We do, after all, preach an uplifting message of hope and victory.
I closed my laptop and got up from the desk. Looking around my home office, the walls full of books, well used and categorized, the elegant mahogany furnishings, kept polished and pristine, I knew exactly what I needed. As the years had progressed, my wife and I had moved a few times from neighborhood to better neighborhood and now we lived in a comfortable home in one of the best parts of the city, but it wasn’t where I’d grown up. When I graduated from college, I’d come home, eager to make a difference and, I admit, to show all those who’d said I’d never amount to anything that I had made good. Success came steadily and I’d left the old neighborhood behind but when I needed a dose of perspective, I would come down and walk the old streets.
As I parked the car and locked it, I reflected on how run down the area now seemed. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t been down here for some time or maybe because time had passed and that’s the nature of things. Beginning a casual stroll down the sidewalk, I noticed the privacy fence that had kept us boys out of the nicer yards now appeared tired but still stood. Behind it, the old apple trees that my friends and I had thrown rocks at to score some ripe apples looked dilapidated but still had some fruit. Our families had been poor and sometimes it was the only fruit we got. We made a game of it and no one ever came to chase us off so it never occurred to me that we might be doing something wrong. Across the two-lane street, hardly wide enough for two cars was the park where we had played as kids. Today, a small gang of boys were playing something there. It was difficult to say what, as the “ball” looked like someone’s shirt wound up and fastened. Clearly, from their clothes, their families were not much, if any, better off than mine had been.
From around the corner, a boy, smaller but probably not much younger came around the corner. His clothes were not new, but he appeared clean and well-cared for in contrast to the others. He crossed the street. With a hopeful smile, he called. “Hey, guys, can I play?”
The game stopped and a boy who appeared to be the leader, rough and confident said. “Get out of here, mama’s boy. We wouldn’t want you to get in trouble for messing up your clothes.”
A titter circulated among the others.
Without responding, he just stood there.
A moment later, I heard the jingle of a local ice cream truck approaching.
One of the boys noticed me. There was a murmured consultation among them. It must have been clear from the way I was dressed that I didn’t live there and probably had money.
“Hey, mister!” The leader shouted as they jogged toward me. “How ‘bout an ice cream?”
I knew from experience how it felt when that truck came by and no one had any money to buy one. Reaching for my wallet, I was checked so I stopped and listened, inside. With a shake of my head, and a sad feeling, I replied. “Sorry, boys. Not today.”
He shrugged and en masse they turned and ran toward it as it approached. Digging in his pocket, he announced. “I scored this off my mom’s dresser this morning. We can all have one.”
I noticed the boy on his own had not approached me and wasn’t included in the “all.” He stood there, wistful, as the vendor served the other boys.
When the last of them had a treat in hand, they ran laughing, passed the boy and left him standing there.
Curious, I approached him. “No ice cream for you today?”
He lifted his chin defensively. “I’m not a beggar, or a thief.”
With a smile, I nodded. “I may not have money now, but I will one day, you’ll see.”
The words struck a chord. I had held the same belief when I’d been about his age. “I believe you will, young man.” I affirmed. “Where are your parents?”
“It’s just my mom and me.” He replied. “She’s cleaning down at the church today.”
“Oh? Is that her job?”
“No. She does it for free; she calls it an offering.” He was unapologetic.
I nodded and considered a moment. “You know, I grew up in this neighborhood.”
Giving me a once over, his expression was dubious. “Really?”
“Yup. I was just like you. My mom loved God. I believed, worked hard and never quit.”
“Why are you here then?”
“When I need to be reminded of how good God has been to me, I come back here.”
“Yes. I’m a pastor, and a traveling minister.”
“Hunh.” He looked at me with new eyes.
“Don’t let those boys get you down.” I encouraged. “Work hard and keep your eyes on God.”
How would you like an ice cream?” I asked.“
“Come on.” I motioned with my head and put up a hand to keep the truck from driving away. “One thing you’ll have to learn is to let people invest in you who want to help.”
After just another moment of hesitation, he nodded. “Okay.”
When he’d gotten his ice cream and thanked me, he said. “I’d better get home. My mom will be coming home soon.”
His step appeared livelier as he headed up the street, licking his cone.
With a grin, I took a seat in the park, watching as he went.There was a tree in the park just opposite the apple trees, with their hanging fruit. It wasn’t a fruit tree but had also been there when I was a boy. Just as the apple trees appeared neglected, this one had seen better times. Withered and brown, the branches had no fruit, not even a leaf. It could very well have been dead.“
Let me ask you something,” came a voice from behind me.
I turned to see who had spoken.
An elderly, African-American man stood smiling, his hair neat and graying at the temples. The closely trimmed beard and mustache were also peppered with gray. Clean and well-kept, his suit was worn but fit as if tailored and nicely maintained.
“Good afternoon,” I greeted cordially. “What is it?”
With a sweep of his arm toward the area across the street, he asked. “When you were growing up, you threw rocks at those trees to get the fruit. Am I right?”
“Yes.” I wondered how he could know that. Perhaps, I wondered, he’d seen us as boys. It hardly seemed likely that he’d recognize me from back then though.“
Why didn’t you throw rocks at that tree?” He lifted his chin to indicate the tree in the park.
“There was no fruit on it.” I replied.
“Exactly.” He said.“
“No one throw rocks at trees that have no fruit.”
I grinned, knowing exactly what he meant, but when I turned to reply, he was gone.