I got my first piece of hate mail last week.
From what I've heard from other pastors, this is actually pretty astonishing. Not that I got a piece of hate mail, but that it took 2+ years into my tenure at this church to get one. I get occasional grumpy comments on this blog (for which God invented a magical "delete" button!), but I'd never gotten a nasty snail mail letter sent to the church before.
It wasn't from someone in my congregation.
It wasn't from someone in our community.
It was accusatory and nasty and full of venom.
Pastors are easy figures to attack. We are public figures. We are supposed to be "nice" at almost any cost. We are often easier targets than family members, neighbors, or friends.
A lot of stuff lands on us.
I have a wonderful pastoral mentor who I go on walks with from time to time. When we last went for a stroll, I mentioned the letter to him.
"Did you still have it?" he asked.
"Yes," I said, awaiting his rush of sympathy and compassion. Together we stepped around a newly formed muddy puddle, fresh from the day's melting snow.
"Did they make any good points?" he asked.
I was astonished that this was his first question. He wasn't going to pat my shoulder and commiserate with me? He wasn't going to say, "There, there, I'm sure that awful person is a terrible sinner who doesn't know Jesus, punches bunny rabbits, and has really bad breath. Let's go out and get you a nice latté so that you feel better"?
My face must have betrayed my astonishment, because he said, gently, "Sometimes even the most biting people make good points."
This was such a novel idea I had to mull it over for awhile. Listen? To someone I had never met? Someone who was so blisteringly unkind that their letter almost burnt my fingertips?
"They meant it to hurt you, but there might be something you can learn from it," he said, before concluding, "Then shred the thing. People can be really, really mean."
So I did. I read the letter again, to see if there was anything I could learn. And there was. Not because I had failed in some huge way (after all, this person didn't know me from Adam) but because sometimes lessons are hidden in surprising places. I was reminded of Joseph's words to his brothers when they reunite after a long separation.
"You intended it to harm me, but God intended it all for good" (Genesis 50:20).
I took the lesson into my heart, to strengthen my ministry. It felt good.
Then I shredded the letter. That part felt good, too.