Have you ever been given a sincere compliment that ended up harming you more like an insult? It is a weird situation.
I was incredibly honored and excited to be recognized by a local weekly magazine for being one of what they call the "Top 40 under 40." This is a yearly listing they do. It is an honor for the lifelong Richmonder like myself and exciting to be affirmed publicly in a profession that is not generally recognized in this way.
The other 39 recipients of the distinction are a wide variety of advocates, public servants, business people, and interesting Richmonders. Reading through their accomplishments put me in awe. It is humbling to be in company like that.
The description that went beside the world's most flattering photograph of me, though, is unintentionally misleading. I recognize that I am a bit of a character. I boogie to the beat of my own drummer while most people are marching to theirs. I don't make conventional choices in very public ways. I can also be disarmingly blunt and honest. I think it was a combination of these personal characteristics exhibited in the interview that led to a profile that has become accidentally controversial.
The problem is that even though I am all of those things, most of my life is spent in small conversations with individuals and small groups as we try to make sense out of life's curve balls. That is how I am known by the people I serve. It's not print-worthy, however, and my unconventional side, though less frequently exhibited, evidently merits some ink.
I thought I knew how I felt about the profile: disappointed, hurt, confused. I felt like small aspects of my personality were caricatured and used to overshadow the hard, unceasing work of ministry. I wondered if they didn't know how to talk about my main ministerial interest -death and dying - so they went off on a tangent. But then I met with the editor and reporter today, and now I am really lost.
In their world, this was a compliment. In their world, my tendency to say exactly what I am thinking is a great thing. In their world, my willingness to reach out in unexpected ways is a gift. In their world, they portrayed me as straight talking, empathetic and approachable and are now bewildered that this has caused anything but celebration. Honestly, they said more kind things to me this afternoon than I am accustomed to hearing. If I had a fan club, the reporter would be secretary.
So now what? I am used to living with the thousand gradations of gray, but this is a little murky even for me. My family is upset. My friends are feeling the need to defend me. My congregation is wondering what planet the profile came from. (The planet is Richmond. Don't forget that we have our own galaxy.) Meanwhile the magazine people have been nothing but kind and apologetic, albeit perplexed.
If a ministry in death and dying teaches one anything, it is to get over anything that is not terminal. Since I can't even figure out if I'm wounded, I'm moving along. I won an award, there's one awesome photo of me, and my fan club has a secretary. Yay.