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Your Calling and Your Critics

This is not a post about sports.

Chad Pennington emerged as the last guy standing after injuries plagued Marshall University’s football team at the quarterback position. Player after player went down and the unheralded freshman from Tennessee debuted. I was there at an early game, watching this guy throw passes that looked like they took ten years to get to the receivers. My verdict was in: this guy stinks, and he’ll never amount to anything in the football world. That was about 15 years ago.

A few days ago, Chad Pennington retired from the NFL after an eleven year career in which he was twice named the NFL’s comeback player of the year. He still has the highest completion percentage in the history of the NFL, making him the most accurate professional quarterback of all time. And professional takes on a fuller meaning with Pennington. He is universally praised, loved, and acknowledged as an ideal pro athlete. He worked hard and overachieved his entire career. Besides his intelligence and athletic gifts, he is known for class, dignity, charity, and other virtues that make a lasting reputation.

In college, he led Marshall to unheard of victories and became one of the most, if not the most, beloved quarterback the team has ever had. And that’s saying a lot at Marshall, which has had numerous great quarterbacks. Everyone in West Virginia feels like he belongs to our state, even though he is not originally from here. He is an adopted son and we are very proud of him. I admire him greatly, and despite my cheerless prognosis, I cheered him on for his entire career. His career features many highlights, one being that he was once a runner-up to Peyton Manning for the NFL’s MVP award. Playing through countless injuries, he left a mark on professional football that was all his own.

What about my early prediction, my dismissive reaction to his debut? I was, of course, dead wrong. I’m fairly knowledgeable about football, but I suspect no one is interested in hiring me as a talent scout. For Chad Pennington, it goes beyond his talent. What I couldn’t see at the time was his intelligence, character, class, work ethic, and determination. I counted him out without all the facts.

What if what I had said mattered? What if Chad had heard my dismissal, taken it as truth, and hung up his cleats?

There are people who don’t have access to all the facts about you. They may criticize and dismiss you based on a sampling of your efforts. Maybe they’re right, of course, in their evaluation (and it may help to hear them out). But don’t let critics write you off.

I still think Chad wasn’t that impressive when I saw him early on. He didn’t have a great arm. In fact, he never had a truly great arm. But his intelligence, will, and over-all character did more than compensate for whatever lack of talent he had. I think it’s safe to say there have been thousands of players with more natural talent. But it’s the same story over and over. The physical stats–your strong arm, height, speed, agility–don’t make you the best. Having enough talent is a given, after a certain point it becomes about work ethic, character, and other factors (see Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, or Matt Conner’s review here). Mostly, it’s about who works the hardest.

The same may be true of you and me. If we are called to do something and genuinely have a gift for it, then the main thing in our way is hard work. And the critics, if we let them be.

Of course, one of the great needs for discernment in our lives is in just this area. We need to know when some one is a critic and when some one is a counselor. We need counsel, and some of that will be critical. (The best help I’ve received in my writing has been very critical.) We should ask for wisdom from God, who gives generously.

Chad Pennington had more doubters than just me, and you have plenty of people lining up to tell you that your dream is not realistic. There are likely people itching to tell you the sample of your work they see defines you as a bust. These people often operate on a baseline of condemnation. They feel condemnation surrounding them and look for opportunities to share what they know so well. This is a very tempting mindset and is pretty much mankind’s default setting. It’s a mindset that must be argued against with vigor every day.

If you are a believer, the deep reality about you isn’t one of condemnation, but of acceptance and love. That doesn’t mean you will be an NFL quarterback, or the next C.S. Lewis. But you will be you, and that’s what the world needs. More precisely, it’s very likely what your community needs. And if you don’t play well at the local level, why export that to the world? Seek ye first to love and serve your family, your church, then see about what happens elsewhere. Leave it in God’s hands and work very, very hard.

Don’t hang up your cleats and don’t worry about “proving everyone wrong.” Let God be true and every man a liar. Christian vocation is about love and service, not revenge. Don’t make the condemning critics important enough in your heart for it to continue to be about them. Make it about God’s love, your calling, and a community that needs the work of your hands.

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