I never even got her name, but she had my number. The little old lady took my hand, smiled, and gave me a painful lesson in honesty.
It had been my first go at preaching, and for a person to whom public speaking was about enticing as an anesthetic-free root canal, it was a major stretch. This was someone who used to sweat and get dizzy when I had to answer my name in roll-call at school, after all. But somehow I’d become convinced that if you were really spiritual, then you delivered sermons, so when a pastor-friend invited me to fill his pulpit for a morning, I agreed.
I prepared for weeks in advance. Read the passage repeatedly, consulted commentaries and concordances. Practiced in front of a mirror.
The came the morning I shared my polished gems from the story of the sower of the seed. No nerves. I was brilliant, a cross between Billy Graham (so wise!), Jerry Seinfeld (so funny!), and David Copperfield (so magical!). If I’d given an altar call at the end, I would have gone forward myself, weeping gratefully.
The organist played the final hymn, and I floated from the platform, going to position myself at the back of the the church to meet people as they left. I braced myself for the accolades, expecting to be mobbed by a group wanting to depose my buddy there and then, and immediately install me as the new pastor.
I’d have to demur, of course; other people needed me, too. So, I clasped my hands in front of me, ministerially, and tried to look triumphantly humble. I affected a shy smile—a modest man of destiny kind of vibe—while inwardly I was sliding across the floor on my knees with my arms raised in the “look at me” pose of goal scorers in soccer.
She was the first one up. She didn’t stop, but slowed a bit as she came by, taking my hand, and smiling. “Young man,” she told me, “thank you for trying.” Then she kept on going, as the air leaked quietly from my self-inflated opinion. Pass the glue and rubber patch.
For a long time I recalled Sister Puncture as mean-spirited at best, a crabby old thing looking to sour everyone else’s day, too. But over the years I have come to appreciate her forthrightness. I suspect she saw through my faux diffidence, through to someone secretly wishing for, fishing for compliments. And, to be fair to her, she wasn’t actually negative about me. She applauded what she could, that I had tried.
Maybe I’m more secure these days, or just less insecure, but I am finding I prefer true reservation to false unreserve. Too often what we pass off in the church as encouragement is mealy-mouthed mush.
But in her own way, in her straightforwardness, Sister Puncture did encourage me. She bruised my ego and forced me to face my need for approval. She made me recognize that my feeling good about something isn’t necessarily the best measure of success. And, though I have gone on to speak, teach, and preach on occasions, she helped me realize that maybe I should keep writing, not talking, as my main forum.