Dubious Honor

By

Disclaimer: You may read this and want to defend Andrew Peterson.  I assure you, that won’t be necessary.  I read On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness with my son and we loved it.  Also, I’ve spent time conveying to Andrew in rather specific detail why we loved it and what it did in our imaginations. He knows my deep affection for the book.  He also knows what I’m about to say is not a criticism.  It is, however, funny.  If you want to read up on Andrew’s book and make comments about it, may I direct you to Jonathan Roger’s insightful review.  If you want to discuss the strange phenomenon of dubious honors, this is your place.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness recently won an award.  I saw it on Andrew’s website.  “Darn right,” I thought.  “Let the accolades begin,” said I.  “Let the movie rights get bought up as the folks at Newberry, Medallion and Pulitzer stand and take notice.”

Whenever any of the square pegs are recognized for the excellence they create, it feels like a win for my team.  So I clicked on the link to get the details of “our” book’s recent award.  If you feel me here, if you know exactly what I mean by “it feels like a win for my team,” let me tell you what “we” won.

“Best cover.”

Yep.  Best cover.

Oh man!  Visions of Andrew sitting tucked away in some corner of some coffee shop, pouring over the manuscript– every word, every comma, every exclamation point!  I imagined him getting his two-inch thick editor’s mark-up back from the publisher, as if they took his string of thoughts and tied a thousand little knots in them for him to go back to that same coffee shop untie untie.  I even imagine his wife sitting at the dinner table whistfully poking at her cooling meal with the last prong on her otherwise clean fork, keeping one eye on the clock whose second hand is tick, tick, ticking away the daylight as her husband is peck, peck, pecking away at his laptop, unaware of the hour.

But guess what?

Best cover!  This warrants a hearty, “Well done, Andrew!  May your cup of satisfaction runneth over!”

Having congratulated Andrew on his winning book cover, he replied, “A dubious honor, to be sure.”

It got me thinking about my years in seminary.  You’ve got a couple hundred first year students eagerly showing up for “Preparation and Delivery of Sermons.”  We were, after all, preachers in waiting.  The class assumed we knew next to nothing about public speaking, exposition of Scripture or time management. (My professor’s wise adage for sermon length was “Every sermon should feel like twenty minutes.” Nice. But I digress.)

There were four preaching classes students took over the course of the MDiv program.  We’d write and deliver two sermons per semester to a class of peers who would also do the same for us.  When we weren’t preaching, we were evaluating each other.  We had these little forms we filled out where we had to make positive comments and offer “constructive” feedback.

Every so often a visiting professor, scholar or lecturer would be on campus, and they’d be invited to sit in on these preaching classes we referred to as “batting practice.”  Imagine discovering that John Piper, Sinclair Ferguson or Tim Keller was going to sit in on your preaching class the day you were slated to preach.  There was, of course, nothing for it.  So looking like a High School varsity basketball team assistant in your khaki slacks and navy blue sport coat, you’d give it all you had, which usually wasn’t much.

Well, a friend of mine was scheduled to preach on one such day.  A very famous scholar/teacher was at the back of the room listening in as this poor guy preached maybe his fourth sermon ever.  When he was through, the class began to offer their feedback.

Our professor asked the esteemed visitor in the back of the room if he would like to chime in.  The icon whose books we all had on our shelves offered this helpful little gem:

“I really liked your scripture text.”

Ouch!

I had a whole bit about how this topic would be good preparation for our celebration of Christmas—God giving a good gift in response to our obvious deficiencies and needs, saving us according to a plan that was all His since we had nothing.  That’s the pastor in me.  But let me go at it another way.  I’m grateful today that there is no contradiction between a lifetime of dubious honors and the hope of hearing at the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  God assures His people that His strength is made perfect in our weakness.

Still, there are times in life when it sure seems the Lord is exceedingly committed to perfecting His strength in us publicly.  Just ask my crest-fallen peer who slunk back into his chair with the words “nice text” rattling around in his all-of-the-sudden-vocation-questioning mind, imagining his retirement party or his wake (whichever came first), where one after another would come forward to say things like “If nothing else, the man sure could pick a text.”

Have you ever been the recipient of a dubious honor?  Have you ever received obvious sympathy applause?  Do you have a trophy case of “Best Effort” ribbons?  Regale us.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003).

Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


30 Comments

  1. Loren Eaton

    May your cup of satisfaction runneth over!

    Gold.

    All of us who have ever received a left-handed compliment after toiling for hours over a manuscript know exactly what you mean.

  2. Wickle

    Having just finished my third reading of “On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness,” I can think of much-higher praise for it than merely “Best cover.” (I still had tears rolling on my cheeks as I read Peet deliver the powerful words, “You are.”)

    Anyway … backhanded compliments that I’ve received? I was especially fond of a short story that I wrote, yet my 11th grade English teacher merely remarked, “An interesting concept.” Read: The writing was bad, the follow-through was terrible, but before you wrote anything, you had a good idea. Maybe you should start over from there.

    In regards to my singing, I was once told, “Well, unlike a lot of singers, you don’t get quieter when you realize that someone is trying to evaluate you.” Read: He wished that I would.

  3. Mary Eady

    Oh my goodness…I can’t stop laughing at the “text” comment. That poor student! I work in a house full of seminarians studying for finals right now and may I just say on their behalf in feeling for your friend…”Double OUCH!”

    I thought On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness was an absolute romp and can’t wait for the next in the series! That being told…allow me to add to the shame-fest:

    Last year my niece, who was 5 at the time, asked me to draw a picture for her. I drew her a house with a tree and flowers in the yard and some clouds and a sun up above in the sky. She pondered it for awhile and then patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, Aunt Mary. If you practice really hard, someday you will get better!”

    I relish that my two year old still thinks that my lopsided circles are impressive…

  4. S.D. Smith

    “So looking like a High School varsity basketball team assistant in your khaki slacks and navy blue sport coat, you’d give it all you had, which usually wasn’t much.”

    This sentence caused an involuntary guffaw of not a few decibels.

    You are right, Russ. This book was fantastic -worthy of, like a hard-working ox, double-honor. I too am waiting for Walden Media, or somebody, to buy the rights and start shooting the film. But the book is just fine as it is -a delight.

    As for dubious honors, I think after a concert once I was told that I “seemed sincere” by an acquaintance. I was also told once, after a basketball game in college, “Nice job hitting those threes, but you’d look a lot better if your arms were bigger. They are really skinny.” I don’t know if that counts, but it’s the best I can come up with on short notice.

  5. Jud

    One of my favorite experiences from my days as a GTA was reading through my students’ evaluations at the end of the year. I’ll never forget one girl’s attempt at praise: “Jud taught to the best of his ability.”

    Uh, thanks, I think.

  6. Mark Geil

    On several occasions I’ve been the recipient of an “honor” that always left me less-than-overjoyed:

    “Most Improved”

    I was always the kid with little natural athletic ability but plenty of motivation who always did what the coach said and always tried hard, so I would receive the end-of-season award that said,

    “You have little natural athletic ability and you’re really not very good, but you do try hard.”

    So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.

  7. Aaron Roughton

    Ahh Most Improved. I’m still laughing at that one.

    On my first trip to Nashville, my friend took me around to meet all of her contacts. I sang a couple of songs I’d written for one of them. His exact response was:

    “I don’t like your songs. But have you ever considered being in a Christian boy band?”

  8. Chad

    My freshman year of high school, I worked in the concession stand during lunch break. It kept my often task-oriented nature thriving and also kept me away from the horrifying things that were being served up on plates in the cafeteria. At the close of the school year I received a notice that I should attend the year-end awards ceremony for students because I had been selected to receive an award. My grades were decent, but not excellent. I played varsity tennis and soccer, but was not a stand out. I loved art class, but had not won any awards in the contests that year. I really had no idea why I was asked to attend the awards ceremony, but figured that the only way to find out was to show up and see what this was all about.

    Well, after sitting through an entire awards ceremony where kids were honored for things such as maintaining a 4.0 GPA for their entire school career (grades K-12), never missing a single day of class (grades K-12), setting all time athletic records for the school and state, winning scholarships for notable colleges, etc., etc. the faculty member who headed up the concession stand stepped up to the platform. The microphone buzzed with feedback for a few seconds as if to say this was a hiccup in the ceremony or an add-on-award moment that would prolong your after dinner plans. She timidly announced my name to come up to the stage and receive an award for . . . “excellence in concessioneering”! I shuddered in disbelief and the room was suddenly cold without any noise except for a few muffled chuckles as I walked toward the stage to receive an award that even the name had been fabricated in a way that screamed “not really impressive”. My attire of khaki pants and a white oxford shirt with a flowered neck tie suddenly made me feel like a McDonald’s employee getting his name put on the employee of month plaque – not really a life time achievement award, but thanks.

  9. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    You folks are killing me. This is hilarious. So many of these moments are the kind where there should be a cricket chirping alone in the corner someplace when the honor is bestowed and everyone is silently doing the math in their heads trying to figure out why they feel so uncomfortable all of the sudden.

    Chad, you’re winning so far. “Excellence in Concessioneering.” Really?

    Sam, “you seemed sincere” is a total conversation ender, isn’t it.

    Wickle, your summary of what “An interesting concept” really meant was the best part. All of these have really funny implied “In other word”s beneath the surface. Your’s was spot on.

    Mary, children say it plain, don’t they. What’s funny about receving “encouragement” like this from kids is that you know they haven’t finely tuned the art of sarcasm, so they’re being as sincere as they know can be.

    Mark, Most improved=”atta boy, Tiger.”

    Aaron, how did you not just hang it up at the suggestion of being a better fit in a boy band– a Christian one at that? My favorite part was the set-up to the suggestion when he told you, “I don’t like your songs, but…” as if what followed would be some consolation.

  10. Anthony Vartuli

    I’m a pastor and your words brought me back to the days when I would sit in homiletics class…painful. I’ve been in pastoral work for over 20 years now and it seems the more I move along (much of the time staggering along) the less I feel like I need to impress anyone with my teaching/preaching. This has been wonderfully freeing. I am thankful for seminary but not so much for what I was taught in the books…but for what God accomplished (through a few others) in my life. I think more about the ministry of presence when I am with my people. I want my words to come from a place that has deeply connected with my soul. The words need to get into me first before they have any power to get into anyone else. I have not read “On the edge of the dark sea…”. Now, I will look forward to it…

  11. Aaron Roughton

    Well Russ, I won’t pretend it wasn’t difficult. But I turned my disappointment toward songwriting. I will post the song that I wrote as a result of my first Nashville experience on my MySpace page.

    It’s a mock Christian band song called “All I Want To Do Is Go To Church With You.” It’s by my mock Christian boy band, The BeattiDudez. They have other pretend hits (yet to be recorded) like “Then I Saw Her Face…Amazing Grace” and the breakup ballad “I Just Can’t Get You Out of the Narthex Of My Heart (Even Though You May Have Left The Sanctuary).” They work out all their pretend choreography on felt board. It’s pretend serious, dawg. Peace out.

  12. becky

    Hey, I design book covers for a living, so I don’t consider this honor dubious at all. The reality is that most people do judge a book by its cover, so the better the cover the more people will read the book, love it, buy more books, etc., etc. I understand the lack of overwhelming enthusiasm, but this is a GOOD thing.

  13. Stacy Grubb

    I’ve thought of a few backhanded compliments/dubious awards I’ve received, but can’t quite come up with the zinger that I know is in there somewhere. But it was a humorous stroll down memmory lane remembering the ones I could. For instance, one day I was feeling adventerous and decided to change things up a bit and part my hair to the right instead of the left. I was proud of it. It was a good hair day. I was lookin’ good, Baby. My dad agreed, though he did it in a way that kinda took the wind out of my sails. He came bebopping along and looked at me and said, “Wow, that’s the best I’ve seen your hair look in months.”

    Wha….

    And similar to Chad’s “Excellence In Concessioneering,” I remember sitting through an awards ceremony watching kids take home “Studen of the Year,” “Hightest GPA,” “Honor Roll,” blah blah blah. I was feeling so lousy until, unexpectedly, I heard my name. I’d already tuned out the ceremony long ago, so I didn’t even know what I was accepting as I walked up to get my plastic trophy. I got back to my seat and felt like Ralphie after using his highly anticipated Secret Decoder Ring to get his message from Little Orphan Annie to Drink More Ovaltine when I saw the plaque was for Best Penmanship. From there, I progressed downhill. My only other award in elementary school was for Best Solo Jump Roper. Yes, I truly won an award for that.

    And I’ve gotten a few comments on my current You Tube videos along the lines of, “Quit trying to play the guitar and just sing.” Subtle hint received.

    Stacy

  14. Stacy Grubb

    Uuuh, deciding to proofread *after* hitting submit has made it suddenly clear why I wasn’t taking home any of those Studen of the Year and Hightest GPA awards.

  15. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    You know, it occurs to me that I have not actually mentioned a dubious honor of my own. Before I was dating my wife, I went on a psuedo-date (read: I had no idea it was a date, but instead thought it was just a couple of classmates catching a movie between class and dinner at the dining commons) with a girl who, about forty five minutes in, asked me where I thought “I was going with all this” and wanted to know “what my intentions” were. I cannot recall ever saying anything even remotely romantic. I certainly didn’t try to hold her hand or anything like that. So to this day I wonder what kind of vibe I was putting out there to make her want to put the brakes on so suddenly and within an hour fire a shot across my bow to let me know there would be no second pseudo-date. I guess the distinction here is that I was (and maybe still am) gifted at sending the wrong signal, hot stuff.

    And then there’s the small matter of my High School senior picture, which words fail. Maybe someday it’ll appear on this site in all its glory.

  16. Aaron Roughton

    By the way, I heard a guy tell a story one time about how he AVOIDED dubious compliments. He simply preempted them with dubious self congratulation. He was an actor, and after every audition, no matter how he performed, he would give a very subtle fist pump and say “yesss!” under his breath to himself, as if he nailed it. He said he got far more callbacks than his friends, and even got some praise for really crappy auditions. I wonder if that would have instilled enough self doubt in the “I liked your text” critic to get a better compliment?

  17. lisa

    My first year of teaching was a third grade class and I had worked really hard with a couple of the students who were struggling. At the end of the year, one of my students gave me a handwritten note on the last day. It said, “mes ramsey. mes ramsey you. learnd me everthing. you now.”

  18. Greg Sykes

    I’d love to qualify this back-handed compliment by giving you the full story (which would simply be self-justification) but I once had a lovely old lady in our congregation tell me after a sermon: “Good sermon. I just wish you would practice what you preach.”

    And you guys think the academic crowd is tough!

  19. Mary Eady

    i really honestly have not laughed so hard in a long time. thank you all for shared. you’re all awesome.

    lisa — i told several of my teacher friends about yours to much empathetic mirth. hysterical.

    also, when do tickets for the BeatiDudez go on sale because i am THERE! felt board rehearsal? double-thumbs-up awesome, for sure.

    stacy — re: your hair. i once complimented a friend’s wife at a wedding on this amazing reverse roll up-do she’d done to her hair. she told me in a completely oblivious way, “oh thank you so much. i spend way too much time on my looks. i wish i were like you. you’ll go out just looking like anything.” i couldn’t even get my feelings hurt because she really meant it as a compliment. instead i started laughing so hard i choked on cheese. ah… glamor. it comes so naturally to me…

    and pastors…I have to hand it to you. you guys take some of the worst compli-whacks of all.

  20. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    I have a friend who told me once, “Whenever I have something to say that is perhaps constructive criticism, I try to say three things that are positive first. So, number one…”

  21. Stacy Grubb

    lisa – That was glorious! Truly.

    Mary – I can sincerely relate. I get a LOT of backhanded compliments about my appearance. “Man, your eyes are a freaky color. No, I mean that’s cool. They’re just freaky.” “Are you expecting? I just wonder because you’ve got a glow about you.” “No, I know Stacy was never bone skinny, I mean she was compared to how she looks now.” (That was part of a conversation my mom and sister were having about me as I sat right there.) “Wow, Blossom is like the weirdest looking girl on TV. Hey, you look just like her.” “Hey, I started to buy that same dress, but I thought it was so ugly on.” “That’s the downside of being thin and fit. I have no curves. Look at you; You’re so voluptuous.” So yeah…you get the point.

    Stacy

  22. whipple

    Hmm. Dubious honors…?

    I seem to remember playing at a singer/songwriter competition that the illustrious author of …Dark Sea of Darkness himself judged. I’ve played guitar since eighth grade, and studied it in college. Piano, on the other hand, was what I took up on a whim in my free time because they had them sitting around the music building at my college.

    As I recall, Andy said to me, “Your piano playing is a lot better than your guitar playing.”

    *Note: Singer/songwriter competitions, where a bunch of us get together and try to, in the words of Rich Mullins, “market something that’s very human,” probably aren’t a fantastic idea to begin with. Still, I participate on occasion.

    **Another note: Yep, Andy, you’re probably right. And thanks for constructive criticism.

  23. Ann

    Oh my…these are cracking me up!!!

    Mine? I was just out of college, pretty athletic, trim, not overly endowed, if you get my drift. My boyfriend and I were on an elevator when an older woman got, took a look at me, looked at my chest, and asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?”

  24. Dusty

    One of my favorite “honors” was by a fellow music lover who told me after hearing me play and sing “Bad Moon Rising” by CCR that I sound sort of like a raspier Bob Dylan. Though I love Bob and think he is quite possibly the greatest folk artist of the 20th century, and definitely one of the most influential artists ever, I realize that having my voice compared to his only raspier isn’t exactly a compliment.

  25. Kory Wilcox

    This thread is hysterical. What a legacy some of you have left behind!!

    As I was reading through, “most improved” brought to mind a dubious honor I received as a kid. In fact, it wasn’t until some years later I realized how dubious it actually was.

    I was a junior bowler; bowling is my sport. I still maintain an average in the 180 range, although it was at times even higher in my youth. Over the course of my childhood, I did receive numerous “most improved bowler” awards, and those didn’t bother me too much.

    However, a few years ago as I was ridding myself of my plastic, bowling-trophy relics, and I came across some “high game handicap” and “high series handicap” awards. Bleh.

    For those of you who don’t know bowling, let me explain. In a league setting, your handicap is an automatic addition made to your score to make up for how bad you are compared to everyone else you are bowling against.

    Being the proud bowler I am now, I was quite dismayed by these awards. Not just by the awards, either, but by the number of trophies I had to show for it. There had to have been at least 5 or 6 of those things. I think one was even from a tournament!

    Obviously, as a child, I was just excited to get big trophies. But the reality is that these were awards for being consistently bad enough to have a high handicap, and then bowling a lucky game or series of games that propelled your score into award-winning territory. Dubious, to say the least.

    Thus, I made sure the trophies were thoroughly dismantled before throwing them away. I believe I destroyed the name placards using equally dubious methods. –kory

  26. Peter B

    Seriously, Aaron, maybe you should take that concept into production. It could be like the Christian Spinal Tap (or something slightly less hokey-sounding that “The Christian ____________”).

    For what it’s worth, I never saw “Most Improved” as backhanded; you come in with low skill, you practice, you get better. That always seemed like a good indication of progress to me.

    The one that felt slightly less complimentary — public speaking club comes to mind — was “you have great potential”.

  27. Aaron Roughton

    Thanks guys…I think…

    Wait a second, are you just trying to help me come up with another dubious honor post?

    I’ll let you know when I find 4 other suckers to complete the BeattiDudez roster and hit the road.

  28. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    I’ve really enjoyed this thread.

    These conversations made me think of my Grandpa Curren. As long as I can remember, my Grandpa used to ask, “How much do you weigh now, Curt”? When a guy is growing up, that can be a source of pride. “135 now Grandpa.” “WOW, Grandpa would say.” “Really!?” And it was with such a tone of voice that I felt like I’d really accomplished something. And when you are built like a bean pole—135 pounds at age 11 or 12—that’s believable.

    But the thing is, Grandpa continued to ask that question into my 20s and 30s. Somewhere in the mid 30 range, developing a bit of a belly, I didn’t really want to talk about my weight anymore, especially in front of family. Still, Grandpa ask. But in those later years, his response—though I know he was still proud of me—became less enthusiastic, more like, “Oh?,” in a tone of voice that seemed half sympathetic and half incredulous.

    I sure miss him.

  29. Travis Stewart

    I don’t recall any such honors myself (though I’m sure I’ve earned them) however I took one semester of preaching at said seminary and remember thinking that my sermon would produce a roomful of “Ah Hah” moments and changed lives. Instead I received a few “nice jobs” and “your introduction could have been shorter.” My problem seems to be that I tend to award great honors to myself before I have ever done any work worthy of recognition.

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