Afraid of my gifts

Feb 262013

I was talking with someone I look up to and admire deeply a while back, discussing some of my frustrations in a particular situation. As if I needed to excuse my feelings, I said “but maybe it’s just because I’m too young and idealistic.”

He challenged me quite strongly. I was told, “Don’t apologise for that. You are young, and you are idealistic, and neither of those is a bad thing.” He also told me off for being apologetic about being intelligent and well educated. These too are good things, I was told. I needed to hear this.

I’ve been exposed to people who are intelligent, know they are intelligent and feel it gives them the right to look down on other people who aren’t as intelligent. I’ve also known people for whom the prestige of the institution where they were educated, or the grade they came out with, give them that sense of superiority. I think that in trying not to be like that, I had run too far the other way.

Being good at being different

I have a degree in Theology from Oxford University. There. I’ve said it.

Statistically speaking, the chances are you do not (unless, as might be the case, the only person who reads this blog is my wife, in which case it is extremely likely). That does not make me better (or smarter) than you. I genuinely believe that. Nor does it make me worse than you. I’m learning to believe that. But what it definitely means is that we are different.

In a sermon on Spiritual Gifts on Sunday (the best teaching I have heard on the subject), there was a huge stress on just that. We are different, and we should relish that. We should celebrate that. I should not be too proud to be me, nor apologetic that I am me.

We need to learn to be different, and we need to learn to be good at that.

The sermon also touched on a problem that often exists in churches – that of some gifts being esteemed so much that there ends up being a hierarchy. Preachers are more important than servants. Prophets are more vital than administrators. Leaders are worth more than followers. And so on. Those kinds of mindsets exist, and we all know it.

But that’s not being good at being different.

My own dilemma

So far, this post could seem a little disjointed, because I’ve talked about two different things:
  1. My own tendency toward suppressing my own gifts so as not to make others feel small
  2. The problems with certain gifts being elevated

But these two things are very related, because I have a real struggle, something that I find very hard and find myself battling with often. I believe (as do many who know me well) that I have gifts of preaching, teaching and leadership.

I am convinced that to ignore those giftings would be to be disobedient to God. To say to anyone who gives a gift, ‘No thanks!’ is rude. But I worry about feeding into a culture where those who have gifts that make them more visible are considered more valuable. I fear making people think they are lesser because I lead and they do not, or because I preach and they do not. I fear making those beautiful and amazing people who are servants and givers and have tremendous faith (all gifts I admire so much) feel they are worth less than they are, worth less than me.

It isn’t that I think to preach or lead is to do all those things. Here in Chalfont I have seen modelled fantastically powerful preaching and authoritative leadership which does the exact opposite, releasing people into the worth and the gifting and the freedom for which they are intended. I know it is possible to do this well, to be different well.

I’m honestly just very scared that I won’t do it well. And that I’ll do damage.

A way forward

So, what to do? I’m not quite sure. This isn’t the part of the post where I answer my own question. I am trying to think on all these thoughts, and adopt patterns and attitudes which avoid all the potential dangers I’ve outlined.

I’m getting somewhere, I think. But I’m sure I’ll continue wrestling with this one for a while, hopefully I will remain conscious of all this. I sense that if I cease to be, that’s where the real danger might begin.

If any of you have any thoughts on this, I’d really value your thoughts? Am I being too sensitive? If you know me well, do you think I do perpetuate and encourage those wrong mindsets? Be honest! Do you have any advice or have you seen people (with whatever gifts) really usefully affirm and encourage those with different gifts?

I would really appreciate any thoughts on this, perhaps more so than on other posts.

Since first writing this post, I have reflected further (and particularly due to some feedback given) and felt it right to make a few further points.

It has been pointed out that, in the way I wrote this post, I may unintentionally be endorsing the culture that I am worried about perpetuating.

Why is it relevant that I studied in Oxford, but I don’t mention other differences we likely share? I don’t think it is, but the wrong culture which I don’t want to play into makes that into something many become proud of and many feel intimidated by. For me, it is simply something that is true.

Doesn’t the fact I am tempted to suppress gifts so that others don’t feel small mean I do think my gifts are more ‘dazzling’ somehow? I don’t think so, but sadly the culture that often exists puts such gifts on a pedestal, even if those who exercise them try to do so humbly, as I try to.

If I did come across in those ways, I am sorry. If as you read you saw hypocrisy, I apologise for that. My real problem in all this is with a culture that says so and so is more valuable because of X or Y. I don’t want that to be said of me, and I don’t want to say that of anyone. Perhaps I should have discussed this more generally, instead of talking about my own struggle within such a system. That could have been clearer.

I’m also really appreciative of all the comments and feedback I’ve been given. I’m finding it very useful as I try to grow and use the gifts God has given me, while also trying to grow into the character and likeness of Christ, who I’m certain never made people feel worthless. And he raised a guy.

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Questions, Questions, Questions

Feb 142013

My friend Matt has a blog. It’s good. His latest post is about questions. How, why and what do we question? The post is mostly questions.

As my blog exists mostly because of the whole idea of questioning and wrestling, I am very interested in the discussion going on over there, and would be interested in your comments.

Since you’re here presumably to read a post from me, and since his post is a lot shorter than mine normally are, you really have no excuse not to go over there, read it and jot down a few thoughts in the comment box. Cheeky, I know. But I’m fine with that. Go on. Do it. For me.

Go to Matt’s blog. Click here. Do it. Now. Please

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Can I submit a request, please?

Feb 132013

On Sunday, The Independent newspaper published an article by Amber Dillon entitled ‘Christianity is not the problem. The Bible is.’ (The full article can be found here) On Sunday, I also preached a sermon which – in part – was about boldly standing for truth even where it is unpopular. I struggled a lot with Amber’s article, and for reasons which I think are quite unpopular.

Does submission have a place today?

Amber’s basic argument seems to me as follows (and I really hope I’m being fair here):

  • Christianity is basically a good thing, since it stands for love, equality and support of the needy.
  • The Bible, though, is a dated book and – since even Christians recognise that not all of it is relevant in today’s society – its teachings should only be taken seriously where it promotes things which are good, like equality.
  • As such, Christians should read the Bible ‘intelligently’, not just follow it blindly.
  • And so society should stop bashing Christianity, just those teachings of the Bible which are obviously wrong.

I should point out that Amber Dillon is not a Christian. She makes this clear, and as such I cannot reasonably expect her to treat the Bible with any more respect than she would another historical book. I may consider it to be God’s word and authoritative, but to expect her to would be unfair.

However, I also think it is unfair for her to expect me not to. Which is what she is asking me to do. She would have Christians listen to the Bible only where they think it is right, which is really another way of saying we should ignore it unless it agrees with us. As soon as we treat the Bible like that, we are no longer allowing it authority. We are asking the Bible to submit to our enlightened thinking, rather than submitting to it.

I’m not surprised. Submission in our society today is a very unpopular concept. Anything that challenges the idea that I can have complete freedom over my whole life, to decide what is true for me, to set my own moral compass, to live my life my way, is anathema.

This is one part of our prevailing society, though, which as a Christian I do not think I can adopt. To be a follower of Jesus requires a surrender of my life to Him. It is no longer my own to do with as I please. It is His to do with as He pleases. We must submit to Christ.

What does Submission look like?

The real question is, what is submission like? And to what (or who) do we submit? This is a massive question, and I do not hope to answer it in full. But I do have a couple of thoughts.

First, submission does not mean turning our brains off and following blindly. Amber Dillon rightly points out that Christians do not follow the biblical instruction about not wearing clothes made of two different threads. She assumes this is because Christians now rightly realise this command is pointless and ignore that text. On the contrary, I do not ignore this text – I interpret it. I recognise that this command was located in particular context and for a particular reason. Since I do not live in that context, and that reason does not apply to my context, I do not follow the command, but I do still learn from that text something about the character of God which can be applied in my context. This is where wrestling (and ‘Limping’) is important.

Amber suggests picking and choosing because we already do it. I do see Christians (real Jesus followers with a heart for His mission and His gospel) picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to believe in. But I do not think they are right to do so. I try very hard not to pick and choose, because I try to take submission to the authority of Scripture seriously. But I also suggest an intelligent reading of the Bible, one that tries to read it in its context and in a way that does justice to what it was meant to be.

Second, submission must be accompanied by humility. We cannot submit ourselves to the authority of Jesus (primarily, or scripture secondarily) and then be obnoxious, rude or unloving about the choices or beliefs we hold accordingly.

Amber was saddened by the ways Christians who believe the Bible to be true have engaged in debates about women bishops and gay marriage. So was I, at points because I did not agree with what they were saying, but far more often because of the way they were saying it. If we submit to God’s authority, we must also submit to the way He wields His authority. (For more thoughts in this line, head to my previous blog post on ‘Power and Authority’)

Can we have Freedom of Religion, please?

These thoughts haven’t been particularly well formed, but I think it boils down to this:
  • I won’t try and force you to submit to anything, no matter how sure I am it is right and true and worth submitting to.
  • You need to let me submit to that which I choose to submit, and to let me submit to it fully, not just where you think it’s right.
We could at least try it for a bit?

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Weeping the Truth in Love

Feb 072013

When I was at university, I was in college alongside many people training to be church leaders. Part of their training was a week dedicated to the theme of ‘Death and Dying’, which aimed to equip them for that inevitable part of their ministry: people dying. As part of it, they were taken to a morgue and spent ten minutes on their own in a room with a dead body. The theory was, it was something they would almost certainly have to do at some point, and it would be useful for them to have some idea of the mix of feelings and thoughts that would come up at that point.

I remember one student say this: “I don’t know why they’re trying to get us to feel all emotional about the death of someone we didn’t know. We don’t need to. Our job when someone dies isn’t to cry about it, but to make the arrangements, speak the truth and be strong for those who should be crying.”

Jesus Wept

I can’t imagine Jesus saying that sort of thing. I feel as though the incarnation models for us something really rather different from that. Jesus was faced with a world in turmoil – broken, misguided, lost. He did not make arrangements for us, speak the truth and stay strong. He did arrange for things to become different, and He did speak (and live) truth in the most powerful possible way. But that was not by staying strong for the rest of us who needed Him.

He became weak like the rest of us who needed Him.

In seeking to serve people, we need to love them. In loving them, we must care about them. In caring about them, we must feel for them. So when they are happy, we should want to smile. When they are sad, we should want to cry (or express sadness in whatever way we express sadness).

I feel as though any kind of ministry to people which maintains an emotional barrier between us and them is unworthy of Jesus. He does not model a work/life balance which means switching off the pain of the day when you get back home. He does not model ‘staying strong’ for the sake of others. Jesus wept.

I wept

What has sparked these thoughts? Yesterday, I went on my first pastoral outing with one of the pastors from our church. It was to a residential care home for the elderly. When we got there, we were told one of the residents, Mabel, had died that morning just a few hours before. We were asked if we could go up to see and ‘say a little prayer for’ her husband, Albert. They shared a room at the home.

We went up to their room and entered. I didn’t expect Mabel’s body still to be there, but it was. Their daughter was there too, who reassured us that Mabel had been a Christian. I followed my pastor’s lead, and we knelt down in front of Albert whose blindness meant he couldn’t really see us unless we came close, took a hand each, and offered our condolences. Albert expressed thanks to us, certainty that his wife was at peace now, with no more pain, and deep gratitude to his daughter who was now looking after him so well (despite just losing her mother). All of this through tears.

We prayed with and for him. Never have I been more aware, I think, of the deep power and hope of the resurrection.

And I wept.

Not in a chest-beating, ashcloth-tearing, ash-rubbing sort of way, but there were tears in my eyes. I had never met Albert, Mabel or their daughter before yesterday, but I shed tears for all of them as I sat with them and afterwards. And I think I was right to.

Weeping the Truth in Love

Paul famously wrote in his letter to the Romans:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Romans 12:15)

I don’t know how my colleague at university would explain that verse. I wonder if he would speak of the difference between genuine and contrived emotion. We shouldn’t just make ourselves cry to show solidarity with others. And I don’t disagree. But I don’t think that’s what Paul is asking of us. Nor do I think it is why Jesus (or I) cried.

What Paul is calling us to and what Christ modelled for us is this: genuinely feeling the pain and sorrow that others feel. Not acting out their feelings, but really sharing them. If as Christians we do not feel the sadness of those we know, I think we need to ask ourselves why. If as Christian leaders we do not feel joy at the triumphs and sadness at the trials of those we seek to minister to and serve, I think we need to seriously question if we are in the right job.

Because death is sad. It’s not how things should be. It tears families apart. It casts people into loneliness. it cuts short what is beautiful and good. We cannot just know this – we need to feel it. For ourselves and for others.

Our commitment to the truth does not exist just in our brains. If something is unjust, we must feel anger about it. If something is life-giving, we must feel joy. If something is awful, we must feel sad. And in all these, we must let those feelings show. The loving thing, and the right thing, is to feel the truth.

We do not just speak the truth in love. We laugh the truth in love. We scream the truth in love. We sing the truth in love. We tremble and shake the truth in love. We dance the truth in love.

And yes, we weep the truth in love.

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Power and Authority

Feb 042013

Mel and I were having a conversation with a friend recently, and the word ‘power’ came up quite a bit. I love this friend dearly, and I do not question his heart or his motives at all – but his openness to pursuing greater ‘power’ made me slightly uneasy.

As we talked, we discovered that he was using the word in a different way than I heard it, and the thoughts of this blog in part come out of that conversation. I think it has a lot to do with the difference between authority and power.

As Christians I believe we have one, and often strive too much for the other.


We talk of authority quite a bit in Christian circles. We speak of the authority of scripture, believing the truth of 2 Timothy 3:16, that “all scripture is God-breathed, and is useful” in a whole variety of ways in shaping Christians. We speak of the authority given to those who teach, with Titus (for example) being instructed to ‘encourage and rebuke with all authority’ (Titus 2:15). We speak even of the authority of the governing bodies around us, taking note of Paul’s instruction to the Romans: ‘Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established’ (Romans 13:1).

We dare to claim authority also for ourselves. We recognise that Jesus gave authority to His disciples and that, as we stand in the long line of those whose job it is to represent Jesus to the world, we too have that authority.

But there is something we must always remember. All true authority is God’s authority.

The world is His, and nothing stands outside His authority. About this I think we can be clear. This means that any authority found anywhere else (in a government, a book or a person) is only ever a delegated authority. It comes from a source, and that source is Jesus who can boldly and truthfully say:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18)

Jesus is God’s authority. It is in fact because of that authority that is given to Him that we are given the mandate to make disciples of all nations. Our mission stems from His authority. Our authority stems from His authority.

Wielding authority

Now if all authority we have comes from God, we must ask what are and are not appropriate ways of wielding that authority. I was told recently, and I think this is true, that as soon as we start to wield the authority of God (whether that be through scripture or elsewhere) in a way that is contrary to God’s own use of His authority, we are stepping outside the authority of God.

It’s like if I buy a new phone. It has come from a manufacturer (probably Apple) and they have said how it is and is not to be used. For example, they say it is not for use underwater. As soon as I go swimming with it, I am no longer using it in a way it was designed to be used, and Apple are well within their logical and legal rights to say “We claim no responsibility for that. He did not have our approval to do that.”

We Christians need to be careful, I think, not to claim God’s authority for ways of working that are thoroughly different from His own.

I am firmly committed to the fact that the fullest revelation of God is in the life and person of Jesus, to whom all authority was given. So in working out how to wield authority, I think we must look to Him.

Authority, not power

In His incarnation, Jesus showed that having authority does not mean rising above those whose lives you seek to affect. It means entering into their world, living among them, beneath them. It means weakness. It means being with the outcasts, rather than casting out. It means rebuking false religiosity, not religiously rebuking falsehood. Jesus strongest ethical teaching is reserved for those who followed Him already (Matthew 5:1-2), rather than being aimed at the crowds. Jesus strongest challenges are for those who claim allegiance to God and use that ‘authority’ to oppress others and continue in hypocrisy.

In His crucifixion, Jesus showed that having authority does not mean fighting against our enemies, against God’s enemies, until they have been beaten into submission. It means submitting to them even when it means being beaten and killed.

In His resurrection, Jesus showed that having authority which comes from God means a far deeper and more powerful power than that which people wield. The power to give life, not to take it. He had no need of the sort of power for which politicians campaign and kings fight. Why would He?

Jesus repeatedly and systematically shunned all human concepts of power. He could have claimed them in the blink of an eye. But He did not. That is not how God exercises His authority.

Nor should it be how we exercise authority.

Authoritatively weak

Yet so often I think that is exactly how we Christians try to wield God’s authority and the authority He has given to us.

The Bible is the word of God – it is authoritative – so we must keep yelling it’s truths at everyone until they submit to our ways of thinking.

The Church is the community of the Spirit – who surely has authority – so we must be respected and listened to and have our voices heard because we deserve it more than others do.

But that is not worthy of the Bible which informs us. It is not worthy of the Spirit who empowers us. It is not worthy of the Son of God who gave life to us. It is not how any of them function. We must find another way. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (who loved their status and worldly power and influence, and were accordingly ashamed of the odd thing or two about Christ), said this:

‘Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.’ (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

We are called to embrace what looks silly, because it is God’s wisdom. We are called to embrace what feels weak, because it is God’s strength.

This raises all sorts of questions. How are Christians to engage in public debate as a prophetic voice in the world without succumbing to worldly ideas of power? What does it mean in practice to decide to wear authority with weakness and humility, not strength and pride? What of the so-called ‘Christian celebrity’? What of the church functioning as a powerful institution or becoming an empire, not a community that exists for mission? How do we understand the role of the church in relation to the state? How can preaching reject human conceptions of power and yet still be powerful? And many more.

I don’t have all those answers (that’s sort of the point of the blog), but as followers of Jesus we must start with His example, not the world’s ideas about power and authority.

God’s authority and worldly power are poles apart, and our lives should keep them that way.

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