Gifts and Talents and the Road to Hell

your-unique-gifts-and-talents_tAt some point in my past, there was a survey used in parishes that was all the rage. It was a “gifts and talents” survey, designed to make everyone in the parish find their true ministry and to work together in fulfillment of St. Paul’s description of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians. The key in these surveys was to determine precisely what gifts and talents someone had, match them with the right ministry, and fit them all together. The end product would be more effective ministry for the parish and happier parishioners. What priest wouldn’t want such a thing?

Of course the draw-back to this scheme was the imponderables. People are not just gifts and talents – they come with issues – with encumbered lives and broken gifts. The gifted singer can also be deeply dishonest or frightened (or what have you). The same is true for the whole parish – including the priest.

Another problem can be found in the notion of an effective parish. What does this mean? In Evangelical and mainline Protestant circles, where the surveys originated and flourished, the effective parish was often measured in numbers – parish growth and greater stewardship. A happy parish, a growing parish was a prosperous parish, and a prosperous parish was a successful parish. But these are just cultural notions – standards that would apply just as well to a business. They are not appropriate ways of looking at the Body of Christ.

The successful parish is an American invention. Originally, parishes were neighborhood and village Churches, existing to serve the population of a particular area. There was just the Church – not the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Baptist Church, just the Church. Of course, that Church was originally the Orthodox Church (or the Orthodox Catholic Church, let’s say). But with the modern migrations and various historical upheavals, Church became a purveyor of religion – offering similar products (a worshipping community) but in direct competition with the purveyor down the street.

When Orthodoxy first came to America and Western Europe, it found this arrangement to be foreign to its ethos. Instead, it simply established its Churches. From the outside, others saw them as ethnic and unfriendly. They did not provide the same market-friendly face as their American competition. Indeed, they were so non-competitive that they often told inquirers to go away. This same ethnic, geographical model was common in the Catholic immigrations as well.

But Churches have learned. America is a powerful cultural engine. Even the Orthodox are slowly learning how to welcome the stranger. Catholic Churches have sometimes learned to specialize, or to offer a wide-diversity of services to accommodate the range of tastes in the parish. And we have our gifts and talents.

“Everyone has a ministry,” I was taught. People in many congregations strained to discern what their unique ministry was. Suddenly everyone in every congregation had a vocation. “Equipping the saints for ministry” (from Ephesians 4) became a slogan for an American vision of the business of the parish Church. But what is the business of the Church?

Never has any writing of an Apostle been more abused and misused than the contemporary treatment of St. Paul’s writings on the Church. A letter to a deeply troubled Corinthian community, a plea for a vision of unity in a community that was fragmenting, has become the blueprint for parish management, an excuse for the importation of American managerial science (and gifts and talents surveys are nothing more).

To the Corinthians, after his excursus on the gifts of the Spirit, St. Paul suggests a “more excellent way.” And he then offers his chapter on love – among the most sublime passages in all of literature.

And, asking his forgiveness, I offer here a “more excellent” reflection on the nature of gifts and talents. Instead of gifts and talents, I suggest we think about wounds and handicaps. Or we could call them deficits and sins. For the excellent life of the Body of Christ is not constructed on the foundation of our gifts and talents. It is quite the opposite. In St. Paul’s description of his apostleship he says:

And [Christ] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2Co 12:9-10)

We are not saved by our gifts and talents.

…God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. (1Co 1:27-29)

The wonderful good news in this upside-down world of salvation is that everybody can be weak and foolish. Gifts and talents are for the gifted and the talented (and in the American imagination, we are all gifted and talented – all the children are above average).

The rejection of this life of weakness and foolishness is the story of the modern Church. The proclamation of American mediocrity (“everybody is wonderful, everybody is special, especially you!”) is the bread and butter of the Joel Osteens of the world. It is, sadly, at the heart of the quasi-magical world of pentecostal “everybody’s got a gift.” A prayer, a laying on of hands, and very shortly you are gifted, wonderful and have a ministry. It is little wonder that youth are leaving these movements in large numbers. The culture has already fed them a lifetime’s worth of their gifts and talents – and they are empty. More of the same only tortures their surfeit of mediocrity. “If I am so special, why do I feel so bad?”

We are not saved by our gifts and talents. We are saved through our weakness, our brokenness, through our shame and our sin. The gospel is not that Christ united Himself with our wonderfulness:

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21)

Our union with Christ is precisely in our brokenness and shame – and we fear to go there. We pity those who are broken and work hard (and even pretend) not to be among their number. The gospel of gifts and talents unwittingly underwrites the social/economic agenda of the culture in which it dwells. The mythology of success (and the stigma of failure) drives consumerism and laissez faire vocationalism. And the brokenness of our lives is experienced as life among the losers. In truth, everyone always stands on the edge of the loser’s abyss.

The gospel of the weak and the sinner, however, is consistently the gospel presented in the New Testament. We enter the Church through Holy Baptism, in which we engage in repentance. True repentance is the acknowledgement of weakness and sin, not the promise to do better. Repentance does not mark the beginning of our success, but the embracing of our failure.

I am not counseling people to go out and fail, nor by any means am I counseling an immoral life (Romans 6:1-2). But we will fail and our best moral efforts will fall short. What I am saying is that Christ meets us precisely at the point of failure and the point of falling short. It is only in our weakness that Christ’s strength is made perfect in our lives.

The true and proper ethos of the Church is thus not one that celebrates success or promotes our gifts and talents. Rather, it is the place where the gospel is so clearly present that the weak and the broken know themselves to be safe.

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Mat 11:28-30)

The rest of the world can bask in its excellence.

56 comments:

  1. This advice would have saved me much grief when I was an evangelical pastor. Excellent reflection! Much of this is all about personal fulfillment and “feeling” successful. It’s a Christianized version of the American Dream.

  2. The gospel of the weak and the sinner, however, is consistently the gospel presented in the New Testament. We enter the Church through Holy Baptism, in which we engage in repentance. True repentance is the acknowledgement of weakness and sin, not the promise to do better. Repentance does not mark the beginning of our success, but the embracing of our failure.

    After years of promising to do better and resisting failure this teaching is truly liberating. Thank you.

  3. Father, here’s a question for you – in the US all churches are self supported. According to the 80/20 rule, 80% donations almost always come from 20% of the people, and those people need to be successful enough in their secular lives to have the ability to donate as much as they do. The Church needs those people and their donations too – for these have funded Monasteries, new Church buildings and countless other projects – none of them possible without the donation of time and talents. Where does this fit in? Historically the Church was not always poor, and couldn’t have been, to build the infrastructure it has. Are you not missing something here? Any larger church needs a wide variety of talents to exist – are these offerings truly not important, even when those offering are not on a very deep spiritual level? Won’t such offerings be enough for some people?

  4. Saint Maximus’ words concerning Christ’s death having,

    “changed the use of death”,

    could be extended to: “changed the use of weakness, suffering, sin, tribulation..”

    Fr John Behr explains this particularly well – how Christ has enabled us to use our death, our mortality, the given-ness of our feebleness, actively, voluntarily, willingly.
    If Christ displays what it is to be God in the manner that he voluntarily dies as a human being, bringing true life through death, revealing God’s strength through Man’s ‘weakness’, manifesting the ‘sign of Jonah’ as the ‘condensed Gospel’, then we must surely recover the fervent, martyric reality of what it means to bear Christian witness like the martyrs and ascetics who would scandalously bear enthusiastic witness to that unconquerable life that comes through death, a life that can no longer be tinged by death, a life that comes by gladly, eagerly taking up the cross.
    The humble words ‘loss’, ‘weakness’, ‘foolishness’ that describe this experience conceal true heroism because of Whom we follow. And they are the only antidote to the inane mediocrity that plagues us.
    The natural reaction that “It is easy to say in words yet, difficult in practice”, could be balanced by, “once we dive in faithfully and continue to cultivate that faith, God does the rest and strengthens us beyond all expectation”.

  5. As a failure in love, work, and life, I have thus far have been unable to put any modest talents to use – not for lack of trying. What about that whole parable about burying ones talents ? I always worry that God gave me a fairly passable brain, and some skills, but isn’t He going to ask me why I didn’t “multiply” them and use my talents to do good? Don’t I betray His gifts, minor that they are, and the responsibility that comes with it ? Not that I’m curing Cancer or anything, but that parable weighs on me.

  6. I was reading along, nodding my head in that self-assured way that I assume whenever I read an on-the-spot critique of something I too find unpalatable. And then I saw the italicized “to be” in your quotation of 2 Cor 5:21. I can still smell the slightly burnt odor of my mental brakes engaging. Somehow that little typographical effect opened my eyes to a completely new way of seeing that verse. So simple, yet it screams “ontological” in a way I had never even entertained. Christ was not imputed sin. He became sin. He became sin that we might become the righteousness of God. Wow.
    Thank you, Father.

  7. I would suspect stewardship versus burying one’s talents is a different axes than success and failure but they intersect in the human person. Perhaps the mystery of vocation is not the sort of mystery that should involve detective work but acceptance. I would be inclined to look for calling in community but we must say ‘Yes’ if we are to accept such a calling. As to that, listen inwardly for the joy that signifies the presence of grace.

    There is an Orthodox thing about asking a holy man for a Word. For such a word to be given, it is presumed that the giver has right spiritual discernment. Most of us have been given many such treasures which only await our listening to be heard. Waiting upon the Lord isn’t perhaps the sort of thing one does for a “vocational year” upon the conclusion, we cease to listen and proceed through life on the basis of what we heard up until we stopped listening. Vocational discernment is discipleship. It is also struggle. There is no end to it in this world. Or so it seems to me today.

  8. I take comfort for my creaturely grammatical flaws in the matter of failure as a means to humility.

  9. Jonathan,
    It is not so much about what has come to be understood as ‘natural skills’. During the Presanctified Liturgy of Holy Tuesday we sing about the ‘talents’ of this parable:

    Come, O Faithful, Let us work zealously for the Master, for He distributes wealth to His servants. Let each of us according to his ability Increase his talent of Grace: Let one be adorned in wisdom through good works; Let another celebrate a service in splendour; The one distributes his wealth to the poor; The other communicates the Word to those untaught. Thus we shall increase what has been entrusted to us, And, as faithful stewards of Grace, We shall be accounted worthy of the Master’s Joy.

    …the Church interprets the talents in this parable to be referring to Grace. The wealth entrusted us is Grace. God distributes to His servants Grace according to their capacity, it is indeed, God Himself, God the Holy Spirit, as He comes to us.

    We are reminded by the other parable of that day that watchfulness, readiness, inner stability, soberness, tranquility, joy, gratefulness, spiritual alertness, attentiveness and vigilance need to be cultivated in order to increase and retain Grace. From a heart such a heart that is full of Grace, all sorts of various ministries and works will be effortlessly manifest. But the works, even the works that we are naturally good at, are not the ‘talent.’ The talent is the Grace. It is the Grace that we must increase as we “work with it,” as we attend to it, as we cooperate with it, as we co-labour with God. This is the talent that God has given us, to be filled with His Grace (each according to our own capacity) and to work with that Grace until we reach “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
    Otherwise, St Gregory the Theologian’s celebrated and (somewhat intentionally shocking/jarring) saying that nothing is greater than complete inactivity/stillness for God’s sake, or St Isaac’s similar sayings that a person who cry’s one hour over his sinfulness is higher than the one who raises the dead and returns the masses to the faith would make little sense.

  10. Gene B,
    We don’t “have” to do anything. It’s just American mythology. God provides for His Church. He uses all kinds of things. I done ministry in wonderful structures and in a humble warehouse. Same ministry. Same God.

    I would suggest reading the chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in The Brothers Karamazov – of course I recommend the whole book – but the chapter is an exquisite commentary on all arguments of a practical nature.

  11. Thank you yet again, Father! As always, your instruction is a blessing and a challenge.

    Jonathan, I don’t believe Father is stating that we are not to be “doing”; only that as we humble ourselves in the realization of our repentence, we become useful for God’s work; we become of use to Him for His glory. Our achievements, so to speak, are actually God working in and through us, not us “doing better” or “being successful”. It’s a different focus of understanding our synergy with God.

    (Anyone feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, here).

  12. Jonathan,
    perhaps even more significantly we need the awareness that living in gratitude, as someone towards whom great mercy has been bestowed, as that one grateful, cured, samaritan leper out of the ten, aware that God’s loving mercy pursues us till the end of time, would utterly suffice in allowing God’s Grace (the ‘talent’) to multiply – since it is thankfulness that increases the wealth God distributes to His servants.

  13. Jonathan,
    When I think of our “talents,” I think of the parable of the Rich Young Man. He had lots of wealth – which can be translated as power, talent, opportunity, etc. Christ told him to give it away if he wanted to enter the Kingdom – to be saved. And he went away sad, “because he was wealthy.” And Christ commented to His disciples that it was nearly impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom.

    Instead we are told, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” The untalented, etc., stand a better chance than the rest of us excellent people, because they know their need of God. So what do we do? We give away our excellence. We work and we serve not for the purpose of our excellence or our ministry or anything else – we just do what we do and all things for the glory of God.

    When I converted to Orthodoxy back in 1998, I was Rector of a large Episcopal Church. I had “influence” and was well thought of. I had even been nominated for bishop a few times. And I thought I was headed into a pretty dead end life of store-front Orthodoxy (its most common form in the South in the OCA). And, indeed, I started with a handful of people in a store-front with a small warehouse area in the read (our “sanctuary”). It was grim. Grim. Grim. Grim. But it was Orthodox and we struggled to be faithful.

    In 2006 I wrote a few articles, by invitation, on a friend’s blog, and at his urging, created my own and got my bishop’s blessing to begin writing. Our mission grew slowly (it still grows slowly). But since 1998, I’ve helped start 5 Orthodox Churches. I’ve sent more men to seminary in these few years than in all of my 18 Anglican years. And today, I write with over a million views a year. How could anyone guess at a thing like that? And if I stop tomorrow, I will have done more than I had ever imagined. It’s not talent, it’s just doing what comes to hand and let God do the rest.

    The second article that I ever wrote for the blog is entitled: “What Matters.” It was true when I wrote it, and it’s still true. Only now, with success, I have to go back and read it to remind myself. It’s also a good article for your life and anyone else’s about what matters. I commend it to you.

  14. Father Freeman-this is an amazing article. Having grown up a scrupulous Roman Catholic I have always struggled with the notion of repentance and “doing better” only to fail immediately. That brought me close to despair a number times. Since I have moved into Orthodoxy (just started the catechumate!!), it has become clearer that repentance is something entirely different. And this article finally encapsulates it. As I read it, I felt like chains fell off. Thank you so much. Please pray for this miserable soul.

  15. Thanks so much for the thoughtful replies ! Someone ought to write a book about this – The Way of Failure.

  16. “We are not saved by our gifts and talents. We are saved through our weakness, our brokenness, through our shame and our sin. The gospel is not that Christ united Himself with our wonderfulness:”

    For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:21)

    Having thought about Jesus and the scriptures for a long time I sense that what God is about still escapes me. Notions get stirred up as one scripture or another is considered, but when reviewed whatever the thought, even if supported with lots of additional ideas from various talkers and writers, is still inadequate.

    I like the glimpses I have had, but I doubt my expertise, and expertise of any other who proclaims, I know God’s agenda. We will all be surprised. We will all be changed.

    It is valuable to meditate on these things. At one point it says, “Mary pondered all these things in her heart.” It does not say Mary got it all under her wing, so she knew how it all came together. Who had more opportunity to be more intimate with Jesus. Still she didn’t get it. She got something. When she said, “Whatever he tells you to do, do it.” that was solid advice.

    The Word, was God speaking into human experience. It says that in the days of Eli the Word of the Lord was rare. The prophets spoke as the Word that was God moved them and through them. They did not speak out of some kind of mastery, or the depth of their study. I do not object to study, but it does not make things happen. The Word makes things happen.

    Jesus is the Word. Some call him teacher, lord, rabbi, master, all good titles. He is the breath of God speaking, interacting, into the human drama. We do not learn his teachings. We learn him. He fills.

    The Israelites in the wilderness, the scriptures say drank from the rock that followed them, which was Christ. It was him. He was present. Then he was there in Bethlehem and by the sea of Galilee. Not particularly what he taught as an infant or as a man, but drinking of his presence and listening with ears that hear more than ears that study.

  17. Blessings Fr

    Only eternity will show how much your posts have helped this pilgrim.
    Thank you.

    Whenever I read your posts, it explains to me and gives me the vocabulary to understand why I feel so much like an alien. God’s ways are not our ways and so by logical conclusion neither should that of the church, being the body and bride of Christ. Am I wrong to feel so grieved and saddened at the state of western ‘christianity’.

    I work in a Lutheran school, which is a great blessing and responsibility, but even there, so much of this ‘christian pop psychology’ is talked in staff devotions and Chapel. I hear the words, comprehend them and feel completely disconnected.

    Again your blog is a wonderful encouragement. Thank you.

  18. Fr Stephan,
    I love the piece and was offended though by the reference to Pope Francis. Ironically, he has consistently challenged the socio/economic agenda you are referencing. To pick that particular quote in the context you are presenting belies a deeper solidarity I believe he would have with you as evidenced by both his life and his words. His quote in context is also consistent with the Gospel, and does not represent ‘another gospel’.

  19. The primary tenet of Nietzsche’s nihilism is that the elite rule by virtue of their strength which was an intentional opposite of Christianity.

  20. Bill,
    Just browsing through google images on the phrase, “gifts and talents,” produced the photo and quote from the Pope. It obviously meant (to someone) pretty much exactly what it meant as posted in the article – and – as such – represents this “other” modern gospel. I didn’t create the Meme – someone else did – and probably a very happy, devout Catholic fan of the Pope. My point isn’t to criticize Francis, but to simply illustrate how utterly ubiquitous this nonsense is. I’m not sure he is challenging the social/economic agenda so much as wanting more people to have access to it. A completely different thing.

    I would suggest that Mother Teresa would never have said anything remotely like this. I prefer her.

  21. 24 “Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’

    26 “But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. 27 So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. 28 Therefore take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents.

    29 ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

  22. Leonard,
    I’m not at all sure what quoting this passage is supposed to be saying by way of comment. As noted earlier, “talent” here has nothing whatsoever to do with “talents and gifts.” It is a weight of measure in King James English – much like Pound in England is roughly like dollar in English. This confusion between this parable and gifts and talents – is both common and ignorant (forgive me). But it distorts the meaning of Christ’s parable.

    In fact, it is at least as distorting as the use of Christ’s “call no man father,” to criticize the honorific given to priests. I.e., this is less than helpful. If you want to say something – then do say something.

  23. “Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy mind ! And the second is like it, love your neighbor as you love yourself.” These are our talents and gifts, no matter who we are. Thanks once again from your Catholic brother. Ken

  24. Fr. Stephen,

    I feel like I’m very much on the same page with you when it comes to “you’re not doing better” and the revelation that we are saved by our weaknesses instead of our strengths. The question of course that comes out of this in our corner of the world is “how then shall we live?” Further to this, what do we do? We are so largely about “doing” here that this message sometimes starts to drive people insane! Why get up in the morning? And once I’m up, what motivates me? How do I approach a project or task or anything else?

    The answer I have arrived at is that it begins with simple obedience – alongside an acceptance that my actions and efforts may in fact accomplish nothing. But inside and out I still swim in a stream of consciousness that screams for a defined motivation – and rebels against doing things that are pointless.

    I recently gave the “you’re not doing better” message as a Sunday School lesson. It was predictably heavy, but my instinct tells me that it’s something which works over a long period of time and therefore seems to have been administered well.

    However I still struggle greatly within myself to know how to present this message as one of hope. I don’t want to be the cause of mass suicides or something. (weak grin) I do understand that despairing of our own efforts is necessary so that we’ll let all that die and then turn to God so Christ can be born inside us. But again there is very little in all this to “do”.

    I recognize that some people (like above) hear your words and a great weight drops off their shoulders, while others step away from the article long enough to scream at the top of their lungs and beat their head against the wall. I in fact feel both of these things and am largely hoping for a miracle, some insight that will give me peace about the whole thing and help me make the transition from trying to “get better” to simply living because Christ lives in me….because I’ve stepped aside and let Him.

    Thanks for listening. I know answers will come in time.

  25. With respect, I’m certain you were not intending to offend, Fr. Stephen. As a point of information…

    The quote from Pope Francis was posted on Twitter just prior to the 2013 World Youth Day gathering of more than 3 million people, mostly young people, of different faiths from around the world.

    Calling young people together to bring all of their talents and gifts to serve God does not seem to me to be at odds with what you are saying in this excellent article. I don’t think one can imply from his words and this context that he was suggesting that this was the source of their salvation.

    Francis publicly acknowledges that he is a sinner. Yet he serves because that is what he was called to do. In our brokenness, we are totally dependent on God, yet we are also called to allow His gifts to be expressed through us.

  26. Drewster2000,

    I have never commented on this site though I’ve been a regular reader for a very long time, but I so appreciate your comment above and felt I had to reply.
    Thank you so much for posting your comment and for articulating your response so thoughtfully and humbly. You expressed exactly what I constantly struggle with, and almost exactly what my reaction is to reading this post and others that have been similar. I’m a little glad to find I’m not alone in my questions/frustration, and I feel a lot of empathy for where you are coming from! I look forward to hearing other’s replies to your post.

  27. Drewster & Sarah L,

    I would instinctively urge you to revisit and re-read “The Epistle of St Ignatius to the Romans” (on his way to be eaten by the lions) to see the motivation, the urgency the fervent impetus with which he tackles this. Google it.
    That same martyric, burning desire to divest the old self, to stop protecting this miserable self-centered ‘life’ that leads to death and become part of that unending true life that only comes through death, to finally become Christ’s, is an extremely far cry from “why get up in the morning”, and its also what motivates all true ascetics.
    Ascesis is the language with which we express this very thing.
    When you look at a Saint like John the Forerunner or Mary the Egyptian, it is as if they have become more of an angel in their ascetically expressed desire for this utter union with God.

  28. Drewster,
    “Why try?” This is the cry of the ego, an ego driven culture and an ego-driven Christianity. The point of trying is so completely owned by the culture that when it is removed we do indeed feel empty – like an addict without his needle.

    On the one hand, I demonstrate repeatedly that the trying doesn’t work. We often fail and many people never quite succeed. They are probably among those who feel the greatest weight lifted – that and those who are so driven that they simply hate it.

    Here’s a motto: “Anything worth doing is worth doing.”

    I would add to that – “Anything more comes from the evil one.” (Or least from the passions of the ego).

    Our utilitarianism (doing things towards some greater result) poisons our lives. We never simply do something. We are always looking to where we aren’t, and laboring for things that never come, or when they do they feel empty. Why not just do things because they are good to do? Why not feed the poor and quit worrying about eradicating poverty in our time?

    Think of it this way: You are a dead man but you have been given one day’s reprieve for life in this world. Live it. If you get a reprieve tomorrow, then live it. All of this is in the gospel. Utility is not.

    As for teaching it – understand that what we are about is saving people from the delusion that they have any life other than the present moment. It is calling people out of their fantasies and into the reality of God’s presence (which can only be found in the present moment). Frankly, I understand about the “suicide fear” – which is only a testament to the true emptiness of our fantasies.

    But, most people will ignore whatever they read that doesn’t already agree with what they think. They might startle for a minute, but will soon calm down and go back to sleep.

  29. With respect, Mary. I thought that was his context. And the message indeed echoes the constant mantra of the present culture. I daresay his intention was to give hope and encouragement. But I think it is the wrong hope and encouragement. I can so easily image the US President and almost every graduation speaker in the country saying the same thing. It has a certain power when the Pope says it because of his celebrity status. But it is the same emptiness.

    I also daresay that the Pope would never say we are saved by our gifts and talents. No Evangelical mega-church pastor would say it either. But they practice it. The culture practices it. We are special and unique, with unique gifts and talents, and we should use them and fulfill our potential and become everything we’ve ever dreamed of.

    It’s little wonder that monastic vocations are drying up in many places.

    I do not mean to disrespect the Pope – I’m sure he’s a good and faithful man. But I think that these words (and many others) are very wide of the gospel of the self-emptying life of the Cross. I cannot imagine Jesus saying such words to a youth gathering. I suspect that His words would puzzle them – perhaps confuse some – disappoint others – set others hearts on fire – make some want to kill him.

    But there’s no offense and nothing particularly interesting about becoming wonderful with our gifts and talents.

    The way up is the way down. This is the gospel and it’s very hard to hear – it’s very hard to find ways to say it. The Pope’s words just didn’t do much more than a graduation speech. Isn’t it ok to admit that the Pope offered empty words?

    I generally think the ministry of celebrity that began with Pope John Paul II, is itself flawed. The world is awash in celebrity, another one of the great deceptions of our modern world. I well understand the Pope wanting to strengthen the Church through such visits (we’ve got one coming soon to the US). But what ails the Church (anywhere) won’t be fixed by an very expensive Papal celebrity tour. It can’t fix it because that’s not what’s broken. Those problems are much, much deeper.

    The salvation of the world is being treated like a media event. Photo ops and constant press conferences, charming stories of carrying your own luggage. It’s interesting reading in People Magazine, but my heart breaks that this is a dominating focus for many. And now we’re awaiting a Global Climate encyclical (we’ve got a “Green Patriarch” ourselves in Orthodoxy). It’s the celebrity gospel. At last, the Church is catching up with Hollywood and the others who live in our media fantasies.

    But the gospel is being preached – and it is being lived in many places (including in the Catholic Church). But not before the Paparazzi and the purveyors of sound bites.

    I sat this summer with a group of young people (20 somethings) in England and we talked at length about a “no progress” world and the false imagery of Modernity. The first day they struggled incredibly. It was contrary to everything (!) they had ever heard. To their credit, they were hungry and interested. The second day I was thinking about trying to soften things a bit, thinking I might have been to harsh the first day. One young woman said she had not been able to sleep the night before. I winced. I don’t like upsetting people (no really). When I started hedging a bit, they pushed me. No! They wanted me to press forward. Their questions drew the best I had to offer out of me. It was a wonderful time that I would love to repeat. It might have actually changed a life or two.

    From there I drove to Essex and spent time at the Monastery of St. John, where the Elder Sophrony lived and taught. It is said that he will be canonized in a year or two. The community there seemed completely uninterested in the topic. They were far too busy (?) living the life that he taught to worry about his celebrity in the Church. It just doesn’t matter. It is a place where “the way up is the way down” (the Elder’s words) are a way of life.

    “We are called to allow His gifts to be expressed through us.” Yes, of course. But saying that in this culture has to be qualified a thousand times. We think our “gifts” are things like talents, etc. What if our “gifts” are, in fact, our brokenness?

    Working with addicts each week, I see the wonderful gift of their broken lives. They have no idea just how precious their addictions are. But as they learn to bear the trial of honesty and dependence on God, those very addictions becomes the means by which they will be saved. Of course, others in the world are not addicted. They make good grades and play soccer and may do well in this life. And may even do so well that they are never aware enough of their brokenness to need God. And so our gifts and talents lead us to hell. God’s gift to St. Paul was a messenger of Satan sent to “buffet him.” And it was saving his soul.

    I am meaning to turn things upside down in this article (and previous ones).

  30. Sarah,
    Read the response to Mary as well. I am completely understanding of the frustration. It’s why I have kept writing on the topic. Maybe when I get it right, the coin will drop. Or a great collective scream will rise up from the earth and my blog will be blotted from all memory. 🙂

  31. Dino,

    (just my immediate thoughts) I have read St. Ignatius before, but you have already correctly assessed my situation: I am such an extremely far cry from where he was that I find it nigh impossible to understand his sentiments. Thus his words only frustrate me further at this point.

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your words; they do help. It’s still a foreign language but I’m beginning to pick up on a few phrases. I am SO indoctrinated at the feet of Utility that it’s all I can do to hold these concepts in my mind and allow them to stay there.

    To do something just for the sake of that thing – and not as a step to another, great thing… I feel like a man bewitched who has stirred for a moment and is hearing the voice of the Beloved as if from a million miles away. I’m straining toward the sound but don’t yet know which direction the voice came from.

    Thinking aloud, is it possible to live like this? To be content in simply giving my best to wherever I may be? As I came into adulthood the concept of responsibility was ground into me. Always count the costs. Mistakes are valuable but costly – to you and to others. Be careful! Plan ahead…..and on and on the mantra goes.

    This new way, is it not irresponsible? The weight falls off every time I have the revelation for the hundredth time that God is in charge of the world and not me. But when the moment of relief passes, my next action is to search around for my burden again so I can get back to being responsible. Thanks for the break, Lord; I’ve got it from here. I needed help back there but I’m good now. All happening subconsciously of course.

    Anyway…..

    “But, most people will ignore whatever they read that doesn’t already agree with what they think. They might startle for a minute, but will soon calm down and go back to sleep.”

    Please don’t prophesy this. It may be the truth but this kind of truth needs no help in becoming reality. Please simply keep sowing seeds and lighting candles wherever they may be found. Your words have enlivened hearts in so many different camps already; please – as you were…..

  32. Drewster,
    It is indeed possible. Here’s a very important point, one that will probably get an article for me. You are not responsible. At least certainly not in the manner that we imagine. We are responsible to do what we can do, and to be about doing it. But – and here is the key – we are not responsible for outcomes. Stanley Hauerwas at Duke (one of my old profs) famously says that as soon as we take responsibility for the outcome of history, we have agreed to do violence.

    Only God does outcomes. They belong to Him. More than that – to make ourselves responsible for outcomes is idolatry. It’s one of the greatest sins. So it is not only important to learn, little by little, to live this way, but to renounce ourselves as the gods of history. Strangely, we renounce the way of progress and utility, and then we can progress and be useful. And only God can see it.

  33. Looking back, when I became a nurse, I had this (egotistical) concept of “saving lives” and “helping people” through medicine. Here is what I have learned so far:

    When my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer, one of the things he said was “no one gets out alive”. Medicine doesn’t save anyone. The greatest good it can accomplish in my opinion, is to prolong a life in order that the Holy Ghost can step in and bring home a lost sheep. The most profound and wonderful moments I have had with any of my patients have been, not administering medicine, but instead in meeting them where they are and sharing the love of God. Often that moment comes when I share my broken self with them so that they can stop hating their broken self. It seems to me that when we hate our broken selves, we turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, money or any of the long list of Idols of this world in order to either numb our selves to this reality, or to give ourselves false assurances. As Father points out, it is precisely the broken places where God meets us, loves us and brings us into that eternal Now-ness of union. I have felt it many times with brothers and sisters that I serve as a nurse. And God has shown me that I have brothers and sisters in all walks of life and stages of broken-ness. What I “accomplish” in this life doesn’t even matter when I compare it with the complete joy that comes with the union I find when I am in communion with my brothers, sisters and God.

    The accomplishment, if one can call it that, for me has been to release the need to accomplish. I have a job not as a way to show who and what I am, but instead because it provides me with the ability to meet my human needs of food and etc. Does my ego want to jump up and proclaim that I’m a nurse so people will admire me and my “calling”? Sadly, I do find this to be true at times. But God shows me again and again that He loves the “least of these” and could care less about my “calling” except in how it can be of service to His children in the here and now and of how I can learn to be His through learning a servant’s heart. And I probably fail as often as I succeed in all of this. Luckily. Or I would become proud again.

  34. Hi. Thanks for the writing. First, some agreement, but then a question on what I believe is a false dichotomy you are presenting.

    I’d agree here that surely some churches out there that think “popularity” or “growth” are the chief ends to show success, and many of these churches over leverage people’s talents in pursuit of this. If this growth is devoid of real discipleship, genuine conversions, and fruits of the spirit, of course this is awful.

    You say, “The true and proper ethos of the Church is thus not one that celebrates success or promotes our gifts and talents. Rather, it is the place where the gospel is so clearly present that the weak and the broken know themselves to be safe…”

    Isn’t this a false dichotomy? A church should be able to simultaneously celebrate success (growth in godliness, growth in a population of new, or growing believers), promote talents, (your singing today really blessed me, or your sermon was just what I needed today) while still embodying the gospel in a way that lets anyone weak and broken (all of us) to feel safe.

    The catch is to promote the work of God through our talents, as they are not ends unto themselves, but a means to an end: God’s glory.

    Like is suggested in 1 Peter 4:

    8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies–in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

    Just some thoughts on how I interpreted your words. Thanks for considering!

  35. ” With respect, Mary. I thought that was his context. And the message indeed echoes the constant mantra of the present culture. I daresay his intention was to give hope and encouragement. But I think it is the wrong hope and encouragement. I can so easily image the US President and almost every graduation speaker in the country saying the same thing. It has a certain power when the Pope says it because of his celebrity status. But it is the same emptiness. ”
    I totally agree with Father Stephen.
    And this article is superb!

  36. I spent way to much of my life trying to figure out what “God wanted me to do” instead of just doing what I had been already be given to do with the grace that God gave me to do it.

    Once I stopped trying to figure it out, I not only got more of “it” to do, but more people and more grace to do it with plus a couple of added benefits as well.

  37. Father I think what I was trying to say in my previously comment although in a somewhat unexcellently was what comes from tone 6 of Bridegroom matins. I believe young people as well as old should do this……….Come, O Faithful, Let us work zealously for the Master,For He distributes wealth to His servants.Let each of us according to his ability Increase his talent of Grace:Let one be adorned in wisdom through good works;Let another celebrate a service in splendour;The one distributes his wealth to the poor;The other communicates the Word to those untaught.Thus we shall increase what has been entrusted to us,And, as faithful stewards of Grace,We shall be accounted worthy of the Master’s Joy.Make us worthy of this, O Christ our God,In Your love for mankind.

  38. Drewster,

    St Ignatius’ sentiments might be nigh impossible to understand, but we can and should admire them, be inspired and ponder them persistently. They are the quintessence of authentic Christianity without which our lantern blows out.
    Try to talk to a lukewarm believer about hard ascesis of body and spirit, about the all-consuming love of Christ expressed in this [scandalous for secularized Christianity] manner, and they get angry, they call you barbaric. If you want to try the faith of a Christian, speak about asceticism and martyrdom. The authentic faithful will feel contrition, the lukewarm will protest. Ascesis and martyrdom are of no real ‘use’ to me [other than bringing me closer to death –both of them- and sometimes fanning the flames of their own zeal] or to God… yet it is the most ‘ontological’ way for me to speak to Him, to express my desire.
    The thing is that selecting my own ascesis, my own ‘dying to self’ in order that Christ might live in me, is understandably in danger of becoming perverted into an achievement-seeking exercise, fueled by some, or a lot of, ego-admixture. However, this does not mean we must throw out the baby with the bathwater, as without it, we cannot be Christians. What is clearly superior, is the glad acceptance of “what comes to me”, the grateful recognition of the gift of tribulations, sorrows, losses, falls, darknesses, humiliations, difficulties, illnesses – this (somewhat different) “asceticism” and “martyrdom” that can be described as ‘involuntary’ must be transformed by me into voluntary.

    We want to be Christians without the cross, to walk in the wide path.
    Yet it is not an “excess”–as it is often described and vilified- to long and walk after the narrow path, to admire the extreme ascesis and martyrdoms of our saints. Christianity is, in a certain sense, the exaggeration of all excesses, the most incredible of all extremes. For this purpose the door that leads to this invincible life is always faith. I undoubtedly am not capable of doing this martyric stuff just described, whether chosen by me or involuntary befallen on me… but I can believe that God will provide the strength to the childlike believer who tries to swim these waters without having ever ventured out to the deep sea… And faith is no mediocrity, no moral system, it is of no ‘use’ to this world… Yet, while the unbeliever fears and protests, those who believe are made “bold as a lion.”

  39. While thinking about this topic, and especially about your story, Father Stephen–the one you told in a comment about how you got to where you are now, writing and managing this wonderful resource, without which I for one would likely have drifted along in my own version of Orthodoxy, or Eastern Christianity as I have been calling it out of lack of faith probably, or fear of seeming to be right when my family and associates and friends are not–I came across this brief passage from the letters of Simone Weil to a priest friend:

    “It is a great sorrow for me to fear that the thoughts that have descended into me should be condemned to death through the contagion of my inadequacy and wretchedness. I never read the story of the barren fig tree without trembling. I think that is a portrait of me. In it also, nature was powerless, and yet it was not excused. Christ cursed it.”

    It surely would be a great sorrow to us if you had not started off on the path of writing your thoughts. You don’t take the credit, but neither did she. The rest of us have been blessed with the benefit. That seems to me a pretty good reason to use, or follow up on, the “talents” you have been given.

  40. Albert,
    Well, I really wasn’t trying to be wonderful. Mostly, I’ve wanted this to be a safe place, an accurate place, and, sometimes, a place where very Traditional things are said in a fresh way. When that happens, I am deeply grateful. One thing I would never have imagined has been the community of comments that are easily as important to me as my own articles. Who knew?

  41. “God provides all of us with a cross. The cross is my various physical, mental and spiritual diseases. Physical illnesses are the various afflictions of the body, which are not my fault, but are due to organic reasons. Mental illnesses are such things as the natural sluggishness of the body, a slow-wittedness, a natural melancholy, an inability to concentrate the mind… Mental illnesses are such things as selfishness, fanaticism, excessive tendency towards something … Of these three categories the most terrible ones are what I called ‘mental’ afflictions, because they are the deepest. If we want to be relieved from this cross of these ‘diseases’, we will not succeed, we will find that we never really make any progress and improve; we only will lose our years. But if you lift it, take it up and proceed with your blessed running of the race, then your whole life will become a little bridge that will get you directly to heaven.”

    ELDER AIMILIANOS

  42. “By talents you should understand not only riches, education and prominence. Talents are favorable conditions for the salvation of the soul each of us are given talents. Poverty, sickness of various types of sorrows – these are all talents. If a person uses the talents given to him spiritually for the salvation of his soul – he nears fruit.”
    ST. NIKON

  43. Kay,
    Yes. If the talents of the parable are understood in a traditional Orthodox manner. When we do “gifts and talents” surveys in our culture, they mean almost everything but the traditional Orthodox meaning. I read St. Nikon as supporting what I have written.

  44. Dino,

    I don’t argue with the truth of what you said about St. Ignatius and asceticism. I have great admiration for the saints and those who have taken the monastic path. What I was doing was laying out the inner struggle I was/am going through. I have no argument with the content of what you said, just your tone. To me it sounded like this:

    1. “There are sheep and then there are goats. Don’t expect the sheep to lower their standard for you so you can be accepted. If you don’t like the narrow gate, with all due respect, go somewhere else.”

    AND

    2. “Even though St. Ignatius and other saints frustrate you, go back and try again. Just go back and live there in it until it starts to click. Persistence is the key.”

    As much as I admire the approach of #2, I believe a person have to get to a certain level before that will work. They have to have enough strength in their limbs to climb the lower steps before they can reach that one. It’s not the immediate answer for everyone. Think missional. People need to strain upwards to reach something but many also need a hand coming down to meet them.

    #1 doesn’t sound missional at all. There are a lot of people in the West who are starving for the water in this well. I agree: don’t dumb it down, don’t water it down, but on the other hand anything anyone can do to make it more accessible will be much appreciated. Fr. Stephen is doing that, God bless him.

  45. Drewster,
    please don’t take it that way, I am sorry it sounds like that. It goes without saying that St Ignatius’ sentiments are light years away from mine too. What I am saying is that our default is nothingness, even St Ignatius’… But we must still take the plunge of faith-in-God’s strength being made perfect in our weakness.
    I think the more contact we have with the Saints’ incredible heroism and the less concern for our own weakness “improving” into their strength the less we are in danger of finding threat in their strength.
    I must be happy that “another part of the body of Christ” has such incredible heroism and humbly believe -like a ‘fool’ – that God can grant me too that same heroism if I never forget what my default weakness is.

    Reading the feats of the Saints frequently and rightly in faith produces -as I said earlier- contrition or zeal, never protest or threatened responses.
    Of course, reading my clumsy comments that are full of underlying delusion can produce all the wrong feelings, so I do beg forgiveness…

    Have you heard Fr John Behr talking on Ignatius’ and Blandina’s fervour to be martyrs? it is sublime…

  46. To clarify the key point on faith I am trying to make:
    It goes without saying that we are incapable of lifting the Cross -from the smallest commandment to the greatest heroic feat.
    But in the faith that “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God”, I simply, try to cultivate this ‘foolishness’, of being able to put my foot on the surface of the water; if I keep my attention on the Lord, He makes it so that I walk on the water like Him. If, however, I turn my focus back to my own self, I sink -and I mustn’t blame Him for it no matter how hard I am pressed by my own rationalisations to do this.
    And if I sink, again it does not matter as long as I re-focus on Him shouting “Lord save me” in the experiential re-kindling of the awareness that it goes without saying that I am an incapable individual.
    Cultivating this faith is like building Noah’s ark -it takes many many years. But it must start now in order for me to be ready when the flood visits me.
    I hope this doesn’t sound harsh in any way. I know it applies to myself.

  47. Dino: Thank you for your words. You’re a good man. I’m just trying to sort these things out – for myself and those I teach. I will think on all this…and I’m tired today, so being swayed by the old ass I’m saddled with. (grin)

  48. “Jesus came to raise the dead. The only qualification for the gift of the Gospel is to be dead. You don’t have to be smart. You don’t have to be good. You don’t have to be wise. You don’t have to be wonderful. You just have to be dead. That’s it.”

    “For Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, improve the improvable, or correct the correctible; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life of those who will take their stand on a death he can use instead of on a life he cannot.”

    Robert Farrar Capon

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