Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Rethink: Talent

When Whitney Houston's death was announced and tributes were given, I was not surprised to find out that she got her start in Gospel. A lot of pop singers do, especially if they sing blues and R & B. I did not know, however, that her mother, Cissy Houston, was a successful Gospel singer. In her childhood, Whitney went to the Baptist church but was exposed to the Pentecostal church as well. She went to a Catholic girls' high school. And I wondered if she had stayed in Gospel music would her life have ended as suddenly. I know that no industry is immune from temptation, but it is so common for pop and rock music stars to die early that it was a running joke in the mock documentary "This is Spinal Tap." Having people treat you as royalty or even a god because of your talent is too much for most people to handle. You could probably list 5 rock stars off the top of your head who either died of drugs or violence, and with very little thought be able to list as many who suffered from broken marriages, run-ins with the law and other major problems. Many a performer has come to view stardom as more of a curse than a blessing. I'm sure that Gospel music stars know a few sad tales as well but I'm also certain that far fewer of them have died before the age of 50. And I wonder if constantly repeating core Christian truths doesn't at least have some dampening effect on the hubris that is epidemic in secular music circles. I hope no one in Gospel or Christian music asks their Siri to call them a "Rock god."

We all have talents and abilities, whether we are Christian or not. It is part of the common grace which God's Spirit showers on all. We may not all be prodigies, but we all have things we are very good at, things we're fairly good at and things we aren't good at. A wise person recognizes where his strengths lie and where he is weakest. Anyone who thinks he can do it all is arrogant. The wise person works to hone and enhance her most powerful abilities and to minimize what she's weak at. And the very wise person seeks out others whose strengths lie in areas in which he is weak and teams up with those people. Knowing what you do best and where you need the help of others is true humility.

The problem is that you can be smart with regard to nurturing your talent and still misuse it. In comic books the main difference between the superheroes and super-villains is not their powers but whether they use them for good or not. Spiderman initially did what most of us would do if we had superpowers--use them to make money. But when his refusal to stop a petty crook led to the death of his uncle, he learned that "with great power comes great responsibility." The same issue is at the heart of the Harry Potter stories. In J.K. Rowlings' universe witches and wizards are not those who have sold their souls to the devil or who call up demons but, like the X-Men, are born with certain extraordinary powers and must choose whether to use them for the good of others or selfishly. In the end, it is not Harry's power that is the issue. Others are better at various forms of magic. It's the moral dimension that sets Harry apart. Several times in the books, he shows he is willing to risk his life to save others. When at the end Harry realizes that the only way to make Lord Voldemort mortal is for Harry himself to die, he walks unarmed to meet his foe and offers himself as a sacrifice. At that point, it becomes clear that the whole saga was a Christian story after all.

Your talent may be that you are a good musician. You could create haunting or exhilarating or groundbreaking music or make racist heavy metal for skinheads. You could be a skilled doctor. You could build up a practice helping suffering people or set up a bogus pain clinic which dispenses oxycontin prescriptions for anyone with the cash. You could be a good photographer. You could use your talents to create beautiful or thought-provoking art or to make internet porn. You could have a good head for money. You could work for a legitimate company or a nonprofit or organized crime. You may a clever writer. You could write entertaining or enlightening books and articles or blatantly political propaganda. You could be a good preacher. You could open the Scriptures to a local community of believers or become a televangelist making millions by preaching a personal "prosperity gospel."

We say "follow your dreams," but talent is not enough and by itself does not provide moral guidance. Some of the alternatives I gave could bring a person more money and fame or at least notoriety. But God intends us to use our talents in alignment with his purposes.

Now you could have figured all that out without Jesus. How did he make us rethink talent? By choosing 12 ordinary people as his inner circle. Before Jesus, the concept that a humble person could rise to extraordinary heights was not popular. In Greek and Roman stories any hero who seemed to be of humble birth was found to be a lost prince or a demigod. In the Old Testament there were precedents for God choosing someone otherwise unremarkable to carry out his purposes, most famously David, the shepherd boy. But nowhere in the New Testament are any of the apostles given grand genealogies. They were not descended from kings or priests or prophets. They were fishermen or tax collectors or from professions so mundane they aren't given. And these were the people whom Jesus chose to spread and organize his kingdom. He was going to send them to the ends of the world, to people with very different religions, into cultures foreign to them, facing challenges unprecedented and bearing the responsibility of being the sole source of information about the Gospel and Jesus.

And they did it. Scripture only records some acts of some apostles but we see them living up to the commission given them by Christ. Peter starts the outreach to the Gentiles though the person who really runs with that ball is Paul. By the end of the first century, Christianity has spread to every major city in the Roman Empire.

What was it that Jesus saw in them that led him to choose them? According to Acts 1, when seeking a replacement for Judas Iscariot, they look at people who were with Jesus from his baptism by John. That means they must have followed John the Baptist first. So they were seeking to be reconciled with God and were not adverse to doing so through a person who, though unconventional, told the truth. That commitment to the truth is tested when, as we are told in John 6, the 5000 whom Jesus fed wanted to make him king. Jesus eludes them and when they catch up to him, Jesus tells them that "they who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life." This turns a lot of people off and many disciples leave him. When Jesus asks the Twelve if they will leave, too, they reply, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life." Because they recognize the vital nature of the unpopular truths Jesus teaches, they will stick with him.

That perseverance is important. Studies show that to master something you need to practice it for 10,000 hours, which is about 5 years of 40 hour weeks but is just over 2 years of 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. As near as we can tell, Jesus' ministry lasts 3 to 3 ½ years. That's a lot of time to spend with someone and still think he is God's Anointed Son and more than enough to learn what he preaches and how he acts. But the disciples, which, remember, means students, stay with Jesus to the bitter end. And beyond. Most followers of would-be Messiahs who get killed, if they avoid being caught, either latch onto the next Messiah wanna-be or slink back to their old everyday life. But the disciples, understandably stunned by Jesus' resurrection, get over their astonishment and follow him anew. After 40 days post-resurrection training, they are no longer disciples or students but apostles, emissaries of the king.

Another thing stands out about the Twelve is their boldness. Peter is outspoken, of course, and James and John are so loud and fervent, Jesus calls them the Sons of Thunder. Philip has a penchant for bringing people to Jesus. They all do well when Jesus sends them and the Seventy out to heal and preach the gospel.

Having a talent is not enough. You must use it. In Jesus' parable of the Talents, which in that case were units of weight and money, the point isn't how much each slave makes investing his master's money; it's that they use it at all. The slave who comes off worse is the one who buried his talent to keep it safe for when the master returns. But the master wanted the slave to at least do some investing with it, however conservative. It's his lack of boldness with what was entrusted to him that gets the man into trouble.

Jesus is saying, "Use what God's given you. Take risks with it." In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, in effect, it's stupid to hide a candle under a bushel basket. The whole idea is to pierce the darkness, reflect God's radiance, glisten with his glory. Look at the world. The voices that get heard aren't always the best, as American Idol shows us, or the most honest, as almost any political discussion reveals. It's the loudest. Mediocrity and mendacity will triumph if better voices don't make themselves heard. The same is true of any medium. Quantity can beat quality if those who have better talent keep it to themselves.

Jesus saw in Twelve otherwise ordinary folks the necessary talents to spread the good news. He taught them the truth, which was sometimes unpalatable. He honed their skills and perceptions, challenging their preconceptions about who gets into heaven and how many you can feed if you go to God and how often you must forgive and who's really righteous and how to keep trusting God when it looks like it's all over and all hope is dead. Jesus opened their minds about God's love and mercy and power. And when they had mastered all that, he set them loose on the world. What they preached went against everything society thought was true. Money and power rule the world? Not if you follow this poor carpenter. God only listens to the respectable? Not if you look at how these tax collectors and prostitutes are manifesting the Kingdom of God. Death has the last word? Not if you listen to these ordinary folks whose world was turned upside down one Sunday morning.

Through his Spirit, God distributes talents and abilities to all. Not every one of them is glamorous but all are vital. But we must master them. We must persevere. And we mustn't hold back but be bold in manifesting them. And we must stay committed to the truth, revealed by God in Jesus. I love "Harvey" the Jimmy Stewart movie about the drunk with a 6 foot rabbit as his invisible friend. But I've worked as a nurse on the psych floor and real delusions are not comfortable or comforting. The world prefers illusions about the nature of reality and especially about itself. The truth is that when God's Love Incarnate presented himself to us we nailed him to a tree and spat on him. The good news is you can't stop God's love. You can't bleed it dry, you can bury it in the ground, and you can't shut it up in hole. There are no barriers that can keep God out. You can flail your fists ineffectually at him or shiver in shame before him or you can rethink your response, wrap your arms around him and return his love.

Like our time, our talents are gifts from God, to be used for the good of others and the glory of God. It is a matter of stewardship. On Sunday we'll get to what most people think of when we say stewardship. But in the meantime ask yourself: If the Spirit of God gives everyone talents and abilities, what are mine? If I am to use them properly, what am I strongest in and in what things do I need help from others? If I am to hone and enhance my talents, how am I doing that and how dedicated am I to it? If I am not to hide my talents, how boldly am I manifesting my gifts and staying true to the good news of God redeeming his creation through Jesus Christ?

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