Imperfect Gifts

I’ve watched the mechanics of church ministry take place around me for years.  How do some folks manage to be superheroes, while I’m such a wannabe? Or is that even the right question to ask?

Oh, Those Awesome People

How on earth does that preacher/Bible teacher always manage to pull out a good, edifying word from Scripture?  How does he put one thought in front of another, present insightful, balanced, accurate views with so much passion, and offer a pinch of intelligent humor to boot?  It all seemed impossible mojo for me, a little guy in the first row, who sat soaking up every word.

How does that couple go to another continent, eat the local food, love the people, and begin connecting them to Scripture?  Where do they start? How do theological terms not get lost in translation?  I wonder about this, because in my American neighborhood, almost any gospel conversation can begin with at least some knowledge of the Bible.  If I didn’t have a foundational concept already in place as a cultural crutch, I wouldn’t know what to do.

How does that evangelist not get tongue-tied or flustered when she talks to a non-Christian about Jesus?  How does she navigate around stonewalling tactics, redirects, and accusations against the faith?  I watch her almost sweetly bypass insults and score points for Christ and I think I would get saved by listening to her if I weren’t saved already.  I’ve read some evangelism books, but the scripts I try to memorize come off in a real conversation sounding like cheap stew—a garble of different arguments and “best of” gospel thoughts.

How does that guy with a shepherd’s heart meet with discouraged, wayward, or hurt Christians, and over the course of a conversation lead them back to Jesus?  He has a winsome way, and patience, but at the same time a moral courage that says what needs to be said.  Often, the other person receives it.  Wow.  On the other hand, I see myself hollering at the businessman who wants to leave his family and run off with his twenty year old secretary—or just as bad, coddling him with “grace” while he plots the whole thing.

How do they do it? 

Functional Gifts, Not Mantle Pieces

We’ve all asked that “how” question from time to time.  A popular assumption suggests that the person so admired was apparently born, or rather, hatched that way.  The rest of us watch him or her with awe, grateful that our otherwise plain church has been graced with such an inspiring character.

But God’s plan for these folks is not to rope them off and sell tickets.  Where we only think of talents and abilities as gifts, God sees the people themselves as gifts.  After Paul tells us that God gave gifts to men, he clarifies in Ephesians 4:11 what he means:  “He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers”—people, not just abilities or talents.

And these people are gifts to you who have more than just inspirational value.  They have been given to help you do what they do.

Herein is a principle that cannot be avoided:  The raw spiritual talents directly bequeathed to you by the Holy Spirit, need the help of others.  It takes the faith community to bring your gift into full blossom, especially through the help of specific individuals God planted there.

Success Stories

Consider Joshua.  We think of him as the great fighter and leader and successor of Moses.  A whole book of the Bible is named for him.  Yet he wasn’t always Joshua with a capital “J.”  For a while he was simply called “Assistant” (Ex. 24:13).

Joshua spent time in the Lord’s presence and with Moses, which shaped the gift within him that must have existed there from the beginning in hidden form.  We catch the milestones of his development, such as when he fought under Moses’ prayerful oversight in Exodus 17.  In that first public vetting, Joshua’s courage and his faith were called upon, and he won victory by the strategic power of prayer.  It was a crisis lesson that served him well later, when he was one of the only two who stood for God when others had lost faith.  It also came in handy when he led the people across the Jordan river and crushed the opposition of hostile tribes in the land of Canaan.  Never think though, that Joshua arrived fully assembled.  God used Moses and the Israelite community for that work.

Likewise, consider God telling Elijah that he should anoint Elisha as prophet in his place (1 Kings 19:16).  Elijah may have expected to find his replacement in deep prayer or contemplation, but he instead found the man plowing a field with twelve yoke of oxen.  Immediately after Elijah called him, Elisha begged the elder prophet for time off to say goodbye to his family.  His complications of work, busyness, and familial attachments might have made a mentor-driven relationship seem unlikely.

Elijah asked his understudy the cryptic question, “What have I done to you?”  as if to say, “I have not placed a legal obligation upon you.  Either follow me, or not—it’s up to you.”  Eventually, the reluctant Elisha caught on, and the most notable thing about him was his attachment to his mentor.  It was not the co-dependent relationship seen among unhealthy leader-followers today. Elisha had no fan-driven fixation with his master.  He simply knew that his prophetic office should grow, and he knew it wouldn’t happen by reinventing the wheel.  Elisha watched, trusting that even to witness Elijah’s translation to heaven—the miraculous end of the prophet’s ministry—would confer a blessing he could never appropriate for himself.  He was right.

I’ve skipped the obvious examples of Jesus and the twelve, and Paul and Timothy, but the principle is the same.  God’s plan is not to gift you and turn you loose on the world, but to attach you to someone who has walked ahead of you for a while, someone whose example and operation are worth learning.  This relationship is more than having a friend, or receiving care, love, and edification.  You’re pursuing it so that the elements of that other person’s ministry could complement and stimulate your own.

Now, for the Rest of Us…

We, who have served and ministered for a while, need a regular reminder that what we have learned and received should not end with us.   My grandparents owned and operated a café in Pollock, Louisiana in the fifties—The Indian Inn.  My grandmother did all the cooking, and served up some of the best southern meals ever.  I asked my dad if she had kept a book of recipes.  “She never wrote any of it down,” he said. “Those recipes died with her.”  For thirty years I’ve hunted restaurants off and on for Lillian Myer’s bread pudding with spiced milk gravy.  Apparently it really did die with her.

Don’t let your ministry—the things you have learned or are learning—die with you.  God’s plan is not complete when you have a ministry—no, not until you have passed its significant elements on to someone else.

This is a hard concept to learn, especially when ministry is treated as little more than a right of self-expression, or personal fulfillment.  And it is almost impossible to value mentoring, as long as the gold coin of ministry means an individual reaches celebrity status, and has gained an enthusiastic following.  Why invest in others when they couldn’t possibly do a better job than us?  Or even more petty, why invest in others when they might actually do a better job than us?  Concerns of this type tend to be self-centered, but as Paul said, the end product ought always to be “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:12-13).

Try Switching Trees

A minister is not a single redwood pine, with lesser trees all huddled in its shadow.  Redwoods are massive, reaching up to 300 feet.  People hug them and take photos of them, travel long distances to see them, buy calendars with their images on them.   In an attempt to portray their stateliness, and great growth, we Christians like to use Redwoods as emblematic figures.  In doing so, we unintentionally convey the idea of isolation, greatness, and haunts for birds and squirrels.

Instead, we might want to think of ministers clustered in vineyards or apple orchards.  Neither grape vines nor apple trees mesmerize anyone.  They are unremarkable, short, plain, and common.  Where there is one, usually there are others.  Their size doesn’t inspire, but their fruit certainly does.  People travel from miles around, not to see the trees per se, but to show up with baskets to gather their marvelous fruit.

In similar fashion, the body of Christ could never be composed of one or two superstars with dwarfish, dependent members attached to them.  Such a thing would be an insult to the glorious work of Jesus.  God’s intention is to bear an entire community of people serving and growing into the fullness of Christ.

The Gifts in Your Church are Probably Little…And Imperfect

God wants us to experience the glory of participating in His work, so He gave us gifts of people, most of whom have not made it onto the cover of Christianity Today.  In fact, most of these folks aren’t known at all outside their church.

But they are known to God, and they’re probably known to you.

Learn from them.  Perhaps there are things you shouldn’t learn.  I’ll bet somebody out there has an evangelistic gift, but can’t be on time for anything.   There’s also the person who knows how to reach a suffering believer, but has a messy house.  Flaws are a part of the human package, and with the exception of Jesus Christ, no gift is perfect for everyone, in everything, and in every way.  As Paul advised the Philippians—“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8).

In short, learn all the good stuff.

And if you are on the mentoring side of the equation, don’t wait for world-class excellence in any given area before you reach out to help someone else.  I’m not a famous preacher. Then why would I have the nerve, the unmitigated gall, to instruct others?   For one thing, I take seriously what God has given me, and I try to keep a learning spirit, receiving help from books, fellowship, and listening to others.   I have a gift deficit, but as an imperfect gift, I also have a responsibility to others to pass along my grace and my learning.

And when others wonder how I do it, I usually have one question:

Do you really want to know?



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