Fr. Stephen Freeman: Gifts and Talents and the Road to Hell

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Fr. Stephen Freeman is really onto something in this essay: we cannot serve God – or our families, parishes, and communities – unless we first (and continually) empty ourselves in imitation of Him (Philippians 2:5-11).  Without that all our actions will be loud irritations that do no lasting good to ourselves or others.  Our intentions may be “good” or “loving” in some worldly sense, but unless the love we share is the love of the “new man” (e.g. Colossians 3), we will be transforming our families, parishes, communities, and ourselves into a demonic imitation of the perfect body of Christ.  As Fr. Stephen indicates, it’s not about doing right (measured in worldly terms) but about being right – and that is only possible in Christ; and to get in Him, we can only offer our brokenness (not our talents).     

Yes, everyone brings abilities to the table, but without offering them kenoticly, there are a whole lot of strings attached – and it isn’t God who will be pulling them.  
– Fr. Anthony Perkins 

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Gifts and Talents and the Road to Hell

Fr. Stephen Freeman; Glory to God for All Things (Ancient Faith Blogs; 19 January 2015)
[copied with permission]

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 fairevocationalism. 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.

 

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

Comments

  1. Mike Abrahamson says:

    If I were to summarize my take-aways from Fr Stephen’s article I would juxtapose two statements, one by the author and one by the apostle. Fr Stephen states “We are not saved by our talents.” Indeed he is correct. Salvation is not a competition whereby those who exhibit the most beautiful voice, or the most artistic iconography, or even the most eloquent theologizing get their ticket stamped to the heavenly abode. While we are called to offer up the first fruits of our time, talent, and treasure to God this is NOT the price of salvation. For within each one of us is to be found certain talents and skills entangled with brokenness and sin. Often our sin is revealed through our talents, such as the prideful boasting of a skillful investor or the shaming hiss of a gifted singer toward his tone-deaf brother. Our talents can become a veil which hides the true brokenness we harbor in our hearts. The fruits of our gifts can be to the glory of God or to the glory of ourselves. In case of the latter they become a fallacy, since they mask our truly imperfect identity.

    In speaking of these things, St Paul recounts the words of Christ “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” His grace is sufficient. It was Christ who paid the price for our salvation, a price far too high for our talents to even approach. Only His perfection could be sufficient. Even the most successful and talented among mankind fall horribly short of achieving their own salvation due to their own sinfulness. Christ also said “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” He is not suggesting that there are righteous people who don’t need to repent, but rather points out that only through repentance can we heed His calling and attain salvation through Him. Without repentance there can be no salvation, and without acknowledging our brokenness, our weakness, there can be no repentance. This is the antithesis of the modern gospel of gifts and talents that Fr Stephen interrogates. As he says, “Our union with Christ is precisely in our brokenness and shame.”

    It would be easy to misinterpret Fr Stephen’s discourse on the ineffectiveness of gifts and talents in the pursuit of salvation as a denouncing of beautiful singing, iconography, or powerful preaching. Would Fr Stephen claim, therefore, that St John Chrysostom should not be revered for his golden tongue, or that St Romanos or St Andrew Rublev were sanctified DESPITE their gifts? Certainly not! It is important to recognize the difference between offering our talents up to God and using them as some sort of merit-based ladder on which we ascend to righteousness. These holy men did not purchase their sainthood with talent. It is more likely that their talents were merely the expression of their true love for God. Their salvation, however, depends on Christ.

    We can apply these concepts in our approach to youth work within the church. Guiding and ministering to youth is certainly a skill not everyone possesses. Those who have this talent should be encouraged to pursue it. However, in doing so it is important to remember that it is not one’s talent organizing a retreat, or singing campfire songs, or getting young people to discuss their innermost thoughts on faith and morality that defines our ministry. These are all wonderful and useful gifts that serve to establish a connection, which is essential to build trust. Yet they are means to an end – that end being the salvation of those with whom we work. We can no more affect their salvation through our talents than we can our own. Equally, it is not through their talents that salvation can be obtained. We must be able and willing to acknowledge our brokenness with them. In so doing we may provide a trusted and loving example of how to approach God in repentance. Young people need encouragement and validation. They need to know that it is OK to not be perfect, but not to revel in that imperfection. We can help them navigate the rough waters of the journey inward where they can meet Christ in their weakness, and come to understand the truth behind St Paul’s words “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

    • Well done. You are right – we value gifts (I can imagine a wonderful Orthodox “Harrison Bergeron” where only the tone-deaf are allowed to sing, etc.). Kenosis allows us to build and use our connections with youth objectively as, as you say, means to an end. Without that,they are turn into strange and counter-productive detours!

  2. At first, Father Freeman’s criticism of the concept of preaching the value of an individual’s talents and the call to a vocation makes it seem that heresy abounds by the common use of this theme in teachings by many church leaders. He starts out by condemning the practice of focusing on the use of gifts and talents in order to build a basis for his ultimate goal which is to present his ““more excellent” reflection on the nature of gifts and talents.” His main point is to prompt us to reflect inwardly and examine our flaws and weaknesses rather than our strengths and successes. His argument is well thought out and clearly presented on its surface, but in certain aspects, the concept he promotes may ultimately be difficult for individuals to identify with or for someone without a deep knowledge of scripture and Church teachings to understand and therefore may not be the most effective “first step” in guiding individuals to lead the Christian life with salvation as its ultimate goal.

    Indeed, we are not saved by our gifts and talents. Those that may surmise that we may be saved solely through these acts may have taken gospel messages such as the Parable of Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in isolation and not combined this message to become good stewards of our God given gifts with other messages given by Jesus through other parables. The Parable of the Publican and Pharisee (Luke18:10-14) clearly illustrates that no matter what good works or contributions one might offer, without humility and self-reflection, there may not be enough room in our hearts to be filled with God. Perhaps that’s another way of looking at the point Father Freeman is trying to make. It is only through humility, self-reflection and an examination of our “wounds and handicaps” do we begin our journey on the true road to salvation.

    In a certain way, the challenge he presents is to describe an appropriate path to salvation from the perspective of –“Is the glass half empty or half full?”. He argues that modern Christianity presents today’s individuals with an “action” plan hoping to entice them into beginning the Christian journey full of kind thoughts and good deeds – the ‘half-full perspective –something easy for them to understand and take action upon. Fr Freeman’s suggests that we examine the other “half” of the challenge, emptying the sins from our life so that our hearts may be filled with God. This may only be logical as a “second step” once the first step is well under way.

    As “ youth ministers” we should be a level where we are able to at least understand the “half-empty” challenge and be able to work with those of less experience and inspire them to join us on our journey.

    • Mike Abrahamson says:

      Fr Stephen certainly doesn’t pave the thorny path with rose petals. His call to focus on our brokenness is a stark challenge even for those who may be considered spiritually mature. I like your half-full, half-empty concept. Reframing the subject around making room for God in our hearts is a wonderful way to describe repentance! Such imagery helps to make tangible the theology that Fr Stephen describes. Understanding one’s audience is paramount to giving them a message they can understand and internalize. It’s appropriate that you referenced Christ’s other parables since your comments reflect your own ability to present deeply complex theology in a way that young people can comprehend.

  3. Mike Abrahamson says: