Gifts of and for the Church

This is an adaptation of the full content of my 2016 session at Hutchmoot, the annual Rabbit Room gathering in Nashville, Tennessee. (This post was recently posted in two parts on the Rabbit Room website.) To find out more about the Rabbit Room click here. 

The church in Ephesus had a fascinating back-story. Made up of people from every social and cultural background imaginable, from those steeped in Old Testament law to others raised in a culture of ritual prostitution and sorcery, it was as diverse as any modern church. Men and women who once stood on opposite sides of the ancient canyons of sex, race and social standing now found themselves shoulder to shoulder, facing the enormous challenge to live and love as the body of Christ.

As Paul writes his stunning letter to the Ephesians, deep fatherly love evident in every line, he begins by reminding them of their story. For three chapters blessing upon blessing tumble over each other, coming to a crescendo as he prays that the reality of their position before God would take root, deepening their understanding of who God is and transforming their lives.

Fast on the heels of this outpouring of favour comes the question raised at the beginning of Chapter 4. “If all this is true, then what?? How do we respond to this undeserved torrent of grace?”

It is often said that wisdom is asking the right questions. If this is true then the prevailing questions, particularly within Western Christianity, reveal not only a growing lack of wisdom but also a tendency towards a highly individualistic view of the Gospel. Again and again we ask; What is God doing in my life? How are my needs being met by the church? Where can I find a place where my talents are appreciated?

Pushing back against this mind-set, Paul reminds the Ephesians that grace not only sealed their place as children of God but also placed them firmly within His Kingdom. When we are welcomed by God, we are welcomed as part of His Church. While our individual, intimate relationship with God is both beautiful and crucial, it cannot properly exist outside of the rag tag bunch of broken souls who have been touched by the same grace. As God’s people, indwelt by the same Holy Spirit, we have been given a pre-existing supernatural bond that supersedes our differences. Paul, knowing the importance of this gift, urges the church in Ephesus to preserve it, doggedly clinging to unity as they give sacrificially of themselves for the good of the kingdom they are now part of. Like Jesus, Paul sees the way we respond to others as the first indicator of our intimacy with God.

It is in this context of intentional community that Paul turns to the subject of spiritual gifts, taking an approach that is perhaps very different from the one that has been sneaking into our collective understanding.

There is a beautiful passage in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” when, in the midst of a long and difficult journey, Father Christmas arrives with gifts for the Pevensie children. The conversation goes like this;

“These are your presents,” was the answer, “and they are tools not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well.” With these words he handed to Peter a shield and a sword. The shield was the colour of silver and across it there was ramped a red lion, as bright as a ripe strawberry at the moment when you pick it. The hilt of the sword was of gold and it had a sheath and a sword belt and everything it needed, and it was just the right size and weight for Peter to use. Peter was silent and solemn as he received these gifts, for he felt they were a very serious kind of present.”

There is a gift for each child – a sword and shield for Peter, a bow and horn for Susan and a dagger and cordial for Lucy. Each gift is directly related to the personality and role of the child but each is given for the good of Narnia. Rather than diminishing the value of the gift itself, this knowledge adds a solemnity and significance that would otherwise be lacking.

While it is important to know what your gift is, I think it is equally important to understand the purpose for which it was given. Rather than simply a pat on the back from a benevolent father or a weapon in the fight for pole position, any gift we have is given as a crucial and integral part of the battle to defend, strengthen and build the Church of Christ. Ephesians 4v 11-13 says this,

“And he gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”

Whatever it is that demonstrates God’s character at work in your life, according to Paul, you have a role in getting God’s people ready for service. You have a part to play in building and nurturing the body of Christ and encouraging others towards wisdom and holiness, mending broken bones and helping other believers walk their road with a surer step. Paul reminds the Ephesians that the gifts they bring, however small, form part of the glue that holds the Church together, helping God’s people to cling to the supernatural unity that will mark them out as followers of Jesus. As we each, individually, lay down our skills and talents for the good of the Kingdom, we help one another come to an intimate, authentic, life shaping knowledge of God. Together, we are better equipped to fulfil our created purpose, reaching maturity in faith and living lives that are marked by and reflect the fullness of Christ.

Practically speaking, how does that look? More specifically (although the principles apply generally), what does it look like when writers, artists, poets, musicians and storytellers choose to use their gifts for the glory of God? Have you ever wondered why God chose to work into you a love of words? A vivid imagination? An ability to write poetry or compose music? An appreciation of colour and form and an ability to translate that into something tangible?

At Hutchmoot 2015, Michael Card spoke about the importance of imagination when coming to Scripture. Not imagination in the sense of dreaming up something that is not true, but the kind of holy imagination that helps us engage more deeply with truth. If I could point to one thing that has changed my Christian life it would be when I began to see Scripture as an epic story rather than disjointed books. We can be so factual about our faith. So theologically correct. I believe good stories help us exercise our imagination and awaken the sense of wonder that allows us to view God’s word with a sense of holy awe.

I will never forget the first time I read about Aslan’s death on the stone table. I was a small child but I remember sobbing uncontrollably, totally overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Even then I think I knew on some level that my tears were for something more than Aslan. The power of that story took the truth of the cross and buried it deeper in my heart, allowing me to feel the awesome truth of Jesus’ sacrifice in a way that went beyond mental understanding. I know that I am better for it. I am not suggesting for one moment that we abandon theology in favour of stories but I do believe that the one can be better understood in the presence of the other.

In many ways the storyteller also plays the role of prophet, allowing us for just a moment to see something beyond our natural vision. Last year, my friend Lanier Ivester wrote a beautiful post called “Creativity: Spiritual Battle and Spiritual Discipline” which changed my understanding of this. Sarah Clarkson had previously written about a time when she had asked God to give her a picture of what he was calling her to do through her writing. She says this;

Instantly, I do mean instantly, a Millais painting came to my thought. It has long enchanted me for its vivid, startling image—that of a blind young girl sitting amidst a glory of a golden field with two rainbows like stairways to heaven behind her. Not a bit of it can she see. But in that painting, a small child sits next to the blind girl, peeking out from under her cloak, neck craned in awe at the glory, telling the blind one of all the beauty. And I knew in that image that my task, as a soul, but particularly as a writer, is to be that child.

Lanier responded by asking God for a similar picture and I in turn did the same. On both occasions God answered in a way that was different and yet full of the same sense of purpose. I love the way Lanier sums up Sarah’s picture: “Write the rainbow, God told her. Tell this broken world of things it cannot see.”

A few years ago I was speaking at a conference and during my talk I mentioned the Chronicles of Narnia. Afterwards a lady came over and told me that she was a teacher in an inner city school. Some of the kids in her class had really difficult lives, evidenced by the defensive hostility they instinctively employed. As part of their course the teacher read through “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. At the end of a class, as everyone filed out, she noticed one particular girl at the back of the room. Visibly upset, the girl remained in her seat. When the teacher asked her what was wrong the girl mumbled through her tears, “I just wish Aslan was real. I feel like he would understand me.”  Stories have a way of slipping past our defences in a way that can both break and heal us, softening hard ground in readiness for the Sower.

In a similar way, stories allow us to step back and view our own lives from a distance, perhaps seeing things we were otherwise too close to notice. The story of David and Nathan, in 2 Samuel 12, is a powerful example. After David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of Uriah, Nathan the prophet comes to visit him. Instead of confronting him with his sin, Nathan tells David a story about a rich man who took a poor man’s lamb and slaughtered it for a banquet, despite the fact that he had countless animals of his own. Incensed, David applies Scripture and pronounces judgement. When the truth is revealed, the power of the story is such that David is utterly broken by the revelation of his own heart, throwing himself on God’s grace with the raw grief of Psalm 51.

I grew up outside Belfast at a time when there was a sharp divide between the Protestant and Catholic communities. With very little contact between the two communities I had a subconscious wariness of those on the “other side”. When I was 10, I read a book called “Across the Barricades”. Telling the story of two teenagers from opposite sides of the peace wall who embarked on a relationship, it was a Northern Irish Romeo and Juliet that was based in a culture I knew. It brought a sense of familiarity to people I would not otherwise have come into contact with at that stage in my life. In allowing me to enter their world, it chipped away at the distance between us and broke down the prejudice that could easily have taken root.

Stories can deeply influence and develop our sense of community. When I read sweeping stories like Narnia or the Wingfeather Saga, or watch movies like Star Wars, they stir within me a sense of common purpose that can only find it’s true expression in the Kingdom of God. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the picture of community modelled so beautifully amongst those who gather at the Rabbit Room goes hand in hand with a profound love of story.

There are times in our lives when we are faced with things that weigh down upon us and stop us in our tracks. For me, this has often been when the poets, song-writers and musicians step in like angels of light, helping me name the struggle and grieve it’s presence, while at the same time bringing hope.

Biblically, this is the world of the Psalms. The place where questions are asked, hurts are expressed and trust is affirmed, even in the darkness. It is a place to wrestle with deep questions, acknowledging the pain and yet, at the same time, choosing to cling to the belief that God is good.

For me, the most moving example of this is Psalm 73. Alongside guttural cries of deep pain and confusion come beautiful declarations of faith. Pain and trust, co-existing around the central truth in verse 17 that only God’s presence is the difference between struggle and despair. This is the tension that is so beautifully expressed in songs like Andrew Peterson’s “The Rain Keeps Falling”, anthems that step in again and again to strengthen us in our weariness and walk beside us in our searching.

Music has a mysterious power to move us. While I have little musical ability, my appreciation of music has been forever altered by Ben Shive’s Hutchmoot session on the language of music. Despite the fact that most of what he said was far beyond my understanding, I left the session deeply moved by the ways that different music can make us feel. In some ways the patterns and their affects can be understood (well, by Ben anyway) and yet there is still mystery. Why does music impact us the way it does? It seems, even from the womb, God has breathed into us a response to music that goes beyond our conscious thought.

It is interesting that in 1 Samuel 16, when Saul finds himself repeatedly gripped by an evil spirit, the only relief he can find comes when David is summoned to play his harp. Similarly, in 2 Kings 4, when Elisha is faced with a situation which makes him so angry that he struggles to hear God’s voice, he calls for a musician to play so that he will be able to listen to God.

Life, of course, is not all shadow. There are seasons when light breaks through and illuminates the path ahead. In the paradox of God’s sovereignty, there are often times when the sorrow and the rejoicing go hand in hand.  Whether in joy or suffering, the poets and songwriters and musicians have a glorious role in calling God’s people to worship. There is a beautiful moment in 1 Chronicles 15 v 16, when David asks the Levites to “appoint their relatives the singers, with instruments of music, harps, lyres, loud-sounding cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.”

Similarly, the ability of visual artists to change the way we look at the world astonishes me. Throughout Scripture God repeatedly uses the visual to communicate with His people. In a bush that was ablaze and yet growing within the flame, God called Moses, teaching him about His character and preparing him for the role he would play in the nation of Israel. For Peter in Acts 10, the image of a blanket let down from heaven and filled with all kinds of unclean animals was the catalyst for the welcome of the Gentiles into the Church. With one image God was able to sum up his call to Sarah and Lanier.

Whether it is through stories, songs, poems, art or some other creative expression of the heart of God, the role of people with gifts like these cannot be underestimated within the Church.

In Ephesians 4 v 14-15 Paul gives us a glimpse of the impact this sacrificial offering of our gifts will have.

 “As a result we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.”

In bringing our gifts to the Church we help each other to stand firm, protecting one another from being tossed here and there by everything that comes our way. For weeks now, the words of a hymn have been lodged in my heart and mind. 

Still, my soul be still, do not be moved
By lesser lights and fleeting shadows.
Hold onto His ways, with shield of faith
against temptations flaming arrows.  

~ Keith & Krysten Getty / Stuart Townend

Until recently, I tended to think of temptation only in terms of sin. While that is an obvious and very real part of the struggle, I have been learning that there is also a temptation to despair. In a season of struggle, that is the temptation I have faced. Yet, as proof of what I thought I already knew, the gifts of others, in so many forms, have helped me to stand firm. Pointing me again and again to the One who is the source and the reason for hope.

 Not only do we have a role in helping others hold fast, we also teach one another to handle truth well. Not just to know it and let it change us, not just to speak it out but to do it all in love. Has there ever been a time when we needed this skill more? To invest intentionally and sacrificially in each other is to mature together, gradually growing in understanding, holiness and humility and becoming more like Christ.

Paul finishes this section with a final emphasis on the importance of this growing together and the part we each play in the process.

“ …we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” (v16)

If we as the Church are “fitted and held together by what every joint supplies”, if the body grows “according to the proper working of each individual part”, then the roles we have been given are not optional.

According to Paul, if we choose not to offer our gifts to God’s people the church is impoverished.

Madeleine L’Engle said, “We can’t take any credit for our talents, it’s how we use them that counts.” It is important that we are good stewards of our gifts, honing them and making them the best they can be, all the time remembering that the wisdom and strength we need to use them comes only from God. A friend of mine said recently that your prayer life is a barometer of how much you need God. We may have been given gifts but the task is still bigger than we are. There is great freedom in understanding that. Without grounding ourselves in God’s word and cultivating His heart we will fail, either because our strength gives out or because we begin to believe we have strength enough without him. The stirring exhortations of Ephesians chapter four are always a response to the grace of chapters one to three. In the same way, our service for God rings true when it is a response to everything God has already done for us.

If you don’t understand how important your gift is the church will be weaker for it. However, the responsibility that comes with that knowledge must be balanced with an understanding of the fact that we exist as part of the Kingdom. We are not lone rangers. Not even the introverts. We are not created to exist in solitude, or even to hang out in groups of like-minded people, praising and seeking praise. Paul makes it clear here and also in 1 Corinthians 12 that our gifts are for the common good.

People who consider a love of stories to be an indication of spiritual immaturity have often mystified me. I wonder if one of the reasons they devalue story is that they have a narrow view of the collaborative nature of Kingdom work?

If I, alone, am called to fully explain the gospel in everything I do, then stories or songs or art, in isolation, will have limited benefit. On the other hand, if they form part of a richer tapestry, where artists and theologians and caregivers and mums and pastors and teachers each bring their gift and offer it for the good of the Kingdom, the result is a fuller, more authentic picture of the heart of God. We are called to step into a story that is bigger than ourselves and to bring every gift we have to the collective task of telling it.

Individually, we can perfect and master the gifts and talents God has given us. And so we should. However, unless they are offered sacrificially to the Church, for the glory of God, they will always fall short of the very purpose for which they have been given. 

America

Yesterday morning I received an email from a travel company, asking this question: "Given the outcome of the American Presidential election, will you be reconsidering any future plans to travel to the United States?"

My knowledge of American politics is limited. I don't fully understand the voting system or how the government is structured and I am not qualified to comment on the political or global implications of this decision. Therefore, I won't.

Instead, let me tell you about some Americans I know.

I have a friend who writes stories about rabbits. In the face of the overwhelming uncertainty facing our world, you may think stories are not important. I disagree. These rabbits live in a world that is under attack. Almost overnight, they find themselves thrust into a fight they didn't ask for. The battle is long and often painful and the rabbits are pushed almost beyond their ability to endure. Yet, despite the breaking and the scars, they discover that the things they believed in theory are proved true under fire. Their story breathes strength into my legs, not just because it is beautiful, but because it is an echo of something true.

I have another friend who has the remarkable ability to craft words and music, creating songs that get to the heart of this broken world we live in, naming the pain while at the same time holding out hope. Yet another who uses his musical ability to help children engage with the truth of Scripture, laying a foundation of hope that will impact their entire understanding of the world.

This year, I met a new friend whose ability to strip bare her pain and hold it out with open hands is astonishing. Instead of hiding in safety, she chooses instead to gift others with the knowledge that they are not alone.

Then there are the people who wield beauty as a weapon of war. They pour it with abandon into their writing, into their homes, their gardens, their meals and their friendships. They plant vegetables and raise bees and keep chickens. They welcome children into their homes and invite guests to their table and write letters and tell jokes. Refusing to despair, they look for the beautiful things and celebrate them, however small they may be.

I believe that these storytellers, poets, musicians, artists and dreamers will have a vital role to play in the coming months. They won't always get it right but I believe that, despite the temptation to indulge in bitter diatribe, they will make the difficult choices. They will offer help to those who are struggling. They will welcome and love people who would otherwise be left without hope. They will weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. They will be silent when there are no words to say and they will speak when the powerful run out of answers. I don't believe it will be easy. They will fight and they will be wounded but they will not be overwhelmed. 

I know this because I have seen them sit around tables, unique in their diversity, telling tales of a Kingdom that is coming. Loving, forgiving and crying with both grief and laughter. I have listened to the certainty in their voices as they encourage one another to hope. The thing is, Donald Trump may soon be their president but he will never be their King. 

We know that this world we live in is just a shadow of the one to come but sometimes it takes the battle to prove it true. If all the uncertainty of this past year has taught us anything, maybe it will be a reminder that this world is not going to last forever. Not America, not Europe and not any of the other powers that jostle for control in our shrinking world. That knowledge brings great freedom.

Will I continue to travel to the United States? Of course I will. If it was possible, and I thought my presence would bring any comfort or encouragement to my friends, I would go today. In the meantime, I will be praying for them. I will be praying that somehow, despite all the voices they are hearing, they will be able to pick out the one voice they recognise. That they will be brave enough to spend more time in God's Word than they do on social media, cultivating wisdom, humility and peace rather than anger and despair. Perhaps most importantly, I will be praying that the things they know to be true will sink down deep and give them the courage to be daring with their love, offering hope freely and without fear to all those who need it. 

The good guys and the bad guys

For months now my friends and I have been wading through a study on the Kings and Prophets. Almost every time we get together we end up asking the same question:

"What about this guy? Is he good or bad?"

It seems we have a deep seated desire to place everyone neatly into one of two camps. On one side are the good guys. They are the ones who follow God unswervingly, living lives that are worthy of their high calling. Then there are the bad guys. The pantomime villains who rebel violently against God and hunt down His people.

Again and again we have come up against a problem. No sooner have we made our judgement than the character in question behaves in a way that casts doubt on everything we believed him to be. 

David, the poet King, conquers armies and urges the Israelites to follow God. Then, in the next breath, he sleeps with another man's wife and has the same man killed to cover up his own mistakes. Hardly behaviour fitting a pillar of the good guy camp.

Moses, the man who faced up to Pharaoh and led the people out of slavery, dividing the Red Sea with his staff, loses his temper and lashes out in a public display of rebellion. (Oh yes, he also killed an Egyptian and buried his body.) Good guy membership revoked?

So it goes on. Elijah, fresh from victory, lies under a tree and begs to die. King Asa, having turned the nation of Judah back to God and brought peace to the nation ends his life in a display of self-reliance that is a staggering contradiction of what has gone before.

Even the bad guys can't seem to do what is expected of them all the time. 

If the good guys can be bad and the bad guys can be good is there any difference? Reading the stories, it strikes me that the test centres around their response to sin. They all make mistakes and they all fall but what happens next? 

Confronted with his sin, David is broken. Psalm 51 is a stunning demonstration of a man who knows the heart of God and understands what it means to break His law. In contrast, confronted in a similar way, King Ahab sulks and refuses to eat. He is frustrated by the inconvenience of his sin but his path does not change. 

It seems the best of us have evil lurking just under the surface and the worst of us are capable of surprising the world with moments of goodness. The question I have found myself asking is, "What is the state of my heart?" "How do I feel about my failures when they inevitably come?" "Does it bother me that my arrogance and hypocrisy brings dishonour to God?"

We have a God who not only sees our sin in all it's technicolour ugliness but, at great cost to Himself, chose to make a way for us to move past it. The seemingly small rebellions and the devastating "I can't believe you call yourself a Christian" sin. However, within the immeasurable freedom of this glorious truth there lies a hidden danger. Recently a little girl asked me a question that gets to the heart of our understanding of God's grace; "If God has forgiven all of our sin, surely that means we can just do what we want now?" The tone of her voice betrayed the unspoken hope that she was wrong. Even in her childish mind the logic of it left her cold. The truth is, if we understand what God has done for us, if we really grasp it in the depths of our being, the reality of our sin will break us. That is why Peter wept after he denied Jesus and it is why David was undone by the horror of his sin with Bathsheba. 

The good news is that the breaking is just the beginning. For Peter, tears in the garden were followed by intimacy on the beach as Jesus reinstated him, giving him a new purpose and a new hope. Even after his sin and failure, David was known as a man after God's own heart. Despite our best intentions to pursue holiness we will fall spectacularly short. It may surprise us but it never surprises God. While there is no doubt that my life and behaviour are an indication of my walk with God and my desire to follow Him, I'm learning to pay more attention to what is going on in my heart. How do I respond when my failures are exposed? Do I react in frustration and anger, irritated by the inconvenience of repentance? Or, moved by a heart that has been captivated by grace, do I let the tears flow and allow God to do what He chooses with my brokenness? 

Andrew Peterson in Concert

15 July @ 8pm

(Doors open 7.30pm)

Scrabo Hall, Mill Street, Newtownards, BT234LN

Tickets available at the door.

Andrew Peterson is a Christian singer / songwriter, storyteller and award winning author from Nashville, Tennessee. Since his last visit to Northern Ireland in 2013 Andrew has been writing books, releasing albums and playing sold out concerts across the United States. While his most recent album, The Burning Edge of Dawn, debuted at no. 2 in the American Christian Bllboard Charts, his ability as a wordsmith and his determination to pursue the heart of God despite the brokenness of everyday life give his music an authenticity and richness that sets it apart. This year Andrew will be accompanied by the ridiculously talented Family Band, made up of his sons Aedan and Asher, his daughter Skye and his wife Jamie. Don't miss it!!