I Am Not Exceptional

I've noticed a trend with a lot of nonfiction books.  I'm talking about the ones that are considered resource books for your particular field, be it business, church leadership, sports, etc.  Have you ever noticed what most of them do?  The author will relate these fascinating (but possibly exaggerated) true stories of success, and then from those stories and observations the author will put forth a model or framework that all of us should adopt in order to be successful as well.  The trouble is, these fascinating stories are in fact the exceptions to the rule.  Within these success stories, there is often an unacknowledged complex web of circumstances that came together to make it happen.  So you can take these fascinating exceptions in life and create a model or framework around them and you can become a published author. But we your readers are likely just going to come away more frustrated.  Why?  Because we're in the majority.  We're somewhere in that big, fat lump of the bell curve, and we don't measure up to the exceptional.   And if you're in the "religion business" like me, it's even worse.  The authors in my field do the same thing with these exceptions to the rule but then imply that God is more powerfully at work in their setting, making the rest of us feel like spiritual failures.

I most recently encountered this in a book called Walk Out, Walk On by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.  I have to say it was a very interesting read.  It communicates, in narrative form, concepts found in another influential book I've read called Cultivating Communities of Practice. The authors of Walk Out, Walk On write about their journeys to communities around the world - in places like Zimbabwe, India, and Mexico - and their experience with communities that are breaking the mold and finding very creative, group-based solutions to problems without the help of imperialistic, bureaucratic solutions from the West. These people have "walked out" of the systems that aren't working and have "walked on" to help create their own future and solutions. The book contains actual pictures of the places/people the authors encountered. The point of the book is that these kinds of community-based, creative solutions come about organically and are not imposed or transplanted. The authors spend a good portion of the book criticizing the West for being a know-it-all and importing solutions into other countries and communities that have ended up causing more harm (e.g., the Green Revolution). Their point is argued convincingly, albeit condescendingly, and I totally agree that we in the West are often very arrogant that our way is the best way and that we fail to take context into account.  But the authors seem to miss the point that the communities about which they write represent the exceptions; a tiny minority. They relate these stories and then create a whole new, over-arching model or framework for the rest of us to follow from these exceptions. In this case, the authors witness these fascinating, community-based solutions in different spots of the world, and then conclude that every community can be just as innovative. Look at what these people did!  But the vast majority of communities have NOT come up with their own solutions nor do they always seem motivated or able to do so.

It's the same thing when I read about something a pastor did in his or her (but usually "his") church that got them growing like weeds, and he or she writes a book that is supposed to "encourage" other pastors.  It doesn't.  It promulgates this idea that we can all be exceptional, that we will all come up with some earth-shattering idea or strategy.  I doubt I will.  The odds are against me.  I fall somewhere in the large hump of the bell curve.  Pastor and blogger Morgan Guyton touched on this very honestly and eloquently in an August 21 blog post:
"I enjoy everything about being a pastor except the pressure to be 'successful'...I love sitting down with people one-on-one to talk about their lives and their questions about God. I love the challenge of wrestling with God’s mysteries and sharing the epiphanies God reveals to me when I preach. I love the entrepreneurial process of spinning out new ministries under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But I feel like a failure because those damn numbers won’t go up no matter how many cards I send out to people, no matter how many times I 'like' their Facebook photos, no matter how many 'I’m not calling to nag about your coming back to church; just to see how you’re doing' phone calls that I make."
That's why I like the Bible - we try to idealize its people and stories, but they're all very messy - the way they're supposed to be if they're true.  And In many different ways, the writers of the Bible try to tell all of us that being exceptional in God's sight has nothing to do with being on the far end of the bell curve.  God has gifted each of us to do certain things.  And even that doesn't mean that we're going to be "exceptional" or revered for the gifts we have.  It merely means that all of us are going to be passionate about something.  Not the best at it, but passionate about it.  God implanted in all of us a drum to which we march, a default to which we return, something that makes us tick.  In religious circles we use the phrase "spiritual gifts."  The apostle Paul mentions them on several occasions.  In the following passage from Romans 12, Paul gently puts us in our place and then tells us to 'get out there and use our gifts!'
"For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully." (Romans 12:3-8)
These spiritual gifts, Paul reminds us, are not just given to us willy-nilly with no particular purpose in mind, but are meant to be used in service to God and others (Eph 4:12, 1 Cor 14:12, Rom 14:19)

That same Paul, human just like the rest of us, expresses his vulnerability and feelings of inferiority in a very interesting way near the end of his second letter to the Corinthians.  The people of that church had apparently come to admire and shift allegiance to a group of "super apostles" (as Paul derogatorily calls them) who were much more charismatic and better at public speaking than Paul was.  Paul brings out in the open what some are saying about him:  "For some say, 'His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.'” (2 Corinthians 10:10).  These "super apostles" were apparently doing some effective one-upmanship on Paul in the eyes of the people.  Maybe they had more converts.  Maybe they were rich.  Maybe they had planted more churches.  Clearly they were skilled in areas that endeared them to the church at Corinth.  Paul is clearly self-conscious, and though he recognizes that he shouldn't stoop to their level and boast about himself, he submits to the urge and does so anyway:
"Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I.  Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again." (2 Cor 11:21-23).
This is where Paul mentions his "thorn in the flesh" (scholars still debate what this was referring to) and says that he had asked God to take it away.  The answer he felt from God is a well-known verse:  "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor 12:9).  Paul comes to a place of acknowledging that even one's weaknesses - areas in which we are not gifted - can be seen as a gift from God, an opportunity for God's glory to be revealed:  "That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor 12:10).

Perhaps the problem is that we forget that we're not the ones doing this.  We forget that we are not the movers and shakers but that we are like clay in the potter's hands (Jer 18:1-6), mere vessels used by God for His work (2 Cor 4:7).  I'm reminded of something that Warren Wiersbe wrote in his little book On Being a Servant of God.  It has stuck with me ever since I first heard it in college.  "The trouble with too many of us is that we think God called us to be manufacturers when He really called us to be distributors.  He alone has the resources to meet human needs; all we can do is receive His riches and share them with others" (p.5).

So, am I exceptional?  It depends on what you mean.  I buckle under the pressure to "succeed," always be innovative, or stay ahead of the curve.  But I am "fearfully and wonderfully made."  (Psalm 139:14).

1 comment:

  1. Nice blog; really dig the Wiersbe quote! Thanks for sharing!

    I read this and think, maybe the problem is that we give testimonies of the work that God has done and is doing. That's usually not a bad thing. But we go one step further to spin them or hear them in such a way as to think that the origins of the outcome can be attributed to form, format, or our disposition, rather than the Spirit. We hear this wonderful tale of God's work somewhere and think, "Now if I just use the right equation..." [You know, cause that's what Pentecost and Acts were all about... behavioral equations to accomplish a controlled end. (snicker, snicker)]

    Perhaps it's easier for our culture to lean on equations rather than relationship with this wonderfully loving however unpredictable God. I can't remember if it was Mr. Tumnus or Mr. Beaver who says, "He's not a tame lion you know... But he's good."

    If I'm honest, I have to say I do this too. In my anxieties and frustrations with life there are times that I would rather a "tamer" god-in-my-hip-pocket kind of God. But perhaps maybe one of the biggest aspects of the "good news" was that God was and is way too big, way too creative, and way to loving to be confined to anyone's hip pocket!