I was at a recent event and had the opportunity to sing a song that had sort of a comedy routine introduction and it was very well received by the group. A number of people came up to me afterwards to thank me for doing it and several made comments like, “You’re so talented!” Sure, it’s nice to be complimented, but as I reflected on the situation I kept thinking about how everyone is given gifts and abilities, so the line “You’re so talented!” could be stated about everyone. However, the structure of gifting and human interaction biases the compliments towards a small subset of abilities. That probably sounds like a weird statement, so let me explain.
First of all, I start from the deduction that our world was designed, not simply arising randomly. And like the beauty of ecosystems, I have concluded that humans were designed to be interdependent. So any one person cannot fulfill all functions needed for happy and fruitful living. Each person needs to depend on others. And we see that abilities are distributed, so we have diversity, instead of uniformity. The Biblical illustration, which shows up in 1 Cor 12-14, is one of a body with many members, where the members have different functions and are all necessary.
In this distribution, it is important to notice two categories of abilities, what I will call one-to-one gifts and one-to-many gifts. One-to-one gifts are the most critical and where the nitty gritty of love gets played out. For example, in a family, there is a lot of one-to-one training and love that is necessary to build a child into a mature adult. Health care is another clear example of love that occurs one-to-one. In fact, most forms of love, not all, but most, can only be conveyed one to one. One-to-many gifts, on the other hand, are often informational. If you need to convey information, then one person can talk to a crowd of 10 or of 10,000. And the information gets conveyed. So speakers and musicians, and writers and artists all operate in the realm of one-to-many.
Now, think about how this plays out. If a person is good at speaking, or drama, or music, or painting, their abilities are displayed to many people. And those many people who experience the same person’s gifts, will often discuss them with each other or convey their appreciation to the person. I.e., one-to-many gifts get noticed and they get the compliments. Even if you are not very good at speaking, if you talk to large enough groups, you will find some who like it and complement you.
Now, let’s compare that to the one-to-one gifts. A person has an aging mother or spouse, and gives 10 years to taking care of the person. How many people know about it? The one person serves one other person. No one else is there to witness it. That serving takes special ability. That serving evidences real talent. But no one is there to see it except for one person. So you don’t have the crowd. The crowd, which usually includes some more talkative people who pipe up and say, “You’re so talented!” But the health care giving person is displaying just as much talent as a good musician, only in a different arena, a personal arena.
Do you see what I am saying? If you happen to be one of those with a gift that is one-to-many, you have a much higher likelihood of being thought of as being talented. If you show love individually, and do it very well, you will get complimented, but not by the masses. But here is what happens. We grow to think that speaking and musical gifts are “talent” but holding hands, and washing feet and giving a word of personal encouragement are not. But they are. And don’t think you are not talented if you cannot readily do something one-to-many. That may not have been your distribution. Your talent may appear in a different sphere, but it is still talent.
I think when God rewards, he will look at the heart of love and compassion that motivated you to express the abilities He gave you, rather than at how many people you touched. The only way the “how many” comes into play is in asking how much time did you spend living selfishly. If you were less selfish, would you have had time to touch more lives with expressions of love? In other words, God won’t be comparing the numbers for a one-to-one gifted person with those of a one-to-many gifted person. Like in 2 Cor, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he does not have.
I write this, not so much to help you think about what eternal rewards might be coming your way, but rather, to encourage believers to live in unity with each other. If you have a one-to-many gift, don’t think you are more special than anyone else. There needs to be some one-to-many gifts, and they are more rare, because we don’t need as many. But you will have a limited influence on lives. Some things can only happen one-to-one, and that may be outside your proper working. If you have a one-to-one gift, don’t be jealous of the attention that the one-to-many people get. It’s simply a matter of statistics, they will get more attention, but that does not make them better and the kind of attention that matters is when you get God’s attention. He’s looking at how you are using what he distributed to you.
Here is one principle of unity. (This comes from an ad by Grey and Farrar, the Ultimate Matchmaking Service.)
When we take communion, or break bread, or celebrate the Eucharist, the main point is to remember what Christ did for us. We eat his body and drink his blood to show that we are taking in His life which is the means to eternal life. We are forgiven and we proclaim His death until He comes. But the bread and the cup also point to unity! 1 Cor 10:16-17 says, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.”
We sometimes miss the symbolism because it is common to use little wafers or pre-cut pieces of bread (more like crackers, actually) in communion. But the reality is that all believers are members of the one body of Christ. Think about that the next time you share in the breaking of bread!
I Cor 12 describes how God comprised the body so that the members need each other. He gives an example of an eye and an ear, and a hand and a foot. The eye cannot say to the ear, “I have no need of you.” Let’s think about that a minute. Suppose, you were an eye. What would you care about loud and soft? About in tune and out of tune? And if two eyes were at a bar talking to each other about colors and geometry and the like and an ear walked in and sat down besides them, they might have a hard time finding some common ground to discuss. After a brief conversation, perhaps the ear would get offended and leave. Then the first eye would feel some remorse and express it to his optical friend. But the second would turn to the first and say,”Don’t feel bad. He doesn’t get it. He can’t relate to us. He knows nothing about hue and intensity and brightness. Don’t sweat it, we don’t need him.”
I wonder how often our gifts make us oblivious to what others offer us, or to what others offer to the body of Christ at large. (You might be able to argue that the eyes don’t need the ears, but the brain certainly needs both the eyes and ears. They are both important.)
Maybe we can grow in unity if we pay attention to our own words and listen to others and look for the ways in which we say, “I have no need of you.” For example, let’s think about congregational music. Suppose one person says, “I really like the hymns in the hymnal. They are tried and true. They have substantive content. They are well written. That new music is shallow. It’s simplistic. I’m sticking with the old hymns.” What does this communicate to those who are creatively gifted, and have abilities to compose music and lyrics? What may be inferred (rightly or wrongly) by the songwriter is “we have no need of you, we have all the songs the church needs, no need to write new ones.” So, the creative person leaves to go find someone who appreciates her talents, or, even worse, just gives up being creative and lives the rest of her life in mere existence, robbed of fulfillment, unable to exercise her gift. This was not the result intended by the hymn lover, but this is the type of thing that occurs when we do not judge the Body rightly.
Maybe you know other examples.
Today, Feb 2, 2013 the website UnityByDesign.org has gone live. Not much content yet, but it’s coming. Look for thoughts on unity in churches, unity in marriages, unity in families, unity at work, unity in play.
Hopefully we can share the sentiment expressed when the temple was being reconstructed after the captivity:
Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.” Zech 4:10 New Living Translation.