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I am creative.
I am good at reading out loud.
When I tell Bible stories to elementary-aged children they listen.
I can create curriculum from thin air and smile while I do it.
I write well.
These are my gifts, and while, more often than not, I lead with my weaknesses, these strengths are as much “me” as any other of my parts. In fact, according to the book of Romans, they may be the most definitive elements of my unique self.
Paul writes in Romans 12:
"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.”
There are a few things to notice in this passage. I want to notice two:
#1 You are your gift.
#2 Your gift does not belong to you.
If you’ve been in church world for any time at all, you’re familiar with the imagery of church as body. Each of us is a part. All parts are different. We need each other.
Paul writes in I Corinthians 12, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you.’”
We’ve heard that before.
What I never noticed in these passages (before this moment) was how tightly each member’s identity is tied to his function.
Paul calls the one who sees clearly an eye. He calls another a foot.
Paul seems to be saying, you are your function. You are your gift.
While you are also your weakness and while you can train to acquire skills and while we’re not only called to work out of our giftedness, we cannot ignore the truth that the most helpful thing you have to offer the body is the gift God gave you.
Beyond your adoption as a child of God, no one thing is more you than the gift or gifts God wired into you.
And that can be a problem if you’re unwilling to own your gift.
As I was first writing my list of gifts, the one at the top of this post, I didn’t include writing. I didn’t include it because I’m not the best writer I know. Because all the writers I read regularly are so much better than I’ll ever be. Because I want to be a much better writer than I am. And because I was nervous to say (on the internet of all places) “I’m good at writing,” nervous someone would say, “No, you’re not.”
I was nervous to write the list at all, if we’re being honest, because I’ve been trained to think that an acknowledgement of gifting and pride go hand in hand.
Maybe you feel that way—that to say “I’m good at this” is arrogant.
It’s ridiculous because you are not responsible for your gifts. They are gifts, given to you not because of your inherent worth but because your Father, Giver of gifts, is gracious. And because He has something to accomplish with those gifts.
When we recognize the gifts God gives, we enable ourselves to step into the role God has prepared.
Which takes us to #2…
Your gifts aren’t for you.
I love that line in Romans 12, “each member belongs to all the others.”
Whether or not we realize it, we’ve been gifted for the benefit of the body, and every gift we have finds its proper use in the context of the church family.
Which means, hoarding your gifts for personal gain or hiding your gifts out of false modesty is, to be blunt, theft.
You are crippling God’s people and stunting the growth of the Kingdom.
Your gifts must—absolutely, positively MUST—be used, and not just used, shared.
Which means when my church decides to adopt a sermon-based small group curriculum, and I happen to be adept at writing curriculum and married to the guy who gives the sermons, I volunteer for the job. Not because I like sitting up late on a Saturday night writing questions. Not because I couldn’t use that time to write the novel I’ve been dreaming up. I volunteer for the job because I can do it. Because I can do it well and far more quickly than most other people. I do it because my church needs me to do it.
I do it because God made me to do it.
I feel that way about blogging, too. I don’t like blogging much of the time. I don’t love the vulnerability of it. I don’t like vying for people’s attention on Facebook. I hate the difficulty of communicating sprawling, complex truth in such a small space. I could stop tomorrow.
But for all I can tell, this is the way I’m being asked to use my gift right now. And to stop blogging would be selfish. I’d be taking something away from the people to whom it rightfully belongs.
I think God made me to write for you.
God made you to do all kinds of stuff. And to figure out what that stuff is, you’ll need to be sure of your gifts.
So do some self-evaluation.
Ask your friends.
Ask your kids.
Ask your parents.
Ask your boss or co-worker.
What am I good at?
And then make a list.
And once you’ve made your list, type it up, and print two copies.
Keep one for yourself. My husband Justin keeps his in the top drawer of his desk at work. I keep mine in a journal. We use our lists as a filter, to help us know which opportunities to grab and which to let pass, to know when to say “yes” and when to say “no.” It’s not that we never do anything outside our abilities. Rather, we’re constantly evaluating the ways we use our time, making sure that most of our energy is spent in the current of God’s gifting.
We need our copy of the list. It reminds us where we’re gifted, and it reminds us to use our gifts.
The other copy is just as important. That’s the copy you give your church. Maybe you’ll want to give it to your elders. Maybe the involvement minister. Maybe the church secretary (Probably you should make copies for all those folks). The point is to commit yourself to using your gifts in the context of the body and to enable your church to use you as fully and powerfully as they can.
Because I’m a preacher’s wife I have an up close view of the inner workings of church life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself sitting around a table trying to figure out who would be a good fit for a committee, who would make for a good Bible class teacher, who would be a good small group leader, who would read scripture well, who might be the best person to organize the work room. Or I’ve found myself looking for someone to mentor a new christian in prayer or Bible study or generosity.
There are always opportunities to serve in the local church. Always. And there are never enough people to fill the holes.
Your church and your Father are waiting for you to step up and say,
God made me good at this.
Put me to work.
You are your gifts; they are an essential and defining part of your identity.
Your gifts don’t belong to you; your identity only makes sense in the context of the Kingdom of God.
Know who you are. Do what you were made to do.
Share your gifts.
This is Lizzie Velasquez:
You’ve probably seen her Ted Talk on YouTube. It has more than 5,000,000 views.
When she was a teenager, she discovered an online video including a picture of her, labeling her the ugliest woman in the world.
Since then she’s become a popular motivational speaker and an inspiration to people around the world.
This is Stephen Wiltshire:
Stephen is autistic. As a child he struggled to speak (He was mute until age five) and used drawing as a tool to help him communicate.
He drew the above picture of the Manhattan skyline to scale and from memory after a single 20 minute helicopter ride over the city.
This is Nick Vujicic:
Nick was born with no arms and no legs. His mother couldn’t even bring herself to hold him until he was four months old.
Today Nick is an internationally recognized evangelist, author, and motivational speaker. Millions of people, many who might never have listened to a conventional preacher, have heard him share the good news.
Conventional wisdom says Lizzie, Stephen, and Nick have overcome their “disabilities.” That despite the odds being stacked against them, they’ve found a way to succeed.
I don’t think that’s true at all.
I think their disabilities were the genesis of and driving force behind their successes.
The Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians, writes about one of his own “disabilities.” He calls it a “thorn” in his flesh and although he prayed often for God to take it away, God never did.
Paul writes, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 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.”
He says in I Corinthians: “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
Is it possible that what we perceive as disabilities, flaws or weaknesses might actually be strengths?
The Bible is full of weaklings and outcasts. Moses with the bum mouth. David, too young to fight, armor-less, throwing rocks. Gideon with his tiny army, horns and lamps. Jesus, poor and poorly connected, dying on a cross, shamed.
In his book David and Goliath, Malcom Gladwell says, “To play by David’s rules you have to be desperate. You have to be so bad that you have no choice.”
And I think there’s something to that.
God likes the desperate, the people who have nowhere to go, no hope, no future, no friends, no answers… They make perfect candidates for grace.
People who are not conventionally strong see differently. They try harder. They hardly ever feel entitled. They expect to be mistreated and aren’t deterred when they are. To succeed they need and use every resource afforded them—including the wisdom and help of other people.They are more likely to turn to God in a posture of complete dependence.
But that’s not all.
People like Lizzie and Nick and Stephen have found success not by overcoming their disabilities (not exactly) but rather by, in a sense, embracing them.
For Stephen his art is made possible by his autism, granting him a seemingly superhuman ability to focus and remember.
For Nick and Lizzie, the very reason people want to hear them speak is their disability. While they’ve done much to push past the potentially disabling parts of their respective disorders, they find an audience for their message as a direct result of their being “flawed.”
If Nick had arms and legs (to the world) he’d be just another preacher.
I heard Rob Bell say once that when you get to Heaven God’s not going to say, “Why weren’t you more like Abraham?” He’s going to say, “Why weren’t you more like you?”
And that makes me nervous. Cause I have a sneaking suspicion he means all of me.
See, we like to define ourselves by our strengths and abilities and shiny spots. But we aren’t just our strengths. We may try to hide the parts of ourselves we don’t like, but they are our parts. We are our dis-abilites.
Over the years I’ve struggled with a few mental health issues. For one, I have a high level of social anxiety that makes it difficult for me to act naturally in casual conversation. I’m a big over-sharer, and I’m cripplingly self-critical. For another, I experience life in seasons of highs and lows determined not by my experiences but rather by my brain chemistry. I may have every reason to be happy and still feel sad. Sometimes I have reasons to feel sad but instead experience dramatic spikes in joy and energy.
I’m only now coming to terms with these parts of myself—not simply as problems to be solved but, to some degree, as opportunities for something extraordinary.
Here’s what I’ve noticed:
While I HATE over sharing, and while it’s done me plenty of personal harm, I’ve also seen God use it time and time again to connect with a person who needed the gift of my vulnerability. Sometimes, when I over share, God gathers my spilling words and uses them to feed His people.
While I HATE being so self-critical, and while it’s often shackled me and kept me from settling in God’s grace, I’ve also seen God use it to shape me and grow me. Because of who God made me, I am constantly assessing what I’m bad at and asking God to make me better.
While I HATE my cycles of emotional highs and lows, and while they sometimes work like barricades, separating me from the life I want, I am certain God is using them to make me a better teacher and writer. Because of my mental health, I experience reality in extremes. When I’m low, God shows me how busted this world is and how much we need rescue. When I’m high, He opens my eyes to light and love, His presence everywhere. The way I live, in dramatic emotional seasons, helps me embrace the complexities and apparent contradictions of life with God. And that’s, I think, the defining characteristic of my work.
God called Moses to lead the chosen people out of slavery. And Moses, so preoccupied with own weakness, asked God “Who am I?”
And then God, frustrated by Moses’ too-small perspective, asked him, “Who made your mouth?”
It would be one thing if God used Moses despite his mouth, but over the years, God used Moses’ mouth again and again to speak holy words to His chosen people. Yes, God gave him Aaron to begin, but only as a crutch until he was ready to fully embrace God’s calling, as he did later in life.
God liked Moses’ mouth just the way He made it.
In his book “Life Without Limits,” Nick Vujicic writes about wishing God would step in and miraculously give him limbs. He said we can pray that God would change us, help us, heal us. But he says sometimes we aren’t going to get a miracle. He writes, “If you can’t get a miracle, become one.”
Today I’m asking you to stop wishing for a miracle that may not come. Stop wishing you weren’t who you are. Let God’s power be made perfect in your weakness. Let God make you a miracle.
A few months ago (maybe a year ago?) I went with some friends to the Blanton Museum of Art. The featured gallery was a Waltercio Caldas installation. This is the kind of stuff he makes:
Total honesty? I had no idea what I was looking at. My friend (who had to write a paper for school) asked me to explain. I pulled out my phone and began Wikepedia-ing. My wiser, less socially awkward friend grabbed one of the grad school kids hired to work security. He was better than Wikipedia (because Wikipedia wouldn’t load and when it did it was in Portugese).
The helpful grad student said a lot of things about Caldas’s work, but the thing I remember most was about this painting:
If you know much about art history you’ll probably recognize it as an ode to another, very, very famous painting, Velasquez’s “Las Meninas”:
The grad student said, “Caldas is interested in how much you can take away from a work of art and have people still recognize it.” He said Caldas asked, “What lines/shapes/colors need to remain for a thing to still be recognizable as what it is?”
I found those words in an old journal this morning. And I couldn’t help but think about identity.
What needs to remain for a thing to still be recognizable as what it is?
The question I’m asking myself this morning is “What are the essential lines and colors of my self?” What parts of me are so self-determining that if they were suddenly removed I would no longer be me?
I have a friend who recently lost the love of her life due to heart surgery complications. And she’s struggling because it’s hard not to see her now-gone husband as an essential line.
I have other friends whose children have finally all gone off to college and their house looks like that empty Velasquez, hardly recognizable.
Other friends have lost jobs, lost their health, moved away from a place they’d called home for decades.
We all go through transitions in life, transitions that threaten to tear apart our perceptions of our selves.
If I’m not a mother, who am I?
If I’m not a teacher? If I’m not financially stable? If I’m not strong?
When we build our identities on shifting sand—it doesn’t matter how good or honorable or fulfilling the sand—we will, again and again, watch the walls of our very selves fall. So that we’ll spend a lifetime in crisis after crisis, always piling up rubble, wondering if that’s all we’ll ever be.
Recently I went through a crisis like that. My daughters will both be school-age this coming fall and that means a lot of questions about what I’ll do when my days open up and my house is quiet. I’d hoped to be making money writing at this point, to be able to transition into more full-time work. But I’m not. And that’s left me feeling untethered, unsure of what I should do and what my future might hold and, even, what sort of person I am.
I had a tearful conversation at Chipotle with my husband while three dozen fellow diners stared. I said I just wasn’t sure about anything. I said I wanted to be sure that I was a writer. Sure that my investment in this work was worthwhile. He said, “You can’t be. And you don’t have to be.” He said, “Do good work now.”
He’s always reminding me of that.
And then that weekend I went to a ladies retreat and we talked about identity and the whole time I was feeling all my questions dissolve as I realized that who I am and what I do are not the same.
I am not a writer. I write.
I am not a stay-at-home mother. I stay at home and mother.
My identity isn’t built on the things I do, the job I have or the way I spend my time—partially, sure, but not essentially. It’s not even fundamentally linked to the people I love, people who may leave or die.
The essential lines and colors of my self were made and are sustained by and in my Creator God.
David says to God in Psalm 139, “You know me.” And I find peace in that.
I have a tattoo on my wrist. It’s the Greek word for poem translated “workmanship” found in Ephesians 2:10:
"For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
I have it there to remind me that God has plans for me.
The hard part is remembering that the plans are His. That I belong to Him and am under His direction.
Essentially, I am God’s poem. And whatever He writes, He writes. My identity is fully wrapped up in my dependence upon Him and my willingness to be who He calls me to be.
I’m not always sure of the details of that. But I’m sure enough of the big picture. My essential colors are love, joy, peace, patience… My lines are adoption, redemption, holiness, freedom, truth…
I hope that were I stripped of my parts, left like a Waltercio Caldas painting, in my most fundamental state that I’d still be recognizable. That you’d say, “Oh, that’s Jennifer. See the love. See the light. See the mark of God…”
I am not a size two. I never have been. Even back in the day when I was seventeen and tan and sun-bleached blonde and (as I perceive myself from a distance) basically my “ideal” self, I wore a size eight jeans. That’s my littlest. These hips do not get littler.
I had a nurse tell me once (years before I ever had kids), “Honey, you were made for child-bearing.”
Comments like that never bothered me much. I liked my hips okay.
Until I had kids.
And the hips got bigger.
And so did everything else.
And suddenly I found myself looking in the mirror at a stranger. A tired, squishy stranger. When I passed mirrors in stores, I didn’t even recognize myself.
I’ve lost most of the baby weight over the past four years, but my body’s not the same as it was…
I attended a ladies retreat on identity last weekend and had the chance to speak a little, to offer prompts that might lead to full-hearted worship. The title was “Who am I” and so we read from Exodus 3 where Moses, standing barefooted before a fire-lit fantasy of a bush, says to the Almighty God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
It’s a good question in the face of so much power and glory—“Who am I?” But it’s a flawed question, too. Because, as Moses learns, his question actually underestimates God’s power to work through His flawed people.
In Exodus 4 Moses tries to get out of God’s calling. He says he’s not much of a public speaker.
God, almost fuming, says (I imagine, exasperated), “Who made your mouth?”
We women tend to pick fights with our bodies. We scrutinize them. We complain about them. We subject them to ridiculous, unsustainable diet fads. We pinch and push and cram them into shape wear. We straight-iron them and paint them and lie in radiation cylinders to bronze them. We compare them to other bodies, bodies we’d rather have, bodies of women who want other bodies still.
I have a friend (with a lovely body, mind you) who hopes we don’t have the same bodies in Heaven. Because, honestly, one lifetime with this thing is enough.
While blow drying my hair into obedience last night I asked my husband if I had any greys (I didn’t think I did). He looked closely and found one. Well, he found a white one. And then I found ten more. And I started cry-laughing because I may be the only white-haired woman in America who developed thirteen new pimples overnight.
And then there’s the hips…
Making peace with my body is hard.
But it’s important. Because the tension of living in a body you hate is unbearable. Because if you can’t embrace your body, you will forever feel uncomfortable and flawed and not enough. And if you spend yourself in the pursuit of a body that just isn’t what you’ve been given, you will exhaust resources God intended for His glory, pouring your heart and life into an empty, un-win-able war.
You will find yourself turning down God Himself and the full life He offers because you don’t have confidence in the body He made.
When I read about Moses, so incapable of seeing past his own in-capabilities, and about God, so frustrated with Moses’ blinding awareness of his “flaws,” I wonder if maybe God isn’t up in Heaven pulling out his hair, yelling through cupped hands, “Jennifer! Who made your hips?”
God made my body. And God will use my body, just exactly as it is. Who am I to long for another?
Drew Barrymore once said this:
God made a very obvious choice when he made me voluptuous; why would I go against what he decided for me? My limbs work, so I’m not going to complain about the way my body is shaped.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Yeah, but…”
Maybe you’re thinking acceptance leads to complacency and ill health and laziness.
Maybe you’re thinking “Score! Jennifer just gave me permission to eat a bag of Reese’s Cups.”
Here’s something I’m sure of: People who fully realize the gift of their bodies, the power of God to work through them and in them, take care of those bodies. They use them and fuel them. They eat real food and take walks and play with their kids and grandkids and swim in the lake.
It’s when we hate our bodies, when we forget what a blessing they are, that we over-eat or under-eat or ill-eat. It’s when we doubt our bodies that we sit out of the pickup basketball game or avoid the gym out of embarrassment.
Accepting our bodies isn’t about accepting our bad habits or addictions. It’s about choosing to live fully in the bodies we can’t help but care for.
I made a list today of things my body can do and it got very long very quickly…
"My hands make me coffee, separating filters between fingertips and spooning ground beans, pouring water, stirring. They type words that begin in the passageways of my brain and travel through complex systems to fingers, agile and quick."
"My legs carry me out the front door, knees and thighs and calves and feet working in harmony to scale steps and then to run beside my girls on their bikes."
"My hips hold babies, friends’ babies now, my babies then, perfect seats for tiny bottoms."
"My eyes see. They see! They open up to an unfolding world and catch every color and complexity of shape and shade so that I perceive, in sunsets and smiles and folded laundry, the very face of God."
My body is amazing. It is uniquely made and uniquely gifted and uniquely weak. God made it for His glory and His purposes, and I will delight in it. I will praise God with it and because of it.
Just as it is.