Your Greatest Strength is….

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We do a number of tests at our counseling center. We have partners in our work who are psychometricians, but we generally have little to do with tests that are built around DSM-V.  We tend to focus on tests that are more valuable in pastoral counseling, and ones that lead more towards conversation than formal diagnosis. Nevertheless, tests are often seen as valuable for self-awareness and making changes for the future. But what changes?

We like to do some simple tests in terms of relationships, conflict management, personality types, and leadership style. Most of these don’t measure linearly a certain pathological quality. Most of these look at categories that have both good and bad aspects to them. So if one looks at personality type tests such as Enneagram or Myers-Briggs, the presumption is that each type has strengths as well as weaknesses, and that the world is ultimately a better place because of the diversity of types found in society.

So what do you do with this information?  Here are three possibilities.

  1.  Work to Your Strengths. When a person takes a vocational aptitude test, or perhaps one in “spiritual giftings” or spiritual temperaments, one is often instructed that the strengths should guide one in what to focus on in terms of job, ministry, and self-growth. It kind of makes sense. If one is good in math and science, then one’s career should probably be one that utilizes and hones this aptitude.
  2. Work on Your Weaknesses. This takes a more holistic view, and can apply to certain types of tests. With NCD (natural church development) the theory is that the weakest area of a church is the limiter to growth. Focusing on strengths will do little. For humans, we may be healthy physically, psychoemotionally, and spiritually, but weak in terms of socialization (for example). To be a healthy human being, we should be healthy in all of these aspects, and so working on socialization is important.

I would like to add a third perspective.

YOUR GREATEST STRENGTH… IS YOUR GREATEST TEMPTATION

One could argue that this is a bit of a mix of the previous two. It addresses the fact that strengths are important and need to be directly acknowledged and worked on. It addresses the fact that weaknesses are also important in that over-reliance on strengths may ultimately prove harmful.

By what do I mean by the statement “Your greatest strength is your greatest temptation?”  I will start with a personal example. I am an analytic type. Being the administrator of a counseling center, I would like to say, “I minister to papers so that others can minister to people.” This was a similar view that I had when we were organizing medical missions events. While the three Rs (Reading, ‘Riting,’ and Research) may be my strength (Paperwork over People), I allowed that side to dominate my activity. I avoided dealing with people and doing counseling, and focused on activities that involve being in front of a computer (like now).

But I had to grow. Growing wasn’t to focus on my strengths, allowing areas of weakness to languish more and more. At the same time, neither was it ignoring my strengths to focus on my weaknesses. I looked at my strengths as important, but also a temptation to be unbalanced. To embrace balance I value my strengths but be careful not to focus too much on these strengths alone, but invest time and energy in my weaknesses as well.

This perspective has importance of other areas as well.

  • Consider the Love Language test. It seeks to demonstrate what is one’s primary way in which one identifies love in self and others. The five are:  Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Receiving Gifts, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch. Your primary “love language” tells you how you best identify loving behavior of others and how you generally show love to others. None of these are wrong. In fact, all of them have value… at times. The problem is that in relationships one may find that the two may have very different love languages. So one really needs to become love “bilingual.” This neither rejects one’s strength, nor fully embraces it. Additionally, in a work environment, physical touch or quality time may not always be helpful or practical to encourage employees. One may need to learn to value words of affirmation, for example. One’s strength is neither good, nor bad… but it can be a temptation.
  • Consider Conflict Management. There are different strategies for addressing conflict. Some may typically work better than others, but all work okay in certain situations. Sometimes combating is best while at other times compromising, collaborating, acquiescing, or even avoiding may be the most successful. The issue is not which one is best, but the risk of utilizing one’s preferred method indiscriminantly. It is good to be good at what one is good at (a truism certainly) but being good in one area may tempt one to use it at inappropriate times.
  • Ministry. We teach chaplaincy (CPE) at our counseling center. We teach seminarians how to utilize basic pastoral care skills to provide care for those in the hospital (and other settings). But often trainees fall into temptation and utilize their own strengths inappropriate. We had a trainee from a Charismatic Christian background who would go around praying over the dying and declaring them healed. (This was problematic to deal with when the patient would die— giving false hope and confusion for the family.) Another from an Evangelical background, would start out trying to do pastoral counseling and active listening, and then quickly drop into a canned evangelistic routine. (I can assure you that having a chaplain talking to a sick person who is undergoing diagnostic testing is not being helped if the chaplain suddenly says, “So where do you think you will be if you die tonight?”) We have had nurses take chaplaincy, and they struggle to avoid focusing on medical symptoms and giving medical advice.

Learning one’s strengths can be useful… but only if one learns how to utilize that knowledge.

Two Prayers of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)

O Lord, you have called me to open my hand,
that you might fill it:
but I would not open it;
I held the world fast,
and kept my hand shut,
and would not let it go.
But you alone can open it for me;
not my hand only, but my mouth;
not my mouth, but my heart also.
Grant that I may know nothing but you,
account all things a loss compared with you,
and endeavor to be transformed
to be like you.

Guide us, Lord,
in all the changes and varieties of the world;
that we may have evenness and tranquility of spirit:
that we may not grumble in adversity
nor  grow proud in prosperity,
but in serene faith surrender our souls
to your most divine will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

<The two are “translated” into a more recent form of English. Source is from www.acollectionofprayers.com>

Communal Music

I am pastoring a young churchplant right now here in Baguio, and we are diverse in age, status, and ethnicity. One of the challenges we have is music. What music should we use in church. A couple of decades ago, a large percentage of Evangelical churches in the Philippines suddenly turned over their music to a worship team made up of high school and college youth. This was a pretty painful experience— listening and watching church youth try to mimic their favorite Hillsong videos right down to the enunciation and body movements. I recall being in a seminary class and having students speak derisively of those old fashioned churches that still hold onto hymns because their parents still prefer them. My response was to be kind to their parents because their own tastes are likely to be mocked by their own chuldren. Well, today that has happened with the new generation commonly rejecting the “Praise & Worship” style of the seminary students 10 to 15 years ago.

Around that same time (10 years ago or so)  I recall reading a book on worship music styles describing 6 major styles (six in the area that the writer lived at least). One of the styles was called “Blended” or the mixing of musical genres. The writer spoke rather negatively of that, much in line with others such as Rick Warren who believed that growth (or at least church health) comes from, in part, consistency of style and tone.

None of this suggests what music we should focus on today. But then I was reminded of what my church back in the US (our sending church) has done. While their format has changed over the years. The last time I was there, they had three services. Service A utilized Country Gospel (and a bit of Christian Bluegrass). Service B utilized  Contemporary Christian (perhaps a bit more from the folk tradition than some versions of CC). Service C utilized Hymns. What does this tell me? One thing it could tell me is that different people like different things, so the church sought to keep them all happy. That is probably true, and perhaps it is the prime motivation. But I felt that I saw something different that is key.

CONNECTIONS

Hear me out here.

Service A.  The church is in a part of the US where country and bluegrass are BIG. The service, with the focus on this style, then connects the church to the community.

Service B.  This particular service is called the “Family Service.” Musically, one can see why. It’s focus on a folkish contemporary Christian results in a style of music that is pretty accessible to a wide range of ages. The style connects generations.

Service C.  The church has a large number of people who find hymns inspirational. While some people see them as old-timey (and certainly some have long passed their sell-by date), the new generation of Christians seem to be open to hymns more than the previous one… especially if the tunes are reworked a bit, with unnecessary bridges or choruses added in. In fact, hymns are my 21 year old’s preferred style. But to me, hymns connect to history. The church is not a 20 year old phenomenon, it is a 2000 year phenomenon. Hymns, in a small way, connect us to our history— remembering and honoring those who have gone before us.

So what do we do in Baguio? We are a church plant of around 40 people who all meet together in one main worship service per week. We don’t have the option of having three different services— music tailored to each group. So do we chose music that is inoffensive to the majority— music that is mildly pleasant, or maybe pleasantly mild?

My thought right now is to focus on connections. Separate genres for separate groups in a church, undermines the connection ideal a bit, I think. Instead, we must recognized that corporate worship is for worshiping God, but also for making connections. If it was simply about worship, we could give tailored individualized playlists that people can plug into their ears as the walk around… singing along if they want. But for corporate worship, we are connecting with each other in our worship.

As such, we should find ways to choose music that:

  • Connects to the community. There should be music that is accessible to those in the surrounding culture.
  • Connects to the generations within the church. There should be music that everyone can, on some level, appreciate.
  • Connects to our history. Our music can, at least at times, draw us to generations of the faithful before us.
  • (Adding a fourth) Connects to our diversity. The church is made up of great ethnic diversity. Our local church certainly is… and if yours isn’t, why is that? As such, music should also honor that diversity, reminding us that John’s vision of (perhaps) ideal worship starting in Revelation 7:9 is first identified by the unity within its extreme diversity, and the diversity within its extreme unity.

I really don’t think that these four areas can be handled with one single musical genre. As such, I believe we do need to embrace a sort of blended worship. A major complaint regarding blended styles in worship services is that it tends to result in a lot of different groups all being relatively unhappy. That seems a valid concern. But connection doesn’t happen simply by mixing together different styles of songs. It must be an intentionally educative process. Singing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” followed by “Mahal na Mahal Kita Panginoon” doesn’t automatically get people to recognize that the church of the early Protestant movement in Germany is connected to the modern evangelical church in the Philippines. The connection must be identified, and integrated into the music worship experience.

Judging Not?

I have been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount at church, and soon I will be getting to one of those veses that some people use as a weapon, and others act like it is not there. Some people seem to think that the verse supports a sort of radical “let it be” perspective. On the other side, some seem to have become so skilled at “explaining” the verse that it seems like they have explained it into non-existence.

As always, I try to find a middle position between two untenable extremes, but that hardly answers things. Two obvious (I think) points are:

  • Judging can be hypocritical, since we often are tempted to judge while pretending that we are above being judged.
  • Judging can commonly be wrong since we tend to be incompetent to judge well. We can see the beautiful whitewash on the sepulchre, but see nothing beneath the thin layer of color.

Recently, however, I noticed another issue. My wife and I like to watch crime dramas and reality crime shows (judges us at your own peril). There were two recent cases that were shown on reality crime that got me thinking. The first was a wife and mother in Texas (I believe). She was a church-going woman, and noted as a fine upstanding Christian and fervent in her Bible reading. Oh sure there were quirks that made one wonder about her integrity, but overall, highly regarded. She was eventually charged and convicted of poisoning several people who were close to her.

The other was a pastor from Pennsylvania. He was a popular preacher and expositor of the word. Yet he was a chronic womanizer, and killed two of his wives.

What was perhaps most problematic was they were able to kill multiple times because they were seen as such unlikely killers.

This got me thinking. We often think of judging as an activity of condemnation. But in these two cases, the problem was that they were judged favorable for having the trappings of being “good Christians.” It seems to me that if this form of judging is just as wrong as the other. And since Jesus went out of His way to point out that we often fail to see the evil or emptiness in people’s hearts because of an external piety (whited sepulchres again), I think it is fair to say that Jesus was at least as concerned with this second form of judging as the first.

So while I still struggle with how best to live a life of “judging not,” I am pretty sure that avoiding the temptation to judge unfavorably is no worse than to judge favorably.

 

 

Polycarp and Persecution

Chapter 4. Quintus the apostate

Now one named Quintus, a Phrygian, who was but lately come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily [for trial]. Him the proconsul, after many entreaties, persuaded to swear and to offer sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.

Chapter 5. The departure and vision of Polycarp

But the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard [that he was sought for], was in no measure disturbed, but resolved to stay in the city. However, in deference to the wish of many, he was persuaded to leave it. He departed, therefore, to a country house not far distant from the city. There he stayed with a few [friends], engaged in nothing else night and day than praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the world, according to his usual custom. And while he was praying, a vision presented itself to him three days before he was taken; and, behold, the pillow under his head seemed to him on fire. Upon this, turning to those that were with him, he said to them prophetically, I must be burnt alive.

Chapter 6. Polycarp is betrayed by a servant

And when those who sought for him were at hand, he departed to another dwelling, whither his pursuers immediately came after him. And when they found him not, they seized upon two youths [that were there], one of whom, being subjected to torture, confessed. It was thus impossible that he should stay hidden, since those that betrayed him were of his own household. The Irenarch then (whose office is the same as that of the Cleronomus ), by name Herod, hastened to bring him into the stadium. [This all happened] that he might fulfil his special lot, being made a partaker of Christ, and that they who betrayed him might undergo the punishment of Judas himself.

Chapter 7. Polycarp is found by his pursuers

His pursuers then, along with horsemen, and taking the youth with them, went forth at supper-time on the day of the preparation with their usual weapons, as if going out against a robber. And having come about evening [to the place where he was], they found him lying down in the upper room of a certain little house, from which he might have escaped into another place; but he refused, saying, The will of God be done.  So when he heard that they had come, he went down and spoke with them.

“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” was a story of comfort for Christians and an encouragement to be faithful until the end. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was executed around 155AD. His story was passed on to others soon after. But the document also gave info on how one should behave in a world that is hostile and where persecution and death for one’s faith was a very real possibility.

 

“The Martyrdom of Polycarp”

 

Based on this section, the following guidelines can be given:

  • Don’t voluntarily turn yourelf over to the persecutors. Quintus did exactly that and the writer is not surprised that he apostated under torture. The writer notes that turning oneself over voluntarily is not in line with the Gospel record. It is true that Jesus hid from His enemies on at least two occasions in the Gospels… and Matthew 10:23 suggests that this may have happened quite regularly. There are, clearly, limits to “turning the other cheek.”
  • Submit to the will of God, but don’t be too quick to determine what His will is. Polycarp believed prophetically that he would be executed and yet still sought to extend his life. Eventually, he decided it was time to stop hiding, but only after his hiding led to some being tortured.
  • Don’t live in fear, but live prudently. Don’t fear death, but don’t seek it out either. Act wisely and cautiously to live and serve.
  • It is fine to surrender oneself to the enemy… but not to surrender another.  Again, this is in line with the Passion story, where Jesus is seen as surrendering Himself at the appropriate time to the enemy, but this is not seen as excusing the betrayal of Judas.
  • Once escape is not an option, use the opportunity to be a witness in both word and action.

These may seem actually pretty reasonable. But they are worth thinking about. Historically, and even today, there are those who seem to think that faithfulness involves intentionally placing oneself in harm’s way.  St. Ignatius of Antioch a few decades earlier than Polycarp appeared to be rather excited about the idea of being executed/martyred. However, by this time there seems to be a different view. The view in this story is much in line with the George S. Patton guidance to his men that the goal of a soldier is NOT to die for his country. (After all, a country can’t really do much with dead soldiers.)

Additionally, some have sought to take a radical obedience stance based on their interpretation of Romans 13 such that if one is summoned by the government, one must comply… it’s the law after all. But obeying an evil law is still… ultimately being complicit with that evil (regardless of what “umbrella” theorists suggest). Others take the Muslim idea that one can morally deny one’s faith to “the unfaithful” to preserve one’s life. While this is certainly pragmatic,  but is ultimately unchristian. (However, refusing to forgive those who did deny is also unchristian.)

It is sad that today there is as much danger in being faithful to God in some places as there has ever been. Voluntary religion and freedom of conscience are things that we struggle with— even in places open-mindedness is allegedly promoted. But in such places, the goal is not to live in fear… but caution and prudence are good. When there is no other option to avoid the enemy, remain faithful.

How is that lived out day to day— I don’t know. For example, John Chow recognized the strong possiblity that he would die going to North Sentinel Island. Was this an act of courage or foolishness. I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t know about St. Paul either, who ignored the prophecies of church leaders, and boldly headed off to be arrested, imprisoned for 5 years, and eventually executed. Was this the right decision? I have no idea, but it seemed like a bad idea (and Luke sounds pretty ambivalent about the whole situation as well).

I asked a number of my students a few months back what they would do if they were being sought out by the government because of their faith. (Several of them come from countries where that is actually a possibility.) Most of them said that they did not know what they would do. Personally, I think that is a good answer. As much as it sounds impressive to say for sure what we would do, most of us don’t really know. In this story, there were several different responses.

  • Quintas voluntarily submitted to governmental summons, and then publically rejected his faith under threat.
  • Two servants betrayed Polycarp under torture.
  • Polycarp was turtured and executed without rejecting his faith.
  • The author of this story, presumably, successfully hid from persecuors and was then able to share this story with the world.

But all of these people were probably sure they would be faithful to God to the end. It is wise to pray that that faith never be tested to the limit.