Thoughts from my Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday.  Typically, people enjoy their birthdays, I think.  In recent years I have been increasingly becoming quite the birthday party-pooper.  I can’t exactly put my finger on what it is that makes me feel so un-festive on October 1st.  There could be a bunch of reasons, and perhaps many of them work together to make me a little bit gloomy and highly introspective.  I feel a combination of wanting to huddle up in a ball behind the washer and dryer like some sickly cat, and wanting people to gather around me and make me feel loved.  I endure it with a relatively normal look on my face.  I do enjoy the love that people show me, for sure though.

One of the things I’ve dealt with over the last couple years is the knowledge that I’m not getting any younger.  When I was younger I dreamed that I would accomplish all manner of amazing things.  These weren’t just selfish ambitions, but godly Kingdom goals too.  But now the older I get, I see people around me who are my role models, and I realize that by my age, they had already accomplished much more than I.  Some of them are now even younger than I am.  It is starting to feel like that moment in a football game where you realize that there just isn’t enough time to score the three touchdowns you need in order to win, even if you keep the other side from doing anything.  You start to have those thoughts of forced turnovers and onside kicks, but you also really wonder if it is all possible.  Yeah, I know that I’m being overly dramatic, but I already told you that I’m in that sort of mood.  It is my birthday.  Indulge me a little.

When I got home from Barnes and Noble, Peichi was waiting for me with some dinner and a mixed drink that she had made, and cupcakes she had just baked to top it all off.  She is very good to me sometimes.  I felt loved.

As I was eating, she pulled out a milk carton.  I’m lactose intolerant, which means that I can only drink lactose-free milk that just happens to cost twice as much as regular milk.  She showed me the expiration date, a day in late August, a whole month ago.  I’m bad with those kinds of things.  I’ll be in the grocery store and see something on sale, and thinking that my frugal spouse will be proud of me, I’ll buy two.  The problem starts when I forget to actually eat or drink said product.  I’ll put it in the fridge.  It will slowly move to the back as I reach for other things and just put them in front.  Two months later, she’ll pull out an expired milk carton, half full of milk, half full of a green ecosystem complete with Greenpeace activists demanding it be declared a protected environment.

I smiled nonchalantly and continued to eat.  The date stared back at me, boring a hole in my forehead.  As I ate, I realize that sometimes I feel a bit like that milk carton.  I look back on my year and realize that some of who I am has just sat on the shelf.  Some of my gifts have just not been used.

Just like that milk, I have an expiration date.  We all do.  It isn’t known, but it is definitely stamped on our foreheads in some ink we can’t see, but it is indelible.  We are also filled up with gifts, dreams, passions, and all manner of good stuff.   When we can’t use these in the way God intended, they just sit there and slosh around inside of us.  I think that is why Proverbs 13:12 says “hope deferred makes the heart grow sick, but longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”  I was meant for those hopes, gifts, and passions to be used for God and His kingdom.

I don’t believe that I’m sitting on the shelf, but as I sat on my birthday I realized that I have so much more to give.  God put things in me that I want to be used for Him this year.  I can’t put the blame for this on anyone but myself.  The possibilities are endless, and ultimately any blame for my shelf-ishness (see I just made a ridiculous pun) is my own.  But I know I don’t want things in me to sit on the shelf for another year turning green.  I never know when time for me, just like it did for that milk, may have passed. -Ryan

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4 Replies to “Thoughts from my Birthday”

  1. I think the problem many people have when wrestling with these issues is not whether they are using their gifts or fulfilling God-given passions, but that they aren’t doing so in a big enough manner to feel good about themselves. We are inundated with messages from the church culture around us that the really Godly people are the ones that are having wide impact, large numbers, book deals, record contracts, etc. The little guy in church, who shows up each week and plays his tiny role here and there is never glamorized. It is always the cool, hipster that has written several books, planted several churches, and rescued 10,000 children from slavery before he turns 21 that we are told we need to emulate. Even if we get past that unrealistic expectation, even on the local level we tend to glamorize the over achiever that runs 10 ministries in addition to working a job and all that.

    When I was in my late 20s, Katie and I stepped down from leadership at the church we were in. I started noticing many people’s attitude towards us changed, like we weren’t up to snuff anymore in their minds. I also started noticing that it was harder to use my gifts in church because I didn’t have the “leader” stamp on my life. I remember God’s very specific word to me at the time was “is the life you have now enough? If you have to live the life you are now for the rest of your life, will you be content with that, or be constantly worried about what more you could be doing?”

    I had to realize that my giftings are useful even in the small things in life. My gifting for leadership for example – I have a wife. Am I content with that gifting only being expressed in the context of marriage, even if it never gets used in the wider realm of church?I think sometimes people miss that the Kingdom of God also includes our personal lives and families. Many times we use our hopes, gifts, and passions for these smaller realms and miss that this is still using them for the Kingdom of God.

    Its kind of like friends of mine who constantly complain about their jobs. They want a better job that recognizes their awesomeness or whatever. “Why won’t God ever give me a better job that lets me use my giftings?” they constantly ask. My response to them is: why would God give you another job when you complain so much about the one you have now?

    So that has been my goal since then, contentment in the little things. True contentment, that is, not with a wink and nudge, nudge to God: “I’m take the lowly position now, but I’m assuming that means I get the big, cool deal after a few months of this suffering, right?” I think many people – I’m not saying you necessarily, but just some people in general – take Luke 16:10 to be some kind of trade off system. I’ll be faithful in little, so that after I have suffered enough, I will be given something bigger and cooler. They miss that is is just an admonishment to be faithful in the little things, even if it means obscurity.

  2. I see your point, and it is well taken. One thing I’ve been really thinking about though, is the question of ambition.

    I was talking to someone in ministry recently, and mentioning my desire to speak outside of just Grace Vineyard. This person responded to my initially poorly worded explanation with “That just sounds like selfish ambition.”

    When I explained further my point was understood. But the more I think about it, the more I question what is wrong with ambition. I was not saying that I wanted to be famous (far from it), but I wonder if perhaps someone in a different situation had mentioned similar goals it would have been applauded.

    Does God not give us dreams and vision? I completely agree that being the best dishwasher you can be for the God is a noble calling. As Oswald Chambers put it, God does not always call us to greatness, but sometimes the greatest spiritual heroism exists in mandanity done in worship.

    But what if you were a dishwasher, washing dishes in worship, but you were also gifted with an amazing voice, and God had given you an ability to be the best singer in history. You could spend your time as an OK Christian dishwasher, or as the best worship singer in history. I think it would be a sin to not develop that gift of music that you knew you had. I think it would be an offense to God to do otherwise.

    Now, I’m using hyperbole in this illustration. I don’t believe that I have a gift to be the best that the world has ever seen in anything particular. But I do believe that I must constantly strive to hone the gifts I do have to expand my ministry and sphere of influence. That is ambition that I believe God has put in me. That is what I struggle with.

    That doesn’t lead me to quit anything, but to expand what I am doing. To spread my wings wider.

  3. I think, to me at least, I have always seen ambition as a problem. Most people are called to be the dishwasher, but most people mistakenly think they are called to be the most gifted singer in the world. When John Wimber says that “everyone gets to play”, I think most people mistake “playing” with being the “star player”, or even the “coach” or “team owner.” Very few are content with humble circumstances.

    When people ask me “do you think people are born gay?”, I answer with “I don’t believe in being born to do or be anything any more.” I have listened to hundreds of musicians that claim to be “born to play music”, but they can’t sing at all or write a decent melody. They have been plugging away for 10 years or so waiting for a break or a recording contract, but they suck. But they keep telling everyone that they are born to play music, when they obviously aren’t.

    I’m not even sure I can say I believe in the concept of God giving us dreams. Prophetic dreams, yes. But the dreams we are talking of here? I just can’t find any Bible verses on it. But I haven’t searched as much on that one as I would like. It is Biblical that we do have a part and a role, but as far as getting dreams about bigger, cooler parts and roles? Not sure if that is in there.

    The other thing that troubles me is what you first hit on in your reply. Almost every time I hear someone talking about their giftings and desires, it seems so self-focused. Even if it is not selfishly ambitious in any way, it still seems self-focused. I’ve always felt that we need to figure out our giftings and callings so that we can bless others, not so that we can feel cool about ourselves and satisfy our inner child or what not. I guess I feel that our giftings are not about us figuring them out so that we can happy, but so that we can serve others. Maybe if more people in the world took that attitude towards it, I wouldn’t be so skeptical.

  4. I would agree with you in the idea that seldom are people “born to ____.” In fact, much error has been done by modern minds who believe that there is some destiny for them and their immense talent. Not only that, but I believe that it is a sinful arrogance to be focused primarily on one’s own gifts. That thinking is very often the grist in my mental and spiritual mill.

    This attitude is what lead Christ to tell the Pharisees in Luke 19 that “the very stones would cry out,” if the people didn’t praise Him in that moment [and yes, I know that wasn’t the point of the exchange, yet it is not negated, but enhanced, by the deeper exegesis].

    In Matthew 3:9 Jesus speaks to the Jews belief that they are superior to others because of their genealogy by telling them that God could create new children of Abraham out of stones if He wanted to.

    The hermeneutic there is clear. God does not need us to be able to accomplish His purpose at all. But there is far more to the story. God puts His Kingdom into the hands of His people. He actually expects flawed and sinful people to do His own work. He tells His disciples that they will do greater miracles that Jesus did (excluding the cross, of course) [John 14:12].

    And interesting passage to exegete is in Matthew 11:1-15. I’m not going into a complete sermon on the passage, but in the middle of talking to the disciples about what is going on around them (i.e. lame walking, blind receiving sight, etc.) he says, “From the time of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.”

    Irwin McManus has an amazing sermon series and book centered around this concept, called The Barbarian Way. His point, and what Jesus seems to be saying, is that the people of His Kingdom won’t be people at rest, but people of action. In fact, the Greek nuances of the text can indicate the word “violently” instead of “forcefully.” That is not to say that Christians need be violent physically, but is a metaphor of the zeal for God’s Kingdom that we ought to have.

    There are a significant number of Bible characters who display unhealthy and misplaced passion. When Moses acts out of his own passions, he messes things up royally. Further, the antagonists of the Bible can often be seen as being ruled by their own passions.

    But the model is not actually tied to the idea of passions, giftings, and dreams. Instead, it is tied to the drive behind them. Nehemiah is a great opposite example of this. When he hears of the state of Jerusalem and the remnant there, he is greatly impassioned to do something. The text says that he cried out to God, multiple times as he was motivated into doing something [1:4, 2:4, et al].

    An interesting thing to note about this passage is that it does not mention God giving him a charge to accomplish something. God is obviously with him, and leads him, but this arises out of Nehemiah’s own feeling of passion.

    A real problem in all of this is separating our motives. Can our motives ever be pure? I doubt it. But I do know that we can sit and analyze those motives ad infinitum, which is a great plan of the enemy, or we can get up and do the work of the Kingdom.

    “Yes,” you say. “But what about Phillippians 2:1-13? Paul says ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others as better than yourselves,’ and that our ‘attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus…who made Himself nothing.'”

    Yes, this passage does say this. But it also concludes with the triumph of Christ, and an exhortation that it is the Holy Spirit acting in us that gives us our will to do this all for the Kingdom.

    What seems to be a healthy and biblical middle ground is that many of us will end up as dishwashers, or some equivalent, and as such we should be the best servant of God (and therefore His people) as we can. But sometimes God will use what He is doing in us to give us the ability to be a city on a hill, reaching many for His Kingdom, and as such we should be the best servants of Him (and therefore His people) as possible.

    My point in my “Thoughts from my Birthday” was not to say that I am operating in a level of obscurity that makes me unhappy, but that I feel a call that links my God-given passions and gifts. Actually, I don’t want to stand before millions and hear my voice echo. I don’t think I would be a person who should have Billy Graham influence. But I do want to see these aspects of who I am develop and mature. I do want to know that what God put into me is being used to its fullest.

    A racehorse is not blessed with the strength to pull a plow, and an ox is also not blessed with the speed to win a race. They are both capable of doing those tasks, but they are meant for other things. A racehorse is at its best when it is in an open field, not in a row of corn.

    I don’t think I’m a racehorse, and weaker than an ox, but I know that there are a few things that I do, that when I’m doing them I “feel His pleasure.” I want to be able to develop those things more and more, and see what happens. If I end up washing dishes, that would be an honor too.

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