Spiritual Gifts

Starting Something NewBack in September, I listed seven books which contemplative church planters ought to read. Now I’m adding one more to the list.

I requested a review copy of Starting Something New: Spiritual Direction for Your God-Given Dream because the title resonates so well with our approach to developing new Christian communities. Planting a church is about listening to the Holy Spirit as God sends us out into mission. We can’t do such ministry faithful unless we’re attentive to God’s voice. Spiritual direction helps us learn to live with such attentiveness.

Starting Something New offers a taste of such direction for those who would read it as they participate in the formation of a new ministry. As Booram writes, “This book is intended to be a companion guide offering spiritual direction for those who are wondering if they have a God-given dream forming inside them but don’t know what to do with it” (p. 14).

Booram succeeds in providing such direction in many places, consistently relating the principles she describes to points in her own journey or to the stories of over a dozen other Christian leaders whom she interviewed for the book. Each chapter addresses a different stage in the birth and growth of an emerging ministry and is followed by questions for inward reflection. All of this is laced with generous amounts of cheerleading for those who may not have the courage to follow their dreams.

But how do we know our dreams are God-given? How can we be sure we’re listening to the Spirit and not just following our own desires? Booram offers some of her best advice in response to this question: “Pay attention to what you are praying. . . . Prayers related to God-inspired dreams seem to be irrepressible” (p. 36). Also, discern whether you are feeling “drawn” into this new life, or “driven.” A feeling of being driven is often more indicative of human ambition or temptation, while God often invites us into something new through visions to which we’re genuinely attracted or drawn (p. 115).

As a church planter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I recognized many of the dynamics Booram names: the time someone told me to plant a church and I responded with skepticism (p. 97), the ambivalence one might feel after a dream-deferred again becomes possible (p. 133), the challenge of adjusting to the “new normal” of life in this dream and developing rhythms to keep it sustainable (p. 163). I can see retrospectively how relevant this book is for church planters. What a gift it would have been to have it as a handbook seven years ago.

Read this slowly and reflectively. The stages of discernment and growth Booram describes can spread out over many years. Let this be one of many companions in discernment throughout the long and joyful journey of starting something new.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of Starting Something New so that I could write this review.

It’s early on a Tuesday morning. A month ago at this time, I was pulling muffins out of the oven and steaming milk for lattes at the cafe where I worked for five a half years. Today, I’m reading over the recently approved statement of goals for the M.Div. program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in preparation for two meetings I’ll have this morning. It’s all a part of my new job.

I am excited to be taking on the challenge of coordinating the Church Planting Emphasis at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The seminary feels like home to me. Conversations with students and faculty bring joy to my heart. I see great potential in this program, and am both humbled and delighted to participate in something that has such power to shape the future of the Church.

But I am truly going to miss the cafe. When my co-pastor and I answered God’s call to plant The Upper Room five and a half years ago, we chose to become bivocational pastors. Like the Apostle Paul, who had a trade of making tents which at times supported his ministry, we chose to take second jobs that would both ease the financial burden of starting a new church and give us additional ways to build relationships for our ministries.

I wanted a job in the neighborhood which would allow me to meet people I wouldn’t meet inside the walls of a typical church. The 61C and 61B Cafes gave me more opportunities to develop meaningful relationships than I could have ever imagined. Over five and a half years, these relationships became so strong that stepping back from them now brings about a genuine feeling of grief. On my last morning of work, I cried as I handed my keys back to my manager and friend Keith. Then I sobbed as I sat in my car, preparing to go directly from the cafe to the seminary.

This is week three of my work at the seminary, and it’s going quite well, but I don’t want to forget the things God showed me over my years at the cafe. So I hope to do some writing here in the coming months which will intentionally reflect on the things the Lord taught me through my work at the cafe. After my trip to Brazil next week – where PTS students and I will study how the Brazilian Presbyterian Church plants new congregations – I’ll put together a series of posts here about what my ministry at the cafe taught me about prayer, relationships, mission, and work. Especially work. It seems that many of us have under-developed theologies of work, and God used my years in the cafe to teach me much about the purpose and value of our daily labors.

Time to get ready for work. If I hurry, I might be able to grab a cup of coffee on the way.

The House of St. Michael the Archangel just published an essay that I wrote called So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighted Down. It’s an extended meditation on  watchfulness, revolving around Jesus’ words in Luke 21:34: “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life.”  It’s also an invitation to repentance, to turn away from all the figurative and literal drunkenness of the world, and to instead receive the blessed inebriation of communion with Christ.

I wrote most of the essay months ago, but the timing of its release is perfect: Advent is an appropriate time to grow in watchfulness, as we “wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Hard copies are available for suggested donations of $6. A free pdf is also available. Both can be ordered here.


While you’re at the House of St. Michael’s website, also check out Shea Cole’s album of original worship music. It can also be downloaded for free, or hard copies are available for a suggested donation. (The cds make great Christmas presents, if you’re still shopping.)

Imagine a saw.  Now imagine trying to hammer a nail with the blade of the saw. It’s not going to work.  It’s more likely to break the saw, or damage the surface which is being nailed, or cut the person using the saw. It’s better to hammer with a nail and saw with a saw. Obviously.

But the same principle is less obvious when it comes to the way we live out the spiritual gifts God’s given each of us.  When we try to do something we aren’t called and equipped to do, we often hurt ourselves and others. For an example from my own life, I’m an introvert. Days of work like yesterday where I have to pretend I’m an extrovert for 15 hours straight leave me cranky and irritable. Sometimes my life feels like hammering with a saw. And I don’t think I’m the only person who ends up in these situations.

This is why I’m grateful for the wisdom Symeon the New Theologian shared about spiritual gifts in “Hymn 54” of his Hymns of Divine Eros. For Symeon, we are like “inanimate tools”, each fashioned by God for different purposes. “The artisan of each tool, for whatever desired purpose, / equips the tool to operate according to its art” (lines 9-10). Just as a saw is meant to be used as a saw and not as a hammer, so also we’ve each been given different spiritual gifts and not given others (Romans 12:4).  Because we each have different gifts and not others, pretending we have gifts that we don’t have is downright dangerous. Symeon writes, “if you were to use them for purposes other than for what they were made / then your life and all your works would destroy themselves” (lines 17-18).

How can we avoid such destruction?  What other choice do we have? Symeon suggests a pretty simple answer: to be what we’re made to be.  We have little choice over what our gifts are, but once we live into our gifts, we discover that they pave the road to joy. Symeon writes, “each person is suited not to whatever / art one wants, but to whatever art one was created for, / and to this art one is disposed suitably and affectionately” (lines 35-37).  Notice that we’re not necessarily given the gifts we want.  I may want to be a talented musician, or a gregarious community organizer, or a charismatic evangelist, but God hasn’t made me to be those things.  But once one begins to live into the “art one was created for” one finds that “to this art one is disposed suitably and affectionately.” When we start using our true gifts, we discover how powerful they are, and how much joy they can produce.

Symeon says this transition toward our true gifts requires repentance and humility (line 127). From what must we repent? Perhaps the lies we tell others and ourselves regarding our gifts. Pretending to have gifts we don’t have is simple deception and dishonesty. Let’s be honest about what our gifts are and aren’t. And if we’re being honest, we should remember that humility does not mean hiding our true spiritual gifts. Michael Casey writes, “To deny our gifts is to deny others the profit of sharing in their fruits. Such a refusal can have no part in genuine humility” (A Guide to Living in the Truth: St. Benedict’s Teaching on Humility: Ligouri/Triumph 2001 p. 24).  Humility requires not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). That means repenting of the pride that creates the false-selves and facades we use to impress others.  But humility also means acknowledging that, in the Church, we belong to one another (Romans 12:5). Our gifts are not merely our own, but they are given for the sake of the Church.  To hide gifts God has given for the building up of his Body is like putting a lamp under a basket.  When we repent of hiding our true gifts and humbly bring them into the Light, we become happier and the whole Church benefits.

But this sort of humility requires openness and trust. When Symeon calls us to “Hasten and be glued” to “the hands of God and of his saints”, and live “like inanimate tools doing, or moving, or operating nothing at all without them” (lines 147-148, 152-153), he’s not calling us to be mindless robots. He’s instead calling us to the humble submission to the creative intentions of God and the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us. That sort of humility is characterized by openness to receiving and using the gifts that God does want to give us. It also requires trust.  As an introverted church-planter, I’ve sometimes accused God of using wrong tool for the job. But that accusation both comes from a posture of pride and is rooted in a lie about God’s character.  To humbly pursue the true gifts God has given me, I’ve needed to repent of the mistrust and pride which make the clay question and accuse the Potter (Isaiah 29:16, 45:9)

And where does this road of humility and repentance lead? Symeon says, “as soon as you walk on the straight road / you will become numbered with all the saints, / and it will eventually make you all happy” (lines 161-163).  In context, what Symeon means by “the straight road” is the path of fulfilling the tasks which one was uniquely gifted to do. And this produces happinessHappy was not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Symeon the New Theologian. Throughout the Hymns of Divine Eros, I’ve seen Symeon extol the virtues of repentance, humility, and mourning one’s sins.  But there is a deep joy that lies beneath the surface of these hymns. It’s the joy that comes from intimacy with Christ, the intimacy of a tool in the hand of its Creator, fulfilling the purposes for which it was created.  It’s the happiness of freedom to be what one was meant to be, the happiness of hitting the nail on the head.