“I hate it when you say that!” That’s what my oldest son Andrew told me when he was still in High School.
My offending remark was none of the following:
Clean your room!
Curfew is midnight!
Mow the lawn!
Wait until marriage for sex!
Instead, I said this: “I’m so proud of you! You have so much potential!”
“I hate it when you say that!”
“You don’t want me to be proud of you?”
“No! I hate that whole you’ve got potential thing.  It’s a set up.  If I don’t achieve something great I’m a loser.”
Oh.

Maybe that’s just the message I was sending.  It wasn’t my conscious intention.  But then again, maybe that’s the life I was modeling at the time.  Maybe, just maybe he saw his dad pushing to rack up one achievement after another and naturally assumed I expected the same thing from him.
Parenting fail.
Faith fail.
At least I’m not alone.  Many people I know have spent some period of their life trying to justify their existence with their achievements.  It starts really early.
Before they can read children compete in some areas of the country to get into the right preschool.  Testing for magnet programs for elementary, then middle, then high school.  Pushing for top grades to win admission into a “good” college.
Of course this can continue with career and social status and possessions until we draw our last breath.
Do you see the pattern? We use our intellectual (or athletic or musical or political) abilities to win recognition that will put us in a more secure, comfortable, privileged or admired position.
If the lessons we learned were simply the joy of hard work and the reward of using the gifts we’ve been given, that would be fine.  But this isn’t the lesson.  At least, it is not the deep, abiding lesson.
We’ve put ourselves on an existential “America’s Got Talent” show.  The not-so-fine print of our contract reads: you’ve got talent and you had better use it or you’re a failure.
This is obviously not the Good News of the Cross.  And yet it takes hold of many of us so firmly that we even read it—or more accurately misread it—in Jesus’ own parables.
Bright, faithful, insightful members of the congregations I have served have told me that they hate the Parable of the Talents.  (Matthew 25:14-30)  Here is a link to the passage for your convenience.  You can safely skip ahead if you feel familiar with it.
A common misreading of the parable suggests that God has given us potential and will judge us in accordance with how well we live up to that potential.  The problem, on this reading, is that God’s expectations are impossibly high and the poor fellow who plays it safe with the talents gets a raw deal.  After all, this interpretation goes, God should have at least appreciated that the fellow didn’t lose any of his money!
This reading couldn’t be more mistaken!
The parable paints for us a more excellent way to live.
We learn from the world to seek our own glory.  We want to shine in a way that wins a fundamental, enduring acknowledgement.  We dream that someone will tell us—in some way that will really stick—that the world is better off for our having been born.  There is nothing left to prove and we can never be considered worthless or a loser.
But the glory, the shine we can achieve for ourselves inevitably fades.  We find ourselves chasing glory, chasing recognition and justification all over again.
The parable teaches us that we don’t have to be a success to be saved.
Here’s the reality.  None of us, not a single one of us, has lived up to our potential.  We have all fallen short of the mark.  And if justifying our existence rests on our ability to fulfill our potential perfectly we’re goners.
Jesus justifies us precisely when there’s nothing remotely shiny about us.  And that sets us free to exercise our talents in an entirely different way: to the glory of God.
In Christ God sets us free to exercise the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual gifts he has given us as an act of gratitude for what he has done for us.  
Today I milk the cow, change the diaper, trade the stock, hit the tennis ball, read the Bible, write the article, cook the meal or take out the garbage so that everybody can see that Christ has made this possible.
In all that we do, we can show that God does great work, especially the work of forgiveness, grace, mercy and patience.  Especially what we once saw as failures, we now know as first drafts of God’s great work.
And for the record.  I’m proud of my son Andrew.  Today.  I’m sure I will be tomorrow, too.
(The image above is found at kineticcarnival.blogspot.com)

Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, husband, dad, and movie-goer

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