Posted by: dacalu | 15 August 2010

The Gift of Critique

I was reading an article this morning on the practice of caretaking. The author was sharing his experience of caring for his wife, who suffers from Alzheimer’s dementia. The author wanted doctors to be trained better in spiritual/emotional aspects of treating patients. It got me thinking about what it means to critique the system.

I’m a pragmatist, and, I must admit, very much a problem solver. It’s the sort of mindset that goes well with being a scientist or engineer; and along those lines I’ve always been critical of complainers. “Don’t bash the system unless you’re willing to propose a better system.” I recognized that this was a bit biased toward the status quo, but never really saw a better way.

The article on caregiving really presented an important critique. I noticed that the author could have been more specific about solutions (he was a doctor and anthropologist), but that he did not. And thinking further, that was not the place. The article was about a personal experience; that story had implications, but the story was the important thing for that venue.

Still, I am troubled by excessive complaints. Our society has a strong tradition of complaining, starting with the Tea Tax and continuing with the Tea Party. And so often we find ourselves faced with someone who insists on complaining, repeatedly about things that cannot be solved; what you might call, empty complaints – complaints that tear down instead of building up, complaints that suck the energy out of a room.
So, how do we judge between the real critiques and the empty complaints?

I Corinthians 14 comes to mind. Paul is telling the people of Corinth that speaking in tongues is wonderful for the individual, but not so much for the church. It becomes useful for the church when there is an interpreter. It’s an interesting passage, and I’ve always liked what Paul has to say about tongues, but I hadn’t applied it to a wider perspective until now.

It can be good to complain, when there are people who turn complaints into solutions. Complaining requires discernment. “Am I saying something that has not been said (or heard) before?” “Are there people who will take my words and build something with them?” I suppose it’s a kind of contextual ethics, though I prefer to think of it as communal. It has to do with your relationship with others, particularly your relationship with a community of faith and purpose. Insight and critique can be a gift, but they must be judged so by others.

Does this mean you must be silent if you are not heard well? By no means, but it does mean you must pick the things that most need to be said and learn how to say them well. Complaint by itself does not build up. The same can be said of prophetic speech, preaching, and teaching. We are an individualistic culture and we like to think that individuals have gifts, but there can be no gift without a recipient.

It may be true of all gifts, but it is particularly true of gifts of the Spirit. They are gifts of the body and gifts of the community. A teacher – and students – have the gift of teaching. A preacher – and a congregation – have a gift of preaching. God gives gifts of communication to groups of people (“Wherever two or more are gathered together…”).

So I’ll leave you today with a request. Stop asking “what are my gifts?” and start asking “what gifts do we share?” If you don’t know, ask the people around you. You may be surprised to learn that you are far more important than you thought – and for entirely different reasons.

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