Competence versus celebrity
I don’t know whether my daughter has read this morning’s Sun but I’m sure she will be delighted to learn that her hero, England's Chief Medical Officer, is being considered as a contestant for the BBC's next series of Strictly Come Dancing. In fact, such is her enthusiasm for Prof Chris Witty that she actually persuaded me to join the Facebook Group, Chris Whitty Fans Unite! It’s aim? “Let's celebrate Chris Whitty. The man who is helping us get through this nightmare, with his calming tones.” I guess had there been no pandemic, Professor Whitty would simply be another grey suit in Whitehall. By all accounts, a very private person and certainly not one to strut under the SCD glitter balls. But that’s the whole point. Above all what people are looking for during this present emergency is a sense of competence, someone who appears to know what they are doing. In this context understatement and composure come at a premium. In fact, BBC health editor Hugh Pym describes Whitty as "the official who will probably have the greatest impact on our everyday lives of any individual policymaker in modern times.” “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” For one of our goals as disciples of Jesus is to be God’s person at the right time and in the right place. And we may never know until it happens. I’m sure Prof Whitty did not plan to become, in the words of the Guardian’s John Crace, “the country's de facto prime minister". In fact, one of his school reports actually said “Don’t think about sending this boy to university, he can barely read.” But it is as if, to quote Winston Churchill as be was appointed prime minister, “all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” In other words, you never know what God is preparing us for, you cannot second guess his purpose. What may appear at the time a complete waste of time may well be a hugely important experience in God teaching us a particular skill, in overcoming a specific problem. All we are called to be is obedient. I’m currently working my way through the pastoral epistles in the New Testament, which begin with Paul’s letters to Timothy, “my true son in the faith.” Like Whitty, Paul was unusually but not uniquely single and clearly he assumed a particular responsibility for Timothy as someone who would inherit his legacy of teaching the Gospel. Clearly Paul could see in Timothy a potential which, to say the least, was not obvious. In fact, it would seem that Timothy was by nature reserved and even timid, hardly celebrity status. Not a natural for church leadership, not one to assume the mantle of this outstanding apostle. In fact, in writing to the church in Corinth, Paul actually says “If Timothy shows up, take good care of him. Make him feel completely at home among you. He works so hard for the Master, just as I do. Don’t let anyone disparage him.” (1 Corinthians 16:10f) This was something Timothy had to tackle head on, to refuse to be put down, to be outshone. So the apostle urges “And the special gift of ministry you received when I laid hands on you and prayed—keep that ablaze! God doesn’t want us to be shy with his gifts, but bold and loving and sensible.” (2 Timothy 1:7). That’s a lovely phrase: “bold and loving and sensible,” qualities we would normally hold in tension with each other but virtues we would look for in a crisis. And it can take a lifetime to cultivate. For God knows what he is doing when is reshaping our lives, preparing for us a particular task, a unique calling. And it may come to us in a flash – hence the need for boldness, to seize the moment before it passes. Here we need to be on our toes, so to speak. You never know until it happens. In love – for we serve others. We are not talking here about self-promotion, hogging the limelight, but the very opposite. And even though we may find ourselves centre-stage, our motive is to bless rather than to boast. As Paul explains “The whole point of what we’re urging is simply love—love uncontaminated by self-interest and counterfeit faith, a life open to God.” (1 Timothy 1:5) And sensible. I guess we can sometimes downgrade sensibility as a synonym for boring. For we live in a society which values glamour, excitement and celebrity. But what we need more than ever, certainly during this pandemic, is competence, just being able to do the job well and without fuss. It’s not often I quote hyper-atheist Richard Dawkins but he’s right when he observes that “anybody who has something sensible or worthwhile to say should be able to say it calmly and soberly, relying on the words themselves to convey his meaning, without resorting to yelling.” Whether God would prepare us for a single event, even for just the one afternoon, or a more extended ministry over the years, the point is that the Holy Spirit can use our every experience in some way for us to bless others. And what is more, we may never even know what it was! To quote the sheep in Jesus’ final parable: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (Matthew 25:44). The point is – were we ready when our moment came?