Minister's Blog

Reflections from habitat uniting church's minister, Rev Joan Wright Howie.

Tallents and ADHD

Sunday, November 19, 2017
This Sunday we read a parable about the man going on a journey giving his slaves different quantities of money to use according to their ability. The ones who invest the money and make it grow are praised and the one who is fearful and buried his talents is punished - Matthew 25:14-29

I'm just back from a couple of weeks in America and it all sounds very familiar. It’s the kind of message that America was founded on. Work hard or die! The country is founded on investment and rewarding prosperity. Everyone has to work hard and some people really do get rich. But lots and lots of people work really hard and just stay poor – which you could argue from the point of view of this parable and say that it’s their own fault.

I went to Miami and stayed with my friend Howard who drove us around the back streets of the city through trailer parks and places that looked like third world slums. We talked about the American dream of prosperity. Howard said people really believe it - if you work hard enough God will reward you with riches and if you are lazy, you’ll end up poor. Interestingly Howard has set up a native plant nursery called Urban Habitat and has a vision to re-vegetate the urban landscape with native plants.

We drove from Miami to a place called St Augustine (we were looking for familiar names). It’s the first place settled in America by the Spanish in 1513 – way before St Columba is said to have ‘discovered’ America. We got a taste of the very early settlement in a swampy landscape and the wars that followed between the Spanish, French and English Settles and with the Indians as they battled to claim occupation of the land. We learnt about the horrors they all inflicted on each other, the hardships they lived through and the destruction of the the Indigenous cultures.

We went on the Savannah where it was clear that the wealthy of British had drained the swamps, cleared the land, beat back the locals, and bought in slaves to become rich on the profits of the cotton industry.

We then went on to Atlanta to the training and conference. It was here we encountered the civil rights movement and worshiped at the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King and his more famous son were both pastors. We heard the preacher talk to the completely packed church about the disproportionate number of black Americans in Atlanta living in poverty. He talked about the importance of education as a pathway to out of the poverty cycle and a college that the church was supporting to provide affordable high quality education.

There seems to be something wrong with interpreting this parable as a simple call to invest, work hard and become prosperous. The system just does not work like that. Some people get richer and others just keep working hard and getting nowhere.

We need to put the story into context.

This passage is set in Matthew’s gospel just before Jesus is arrested. Matthew’s Jesus sharing important information with his followers just before he, like the land owner in the story, is about to go away. The land owner has something to give his servants and Jesus has something to give his followers. It is up to us to decide what to do with the talents we are given. In the parable, the servants who do something with their talents are the ones who are praised when the land owner returns. The ones who are fearful and bury their talents for safe keeping are the ones who are criticized and miss out on their share of happiness.

Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that this parable is just about what we do with money. This parable is set amidst teachings about how to live when Jesus is physically gone from our midst. Jesus is encouraging his followers to use the gifts he leaves us with, so that the gifts will multiply. Jesus does not give out money to his followers.

Jesus gives people gifts to continue in his ministry so that it will multiply. Jesus is in the business of relationships. He provides us with gifts for healing, teaching and seeking justice. He is not talking about investing money – he is talking about investing our God given capacity, gifts and talents in bringing about God’s Kingdom of equality and healing.

The key focus of my trip to America was to attend training and the International ADHD conference. In the context of the parable of the talents, I’d like us to think about the talents people who are often considered as marginalized can bring to our community and how things might change if we were to invest in supporting people of difference. I’d like to propose that Jesus calls us to support and put our talents to work – no matter what they are so that they can grow in abundance.

For too long, being diagnosed with a learning difficulty or ADHD or Autism or Asperger’s or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Oppositional Defiance disorder has been considered abnormalities that should be buried, and hidden and pitied like the servant in Jesus’ parable who is only given one talent and who hides that talent away in the ground for fear that it will be lost completely.

ADHD is characterized by difficulties with paying attention and, in some cases, extreme hyperactivity. It is something people are born with – it’s like a special talent people are given – ADHD shows up on its own for only 15% of people, the reset has ADHD accompanied with another challenge like learning difficulties, anxiety, OCD, ODD, depression. ADHD is usually first identified in childhood, and carries on into adult life symptoms include: lack of focus fidgeting difficulty staying seated overactive personality forgetfulness talking out of turn behavioral problems impulsiveness Listening to this list of behavioral challenges does not sound like much of a talent to be given. Sounds more like a burden and it’s no wonder people bury and hide these difficulties as they struggle to function in schools and work places.

The 90 percent of non-ADHD people in the world are referred to as “neurotypical.” It is not that they are “normal” or better. That means that their brains are wired in a typical kind of way. Brain scientists are now able to take pictures of brain activity and can see different parts of the brain light up when people undertake different types of activities.

They can see that the ADHD brain looks different from the typical brain- the ADHD brain is fired up with lots of color showing that it is highly active much of the time. Which means people with ADHD have a special talent that others don’t have for wild and creative thinking, impulsive and spontaneous activity and wide ranging and innovative thought.

For people with ADHD the neuro pathways that exercise the executive functioning part of the brain are a bit sluggish. The brain is made up of cells that aren’t hardwired together. Messages have to jump from one neuron to the next. In order for this to happen, one neuron releases tiny amounts of chemicals called neurotransmitters. These chemicals carry messages across a small gap between brain cells.

For people with ADHD the neurotransmitters get sucked up before a connection is made which means that the message does not get transmitted effectively. This makes some activities like concentrating, or getting organized really hard and it makes doing things where there is no motivation impossible. The inability to use importance and rewards to get motivated has a lifelong impact on the lives of individuals with ADHD. Many researchers view ADHD as stemming from a defective or deficit-based nervous system.

But what if we were to see ADHD as a talent stemming from a nervous system that works perfectly well by its own set of rules. The only problem is that these are not the rules and techniques taught and encouraged in a neurotypical world. People with ADHD don’t have a shortage of attention. They pay too much attention to everything. Most people with ADHD have four or five things going on in their minds at once. The hallmark of the ADHD nervous system is not attention deficit, but inconsistent attention. People with an ADHD nervous system know that, if they get engaged with a task, they can do it.

Far from being damaged goods, people with an ADHD nervous system are bright and clever. The main problem is that they are expected to fit into a world designed for a neurotypical system. A similar story could be told for people with dyslexia whose brains operate differently from the neurotypical world. As could be for those with Autism and Aspersers.

Jesus told a parable about a man who was going away on a journey leaving his servants with different quantities and types of talents to use while he was gone. This parable comes just as Jesus is about to leave this physical world and leave his community with different kinds of gifts and skills to use in their living to bring about God’s vision in the world.

Some are given neurotypical brains, others dyslexic brains, others ADHD brains. The problem comes when because of fear, some people hide their talents and try to bury who they are because they are not typical. As the parable warns, their talents get taken away and given to others who have more and they are often left feeling anxious, depressed and isolated. Life can be really hard for people whose brains function differently from the majority population.

If people are stigmatized and marginalized, then they will feel diminished and end up hiding. If they are encouraged and supported, then they can make extraordinary contributions to the world.

As I come back from the International ADHD conference and have complete the parenting support training, I hear in this parable a call to invest in the various talents given to different types of people so that they can multiply and flourish. I hear Jesus encouragement not to be afraid and hide our talents, but to invest our talents in the work of God’s vision so that they can and grow and grow.


Habitat Uniting Church Office
2 Minona Street, Hawthorn VIC
phone 9819 2844

St David's Centre
cnr Burke & Mont Albert Rds
Canterbury VIC

Habitat Spirituality Centre
@ Augustine

2 Minona St, Hawthorn VIC

Kew Uniting Church
23 Highbury Grove