Note: This post refers to a specific Christian belief and practice as a metaphor for how we are to view our talents and gifts, and what we need to do with them whenever we gather as a community, including this community we call Open Salon.
When I was a pastor and spoke to people about becoming members of the congregation it was not very different than it is here. Some of them always said that they are concerned about their ability to be of any actual service to the church. “Just how, they wondered, can I be of any help? Do I actually have any gifts or talents to give?”
Those were valid questions in that setting and, from what I have seen, also valid in this one. Most of us have them from time to time, yours truly included. I have feelings of inadequacy when I feel that I am not doing well at something, like, for instance, not being able to convince more of us to be more careful and caring about what we say to others, both in our posts and comments.
I also feel it here when I see posts dedicated to taking another member to task in public, or, under the mask of "being honest" criticizing a member about his/her writing skills or ability to communicate. I feel it keenly when someone attacks a person rather than the person's argument, especially if that individual is not on the same political or ideological wavelength of the critic. The argument far too quickly moves from discussion of the subject matter to one of attacking the integrity of the other writer.
But, let me assure you, such problems are not new. And I would like, once again, to turn to something I know well to use it as both an analogy and as an example of a similar problem that happened 2000 years ago. Some things, particularly those involving the human ego and human relationships, just don't change all that much.
St. Paul dealt masterfully with the question of gifts or talents, what to do with them, and how to acknowledge them, in the twelfth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul's letter was written to a bickering church much in disarray, a church confused about its own gifts, both as a congregation and as individuals, and confused, as we often are about the source of those gifts.
All gifts, all talents, that we have, according to Paul, are gifts of the Spirit; which is, I think, nice to know, because it means that we don’t have to try to create our own gifts. They are already there, gifts from God, to us. Our job is to discover what they are, and have the courage to put them into use.
Some of you may enjoy, as I do, Garrison Keillor’s wonderful stories about his mythical home town, Lake Wobegon. He always ends his radio episodes about life in Lake Wobegon saying, “And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” While I chuckle at that every time I hear it, I also know that, deep down inside, all of us would like to live in a place where everyone is “above average.”
In this time of super stars and mega celebrities, this time when hyperbole is king, you get the feeling that you have to be at least “above average” just to be credited with having any value at all. In the inflated language of everyday life, “average” sounds like a dirty word.
Yet, by society’s standards, most people are not extraordinary at all, and so a look in the mirror leads to a lot of disappointment. We think, “I’m average at best.” And the unstated premise behind that lament is, “And, therefore, I’m of no value.”
But that’s not what God thinks. In fact, that is the furthest thing from God's mind. No, the vision of the Kingdom of God is one in which all of God’s children are not only above average, but are absolutely gifted! According to St. Paul, the Holy Spirit is at work right now bestowing a broad diversity of gifts upon each individual.
And the Spirit goes right on bestowing gifts, talents, abilities all of our lives. You have gifts. You have talents. You have abilities. You have value – infinite value. And it matters not one whit whether or not you think you do. Your gifts come from God, and God alone has already decided that you have them, regardless of what you, or anybody else, thinks.
But the members of the church in Corinth didn’t believe it. So Paul called them spiritually immature, because they had no faith in their talents, and what talents they had were being abused. Their talents were actually hurting themselves and the church.
There were instances of blatant immorality in the church, and a constant propensity toward conflict. The wealthier believers openly discriminated against the poorer members. Believers who had a dramatic and emotional conversion experience took a superior attitude towards those who did not.
In short, their community was being divided between those who thought they qualified to be part of the “gifted children’s program" and those who did not. They totally misunderstood the ways and the work of the Spirit in their lives. Too often, so do we.
One of the most important highlights in this chapter is that Paul is absolutely unequivocal in saying that the gifts of the Spirit are not uniformly distributed. If we are convinced that God really prefers the particular gifts we have, forget it. It may well be that what God wants for me says absolutely nothing about what is best for you. The gifts of the Spirit are as diverse as there are individuals.
Paul specifically names nine different gifts that he believes God bestowed on the members of the church in Corinth, and he in not saying that these are the only gifts, they are just a representative sample! The first two gifts he names are wisdom and knowledge. The third gift mentioned is faith (meaning trust in God), followed by healing, miracles, prophecy (meaning the ability to proclaim the purposes of God, not to read the future), discernment, and finally, tongues, and the ability to interpret tongues. Sadly, the last two gifts have captured the common perception about what "gifts" are. But Paul discounts the value of those gifts.
The important thing that I want you to notice is not the particular gifts, per se, but their diversity. Paul pounds the point home, time and again, that all of these diverse gifts are given by the same Spirit. All of them.
The test of a gift of the Spirit is not what it is, but that it comes from God. If your gift is reading and commenting occasionally, then that gift is just as precious as an EP on a post, or the ability to post every day, or make the Cover every post, or have every post read by 10,000 readers. Paul's point is that all gifts are from God. And all gifts are equally valued in God’s eyes.
Paul also makes it abundantly clear that the purpose of all gifts, no matter how esoteric or ordinary, is for the “common good” of the community. Starting with verse 12, through the rest of the chapter, Paul completes his argument using the magnificent metaphor that many of us know: that of the body of Christ.
Here is the majestic and daunting proclamation that the Church is the Body of Christ, and that each member is useful to, and needful of, all the rest of the members of the Body. The body, and its many and diverse members, show how the gifts of the Spirit contribute, each in its own way, to the unity and health of the Church. And I believe that metaphor is helpful when viewing other communities such as OS.
Paul says that no Christian is complete, whole, when alone; just as no bodily part is complete, whole, vital, and functional, without the others. No part of the body is independent of the rest. All of God’s children are necessary if the fullness of the Kingdom of God is to be expressed.
And the “higher” gifts are not what you might think. The “higher” gifts have nothing necessarily to do with what society values as “talent” or “gifts.” The higher gifts of the Spirit are any that are beneficial to others, and to the community as a whole. On OS reading is a high calling. So is commenting, or taking the time to send a PM to a member who is hurting, or leaving a kind comment when someone is struggling with a problem and needs to know that others care..
Ultimately, of course, all of the gifts get rolled into one in Chapter 13, the chapter on love that we discussed in my last post. Paul argues that all of the gifts of the Spirit are ultimately expressed in one word: love. Not only is love the Spirit’s greatest gift, but it is the standard by which all other gifts are measured and tested.
All gifts are to be measured as to whether they come from and result in love. If they come from love, they are rightly viewed as gifts of the Spirit. If they result in love, then one can know that his or her gift is a product of the Spirit moving in one’s life.
This has far reaching implications for us. In the first place, you are one of God’s own gifted children. Whether a new member or an old one, whether you write well or not, whether young or old, whatever your politics, or whatever your social standing, your sexual orientation, or any other diversity, you are a valuable, gifted child of God.
Despite all of our negative self-images, despite all the feelings of inferiority, despite all outward appearances from the world’s perspective, despite any estimates of your worth by either friends or enemies, each one of us is a uniquely gifted child of God. And whatever gifts you possess are to be used to lift up one another, to reach out with your own gifts in love. This is both a blessing and an obligation. And it applies here on OS or to any other aspect of our life where we interact with others.
The praise that we receive from others, and the wrongful pride that praise often induces in us, will falter and fade; and the normal human question will always be, “But what have you done for me lately?” But the love of God for those who use their gifts in the love of others will be boundless and eternal. All who use those gifts with care and concern for others are, indeed, “above average!” And we don't even have to live in Lake Wobegon.
1024 page views 2010 01 16