There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Corinthians 12.4-6)
Everything Falls Into Place
When people ask what I do for a living, I blithely answer, “I put on shows in barns.” There’s always a chuckle, followed by, “No, really, what do you do?” And I explain that I actually do put on shows in barns. Corporate clients hire the teams I work with to stage large employee gatherings. We start with nothing but an idea and figure out how to fashion live experiences that convey the messages our clients want to deliver. I’m the creative director—the idea guy. But the finest ideas in the world will come to naught without the rest of the team doing its best to bring them to life. The event producer visits the selected location and evaluates the available space—usually a large hotel ballroom or convention hall—to see what’s possible. Then we add designers and technicians, all of whom take responsibility for their share of pulling the pieces together. When I arrive onsite, I walk into a hollow room rapidly being transformed into a meeting venue. The stage is under construction. Lighting and sound gear is being rigged. Video equipment is put in place. In roughly 24 hours, a barren room becomes a theatrical environment where all the creative elements come together to inform and motivate an audience of several hundred people.
Obviously, I could never do this on my own. The task is too great. It requires more time and manpower than I could possibly provide. But, more than that, I don’t possess the talent and know-how to do it alone. And one of the first lessons in my business is learning to trust and respect your teammates. They know what they’re doing and if the job is going to get done right, you’ve got to let them do what they’re supposed to do, while you do what you’re supposed to get done. I’ve been at this for 25 years now; to this day, I don’t really understand how everything falls into place. But it does.
This is the principle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12, where he discusses diversity of gifts. Initially, his explanation of how the Body of Christ functions would seem logically straightforward. “The community of believers is equipped with an enormous variety of talents and abilities,” he says, “all of them provided by the same Lord.” If we use my profession as a metaphor, Paul is telling us that God is the Client. God selects and endows each of us with gifts so that, working together, we can create something out of nothing, something that will bring God’s vision and message to life. Whether or not we accomplish what God desires of us depends on three things: recognition of talents we’re given, willingness to participate, and ability to trust and respect those we work with. The task is too great for one of us to manage alone. And although we will never fully understand how everything falls into place, when we commit our talents to God’s use, somehow the work gets done.
The Common Good
Once we digest Paul’s explanation, however, things become less clear. We start asking questions. What are my gifts? What do I bring to this project? Where are my strengths and, conversely, where am I limited? All of this boils down to the hardest question of all: who does God want me to be—what does God want me to do—to help build God’s kingdom? Some soul-searching is required. We need to inventory our talents to discern how they can be used constructively in the community of faith. Alas, Paul’s practicality falls by the wayside when he lists gifts God has given the Body. He dives into the mystical end of the pool, describing decidedly supernatural abilities: spiritual wisdom, knowledge, and discernment, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, diverse tongues and interpretations of tongues.
If such phenomena were evident in our lives, most of us wouldn’t know how to recognize them—let alone deploy them properly. While we may have witnessed these gifts in others, we shouldn’t mistake Paul’s roster as definitive. Nor should we imagine that not possessing these specific talents precludes us from offering the gifts God has bestowed on us. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” verse 7 says. The ultimate question becomes, “How do I manifest God’s Spirit in my life?” And that can happen in an infinite variety of ways. Some of us possess gifts of joy, others gifts of compassion, and still others gifts of service, activity, and artistry. Every list of gifts is unique to each believer, all of them provided for the common good. Whatever we contribute to the building of God’s kingdom is worthy and necessary. So what are your gifts?
There is a second part of Paul’s story we should also reckon with. Often we know what our gifts are, but we worship and serve in faith traditions where they’re unwelcome—not because they’re not valued, but because we’re not valued. The talents and abilities God places in us are as native to us as other components of our making: gender, ethnicity, and orientation. They are inseparable from everything else God created us to be. As a result, the compulsion to use our God-given gifts for God’s glory often drives us to reject—or hide—our God-given identities. The world is full of women endowed with leadership talent who accept lesser roles for the sake of remaining in patriarchal traditions. Tens of thousands of gay believers endure the agonies of belittling doctrines and preaching in order to offer their talents to homophobic faith communities. Worse still, divinely gifted believers of every kind have withdrawn from the Body of Christ entirely because of discrimination and disrespect. And we must ask, how does any of this serve “the common good”? Why do we cling to religious exclusion when it's so obvious that it causes great suffering within Christ's Body?
Choosing where we worship and serve is a complicated decision based on many factors: our upbringing, where we live, our comfort with certain theologies, liturgies, and approaches to community life. Yet we must come to grips with the dilemmas that grow out of our decisions. If we remain in communities where we must surrender our identities in order to use our gifts, we dishonor our making. On the other hand, if we find new homes where we’re trusted and respected, we may have to sacrifice the comfort of traditions we’ve grown to love. We pray for the day when all believers are trusted and respected across Christendom. And we mourn the great losses that many traditions suffer by undervaluing believers who don’t fit their norms. Paul’s vision of the Church’s vast diversity of gifts imagines a miraculously diverse community of faith. When we make peace with who we are and the gifts God gives us, that miracle will become a reality. May God grant us strength and faith to be true miracle workers, wherever we are.
The gifts God gives each of us are as intrinsic to our making as our gender, ethnicity, and orientation.