“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 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: 1, 4-5)
The first Lamont in my family to set foot in Virginia was not Bill Lamont but my youngest sister Heather. She visited Virginia Beach 15 years before I ever got here. She came on a spiritual quest – to learn more about the late great Edgar Cayce. Cayce was a clairvoyant from the turn of the 20th century ‒ he made predictions about the future and some of them came true! He developed a following and through his prolific writing encouraged a certain spiritual development among them in order to achieve a new consciousness.
The Cayce Headquarters is in Virginia Beach near the Cavalier Hotel and it houses every book and publication that he ever wrote. My sister went there to study him and to expand her own personal spirituality. She returned home even more intrigued with this man and even more devoted to his spirituality and teachings.
At the other end of Virginia Beach is Regent University – a private Christian University founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, of 700 Club fame. Robertson regularly made it into the news for the bizarre things that he did or said. He claimed that God spoke to him (directly) and he would share those revelations on his TV show. In 2004 God told him that George W. Bush would handily win re-election. (Bush did win but only took 51% of the vote). His spirituality is politicized and conservative.
So, when I received a call to Newport News, VA, a place not far from Virginia Beach, I began to wonder about the spirituality of this community. What would be the spirituality of the people of Hidenwood? Would the people in my congregation be like that of Edgar Cayce (a personal humanist spirituality) or would it be like that of Pat Robertson (a mix of politics and the Word of God), or would they be Presbyterians (highly rational, thinking types, who are open to the Spirit but not comfortable with charismatic expressions of that). I didn’t know.
Spirituality is about how we go about experiencing God, how we find connection and communion with the Holy One. And there are a whole host of different ways to do that. In fact, if you Google the word “spirituality,” you will find 660,000 different websites to visit. Spirituality extends beyond the realm of religion to include those just searching for a deeper meaning in life. So, there are websites on New Age practices, paganist cults, the benefits of yoga or meditation, and even long walks in the morning as a way to center oneself and find inner peace. And not all of them are mutually exclusive – you can use yoga or meditation as a way of finding a deeper connecting with God.
So, when Paul writes, “Now, concerning spiritual things...” his words make all our ears perk up. His words may be 2000 years old, but the topic of spirituality couldn’t be more contemporary. Everyone is interested in learning more about it. Even the “spiritual but not religious” groups are tuning in. And Paul starts off by affirming a wide divergence of spiritual experiences. In fact, when it comes to the Spirit, “variety” is the key word: “there are varieties of gifts...varieties of services...varieties of activities.” And this should not be surprising because God himself is experienced in variety – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is Neapolitan! So, no surprise that we experience God, connect to God, commune with God in such a variety of ways. It’s part of the very nature of God.
But God is the common denominator with all the church’s different forms of spirituality. No matter what your gift, no matter what your experience, no matter what service you provide, it is “the same Spirit the same Lord, the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” God is behind all the gifts we possess, all the services we provide, all the activities we engage in, therefore they are all inherently equal.
And this was precisely the problem in the Corinthian congregation – they promoted some gifts and demoted others, creating a hierarchy of gifts and a hierarchy of Christians in the congregation. If you were charismatic...if you could speak in tongues, you obviously were channeling the Spirit directly and were about as close to God as you could get according to the Corinthians. If you had that gift you were at the top of the gift pool. Second in line were those with gifts of wisdom and gifts of knowledge... the preachers and the teachers. These people really had the Spirit too. How could we possibly conduct worship without these folks on Sunday morning?! They are obviously superior Christians. So, Paul writes today to give them some ground rules regarding the role of the Spirit.
First, the Spirit is part of every person who confesses “Jesus as Lord.” The earliest Christian confession of faith on record are those words: Jesus is Lord, and nobody can utter those words of faith unless they’ve “got the Spirit.” In some denominations still today, there is a distinction made between the baptism with water and the baptism with the Spirit. Being dunked is only phase one of the process – you can’t really claim to have the Spirit until it’s manifests in some way – usually in some charismatic way. Paul makes it clear that the proof of the Spirit is in the confession of faith... nobody can claim that “Jesus is Lord,” on their own initiative – only if the Holy Spirit dwells within them! It means that everyone who is baptized has the Spirit regardless of whether they are Jew or Greek or what gifts they possess.
Second, all Christians receive spiritual gifts. When you make a profession of faith, the Spirit dwells within you and the Spirit endows you with gifts. The question is never “do I have gifts?”, the question is “what are the gifts that I have?” And there is a plethora of possible gifts. Paul lists a few of them – teaching, serving, leading, helping others but not an exhaustive list! The New Testament includes compassion, evangelism, hospitality, generosity, encouragement, mercy, worship and prayer. And there are a host more than this! And you may have just a few gifts – or you could have many – it’s up to the Spirit how they are dispensed.
Now, sometimes we use spiritual gifts, skills, and talents interchangeably as if they are all one and the same thing. But spiritual gifts are usually less tangible than this – and more overarching. You may have the skill of guitar or piano-playing, but your spiritual gift might be the ability to share the gospel through music. You might be a talented handyman, but your spiritual gift might be showing love by helping others in need. So, skills or talents might be related to spiritual gifts, but they aren’t usually identical.
(Story of taking my infant daughter Beth into the nursing home for a service – she never left the sight of the people there... even wanted to hold her. Even a baby has a spiritual gift – they remind us that God continues to create in unspeakable beauty and is the source of immeasurable joy)
Last week I watched the video, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” – it’s about the life-long career of Mr. Fred Rogers. He started the television program, “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” in 1968 and it ran until December of 2000. Most people don’t know that he was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church and his children’s program was his ministry. He started the program in ‘68, before becoming a minister, then went to seminary and was ordained... and the Presbytery of Pittsburgh had the foresight to make his children’s television program a validated ministry! (A very forward-thinking act for the time.)
Fred Rogers was a very talented individual – he played the piano, he wrote music and songs for the show, he had ten distinct voices for all the puppets on the show... but none of those things are his spiritual gift. Fred’s spiritual gift was his ability to relate to children and help them thrive in life in an often-chaotic adult world. He did not shy away from the topics on the day. I love the job he did ministering to children after Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Using a puppet, he helped them to understand what that word assassination meant and dealt with the questions and feeling they had surrounding the tragedy. He does it all at a child’s level. In short, his gift was being a pastor to children.
Finally, Paul says that spiritual gifts are given for the common good of the church. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (vs. 7) God doesn’t issue gifts for the personal glory of individual, but for the building up of the church... to grow the church and make its membership thrive. So, gifts are to be publicly shared and publicly enjoyed... they are not for private edification.
It means that ministry is not to be left only to the paid staff. We can’t hold committee meetings and lay all the work of the church at the feet of the church employees. Granted, there are certain responsibilities that naturally fall to them – nobody is going to be asked to play the organ on Sunday or stand up and preach... job descriptions assure that won’t happen...but many ministries could and should be picked up by the flock themselves.
Neither is it right that it always be the same sheep of the flock who do all the work. A healthy congregation is one all the members are eagerly share their gifts and their time with the congregation. And when the burden of ministry is shared by all the members, it isn’t a burden at all! In fact, it becomes a joy because everybody is working together towards a common goal and for the common good, like a team of horses pulling a wagon.
One of the things I did when I first arrived in Newport News was to conduct every home visitation. It took almost four years, but I visited everyone who would have me in their home. I spent about 1 ½ hours in each home on Monday afternoons and evenings ‒ just learning the story of their lives and how they came to be associated with our church. On Tuesday mornings, I would then write down everything I could remember about them and at the bottom of the list I would write the spiritual gifts I perceived each of them possessed for the common good. (If I couldn’t guess that I identified possible gifts, talents or interests they had which might signal which might be used in the church.)
I was going through those papers recently and it occurred to me that most of the gifts identified in people have not been well integrated into their church service. There is a huge untapped potential among our membership, and even the ones who are serving tend to be pigeon-holed into the same sorts of things forever – even though there are other things they could do.
So, I encourage each of you to do some homework this week. Ask yourself this question: What is my spiritual gift? What is it that the Spirit has given me for the common good of this congregation? If you struggle with the answer, then pray about it. If you still are stuck, ask somebody who knows you well what they think your spiritual gift might be. Try to come up with an answer and then find a way to exercise that spiritual gift here at Hidenwood. Don’t wait to be asked – volunteer - in big ways and small, because if everyone did that, that blessing upon HPC would be incredible. Let’s make 2019 the year when everyone shares their gifts in some way in service of Christ’s church. If we all of us do just one thing we will have increased our blessing exponentially as a congregation. And that blessing will also get on you – because those who give blessing also receive it in kind. That’s just the way it works with the Spirit.