A Reflection on Spiritual Gifts
by Rilda Baker
Over 50 years ago, when I began to study Spanish (a language no one in my family spoke or had ever mentioned), my Oklahoma Southern Baptist grandmother confided her concern that studying Spanish might make me “lose my faith.” She needn’t have worried, for my high school Spanish teacher had given me a copy of the Bible in Spanish as a graduation gift. And so it was that I began to read in my second language those passages of Scripture that I had known all my life only in English. That was how I learned the word don.
This is not the don used to acknowledge someone’s social standing (like Don Quixote) or to name restaurants, such as Don Pedro’s, Don Beto’s, or Don Marcelino’s. Rather, it’s the don of which Paul speaks in his letters to the Christians in Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus when he tells them about “spiritual gifts” or “gifts of the spirit.”
Don is not the word used when talking about gifts that we exchange with one another (regalos). Don refers only to gifts originating with God in Judeo-Christian tradition or with the Divine in other traditions. For us Christians, these dones are God’s generosity to each one and all of us – unmerited and unsought gifts, freely given, non-tangible – but nonetheless real and intended to be used, as Paul says, “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7, NRSV).
The word don has the same Latin root as the English word donate. The Spanish word, then, would suggest that God “donates” gifts to us so that we may “donate” them to others — gifts freely given both by God to us and by us to others. The Articles of Religion in our Book of Common Prayer (XXVII) tell us that in baptism we are “grafted into the Church.” Thus, living the life of the baptized requires us to discover and activate that gift or those gifts God has already “installed” in us as our contribution to community life – “the common good.”
One of my spiritual companions is the Rev. Katie Long, Director of Wesley Foundation at Baylor University. (Some of you may know her from her time as Director of Religious Education at St. Luke’s, San Antonio.) Over the past couple of weeks, Katie and I have shared a lively e-mail conversation about spiritual gifts – what they are, how we come to know our gifts, and how they are to be used. Early on, Katie commented that Paul was writing prescriptively to the churches of his time, working to shape them by saying, “Here’s what you do well; do more of that. Here’s what you don’t; quit that.” Paul was not starting from square one with these faith communities, saying, “Here’s how to organize a church.” List-maker that he was, he was compiling an inventory of “manifestations of the Spirit” so that these early Christians could look at one another and know that they were already equipped to further the Kingdom of God.
As a lay person, I have found myself sometimes using Paul’s lists to search for my own gift or gifts (1 Corinthians 12: 8-10; Romans 12: 6-8; Ephesians 4:11; and 1 Peter 4:11). However, most scholars agree that those lists were not meant to be either exhaustive or exclusive catalogs. Rather, Paul is enumerating traits, dispositions, “manifestations of the Spirit,” that will build up the Church as it was developing in his time. Contemporary needs in the Church, in our diocese, and in our congregations may present different aspects than those Paul observed in those early churches. So we would probably do well to regard these lists not as job descriptions but as “brainstorming prompts” to fuel conversation in our worship communities and reflection on our own lives.
During one email exchange, Katie commented: “An overall lens of the Kingdom of God helps move us beyond the understanding that gifts ‘for the common good’ are meant solely to nurture those inside the church. Our common good is that we are being built up as a church to do mission. So gifts offered within the church prepare its members for their mission outside the church.” Engaging our spiritual gifts enables us to live into that baptismal promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts.” Sometimes it is through conversations or shared experiences that a particular gift is revealed. Sometimes what I consider simply a daily routine or behavior may be received with deep gratitude and regarded as a “spiritual gift” by a co-worker, a friend, or a fellow parishioner. Likewise, I may perceive a “manifestation of the Spirit” in someone else, an attribute of which that person is completely unaware. Serving Christ in that person may mean that I must be the one to bring this spiritual gift to his or her attention. I wonder how many people feel “spiritually ungifted” simply because no one in their lives has ever aided in the discovery of their spiritual gifts.
At another point in our virtual conversation, Katie observed: “When Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God, it’s about small things – mustard seeds, yeast – that make a huge difference, or about hidden things like a pearl that are worth spending everything on. Buy the field just to get the pearl. So our gifts are seeds of the Kingdom of God and they may be worth much more than we think they are.” I wonder what gifts each of us carries within us that we are reluctant (or afraid) to cultivate – gifts which might be the very leavening needed in the life of a family, in a neighborhood, in a workplace, or in a church.
After Eucharist last Sunday, I became curious about what word the Spanish Book of Common Prayer uses in the Eucharistic invitation: “The Gifts of God for the People of God.” As I suspected, it is translated as “Los Dones de Dios para el Pueblo de Dios.” The word pueblo for “people” emphasizes an aspect of “People of God” that is not so evident in English because in Spanish there are two words for people. La gente means persons regarded as a group, as in “people of good will” (gente de buena voluntad). El pueblo is used only when the group is bound together by shared beliefs or other shared characteristics, as in the phrase “American people” (el pueblo americano).
Curiously enough, pueblo also means a village or small town, a community where people share a common life. This understanding leads me to suggest that at each Eucharist spiritual gifts are being held up as essential components for our life in community – world.
At the next Eucharist, when you hear the priest intone, “The Gifts of God for the People of God” (or “Los Dones de Dios para el Pueblo de Dios”), take a moment to receive that invitation in a new way. Hear in those words an assurance, an affirmation that there are indeed manifestations of the Spirit – spiritual gifts – before your very eyes, in yourself and in those about to share communion with you. These gifts lie waiting for you to notice them, to call them out, to embrace them as the grace God intended them to be. These gifts are given to you and to all of us to nourish our life together so that we may become the Body of Christ in the world.
About the author: Rilda Baker is a teacher, writer, and Spanish translator. She co-directs the Diocesan Retreat Society and is a member of St. Paul’s in San Antonio. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org