January 30, 2019

Gifted Gifts

Presbyterians have a large gene labelled Modesty running around in our spiritual DNA.

Most of our parents taught most of us to 1. stay nice and quiet during the worship of God, and 2. never to brag.  Makes sense. You can add to these parental prohibitions a strong emphasis in our Reformed tradition on glory always being given to God and not to humanity.  Even faith itself is a gift, we say.  Boasting is the cardinal Presbyterian sin.

Given all of this, the invitation to talk about ourselves in the context of faith and church likely leaves many of us feeling a bit uneasy.  Even more, the language of "spiritual gifts" might sound to some like it better belongs in one of those other Christian churches, perhaps one on a cable access channel.  Bottom line:  Is the naming aloud of our spiritual gifts — be they communal or individual — a form of bragging?  Is it, inevitabily: "I have the spiritual gift of wisdom ... Look at me!"

The New Testament is chockablock full of language about the gifts Christ gives to his church, in every generation and in every place.  Ephesians 4 is my favorite example, where the apostle lists a sacred chain of invisible gifts that are given by the Spirit for building up the visible church.  The logic of Paul's gift-talk seems to run like this:  God gives good gifts to those God calls to faith, gifts for blessing the whole of the faithful, all so that the faithful can become the kind of persons whose lives and love bring glory back to God amid a watching and wanting world.

It is this logic that hedges against bragging.  Our gifts come from God, not us.  No one can claim original ownership.  And when gifts bear fruit in the church and in the world, the taste of said fruit will develop an appetite in others for the divine, not for us.  Glory (emphasis, reputation, legacy, credit) goes back to God, not to us.   In short, spiritual gifts are gifts to be given away.  There is no room in that chain of logic for self-referential bragging.  But given the mandate to use them for blessing, there is also no need to keep the whole matter under wraps.  Indeed, there is a real sense in which we need each other to help each other discern what our own gifts might be.  That calls for conversation, and prayer, and encouragement.

There is freedom in the grace of gifts, freedom to ask of our lives and of a congregation's culture: What particular invisible gifts has God entrusted to me and to my visible community?  All disciples and all communions share Jesus in common, as well as his faith, hope, and love.  But beyond those sacred universals, what are the particular marks of God's gifting grace in our history?   Asking these questions, sharing in this discovery, and celebrating our findings — this activity is not bragging; this is stewardship.  To whom much is given (by God), much is expected (by God).  Staying clear about what has been given TO us helps us stay alert to those moments when grace invites us to give AWAY the spiritual blessings Christ has deposited in our communion.

What gifts of a spiritual nature has the Holy Spirit invested in your life?

January 17, 2019

Lagniappe Lord

"We picked up one excellent word, a word worth traveling to New Orleans to get; a nice limber, expressive, handy word: 'lagniappe.' They pronounce it lanny-yap. It is Spanish, so they said. We discovered it at the head of a column of odds and ends in the Picayune, the first day; heard twenty people use it the second; inquired what it meant the third; adopted it and got facility in swinging it the fourth. It has a restricted meaning, but I think the people spread it out a little when they choose. It is the equivalent of the thirteenth roll in a "baker's dozen." It is something thrown in, gratis, for good measure."
Mark Twain wrote those words in 1883 in his travelogue Life on the Mississippi.  In my lifetime, my late father, John Hawkins, used Twain's favorite new word frequently in his everyday banter.  "Lagniappe."  Makes you feel like you know some fun French, even if you don't.  "Just a little something extra," my dad used to say, with a wink.  "Just because."  And the kids in line at the church picnic, waiting for his homemade ice cream, were ever so grateful for his generosity.

Sunday's gospel reading is a lagniappe moment in Jesus' ministry, a story with a wink built in.  John arranges his rich gospel collection in such a way that Jesus' first remembered miracle is an entirely unnecessary one: transforming a large batch of everyday water into a vivifying wedding wine.  John 2:1-11.  No blindness is cured; no leprosy healed.  No lame legs are given new traction; no dark demons dethroned.  Just some wine.  Just because.  At a wedding party in a side-road town called Cana, our Lord simply does a heaven-shaped favor for an everyday family throwing a party, lubricating the evening with wine when the supplies run out.  It is a lagniappe miracle, a sign pointing to heaven — gratis, for good measure.   Furthermore, it turns out the Son of God likes a good party as much as most of us (secretly) do.  Who knew?

What does it suggest about the nature of God the Father that Jesus the Son performs a lagniappe miracle as a sign of heaven's shape?  How does a beverage give a fresh taste-test of God's true heart?  What does it mean to be a wine-flavored church in this sour-water kind of public season?  Where have you noticed the Holy Spirit turning ordinary moments into kingdom encounters in your life?  What must we run out of, and then have transformed, before we will trust afresh that we serve a generous God, our lagniappe Lord?