It was one of my first sermons, preached in the Paradise Baptist Church of Paradise, Texas, my Grandmother Leonard’s home church in my father’s hometown. I preached in Paradise, full of post-pubescent and evangelical zeal, both of which can kill you, but without enough exegetical competence to hurt anybody. Afterwards, she found me, the saint with the blessing. She had known me since before I got my first cowboy suit, which in those days was usually in the first trimester of fetal development. She smiled broadly, revealing a trace of snuff dipped surreptitiously before coming to church. “Billy,” she declared, “it was a wonderful sermon. I felt the Holy Ghost.” Then the blessing: “Why, I believe you’re gonna be the next Billy Graham!” That day, in Paradise, for one brief, shining moment, I believed her!
Haven’t we all had people along the way who blessed, mentored, and believed in us, calling out gifts we may not have recognized, or will never have? People who, knowingly or unknowingly, helped us discover something of who we are and who we aren’t. Sorting out the gifts God has or has not given us is no easy matter. Best to savor every mentor, every blessing we can get.
“Many gifts, one Spirit,” Paul wrote to the troublesome Corinthians, a group of early Pentecostal/Baptists. They spoke in tongues like Pentecostals, and fought over food and sex like Baptists. Then Paul added, “We, many as we are, are one bread and one body … and that one Holy Spirit was poured out for all of us to drink.” Fifteen hundred years and multiple Reformations later, Martin Luther taught us to sing: “That Word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them abideth. The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through Christ who with us sideth.”
Paul lists gifts he observed in the first-century church, callings that were early signs of gospel grace: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle-workers, healers, and — I love this one — “ecstatic utterers.” As Paul tells it, it’s the Spirit that turns skills into gifts. Spiritual gifts can be perpetual or fluid, required at the moment or for the long haul. Gifts come and go. It’s the Spirit that remains.
Who knows where the Spirit will take any of us? Yet amid our many and diverse gifts, what ethical, theological, spiritual non-negotiables form and inform us? Reflecting on that question, I return to the mission statement of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, and its assertion that faculty and students seek to become “agents of justice, reconciliation, and compassion,” living out diverse gifts in light of those immutable gospel imperatives.
Right now, justice, reconciliation, and compassion seem in short supply in the land of the not-quite free and the home of the somewhat less than brave. As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote recently, we live at a moment in history when “the fundamental assumptions underlying pluralistic liberal democracy [are] up for debate, opening an aperture for poisonous bigotry to seep into the mainstream. It’s a natural response to try to hold the line against hate, shaming those who espouse shameful ideas. But shame is a politically volatile emotion, and easily turns into toxic resentment.”
That’s the culture we now confront, challenging us to live out and speak up for justice, reconciliation and compassion in a nation often running from those gifts at breakneck speed. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther — better yet, The Rev. Dr. William Barber, who went to jail recently as a result of protests marking the start of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign — might say it like this:
- When the Church becomes obsessed with political power it’s time for Reformation.
- When religious experience turns to corpse-cold transaction, it’s time for Reformation.
- When the language of piety masks cruelty, arrogance, and domination, it’s time for Reformation.
- When the Bible becomes a sourcebook for avoiding justice, reconciliation, and compassion it’s time for Reformation.
To those three gospel priorities, let’s add another grace: passion. Wherever the Spirit and the gifts take us, let’s have some passion about it. The passion of the Spirit fell on that early apostolic community, moving them from fear to courage. “He breathed on them,” John’s Gospel says, when the risen Christ showed up in a room they’d locked tight in fear that somebody was coming for them, too. “‘Peace be with you!’ he said, … and they were filled with joy.” “As Abba has sent me, so I send you. He then breathed on them, saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit!’”
Before the fire fell at Pentecost the terrified disciples got a little taste of the Spirit. Sometimes life is so difficult, so frightening, that the gifts which once came easily — by the lakeside, at the Cana wedding, at the Transfiguration, and their postmodern facsimiles — won’t come, and all that’s left is grace.
When they caught a whiff of the Spirit, terror turned to impassioned courage and determination. Sometimes gospel passion is an emotion deeper than words that grows out of our identity, our commitments, and our freedom. Sometimes it defines the substance of our lives, ideas or actions that will not let us go. Sometimes it stems from the intensity of our learning.
Reflecting on her fight against slavery, Harriet Tubman declared: “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement out of her passion for the urban poor. Such passion led to public protests that often got her arrested. She wrote:
I never feel unsure in prison anymore. … I think I’m absolutely sure of these things — the works of mercy and the nonviolent rebuilding of the social order. I think there has to be a sort of harmony of body and soul, and I think that comes about, certainly for a woman, through those very … simple things of “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the harborless.”
Some passions unite us in common commitments. Others are diametrically opposed to each other, across wide theological and cultural spectrums, dissent that challenges us to critique ideas without attacking character; to listen to rather than talk at one another.
So the Spirit helps us sort out our deepest passions in the context of intellectual rigor, spiritual integrity, and communal responsibility. Reason and intellectual rigor, at their best, do not water down passion but keep it from becoming intolerant fanaticism.
But none of us can be passionate about everything unless we survive on daily-double espressos. Ministers attempting to be prophetically passionate about every issue had best work out a life-long relationship with U-Haul.
The Spirit and the gifts don’t just say what we do, they help define who we are. They give us strength to “hold back the night,” as the old spiritual says. Or as friend and divinity school dean Gail O’Day says: “I create to say ‘yes’ in the face of the world’s often resounding ‘no.’”
“He breathed on them,” John’s Gospel says, and told them to receive the Spirit. Two thousand years later, perhaps the Spirit will find us again, amid our checkered past, our hesitant future, and our broken communities. It just might be blowing in on us right now. Take a deep, deep breath.