“Varieties of Gifts”

We are a Pentecost Church.

The United Church of Christ is a Pentecost Church.

Please listen for the linguistically subtle but enormously important theological and ecclesiological difference: we are a Pentecost Church, not a Pentecostal Church. Pentecostalism is a worldwide and growing movement within Christianity that emphasizes a direct personal experience of God through the baptism with the Holy Spirit. It emerged early in the 20th century, most famously in the Azusa Street Revival in Lost Angeles that began on April 9, 1906. Pentecostals look to the text we heard today from the book of Acts, and deeply value the gift of fluidly vocalizing speech-like syllables, usually called speaking in tongues, more technically known as glossolalia.

That’s not us.

But the story of Pentecost is our story, too. We are the followers waiting in Jerusalem who were suddenly surrounded by a “sound like the rush of a violent wind,” and touched with “divided tongues as of fire.” (Acts 2:2-3)

We are the people who suddenly are able to speak the Good News of the Gospel in dozens of languages. This is not glossolalia; this is polyglotism – the ability to speak many real languages.

And we are the devout people from other nations who are startled to hear the Good News spoken in the language that we understand, whatever that may be.

I am calling us a Pentecost Church because we hold the conviction that God speaks to each person in a way that that person can understand. The UCC expresses this in the familiar phrase, “God Is Still Speaking.” We make that proclamation in the bright letters of Pentecost red.

What may be most distinctive about our corner of the Christian world is that we also have a wide and generous definition of what we mean by “languages” and “tongues.” We acknowledge that God speaks not only in sentences and paragraphs, but also in nearly every other sort of human experience: sculpture, poetry, knitting, bird watching, long-distance running, prayer and meditation, Civil War re-enacting, music, film, electrical engineering … well, just about everything. Even stringing beads.

            Some of you know that one of my vocations is as a liturgical seamstress: I make stoles for ministers. Of all the stoles I have made, this one is probably my favorite. I made it when I lived in Chewelah, Washington, serving a church in a small town about 50 miles north of Spokane. There was a wonderful fabric store in Colville, about 20 miles away, but the only place to get the ribbon and beads I wanted for this stole was the Walmart there. Somewhat to my surprise, I found what I needed and combined the fabric and the ribbons and the beads to craft this stole.

This week I was in Ames, Iowa, at a gathering of the UCC Iowa Conference and I came upon a book by Eleanor Wiley with the intriguing title, Changing Bead by Bead: Seeing Life as a Strand of Beads. She describes her experience of stringing beads as a spiritual practice, one that she has shared with many other people over the years. She reflects on the events in her life as she selects, arranges, and strings together beads.

Her description of choosing, admiring, arranging, and stringing these beads reminded me of my Pentecost stole, with its odd collection of adornments – wooden beads, plastic beads, one in the shape of a fish, a small bell or two. I remembered spreading them out on my worktable, arranging and rearranging them until they suited my eye.

And both Wiley’s work with beads and my memory of the process of making this stole called to mind the words of St. Paul that are in today’s text from his first letter to the church in Corinth: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:4). Suppose that we imagined beads not as individual life events or religious symbols, but as representations of all those gifts that Paul is speaking about. And further suppose that we imagine those gifts as being the “languages” with which God speaks in the world.

And suppose that we looked at and touched and strung real beads while we were supposing those things.

Happily, there was a store in Ames called “Grandma’s Attic” that was filled with beads and overseen by a warm and gracious woman named Christie. She helped me pick a bowlful of beads that caught my eye, selected the supplies I needed to string them, and sent me off with a wonderful story of taking odds and ends from her store to a local school and helping the kids make bracelets. She didn’t call them prayer bracelets, but I probably would.

So: here is my bead-based meditation on “varieties of gifts.” I do not know how many are on this strand – I made a point of not counting them. I put them all in a dish and then picked one at a time to add to the string. I also made a point of not trying to make a pattern, though I did try to make a pleasing combination. This is too big to be a bracelet and too heavy to be a necklace. It is just a string of beads

I am not going to make this into the kind of allegory where the orange bead means sunshine and the blue glass one means oceans and the wooden one is symbolic of all the forests of the world. (Though that might be an interesting spiritual practice of its own.)

I am just going to say that this is what I think a community is like: colorful, lumpy, unbalanced, shiny, dull, and oddly beautiful. The whole is hugely more than the sum of its parts. It could be put together in thousands of different ways, but this is the way it is now, today.

What holds it together is the thread that runs through it. Christie (at the bead store) might think that the thread is 7-strand steel with a plastic coating, thin enough to go through all the holes. St. Paul knew that the thread through the community of God’s people is the Holy Spirit. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7)

Do you hear the deep wisdom of that? We are connected to one another in community because we need one another. No one of us has all of the gifts are needed for a life of faith and service; together we have more than enough. No community can live out its sacred vocation if it denies, ridicules, marginalizes, or ignores the gifts of some of its members.

And everyone in the community is gifted. We have to admit that some of those gifts are easier to recognize and call out than others. It is particularly hard to acknowledge the gifts of people who we don’t like, or are different from us, or who scare us. It is sometimes hard to recognize the gifts brought by people with disabilities or illnesses or injuries. The gifts of children and youth are frequently overlooked.

Paul’s words again: “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:11)