This Sunday, the seventeen pilgrims preparing to travel to Ireland this summer, myself included, will have a conversation about what gifts we bring to our little community of voyagers. (Apologies for the spoiler if I’ll see you at Sunday’s meeting – you have extra time to think about our prompt!) We will share about the gifts we see in ourselves and have the opportunity to share the gifts we see in one another.
No matter our age, sometimes the question of, “What are your gifts?” can be difficult to answer. I have frequently had the conversation with friends that it would be so much easier to write cover letters and do job interviews (or build a dating profile) for one another instead of slogging through our own because we’re great at talking each other up – but not necessarily so good at it for ourselves. In a culture saturated with expectations of self-optimization and perfection, it can be difficult to recognize the gifts we possess when we are taught instead to see only what we lack.
You can be better, we’re told, if only you look this way, or buy that product. You can do better, at school or at work, if you try harder and do more. And not only can you, you should – and you should do it in this way.
I am not knocking the disciplines of perseverance and determination that are the hallmarks of hard work. Sometimes we have to grit our teeth and practice the things that do not come naturally to us. And that’s an important, healthy, experience that, hopefully, teaches us and helps us grow. Serving our communities, as Christ calls us to, can be difficult taxing work, at the same time that it is life giving not only to ourselves but to those around us. To offer our gifts, in their great diversity, is living fully. But living up to expectations set by society, or what the world deems “success,” is often a losing game, an exhausting game.
It’s also a game that excludes people who, for a variety of reasons (think of ability, age, race, gender, class, sexuality) aren’t able to achieve the “success” society demands. What about when our gifts are not seen as gifts at all, but deficits? A quick example: Disability activists and scholars are doing important reframing of the idea of disability as an important and rich piece of identity that contributes to the fullness of life of an individual or community, rather than as a hindrance to a full or good life. (A wonderful conversation on this topic can be found here; it’s a recording of a conversation between Rabbi Julia Watts Belser, Professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University and Associate Dean Bill Goettler of Yale Divinity School from 2019. I commend it to you!)
On Sunday, our group of pilgrims will reflect together on the gifts we bring to our community, and on how God is calling us to use those gifts. What kind of community do we want to build together for our pilgrimage? What are our priorities? How can we commit ourselves to one another and to God in this particular experience?
And these aren’t questions just for pilgrims: they’re questions for all of us. At the beginning of Romans 12, Paul invites his readers not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by renewing their minds to discern God’s will, presenting their whole selves to God (Romans 12:1, NRSV)). He goes on to remind them that just as a body has many different parts, each with their own function, so too does their community – do all members of the body of Christ (12:4). The gifts differ “according to the grace given to us,” but all are important to the body as a whole (12:6).
So I wonder:
What gifts do you bring to your community? What gifts does your community see in you? And where and how is God calling you to use them?