Tune Your Bugle

Monday, April 7, 2014 – Week of 5 Lent, Year Two

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 31 (morning) // 35 (evening)

Exodus 4:10-20(21-26)27-31

1 Corinthians 14:1-19

Mark 9:30-41

I’m having a hard time imagining a bugle that “gives an indistinct sound.” In today’s second reading, Paul uses this unintelligible bugle as an example of self-indulgent sound that fails to communicate its urgent message. If a bugle fails to sound its distinctive notes, then “who will get ready for battle?” While I still can’t fathom what a poorly-played bugle would sound like, I think I get Paul’s point: The church needs the gift of clear communication.

In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains why speaking in tongues is not a very desirable spiritual gift. Rather, people should strive to prophesy—that is, to communicate with others to strengthen and comfort the church. As Paul says, “I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

Paul sees less worth in speaking in tongues because the person speaks “not . . . to other people but to God,” and because they only “build up themselves.” In contrast to this spiritual practice that communicates exclusively with God and that enhances the individual, the gift of prophesying is directed “to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation,” and “those who prophesy build up the church.”

As someone raised in the non-charismatic traditions of the Episcopal church, I’m starting to feel just a little smug and superior about not seeking the gift of speaking in tongues. However, Paul’s criteria for evaluating spiritual gifts could be used to devalue some other forms of spiritual practice that are more comfortable for me. Centering prayer, lectio divina, guided meditation, walks in nature, and other practices seem primarily to connect us with God and to treat our souls and bodies with care.

Paul is a missionary and church-planter, so perhaps his way of evaluating spiritual gifts is skewed toward the pragmatic and utilitarian. But Paul’s larger perspective is worth bearing in mind as we grow in our spiritual lives. In fact, Paul’s perspective may be what separates the Christian spiritual life from other quests for self-actualization and spiritual development in the world today.

For Paul, the ultimate measure of a spiritual gift is its benefit to others. Paul is especially concerned about spiritual gifts that threaten to isolate us from one another. If someone speaks in a tongue, “I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” Rather, we should seek to communicate, to interpret, to make translatable meaning.

Here is Paul’s advice to the spiritual seekers in his midst: “since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.” In other words, the Spirit does not give us gifts for God’s own sake or for ours—to draw us closer to him or to take care of us. Rather, the Spirit gives gifts through us to others. Let’s follow Paul’s advice and be eager for and strive to excel in the gifts that that will build up, encourage, and console others. Even if our spiritual practices remain the same, perhaps Paul’s reminder that we seek spiritual gifts within the church and for the church can take our practice to a whole new level.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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