A man, sharp but insouciant, drives a long stretch of rural highway beneath waning daylight. He sees ahead a car parked on the shoulder, eventually slowing his Pontiac to a stop behind her Mercedes. And with a slow gait — for an unkempt man like him could startle an elderly woman like her — he ambles within earshot and calls, “Hey, looks like you have a flat tire”. Hoping to cast more comfort her way, he adds, “My name is Greyson. I can help you, just pop your trunk”.
After a few scraped knuckles, with the spare on the wheel and the flat in the trunk, he connects eyes with the woman, who thanks him and asks, “How much do I owe you?” “Nothing”, Greyson replies. “If you want to pay me, just help another person when you see someone in need, and think of me”.
That same evening the woman stops by a small cafe. She notices a waitress — maybe eight months pregnant — wiping her wet hair with a towel and evincing a sweet demeanor though languid in her limbs as if she’d been on her feet all day. The woman defies her typical thrift by laying a hundred dollar bill next to the check and crumbs from her finished meal. Returning to the table with the woman’s change, the waitress finds only this note: “Somebody helped me today, so I’m helping you today. Maybe do something nice for the next person”. Under the napkin, the waitress finds four more hundred dollar bills.
Not long after, the waitress returns home, fatigued but fascinated by God’s faithfulness. The elderly woman could not have known how desperately the waitress and her husband needed this financial boost, with their first baby on the way. She is so happy to tell her worried husband the good news, in that tender way she has about her. “Can you believe it, Greyson?” she says, as they climb into bed, “I think we’re going to be okay”.
The apostle Paul hunkers down in Corinth — a beautiful port city in Greece near the southern tip of the Ionian Sea. He’s an experienced missionary now, for this is his third journey scattering Gospel seeds throughout the Mediterranean. Having planted and watered many little Christian missions along the way, Paul knows what makes for strong churches.
He wants to visit the Christian community in Rome, some 600 miles from the dirt now under his feet, and writes a letter to them detailing his intentions: “Firstly, I give thanks to my God through Jesus the Anointed for all of you, because your faithfulness is proclaimed in all the cosmos. For God…is my witness to how unceasingly I remember you always in my prayers, asking whether now somehow, by God’s will, I might have a clear path to come to you” (1:8-10).
The visit — that’s the what. Now comes the why: “I long to come to you, that I might give you some spiritual gift so that you may be made firm — that is, rather, to be comforted along with you, through one another’s faith, both yours and mine” (11-12). Paul hopes to visit his friends so that he can use his gifts to strengthen them, just as they can use their gifts to strengthen him.
In 2016, the self-improvement market was valued at $9.9 billion; in 2022, it will have grown to $13.2 billion. Some of those dollars are well-spent: when you have no one in your life who believes in you, who can help you with growth or confidence, a good book or workbook can help. But more than a few of those dollars lay as the greenery of self-indulgence: materials promising to help us discover how wonderful we are, how to grow more absorbed into our specialness, how to luxuriate in the charming recipe that is me.
And what is lost in some of that stuff is precisely what St Paul wanted his friends to find — that you have no self apart from others. And those thrilling gifts you’re discovering about yourself? They’re not there to look good in a mirror or fatten the figures of a bank account, but to strengthen your friends.
In late spring every year, Christians meet in churches but really gather in Jerusalem’s Upper Room. Our Messiah, before ascending from earth to heaven ten days earlier, promised us in His absence a “Helper”, a “Comforter”, a Holy Spirit that will continue Christ’s work inside us and lead us into all truth.
Christ had many sacred things to impart to us that, in our deific infancy, we simply could not bear: after all, clay can’t handle much fire. So, God’s Holy Spirit comes to gradually lead us into the truth about the Trinity. And the truth about us.
And the truth about us is that the Holy Spirit equips each of us to strengthen each other. Is this not the “healthy church” Paul has in mind? Three chapters in the New Testament provide lists of spiritual gifts: Romans 12; I Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4. Those gifts have names, such as administration, evangelism, encouragement, knowledge, leadership, mercy, teaching.
If it seems to come naturally to nudge another away from making a poor decision, you might have the gift of wisdom; if it comes naturally to lift up a friend feeling down, you might have the gift of encouragement; if it comes naturally to invite others to your place for fellowship, you might have the gift of hospitality; if it comes naturally to break hard concepts down into accessible bits, you might have the gift of teaching. Many gifts linger in those New Testament lists, but rather than tripping over names and labels and too much introspection, a better approach may be to ask, “How can I nourish the Body of Christ around me?” Then, do what seems natural.
At glorious Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended to establish the Holy Church with unprecedented creed, clarity, and contour. Of the roughly eighty passages in which the Greek word for church occurs in the New Testament, almost sixty have in view the Church as a particular group of people in a particular place. The Church is where someone goes and what someone does. The Church at Pentecost becomes local, physical, experiential, relational. Christ is no longer in the manger, on the Cross, in the tomb, or rising from the mountain. Christ is in the mysteries and the mortals of your local Orthodox Christian community.
Greyson uses his gifts to strengthen a stranded woman; a stranded woman uses her gifts to strengthen a pregnant waitress; a pregnant waitress uses her gifts to strengthen a worried Greyson. The cycle continues and God is glorified. No one is good at everything but everyone is good at something. More important than what you are good at, though, is why you are good at it — to help others stay rooted in their faith through the manifold trials of life.
Go forth to serve from the churning depths of your bliss.
Father John Oliver is the priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Christian Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He is a book author and podcaster, and has also written numerous articles and essays.
Photo credit: antiochian.org