On a Sunday in early October, Mike Neelley and I went into Skagit County Jail together for our weekly services. Five men gathered around a stainless steel table cemented into the floor. We began with a prayer and then I passed out photocopies of 2 Timothy 1:6-14.
I invite someone to read the first verse:
“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.”
I offer a brief introduction by stating that God has gifts for all of us– spiritual gifts. These gifts are different from natural abilities, like being artistic, perceptive or a good communicator. Spiritual gifts are distinct from learned skills like carpentry, welding, or auto mechanics. They include healing, prophesy, identifying evil spirits that afflict people, faith, and many others.
“Maybe some of you already know of a gift God has given you,” I suggest, looking around at blank faces.
“Or, maybe some of you still don’t know if God has given you a spiritual gift, and you’d like to receive something.”
The men seem to resonate with this option. I go on to share how these gifts enable us to become actively involved in God’s liberating work in the world,
I share how exercising a spiritual gift, like praying for someone to be healed or sharing a prophetic impression requires faith, which means taking risks. I ask someone to read the next verse:
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and discipline.”
Hearing these verses in the heart of the jail, with the TV blaring a football game suddenly made me feel vulnerable. I think I was then and there experiencing the kind of fear or timidity we’d just read about. The next verse seemed to expose and directly address the underlying issue:
“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling.”
We talk about how natural it is to feel ashamed to believe in God’s liberating actions and of Jesus himself. You can feel like a fool believing in an invisible God.
Yet in the face of this Paul writes as an inmate himself, urging people not be ashamed. After all Jesus has saved us, and we need saving. Still when we respond to his call we do enter into a kind of suffering, which the apostle acknowledges. But Christ Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Suddenly I remember that the men hadn’t seemed aware that they had received a spiritual gift. I suggest that Mike and I would love to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal each person’s spiritual gift, and that we could gladly ask God to give new gifts.
The men all seemed eager to for whatever was going to happen next. Mike and I looked at each other and began to go for it, taking turns to speak prophetically over each man around the table.
Each man seemed to soak up the words of affirmation that Mike and I offered, agreeing with the gifts that we identified or spoke over them. We could see new hope ignited, there in this place of bleakness where negativity, harsh labels and curses abound.
Only one man joined us in “P pod”—a Mexican American guy with stars tattooed on his cheeks, barely visible under long curly black hair parted in the middle. He is a man of deep conviction, born of suffering through years in prison.
Mike and I were moved by how easy it was to identify people’s spiritual gifts in the jail setting, and how precious and welcomed God’s perspective is among those who feel downtrodden.
We wrap up our time with each group by encouraging the men to step our in faith—fanning into flame their gifts. We encourage them to not let fear paralyze them, but God’s power, love and disciple.
Paul’s final words seem the perfect charge: “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.”
Mike and I find ourselves being deeply encouraged by this Scripture and our experience with the men. I share this message at Tierra Nueva’s service that day, and the work continues.
For further reflections on the gifts of the Spirit, read “Guerrilla tactics: signs, wonders, justice and mercy,” chapter nine in Guerrilla Gospel: Reading the Bible for Liberation in the Power of the Spirit.