Sunday, August 30, 2015

Talents and mites

My mother's family contains an extraordinary number of musically-gifted people. My Dutch great-grandfather had a beautiful tenor voice and a clear, strong, melodious whistle. My Swedish great-grandfather was renowned in his little town for his gorgeous singing voice. My great-aunt Nell was a gifted soprano who sang professionally for years. My mother and her sisters sang publicly together in high school and early college; two of my aunts have wonderful pop soprano voices, and another aunt was classically trained as an operatic mezzo-soprano. So I grew up surrounded by marvelous voices -- singing solos in church, blending in harmony at talent shows, and caroling at Christmas.

I have a singing voice best described as "serviceable." It's soft, weak and breathy, and often cracks on the high notes. My solo performance venues are usually limited to the safety of showers and cars with the windows rolled up. While I can harmonize with others and can usually suss out a part from sheet music, I don't sight-read well and could never pass auditions for small choirs -- my vocal quality simply wasn't good enough. Being related to so many superb singers, I was keenly aware of the limitations of my own voice, and at some point in my teens I came to accept the fact that I would never develop the kind of vocal beauty that had been generously bestowed on my relatives. From that point on, I mostly kept my voice down.

The modern definition of the word "talented" originates from a New Testament parable wherein three servants are entrusted with various talents of money to raise a profit (a talent was a sizable weight of gold or silver in Roman times). Although the word's original meaning is now defunct, some of the flavor of it still lingers in the modern meaning of having a prodigious natural skill or aptitude. Some people possess so much talent that they seem almost weighted with it, filled with an ability that seems almost supernatural in its origin and strength. But talents, just as in the parable, are not doled out equally to everyone. And when I perceive that my talents are modest or even meager compared to the gloriously weighted talents of others, I tend to feel ashamed of the little I have been given.

But after thinking about it for a while, I'm not sure this is the proper attitude to have about talents, even small ones. To explain why, I must turn to another New Testament story.

The temple at Jerusalem had a treasury where Jews could make charitable donations. According to the story, people came into the court with money which they threw into the treasury, and "many that were rich cast in much." Their large gifts, perhaps some of them measured in old-style talents, must have been impressive to the many onlookers. And then one day, along comes this poor widow to cast her gift into the treasury. In my mind's eye I always see her as quiet, furtive, perhaps even a little embarrassed. For her gift for the temple treasury is a mere two lepta (translated as "mites" in the KJV), a couple of copper coins of the smallest possible value in the Roman Empire. She stands in a corner of the court, waiting patiently for a time when no one will notice her approach. And when no one appears to be paying attention, she finally sidles up to the treasury and, with trembling hands, drops in her puny gift.
Two lepta.

But someone has noticed her -- an ordinary-looking but unusually observant man, standing across from the treasury with some of his friends and followers. "I tell you the truth," he says to them, "that this poor widow gave more than everyone else who put money into the treasury. For they donated a bit of their abundant wealth -- but she, in her poverty, gave away all the money she had to live on."

The story of the widow's mite, I've realized, aligns remarkably well with the parable of the talents. Yes, if I were heavily invested with grand golden talents, of course I ought to improve on them -- but even if I have nothing more than two measly copper lepta of ability, I should not be afraid to offer them up. Those tiny mites of talent can still work to do remarkable good in the world. As another unusually observant man put it, "My talents may not be great, but I can use them to bless the lives of others .... I believe in the principle that I can make a difference in this world. It may be ever so small. But it will count for the greater good."

My singing voice is a mite or two of talent. It's not good enough to provide a solo performance in public, or even to participate in the tightly-blended harmonies of a small choir. But it's perfectly serviceable for singing hymns in a congregation, or jumping into a Messiah sing-along, or just singing "Happy Birthday" to a child. And although I might wish to be more richly gifted than I am, I can be content with the thought that the modest amount I do have is still worth giving.

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