All That We Need
Mark and Sarah were whispering to each other and giggling in the back seat of my car. It was clear that they had a secret.
We were on our way home from Denny’s where I had taken them and their mother, Carol, for dinner. I don’t think the children had ever eaten out where you sat at a table and someone waited on you. That evening happened to be “family night,” and a clown roamed from table to table making balloon animals for all the children. We had a wonderful time.
I first met Carol at Chicago Uptown Ministry where a deaconess I knew worked. I reconnected with her late one October when I was in graduate school and had an assignment to interview a woman who was poor and write a paper about her.
Carol told me her life story. She had married right out of high school eight years earlier. Before the year was over, Sarah was born, and Mark came along 18 months later. She soon realized that for the sake of the children—and for her own sake—she needed to leave her abusive, alcoholic husband. That’s how she came to be in Chicago, living in a drafty apartment and surviving on Aid to Dependent Children and food stamps. She was taking classes at a community college and hoped to be able to support herself and her children one day.
We had agreed that when I finished my paper I would bring it by for her to read, and then I would take Carol and her children out to dinner to thank them for helping with my assignment. (back to top)
They didn’t seem to see it that way. They had a great abundance. They were so excited to be able to share it. How could I not eat this food and join in their thanksgiving?
When we got back to their apartment, Mark and Sarah hopped out of the back seat, opened the door for their mother, and grinned from ear to ear when they said almost in unison, “Louise, we want you to come for supper at our house in two weeks.” The secret was out.
“Okay,” I said. “I’d like that. What can I bring?”
“Just come,” they said. “We’re going to cook for you.”
When I arrived two weeks later, I quickly realized that this was no canned-soup-and-grilled-cheese-sandwich supper. It was a full blown Thanksgiving dinner. The children had colored placemats and made table decorations. Sarah said the prayer thanking God for food and friends. We feasted on turkey and all the trimmings and even pumpkin pie with whipped topping for dessert.
I felt a bit guilty. I realized they must have used the whole Thanksgiving basket from the food pantry and most of their monthly food stamps to make this feast. How could I eat their food when they had so little? (back to top)
Not as tourists
Every year during spring break students from Valparaiso University where I teach part time, go off on mission trips to Appalachia or Central America or Africa. They repair houses, clean up after floods or tornadoes, assist doctors and nurses with health clinics, build irrigation systems, and tutor children. The young students are astonished with the meager resources they find in the places they visit. Often it is their first personal experience with people in poverty. Later, when they tell about their trips, the students often report that the people they visited gave a party for them at the end of their week of service. People returning from such visits usually report that, in the midst of so little, people are generous and hospitable. They are filled with joy and hope and confess amazing trust in God.
These experiences suggest that scarcity and abundance are not as much about what people have or don’t have as they are about attitudes and perceptions. People who operate out of a sense of scarcity believe there is not enough of something.
The scarce commodity might be food or money. It might also be time or attention and affection. The scarcity mentality produces anxiety, fear, and jealousy.
Scarcity mentality causes people to hold tightly what they have, to seek more for themselves, to hoard.
Jesus came with a different perspective. In the reign of God that Jesus ushers in there is abundance. There are huge jars of the finest wine for the wedding feast. There is enough food to feed everyone in the crowd and to have leftovers besides. The nets are full of fish. And there is more than enough forgiveness to go around. (back to top)
Perhaps we know these stories from the gospels. Still we find ourselves worrying about tomorrow and fearing we won’t have enough. It’s a very human response especially in a culture where we are bombarded with messages to acquire more, to be independent, and to distinguish ourselves by the cars we drive, the clothes we wear, or the experiences we purchase. We are led to believe that real life is to be found in such things, but we know that Jesus speaks the truth: Abundant life comes from an entirely different place. It is a gift from God’s abundant love.
Here are some spiritual practices that may help us move from a mentality of scarcity to a gospel of abundance.
SPEND TIME WITH THE WORD.
Select one of the gospel stories that reflect abundance. A few possibilities are the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13–21 or John 6:1–14; the wedding at Cana in John 2; the John 21 account of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. The purpose is not so much to study the text but to be with it. Let yourself imagine the setting, the scenery, and the people. Perhaps you could imagine what it is like to be each of the characters in the story. Don’t forget to imagine what it is like to be Jesus. What touches you in the story? What is the story calling you to be or do? (back to top)
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, suggests three steps toward living a life of gratefulness. The first step is to be more alert to the surprises around us. He suggests that at least twice each day we ask ourselves, “Isn’t that surprising?” We will soon, he says, find ourselves recognizing more and more what God gives us.
Second, Steindl-Rast encourages awareness of opportunities. He says the moment “offers you an opportunity to enjoy—to enjoy sounds, smells, tastes, texture, colors, and, with still deeper joy, friendliness, kindness, patience, faithfulness, honesty, and all those gifts that soften the soil of our heart like warm spring rain.” His third step is to respond alertly to the opportunity. More and more, the response will come spontaneously especially to those opportunities to enjoy. (These three steps are described in David Steindl-Rast—Essential Writings, Orbis Books. You can find more by Brother David at www.gratefulness.org.)
Several years ago Oprah Winfrey encouraged people to keep a gratitude journal. It is a wonderful spiritual practice. The journal can help to call us back to a sense of abundance whenever we feel ourselves slipping into a scarcity mentality. (back to top)
HOLD WHAT WE HAVE LIGHTLY.
Perhaps you will remember the news stories after the terrible tornadoes last spring. Again and again, people standing in the rubble that was once their home through their shock and grief said something like this: “These are only things. Most of it can be replaced. We are just grateful to be alive.” The tragic loss of so much made it clear that they could live without their possessions.
The Hebrew scriptures recount the practice of giving the first fruits from the harvest each year, and later the practice of tithing developed. These actions were not to balance the church budget or to fund the mission. Rather they are reminders that what we have comes from God. Giving away some of what we have can keep us from grasping and hoarding.
Giving offerings of money can be one way of holding lightly. There are other possibilities. What about giving away to a charitable resale shop one-tenth of your clothing? How might you give away one-tenth of your time? What would it look like for you to make an offering of part of whatever seems in short supply or whatever you hold most dear or whatever you grasp most tightly?
Holding on to things makes it impossible for us to open our hands to receive the gifts that God offers. (back to top)
MOVE TOWARD COMMUNITY.
In the examples at the beginning of this article, people learned something about scarcity and abundance because they entered into relationship with others. Standing in solidarity with one another can help us grow into a gospel of abundance.
In Acts we read how the early Christians shared goods in common. This got the attention of their neighbors in the community because the church was made up of people who would not have associated with one another in the society—Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. People from different economic classes treated one another as equals. They supported one another spiritually and materially. There was always enough.
Some Christians today, part of the new monasticism, try to follow that example of Christian community. They come together, pray together, share resources, and hold one another accountable. There are various expressions of this ranging from congregational small groups to people living together in one household and pooling their resources. One group of families I know all bought houses in the same neighborhood. They can share lawn mowers and ladders.
These families can provide childcare for one another. They make decisions together about employment opportunities and the use of money. They regularly pray together and have community meals. They can support each other during times of sickness or unemployment. When people share in community, things don’t seem so scarce. (back to top)
A prophetic witness
I met Mary from Nairobi, Kenya, several years ago at the assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in Winnipeg, Canada. When we ate lunch together that first day, she said, “He was talking about me.” The General Secretary in his opening remarks talked about how the churches in some parts of the world did not have money to pay their pastors and other workers. “He was talking about me. I haven’t had a pay check in four months.” She told me about her husband losing his job. They had four children and she had adopted five others whose parents had died of H IV/AI DS.
We often ate lunch together during the assembly. I asked her questions about her life, and she generously shared with me from her experience. We became friends in those few days and kept in touch via email. She wanted to visit our deaconesses to learn more to lead and encourage the women who had been trained as deaconesses in their church.
Eventually she wrote that she had gathered the money and planned to visit. I was pleased to welcome her into my home—but was a little embarrassed, I admit, at my comfort and amenities. We ate supper and lunch and breakfast at my table. Each time when I offered her more, she replied, “It is enough.” Not “I’ve had my fill” or “I don’t want any more,” but “It is enough.” This wasn’t just a response to my offer of more food, it was, I came to realize, a way of life for Mary. Whatever she had was enough. It was, and is, a powerful, prophetic witness to me.
What if we all lived more with a spirituality of “It is enough?”
E. Louise Williams is executive director emeritus of the Lutheran Deaconess Association (LDA). She is also part-time adjunct assistant professor of theology at Valparaiso University. She often serves as spiritual director, retreat leader, speaker, and writer.
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