Reflections by Jerry Webber

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I Think I Recognize This Prayer!!

May our sons be like plants well nurtured from their youth,
and our daughters like sculptured corners of a palace.

May our barns be filled to overflowing with all manner of crops;
may the flocks in our pastures increase by thousands and tens of thousands;
may our cattle be fat and sleek.

May there be no breaching of the walls, no going into exile,
no wailing in the public squares.

Happy are the people of whom this is so!
happy are the people whose God is the Lord!
(Psalm 144:13 - 16)

I've been with this psalm for two days now. It first caught my attention yesterday morning, specifically verse 15:

"May there be no breaching of the walls, no going into exile,
no wailing in the public squares."

For some other reasons, I've been drawn to the image of "exile" lately, so in meditating on Psalm 144 I immediately noticed this prayer that there be no going into exile.

In fact, if you look at the entire prayer, it is a cry that God would provide good things, blessings in abundance, and that health and well-being would be assured. The person offering this prayer is to be commended for his or her honesty, I suppose, but could there be a more self-interested prayer? Well, I suppose the famous/infamous "prayer of Jabez" -- the one that shot into the popular consciousness several years ago -- might be just as self-referenced, but this prayer from Psalm 144 doesn't lack its own self-concern.

It is a prayer for life to be straight and clean, with no resistance, no obstacles, no difficulties. It sounds like a contemporary prayer . . . frankly, I'm glad to know this kind of insular, egocentric prayer has ancient roots . . . so it's not simply a result of 21st century Western entitlement!

"God, fill my storehouses.
Don't let me ever have to go without.
Give me lots of sons and daughters, and make them beautiful people I can be proud of.
Don't let anyone invade my space.
May I always stay at home in comfort.
May I never have to grieve in front of others.
May life turn out perfect.
Don't put obstacles in my path.
May I face no opposition, or if I do, let me 'win' every time.
When conflict arises, I want to get my way.
Let my life turn out the way I'd like it to turn out.
May I be perpetually healthy and have plenty, my storehouse full of only good things.
Let me be always on the side of right and may all those who are wrong be cast aside.
May everything I touch turn out the way I envision."

I'm not intending parody with this essay, only reporting where I went with the prayer this morning; but as I read what I've written above, it does sound like parody. Yet, for many of us, this passes for prayer.

On the one hand, I think this is an honest prayer. Bless the person who first prayed it for putting his/her self-centeredness out there before God and everybody!

But on the other hand, the prayer feels dishonest to me because it denies the way life is and the way God is. I'm not saying that we don't all have some desire for this kind of smooth, well-ordered existence; however, for me life does not work that way. I spent the first half of my life trying to make life work like this prayer, but when the real stuff of my life began to fall apart, I was forced to be much more honest about God and life.

My life is not this clean and unobstructed. Maybe that's just me. Maybe I'm alone in having to come honestly to prayer out of the chaos and mess, but I don't think so. Honest prayer comes at life out of the jumbled mess of the journey, not in how well all the externals around me line up.

Most of all, the prayer has a "what's-in-it-for-me" quality about it. It doesn't approach God as expansive. The prayer makes life as small as my little world. It denies that most of us need darkness or difficulty or mystery to push us toward transformation and life-change.

In fact, most of us don't know what we need for transformation . . . which is exactly why transformation is God's work, not ours!

So here is the poem I wrote this morning about this prayer in Psalm 144. In the poem I don't quote the psalm, but you will find clear reference to it . . . just my attempt to enter into the spirit of this difficult prayer that has invited my wrestling-reflection for a couple of days.

Read the ancient prayers,
the ones about smooth roads
and unending increase,
where everything turns out
cozy in the end
after a few well-spoken
words and maybe a
simple genuflect
or two,
prosperity measured out
in bushels of harvest
and quivers-full
of sons and daughters
preparing to take over the
business of running the farm.

Who doesn’t want this


Who wouldn’t sell her
soul for a few days
of well-being – or maybe
a life – and

Who among us is exempt
from begging of the gods
the very things
that leave us
as we are.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Insanity of Doing the Same Thing

Last week I made some shifts in personal practice. I re-upped on a commitment to healthier eating. I also made some changes in my exercise regimen. Here’s the back-story:

Up to my 40th birthday, my weight really wasn’t a problem. I loved to eat and didn’t have to be very attentive to what I consumed. However, the post-40 years have been very different. I slowly began taking on pounds and had to be watchful of what and how I ate. Then at the age of 46 I began regular schedules of chemotherapy and steroids. I was warned that the treatments would mean fluctuations in my weight; in fact, over the next three years I gained about 50 pounds.

Christmas 2006 I decided that enough was enough. I began to exercise daily. I cut out fatty foods and sugars. I worked hard and made up a workout program that I thought would help me. It did. After about 5 months I hit my target weight. I kept on, and over the next few months dropped even more weight, the weight I’d picked up post-40. That was 2007.

I maintained that weight for over three years, and in that time continued to alter my workout routine from time to time. When not wrestling through chemo/steroid treatments, I’ve felt good and fit.

All of that changed in 2010 when I went through 6 months of a stronger chemo and steroid protocol. I couldn’t exercise. I spent a lot of time sick and in bed. I lost of a lot of weight . . . about 18 lbs. I didn’t think weight-gain would be a problem when I finished the treatments, but then found that after the treatments ended in October I wanted to eat everything in sight. The six months of little eating gave way to undisciplined eating, taking in whatever was around me. I came back up to my normal, baseline weight, then kept eating and gaining . . . until now I’m on the plus-side of my norm by 20 lbs. (yep, that’s 38 pounds from the low point last year). I’d like to keep the blame totally on the steroids, but I can’t honestly do that.

For months now I’ve known that I needed to make changes, but always put it off a day . . . a week . . . until after vacation . . . after the kids visit, etc. I’ve continued my same exercise routine, but I’ve noticed that it’s not working any longer . . . and to boot, my eating has been undisciplined.

I reminded myself again a couple of weeks ago that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing, yet expecting different results.

So last week I decided to do something different. I’m eating in a more disciplined way again. And I’m changing my exercise routine. The biggest change is that I’ve started jogging (I thoroughly detest running!!). I’m using a running program that Peter Johns commended to me, one that encourages a gradual build-up in time and distance.

So here’s the goal, the carrot out ahead of me. While I’d like to lose some of this extra “20”, that’s not my primary goal. Rather, when my son – who’s been running for several years now – runs in a Thanksgiving Day 5K Turkey Trot this year, I want to be running with him. Well, not exactly “with” him. He’ll outpace me easily. But I want to be in the race with him. That’s the carrot in front of me. (I think there are a lot of literal “carrots” in front of me, too!!) 5K on Thanksgiving Day with my son.

You can ask me how it’s going if you’d like. I’m motivated to do this.

I’m thinking, though, that there are a lot of things for which today is the day. In all sorts of life settings, to keep doing the same things and expect different end-products is not only “insanity,” but “stupidity” and “craziness” and “illogical,” etc. Yet we all do it . . . whether it’s our health or our prayer or the fitness of our souls. We get the same results as always because we’re doing the same things as always.

For me, sometimes I just have to get fed up with myself and with the way things are . . . then, every once in a while, I’ll have the courage to take a new stance, to enter a new posture of openness, to embark on a new journey. I don’t know what the end result will be – I have my own hopes at that point – but I cannot control the outcome. All I can do right now is give myself to the journey.

So now, I’ll see where this one goes.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Shape of God's World

The "kingdom of heaven" (or the "kingdom of God") is a dicey deal to understand. The Gospels use these terms frequently, yet never are they defined. Most often Jesus used the words to describe the way God orders life that is alternative to the structures of this world.

While not defining or explaining the kingdom of heaven, Jesus told stories to illustrate this alternative framework for life, this radically different God-consciousness. So the Gospels are full of stories that Jesus begins, "The kingdom of heaven is like . . ." Taken together, they construct for us a portrait of "God's kingdom" -- the way life is ordered around and structured upon God -- which helps us to see the vast difference between the way peoples order life (in societies, cultures, governments, etc.) and the design God has for the world.

For several years now I've been drawn to the story of the landowner and the workers in the vineyard as the prototypical parable that sets this contrast before us. In the parable there are persons utterly confused, bewildered because ultimately life is not ordered according to the systems and frameworks to which they have slavishly given themselves. To me, it is a parable that sheds a lot of light on why people -- even religious, Christian people -- resist God and God's shaping in their lives with such defiance.

The parable was the daily reading a couple of days ago, so I've had opportunity this week to sit with it again and listen to it.

Matthew 20:1 - 16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his supervisor, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I'll not walk through the entire parable. There were a few things I noticed this week as I listened to Jesus' story.

1. The parable challenges our ability to receive and to celebrate with others who receive. The word "receive" is used four times in verses 9 - 11.

Sometimes when I'm talking about this passage in a sermon or with a study group, after I read the text I'll ask people to speak out their first response to the story. "What immediately rumbles up inside you when you hear this story?" Very often I hear, "It's not fair" or "The all-day workers deserved more." Many of us tend to hear the story in terms of "fairness" and what we "deserve."

But a few times lately when I've asked the question, I've heard things from the audience things like, "It gives me hope!" or "I'm grateful" or "Woo-hoo!"

I wonder if those who feel uncomfortable with the story because it feels unfair are some -- myself included -- who have been busy working hard "all day" and keeping the rules and showing ourselves diligent. We want to receive our due.

And I wonder if those who hear in the story cause for celebration are those for whom life has been difficult, those who have been ignored, those who have been accustomed to being on the underside of life. For those who live outside a culture of deserving, this is not just "good news" . . . it's "GREAT NEWS!!"

Somehow, my capacity to be open and receive is wrapped up in all that.

2. The all-day workers "expected to receive more." Another translation says, "They thought they would receive more."

In the story, the persons who worked the length of the day were trapped in their expectations, in their "thought" about the situation vis a vis the workers who labored only a part of the day. They were locked into a way of thinking about life, fairness, and reward/punishment that was the filter through which they saw all of life. They thought -- or expected -- to receive more than the other workers, but when reality did not match their thinking -- or expectations -- they got angry and grumbled.

As I prayed with this part of the story, I saw a couple of ways my own life is trapped in my thinking and expectation, in my own perception of how I think life is -- or should be -- ordered.

The landowner, who in the story is the God-figure, demonstrated that he was operating out of a different system or reality or framework, and some of the workers could not handle the alternative structure.

In some way, our thinking and expectation about life has to be de-constructed, with the re-construction work taking place around the ways of this alternative God-reality. Such is the kingdom of God, and such is the challenge for me of "entering" the kingdom of God.

3. "You have made them equal to us." The all-day workers were accustomed to a system of merit and deserving, but were not used to everyone getting a different kind of mercy. "Deserving" is out of the question. It is not a category in this landowner's lexicon.

In this kingdom, the systems of the world to which we are accustomed are thrown out. We are invited into a new reality, a God-reality. So the ways that human systems label and classify and categorize do not apply in God's kingdom. For people who think they have more of this or more of that (money or education or status or importance or whatever) than others, it can be totally distasteful to be made "equal" to everyone around you.

"You have made them equal to us," sounds elitist, and it is . . . and we all -- no matter who we are -- have some egocentric elitism in us.

In this kingdom of heaven, there are radically different structures and systems at work. The kingdom is not built on merit and deserving. It is built on mercy and generosity, and the parable demonstrates that while we all think we want mercy and generosity, we may not want it for everyone. At some subconscious level, we want a system of merit and deserving, not a system of grace and compassion. It's one of the main reasons God's kingdom is so difficult to enter . . . there is so much of ourselves that clings to the old systems because they are all we know.

Lately I've considered again the words Paul Simon wrote in his song, "Graceland." The song is only about Elvis and his Memphis home in a superficial way, it seems to me, but more about this way of being in the world we call "generosity" or "mercy" or "grace" . . . because in the tag line of the chorus Simon sings:

I have reason to believe
we all will be received
in Graceland.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Merton's Take on Slobbery

In the two previous posts, I referenced Frederick Buechner's imagery of "slobbery." As far as I know, slobbery was not in Thomas Merton's vocabulary, but he did write a lot about the false self and our basic human egotism that believes all of life orbits around me and my tribe.

These are his words from New Seeds of Contemplation. [Note: He wrote on behalf of male monastics, so his language is not inclusive . . . though his words are intended for everyone.]

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.

This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.

My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God's will and God's love -- outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves -- the ones we are born with and which feed the roots of sin. For most of the people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow in what is called a life of sin.

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they are all destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.

The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God.

But whatever is in God is really identical with Him, for His infinite simplicity admits no division and no distinction. Therefore I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him.

Ultimately the only way that I can be myself is to become identified with Him in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence.

Therefore there is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.

But although this looks simple, it is in reality immensely difficult. In fact, if I am left to myself it will be impossible. For although I can know something of God's existence and nature by my own reason, there is no human and rational way in which I can arrive at that contact, that possession of Him, which will be the discovery of Who He really is and of Who I am in Him.

That is something that no man can ever do alone.

Nor can all the men and all the created things in the universe help him in this work.

The only One Who can teach me to find God is God, Himself, Alone.

[Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961), 34 - 36.]

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Slobbery, Transformation and Sunday School Picnics (Part 2)

In the previous essay, I leaned into Frederick Buechner's image of transformation as the difficult process of being changed from a "slob" to a "human being." Granted, the language of "slobbery" sounds a bit harsh, but for Buechner the word is a metaphor for our humanity mired in egocentricity. Others have named this slobbery our "false self" or "imposter self."

Without getting hung up on his terminology, I'm mostly interested in Buechner's analogy for how difficult it is to break out of this false-self-system for doing life. There is something about our human hard-wiring that clings with all its might to "the way things are." We resist change. The ego, or rational management mechanism within us, resists giving up control, even as our soul longs from some freedom from the controlling ego's dictatorship. It wants to be Number One . . . on top . . . in control.

This movement -- from control to surrender, from ego to soul, from self to God -- is a major part of the spiritual journey.

Now, make a slight shift with me. The same "slobbery," false self and entrenched egocentricity that is a part of the human condition is also a part of groups, tribes and nations. People within family-groups, races or countries identify with the values and mores of their particular group . . . in fact, usually the "identification" is actually "over-identification," which leads to a very egocentric group loyalty: "The way I and my group do this is right; the way everyone else does this is wrong . . . or if not wrong, at least not as good as we do it!"

In short, the values and patterns of the group with which I identify become the "norm" by which I evaluate life, because in most cases they are the only values and patterns I know.

Most of these forms come to us by virtue of where we grew up and what we were taught from our earliest days. We accept them without question. We integrate them into our world-view. We see all of life through these lenses.

Without interior strength and a high degree of inner freedom, we can stay locked into these systems, even when they conflict with the life we have in God. [Loyalty -- in some settings called "patriotism" -- is a very high value for most families, tribes and countries.] Rather than be disloyal to our group, we may "baptize" our loyalty and over-identification as "the will of God." Our way of life becomes our Divine Right.

In fact, these larger group systems take on the function of a kind of pseudo-religion. For instance, this past week in the midst of pendulum swings in global economies and stock markets, I heard professional economists and analysts say, "Right now we just need to have faith in the American economy," or "We need to believe in the our financial system." In other contexts, similar words could have come from an evangelist at a brush-arbor meeting.

For a long time I’ve believed that persons in the USA live under of the massive illusions – this pseudo-religion – that believes this nation has Divine Rights that are not granted to other nations. Our government and economic system are built on assumptions that this country will be – or at least “should be” – a world leader. As a people, we have little tolerance for being less than the best, for being anything but #1.

This stance has led to out-of-control greed, the glorification of lifestyles that accumulate for themselves to the detriment of others, and the kind of “me-first” mentality that is willing to crush others for its own benefit. This stance is not only tolerated, but encouraged in our society. That we haven’t recognized it, to any great extent, is an indication of how entrenched in our “slobbery” we are.

Thus, when that system of accumulation and acquisition begins to falter, there is nation-wide panic. When the ground beneath economic systems begins to crack and the fault lines begin to show, the national response is fear. The public discourse, then, is primarily about how to get back to “where we need to be” . . . or get back to the “way of life that we’re entitled to” . . . or how to get back to “world-wide superiority.” People across the political spectrum have used these words and made these speeches recently.

As a nation, we clamor to hold onto what we have. We refuse to let go, to consider other ways of being in the world, especially ways that might be more compassionate or generous. The national mindset, ingrained within us and hiding behind the language of national pride or patriotism or even “God’s will,” is very, very egocentric.

I realize that we are in days that provide a tremendous opportunity. I have no illusions that the nation as a whole will make a 180 degree turn-around, that we can drop our illusions and expectations in order to live more fully in truth and reality; but, as we see days in which we may have to learn to live with less . . . as the time comes when we are not #1, but rather dependent on other countries or economies (learning how most of the rest of the globe has done life daily for centuries!) . . . we will have an opportunity to demonstrate what it means to live from a framework of alternative values and realities, values and realities that are more closely aligned to the Gospel.

In short, I believe that those who have some spiritual grounding, an interior life of meaning and inner freedom, a practice of prayer and meditation that grounds them in every season of life, will be most able to make this shift. I hope you are one of these persons.

Because whether a human person or a nation, the process of moving from slobbery to a life of meaning is no Sunday School picnic.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Slobbery, Transformation and Sunday School Picnics (Part 1)

During college days, I cut theological teeth on Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian pastor, teacher and writer. Buechner had a gift for saying deep and layered things in very poetic, straightforward ways. Those books I read in the 1970's, before going to seminary, shaped me. Some of the images he used then still show up in my consciousness when I think about life with God.

One of his images has been with me a lot the last couple of weeks as I've attended to events in the national life of the United States . . . political gridlock in government . . . economic panic . . . the polarization of endless blaming and scapegoating . . . fear and anger among those of us on "Main Street."

I've thought about one paragraph Buechner wrote as I've pondered once again how difficult life-change and transformation is. I want to live a life that orbits around God, yet I resist it with every excuse and ounce of strength I can muster. Most of us seem to resist in that manner. It's hard to see how firmly I am entrenched at the center of my world. It's difficult to let go of the illusions I've grown up with and the illusions to which I cling . . . and not only hard, it's painful as well. It's much more comfortable to rock along blissfully (and blissfully ignorant) rather than face ourselves (and God!) and adjust life somehow.

[Several months ago I was with an Orthodox Christian who said, "Everyone talks about 'transformation,' but no one wants to change."]

Yet, that kind of adjustment seems to be the invitation of Jesus, to adjust life according to what he called "the kingdom of God" (rather than "the kingdom of Jerry").

Buechner wrote an essay about the word "gospel" in which he explained that the word literally means, "Good News." In the short essay he described what God offers to human persons as both "good" and "new." Then, he wrote this last paragraph, the words I have called to mind again recently:

"Thus, the Gospel is not only Good and New but, if you take it seriously, a Holy Terror. Jesus never claimed that the process of being changed from a slob into a human being was going to be a Sunday School picnic. On the contrary. Childbirth may occasionally be painless, but rebirth never. Part of what it means to be a slob is to hang on for dear life to our slobbery."

[Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 33.]

You might feel inclined to argue his use of the word "slob," but I don't think you can argue his premise that new birth or new life (being changed or transformed) is going to be painful. In fact, Jesus said that this kind of life-adjustment was going to ask of us the death of what we know of ourselves.

We lose ourselves to find ourselves.

We take up our cross daily and die to self.

Jesus did not simply teach this posture with his words. He demonstrated in his life -- and in his own death -- this pattern of losing life in order to find life.

But as Buechner said, part of being a slob is hanging on for dear life to our slobbery.

Part of our humanity means being self-centered and self-referenced . . . and holding on for dear life to our self-centeredness.

Part of our humanity means living in the illusions and frameworks in which we have been raised . . . and holding onto those illusions and frameworks, no matter the cost.

Part of our humanity means thinking that the way we see the world and relate to the world is the only "right" or "true" way to relate to the world . . . so our humanity quickly and easily divides people into "us" and "them" . . . those who see the world the way I do (friends, allies, compatriots) and those who see the world through other lens (enemies, terrorists) . . . and holding onto those labels at any cost.

That's enough for now. In the next couple of days, I'm going to post some thoughts about the challenge of this kind of transformative stance in the corporate life of a tribe or nation. Because the very things that are true of my life and your life in terms of "hanging onto our slobbery" are also true of governments, nations and peoples.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Abundance and Poverty

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
(Matt. 14:13 - 21)

This seems to be the prototypical response of Jesus-followers to the hunger of the world. They wanted to send the people away to be fed elsewhere, as if the Source of Life could be sought and bought in some market of the world.

Honestly, it is the way most of us do our lives with God . . . a kind of spiritual capitalism which imagines that whatever we need, we can "go and buy." How common it is among Christians to believe that buying the right book or attending the right conference or taking in worship of a particular style will attain for them the life with God they have imagined. It's all very consumeristic . . . we are products of our consumptive culture.

Jesus, on the other hand, was completely in touch with the Source of living water, with the Bread of full life. He saw and knew what others struggled to see and know. He recognized that the disciples had something to feed the hungry people because of their connection to him. He saw and trusted in them more than they saw and trusted in themselves.

When I read this story, I think about what the disciples have that they hadn't yet realized. And that leads me to think about what I have, what I hold, what resides within me that I have to offer others.

"You give them something to eat." How do I hear that? It's something like God asking Moses, "What is that in your hand?" What am I holding that might be shared with others who are hungry?

When I considered this passage last week, I thought of it in terms of abundance and poverty. Let me explain.

There are some things that I have in abundance, that is, I feel like I have a lot of it. I’m not talking about material things or possessions that I have . . . I have a lot of those, too. I’m talking about characteristics or traits of the Spirit within me, things I have in abundance as a part of the life I share with Christ. All of us have a different set of attributes, though often they are difficult to name and acknowledge. To say that I have an abundance of faithfulness in friendships, or a lot of vision and discernment, or an abundance of a prophetic spirit is not to be inflated or egotistical. Rather, it is to say that these are things God may use to feed other people.

At the same time there are things I have in abundance that are dangerous and could be poison to the world if left untended. To say that I have an abundance of greed or anger or fear may be true, and these attributes in abundance can be detrimental to the world in which I live.

As abundance speaks to what I seem to have a lot of, so the word “poverty” speaks to me of that which I have little of. In some cases, having little of something is healthy and leads to more life: egotism, manipulation, trying to control others . . . poverty is the position from which we most often find God, from the recognition of our lack.

There may also be things I lack that it would be really good to have. To be relationally impoverished, for example, or to lack a healthy view of the motives of others may be expressions of poverty that lead to difficulty in life.

So you can see that there are nuances to poverty, just as there is a wide spectrum of ways we can have an abundance.

For me, the crucial awareness is that I live with feet in both worlds. Abundance and poverty live within me, so I'm not either/or. There are some things I have a lot of and there are other places in which my life is poor. That is not a statement of judgment. It’s a statement of reality, an honest statement of fact.

To pretend that I am only my abundance (over-inflation and egotism) or that I am only my poverty (a different kind of egotism – “nobody is as bad as I am” – and false-humility) is an illusion. I am both.

Culturally, we leave little room for both abundance and poverty. We speak a lot about ascendancy, about getting better and making progress and being number 1! We don’t leave much room for abundance and poverty, for honest assessments of who we are. Excess is valued. Scarcity is not. The motto by which Western culture seems to live is: “If a little bit is good, a lot is better.”

The Church has adopted a theology of abundance as well. Our songs are about the poor becoming rich and the blind seeing. We communicate the message – not so subtly – that if you’re not moving toward abundance and having a lot, then something must be wrong with your faith.

In both the Hebrew Scriptures and in Jesus, though, there is blessing for the poor, for those who recognize their poverty, for those who live in both physical poverty and in poverty of spirit.

So I find it crucial to name, to acknowledge what I have in abundance and where I am poor . . . and to do so without feeling as if I have to make a choice between the two. I am not asked to live in one or the other, but to live in both my gain and my lack.

For me, the huge first step is recognition. Both abundance and poverty are a part of me, but neither one is all of me. I am invited to recognize them, to name them, and then to find who I am – while holding both my abundance and my poverty – with God.

You may see my abundance and my poverty much more clearly than I do. You can probably name them much more quickly than I can. In the end, though, I don’t get my personhood from you, nor do you get your personhood from me.

In the end, who I am with God is what really counts.