Reflections by Jerry Webber

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is helpful however for me to read books about the lives of saints who have traveled this path before me, to attend retreats and conferences with others, to participate in safe small groups and to work with a spiritual director in order for me to "learn" to see my true self. Not to simply mimic in an unthinking way i.e. to follow another's star. But to begin to understand how I may see these things in my own life; I need examples of what awareness looks like in an actual lived experience. If I've never gone there before, how will I know what I'm looking for?

In the end, it comes down to my conscious participation in living out my own life with Christ as the center focus that I learn my truth for my-self...from out of my lived experience.

So my “seeing” coming along as I commit myself to a daily prayer practice alongside other ways of being intentional—it is my receiving the gift of who I really am with God.