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‘His father told him that he was going to meet a real holy man, a saint. The boy wasn’t sure he wanted to meet a saint but he went along anyway. It was a small country church on a hot spring morning; the place was full but not so full as to warrant turning around. The boy sat in the back with his father. When the time came to take communion his father led him up to the rail. He had never taken communion before and he was unsure what it meant or what to do. His father told him it was sacrament, to be healed. The boy took the wafer into his mouth and sipped the grape juice, it tasted pretty bad but then the priest put his hand on his head and with the softest voice he had ever heard he said, “bless you”. The boy had never been blessed before but he sensed that something special had happened
‘When the service was over his father wanted to stay longer so he could watch the priest some more. His father was drawn to the priest in some strange way. After most of the parishioners had departed Father Vega – that was the priest’s name – was approached by a big, red, beefy man who started jabbing his finger at the priest saying: “Father, there are people in this church, important people, you know who they are, and they want an air-conditioner. I tell you this father, if this air conditioner issue is not resolved, there’s going to be trouble.”
‘Father Vega just stood there his face unchanging. It was one of those moments where everything seemed to freeze and everyone just stood there, so the boy could see everything. He could see suddenly two worlds: the big, red, beefy guy lived in a world of air-conditioners, and power and cars and church politics. And the priest lived in another world, in some ways more freighting because it was so much more powerful, a world where love and angels were as real as evil and hatred. A world in which Jesus walked and talked and sweated and died. A world which needed saving with love and compassion. For a moment the boy saw a world where there was mercy, where there was justice and hope, not abstractions but real in the face of simple country priest.
‘The boy realized for the first time that there was this other world; both a part and separate from the world in which he lived full of school, parents fighting and bullies. For a moment he saw that there was also a world of abundant grace; peopled by the likes of Jesus, Schweitzer, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Hosea, Clara Barton and Father Vega. It was for a twelve-year-old boy something of a tremendous revelation.
‘The boy saw all this in the moment of silence that followed the barrage of the big, red beefy man standing over Father Vega waiting for an answer. Father Vega put his hand on the man’s shoulder and simply said, “Bless you” and walked away. The big, red beefy man was stunned by a grace he could not understand and he shook it off. Father Vega was fired three months later.’ (Adapted from QUEST, March 1996 by Rev. Kit Howell)
This story from my late colleague Kit Howell, illustrates the clash that I see between two world views; the one of scarcity and the one of abundance. It’s easy to get side-tracked like the big, red beefy man; to believe that all that exists is power and politics, that there is only so much to go around and that the world is a zero sum game, winner takes all, loser does without. This is the world we see around us most often, the world of Wall Street, taxes and politics.
But I believe there is another world out here, just as I believe there is more to being than just what we do for ourselves. We are here each Sunday to remind ourselves of what matters most and do the best we can to live out that meaning in our lives. To find abundance in the midst of struggle. Rabbi Harold Kushner, one of my spiritual heroes and author of many books, calls this “living the faith of integrity”. We live in two worlds, Rabbi Kushner, points out, the world of success and failure, bills and money and troubles and then we live in a greater world of meaning, and hope and healing and faith. Too often, we keep those worlds in separate pockets. (See Living a Life that Matters by Harold Kushner) Perhaps we can choose a world of abundance over the world of scarcity.
How? We might begin first by looking at what we value most. I am no stranger to valuing the wrong things. Have you heard the Scarcity Prayer by Shel Silverstein?
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
And if I die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my toys to break,
So none of the other kids can use ’em…Amen.(1)
If I value money and security over love and relationships, I find my heart tightened, as Jesus said of the Pharisees, “the tight hearted ones”, but if I am able to value the people in my life and the moments of brilliance that rise around me, I find abundance even in the midst of troubles. It’s not always easy to do this as my colleague Heather Janules wrote: “It is easy to feel grateful in times of abundant stability and joy. The spiritual challenge is to find gratitude in times when, to be honest, we can’t handle the life that is emerging before us. The challenge is to be present to the things that make us afraid or depleted or feel hurt and to find gift in these things too.” (Rev. Heather Janules, in SoulMatters Nov. 2017)
Because, abundance isn’t always about the good in life, it’s also about the pain of life. “Life comes to you in bulk…How often do find ourselves swimming in painful situations? How often do you think the world is ganging up on you? (Ibid Janules)
When my close friend Bob was fighting cancer, his wife left him and his business went bankrupt, an abundance of misery. Still, his soul was resilient, resilient enough to remember that he not only had had a life full of treasure, his children were still there, his grandchildren loved him, he had traveled the world, but he had relationships that were richer than ever.
I hear this often from people who are dying, that those last days, the setting autumn of their lives, are the most poignant and powerful they have ever lived, as if the mind and the soul were focusing all our energies on living as fully present as we can possibly be. Beyond the fear of dying, beyond the fear of the unknown, life was brighter and strangely more possible even as the days draw to a close. As Hafiz wrote: “How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being, otherwise we all remain too frightened.”
Observing and living a life of abundance has a great deal with how we look at time. We gained an hour last night. But did we really gain an hour or did we adjust our life to look at time differently? Observing abundance in our lives is much like looking at time differently. Many of us, myself often, are anxious about what we need to get done in a period of time. But what if we stopped programing so much into the time we have? Paradoxically we would have more time to do what we enjoy. The anxiety of time is scarcity thinking. Gain an hour here. Lose an hour there. What are we really gaining or losing? Which is why finding a day, even an afternoon that you would call your Sabbath is so vital to living the abundant life. I try to do this every Monday. My orthodox Jewish friends have it right. Make time for rest, ritually and profoundly and you will find abundance of meaning in all the same time. As Walter Brueggmann wrote: “The market ideology wants us exhausted. Because exhausted people make terrific shoppers and terrific spectators and couch potatoes. Exhausted people do not make for transformers in the community. Rested people are dangerous. Sabbath is a profoundly subversive practice… They are acts of resistance.” (Walter Brueggemann spoke on Sabbath for the Lenten Series at The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Cincinnati. February 27, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rtvjnmjMCc )
Why is it that when we are at the end of our life we regret what we didn’t do? Couldn’t we try instead to appreciate what we did do. Abundance and gratitude are sisters. One is possible through the other. Studies have been done on happiness and aging. Apparently we, as a population, are happiest in our sixties and seventies. Why? Time changes as we age. We all know that time is slower when we are young and faster as we age, which is likely due to the fact that we have so many more memories to compare time to. So while we have more time when we are younger it’s full of anxiety. As we grow older we can let go of the worry about the future, in part because there is less of it to worry about. Our time is less but more abundant in quality. When people are asked about meeting new people when they are young the answer is often “sure, why not?” because there is plenty of time to try that out. But as we age we don’t really have time for that. We want to develop and cherish the relationships we have. These are the deeper wells of our humanity from which we draw our living water.
Once we realize that all of us – all of us – are blessed with this divine abundance, this essential wholeness, than the sooner we can get on with the task of living lives that are integrated with our hopes and aspirations. Let me give you an example. I used to be a real penny pincher. I could make the Indian ride the back of the Buffalo. I would never give money to a panhandler. Until I met a messenger. A panhandler I passed on the street who when I ignored him and walked on by said to me, ‘bless you anyway sir’. I turned around and saw a young man, a man my age at the time, and something went click; a moment of grace. “There but for the grace of God go I.” I realized our essential interconnection and I reached into my pocket and gave him all the money I had. Becoming whole will cost you. And it might just help you observe the abundance of love that resides in your own heart.
This is what Father Vega was doing. He wasn’t naïve and stupid, he knew that the big, red beefy man had power. In his simple blessing he was saying, “Yes, I heard you about the air-conditioner and in your concern you are blessed. In your anger you are forgiven. Because it’s probably not about the air-conditioner, ultimately it’s about your anger, your weight, your being so uncomfortable that the air-conditioner seems like the solution.” What Father Vega was really saying was “Perhaps with this simple blessing you will stop your life long enough to see what really matters here.” We become abundant in first appreciating what we do have. It isn’t about clearing your desk off so you have time to be spiritual. It is seeing the spiritual in the mess on your desk. It is being thankful that your life is so full that you have a mess to even clean up. It is moving beyond the culture of compliant which marks so much of our lives and living with the abundance of possibilities and challenges which are all around us.
Many years ago I knew a woman who lived her life very neatly. When she died her daughter, who was a member of my church, gave me a set of Wedgwood china cups and saucers. Her mother had bought them years ago and they had never been used. “Can you believe it?” her daughter exclaimed “never used!” Her daughter gave me the set as a symbol of what never came to be with her mother. “But you, John, you must use them. Something so beautiful was meant to be used.” And use them we did. Within a year they were all broken. Before they were broken they served life with elegance and beauty. Coffee, tea, milk and apple juice had been served to mouths young and old to nourish and quench the thirst of life. People in pain and joy sat before those cups, and held them in feeling hands. Before they were broken they had witnessed all of life’s holiness. Same cups, same saucers moving from symbols of scarcity to symbols of abundance.
Our ministry together is a bit like that. We live abundantly when we see that our giving to one another, with love, talent and treasure brings out the best in us. We become whole when we ask for and accept healing, a generous spirit. Living from a place of scarcity leads to a hard reality; there is never enough money to meet all our needs. Living from abundance, from holiness is the other side of our world, the world of Father Vega and broken tea cups, the world that teaches us that the more we give the more we have. To become healed wholly and live abundantly. This is our reason for being. Amen.