Choose Abundance

The issue of miracles was a defining point in Unitarian history. Prior to the Civil War, in the 1840s, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker created a stir by saying Jesus did not perform the miracles that most Westerners at that time interpreted the gospels as saying Jesus did perform. Theodore Parker’s preaching career spoke to many topics, most of which were lost on his critics who only heard one thing: Rev. Parker denies the miracles. This is the tradition we inherit.

The tradition we inherit also includes an older wisdom, which Unitarians and Universalists have been rediscovering and reclaiming -- that “the true law of life,” as a different Parker – Parker Palmer -- said, is the miracle “that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around.” Expand the circle, and it will be full.

Each of the four gospels of the Christian Testament includes a version of the "loaves and fishes" story: five loaves, two fish, and five thousand people were fed. What happened? The story may, of course, have been fabricated from whole cloth, but that hardly matters. What is it a story OF? Fictional or not, what does it illustrate? Our historical identity has grown out of denying miracles, but I don’t think we need to keep doing that. I want to say there was a miracle there. Maybe there wasn’t anything we would call supernatural. There wasn’t, in a phrase from theologian Daphne Hampson, “an interruption of the causal nexus of history and nature.” Yet it was a miracle. It may not have interrupted the causal nexus of history and nature. But it did interrupt the mind’s chatter about its needs and fears. It interrupted obliviousness and allowed people to notice wonder and beauty – the abundance that life presents in each moment. It’s a story that still has the power to interrupt the ego’s defense mechanisms and call us to neighborliness – call us to expand our circle.

“Spirituality,” if it means anything, means this: awareness of the reality of abundance. It means clarity that what you have, what you are, where you are, is enough. It’s one thing to know this in your head – to know it cognitively. It’s another thing to live that truth with every breath and every step. That’s hard to do. It does not come naturally to us who are acculturated to modern society, and it involves more than cognition. Spirituality is quite a handy word for this capacity for not-merely-cognitive perception of abundance.

The abundance is there. We have but to expand the circle of our consciousness to take it in. Abundance is the true law of life. Abundance abounds. All the world’s religions teach this.

In the Jewish tradition, the scriptures say it over and over. God is good, God provides, God is faithful. In Genesis, God lovingly brings the entire world into being, and provides human beings with everything they need. "Be fruitful and multiply," God says, and the fruitfulness overflows. The Book of Psalms sings again and again about all the gifts God gives us. Psalm 104, just to pick one example, says:
"You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.
You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. . . .
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
| In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. . . .
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things."
Predominant is the picture of God, the generous provider, the faithful parent -- always giving, supplying our needs. The Jewish tradition is emphatic in saying God loves us extravagantly and wants to provide for us, richly and abundantly. That’s the Jewish way of recognizing that life is inherently abundant.

The Buddhist tradition teaches letting go of desires. Why? Because we have all we need, abundantly. Wanting things to be different obscures from us awareness of the ample riches that are present to us right here, inalienable from us, we have but to notice them.

Taoism’s emphasis is on the Tao, which is usually translated as “the way.” The Japanese word for Tao is “michi”, which means “abounding.” It is abundant everywhere.

Despite the teachings of the dominant religion in our culture, and despite the teachings of every other major world religious tradition, we have a hard time accepting it. We spend much of our lives in the grip of a delusion: the delusion of scarcity. We should acknowledge that scarcity is real for the many who are struggling to meet basic needs. Real poverty is not addressed by telling the poor that their deprivation is a delusion when it isn’t.

Yet the scarcity mindset – the pervasive feeling of not having enough – can beset us when we do have enough, and can make us behave in ways that make it a self-fulfilling prophecy – by making us ungenerous, unwilling to share, which cuts us off from community. An abundance mindset can help us see problems in a different light, which can prime us to cope with them better – and can draw us into community where abundance becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Walter Brueggemann, Christian theologian and Hebrew Scripture scholar, wrote an essay: “The Myth of Scarcity.” Brueggemann says:
“The majority of the world's resources pour into the United States. And as we Americans grow more and more wealthy, money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us. We hardly notice our own prosperity or the poverty of so many others. The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity.... Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with ‘more’ -- and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us.”
Brueggeman says the US has cornered more than three-quarters of the world's resources, but we want more, always more. And the more we have, the less satisfied and the less secure we feel. That's how powerful the myth of scarcity can be: it can take the wealthiest people on earth and make them greedy and mean, unable and unwilling to share.
“The ideology devoted to encouraging consumption wants to shrivel our imaginations so that we cannot conceive of living in any way that would be less profitable for the dominant corporate structures.”
The ideology of consumption requires us to buy the myth of scarcity – for if we buy that, then we’ll be driven to buy lots of other stuff. What would it look like to live the truth of abundance instead of the myth of scarcity?

Here’s a parable from an unknown author that shows what it might look like:
An American businessman was at the pier of a small, coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “Only a little while.”

The American then asked, “Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, senor.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You could leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA, and eventually New York City where you would run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take.”

“15-20 years.”

“But what then, senor?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”

“Millions, senor? Then what?”

Triumphantly, the American replied, “Then you would retire! You’d move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your grand-kids, take siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
As Parker Palmer said,
“We create scarcity by fearfully accepting it as law, and by competing with others for resources as if we were stranded on the Sahara at the last oasis. [But] the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around.”
As Parker Palmer also told us,
“Abundance is a communal act . . . Community not only creates abundance – community is abundance.”
And as Walter Brueggemann noted:
“Jesus talks a great deal about the kingdom of God -- and what he means by that is a public life reorganized toward neighborliness.” (Brueggemann)
So, to return to our question, what happened with Jesus and those thousands in that deserted place? Neighborliness happened. Neighbors gather, community happens, and abundance flourishes. That’s the kingdom – the kin-dom -- of god Jesus was talking about: public life reorganized toward neighborliness. A crowd of people in the grip of scarcity thinking had gathered to hear Jesus teach. They had secreted away for their own use food for themselves. Under the influence of this remarkable teacher, they began to open up, began to sense the intrinsic abundance of the life they breathed, and the universe in which they swam. From that sense of boundless provision welled up an urge to share of this manifest plenty of which they were suddenly so acutely aware. From the bottoms of bags and folds of clothes came forth food to share. From the divinity within them, the divinity that is always there, lying too-often unnoticed, came forth this food. So, yes, it came from God – from Goddess, from Buddha nature. It came from God, which we call by many names, one of them being neighborliness.

As Parker Palmer exegetes:
“The disciples, asked to feed the crowd, are sure that food is scarce; Jesus performs a ‘miracle’ to reveal how abundant food is even when there is none in sight. In this story, as throughout his active life, Jesus wanted to help people penetrate the illusion of scarcity and act out of the reality of abundance.”
Parker Palmer relates this story about the miracle of abundance in community, the kin-dom of God that is realized in neighborliness. Palmer was a passenger on a plane that pulled away from the gate, taxied to a remote corner of the field and stopped. The pilot came on the intercom and said, “I have some bad news and some worse news. The bad news is there’s a storm front in the west, Denver is socked in and shut down. So we’ll be staying here for a few hours. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that we have no food and it’s lunch time.”

Now, this was back in the days when any flight of more than a couple hours included a meal – so there was an expectation of lunch people had been counting on. Everybody groaned. Some passengers started to complain. Some became angry. But then, Palmer said, one of the flight attendants did something amazing. She stood up and took the intercom mike and said, “We’re really sorry folks. We didn’t plan it this way and we really can’t do much about it. And I know for some of you this is a big deal. Some of you are really hungry and were looking forward to a nice lunch. Some of you may have a medical condition and really need lunch. Some of you may not care one way or the other, and some of you were planning to skip lunch anyway. So I’ll tell you what we’re going to do. I have a couple of breadbaskets up here and we’re going to pass them around and I’m asking everybody to put something in the basket. Some of you brought a little snack along—something to tide you over—just in case something like this happened, some peanut butter crackers, candy bars. And some of you have a few LifeSavers or chewing gum or Rolaids. And if you don’t have anything edible, you have a picture of your children or spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend or a bookmark or a business card. Everybody put something in and then we’ll reverse the process. We’ll pass the baskets around again and everybody can take out what he/she needs.”

“Well,” Palmer said,
“what happened next was amazing. The griping stopped. People started to root around in pockets and handbags, some got up and opened their suitcases stored in the overhead luggage racks and got out boxes of candy, a salami, a bottle of wine. People were laughing and talking. She had transformed a group of people who were focused on need and deprivation into a community of sharing and celebration. She had transformed scarcity into a kind of abundance.”
After the flight, which eventually did proceed, Parker Palmer stopped on his way off the plane and said to her: “Do you know there’s a story in the Bible about what you did back there? It’s about Jesus feeding a lot of people with very little food.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know that story. That’s why I did what I did.”

Unitarian Universalists know that story too. We Unitarian Universalists have fashioned a wiser understanding of the miraculous. The uninterrupted causal nexus of history and nature is replete with the miracle of community – the miracle of abundance.

One more illustration of this point is the illustration that comes from congregational life. It’s the miracle that Unitarian Universalists enact every time we agree to serve on a committee, every time we help out cleaning up the grounds, every time we teach an RE class, every time we fill out a pledge form. Everybody puts in, and everybody takes out. It’s a wonderful, awesome miracle of the creation of community and thereby the creation of abundance.

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