Shifting Perspective

The Rich Fool by Rembrandt (1627). Retrieved from Wikipedia.


Grief is an unpredictable thing.  It tends to bring out the best or the worst in people.  Everyone grieves a loss differently, so it’s not up to anyone else to tell another person how they should or shouldn’t cope with a loss.  Some people want to laugh and reminisce about the best and favorite memories of their loved one while others might need to just be sad and have a good cry; some folks need to keep busy while others need to stop and sit down; some might need to be alone while others crave human contact.  All of these are good ways to grieve and the best thing to do whenever someone you care about is grieving is to let that person deal with their loss in whatever way they feel they need to.  You don’t have to say or do anything in particular, just be there for them, hug or give space as needed, and listen when they speak.  After all is said and done, they probably won’t remember what you say, they’ll just remember that you were there for them.

The only exception to this, the only time that grief can go wrong or turn tragic, is when a person allows the pain drive a wedge between those who are left behind.  This can happen in lots of unfortunate ways.  In cases of sudden or early death, someone might start pointing the finger of blame at others, believing that the loss could have been avoided if only the situation had been handled differently.  Even worse, some folks turn really nasty when it comes to dealing with estates and inheritances.  I’ve seen tragic situations where siblings turn against one another over the distribution of property or money in the wake of a parent’s death.  These are the only situations where I, as a pastor, want to intervene and suggest that they find another way to face the pain of loss.

In such situations, the issue at hand is rarely the money or the property itself.  Most of the time, family members are simply overwhelmed with pain and are looking for some place toward which they can direct the energy of their sadness.  In our culture, which glorifies strength and despises weakness, finding something to get angry over feels a lot easier and safer than just admitting that we’re feeling sad or lonely.  So, we hide our grief behind fights over things and never really get to the bottom of what’s really going on in our hearts: the sadness we feel over losing a loved one.  We’ve missed the point entirely and, in the process, damaged or sacrificed our relationships with the ones who might have helped us get through the pain and find our way toward healing together as a family.

The real trick in those moments is to stop, step back, and take stock of what’s really important and what life is really all about.  Is fighting over money or stuff really going to bring back the dead or help us to deal with the pain of loss?  No, not really.  Life is not about getting money or stuff.  In our better moments, we all know that.  But we forget it sometimes when the pain becomes so great that we would rather think about anything other than the fact that we are hurting right now.  I’ve seen this happen more than once and it breaks my heart every time.

In this morning’s gospel reading, the scene opens with just such a situation brewing.  Two brothers have lost their father and a dispute over a contested will has arisen between them.  We don’t know many of the details, but we get the basic outline of the situation as they bring their fight to the rabbi Jesus for a just resolution.

But Jesus, as usual, declines to answer directly the question he’s just been asked.  He says, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  Once again, Jesus is not conforming to the role that would normally be expected of him as an itinerant rabbi traveling among rural villages.  He continues, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

I hear something deeper in Jesus’ words to these disgruntled siblings.  I hear him saying, in effect, “What you are asking is not what you really need.  You’ve missed the point entirely.”

The key phrase in his response, which is also the central phrase in this entire passage, is, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

That one word, “life,” is super-important.  Jesus isn’t just talking about life in the sense of biological survival, he’s talking about that rich, full, and meaningful (i.e. abundant) life that God intends for us as human beings.  Jesus is talking about really living and not just getting by.

This is a particularly important (and particularly challenging) message for us to hear in 21st century America.  We live in an extremely wealthy and powerful culture.  Capitalism has given rise to consumerism in our post-industrial society.  Our sole purpose on this earth, it seems, is to produce, buy, and consume products that keep our economy going and growing at any cost.  The American dream is an ideal of security through economic prosperity.  We dream of having a white picket fence and a car in every garage.  We are inundated with literally thousands of advertisements every week, each one insisting that their product is the key to achieving true happiness in life.

Yet, one needs only look at those who occupy the top spots in the heap of consumption.  Celebrity gossip columns give a regular indication that those who “have it all” are NOT actually any happier than the rest of us.  They keep on spending their millions in the “pursuit of happiness,” only to discover that there are some things that money really just can’t buy.  Or, as Jesus put it, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

For those of us who live in this consumerist society, I think Jesus wants to extract us from the cult of MORE and initiate us into the church of ENOUGH.  And the first step in this process is to step back and really look at who we are and what we’re doing.  The meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn calls this an “orthogonal shift.”  That word, “orthogonal,” comes from geometry, where it refers to a set of lines that run perpendicular to one another.  In the sense that Kabat-Zinn means it, an orthogonal shift is one where we step back and shift perspective in order to get a different point of view on our lives.  Kabat-Zinn says this is like moving from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional point of view: we rise above the flat level of everyday existence, survival, and concern in order to get a clearer view of the whole chessboard on which our lives are laid out.

This, in a general sense, is what we do every week here in church (and hopefully every day in our private devotional lives): we take an hour to remove ourselves from our culture’s rat race of constant production and consumption and we remind ourselves of where it is that true life, abundant life, is really to be found.  We remember that life is so much more than stuff.

The first thing we realize when we step back, make that orthogonal shift and get a three-dimensional perspective on our two-dimensional world is that we live on a planet of tremendous blessing and abundance.  We are all already spilling over the brim with “enough-ness”.  Most scientists believe that Earth has more than enough resources to safely support life for the number of people who live here, so there’s no real reason why anyone should have to experience starvation.  I won’t bore you with the statistics, but I’ll just encourage you to take your spirituality outside with you.

I mean that literally: take a hike, sit by a river, fish, hunt, or even sit on a park bench for a while.  Just get out there and appreciate the free gifts that Earth has to offer.  From what I’ve seen, those who do so come back with a much deeper sense of gratitude and appreciation for just how lush and green life can be.  That’s one way to make that orthogonal shift and get some perspective.

Another way is to keep a financial journal.  This is a great exercise, and it’s an easy one too, if you’re used to keeping good records.  The thing to do is keep track of every single penny that comes in and goes out of your bank account for a month.  And I don’t just mean balancing your checkbook, I mean really take stock of where and how you spend your money.  At the end of the month, add everything up according to category: rent, food, utilities, entertainment, charity, etc.  Where does your money actually go?  And here’s the hard question: how does that match up with the values you claim to hold as a Christian?  Are you meeting your needs before satisfying your wants?  Would a stranger, looking at this record of your earning and spending, be able to tell what your most deeply held beliefs and values really are?

Both of these exercises can be ways in which Jesus is able to lead us to that point of shifting our habitual perspectives and reminding ourselves that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Really living, according to Jesus, is about so much more than that.

One of the interesting things about this gospel passage is that Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer for us.  For example, with those two grieving brothers, Jesus doesn’t explain to them what their problem is or how to fix it.  He simply refuses to get involved in their dispute.  Instead, he challenges them (almost dares them) to make that shift in perspective themselves and see that the real source of their conflict is grief over the loss of their parent that has been misdirected as anger toward each other.

Jesus, in this situation, is drawing the brothers’ attention to the questions they didn’t even think to ask, initially.  He tells a story about a greedy farmer with the same problem.  This farmer had a huge bumper crop one year, but instead of looking to share the wealth, devised ways to build bigger barns to store keep his own massive profits to himself.  This farmer never stops to think about his wider community.  His focus is solely on “my money, my property, and my needs.”  Once again, Jesus doesn’t spell out the answer, but says more in his silence than most people do in a thousand words.

The implication, which would have been crystal clear to Jesus’ audience of hungry peasants and should have been clear to the farmer in the story, is that an abundance of blessing is meant to be shared.  We have a moral and spiritual obligation to care for one another, not just through taxes and donations to social programs, but with our own time, energy, and resources.  That, Jesus implies, is where life, real life, can really be found.


Dr. Loren Wilkinson at his farm on Galiano Island
Dr. Loren Wilkinson at his farm on Galiano Island

When I was in seminary at Regent College, there was a professor there named Loren Wilkinson.  Loren was famous for regularly inviting students to join him and his wife Mary Ruth at their farm on Galiano Island, just off the coast of British Columbia’s lower mainland.  This trip to the Wilkinson farm became one of the central hallmarks of the Regent College experience for many students, myself included.

Now, this trip was no mere vacation, mind you.  No, when you went to Galiano Island, you went there expecting to work.  Loren got you up early and gave you a task to complete somewhere on the farm.  There was always something to be done, and with groups of students visiting almost every weekend, there were usually enough hands to get it all done.  Many students, like me, came from urban or suburban backgrounds, so we had never experienced life on a working farm before.  Loren made sure that we got our hands dirty and broke a sweat during the day.

And then, at night, the real treat came: dinner.  After work, the other thing you were expected to do at Galiano Island was eat.  And, oh my goodness, did we eat!  Homemade delicacies of every imaginable variety were set out before us in abundance.  Nobody left that table hungry.  And it wasn’t just the quantity of food that was abundant, it was the quality as well.  Everything was organic, homemade, and delicious.

Loren and Mary Ruth lived very simple lives on the island, but the main thing we learned during our stay with them is that simple need not mean austere.  Visitors never got the sense that these people were sacrificing or going without the creature comforts of life.  They live in abundance.

I thought about my trip to Galiano Island and the abundance I discovered there when I read this week’s scripture passage from the book of Isaiah:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price…

…Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.

Later on in the passage, the prophet compares the word of God to the life-giving qualities of rain:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Finally, at the end, the prophet leaves the people with a promise of even more abundance, which is yet to come:

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

The power of these images is undeniable.  The earth itself is veritably bursting at the seams with life and blessing.  More than just “the way it is”, to this Jewish prophet, the abundance of creation is a divine revelation: it tells us something about God: the Ground of all Being, the core nature of reality itself.  We humans live, move, and have our being in a vast ocean of abundant blessing and amazing grace.

Why then don’t we see it?  Why don’t we believe it?  Why don’t we live our lives as if this was the most central truth of our existence?

It can be hard to embrace the abundance of creation when we are surrounded by a cacophony of voices and circumstances testifying to the contrary.  Every time we change the channel, it seems like there’s one more voice reminding us how close we are to the brink of Armageddon.  Politicians and advertising executives make their livings off of our fear that there is not enough to go around.  Popular media would have us believe that poverty and starvation are problems too big to be solved.  We tell ourselves there’s simply nothing we can do.  However, according to the World Hunger Education Service, the earth produces enough food to provide every man, woman, and child with 2,720 kilocalories per day… that’s over 1,000 times the amount of calories needed for a healthy diet.  Regardless of this fact, people all over the world (mostly in Asia and Africa) are dying of starvation while Americans are dying of an obesity epidemic.

Is the problem really that there’s not enough to go around?  Or is it that too much has been hoarded into one place?  Could it be that powerful, fear-mongering politicians and executives are holding the rest of us hostage with delusions of scarcity?

What makes it worse is that the powerful people who propagate these lies have come to believe in them so strongly that they are making decisions for the rest of us.  They lob their ideological grenades at one another on TV, meanwhile the children of God line up outside soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  Senators and CEOs drive around in bullet-proof limousines while the people of this country stand in unemployment lines.  Friends, I daresay this is a sin against heaven itself.  Something is radically wrong with our collective worldview if we truly believe the lie that there is simply not enough to go around.

This morning’s scripture reading calls us to change this worldview.  First, the prophet gets our attention:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.

And then warns us:

let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts

The details of this passage are worth paying attention to: the problem, according to the prophet, is not the bounty of creation but the small-mindedness of its inhabitants.  Presumably, they want to live and live well.  What is needed then?  We must forsake our wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts.  The problem is not with the world itself, but with our way of thinking and living in it.  Average people are envious of those who have more than they need, so they run roughshod over the rights and needs of the poor in an attempt to emulate the powerful.

The prophet gives us the remedy:

Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live…

let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts

In other words: it’s high time to change our stinkin’ thinkin’.

It’s time for us to stop shouting at the sky about how big our problems are and start shouting at our problems about how big the sky is.

Instead of looking out for number one in our small-minded, self-centered little worlds, we need to cultivate an attitude of gratitude and sharing.  The abundance of creation is a free gift to all.  We lose it when we try to keep it all for ourselves.  It’s time for us, as people of faith, “to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  I borrowed that phrase from our neighbors in the Unitarian Universalist tradition.  In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The simplest answer is that it’s time for us to learn how to share.  I’m not just talking about opening our wallets on occasion; I’m talking about opening our minds on all occasions.  We have to expand our definition of the word family.  We need to nurture global family values, but that’s a tall order, so why don’t we start with local family values?  When we hear about that sickness, that layoff, or that foreclosure for our neighbors, let’s not harden our hearts or turn our backs saying, “It’s not my problem.”  Because it is our problem.  When we live in community with one another, not just proximity to one another, options, possibilities, and resources begin to open up.  All of a sudden, we don’t feel so desperate or alone anymore.  Together we find hope, strength, and courage to overcome adversity and make it through the darkest night.  In short: we begin to manifest the freely given abundance of creation that is our collective birthright.  We start small and work our way up.  As they say, “Think globally, act locally.”

Coming up in a few weeks, on Easter Sunday, our congregation will be participating in a single, unified manifestation of abundance for people all over the world.  It’s called One Great Hour of Sharing.  This ecumenical effort was begun over sixty years ago to pool the efforts of multiple denominations in the fight against global poverty and hunger.  Our forebears realized they could do more together than any of them could do apart.  To date, we have raised as much as $20 million annually to assist with disaster relief and development projects around the world.

Throughout the season of Lent, you will notice inserts in your bulletins that outline a different project each week that is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing.  Take these inserts home with you, pray for the project highlighted that week, and please consider pooling your resources with ours on Easter Sunday so that we might collectively manifest the abundance of creation for the good of the whole.

These are our global family values.  This is our faith-based alternative to the politics of fear and the economy of scarcity.  It has nothing to do with the powers that be in Washington or on Wall Street.  The kingdom of heaven-on-earth doesn’t belong to the powerful; it belongs to the little ones of this world, it belongs to the local communities of average Janes and Joes who reach out to care for one another in the midst of good times and bad.

In a few minutes, we will gather as a church around the Communion Table to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  In this feast of the abundance of heaven and earth, all people are invited to come, eat, and drink without money and without price.

I pray that the message of this feast will not return empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent: bringing forth life and growth, manifesting the abundance of creation for the common good.  May the meaning of this mystery take root in the soil of your soul, and as you go out from this place today, fed and filled with Word and Sacrament, may you go out in joy and be led back in peace, may the mountains and hills burst into song before you and the trees of the field clap their hands.

May you know the abundance of creation as you share it with everyone you meet.  May you be blessed and be a blessing in the knowledge that I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.


Recommended Reading on Liberal Christianity

Here is a link to an excellent annotated bibliography of several popular-level primers on Liberal (a.k.a. ‘Progressive’) Christianity.  For those who wonder what we’re all about, I’d say this is a good place to start.  If your looking for one book to begin with, I’d recommend the one at the very top: Marcus Borg’s The Heart of ChristianityIt’s concise and well-written for folks on a non-academic level.

20 Books on Progressive Christian Spirituality

It’s an article on the website Spirituality & Practice, which I found by hanging around at Abundance Trek, which is just one of the blogs kept up by my friend, John Wilde.  There are many people in this world who strive to be unique individuals who defy all conventional categories; John is one of the very few souls who actually accomplishes it.  How like Jesus…

Abundance at Christmas

I was in Price Chopper last week and noticed teeny little shopping carts with “Customer in Training” written on the side.  It occurred to me that training was a very appropriate word to use in that situation.  Our entire culture trains us to be good consumers from the time when we are young enough to walk and talk.  We are trained to believe in the power of scarcity.  We are trained to believe that security lies in our ability to take all we can for ourselves in this dog-eat-dog world.  Most of us have been so well-trained that we cannot even imagine society being other than it is.

The radical message of Advent and Christmas is that the way things are is not the way things have to be.  With Christ’s entrance into history, a new world becomes possible.  The life of Jesus demonstrated a deep and personal trust in the sheer abundance of providence.  He dressed like the lilies of the field and feasted like the birds of the air.  In the upside-down economy of heaven, one’s supply of love increases as it is given away.  In the new world that Christ ushers in, power is obtained through service, security through sacrifice, and justice through mercy.  The presence of Immanuel (‘God with us’) is meant to inspire our imaginations into visualizing and actualizing this new reality here and now.  Faith is the measure of our ability to trust the word of Christ over and against the way of the world.  Will we give ourselves over to this faith in the coming holiday season?

As I walked back out to my car after seeing the “Customer in Training” cart at Price Chopper, an SUV pulled into the parking lot with music so loud I could hear the lyrics as I put my groceries into my trunk: “I barely get by!  I barely get by!”

This is the heart-song of our society.  Its message of scarcity, competition, and consumerism trains us to believe that we’re always only “barely getting by”.  So, after a single Thursday of giving thanks, we charge out into the deep darkness of Black Friday, intent to grab all we can before someone else gets it.  Last year, a store employee was trampled to death.  This year, customers used pepper spray on each other.  So desperate are we to fulfill our perceived wants and needs!  So convinced are we that we’re only ever “barely getting by”!

During this Advent and Christmas season, let’s trust in the word of Christ, who “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”, according to John 10:10.  We are not “barely getting by”.  We are blessed.  Let’s give thanks by giving back, in whatever way we can, out of the abundance that has been heaped upon us.

The following prayer, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, speaks to me as the prayer of a heart soaked in abundance.  Let this be our prayer as we journey from Thanksgiving, through Advent, to Christmas:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.