Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Learning to abound

"...I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me..."
During my first three decades, I learned many ways to thrive with a little. Under the tutelage of my mother, I began to make due and mend at an early age, so that I can now feed twenty people for twenty dollars, repair the holes in my socks, and perform many other acts of lowly-wise economy. Even more importantly, my parents' financial poverty taught me to live comfortably with the presence of need. Fiercely, they would say to me, "If you don't know how to accept charity, you don't know how to accept love." We received a lot of charity -- canned goods, hand-me-down clothes, even cars. I was never embarrassed to receive such gifts; rather, I loved the stories that came with them (read about a few of my favorites here). Indeed, I would have described our life as rich, full, sustaining, and comfortable.

Nevertheless, these lessons in paucity served me well during my twenties, when I lived in pocket-sized apartments and worked upwards of sixty hours each week, when I doubted--constantly--my fitness to be among the wise and brilliant people I found at Baylor. Graduate school made me hungry and brought me lower than I had ever been before, yet the friendships I formed, the skills I honed, and the love I experienced surpassed anything I had known before.

For the last two years, however, the theme has shifted from need to abundance, from hunger to satiety. The changes during these two years have brought  joy, but will I seem ungrateful if I confess that they have also bewildered me? What is the secret to abounding? It is so easy to use wealth poorly, to hoard and exploit and waste. The sickening slip of Thanksgiving Day into Black Friday is only the most timely example of abundance giving way to glut.

Show me, O Lord, and show me, O Church, a better way. 

Do you ever find that God answers prayers before you think to pray them? As I pondered this entry on abundance, I realized that the best lesson I've received on abundance came one week ago, on my thirtieth birthday.

In the weeks leading up to my birthday, I rather facetiously mentioned to Kala, housemate, that as I was turning thirty, I should demand that people bring me thirty gifts. I had forgotten about this request as she and I prepared for our party -- a double celebration, since Kala's birthday also falls on November 20. We decided to ask our guests to put on fancy dresses and suits and come ready to read scenes from Shakespeare. As our house began to fill with friends in all their finery, I realized that Kala had taken my silly suggestion and turned into something beautiful. Thirty cookies from Rebekah and Gary, and another thirty from Bethany D. Amanda and Anna gave each of us lovely mugs--and mine also came with thirty tea bags.  I laughed over these sweet gifts, but after the main party, Kala brought out more treasures: parcels my friends had shipped to her at work--thirty Christmas ornaments from Julianna, thirty skeins of embroidery thread from Wyatt and Kt Ruth, thirty notecards from Kala's mother. And then a book, full of lovely pages, some already full with lists of "thirty things" my friends loved in my life.

I spent the last quarter hour of my thirtieth birthday sitting at the table, surrounded by tokens of abundance. Leading up to my birthday, a few people asked if I was worried about growing old, but when the day came, I could only laugh at such a foolish question. Why fear thirty when age is such an index of abundance? At thirty, I have surpassed my twenty-nine-year-old-self in books, laughter, friends, tea, sermons, sleeps, and a thousand other good things. All those little piles on my table were counters for years, bright and tumbled. Abundance, glittering and colorful, savory and sweet. Here was the answer from God's people: We give you too much to eat on your own --  share it. Here are too many fine threads to hoard for yourself -- make them into something beautiful.

Only Christ can keep me safe from avarice and heedless wealth. As I enter my thirties, I am praying the Spirit will guide me through any fasting days that come, but also through the strange and humbling seasons of abundance. 

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