Have you ever noticed that we are literally surrounded by an abundance of beauty each day? Who knows the number of petals on a single rose? Or the total count of trees in a lush, green forest. How many light-filled—and sometimes rain-filled—clouds cross the sky each day over our heads and houses? Who could count the blades of grass on a single hillside?
Unlimited. Uncountable. God’s living, growing creations.
In fact, I think we’d be challenged to find anything “ugly” in all of nature. Yes, the devastation of the wildfires in California and Oregon right now are certainly ugly and heartbreaking and devastating. We could say that destructive events of nature—hurricanes, tornados, wildfires, and more—do disturb and mar, for a time, the beautiful natural order God creates and hands off to us to care for.
But in contrast, what we humans do—when we miss the value of the beauty of the natural world for its own sake—is that we turn it into something to use. A mountaintop blown away for energy’s sake. A shoreline disrupted for oil.
We have not yet learned that it is pointless to try to control life and use it for our own purposes. Life is a limitless, creative force, much bigger than we are, and it always tends toward growth and flow and healing. It is however possible for us to cooperate with life, respecting that we have a part in furthering it along. When we cooperate, we get the fact that something much bigger than ourselves—something worth caring for and listening to—is going on, and we can bring our own ideas and plans alongside it.
Anyone who has ever had a difficult lesson in cooperation knows that balancing the needs of the individual and the needs of the whole can be quite tricky. They begin trying to teach us this in Kindergarten, when we get graded on whether we “play well with others.” But we bump into that issue over and over again through our lives. The answer is not always clear when we try to decide between doing what we want or doing what’s best for others.
I have a simple example. You are familiar with Gloria, my almost two-year old goofball Great Pyrenees puppy (she will always be a puppy to me because of her carefree and mostly unteachable spirit). At our house we live along the beautiful edge of a forest, and all the backyards in our part of the neighborhood—stretching right up to the beginning of the tree line—are fenceless, which means nothing obstructs the view when you look across the long expanse of lawns and flowers sweeping right up to the beginning of the underbrush. It’s a lovely, calming, restful sight.
Gloria is so energetic and joyful that I have thought many times that she would love to have a fenced yard, where I could turn her loose to run to her heart’s content instead of always dragging along behind her at the end of the leash. That freedom would feel good, I think, and probably let her get some of her sillies out. But as many times as I think of that possibility, I just can’t do it, because I know that adding a fence—while serving our purpose–would disrupt the beautiful, uninterrupted sight of all our yards together. Time and again, I choose beauty for all over utility for me and the short-term joyful romps by Gloria. (Sorry, Gloria, your leash awaits.)
Life is full of so many choices like that. Me or you. Us or them? Nature or industry? Now or later?
When I envision the changes we go through as a culture, I think of a pendulum, swinging first one way and then the others as we experience and adjust to new changes in the world. One generation trusts very much in authority and then something big happens—like the Vietnam War or Watergate—and soon the next generation swings hugely the other way, distrusting authority and focusing to a great degree on personal freedoms. In the next generation the pendulum swings back to balance the ideas of the last generation, and gradually, over time, we move into a future—we can hope– with a more refined sense of what’s right and what’s not, what works and what doesn’t.
I think of my Grandma Libbert, who believed that the way to parent your children was to make all their choices for them: what they wore to school, when they did their homework, whether they were able to speak at the dinner table. My mom, her daughter, felt constrained by her mom’s controlling style and tried to be just the opposite for me. She raised me with a “hands-off” style, letting me make my own choices and rarely giving me any direction about how life should go. This left me feeling anxious and uncertain and largely on my own. So when my own children were born, I wanted to be more involved—I wanted to be there, going to events, making sure as much as I could that they had what they needed and felt supported as they grew. But as pendulums go, my own kids no doubt have had good and bad experiences as a result of my swing of the pendulum and will shape the way they parent in their own generation and do it their way. Over time, by swings of the pendulum, life—families, cultures, nations—change and evolve and grow.
The well-intentioned “Me Generation” of the 70s brought a new kind of self-focus that encouraged us—if we wanted to be successful and fulfilled in life, to focus on what we wanted and needed before we considered anything else. This changed—on a scale so big it’s hard to describe—the previous overarching values we had lived by. Faith in civil society. Service for the common good. The expectation changed. And now people were called gullible if they weren’t “not looking out for number 1.” When we buy into that idea—self above all else–we lost sight of the fact that it’s a basic human need—hardwired into our souls—to care about and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Think of any two-year old testing her boundaries as Center of the Universe. We might demand that kind of attention and power, but we aren’t happy—and are often out of control and highly anxious—when we get it.
In her 2010 book Plenitude, economics researcher Juliet Schor gives us a snapshot of our economic system on life support. She writes,
“Global capitalism shattered in 2008. The financial system came frighteningly close to a total collapse and was saved only by government guarantees and massive injections of cash….Since then, the global economy has been rescued, but it hasn’t been fixed.” She continues, “There is a way forward, and I call it plenitude. The word calls attention to the inherent bounty of nature that we need to recover. It directs us to the chance to be rich in the things that matter to us most, and the wealth that is available in our relations with one another.” [pg. 1-2]
The idea of truly valuing our connection with one another is the seed at the heart of God’s economy. It is about knitting back together the kingdom of God. Yes, the ideas of the “Me generation” are still blossoming around us today, and daily we can see the effects of two particularly damaging beliefs: First, that success in life depends on what we get and do and have; and second, that success or failure is all up to each of us individually, based on what we do on our own merit. Both of these ideas—the focus on self and our control of outcomes—misses the bigger, more comforting, more graceful possibility that we are in fact a small part of something huge and wonderful, something loving, something infinitely bigger than our small personal perspectives and our choices and experiences.
It’s possible that looking out through God’s eyes, we are all together life unfolding, God’s goodness and blessing shining through every life like the sun illumining each wave on a great sea. When we can open our minds to that idea—replacing the emphasis on me with an emphasis on we–we begin to discover what it means—and how freeing and easy it is in contrast–to cooperate with life instead of trying so hard to control it or compete against it.
We rejoin God’s economy—of blessing, beauty, and connection—and let go of the idea that we are the master of our fate alone, which is lonely, and frightening, and contrary to the way we’re made. When we begin to cooperate with life, our edges soften and we begin to notice what others need and we are glad to provide it if we can—not because we are trying to be good people but because we feel their need, it touches us, and we care about it. Love and blessing can flow from one to the next naturally as a result and it doesn’t feel like we’re sacrificing and being asked or expected to give up something we think we need for ourselves.
In the story we heard from the book of Luke, Jesus is speaking to a huge crowd gathered at a level place on the mountain side. He has just shared the Beatitudes, and he warns those listening that over-focusing on ourselves leaves us empty and destitute. That’s not how God’s economy works, he tells them.
Rather, he says, “…love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”
On Thursday of this week, Pope Francis—who often uses Twitter to share clear, hopeful ideas that are relevant to the needs of the moment—sent this tweet:
“Today, in the tragedy of a pandemic, in the fact of the many false securities that have now crumbled, in the face of so many hopes betrayed, in the sense of abandonment that weighs upon our hearts, Jesus says to each one of us: “Courage, open your hearts to my love.” [September 10, 2020]
He’s pointing us back to God’s economy, urging us to remember that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, something infinitely more loving, if we will only have the courage to open our hearts to it. In God’s economy, sharing is the mechanism by which we have what we need. We share God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy. We share what we have, all the blessing, because the good in life is meant to flow through us, not just to us.
In Plenitude, Juliet Schorr suggests four principles that will help us create an economy that works for all: “work and spend less, create and connect more.” In explaining that last principle, connecting, she writes,
“The final principle is the need to restore investments in one another and our communities. While social bonds are not typically thought of in economic terms, these connections, which scholars call social capital, are a form of wealth that is every bit as important as money or material goods. Especially in times of distress, people survive and thrive by doing for one another.”
This was written a full decade before any of us would ever hear of COVID-19. And yet her suggestions for a workable, inclusive economy—in practical and not spiritual terms—involves the sharing of our blessing with one another.
That economy is not built on the idea of “haves” and “have nots” or “us” and “them” but on the flow of blessing among all. The blessing is constant and already present, built in to God’s economy already at work all around us, right now. We don’t have to do anything special to deserve it or attract it or grab some for ourselves. We need only to participate by cooperating with it, allowing ourselves to become part of the flow.
Early in the Old Testament, on the day Moses brought the tablets down the mountain to the people of Israel, he shared with them the promise of God’s blessing and tender care when they put God first and share with each other the blessings God provides.
“And all these blessings will come upon you and overtake you, if you will obey the voice of the Lord your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, as well as the produce of your land and the offspring of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. Your basket and kneading bowl will be blessed. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.”
This is just a small part of the blessings Moses names—the list goes on for 62 more verses. It makes me wondering: How much of that blessing is around each of us right now? Chances are, so much blessing our minds can’t take it in: How many feathers are on a hummingbird? What is the count of all the whales in the sea? Who knows how many times a field can yield a harvest? God’s economy is not a pipe dream, not wishful thinking, but an everyday reality present and awaiting our noticing. It’s the way the world already works. Let’s open our eyes and hearts to see that. And share what we find with others, increasing the blessing, furthering God’s purpose, and doing what we can—each of us–to bring together in one abundant embrace the worldwide family of God.
- OT Deuteronomy 28: 1-6
- Luke 6: 35-38
- Schor, Juliet. Plenitude. https://www.humansandnature.org/the-principles-of-plenitude