Carry the Billion: Cultivating a Theology of Abundance

Starsinthesky

I was 22 years old, and e-readers were just starting to move from novelty nerd gadget to an actual thing that normal people bought. I didn’t own one, but I wanted to, and said so to the girl I was dating at the time, who wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“I don’t think I could do it,” she said. “I would miss the feel of holding an actual book.”

I was bemused at her short-sightedness—her refusal to get on the right side of history, and told her as much. We were sitting on my bed, eating Indian food out of to-go containers.

“Think about the environment,” I instructed her, in that infuriatingly sage tone boyfriends use to talk sense into their girlfriends. “People will get used to holding them instead of books.”

She frowned and was quiet for moment.

“A world without books?”

***

God is a God of abundance. I’m certain of it. Find a place that has yet to feel the economical cuts of man and look at virtually anything there. I’m told that a big oak tree can have, astonishingly, over a million leaves on it. A six-inch tree might grow nineteen feet of roots. The ground under your feet rumbles with everything that scurries, slithers and scuttles—a cup of soil has more bacteria in it then there are living humans. And you haven’t even looked up yet.

As far as we know, there is an infinite number of stars. If you think about it too long, the sheer incomprehensibility of it will send your brain shrieking for cover. So let’s keep our count to what astronomers have dubbed “the observable universe.” How many stars exist in our neck of the woods? From The Atlantic:

“If we multiply the (estimated) average number of stars in each galaxy by the number of galaxies in the observable universe and carry the billion we get a rough estimate of ALL THE STARS we’re capable of observing …There are roughly a septillion stars in the observable universe. That’s 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. Which is, for lack of a more fitting description …a lot of stars.”

“Carry the billion.”

Virtually every ounce of it is unnecessary, of course. There are simpler ways to make a world, a universe. There are simpler ways redeem one too. But since this is the world we have, we must infer something of God’s personality from it. I infer abundance.

***

Protestantism in its American iteration has often manifested itself in a theology of scarcity. A theology of lack.

There is nothing malicious in this. Early pilgrims were not nearly the Luddite prudes so often caricatured. The economic reality of their trip fostered a necessary frugality in their day-to-day lives but, remember, these are the same people who came up with American’s annual celebration of abundance: Thanksgiving.

It took time for two competing worldviews in emerge in America. The first, Christianity, came over on the Mayflower. The second, materialism, didn’t put down roots until more recently. These are not particularly compatible ways of looking at the world. “You cannot serve both God and mammon,” Jesus warned the Pharisees. Nevertheless, that is one camel America has been particularly stubborn about attempting to shove through the needle’s eye.

The common refrain is that materialism is a worldview of bloat. We are materialistic because we have so much. Walter Bruggerman suggests otherwise in a sermon he called “The Myth of Scarcity.”

The profane is the opposite of the sacramental. “Profane” means flat, empty, one-dimensional, exhausted. The market ideology wants us to believe that the world is profane–life consists of buying and selling, weighing, measuring and trading, and then finally sinking down into death and nothingness. But Jesus presents and entirely different kind of economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity.

But the economy of the profane is a necessity for the American way of life. It is legacy, and it owes its origin to a belief in scarcity.

A person who believes in an abundant universe has no need for a camel to get through a needle’s eye.

A person who believes in an abundant God does not fear the stranger or the immigrant.

A person who has an abundant theology does not fear the repercussions of being too generous.

These are the fears of the profane. The materialistic. These are the fears of those who believe in a scarce universe, ruled by a scarce God.

***

You are an Israelite, trudging through the desert. You are free, but what good is freedom if you’re going to starve? Living under the heel of Egypt’s Pharaohs wasn’t much of a life but, well, dying of starvation in wilderness isn’t so great either. You are hungry. Your husband is hungry. Your child is hungry. Everyone you know is hungry. Is this the freedom of YAHWEH?

You wake up one morning to a frost. A frost in the desert. You screw your eyes in confusion. No, not frost. Flakes. White flakes that litter the ground. Buckets and buckets of them, draped over the entire camp of Israel, as far as the eye can see.

A question: How far does this grace extend?

The answer: Enough for the day.

Always, always, always enough for the day.

***

But there is not enough. Not nearly. Not when children suckle from mothers who have no milk. Not when boys’ brittle bodies wash up on lonesome shores. Where is our manna, God?

This question is not so different from when the disciples asked Jesus what he intended to do about the five thousand hungry bellies that were rumbling while he was teaching.

This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”

But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”

Of course there is enough. There is always enough, as long as there is someone willing to give.

***

Bruggerman again.

The feeding of the multitudes, recorded in Mark’s Gospel, is an example of the new world coming into being through God. When the disciples, charged with feeding the hungry crowd, found a child with five loaves and two fishes, Jesus took, blessed ,broke and gave the bread. These are the four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence. Jesus conducted a Eucharist, a gratitude. He demonstrated that the world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all. Jesus is engaged in the sacramental, subversive reordering of public reality.

Taking. Blessing. Breaking. Giving. In every sacrament, a sacrifice. In every sacrifice, an unexpected sufficiency. In each action, we find something unexpected. The world is not as merciless and selfish as we might have thought. There is more. Always more.

The observable universe has enough. Carry the billion.

***

The economy of scarcity will always embrace efficiency. Exiguity. Exigency. E-readers. Things to save us time, save a little for tomorrow and be practical about our resources. There is not enough. Not enough time. Not enough trees. Not enough room. Not enough jobs. Not enough manna. Not enough grace.

Imagine. Not enough room, in a world where six-inch trees are afforded nineteen feet of roots. Not enough time, in a world where it takes the light from our nearest stars four years to reach us.

Not enough food, in a world where there is very plainly enough food, if we would just have the good sense to give.

Not enough grace, in which we need only look at the birds to see that they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet their heavenly father feeds them.

A sky full of stars. A desert full of manna. A world full of books. A paradise full of sinners.

Abundance in every cup.

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2 Comments

  1. Rebecka

     /  September 18, 2015

    Beautiful. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. I’m looking forward to the day when more Christians comprehend God’s extravagant abundance and apply it to their own lives as they interact with a suffering world. My heart hurts for all the needs I see in the world that require financial assistance, but perhaps what’s even more real for me are the needs of marginalized individuals in our own spheres of influence who hunger for just a little grace and compassion–for someone to say “I see you and you are welcomed in my life.” There’s such a scarcity of grace in the church. I desperately want that to change.

    Reply

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