Sometimes life asks more of us than it seems we have to give. It did of my maternal grandmother, Edith. At twenty-six years of age she became a widow with six children to support, including my mother, who had been born the same year. On top of that, the family had moved to a new home in Millington, Tennessee, a mere two weeks before my grandfather died, and my grandmother knew almost no one there. I can hardly imagine a lonelier and more challenging situation, unless it was after the Great Depression began less than three years later.
When the stress became too great and the children too hard to handle, she would often load them all into the big seven-passenger Nash and start driving. That would relieve tension temporarily, but where did she find resources and the inner strength to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table and to pay all the other bills that came with raising a family? I’ve never faced a challenge as daunting, but others have. When life demands more than you have to give, what do you do? How do you cope?
That must have been a central question for the early church, maybe the most pressing question of all. It’s the question at the heart of the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels, the story of how Jesus, with two fish and five loaves of bread, fed thousands (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17). It even appears a second time in a slightly different version (Matt. 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10). It’s also a question that faces us today.
How do we do the good things our faith calls us to do when we have so little to work with? How do we pay the household bills and support the other good things we’d like to do, in an economy in which the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer and the middle class is disappearing? How will we effectively address issues like homelessness and hunger in this country, or cope with health crises like the Ebola virus outbreak, or offer peace to a world torn by violence and terrorism? We’re not even fully supporting the operating and capital budgets of our congregation or paying our fair share of ministries in the larger church. There is so much to do and so little with which to do it.
“Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” the disciples said to Jesus when confronted with overwhelming need (Matt. 14:15). Do we turn away those who come to us in need and let them fend for themselves elsewhere? We are finite creatures, after all, and there are limits to what we can do. Then Jesus says matter-of-factly, “You give them something to eat” (v. 16).
Tony Campolo was once invited to give a major address at a conference where those attending were being challenged to raise several thousand dollars for a mission project goal. The chairperson asked him if he would pray for God’s blessing as they considered their individual responses to the goal. To everyone’s amazement, Campolo said “no.”
He told them, “You already have all the resources necessary to complete this mission project right here within this room. It would be inappropriate to ask for God’s blessing, when in fact God has already blessed you with the abundance and the means to achieve this goal. The necessary gifts are in your hands. As soon as we take the offering and underwrite this mission project, we will thank God for freeing us to be the generous, responsible and accountable stewards that we’re called to be as Christian disciples.” And that’s just what they did.
“You feed them,” Jesus says. And we can! We just need to start thinking more like Jesus, with our hearts as much as with our heads. We need to stop looking at things from the perspective of scarcity and start looking at them from the perspective of abundance. And that perspective changes everything.
Was there a miracle? Perhaps. Or did people in the crowd, who were moved by this man’s generous hospitality, pull out their stash of goodies from the knapsack and start sharing? Perhaps. But it was Jesus’ commitment to hospitality and his ability to see abundance rather than scarcity that made it happen.
What might happen if we were to look at the two “goods” of meeting our own needs and serving the need of others not as competing goods in a world of scarcity, but as complimentary goods in a world of abundance? I think we might come up with new solutions that no one has yet imagined. That’s not an idle dream; I’ve seen it happen.
While my young, widowed grandmother was raising six children single-handedly during the Great Depression, she was also providing breakfast to neighboring children who had none; she was providing sandwiches to the homeless vagabonds who came to her door asking for a handout; and she provided supper each day to Aunt Tiny, a homeless black woman for whom she built a simple two-room house in her back yard. Aunt Tiny lived there long enough for this small boy to talk with her and deliver some of her suppers. And my grandmother taught me to look at life not through the lens of scarcity but through the lens of abundance.
In his book Invitations of Jesus, Trevor Hudson says that the gospel invites us to choose between two kinds of death: “On the one hand, there is the death that comes from holding and clenching our fists instead of loving and giving and sharing. It’s a death that leads to death. On the other hand, there is the death of laying down our lives, giving them away, opening our clenched fists, and surrendering the old. It can be difficult and painful, but it leads to unimaginable newness.”
So ask yourself, how are you living? What do you need to let go of in order to embrace new life and offer yourself to the needs of the world around you?