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One of the recurring topics of conversation around our dinner table these days is the strange irony that in this time of amazing American abundance, the voices crying scarcity hold surprising sway. We’ve always had great conversations around the table since the kids were small, and we’ve reminded them about the good gifts of this world which abound. Our oldest is now back at the table after his first year of college. His first year of studying history and political science has raised his already keen awareness that things are often not like they should be.
My wife and I have witnessed this scarcity mindset take a firm grip upon the institutions of which we are a part. I am thankful that it is much less of a problem in the struggling rural churches that I have served than in the higher bureaucratic structures of denominational Protestantism that manage multi-million (sometimes billion) dollar resources. It’s still a surprise to me how folks who have little are often so generous. My wife teaches in a small liberal arts college, and many of these institutions are falling prey to the voices threatening that all will be lost unless they start operating more like a Starbuck’s franchise and less like an institution of higher education. It makes no sense, especially when a school like my wife’s, has more students, more resources, and better facilities than it has ever had in its long history.
When the news comes on at night, the stock market report announces new highs for the S & P 500 and the Dow Jones index. And then follows the usual laundry list of the things that we cannot do: care for the environment, provide decent healthcare, build infrastructure, get benefits to veterans, give basic food relief to the hungry through food stamps. I remember well when push came to shove during our last financial crisis. There was enough, 700 billion dollars’ worth, for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout and during the last administration another $1 trillion transfer of Wall Street bad investments to the U.S. tax payer. So, there is enough money, depending upon who you are. So maybe the real question is, “How much is enough?”
Our culture and economy have unprecedented resources, yet as they have accumulated, the irony is that generosity seems to be the one commodity that is hard to come by. This irony is nothing new. Last Sunday the Scripture reading from Matthew’s Gospel version of the Sermon on the Mount invited folks at our church to “Consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.” There is a natural abundance teeming in the created order. Yet lest we think this teaching to be lofty poetry, this passage begins in prose. “No one can serve two masters. …. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Jesus gave several stern warnings about hoarding and greed. But the great Scriptural stories of transformation from stinginess to sharing mostly seem to come about through inspiration rather than denunciation.
I am constantly inspired by the quiet, local stories of so many people who find fullness in their lives by giving away their energies, resources, and abilities to others. These down-to-earth embodiments of abundance invite us to remember what we have long known and yet forgotten. Having enough is a matter of perspective. And sometimes people with just enough lead remarkably rich lives.
Tara Leininger is a friend who lives in the 238-person town of Metaline Falls in the uppermost right-hand corner of Washington State. She and her husband Donovan moved there in 1991 from Idaho when Donovan was hired as a teacher in the public schools. Tara did some part-time teaching for a while but then became deeply involved in her local Congregational United Church of Christ, a very small but community-serving church. The church did not have the means to call a full-time pastor and they were so geographically remote that it was difficult to get a retired pastor to travel and lead worship. After much consideration, Tara decided to get credentialed and ordained, and she has been serving this congregation for the last 18 years.
The fascinating part of Tara’s story is that she has also been the mayor of Metaline Falls for the last 10 years and is also the executive director of the Cutter Theatre and is also the chairperson of the North Pend Oreille Chamber of Commerce – oh, and she is also the mother of grown children and eight grandchildren. She fills all these other positions for no compensation at all and is only very part-time paid as a pastor. Tara and Donovan have had enough to raise their family and provide what is needed, but Tara has simply given the rest of her work to help her community. When I called the Reverend Mayor to catch up with her recently and asked how it was all going, the first words out of her mouth were, “I love it!” Tara’s vibrant spirit reminds me what is truly valuable in our commercial world.
When you find yourself ready to throw in the towel and yell, “Enough is enough!” don’t forget the people who show us that there is always more than enough for everyone. They are some of the richest people around.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who has pastored small town and country churches and currently serves the Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book, Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.