We live in a material world, in physical bodies that depend on material things for continued existence. We need air to breathe and water to drink, preferably clean enough not to cause bodily harm. We need clothes and shelter to protect us from harsh weather. We need a safe place to sleep. We on occasion need medical care. Some of us don’t have enough and some of us take way more than we need.
Our natural dependence on and desire for material things easily drift to excess. Our culture seems to celebrate excess. Worse is a winner-take-all attitude or a scarcity mindset, wherein if you have enough, there’s not enough for me. Disdain for another’s good is the deadly sin of envy.
The spiritual disciplines of engagement and abstinence that bring our relationship with material things into balance are service and sacrifice. Sacrifice takes frugality several steps further in giving up what we need and also giving up the security of being able to meet our needs. Abundance can be distracting. A recent New York Times article decried possessions possessing us. Abandoning our needs to God has a way of quieting the distractions.
Acknowledging and responding to the material needs of others in service sheds a fresh perspective on our own needs and abundance. It inclines us towards gratitude, and more importantly, it’s how we collaborate with God. I’ve noticed service is how God answers prayers, too. There’s an urban myth about an earnest young seeker going through something of a dark night of the soul. His friends seem to enjoy intimacy with God, while he wrestles with belief in God at all. He prays a familiar petition, “God, if you are there, please give me a sign, and I’ll do anything!”
When driving home one night, the dejected young man gets an odd impulse to turn a different way, the story goes. “God, is that you? I’ll do it.” After ending up in a bad part of town, he gets an odder impulse to buy milk. “This is crazy, but I’ll do it.” A door in a run-down apartment complex catches his eye. “I am not knocking on that door. This isn’t just crazy, it’s dangerous!” Against his better judgment, he sets the milk on the door mat, knocks and hustles back to his car. A disheveled man answers and starts yelling. Frightened, the young man looks back. A woman carrying a crying baby runs towards him. “We ran out of money, and we prayed for an angel to bring milk for our baby.” That’s the story. A fearful, unbelieving angel’s prayer was answered not in an earthquake or fire or a great wind but in a humble act of service.
19th Century priest and writer James Smetham urged his readers to believe in God’s abundance.
I hope this may be the happiest year of your life, as I think each succeeding year of everybody’s life should be, if only everybody were wise enough to see things as they are; for it is certain that there really exists, laid up and ready to hand, for those who will just lay hands upon it, enough for everyone and enough forever.
Join the conversation. What keeps you from drifting to material excess?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.