Just before Christmas, I read an op-ed in the New York Times by economist and public policy guru, Arthur C. Brooks. In it, Brooks talks about a visit he made to India where he met a man named Gnanmunidas who had been educated in Texas, but was now living on the streets of New Delhi. A “penniless swami,” Brooks writes, “Gnanmunidas had a spiritual awakening at the age of 26 and became a Hindu monk, shunning all material wealth and comfort.”
As an economist, Brooks was in India to report on the growing economic prosperity, and so he took the opportunity to ask Gnanmunidas about it. Brooks writes, “I was more than a little afraid to hear what this capitalist-turned-renunciant had to teach me. But I posed a query nonetheless: ‘Swami, is economic prosperity a good or bad thing?’ I held my breath and waited for his answer.”
“‘It’s good,’ he replied. ‘It has saved millions of people in my country from starvation.’ This was not what I expected. ‘But you own almost nothing,’ I pressed. ‘I was sure you’d say that money is corrupting.’ He laughed at my naïveté. ‘There is nothing wrong with money, dude. The problem in life is attachment to money.’ The formula for a good life, he explained, is simple: abundance without attachment.”
In the wake of another Christmas season come and gone, and in the middle of well-intentioned, yet doomed, shallow resolutions all around us, the words of this poor man on the streets of a city half-way around the world ring in my ears. A good life is one that celebrates abundance without attachment. Perhaps that swami is wealthier than he seems.
It is easy to talk about blessings when we have the sense about us that we are blessed. When we look at our material world, the world in which we live and in which we have been trained to succeed, by any measure we are very comfortable. But if we aren’t intentional about how we live with our material wealth, with our abundance, we can begin to be attached to it. Or even worse, we can be controlled by it.
Attachment can look like many different things. Some of us are attached to the security our abundance provides. Some of us are attached to the privilege and advantage our abundance affords. Many of us simply don’t think about our radical abundance because it’s all we’ve ever known and all we’ve ever been taught to want. Abundance is a part of our national identity and has been encouraged as a sign of success and achievement. For some, abundance is more than what we earn, it is our right. Yet I’m concerned about how that level of abundance affects our spirits over time.
We know that we have been created in God’s image: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness …So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them (Gen 1:26-27).” Interpreted together, the Hebrew words for image (demûwth) and likeness (tselem) in this passage means model or resemblance. We were created in the likeness of God, to resemble and model God in the world. We believe that the ultimate and eternal image of God is Jesus Christ, but we know that we have that God-ness inside us. We have a divinely created center that can guide our spirits, keeping us grounded and on the right track.
We also believe that God gives us the gift of an abundant life. Jesus himself says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).” Abundant life is not only what God hopes for us, but also what God gives us and through that life we are truly blessed. How we define abundance, however, and how we live into and with that abundance can become problematic.
If God created each of us to be like God in the world and blesses us with abundant life through Christ, how then should we choose to live? That is the great question that I wrestle with as rector of this Christian community and one that I hope you wrestle with, too.
Last year, a group of parishioners joined me in visioning how we can create a culture of giving in our community that breaks with the traditional model of responding to requests. We know the old model very well: someone asks you to do something or give something and you choose to do so or not, and how much. This group asked a fundamental question—instead of needing to be prompted to give of ourselves, how can we begin to seek ways to give, to seek ways for our spiritual cups to overflow in this Christian community and in our world?
This seems like a gigantic question, one that is almost so large that we can feel paralyzed. We know what it feels like to be energized about our lives, to feel God working in us, and to feel the drive to put that energy into the world. But that feeling can come and go very quickly. Those mountaintop moments are few and far between, and too easily, the weight of our daily lives quash those high moments. We can begin to think that responding to God, giving of our deepest gifts, is too difficult a task …but it is actually so very simple.
The profound truth is this: God doesn’t want our abilities or our giftedness. God doesn’t want our achievements or our successes. God doesn’t want our goodness or our best. God wants us. God wants our hearts, our souls, our spirits. God wants us to live lives that resemble and model God’s essence in the world and with the abundance and lavish love of Christ.
I’m reminded of the lyrics of a popular song by one of my favorite bands, Casting Crowns, which says, “I just looked up today and realized how far away I am from where You are. You gave me life worth dying for, but between the altar and the door I bought the lies that promised more. Lord, I know I let You down…but all my deeds and my good name are just dirty rags that tear and strain to cover all my guilty stains that You already washed away. Because all You’ve ever wanted was my heart. Freedom’s arms are open, my chains have all been broken, relentless love has called me from the start. And all You wanted was my heart.”
As we look toward this new year, I am filled with hopefulness. Hope that we will renew our life together, hope that we will discover new ways of living like Christ in the world, and hope that we will have the courage and conviction to give our hearts to God. When we do, when we begin to live into the generosity of heart that only comes from our deepest connection with God, our lives and our life together will become the instrument of God’s peace and love in our communities and in our world. May we be filled with the spirit of Christ, and may our lives overflow into the world with the abundant love of God!