when more is not enough

“The economics that Christian hospitality seeks to embody, then, is marked by abundance, surplus, excess, and surprise.”
-Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality

Abundance! Surplus! Excess! Surprise! You could make a song of it; the list rolls off the tongue with ease. It sounds beautiful and hopeful and you want to rush out and invite everyone to a feast.

Maybe you start a food pantry, and you say you have faith that God will provide the plenty. You stock your shelves, open the doors, and prepare to welcome God’s precious children with a smile.

And then an ocean of need crashes in and floods your little store room of food. God’s precious romanticized children are just as broken and ugly as you are, and as you stand exhausted in the quickly-empty closet all your faith looks like wishful thinking; you discover that plenty is an illusion and there will never, ever be enough.

What is enough?

All the nonprofits, all the discussions about poverty, we talk about getting the poor to be like us. If only they could join The Middle Class, we say, then we wouldn’t have to feel guilty about them; then they would have a future; then they would have enough.

All the world worships the middle class, don’t they? Politicians wouldn’t dare not to pay homage. Sitcoms about normal life take place in the suburbs. Advertisers and credit cards offer sacrifices to anyone with just enough to consume a little thoughtlessly. And that is, indeed, how we identify them, the successful-enough, the middle class: by what they consume.

Why, then, the indignation when food pantry clients show off brand-new Nikes? Why act surprised when food stamp dollars go to expensive Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, when Tide becomes a street currency, when too-new cars park outside the Near East Side’s dilapidated rental units?

These are the markers of success. Of enough.

Meanwhile the do-gooders, the nonprofits, the bleeding hearts, the Church, and I rush to give people more, more, more. If only they had more, we think, they would have happier families, healthier bodies, they would leave the gangs and get savings accounts. Then they could get all the things that I can get.

But it is a pipe dream. We are standing in empty closets. There is never more; always scarcity. We despair.

I submit, though, that we despair only because we base our assessment of human well-being on market assumptions. We believe a certain amount of money is necessary for happiness, for freedom, for healthy families and healthy bodies, for virtues like hospitality and generosity and patience, and even for the “luxury” of seeking God. And we believe we are better off the more we are able to consume.

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Beans in a Ugandan offering plate. Photo by Ann Voskamp

The question remains. How much money is really enough money?
Enough to live on. Enough for rent and blankets and rice, beans, seasonal vegetables and the occasional can of tuna fish. That is more than billions have.

My food stamps, though they are labeled “supplemental assistance,” have been quite sufficient. They are enough for someone to eat a healthy variety who knows how to cook and how to shop. So which empowers the poor more – to dole out more money for frozen chicken nuggets at $8/pound, or to teach someone to make a simple chicken stir-fry for themselves at a fraction of the cost? Why are dollars for convenience foods a human right, but not the satisfaction of creating something from scratch? Why not the meditative rhythm of cooking, that ancient human act? Why not food that is made from food that is made from earth, rather than food made in laboratories?

Of course it is easier to hike up the payments than to teach such skills and hope for such intangible goods. Of course, if you ask them, people will grab for the money in a culture where consumption constitutes the good life.

We think we are countering that culture when we ask the middle class to give to the poor. But too often we are only operating from within, and perpetuating, the myth that money can solve any problem.

We will only counter that culture when we look at what we have and declare it enough! We will never discover abundance until we reach for contentment. We have taken on the wrong assignment if we count success as satisfying consumers before making disciples. And we are guilty of a deadly pride if we think only the bourgeois should be generous, contented, joyful people.

When we burst out thanksgiving over all that is already here, when we delight in the boxes of pasta before us, when we learn to celebrate every moment, every day that the Lord has made; and when we carry burdens for one another, when we give ourselves – not just our tithes – when we cherish one another as family and forget we could ever ask for anything more. That will be God’s kingdom coming, God’s people feasting, all giving, receiving, teaching, learning in a rhythm of shared contentment.

There is an abundance of food in the pantry, if none take more than they need.

There is a surplus of opportunities to help others.

There is an excess of God’s grace and sustaining power for the hurting and the weary.

And the surprise is there’s no income threshold for learning, believing, and living in the hospitality of God.

Joining with The Despised Ones for a synchroblog: Justice, Solidarity, and the American Dream.

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3 Comments

  1. Mallory Pickering

     /  July 2, 2013

    Wow. Just wow. This was the best.

    Reply
  2. Jacqueline in Atlanta

     /  July 2, 2013

    Better yet, teach the poor to garden. Teach them to garden IN COMMUNITY, because when I garden by myself I end up with masses of zucchini and can’t eat it all. How much better to share it and get, in return, a tomato from my neighbor.

    Last night I made a simple tomato sauce with fresh tomatoes, onions, celery and herbs from my front flower bed which has herbs, no flowers. We had it over pasta and just cucumbers with homemade dressing to go with. It was totally satisfying and tasted like Summer Sunshine.

    Eight dollar chicken nuggets can’t compare. But either one, the nuggets or the pasta with homemade sauce, will leave the poor (or the wealthy) hungry inside if they don’t know Jesus personally. He fills us up with all good things.

    A man called me today and said, “Come tomorrow and take home a bag of squash.”

    I think he’s just trying to get my blackberries! 😉

    Reply

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