Last Monday, my son Liam officially accepted admission to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service to pursue his undergraduate degree. I’m telling you this, in part, because unlike most parents, I have access to both a microphone and a crowd to shout it to, and so I’ll ask your forgiveness for that bit of self-indulgence. But more importantly (and appropriately), I think, it has rather naturally provoked a reflection on some of the moments in the last 18 years that have led to him making that decision.
One of my favorite photos of the two of us is in a city park in Oslo, Norway, when he was just five months old. Determined to instill a love of international travel in him, we had decided on Scandinavia because it’s basically the cleanest and safest place on earth, in addition to being very child-friendly. So, we flew into Oslo, and on the first day we strolled over to Frognerparken, the main city park known for its sculpture gardens. And there, among the statues, we lay on the grass and I started orienting myself to the city using a map. Yes, an actual, laminated, paper map: this was 2005, still in the days of ignorance and superstition before the dawn of smartphones.
Anyway, while I was doing so, a tiny little hand appeared out of the corner of my eye and stretched toward the map. His fingers wrapped around it and began to pull. So I let go, assuming that he would simply take it, put it in his mouth, realize it wasn’t tasty, and drop it. I mean, that’s what five month olds do with everything, right? But that’s not what happened. Still laying on his back, he held the map up above his head and peered at it, turning it around slowly in his hands to look at it from different directions.
I began pointing some things out on the map to see what he would do, and he followed my finger as it moved. And somewhere in there, the picture was taken that makes it look like we really are collaborating on the best plan for exploring the city of Oslo together. It’s a wonderful microcosm of parenting, of traveling, and as it turns out, of the direction of his life which has had international experiences at the heart of it from the very beginning.
What I also remember about that trip, though, was the comments of a lot of people when they found out we were making it. Some were the expected jokes about sleep schedules and time zones, or taking an infant on an eight-hour flight (which for the record, is immensely easier than a preschooler). But quite a few were some version of “how can you afford that? Enjoy it while you can, because you won’t be able to afford to keep doing it.”
To be fair, our only income was my associate pastor salary and I was living in Manhattan at the time, so I wasn’t exactly swimming in cash, though I also wasn’t poor by any means. But what was interesting was that the people who kept saying things like that were often the same ones who went out to expensive restaurants on a regular basis, or bought Broadway tickets at full price, or had well-appointed apartments with multiple televisions and the most recent electronic devices.
My apartment, on the other hand, looked out onto the back of a hotel which blocked the sky with its building and stacked its garbage facing our windows every day. And as for well-appointed, the drywalls were finished so haphazardly that I used to say that it looked like it had been done by a chimpanzee on meth and his toddler assistant.
The thing is, that apartment allowed me to save enough money to be able to travel internationally in the summer, which was the real goal. And I was able to travel regularly because I generally went to places in the developing world, and often pretty close to the ground. I remember one time Liam was about six years old and walked into our hotel room in Lombok, Indonesia. He took a look around and said, “Wowwww! We have our OWN bathroom? AND the shower has hot water?!?” I said, “yeah, we splurged a little, this place is fourteen dollars a night.” “Wowwww,” he repeated, looking around in wonder again. Yeah, he was trained pretty well by that point.
But in all seriousness, he was trained pretty well by that point. Because already by the age of about six, Liam looked at having a private bathroom attached to your hotel room with a hot water shower in it as a luxury, an abundance. And he was right. First of all, it’s an abundance because by staying in places that often had a shared bathroom and/or cold water, he was able to walk on glaciers in Patagonia, track lions in South Africa, visit with orangutans in Borneo, eat gelato next to a canal in Venice, zipline through the rainforests of Costa Rica, and attend a community dance party on the floating reed raft villages of Lake Titicaca in Peru, all before he got out of elementary school.
Second, it’s an abundance because he got to have all of those experiences, as well as many others, for the small price of things like having one small twenty-year-old TV in the house, a childhood with only basic cable, and a lot of hand-me-down clothes from family friends with slightly older children, things that lots of middle class people would feel like is more scarcity than they would want to deal with but which has provided a life of extraordinary abundance for us.
But third and most of all: having an indoor bathroom with a flush toilet and a hot-water shower is a life of extraordinary abundance for most of the planet, and that is part of what he learned by traveling internationally so much from an early age. We think of running hot water on demand as a basic necessity, but for almost all of the human beings who’ve ever lived, including most royalty, that is a luxury of almost unimaginable abundance.
Abundance and scarcity are some of the most challenging issues to get a handle on precisely because so much depends on the perspective you’re bringing to both: how and where you assign value determines so much of what we see in terms of abundance or scarcity. So when Jesus says, “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” that can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The Prosperity Gospel preachers like Joel Osteen or Paula White interpret this as material abundance: Jesus came that we might have an abundance of material wealth as signs of God’s favor and embodiments of God’s blessing, and so both receiving and spending material wealth is almost a form of thanksgiving prayer for them.
Now, not to put too fine a point on it, but that is wrong to the point of heresy. I don’t use that word lightly, because it literally means “false choice,” and to choose to interpret this passage in that way so that Christian faith gets equated with a life of individual consumerism is making a choice that leads away from the fundamental truth of the gospel. We could do a whole sermon series on that fact, but for today I’m simply going to point out that elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus literally and categorically rejects anything like that. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” he says, “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Hard to get much clearer than that. The thing is, defining abundance just in terms of experiential wealth instead of material wealth doesn’t get us much further, either. It’s still, in a sense, commodifying life if the focus is solely on the places you’ve been and the experiences you’ve had. The point of travel is not simply to take photos and check things off a list, but to be challenged and changed by the experience of other peoples and places so as to live more fully and intentionally when you return.
But one’s life does not consist in the abundance of just that, either. The poet Mary Oliver famously wrote a poem that includes the question, “are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” And the truth is you can have a massive abundance of wealth or experience and still be breathing just a little, and calling it a life. It’s such an evocative phrase because breathing is the most basic of life-giving activities: you can go without food for about 30 days, without water for only about three days, but without air for only five to ten minutes.
Yet I suspect we would all agree that simply breathing is not the same thing as having life, and breathing just a little is even less so. Oliver’s poem does not define exactly what life is, but she points in the direction of being attentive to wonder and beauty and mystery in life, as well as the wondrous, beautiful, mysterious reality of other life all around us.
Jesus takes that idea much further. He’s contrasting himself with leaders that do not care for the people, but rather see them as resources to be exploited, which is why he talks about them as thieves who come to steal and kill and destroy rather than murderers, because thieves come to extract benefit for themselves from something that does not belong to them. Jesus, on the other hand, comes “that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” It’s the clarification of “abundantly” that is so important in Jesus’ words, because he’s making it clear that breathing just a little cannot be called life.
Part of what he means by abundant life is an abundance of time; Jesus repeated speaks of him bringing eternal life to people, which is the literal opposite of coming to kill and destroy. But that alone keeps us in the trap of individual benefits, like possessions or experiences. And Jesus is not simply talking to individuals or about them; as the good shepherd, he is talking about care for the entire flock: keep them safe, and together, and well-fed.
No, in using the image of us as a flock whom he protects and nurtures and cares for, Jesus is also explaining what true abundance is: the never-failing abundance of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, which we experience and share with each other in community, and which always has more than enough for more to be part of that community. The abundant life that Jesus gives to us is not breathing just a little, but deep breathing: a practice that literally creates abundant life by allowing more oxygen to enter our bloodstream than normal breathing.
But more than that, deep breathing is scientifically proven to lower blood pressure and heart rate physically, as well as calm us from things like fear, anger, and anxiety both mentally and emotionally. And when we do that, we can step out of our biologically programmed responses to stress and threats, the famous “fight-flight-or-freeze,” and be attuned to the beauty and possibility all around us, which God provides us in so many countless ways.
So as we move forward in our life as individuals, but especially as a congregation, I want to encourage us to practice the gospel of deep breathing: of stepping out of the stress and anxiety that threatens to overwhelm us so often, breath deeply of the abundance of Christ’s peace, and then look around at the possibilities before us, at the places that God’s hands are already at work, that God’s voice is already calling, that God’s heart is already breaking because God’s children are struggling with unanswered needs. Because when we do that, we breathe out God’s love and compassion and peace into the world, and it is in that, above all else, that we experience life, the abundant life that Jesus came for, and offers us now and every step of the way forward.