Icons of Abundance

Over half of my life I operated from a perspective of scarcity. During that time, according to my skewed perception, everyone was a competitor or critic, always judging and potentially threatening, and nothing felt secure. It seemed just when I had something in hand, it would be whisked away. So everything had to be white-knuckled and guarded, whether relationships, status, ideas, or things. But then in 2005, everything changed in an extraordinary season of wonder and transformation I spent perched on a hillside, in a tiny cabin overlooking the Pacific. That painful, beautiful season of contemplation changed my perspective. While I’d spent my life clutching a half-empty glass lest someone try to take it from me, I came to see the glass as miraculously always filled, never empty, just the amount I needed–and ever, reliably so. Where before my eyes had seen only scarcity, I came to see lavish, unexpected abundance. It was a mind-shift that changed everything because I could finally rest and trust and breathe. I knew everything was going to be okay. It always had been.

Though the shift was dramatic, I continued to go into periods of scarcity thinking at times, and still do. I’m not sure we ever complete the sea-crossing to abundance; but instead, weave off course at times—sometimes living in scarcity one hour, in abundance the next. Nonetheless, the shift did change me. These days I might veer into thoughts of scarcity while listening to the news, or entertaining worries about retirement. But I now know how to get out of it, like walking out of a creepy neighborhood or a bad movie. I have a reverse gear, a stop button. I know in those moments that I’ve gone off course.

So much hinges on whether or not we see the universe as benevolent, radiant with abundance, ever giving. As Albert Einstein said: “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” I don’t need to spell out what happens when people see only scarcity and hostility. The consequences of this are evident all around us in national politics and culture, in geopolitics. But what does it look like to live out of a sense of abundance?

Much of Jesus’ teaching touches on this theme. Yet I don’t think I recognized this until reflecting on the feeding narrative in Mark 6:35-40 this past year—its symbolism being a contrast between the scarcity mindset of the disciples (and most of us) and the abundance of the meal provided to the crowd.

Like his parables, Jesus’ actions, such as healings, feedings, Temple protests, had deep symbolic nuance, and like everything he did, added contour to the overarching theme of his work: proclaiming and demonstrating the reign of God. In contrast to human kingdoms, the reign of God is not “of this world,” nor of some distant world to come (it is here; it is now). It is marked by an entirely different consciousness, a new vision, a different value system. That new way of seeing can be summarized as a perspective of abundance.

Mark’s version of the great feeding comes on the heels of a narrative about King Herod. The Herod anecdote is a brilliantly wrought story of contrast. Here is a man who—though holding the keys of regional power—is bedeviled by fear at the obscure holy men John the Baptist and Jesus (who he fears to be John the Baptist reincarnate). Herod is portrayed as feckless, manipulated by his intimates, and flummoxed by these spiritual teachers. Ultimately, his pride and brutality get the better of him. It is a portrait of scarcity.

Next, the disciples enter, displaying the same all-too-human fears: in their case, fear of the hungry crowds following Jesus and of the utter lack of provisions at hand; worry they’ll need half a year’s wages to satisfy Jesus’ instructions to feed them. Yet Jesus sees things differently—filling out Mark’s portrait of contrasts. He sees the crowd as “sheep without a shepherd” (ie people without a compassionate leader; think Herod), and sees from the perspective of abundance. The life of faith is all about this perspective. It is trusting that even when things feel and look impossible, way opens (to use an old Quaker saying). That doesn’t mean the opening will look as we expect it to look. Sometimes the loaves will not multiply and way will open by some other mode or measure.

Fact is, we cannot strong-will ourselves into an abundance-mindset or into faith; this usually leads to denying our true feelings as we teeter on the brink of despair. Instead, the growth of faith takes time and experience. The perspective shift is something done in us as we experience life’s challenges and choose trust, witnessing how provision arrives—not always in the form we expect but as provision nonetheless, usually in the form we most need. The more we experience this pattern, the easier it becomes to trust. Sometimes the mindset shifts in a single great moment of ah-ha.

One image from my life serves as an icon of abundance:

When I was a young mother in my 20s, I would sketch foxgloves—my favorite flowers. Nothing said “home” to me like a cluster of foxgloves. At the time, I was so hungry for home, so eager to find sanctuary for all I held dear, that I would fantasize about living in a home with a few foxgloves. Almost fifteen years later, in 2007, I bought a slice of wooded land that had gone unsold for years (I believe it was waiting for me) and built a 720-square-foot cottage on it—my beloved abode to this day. I put many of the finishing touches on the house myself with the help of family and friends—installing the flooring and painting inside and out; I recycled old cabinets and appliances to make the house affordable. After the housing crash of late 2007-8 and banks’ intense tightening of lending, I wouldn’t have qualified for the mortgage; but I got into affordable home-ownership by the proverbial skin of my teeth, in a region where housing presents many potential hardships. As my health worsened dramatically in ensuing years and I was eventually diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, I’ve reflected on how this woodland sanctuary affords the nourishment and stability I need for self-care and wholeness, and I’ve found myself saying: “This house saved my life.” It is not hyperbole.

In any case, back to the icon of abundance, which happened shortly after my builder and I completed the house. You see, something in the way the surrounds were prepped for the homesite was felicitous to the wild foxgloves growing in my area. And much to my surprise, the year after I moved in, I watched the hillside directly behind my house transform into a veritable field of foxgloves. That summer hundreds, maybe a thousand, foxgloves bloomed majestically just outside my windows. I didn’t even have to plant them. The display was breathtaking—nothing short of magical. I was the only human who knew of the foxglove sketches I drew in my early 20s or what those flowers meant to me. But the Divine Mother knew. The display of foxgloves was only the first time She spoke to me through the flowers and plants and other creatures animating this slice of wooded enchantment I call home.

Like I said, the profligate crop of foxgloves was and is to me an icon of abundance. It will always be a powerful image reminding me of abundance and provision. Those flowers were my “baskets of bread and fish” overflowing.

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