Monday, April 7, 2014

Generosity and Community

Those of us who go to college and graduate school make some friends that we track all through our careers.  Sometimes we don’t have much contact with them, but we watch their careers take off or take different kinds of turns.  Often we watch them through the books they publish.  Today we frequently track them through social media like Twitter.  If they are in our academic discipline, we might see them periodically at conferences.          

One such person I have known for decades now is Parker Palmer.  Although we never were in school together, we have known each other since the earliest days of our careers.  In the earliest days he was not a Quaker, but he was at a Quaker institution and was flirting with Quakerism.  Because he was serious about his spiritual search, he became in many ways more Quaker than those of us who grew up as Quakers!          

He figured out how to take the best from my own Quaker tradition and “package” it in teaching and leadership situations to become “somebody.”  It was fun to watch him become pretty well known in academic circles.  He became prominent by virtue of his speaking and books.  He had a knack for taking stuff that I knew so well and presenting it in a way that was compelling to folks---most of whom never heard about Quakerism or thought we only dealt with oatmeal!

Parker Palmer began to do what we call “spirituality” before most non-Catholics wandered into these waters.  I did, too.  That was one of the things we had in common in the days when we both were young and full of promise.  No one ever introduces me today as one full of promise!  I am sure Parker and I found spirituality so attractive because Quakerism always emphasizes experience first and then theology/doctrine.  And that is one of the ways I differentiate spirituality and religion.  Spirituality always begins with experience.  Religion tends to begin with doctrine.          

I am now using one of Palmer’s books in a class I teach.  I don’t know whether the students fully appreciate him, but I find what he does in that book, The Active Life, very valuable.  One of the places I found interesting was his suggestion that we all tend to look at the world from one of two perspectives.  Some of us view the world from a model of scarcity.  Others view the world with an abundance model.  Of course, I immediately think: which am I?          

The scarcity model says the world contains limited resources.  “There is only so much,” is the mentality.  “I better get mine while the getting is good!”  We all know the various ways this view of the world shapes us.  I think it is the worldview my family held as I grew up.  This kind of view of the world breeds anxiety and sometimes fears.  We are worried that we will not get enough.  In fact, the word “enough” might characterize this way of seeing the world.          

Palmer characterizes this world well with these words.  “In a universe of scarcity, only people who know the arts of competing, even of making war, will be able to survive.”  In this kind of world most of us will be losers.  But there is another option: the worldview of abundance.  This view works well with a sense of God.            

Here the perspective suggests that the world is always “more than enough.”  Of course, it is easy to think about famine, poverty, etc. that seems to say that is a lie.  But think about the gifts and graces of the world.  Think about love.  If viewed this way, the world offers abundantly.  Love is a resource that can never be used up---there is always more.  This is the insight that Palmer offers to me.          

I appreciate his words that guide me in re-imaging the world and what it has to offer.  He says, “in a universe of abundance, acts of generosity and community become not only possible but fruitful as well.”  To think about generosity and community help me to see the world differently---to see it as a source of abundance.          

I have known the gift of generosity from people, from nature and from life.  Generosity comes to us as “more than enough.”  We feel we don’t deserve that much.  We are amazed.  We are overwhelmed.  We can only be grateful.          

Community is the same.  True community gives me a sense of belonging, care and love that amazes me.  To begin to see the world with the abundance model is transforming.  It enables me to see possibility and potentiality that creates a new future for myself, others and the world.  I think this must have been the case with Jesus who imagined a new world.  He called it the kingdom.  I think I begin to understand.  The kingdom is a new world---a world of generosity and community.

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