Thursday, October 8, 2009

Scarcity, Abundance, and Thanksgiving

Mardi Tindal is the newly elected moderator of the United Church of Canada. For many years she was a co-host with Rev. Ken Gallinger on the United Church’s television program: Spirit Connection. She is currently the director of Five Oaks, a retreat and learning centre near Brantford. I read her moderator’s Thanksgiving message on Sunday morning as our first Thankful Thought:

A few years ago, my southern Ontario congregation decided to host a regular Sunday supper for anyone who needed it. My husband and I became team leaders and spent every third weekend from November to April shopping, cooking, and serving a meal for as many as 120 people.
After a couple of years, we and other volunteers began to feel the strain of this commitment. In fact, the coordinator even wondered if we might have to end the dinner, though it filled a critical need during the cold winter months.

But in this moment of apparent scarcity, we experienced unexpected abundance. Members of the Muslim community, with whom our congregation has a lively relationship, heard about our concerns and asked if they could take care of one Sunday a month. We gratefully accepted. Soon, the Seventh-day Adventist congregation with whom our church shares its building offered to coordinate another Sunday. The Sikh community also got involved, and other community members continued to give leadership.

The weekly supper is now entering its fifth season as an energetic intercultural and interfaith venture. Kitchen and guests have been introduced to menus from around the world. To me, it is an example of the abundance that can be found in community if only we open ourselves up to the possibilities. As many Canadians gather this weekend with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, it offers a powerful message of hope in a society that often tends to see what is not there, rather than what is there, and what might be.

The story of our church supper reveals a truth, and a paradox, described by Parker J. Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal in Washington state. Palmer points out that when we think something is scarce, we tend to act in ways that increase scarcity. We fear food shortages so we hoard, decreasing the supply. We fear rejection so we withdraw affection, diminishing relationship.

But when we act as if we believe in the abundance of what appears to be scarce, we create conditions that help generate abundance. When we do this in community, the power that arises from our common action is almost unbelievable.

This isn’t magic, and it’s not just “Pollyanna.” And please don’t confuse it with the notion that abiding by religious beliefs is the route to being rewarded with stuff, or the damaging idea that our ambitions can be limitless. To the contrary, one of our greatest challenges is recognizing the natural limits of the earth and living within these limits for the sake of life itself.
Rather, it is an invitation to imagine what it would mean to trust in the supply of whatever seems scarce in our lives today. It is an invitation to courage.

Each of us has fears, and many people from marketers to political leaders try to capitalize on them. When election posturing heats up, for example, I’m struck by how political leaders tend to wield fear like a weapon: “You must support us, or there will be [name your fear]: scarcity of economic prosperity; scarcity of physical safety; scarcity of healthy food, clean air, and water.”
We need courage to resist such manipulation, and we should demand it of our leaders.

The degree to which there will be enough food, shelter, and ecological resilience is the degree to which we trust that these are shared desires and that the rest of our extended community—those in other political parties, cultural groups, faith communities, and families—will work with us to bring them about. Why would we assume otherwise? Why assume that others don’t want good things for their children, or that they aren’t prepared to work as hard toward these goals as we are?

Over the past few years, living in my small southern Ontario city, I’ve grown accustomed to meeting friends and neighbours everywhere I go. But, after a recent move to Toronto, I’m tempted to perceive manifold scarcities when I go out into a sea of strange faces—scarcity of friends, scarcity of comfort, scarcity of trust. It takes courage to perceive these unknown multitudes as potential friends on a common journey.

One recent evening, my husband and I took a stroll in our new neighbourhood. We noticed a nearby church and decided to take a look inside. The back door was open. We came upon a few activities going on here and there as we wandered through the large structure. People glanced at us, complete strangers to them, but no one asked us who we were or what we were doing. Smiles and words of greeting were all that were offered.

In the face of such abundant trust, we think we may have found a place to belong, a place to bring food to a table where everyone is welcome—and where we trust that we, too, will be fed. A table of Thanksgiving.