Making the Shift #6: From Scarcity to Generosity

Matthew 7:7-12

November 22, 2015

by Todd Weir


Scarcity is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.  Globally people struggle with getting even the basics of food, clean drinking water, shelter or safety.  Even when our basic needs met, relative scarcity persists. Who has enough money for all the things you want and need?  Sometimes there is just more month than money.  Economics is the science of scarcity and resource management.  Every household and government, every school and store, struggles with scarce resources.  “Do more with less” could be our current cultural motto.


Research shows that we aren’t all necessarily greedy, most of us want about 10 percent more, regardless of income.  But that 10 percent more can strip the rain forest, pollute the planet, and my 10 percent more equals the annual income of 10 people in Bangladesh.  I make the median income for living in Massachusetts, and I often worry and stress and feel scarcity, for what would be a fortune for someone else.  Its all relative.


Scarcity effects more than just money.  Who has enough time?  Just a few sermons ago, I said that my greatest worry was my “to do” list.  There are days when I wake up anxious, wondering how it will all fit in.  I don’t want more time, because my list would get longer.  I want more solitude, inner space.  Scarcity can be social.  Some people seem to need all the oxygen in the room- crave all the attention, talk about themselves all the time, create a lot of drama, and leave little room for anyone else.  When you live or work with that person, when will you get your time, recognition, or gratitude for all your hard work?  Good friends are in short supply.  True love is hard to find.  What happened to compassion for suffering people in America, and a “can do” spirit?  Why can’t there be a little more grace in the world?  How often have you thought, “Cut me a little slack here!”  or   I don’t want another “growth experience.”   Its all about scarcity- too little time, money, not enough of me to go around, not enough coming back to me.  It’s a small leap to imagine that there is not enough of God in the world.


During my sermon research I found a book review of “Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines our Lives.”   The two economist authors study scarcity as a mind set, a way of thinking that leads to maladaptive behavior. Scarcity makes us dig our hole deeper.  They are not talking about scarcity where you are facing starvation, but the relative sense of scarcity when we fear there is not enough of what we need.  They liken it to a narrowing of bandwidth.  Low bandwidth is makes your internet slow down.  When we focus on what we lack, and live in fear of scarcity, we lose our capacity for creativity and miss opportunities.  Our problems grow in our minds and our sense of possibility diminishes.  Our energy level goes down and obsessing about scarcity in one part of life starts to ooze into other places.   Our bandwidth as a human being lowers and we make poor decisions and waste what we do have.


Here’s an example of how scarcity narrows our bandwidth.  Small business losing money decides to cut back on advertising.  Our “to do list” is too big, so you feel hopeless and stay up too late watching “Sleepless in Seattle” for the tenth time; so you are too tired the next day to be effective and fall further behind.  Here is a cascading effect from work to family life, as described in “Scarcity:”

You find out an important change is happening at work and a budget committee meeting is scheduled for tomorrow.  You have to rearrange your schedule and postpone other things you were going to do, but you have to take your daughter to an important soccer game, and you can just barely squeeze it in.  On the way to the game, your daughter suddenly realizes she forgot her lucky charm, and before you turn around you snap at her for the added stress you feel.  It takes a moment to recover and you apologize, but the damage is done.  Your daughter is upset, tension is in the car, you get to the game feeling bad rather than excited, and you watch the game thinking that your daughter is playing with hesitation and it is all your fault.  By the time you get to your big meeting, you feel like a failure as a parent, and lose your focus, while someone steals your idea and you don’t even notice, because who really cares.


I think I had that nightmare- the cascading effect of living with multiple levels of scarcity.  Unfortunately, I did not have time to find out their solutions, because time is –well- scarce.  But here is the gist of their solution.  Pay attention to what you have and use it well.  Remember that necessity is the mother of invention, so focus on what is possible rather than being angry, sad or apathetic.  That is not a bad start.  Case Western School of Management developed a philosophy called Appreciative Inquiry.  It is a process that starts with finding what resources and strengths you have. What opportunities are available, what do you do well?  Focus your energy on these things rather than on what you don’t have.


Jesus would have called it a “loaves and fishes” approach to management.  His disciples were focused on scarcity.  We have 5000 hungry people and we don’t know what to do with them.  Send them home.  (Apparently pot lucks had not been invented yet.)  Jesus took what they had, 5 loaves and 2 fish donated by a small boy, blessed it and shared it.  The point isn’t that Jesus was a miracle worker. Generosity is contagious, and the results often seem miraculous.


With more time I would share all the social research on the positive effects of generosity.  Briefly, giving makes us happier than receiving.  Giving $100 creates a bigger release of dopamine in the brain than receiving $100 dollars.  People who are generous with money, time and knowledge are happier, advance more in their careers and are more resistant to illness.  Generous people create more generosity around them, a spin-off effect.  If you don’t believe me just watch “The Christmas Carol.”  Do you want to hang around Scrooge?  Dickens was appealing to the hard hearted to save themselves.  Open your heart and your spirit and your wallet, and live more fully.  More bandwidth, right!?


Generosity only works if you truly let it go.  If you give to get something in return, that is not generosity, that is a campaign donation.  Giving with strings attached doesn’t end well.  It feels controlling and creates resentment.  The Prosperity Gospel is a subtle and dangerous distortion of generosity, the idea that you make a donation to the church, and God will bless you more.  It is a great fund raising technique, but there are no guarantees.  In fact, you kill the buzz when you give expecting a reward.  The generosity effect only works when you give because you want to help someone or make a difference.


You might be wondering why the Gospel lesson for today says “ask and it shall be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will open.”  Isn’t that about getting?  Well, not exactly.  This teaching comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount.  For three chapters of Matthew we are told to forgive, to love our enemies, to judge not lest we be judged, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, all the core moral teachings of Jesus we find hard.  Then Jesus says, “Ask, seek, knock.”  There is enough for you too.  God is not going to suck you dry, and by the way, church shouldn’t either.  It is OK, in fact good for you, to ask for your wants and needs.  Now you may not get the new dining room set, or a private jet to your own fantasy island, but you will get more bandwidth for your heart, mind and soul.


Think about this more deeply.  What is the biggest barrier to giving?  There wont be enough left for me.  When we are afraid there isn’t anything coming to us, we hoard.  It is not noble to never ask for anything.  In reality, I think if we uncover and define what we truly want, what we truly desire to do with our lives, the whole world will be better for it.  Honestly, do you want to be rich and famous?  That’s just an empty shell.  I want to be loved and to make a difference and see a better world.  If I don’t ask for what I truly need, then the world is not going to get that from me.  Knowing what you really want can make you more generous.  Love, forgive, turn the other cheek, don’t judge and ask, seek, and knock, so you can keep it up.


The core message of today’s Gospel scripture readings is that God is generous and Thanksgiving is a celebration of God’s great love and generous spirit.  So many Psalms, like Psalm 107 in our Call to Worship, are full of Thanksgiving for the wonderful gifts of God – a restoration of health, forgiveness, healing of our wounded hearts, the end of war and strife, peace of mind, wisdom.  All good things come from God’s spirit, and thanksgiving reminds us to keep it moving.  If the work of the spirit stops with us, then there is no spin off effect.  Thanksgiving is a pledge that we are going to keep the Spirit moving.