Reflection by Anne Stewart
I wonder how your crops have performed in this, slightly over the top, gardening season. Can you remember a season quite like it – when your lawn was a vivid green all summer. I hear stories of the abundance of grapes, tomatoes, berries and courgettes produced beyond what people can keep up with. At Totara Valley we have pumpkins that have wound their way throughout the vegetable garden, almost obliterating its form – and we didn’t even plant any pumpkins this year! Down there too, the apple trees have done something I have never seen before, they are currently trying to have a second crop; so alongside the fully fleshed and ripe apples sit these little clumps of new baby apples – which of course will not have time to grow and ripen before the winter, but they are giving it their best shot anyway.
Autumn is always a crazy season for me as each different crop ripens and requires our attention. Before the apples came ready we had already picked and processed peaches, nectarines, corn, celeriac, quinces, tomatoes (which we bought this year), and now the pumpkins are there waiting. This was after we ate all we could while they were fresh. So there is an abundance of harvest and our freezer is already full. A couple of years ago to deal with a similar problem, we bought a second freezer. So should we get a third one this year, perhaps an even bigger one this time? Such a dilemma, what to do with all this abundance!
Of course not everyone has this problem; this ‘first-world problem’ of too much. There are many, far too many, who would long for such a problem. Too many who don’t have enough, let alone get to worrying over what to do with the excess. What’s it like, I wonder, to be in that place? Let’s take a look at this place we will call struggle-street. What’s it like to have to choose between feeding your children and letting the much-loved family pet go without. Or having to choose every week which you need most, power, petrol, food, or rent. That forever juggle of which creditor you can hold off long enough to hold the whole show together. Finding a way out of that is incredibly difficult for some, and the beaten down spirits that result can create bitterness and resentment that leads to behaviour that mystifies those who have not spent time on struggle-street.
For some, struggle-street must feel like a cul-de-sac with no clear way out once you find yourself in there. For others it’s a street they all too often find themselves repeatedly back on – like a recurring bad dream. When they aren’t actually on it they are so close to it that it only takes a car repair or dentist bill, or a job lay off, or relationship break-up, to take them back there. All their efforts to get off that street to be laid to waste and the cycle begin again. How long, I wonder, before they simply can’t muster the energy to keep trying? For others, of course, it’s a street they are fortunate enough to have never had to negotiate their way down.
Martin and I had enough of a taste of it many years ago when we lived in Dunedin and were first married. I was a full-time student and the government decreed that Martin’s stipend (this was before the church tidied its systems and raised it to a more manageable level) was enough to support three children and me. So when we married they stopped all my student allowances. At the time this was a sum of $175.00 a week but that was a considerable amount in our wee world at the time. So we pinched and saved, went without luxuries like hair-cuts (that was me and it wasn’t a good look, I cut Mart’s a couple of times and that also was not a good look!). Coffee was only ‘instant’, we never ate out and we walked a lot. While I wouldn’t want others to have to live as we often had to, I do value those years, because I had a taste of what is the long-term reality for many others. Eventually the needs of the kids growing up meant we said enough and I found part-time work and juggled twenty hours a week with full-time study. But I do recall one day sitting in the office where I worked and watching the casino over the road. For the first time I understood what drives people to such places. That dream of maybe finding a way to lift yourself out of the hole is, I imagine, very alluring – the possibility of a quick fix out of the struggle.
Being in struggle-street seems to have quite different effects on different people. This is perhaps most particularly noticeable after the struggles are over. Some never forget the experience and are so pained by it that they dedicate their lives to never going anywhere near that place again.
They will do all they can to ensure they never have to experience that pain and shame again. They become self-protective and seem to pull up the ladder that helped them out of it, after they are on safe ground. Others never forget the experience and dedicate their lives to doing whatever they can to ensure no one else ever has to go to down that street. This is what motivates some politicians and leads them to despair when the system seems to work against their efforts to bring about significant change in the situations of our most vulnerable.
The fear of struggle-street interests me too. To some extent, likes all fears, there is a healthy aspect to it. Enough of a fear of it can be the incentive we need to help keep us out of it. However too much fear can lead us down the path of thinking we need more and more to be safe from it, until our barns are no longer big enough. The fear manifests itself in a variety of ways. It can be a desperate need to hang on to what we have in case we run out or because we think we may need it later. This can lead us to hoard things up so we feel better, but where does it stop, when do we feel sufficiently ‘better’? Or, we can become mean and ungenerous because we fear giving our stuff away in case we again end up without enough. We can become territorial and protective of what we view as ‘our’ stuff. We can forget that what we have is ‘all gift’ for the betterment of all.
Which brings us to the question this series on the parables is seeking to help us answer. What does this parable tell us about how to do and be church? What can we learn from it about how to be community? Let’s try a few ideas on that. Here’s one: Each time we gather we set aside time in our worship to take up an offering. Some have suggested ways that this could be made easier and faster during our services but there is something going on here that is about more than just pragmatics. I imagine some of you will assume the practice of giving money to the church is simply to help make it run – and yes that is where the majority of the offering ends up – in maintaining our life together and in making our mission possible. But actually the process of giving money away is part of our understanding that nothing we have is really our own. We have what we have by the grace of God and therefore it is all gift. Giving it away is not squandering what we have but sharing what has been shared with us. Therefore, making this time in our worship is important as we remember what we have been given and actively engage in letting go of some of it. We stand for the offering too, not because we are worshipping money, but because this process of giving back what we have been gifted is a symbol of all that we offer back – ourselves.
Sharing our gifts is of course about more than money. How we give our time is important. We are fortunate to be part of a church community that actively works to connect with the various communities we find ourselves within. I think you would be amazed to find the extent to which many of you give your time volunteering in activities within our church community and further afield. This generous giving of your time is a wonderful witness to the generosity of God and your service shows the church to be a group of people who are happy to get their hands dirty, to have skin in the game, in order to serve those around them. It is a way of connecting with the community and serving in partnership with them that is respected by those on the receiving end. It’s something that is often commented on at the Foot Clinic, for instance. And if your age and stage in life has meant that some of the things you used to do, or would like to be doing are no longer possible, then please be assured that your ongoing prayers and encouragement are vital to the morale of those who are able to be more active.
Martin and I have noticed that in the community in which we live (Bryndwr) we never see a whole portion of our community (that which lies North-west of our house) in our favourite coffee place. We ponder this quite often – is it the cost of coffee, is it what those who do go there – us, represent to those with less? Perhaps they don’t like coffee, or us! Where do they gather then, if they do and would we be welcome there? The whole point of our keeping buildings at both Bryndwr and Papanui is so that we have bases from which to connect with our communities – to share what we have with them, our time, our care, our resources. We have enough barns now, so we are about trying to find our way into communities where we can share our treasures – you. We don’t have to go there to tell them how to get out of their difficulties – by making right choices etc. while we make bad judgements of them. We go there to journey with them, to share the unconditional love of God with them by being the unconditional love of God alongside them.