Scarcity Lies

In the Western Christian world, last week we walked through the most sacred week of the calendar year. Scripture paints a drama: from excitement and dreams of a new triumph on Palm Sunday to the bitter death of those particular dreams by Friday afternoon. When the women come on Easter morning to tend to the dead body in the tomb, by one account the resurrected Jesus is mistaken for a gardener. So compelling is the lie of scarcity that even in the presence of the most amazing display of abundance, it is so easy to get hooked.

One need not reach very far to identify many illustrations of scarcity in my current USAmerican social environment, or, indeed, in many other parts of the world. Increased economic pressure on China by my country’s government is being responded to in kind, which is being attributed in part for a major stock sell-off (alongside lower-than-expected job and mediocre wage growth).

And that’s just considering the economy. Students of color remain stubbornly entrenched in a school-to-prison pipeline, the President has found yet another culture war to attempt to leverage; in Germany continued political infighting threatens the governing coalition in that country, while in Cape Town, South Africa, a water crisis threatens to demonstrate what happens when a global level municipality runs out of water later this year.

That is why I needed Good Friday this year. Every year I attend an Episcopal parish not far from my home for their Good Friday evensong liturgy. While my own United Church of Christ does have some examples of congregations that engage in traditional, formal liturgy, it is not generally the case — and having been formed in part in high church Lutheran liturgy in my upbringing, there are certain times of the liturgical year when my soul is most fed by that deep well. The Improperia on Good Friday is one of those times, and this particular parish uses a setting for the reproaches with language that haunts me to my core:

My people: what have I done to you? Why are you tired of me? Answer me!

In some ways, this year, it was simple for me to answer: because it’s easier.

It’s easier to be tired of teaching that challenges surrounding socialization.

It’s easier to take on the mantle of victim, rather than acknowledge the complicity with perpetrator.

It’s easier to do that which satisfies oneself rather than that which promotes the collective whole.

Scarcity lies, and I know it. And it lies in a way that is so delicious, so insidious. Scarcity is a drug more addictive than any other, and that’s what makes it sin. Because it’s so believable, even when you know better.

I was reminded of this two days ago on my commute home. As I walked from my office to the train station, I passed a young man — at the oldest, he may have been 19 or 20. He was standing on the boulevard between the sidewalk and road, so I would walk directly in front of him. I noticed that he had a number of bags surrounding him along with a single bedroll. Given that he looked so young, and the shirt he was wearing was still so white, it was clear that his time on the street had not yet been for very long.

As soon as I got near him he asked me for the time, which I looked at and gave him. Walking away he called out and asked if I had an extra bus pass — I told him no and continued walking. Today, however, I couldn’t get his image out of my mind. Walking up to the fare gates, I paused, noticing the enterprising man with the food cart to my left. I walked over to him and bought a bottle of water, then walked back to the man on the sidewalk.

I returned to the man on the sidewalk to give him the bottle of water, and I asked where he was trying to go. It wasn’t very far, and in a spot where he could have used the train or the bus. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but my mind had already made up the decision to pay for this young man to get to where he was going — and at first, I was trying to talk him into using the train. The way the BART system works gave me the “assurance” (for whatever it was worth) that he would use the ticket for getting to that particular station. Using the bus didn’t have the same metric of control.

Control. Scarcity’s enabling partner.

I asked the young man his name while I fished all the single $1 bills out of my pocket. We had a brief conversation, and I wished him well on his journey. The $4 I was able to give to him won’t get him far. Combined with the cost of the bottle of water, we’re talking $5.50 — or less than .00007 percent of my income in the past year. It’s far less than the cost of wasted food from my own kitchen in six months’ time.

Abundance and hope aren’t always big things. Scarcity teaches us they are, that small acts don’t matter, that they are futile up against the big challenges.

But isn’t that part of the excitement we held on to on Palm Sunday? Part of the dramatic wonder and transformation of Jesus’ appearance to Mary that first Easter morning?

I don’t know if the young man took the money and used it on bus far. I likely won’t ever see him again to ask. But in that one moment, that one place, our lives encountered one another. Rather than take the easy, simple way out — the way of scarcity and its lies — I accepted the invitation to lean into abundance. It was small and seemingly inconsequential, it challenged so many of the norms with which I am encultured. It wasn’t particularly easy — it forced me out of my normal patterns and routines.

And yet, it gave me hope and reminded me of Easter abundance. And, for a few moments, I was able to encounter another part of God’s own expression.

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