I met a woman once, a lovely woman who lived her life and wanted the best for herself and her family. She lived in a particular neighbourhood that was somewhat impoverished, a street within a suburb dedicated to social or public housing. It came with stereotypes and expectations – and discrimination. It was a nice street and the people there were mixed. There were neighbours who were mixed up, confused and struggling. There were others who had it more together. Some had lived there for years and others newly arrived.
She told me her story. It took courage to tell this outsider her story and trust herself to this conversation. I was somewhat naïve I suppose but listened with intent. Really there wasn’t a whole lot of difference to her neighbourhood than those around where I lived except more of us lived in homes our families owned or rented privately. She told me of her background, and that of her husband. Good times, hard times but formed within a culture of certain hardships and expectations. She played down education as the institutions of her life were always challenging and harsh – perhaps not to be trusted. She left school when she could with the basics in place, but little more, as did her husband. No-one in their respective families had ever really engaged with the school system and there were certain suspicions and expectations, beliefs that they could not and would not overcome. School was for smart people, other people but not them. They met, married and moved into social housing because that is what you did. Their parents, grandparents and most friends had done this. It was normal. They moved between work they could find and unemployment but that too, was expected for who would really want to employ them. Their parents, grandparents and other relatives had lived with unemployment and the pattern was well-formed within them. What else would they expect? Sadly, her husband really did want a job but no-one would give him one.
She talked, I listened, and I came away with an appreciation of the life she lived, hard at times, painful and joyful, in equal measure. There were friends in the street and one over and there were those they didn’t like and didn’t relate to at all. The general way of dealing with those you don’t like is to move, but they wouldn’t – yet. They found their neighbours a few houses down a mystery, a lovely mystery because they were ministers and they broke all the expectations of everything. They had two cars, which made them seem rich but no VCR, which made them sound poor. They cared for people and had no enemies, even when others talked about them.
I thought of this as I read through some interesting readings for this week (Luke 12:13-21). There’s a story about a man running up to Jesus and asking him to make his brother deal with the inheritance issues fairly. Jesus refused and told a story about a man who accumulated grains and built bigger and bigger barns to store everything up so he could relax and enjoy himself. It was at that point, says Jesus, that he died. Interestingly I pondered whether his death was symbolic and metaphorical or physical. I wondered what it meant and a couple of us chewed it over. My colleague suggested that it made him ask: ‘What gives meaning to our life?’ What is it that defines our lives and to what do we give ourselves? This woman and her family were defined by the cultural and familial expectations of the world they inhabited. It was a world of low expectations and poor self-esteem. It was a world of little education and relatively no ambition – well none of the ambition generally applied to those with aspirational thinking. They never expected to be anyone important because no-one ever thought they could be. Their world was small and confined but they lived within that world-view and did their thing. I didn’t find her especially unhappy or upset with her lot in life. She made the most of it and found joyful moments, alongside the difficult ones. She yearned for other things but this was her life.
I confess that this woman wasn’t less happy and content than many others I have met who have had much, much more in terms of privilege, wealth and power. She got money in, bought the necessary things, splurged the very little left over and enjoyed it. I have met others who are indebted up to the hilt with big homes and bigger mortgages who cannot afford to furnish the multitude of rooms in this McMansion and are only one crisis away from losing everything as the economy rocks and rolls and their own precarious grasp on employment waxes and wanes as the company they depend upon moves through cycles of structure and restructure. They live with more worry and fear, still believing that happiness will be connected with more and more.
What does give our lives meaning? What defines who we are and what we expect from life? Where do we turn for expected joy or hope or contentment? Do we expect it? All of us are formed through the culture, experiences and expectations of family, friends, culture and increasingly, media. We take on subconscious expectations never really aware of what is directing us and nurturing our appetites. We are seduced by addictive possibilities, some acceptable and others taboo, and give ourselves over to symbols of ultimate meaning and hope. Whether we sit for hours before the pokies expecting a big win at any moment, or flutter on the horses in a bid to make a motza and solve all our problems. Perhaps, work fills our agenda, time and effort or the hobby that takes every last moment and cent we have. Perhaps we yearn for power, control and fame and yearn to be known and honoured, universally loved and showered with adulation – and the expected wealth that must surely follow. Everything around us has possibility and potential and can be a reflection of the deep beauty at the heart of all things. Everything around us can also become an idol in our hands, usurping the power and possibility to which it points and to ultimately define and contain us, tying us in knots and slowly draining life and hope from us.
The man who wanted Jesus’ intervention betrays the dysfunction of his family and his own inability to relate to his brother or deal with his brother well and honestly. He wants someone else to take his responsibility. The man in Jesus’ story is so absorbed in himself and his ownership that he becomes disconnected from everything (including the earth that grew the grain!) and everyone. He dies within himself.
Jesus’ invitation is to cast off the things that falsely define us and find deeper being and reality in the source or everything, the One who gives and sustains all life. Paul tells us, ‘There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! In the eternal Christ, all things find themselves in their rich and full reality of being. This is deeply relational, grounded in profound love, grace, justice, peace, joy and hope – for all!