Learning to abound…

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“I have learned how to abound…”

What an amazing statement. We are far more likely to major on other parts of Paul’s paragraph (All things through Christ! The Secret of Content! Peace amidst Poverty! – to pick three online sermon titles from the passage), but here it is, in all its generous optimism: “I have learned …to abound…”

So: two simple questions. First, HOW do I learn to abound? Second, what IS it, to live an abounding life?

I learn to abound, in the first place, by acknowledging the truth of those sermon titles. They pick up some vital points from Paul’s letter. Here’s the passage in Philippians 4: 11-13:

“I am not saying this out of need, for I have learned to be content regardless of my circumstances. I know how to live humbly, and I know how to abound. I am accustomed to any and every situation — to being filled and being hungry, to having plenty and having need. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.…”

Paul recognises the exigencies of his own circumstances. He talks about them quite frankly, but he does not allow them to rule him. That is to say, it’s one thing to acknowledge that you have bills that need to be paid, but it’s another to turn the need into a niggle, into something that you fret and become anxious about.

How can he do that? Only through Christ who gives him strength. And Christ said, quite explicitly,  not to worry on any account. Here’s Matthew 6:25-34::

 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?”  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

And there it is, the powerful, life-transforming “secret of Paul’s success.” “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 

That’s the first lesson in how I learn to abound, in a nutshell. I trust God.I seek His kingdom FIRST (i.e., before my own ambitions and plans come into play!).

So, second, what does that lifestyle look like?

I have just finished reading a short story called The Emancipation of Aunt Lucretia, which tells of a maiden Aunt who lives her whole live under the thumb of her sister and her niece. On to the scene comes a long-absent cousin whom the unpleasant pair decide to despise, not knowing that he is now fabulously wealthy, and longing for family. The two refuse to meet him, and so the story relates how the unlikely underdog, Aunt Lucretia, becomes the sole recipient of his generosity and is liberated from her bondage. The slave has been emancipated.

But she has to learn how to abound. At every turn, she can’t quite believe her good fortune, doesn’t believe herself worthy of it, and anticipates the time when her oppressors will take it all away.

What she comes to realise is that she has not merely come into good fortune and into a comfortable lifestyle, but that she now also has a protector (in the nephew) who is insistent that justice will be done, and that the aunt is kept safe from accusation and intimidation.

It’s a very happy ending.

That’s exactly what happens when Jesus comes into your life. He comes bearing gifts, like a generous guest. “All I have needed,his hand has provided.” He does not stint at all. He really really desires your good: “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

The famous story (in Luke 15) that we call “The Prodigal Son” really has two sons who are at a distance from their father. The youngest, the guy who goes crazy with the beer and skittles, is the one who demands his inheritance, and runs off on a spending spree. When the money runs out and he comes to his senses, he makes his repentant way home. According to the story, he creates a geographical distance that has to be overcome. It’s “a long way” home.

The older son never budges. He works the farm, and does his chores. Happy as Larry, apparently. Until Larry comes home and Dad throws a party for the errant kid. “We have to celebrate!” Dad says. And then all his resentment boils over, and you realise just what has been steaming inside him all these years. “Why are you so nice to him, who has turned you grey with worry, and never take any account of me? I never had a party.” You can almost see the pout.

The father’s reply is fascinating. “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” So, in the case of the older son, the distance is purely emotional. He is there all the time, but they have “lost touch.”

And the story ends at this intriguing point. The way Jesus tells it, there is no “happy ever after” with the family reunited and enjoying the barbecue together. Will you come in and enjoy the party?

It’s a question that continues to intrigue me. The context of the story, of course, explains its purpose. Jesus was roaming the hills and villages of first century Palestine with a swelling crowd of followers. There was a massive gush of expectation about who he was and what he was doing: there were reports of astonishing miracles and his stories must have spread like wildfire. The “common people heard him gladly” as the Bible puts it.

But there were others who heard him not so gladly. These are variously classified as “the scribes and Pharisees” or  ”the religious leaders.” They saw him as a threat to their position, as someone who entirely lacked credentials  and yet mocked their pretensions of authority, piety and God-fearing-ness.

And so here are the two sons. First, the disreputable rabble who have wandered far from God, are now welcomed home with a riot of noise and pleasure (like having a party for 30 five-year-olds in your living room). Don’t worry! Father God loves you! ENJOY! Yaay!

And the other lot. Standing at the edges with slightly sour faces. They already know all the theology and are professional religious leaders. They have standing in the community, and a role to protect these innocent and slightly foolish people from con-men and charlatans. Besides, it’s their job to teach and preach. They ask awkward questions which Jesus bats off with a grin, never losing step, never losing focus on God and his love.

So Jesus poses a question back. You already know the Father. Everything he has is yours already. But will you come in and enjoy the party? Or not? Will you enjoy my abundance?

Sadly, it seems that their very knowledge of God has turned into self-importance. Jesus said that it was if they stood at the door with the key, not going in themselves and not letting anyone else in.

Maybe this is why God has to keep doing new things. Maybe this is why there’s a million denominations. Simply because, we forget to enjoy him. We know all the words but have forgotten the song.

Or in a different metaphor, (from “Lord of the Dance”): “I am the dance and the dance goes on…” If you stop it over here, it will simply spring up over there.

I have spent most of my adult life as a pastor in various churches. So I guess I’m a professional religious leader myself. It’s a slightly worrying thought in the light of this story! And the two sons are evident in the story of my life. There is always a level of friction between outsiders and insiders, between evangelistic and pastoral ministry.

To be honest, it sometimes feels as though nearly all my energy goes into persuading older brothers to lighten up.

Ever had that experience in a restaurant when there’s a table just over there with a bunch of people laughing at something that you can’t hear? Don’t you just want to go over and join them?

Me too.

For this is what the “abounding life” looks like. It looks like laughter and grace. It is easy-going, relaxed and warm. It is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  All this is the natural consequence ofl iving where Jesus is. 

Stev Brown said: “If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church: it is simply a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis. If there is no celebration, there is no real worship.”

Jesus is at the table where all the laughing is going on. Jesus is the returning cousin who comes to celebrate family with his wallet wide open. He is life,and health and peace! He is everything. And so, as Steve went on to say: “You ought to live your life with such freedom and joy that uptight Christians will doubt your salvation.”

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