Joe’s Abundant Life

If an abundant life is one lived by soul in a spirit of love, what does my abundant life look like?

When I Defined Abundance

I spent most of June 2020 sitting on my front porch. I was on a COVID induced furlough from the retail job that keeps my son and I insured. Beyond avoiding COVID, I spent a good portion of the month reading James Cone’s work on Black Liberation Theology. Cone originally wrote while engaging in theological reflection on the Black Power movement of the late 60’s. It was my way of standing in solidarity with the grievances brought forward by the Black Lives Matter movement. As synchronicity would have it, as the month began, I first heard about indigenous landscaping. Then, towards the end of the month, Nouwen’s essay on power and love shook my world.

These learnings came together at the perfect time for me. They answered questions I began asking after I reimagined both God and myself while working on my dissertation in 2015. However, it would take the rest of 2020 for me to begin to understand the shape of my abundant life. So as I understand it, what does it mean for me to live by soul in a spirit of love?

Who Am I?

A few years ago a dear friend described me as someone with an academic mind and a pastoral heart. Others, some intending it as a complement and others as an insult, have called me a storyteller. On the Enneagram I’m a four. This makes me something of a creative and a romantic with a need to stand out in a crowd. It also means I have a gift for finding the redemptive value in any experience. But how does that all come together to shape what it means for me to live by soul?

Hafiz and Me

In early September 2020, my spiritual director introduced me to a poem by the Sufi mystic Hafiz:

the small man
builds cages for everyone
he
knows,
while the sage,
who has to duck his head
when the moon is low,
keeps dropping keys all night long
for
the
beautiful
rowdy
prisoners.

In the following months, I allowed the imagery of that poem to sit with me. The first thing I realized is that, at least in our times, most people fail to realize they are prisoners. So built cages for themselves. The systems of this world entrapped others. Many dwell in cages within cages. But however they got there, the majority fails to realize they are imprisoned by a spirit of power. This means keys could rain down all night long but nobody would pick them up. The prisoners, far from being beautiful and rowdy, are subdued. They constantly craft how others see them hoping to avoid the ache of being known.

In order for those in cages to find freedom, someone needs to come along and rattle the cages. Those who are imprisoned need to be woken up to the fact that they’re bound. Discontent needs to be stirred and perspectives need to be challenged.

Joe’s abundant life means rattling cages and dropping keys.
Photo by Ahnaf Piash on Unsplash

My Abundant Life

I see the world from unique angles. I find great pleasure in challenging the status quo. Some personality assessments label me a maverick. Others say that when I am at my best I am a reformer or, even better, a revolutionary. Moreover, I use stories, often from my own life, to introduce these new ideas. In other words, I am, from the very core of my being, a cage rattler. I love to use my academic mind in the task of stirring up prisoners to a state of beautiful rowdiness.

But I also have that pastoral heart. I lived as a prisoner, and know that pain. Being oblivious to your imprisonment drains the soul. Knowing you dwell in a cage is torture. So the last thing I want to do is leave people in their cages. It does not matter that prisoners are beautiful they are when rowdy. I need to invite them to freedom. But I can only invite them. To break free from power and embrace love, the prisoner must unlock the cage. The prisoner is the only one who can open the door and step out.

So after shaking the cage and stirring up the prisoners, I drop keys. Keys are invitations to believe there is another way. Sometimes this means I model living by love. At other times I embrace those who are brave enough to expose their true selves. I create a condemnation free spaces that invite people to explore their blind spots without fear.

So what does my abundant life look like? I’m a cage rattler and key dropper. I invite those who live imprisioned by power to find their own abundant life.

This Series

This post is part of a five-part series introducing a big picture take on faith. They are the foundation for everything brought to the crafting table by Abundance Reconstructed. Here are links to the whole series:

A Spirit of Love

If an abundant life is one lived by soul in a spirit of love , what is a spirit of love?

Power is Native, Love is Foreign

In the previous episode I explored the idea of living by spirit and the spirit that dominates life in this world, power. A spirit of power is so pervasive in this life that we simply assume it is the way things are. Power is akin to the parable offered by David Foster Wallace in his essay, This is Water. It tells of two fish swimming along talking when a third fish swims by and says, “Enjoy the water.” The first two fish pause, look at one another, and once the fish going the other way is out of earshot, they as each other, “What’s water?”

In other words, power is so ubiquitous we do not even notice it and it is difficult to even imagine another way of being. That is why the second spirit Nouwen identifies, the spirit of love, is so radical and terrifying. While power often leaves us trying to craft who others consider us to be, love is “based on the mutuality of the confession of our total self to each other” (29). Living by a spirt of love means a life of genuine embrace. But an embrace cannot be genuine until you dare to be seen and insist on seeing others.

You can read the Bible through a spirt of power or a spirit of love.
Photo by Emmanuel Phaeton on Unsplash

A Spirit of Love

So what does living in a spirit of love look like?

On one hand, living in a spirit of love means we seek to disempower shame as we not only invite but gently press others towards absolute vulnerability. By taking shames power we can maneuver around the typical protective mechanisms of defending, excusing, explaining, and rationalizing the uglier side of our stories (I picked up this acronym from Robert Glover). It also means pressing others to explore blind spots that limit perspective. When done well, this means the full ugliness of someone’s story is on the table, and in that moment, where they feel the most unlovable and exposed, they experience embrace.

It is important to note that this isn’t a minimizing of wrongs done or a dismissal of consequences, rather it is letting someone know that even in the worst moment of their story, they are still worthy of love.

But because living in a spirit of love involves mutuality, it does not just invite this behavior like an exceptional therapist, it models it. It takes the risk of potential rejection and believes that despite our own darkness, that we too are worthy of love.

Love is Hard

I have to admit, it is difficult for me to say these words. While I have spent years inviting others to step into this vulnerable space, it is only in the past couple years that I have begun to reciprocate the same vulnerability. For years I only offered enough of myself to give the illusion of being truly exposed. And that is before reflecting on my many blind spots which come the societal advantages I experience as a straight white male.

In other words, as much as I want to live in a spirit of love, I still struggle because of my own battles with shame and my inability to see the world beyond my privileged perspective. Perhaps that why Nouwen considers it nothing less than a conversion to become aware that living in a spirit of love is even possible.

Faith, Power, and Love

While I have avoided talk of any religious tradition in this introductory series, it is time to make a few important points.

  • Whenever faith is dogmatized, it becomes a religion. Religions operate according to power. Religions craft the divine so God looks like us.
  • Because God is love, God relates to humanity in a spirit of love.
  • Throughout the Bible, God invites humanity into the struggle between the spirits of power and love.
  • A spirit of love will ultimately win. This is what Dr. Martin Luther King meant when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The Bible and a Spirit of Love

In the Bible, we most clearly see the divine operating in a spirit of love through Jesus. Jesus came to reject the way of power and demonstrate the way of love. Moreover, it is because a spirit of love most benefits those who lose under a spirit of power, that Jesus was crucified.

But I do not see this distinction only in the teachings of Jesus. I think this is also what sets apart the Sufi and Jewish mystics from other streams of the Islamic and Jewish traditions. It is what streams of Buddhism invite us to embrace as well. But I tend to talk about it from the Bible because that is the ancient text that most captures my heart.

However, before I delve specifically into the Bible, I want to share what it means for me personally to live by soul in a spirit of love.spirit of love.

This Series

This post is part of a five-part series introducing a big picture take on faith. They are the foundation for everything brought to the crafting table by Abundance Reconstructed. Here are links to the whole series: