If an abundant life is one lived by soul in a spirit of love, what is living by spirit?
The Trip that Changed Everything
It was early on a Tuesday morning in late June 2020 when I boarded the light rail train. From Denver’s Union Station it would take about 30-minutes to arrive at Denver International Airport. The train was largely empty and the ride was free, both in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was unsure about flying. At the same time, after more than two months off work, I felt compelled to step into any work available. This was especially true of work that paid well.
This particular job would bring me to the Oregon Coast. The next four days would be intense. A couple months earlier I officiated the funeral of a 28-year old who accidentally overdosed. Now his father wanted to engage in some additional processing. He fled with his girlfriend to his place of refuge, the Oregon Coast. He invited me to join them there.
The Essay that Changed Everything
I sat down on the train still unsure what I would do beyond being present. Opening my bag I looked at the books I decided to bring with me. I could not tell you why I brought them, just that each of them seemed to say, “Take me!” Now, as I looked at all of them, only one called out. I picked up Henri Nouwen’s book, Intimacy. The book is a collection of essays on what intimacy looks like in various settings. I’m not sure why I skimmed beyond the first essay as the train rumbled along, but I did. Perhaps because the second essay would change my life.
Nouwen’s second essay, The Challenge to Love, did more than shape our three days in Oregon. It continues to offer me a framework that helps make sense of faith and life. It is the essay that defines living by spirit.
I spent countless hours exploring the divine nature while writing my dissertation. For years I compiled an array of ideas on what spiritual formation looks like. I had all kinds of ideas on what an abundant life might looks like. What I lacked was an overarching container that allowed all the pieces to fit together. Then I read Nouwen’s words and everything fell into place.
Living By Spirit
Nouwen writes about “the two main forms of existing, the form of power and the form of love, or in other words, the taking form and the forgiving form” (23). I would describe these forms of existing as energies or spirits to live by. These spirits shape how we see and interact with the world.
Talking about power Nouwen writes:
We are judged, evaluated, tested, and graded, diagnosed, and classified from the time our parents compared our first walk with a little neighbor’s. Gradually, as time goes on, we realize that our permanent record is building its own life, independent of ours. It is really not so amazing that we often feel caught, taken, and used for purposes not our own. The main concern then becomes not who I am but who I am considered to be, not what I think, but what others think of me. In this taking existence, we find ourselves operating in terms of power, motivated by fear. (26)
A Spirit of Power
As I read those words, I see how power dictates so much of our world. Whether you are talking about business or religion, socially or in personal relationships. So many of us live under this constant sense of judgment and evaluation. Based on our appearance and performance we deem ourselves worthy or unworthy. To that end, power is the foundation of racism, sexism, and religious persecution. Social privilege extended to some on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, or socio-economic status, is a manifestation of power.
In some cases it’s about power over yourself. It’s about hard work and the discipline to accomplish your goals. Perhaps it is going to the gym when you really want to snack while sitting on the couch. If physical appearance isn’t your thing, it might be self-control when it comes to education, spending habits, or your emotions. Even addictions are often about an attempt to gain power over a chaotic inner world.
More often, abundance becomes about power over others. This can range from your position at work to your standing in social circles. It can focus on the acquisition and control of money, resources, or information. In the end, it is about you being in a position of independence with both security and control.
Abundance and Power
When we applying power to popular visions of abundance, it is clear that abundance is often about the acquisition power. It could be about someone who already has power seeking more. In other cases, the historically marginalized fight to gain power by gaining a seat at the table.
Power can be forceful and coercive. Power can also operate with a gentle manipulation that makes the oppressed and marginalized feel equal. But whatever form it takes and however it makes those without it feel, power is antithetical to a spirit of love. That’s what I will explore next.
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: