2016…a brand new year…entirely dependent on the 2015+ years that came before it.
“You want to talk about reality? We haven’t lived in anything remotely close to it since the turn of the century.”–Mr. Robot
…Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.–Matthew 6:12
I had two goals for the 33rd year of my life: 1) get healthy, 2) get out of debt. That first part…it’s a moving target. I can be proud of certain accomplishments and changes (i.e. cooking at home more, increasing my vegetable and fruit intake, decreasing the number of times a week pizza is ingested, running (!)), and there are other things I could be doing better with (i.e. using chicken nuggets as a delivery system for mayonnaise). As I’ve begun getting more active about my own health, I’ve begun to understand the process as just that…a process…little changes over the long run can make a huge impact, even though I may not notice a lot of change from one day to another. Living as healthily as possible is a life-long goal/struggle, and it depends entirely upon setting up a series of daily choices and actions that lead to devouring healthy calories and burning them off at a regular rate, while increasing my lung capacity and strengthening my heart. And also there’s something called “the core,” and it is also important. And stretching. There’s a lot that goes into it.
Then there’s the second thing, which I actually find more interesting: Debt. Climbing out of debt. I went to college at a small liberal arts school, then attended a small graduate school in New England. I’m something between a public servant and an independent contractor for non-profit organizations. I live in one of the most expensive and unequal cities in the country, and recently bought a car. I’ve got some debt. What I was shocked to discover is that when you pay attention to how you are spending your money (and then you stop doing most of those things you’re paying attention to), it’s actually pretty easy to do…that is, if you’re blessed as I am to have a well-paying job and a huge network of support in generous friends, family, and parishioners. I’m currently on track to be out of all my major debt (excluding the new car) within the next couple years. That’s a huge thing. In a sense, it’s all working the way it was supposed to. The money that I didn’t have while getting through school is coming back to me now and allowing me to pay off what I borrowed, and spend the rest of my life collecting more money and getting further ahead.
Richard Rohr has pointed out that when Jesus teaches his followers the prayer that we commonly refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer,” the word recorded in scripture translates to “debts” and this is for a very specific reason. Rohr writes, “Bread and debt are the preoccupation, the entire life, of the peasant class. how do I have food for tomorrow and how do I pay my bills?…How does the burden of debt–the personal debt people carry in our consumer society, the national debt carried by particularly Third World countries–keep people imprisoned in their own history?” (excerpted from Rohr’s book Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount)
Those who feel the weight of crushing debt are in danger of being “imprisoned in their own history,” as compound interest and chronic underemployment traps poor and working class people (the MAJORITY of humanity) in a cycle of servitude to their creditors. Those who do not feel imprisoned by their own, individual financial debt have a different danger…they run the risk of thinking that they are indebted to no one. This is a fallacy.
Everything you are, and everything you have, is all thanks to someone getting here first and preparing it for you. For some of us, that looked like parents who scrimped and saved in order to give us a financial leg up in the world. For some of us, it looked like systems and institutions that were established over the course of decades and centuries that presented opportunities for us to take advantage of at the right moment. For all of us, it looks like the history of human civilization caring for and tending to their own responsibilities so that there was something to pass on to those of us who are here now. Whether you have eliminated your own financial debts, or your entire adult life relies on one line of credit to pay off another…you eat from plants that were planted by someone else, you live on streets and in houses and in a nation built by those who came before, you benefit every day from a Created World that has taken at least 4 billion years to produce the circumstances in which you currently live.
We live in such debt to those who have come before…that we will never possibly be able to pay back in our own lifetimes. And that’s ok…because no one is asking us to. We trust that God forgives our debts, sets us free from our own history, so that we can create a new and glorious future. And that’s where our hard work comes in: We are expected to pass that same gift on to those who come after us…to make possible a world of opportunity for which future generations can be grateful…rather than imprisoned by our shortfalls.
I think the one thing I do regularly in my life that makes the most difference in the world–I’m not even kidding–is holding a door open for strangers. If you want to see someone smile and be genuinely, heart-wrenchingly, excited and grateful in the middle of their busy day…just hold a door open for them. It never fails to amaze me how much this means to people. It’s such a simple gesture. How much work does it require to pull a door open? Not much. How excited are people when someone goes out of their way to hold a door open for them…to notice them…to participate in easing their pathway through life in even a simple way? SO EXCITED! I’ve literally seen people who are so caught up in their own muttering and negativity that they look like they will burst into flames transformed into gregarious and preciously thankful individuals–if only for a moment–all because I took the time to say, “Here you go,” and usher them inside ahead of me.
It’s entirely possible that you were put here on this earth to do nothing more than hold a door open for someone who has yet to arrive…and if you are willing to do it, then you are a hero. While you’re waiting for them, take time to be thankful for all those who held doors open just for you.
Let’s stop pretending that our own personal affairs are either our own or merely personal. Let’s begin understanding life for what it is–relentlessly interconnected and interdependent–and engage in the meaningful and consequential work of being responsible to more than our own bottom line. Every tree cut down is one that future generations don’t get to shade under. Every gallon of gas burned turns into 200 pounds of carbon dioxide that is compounded to our environmental ledger for at least the next 100 years. Every non-renewable resource we consume takes away from the possibilities of future generations, and makes it more likely that they will be imprisoned by our history.
Gracious God, let me hold the door open for those on their way, as it was held open for me. Amen.