Reflections on enough

I still remember the day that my fellow student Joe Vohlers died. News spread quickly on campus, and we set aside textbooks to gather in cramped dorm rooms, televisions blaring. We were stunned. Joe had keeled over suddenly from heart trouble, gone from the popular crowd to — dead, all in one day.

That evening I was searching for meaning. Reading the Bible, I came across Psalm 73, which in its sociological critique and spiritual skepticism remains one of my favorites. At the end, the bard sings,

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever…
As for me, it is good to be near God. (Psalms 73:26, 28a).

What does it mean for God to be the strength of our hearts, I wondered, even while they fail?

Retirement?

Judy* got home from work last week and began sorting the mail, as I microwaved my dinner. Laughing, she commented that her 87-year-old stepmother recently got a new boyfriend.

“They live in a good retirement community,” Judy says, preparing for another evening of leveling up her skills. “Of course I’ll never have that–but she had my father’s pension.”

Perhaps Judy won’t retire. Perhaps I won’t. Our futures seem to depend on precarious work, volatile markets, unsteady property values, uncertain safety nets.

I’ve just moved from a small town to the Bay area, and the social divisions couldn’t be more stark. Some people bought homes in the ’70s and are cashing in, earning a thousand dollars a month for each room they rent out. Others are driven from their homes by the same rising prices. Homeless folks waver and rant in the Berkeley streets. Professional families try to afford housing and childcare on $200,000 a year. Everyone’s angling for a better foothold, adding a little more hustle.

This is madness.

What is Enough?

I know I think as an American. And I know we’re well off. But I find it easy–oh so easy–to worry about whether I’m keeping up with my peers. Yet that’s crazy, right? I’ve got an incredible job, a loving guy, a great family, the chance to travel the world, and more than enough of anything.

What more could I want?

And yet… there’s still a whisper that I could get more. In our winner-take-all society, when do we have enough?

I love the song above, and it’s worth listening to in full. But it’s so easy to forget. Instead of seeing enough, it’s easy to watch our playing fields tilt into a steep climb. To rush ahead, pushing each other, like Vizzini, to “Hurry up! Move the thing! And that other thing!”: 

We’re not sure if we’re gaining ground, or losing it. Not sure when we can finally stop. Not sure how to prepare for our future, and for those we love.

Inheritance

In her book Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden asks what it means to “inherit the kingdom of God.” If God offers an inheritance, it sounds like a bribe to us, she says, because we moderns

“accept having to make (our) own way in the world… An inheritance big enough to live on is a rare thing, but this seldom matters… It was very different for the ancients: inheritance was the defining fact for secure, respectable people” (34).

In an empire where most people depended on a few wealthy men, an inheritance was something few received. For Rome’s 99%, people like “slaves, freedmen, laborers, soldiers, wanderers, colonists, hucksters, prostitutes… artists, [and] entrepreneurs…

“inheriting was a fantasy of salvation” (35).

Ruden goes on to give amusing, bawdy quotes from ancient stories, which show that a financial windfall was a common fantasy then, even as my poorer friends now dream of winning the lottery.

What do we dream of, as our inheritance? What would save us?

My Portion

“God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever,” the singer wrote in that first song (Psalm 73).

That sounds all well and good, but a part of me doesn’t believe it. Religion doesn’t always come easily. I see it from inside and outside, with multiple eyes.

And yet some lines still echo in my mind, like these:

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,
Surely I have a delightful inheritance (Ps 16:6, NIV).

When I went to look these up, I was surprised to see Psalm 16 use the same word as Psalm 73, saying that God is our portion:

Lord, you are my chosen portion and my cup,
You secure my future [‘you hold my lot’].
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,
Surely I have a delightful inheritance (Ps 16:5-6).

What does that mean? I wondered.

I knew that Hebrew poetry uses parallelism, and so in these four lines we see repeating themes: life is uncertain, like a lottery. Perhaps we could worry, yet we choose to look to God. We look for the pleasant places we inhabit, and we appreciate the inheritance we have. 

Very zen. The Hebrew word here is cheleq, which James Pence says “can refer to someone’s share in a meal, part of a sacrifice, a soldier’s share of the plunder, or someone’s inheritance.” So God as our portion could be what we eat, what we receive for work, or even just a gift. And I particularly like the English Standard Version, which suggests that God is our “chosen portion.” He is not just what happens to us, but what we choose.

At other times, God is described as father, mother, lover, and friend. Yet these verses give us another story: when we’re not sure what is enough, we can also see God as our portion. Or as another singer writes,

Jésus, toi, la perle précieuse…
Tu es mon héritage
et tu me rassasies.
Tu es pour moi un trésor caché,
La perle précieuse, inestimable…

Tu es mon héritage.

You are my inheritance, the Hebrew bards sang, my chosen portion and my cup. Even when our flesh and our hearts may fail, we can choose God as our strength, and our portion forever.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*