Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Poverty and Abundance

“Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’” (Luke 21:1-4)

Recently, my sister, Carla, wrote a post on her blog which was titled A Call to Action. It’s a wonderful meditation on the activity of love. She writes:

“If your partner is ill, love is a call to action. Love wakes parents up in the middle of the night. It caused a man I know to risk tenure because his mom was sick half way across the country in Cleveland. It invited my friends to discover the bottomless depths of their generosity and compassion. Yes. Yes. Love is not so much a feeling as an alarm bell, a runner's gun, a reminder that we are only as good as the good we do for one another.

Love is not so much a feeling as a call to action.”

Regular readers of this blog will know that my sister has ALS. Carla faces everyday with the knowledge that her time for action in this world is limited. She cannot use her legs or her hands. She has round-the-clock caretakers who wash her and feed her and get her dressed. And yet, through all this, she remains a woman of action.

Carla is endlessly creative. She has turned her confrontation with death into a work of art. She writes a beautiful blog. She doesn’t just use a wheelchair, she transforms it. She has decorated it, and the van in which she now travels, with colorful, funny, completely irreverent, and appropriately inappropriate images of her experiences.

In recent weeks she has been putting together her latest brainchild—a pinup calendar featuring regular people with ALS in provocative poses to raise money and awareness for ALS. It’s going to be called the Always Looking Sexy Calendar, and even though she is confined to a wheelchair and tires easily, Carla has coordinated the activity of models and photographers, printers and publicists from different parts of the country to get this project completed for the holiday season. It would be a daunting project for someone with full capacity and energy. Like many creative people, she’s a little crazy, but this allows her to throw herself into such a project and make it happen.

Whenever I read the story of the widow’s gift from the Gospel of Luke quoted above, I think of my sister. Whatever she does, she gives it all she has and all she is. She lives what she writes – that love is a call to action. One of the things that she loves the most is life itself, and her creative activity is one of the ways that she cares for life.

Last winter, after my wife had come home from the hospital following emergency surgery, Carla offered to come out to help take care of our family. She was already in a wheelchair and had very limited mobility. “I can’t do much,” she said, “but I’ll do whatever I can.” She didn’t have much she could do, or much she could give, “but she out of her poverty put in all she had.” She’s crazy like that.

And isn’t that the point of the gospel story? The widow’s poverty—like my sister’s—is, in reality, abundance because it is full of love. The abundance of the rich, really poverty if it is devoid of love.

I remember when I was a little boy getting into situations which seemed to me at the time scary or panic-worthy, like having soap in my eye that stung me, or getting my pants leg caught in my bike chain that I couldn’t get out so I was unable to get back home to safety. I remember in those situations crying and calling for help. Inevitably, it was Carla who would appear out of nowhere to see if I was okay. Rarely, did she get angry at me, but with simple caring and compassion she would rescue me and bring me back home.

In stating that love is a call to action, Carla has touched on the thing that Karen Armstrong finds is the root of all the major religions, that is, compassion:

The religions are forms of ethical alchemy, if you like. That you behave in a compassionate way and this changes you. Why? Because all the great masters of religion tell us that what keeps us from a knowledge of the divine, from — which has been called variously God, Nirvana, Brahman, the sacred — what keeps us from this ultimate reality is our own egotism, our greed, that often needs to destroy others in order to preserve its sense of self, or even just to denigrate others. What compassion does, it makes us dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there. And it's this that they all teach leads us into the presence of the divine.”

Carla’s version is immediate and imperative:

“If you knew you were going to die, who would you want to be with and how would you spend your time together? What are you waiting for? From my vantage point I can see that there is no time to delay -no time to deny the people we love of our time, our attention or our action.”

Carla’s love is an active love. I have known it from the time I was a small boy. For this I am grateful. For this I am blessed.

I love you, Carla.

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