Shepherdess With Her Flock by Julien Dupree (1851-1910)
In the United States we have a national myth called “The American Dream,” which says that with hard work people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and achieve the blessings of prosperity. In his book American Dreams in Mississippi, historian Ted Ownby identifies four dreams created by American consumer culture: the “Dream of Abundance” (materialism), the “Dream of a Democracy of goods” (economic equality), the “Dream of Freedom of Choice” (individualism), and the “Dream of Novelty” (newer is better). The mobility provided by affordable automobiles like Ford’s Model T allowed even those of modest means the ability to pursue these illusive dreams.
But is having an abundance of material possessions what the good life is all about? If economic prosperity satisfied people’s needs, then explain why the richest countries in the world have the highest suicide rates and the poorest countries, the lowest.
Maybe the good life isn’t a product of net worth or possessions but family. Country singer Kenny Chesney’s 2002 number one hit “The Good Stuff” celebrates the family and places the highest value on relationships. In the song a bartender who has lost his wife to cancer explains how he overcame his addiction to alcohol by remembering how much his family meant to him:
He said I spent five years in the bottle when the
cancer took her from me
But I’ve been sober three years now
’Cause the one thing stronger than the whiskey
Was the sight of her holdin’ my baby girl
The way she adored that string of pearls
I gave her the day that our youngest boy Earl married
his high school love
It’s a new t-shirt sayin’ I’m a grandpa
Bein’ right there as our time got small
And holdin’ her hand when The Good Lord called her up
Yeah man, that’s the good stuff
Family is certainly important, it’s important to me, but what if you have no family or your family is abusive or dysfunctional? Is the “good stuff” only for those who get married, stay married, and live to see their grandchildren? Can singles and the childless not experience the good life? I’m not trying to belittle family or bash the song, but there’s gotta be something more than your family circumstances that accounts for happiness and fulfilment in life.
At the end of the Gospel reading for this Sunday (John 10:1-10), Jesus says, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10b). This statement is nestled between two parables, Christ the Door and the Good Shepherd, and each parable contains one of the seven “I am” sayings of Jesus. In the first story Jesus tells about sheep and the shepherd, abundance depends upon the sheep recognizing their shepherd’s voice and following him out of the shepfold. Mixing his metaphors, Jesus identifies himself both as the shepherd—the Good Shepherd (10:11)—and the “door” or “gate” to the sheepfold (10:9). In the passage we learn that the shepherd’s purpose is to give his own sheep abundant life, but curiously neither Jesus nor the John tells us exactly what it is.
By extending the metaphor we could presume that abundant life is like a sheep being led into peaceful meadows to chomp on fresh, green grass. Psalm 23 comes to mind: “he maketh me to lie down in green pastures” (2a). But he never comes out and says exactly what this peaceful life looks like for his followers, for real people like you and me.
He does make clear that the abundant life is something we can have here and now. We don’t have to wait until we die to get it. It’s also clear that it depends upon following Jesus. But consider what happened to those who followed God most faithfully. Cain murdered righteous Abel. Job lost everything he had: his wealth, his children, and even his health. God made Hosea marry a whore. John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod. Peter was crucified. Paul was beheaded in Rome. Tradition tells us that almost all of the Apostles met a martyr’s death. So either Jesus was wrong or the abundant life doesn’t guarantee wealth, family, health, or even physical safety.
So what is the abundant life? I think that’s the wrong question. It’s not a matter of what? but who? The abundant life is knowing Jesus. I don’t mean walking down an aisle and saying a prayer—what we Baptists call “gettin’ saved”—though that may be a part of it. (You can walk down the aisle, say wedding vows, and be legally married without having a relationship with your spouse.) Knowing Jesus is personal, spiritual, and life changing. If the thought of having Jesus alone disappoints us, if we think it’s not enough to make us happy and fulfilled, then we don’t know Jesus.
I’ve often sung the hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus” but do I really mean it? Would I rather have Jesus than material possessions, family, health, and safety? Do I want him more than I want my goals and dreams to be fulfilled? Do you?