As I was walking through Kollen Park in Holland, Michigan along the shoreline of Lake Macatawa, I overtook a young mother and her two daughters. The younger daughter, maybe four years old, was forging ahead and the older daughter, maybe ten years old, was in conversation with her mother.
As I passed I heard the mother say, “Would you rather have one flower or twenty flowers.” I had no idea what in the conversation led to that question, but the older daughter answered, “I’d rather have twenty flowers,” and she looked in my direction.
I am never sure what social conventions govern walkers when they encounter one another, but if they make eye contact, then some response would seem to be required. Perhaps a “Hello” or “Nice morning isn’t it” or “Sure is humid today.” More than that would be an invasion of privacy.
Because the question about the number of flowers was so intriguing, my brain lit up with a riot of thoughts and concerns.
Here was a young girl for whom having twenty things seemed better than having just one thing, and she would be growing up in a culture that would endlessly reinforce this truth.
She would be bombarded with blandishments that buying and consuming goods was a sacrament infusing her with life and giving her joy. She would hear the peddlers saying, “This is the body and blood of the world broken and shed for you.” She would eventually marry and join neighbors who would fill their homes with the flotsam of this consumerist religion, then their garages, and finally their storage compartments on the outskirts of the city. She would fill every empty space in her domestic world and empty every full space in the natural world.
Would this young woman, I wondered, ever hear a counter truth, someone who would tell her that one thing in life could be more than enough?
I knew that this riot of concerns was a bit over the top and that this encounter had opened a door to fears and anxieties about a threatened world lurking deep in my soul. Best to keep them to myself. But…but…just such ordinary conversations plant seeds in the souls of young people that grow into values and branch out into behaviors.
I slowed my walk, turned toward the mother and daughter, and said, “Is it possible that one flower could be more than enough?” My question was not appreciated. They looked at me and then looked away indignantly as if I had violated the social conventions of walkers. And, of course, I had.
As I walked on, I started to ruminate on the meaning of choosing “one thing” over many things.
Given who I am and what I have done my whole life, I started to ruminate on the theme of “one thing” in Scripture. I thought of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler: “’There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich (Luke 18:22-23).” The rich young ruler had acquired many things in life, things that gave him standing in the community, both moral points for fulfilling the law and material wealth. But the many was the enemy of the one. With his many acquisitions, his heart was divided and distracted. He could not find the one, narrow path.
I thought about the story in which Martha came to Jesus complaining about her sister Mary who was not helping her prepare for the upcoming meal. To this complaint the Lord answered: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her (Luke 10:41).” Many things worry and distract us to the point that we, like Martha, can no longer see the one crucial thing standing right in front of us, the better part of life that can never be taken from us.
In his response to both the rich young ruler and Martha, Jesus is reminding his followers of the Shema and applying its truth to everyday life. Moses implored the people of Israel: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
The oneness of God that Moses emphasized in the Shema was not an affirmation about monotheism, a reiteration of the commandment, “You shall have not other gods before me,” at least not primarily. it was an affirmation about the heart of God.
Moses was telling the people of Israel that God’s heart was one. God’s heart was not distracted and divided. God’s love was pure. God turned toward the people of Israel with a pure heart and longed for them to respond with hearts equally pure. This was why Moses implored the people of Israel in the second sentence of the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” The story of God and the people of Israel was a love story. God’s undivided heart meeting the people’s undivided heart was the definition of intimacy, and this intimacy released a power that could restore a threatened world.
So I want to say to that little girl walking with her mother and sister along the shore of Lake Macatawa: Do not listen to the peddlers of our materialist culture; let not your heart be distracted by many things. There is a fullness that is emptiness, and an emptiness that is fullness. An empty heart has more space for God and, filled with the love of God, has more awareness of the world so loved by God and more courage to engage the forces that threaten to undo it.
I want to say to that little girl that there is one flower more beautiful than twenty other flowers, one worthy of your full attention, a lily crowned with thorns.