Message 98, Destination Life: Easy Street, 6-17-12

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

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Winning a big lottery jackpot is dream for most of us.  I confess to buying a ticket or two when the winning amount gets large enough.  Rationally, I know the odds of winning are greater than me being elected President – but I buy a ticket anyway by consoling myself that somebody must win.  And, during the time leading up to the drawing, I think about all the ways I might use the money – often thinking of the many ways I would help family and friends.  You can just imagine the wonderful church building I’ve built in my mind with my fantasy winnings.

Sadly, though, many people only half jokingly refer to the lottery as their retirement savings plan.   And, as we know, the lottery and other forms of gambling are highly regressive forms of taxation.  The poor and those least able to afford buying tickets are often the ones who buy them the most – visions of becoming an instant millionaire dance in their heads too.

Just as sad, though, are the very common but unlucky stories of some who do win lottery jackpots of significant size.  Michael Carroll of Great Britain won nearly 20 million dollars but within ten years had lost it all.  He says he spent it on gambling, drugs and prostitutes.  “The party is over and I haven’t got two pennies to rub together,” he says now.  “I find it easier for me to live off of 42 pounds than to have millions.”

Evelyn Adams won 6 million in the New Jersey lottery but also lost it to a drug addiction.  She now lives in a rented trailer with a roommate.  “I made mistakes, some I regret, some I don’t.” she says.  “I’m human.”

Or, take the example of the Greenwich, Connecticut group of office workers who split a 245 million dollar jackpot.  Office lunches became impossible because of resentment by those who did not win.  There were many lost friendships, bitter office fights, lawsuits and many of those who won decided to move to new homes even though they had planned to stay where they had lived.  It seems their neighbors no longer spoke to many of them and some even had their properties vandalized.

Oren Dorrell thought he and his wife were being prudent when they invested all of their lottery winnings in low risk savings bonds.  He wanted to continue working at his old job and use the winnings as his retirement fund.  But, it seems friends and neighbors turned away from he and his wife.  “There go those lottery snobs” people would say.  Dorrell believes most people are resentful of someone who instantly wins big.

Finally, there is the story of William Bud Post who won 16 million in 1998.  His brother hired a hit man to kill William after conspiring to being named in the will.  Other relatives of William persuaded him to invest in a business that soon failed.  In 2006 he declared bankruptcy and six months later died of respiratory failure – due mostly to smoking which he had picked up again after winning the lottery.

The most obvious lesson from such stories is that, clearly, money does not buy wisdom, friendships or happiness.  And this might also be said of almost any other form of prosperity in life – an abundance of good health, great intelligence or fantastic wealth.  Finding ourselves on the easy street of life is not always an instant ticket to contentment.  As we have looked at over the last two weeks, determining our destiny is not a simple matter.  Our lives are subject to often mysterious forces that have great influence over us.   Who we are, how we think and what we do in life are shaped by our genetics, how we were raised and by random events.  But, we also know that we can and must take charge of our lives – acting as so called Captains of our souls – helping to guide our lives despite the unseen forces that affect us.  In that regard, when faced with inevitable hardships, we need not be mere pawns at the mercy of cruel fate.  Adversity can be surgery to our souls – helping us grow as people, even as we struggle through pain and heartbreak.  As Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

But what should our response be to the times in our lives when we figuratively land on easy street – when life is going well, when we are generally happy, healthy and wealthy enough to provide for our basic needs and a few modest pleasures?  We intuitively know that adversity can be good for us and that we should use hardship as an opportunity, but how do we react to prosperity?  How do we respond to the good times in life?  What is a spirituality for easy street living?

According to the teachings of Buddha, there are three types of people in our world.  The first type of person is figuratively blind in both eyes.  One eye is blind to opportunities for prosperity or success in any area of life.  He or she will sadly fail at almost every life endeavor.  The second eye is also figuratively blind.  The person has no wisdom and is blind to seeing or understanding right from wrong.  He or she has no virtue and never will.  Unsuccessful and lacking in common morality – this person is not a model citizen.

The second type of person is blind in only one eye.  He or she will succeed in at least one area of life and find basic life security.  One eye, at least, is able to see ways to achieve.  But, most importantly, this second type of person has only partial perception of right and wrong.  There is limited ability to act with kindness and one is often angry, bitter, depressed or hate filled.  This person will only partially prosper in life and will struggle to find real peace.

The third type of person is symbolically fully sighted.  He or she has the wisdom to see and know how to succeed and find prosperity.  This third type of person is also able to see and know right from wrong.  As the Buddha said, only a person who is capable of seeing out of both eyes, how to succeed AND how to be at peace with the self and the world, only this person is an ideal human.  He or she is humble, patient, content, empathetic, compassionate, even-tempered, free of strong temptations and just.  Indeed, this person has achieved a state of enlightenment – an elusive way of being that is the goal for any person.

Most people live somewhere in the second category, somewhere between the two extremes of total blindness and complete sight.  We know how to navigate the responsibilities of life to work and care for ourselves but we lack full enlightenment in how to find inner peace and in how to be perfectly loving and compassionate people.  Life, for many of us, is a continual quest to see things in a better and more generous light.

What we ultimately seek is soul prosperity.  While financial prosperity sounds wonderful, most people usually come to a realization that a better form of easy street living is to have a prosperous soul – one that is wise, virtuous and at peace.  From the Buddha, we see that many people find certain forms of prosperity in their lives – financial wealth, work success, strong health, great intelligence or athletic prowess.  But very few find the kind of soul prosperity that leads to enlightenment.  It is that soul prosperity which speaks to any of us – Buddhist or not – as a response to how we respond to the easy street times in life.  How can we prosper our souls not only when the going gets tough – as we looked at last week – but when the going is smooth and easy.  Indeed, I contend that it is far tougher to find soul prosperity when times are good.  We are prone to grow and learn more during adversity.  But easy street living can also be times for growth if we are so intentional.

Paul tells us in the Bible that money is NOT the root of all evil.  Indeed, he turned to several wealthy followers for his support.  Jesus also did not condemn wealth.  He even befriended and used the efforts of a rich little man named Zaccheus – the one who climbed into a tree, the better to see the famous Jesus – and the one who repented of his greedy ways and committed himself to a life of giving and serving.  The Buddha acknowledged that money and the making of money are not bad.  Indeed, Buddha taught that money can bring moral happiness – happiness in the owning and taking care of things, happiness in knowing one’s money was earned by a right livelihood – one that benefitted and does not harm humanity, happiness from not being in debt and happiness from sharing one’s wealth.  Prosperity, he taught, is a good thing if it is used wisely and rightly.

In that regard, any form of personal prosperity is good if it is used rightly.  If one is blessed with great intelligence, does one use it for the good of humanity or to do harm?  If one has great athletic ability, does one use that strength to help others or for selfish and narcissistic reasons?  What the Bible and Buddha both imply through their teachings is that having a surplus of money or of anything else are not bad.  What harms our souls is to love money, love our intelligence, beauty, or athleticism over and above a love for other people.  And that is a clear danger area for easy street living.  Do we come to love that which has brought us to easy street?  Or do we recognize an obligation and a soul necessity to use the prosperity for higher goals?

A Buddhist ethic for any form of prosperity is to do good.  “When you protect others,” the Buddha said, “you protect yourself.”  When we are living on easy street and find ourselves comfortable, the goal must be to live a balanced life.  One must not relate happiness with prosperity nor sadness to a lack of it.  We are called not to waste wealth but to use it wisely.  And, hoarding wealth for its mere accumulation is equally harmful to our souls – we learn to love what we unreasonably save.

The Buddha said there are three virtuous advantages to having prosperity.  First, one can assist and take care of friends and family.  He compared this to a beautiful lake with crystal clear waters that flows deep and teems with fish.  Such a lake lies next to a village and serves its people who draw from it to drink, bathe and eat.  Prosperity is also a safeguard against misfortune – the same as having enough water to put out a fire.  And, having wealth allows one the pleasure to give it to worthy charities and organizations.

To live a balanced and virtuous life when living on easy street, the Buddha urged people to practice sacrifice.  All people must practice some form of renunciation – to give up and sacrifice for the well being of others.  While the ethical ideal is to give up everything and live as a monk, the Buddha recognized this was not wise for all people.   Even so, all people must sacrifice, in some way, for others – through liberal giving, caring for one’s family or fellow beings, or volunteering time to strangers. These all require a sacrifice of money, time and talent.  Such sacrifices prevent us from falling in love with what has made us comfortable.  Indeed, sacrifice makes us uncomfortable, and that is a good thing.  We intuitively remind ourselves that while life might be easy one moment, it can turn difficult in a split second.

In my research for this message, I came across a story about one of the wealthiest men in America but one whom I doubt very many people know.  John Feeney made his fortune, estimated at over 8 billion dollars, by founding the Duty Free Shopping system.  Despite his massive wealth, this 80 year old man wears very cheap suits, he wears an old Timex watch, he uses a plastic bag for a briefcase and he lives in a cramped one bedroom reantal apartment in San Francisco.  Feeney was changed, he says, after reading Andrew Carnegie’s 1889 essay entitled “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which Carnegie admonishes the wealthy to use their money to help others and to “set an example of modest, unostentatious living and shun displays of wealth.”

In 1996, Feeney set up a foundation and proceeded to give it nearly all of his money.  Contrary to how most foundations are run which try and preserve wealth for as long possible – the better to enrich executive directors and board members,  Feeney structured his foundation so that it would give away all of the 8 billion dollars by 2016 and thus cease to exist.  Feeney’s favorite Irish proverb says this, “There are no pockets on death shrouds.”

Feeney refuses to allow so much as a plaque be placed in his honor at any location receiving his money.  He will not allow his name to be used in connection with his giving and it is a part of a contract with any recipient organization that if they disclose he is a benefactor, his money will stop.  ‘It doesn’t matter who paid for a building,” he says.  “The important thing is that it gets built.”  So far, he has given away nearly 4 billion dollars – mostly to biomedical research centers – but also to progressive causes like efforts to stop homophobia in Africa, lobbying efforts against the death penalty in New Jersey, medical supplies to Cuban doctors and money to support the Irish Republican Army political wing Sinn Fein.  His favorite charity is Operation Smile – an organization that provides free cleft lip and palate repair surgery to children around the world – one that I am proud to say my father served for several years as a surgeon.

Feeney recently agreed to allow a biography be written about him – one entitled “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t”.  His motivation to be more open is to try and nudge other wealthy individuals to share their wealth.  He likes to cite the fact that if the wealthiest 14,000 taxpayers in the country gave away only one-third of their annual income, that would amount to 61 billion dollars each year.  He cannot understand why those who have no need for more money continue to hoard it and will not give some of it away.  “Its not my role in life to tell rich people what they should be doing with their money,” Feeney says. “I’m just convinced if people gave money to things they’ve identified as being in the public interest, they’d get a great satisfaction out of it.”

For all of us – as mere mortals who are likely to never win a lottery or be worth 8 billion dollars, we can still find lessons in life for how to deal with material, financial, physical or emotional prosperity.  At those times when we are living large on easy street, Buddhist ethics sound convincingly wise.  Live in balance.  Refuse to derive happiness from prosperity.  Look, instead, for opportunities to find well-being and soul prosperity from giving, serving, loving, and growing.  Adversity will likely soon enough teach us its own lessons.

Our call, my friends, is to live under constant reminder that we are richly blessed.  No matter who we are or what we have in life, we have been given so much.  Yes we work, yes we seek wisdom, yes we strive to be humble.  But life itself is a gift, loved ones are like icing on top of our cakes, pleasures in life are cherries of satisfaction.  With all that we have, we truly must find ways to sacrifice for the sake of others.  And we must find ways to sacrifice for the sake of our own souls.  At the end, when we are beckoned into a beautiful eternity, may it be said that we each entered that journey with the wealthiest of souls.

I wish you all much peace, joy and a Happy Father’s Day.