Church Rummage Sales, Scarcity, and Debt

Posted by: Richenda at Tuesday October 28, 2014 in

What does it mean to be starving?
What about the phrase, ‘starved for time’?

I want to talk about that for a few minutes, but not in the sense of outliers, those who experience true famine. I want to talk about what scarcity means in the normal course of a normal lifetime, given regular circumstances and everyday people.

I want to talk about Scarcity, Tunneling, Slack, and Abundance.

I picked up this book, titled Scarcity, because I wanted to better understand how I could help the finance team at our church to see possibilities beyond the fear and lack they seemed to be stuck in. I kept reading it because I found myself within it, too, that part of me that works too many hours and tries to do too much.

For the finance team there is never enough money. For me, there is never enough time.

This book explores scarcity. The authors gathered everyday people for their research. In one study they separated people into groups, one group stated they were on a diet, the other group stated they were not. They gave these groups tests measuring executive functioning and fluid intelligence, and they asked them to do a couple of word searches.

Just the regular kind of wordsearch, with the letters all in rows and the point is to find the words hidden inside. The groups searched for words: Street, lamp, building, cloud. Then they had a different wordsearch which substituted a few of the neutral words for loaded ones, and the groups were asked to search for the word Cake and the word Donut.

The group that was not dieting had no difference in the speed of their search or their intelligence when searching for words like Cake. But the dieters did. The food words slowed them down, considerably.

The same for the groups that were told to imagine they needed an expensive car repair. Just imagining such a scenario flustered and distracted regular people to the point that their executive functioning skills and intellectual capacity was diminished the same as if they had pulled an all-nighter at the office. Their IQ dropped 14 points.

The researchers gave participants a whole lot of tests, and over and over again they found people responded to scarcity—rich or poor—in exactly the same way. The only difference was how much slack they had to work with.

What do we do in the face of scarcity?

When we are faced with scarcity, we get tunnel vision and actually improve our performance in dealing with the problem. Hunger boosts our focus and improves our ability to find food.

But this boost is short lived and cannot be maintained. It is also very narrow, so that while you might be very good in the short term at trading off calories to achieve that slice of cake, you are not very good at dealing with anything else.

What you need is slack. What you wish for is abundance.

But when you have abundance you tend to squander it.

Let’s say I have an abundant amount of rope. I can let it “play out” and it is not going to evoke from me a scarcity response. I have room for mistakes, I can take chances.

But then, if things get tighter, I find I am losing ground. I need slack and I start borrowing, borrowing from the vacation budget to pay the visa bill, borrowing from dinner calories to gain lunch calories, and that works, until the slack is gone and the auto repair costs 3 grand and more than maxes out the visa card, and for dinner there is lasagna and deep fried ice cream.

I am at the end of my rope.

Scarcity leads to tunneling, tunneling leads to borrowing until there is no slack left. It’s a trap, you get deeper and deeper and all you can see is scarcity.

Tunneling short term gives you a focus boost that can boost your performance to accomplish that next thing. The church budget gets tight, you have another rummage sale—and that rummage sale is one heck of a rummage sale—but everything else, your kids, your house, your health, your sleep, your hope, your willingness to take risk, it all get compromised.

We have this hope that abundance is somehow deep in the tunnel you know so well, despite the terrible fruit tunneling brings, the ill health, broken relationships, and desperate debt.

It is as if we worship famine instead of God.

Famine is biblical. When Pharaoh dreams of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows Joseph’s careful attention to managing the problems of debt and abundance mean many live who would have died, the stability of the kingdom is maintained, the Pharaoh emerges far richer than before, all because this man, Joseph, this exiled, imprisoned slave who had lost everything, listened to God, trusting that God was with him all the while.

You have to lose your life to gain it.

This book got me thinking about the phrase “going for broke.” In the context of scarcity, “going for broke” means exactly what you think it means. It means you sure are going to be broke. You are actively choosing brokenness, and you are going to be so broke you are never digging out again. You might as well play the last shreds because you are going to lose it all.

But there is more to the phrase “going for broke” than that. “Going for broke” is an American proverb, it’s a paradox. It means losing it all, but it also means letting go and maybe getting everything.

For those of us who dig deep into scarcity and won’t look right or left, for us “going for broke” is that moment even me with my thick skull begins to figure out that maybe this isn’t a winning strategy. That maybe all this borrowing is not going to pay off in some great act of a merciful God who will pity me personally for digging so deep that my rope has become so thin, I am hanging by a thread.

I am Abraham, knife in hand, so sure that God wants me to slaughter my son that I am standing over him, knife in hand. My son is squirming, but all I see is the belief I have that maybe this time my sacrifice will be enough.

I am going for broke. And I see my son. And I grasp the handle of the knife.

I am prepared to “double down” but for the first time I am also “looking up.” You have come to the breaking point, the path is set, no more imagining you can borrow anything else, no imaginary slack is going to show up. And if there is nothing left, it breaks the spell for an instant, and you remember the world, and you remember life, and there, in the bushes is a ram, and the angel of the Lord whispers, “Abraham, why don’t you sacrifice that ram instead of Isaac?”

In our fear of scarcity, we sacrifice our abundance. Let’s not do that. Let’s look up before the end. Whatever it takes, let’s raise the cry, jolt our awareness, and take heart and believe that something else is truly possible.

We are, we have to be, a people of abundance. We do not worship a God of famine and poverty and debt, we worship a God of possibility, we worship a God of Life.

Praise be to God. Amen.


If you get the chance, I absolutely recommend this book: SCARCITY: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Times Books, 2013.

Cake: Pound Cake by Scheinwerfermann 2008 Public Domain, Wiki Commons
Rummage: Seattle Nihon Go Gakko rummage by Joe Mabel 2009 CC BY-SA 3.0
Boat: Boat and rope by Lee 2006 Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And yes, I borrowed time to write this….

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