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I hadn’t seen another human in long enough that the sight of one was shocking.
I’m really not sure how long I’d been walking… weeks, at least. Months? It was possible. It’s hard to tell, to mark seasons, when so little vegetation remains: no leaves to bud, or grow, or fall and mark the passing of the seasons. It also makes foraging hard; I ate by taking from the stores left behind, the ones not totally destroyed. Even climbing over rubble, it was hard at first, because stealing is such a terrible crime. Those first times, I would take what I need, constantly glancing over my shoulder and running away through silent streets; eating alone, I waited for the brutal punishment from the conglomerates whose profits I’d taken. I would hide myself at night in the empty towns, fearful of the consequences for this worst of all crimes.
Slowly, the taking got easier, and I would grab more, enough to carry some with me so that I wouldn’t have to scrounge every single meal… so that I could escape the towns for a little while. The emotion, every day, of stepping through the destruction, carnage; the terrific mess that comes from the anger of people with nothing to lose… The towns through which I walked had once teemed with those who were never more than disposable labor, never more than paying customers, existing to make the industry owners fat. In the end, they had nothing to lose; though, perhaps more importantly, nothing to gain as their toil, their little income, was used – as they were used. Used up, sucked dry and discarded when finally nothing was left of them but the scents of disease, of death… of whatever chemical had destroyed what the weapons and bacteria hadn’t.
Day after day, I stepped over rubble, not looking too closely at what lay beneath. Day after day, I focused only on keeping myself alive. It was too much to think about those who had perished. I don’t know why or how I survived. Long ago I stopped asking; that was energy I needed for other things… for living with the assumption that I was the only one in the world, the only one to have survived the war that had touched everywhere. Everyone else seemed to have succumbed to the shows of force that had only resulted in fear and revenge; in the booming industry of destruction. They told us it was job creation, the making of death machines. If so, it was job creation for both sides, in the end.
The conglomerates never told us war is profitable.
War was supposed to make us powerful. Violence was supposed to end violence. Exclusion was supposed to make us safe. Fear was supposed to create respect. It didn’t quite work out that way.
When I was a child, my grandparents told me stories of when they’d talked with their neighbors – when people had lived side by side, rather than behind walls. They told me of their grandparents’ time, when a family with two jobs could both eat and pay bills. One story in particular came back to me often, in those lonely days: Grampa told me about his father’s friend, who had come to our land from far away. As a child, I would ask, over and over, “But how could he trust that his friend wouldn’t kill him?”
That was all I knew.
War, in the end, had wrought nothing but death. Including, I believed, my own: although I still lived, I couldn’t imagine it would be for long. Not alone, not on canned beans and whatever else I could find. I walked, I believed, towards my death. Yet still I walked, because staying put would make me see, make me think, make me dwell on the horrors we’d all seen in this world-ending war to see who could be the greatest.
Actually, it wasn’t the sight of people, but the scent of cooking that stopped me in my tracks. I had gone up into the hills, with enough food to last a while, feeling a need to be away from the vestiges of humanity, of industry. After a day or so of hiking, as I came up towards the top of a hill, a scent drifted towards me… a scent which reminded me not so much of food, but of home; of a time, almost forgotten, before the only possible emotion was fear, or anger, or retribution.
The scent seemed like a dream, so beautiful that my eyes filled and a lump rose in my throat. I didn’t fully believe it could be real, even when I came over the crest of the hill, and beheld through my tears a blur of green.
As though things were living, growing!
The shock knocked me off my feet, and I sat down hard, staring hungrily. I hadn’t seen anything like it… well, since both sides started burning, poisoning, trying to starve the other side… trying to drive up prices, gain wealth off of the pain of ordinary people.
This ground had been burned, but a streak of bright, brilliant green shone against the blackish-gray landscape. I stumbled to my feet and ran down the hill, eyes fixed on the life before me, just wanting to bury my face in something living…
She stepped out before me, spoke to me, stopped me.
I didn’t know anyone else was alive.
But suddenly, there was a woman standing in front of me. She spoke again; I didn’t understand her, it was not my language that she spoke. Everything I had been taught, all my life, should have made me suspicious. She was everything that was enemy, from the color of her skin to her clothes and language.
But none of that seemed to matter, in that moment. She was human. She was alive. My attention was caught by the beating pulse in her throat: the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life.
I fell at her feet and wept.
She spoke again, and though I still couldn’t understand, she spoke softly, almost with… kindness? That couldn’t be… I couldn’t understand it. The whole scene felt suddenly surreal, and the sense of hallucination dried my tears. None of this was real. I was dead, that was the only rational explanation: this was some afterlife of peace – the religious whackjobs had been right after all.
She turned and started towards the green; bemused, I followed her, aware again of scent of cooking and of my own rumbling stomach. Maybe at least the afterlife would have more than canned beans.
Then we reached the next hill.
The swath of green marked not only things growing, but cultivation: neat rows, plants I hadn’t seen in years and could barely name. All of my wonder came rushing back. In awe, I kept stopping, touching leaves, smelling the ashy dirt, thinking my heart would explode within me. It hardly occurred to me that this must be the work of more than one person. But at the top of the hill, beyond the end of the fields, I saw a small cluster of shacks, heard the hum of voices, smelled the smoke of cooking fires.
Not just me. Not just me and her. People.
Not many, mind: a few dozen at most. They were quiet, almost sullen, appearing angry. At the time, I barely noticed, for that had been the norm among people. I wandered among them, half-following my guide, dazed.
Suddenly I found myself knocked off my feet again; not by emotion, for once, but literally: hit behind the knees. By instinct, I swiveled to strike at my assailant.
I found myself staring into eyes of a child.
A child! It had been so long. I had no sense of how old this one might be. Towards the end of the war, the end of time, the women near me stopped bearing children, knowing their babies would only die.
I should have been angry at being hit, but mostly, I was fascinated by this little one who suddenly cowered, scared by this accident, knowing there would be consequences. Sure enough, someone came quickly, their hand raised to strike child. The gesture was so familiar, so expected… I had been so close to doing it myself. But before the blow could land, I caught their wrist, stopped them; with my other hand, I pulled child close, reassured her. “It was an accident,” I mumbled, my voice hoarse from disuse.
I let go the wrist I was still holding, held my hands out in a gesture meant to say it was okay. The man who had come over to punish the child eyed me warily for a moment, then took my hands and pulled me to my feet. For a moment, I tensed, scared; then he let go, nodded brusquely, walked away.
Had someone really just helped me?
My guide took me to where people were cooking, sat me down. Someone gave me a plate. I watched as others bustled around, preparing the meal; eventually, someone rang a bell – a rock hung among metal fragments – and everyone gathered, shoving, pushing to be first, to get the most. I didn’t think, just leapt up and pushed into the scrum, eager to get real food, be with real people, fill my belly.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw child, the one who had knocked over. She’d been pushed back, and lay sprawled on ground, crying….
I stopped. The world stopped; the air vanished as though I’d been punched. Gasping, ears ringing, fighting, pushing others away, suddenly desperate; meanwhile the child still cried, and the shoving only sent people careening towards her –
“No! Don’t hurt her!”
I didn’t think I’d shouted. But there was silence, stillness, shock. Shaking, I walked over and picked up the child, who was surprisingly light. I carried her, still sniffling, to get food, then sat with her; made sure she ate carefully, chewed every bite. I’d never watched someone else eat; I’d never cared for anyone’s hunger but my own. Her evident fear broke my heart: she ate quickly, messily, focused on her food but aware of her surroundings; aware of those who would readily take her meager portion. In her fear, I recognized myself, both in the desire to take and her fear of being stolen from. My stomach hurt as I looked at this child, as doomed as I, fighting for her food – might it not be more merciful to take it?
Who has a child in times like this?
She shouldn’t grow up like this, fearful and hungry. She shouldn’t grow up like me, simply waiting to die.
Her scant meal finished, she looked up at me, wary curious; her gaze made my heart beat painfully in my chest. I’d thought myself alone, the sole survivor perhaps on the entire planet. Yet here there were people, and the beginnings of community. Here, there was a child; here, there was life; here, there way hope. Prompted by the aching of my heart, I moved to do what I had never even imagined: I gave the child my food.
And every head turned.
And every voice faltered.
And every breath was held as this tiny one looked at me, eyes wide, and took what I gave her as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
We’ve been here two years now. Two years, but four harvests, for the weather here is mild and the soil is good. We still eat together, the whole community, but now the line is quiet. We are beginning to trust there is enough. And now always, the children eat first.
I have made a point of learning enough words to speak to those around me. Really, we’re all developing our own language, a pidgin mix that is ours alone. But on my own, I’ve learned enough to know that the best cook used to own one of the industrial conglomorates; that the most careful gardener lost her whole family when the factory next door exploded after safety measures were repealed for sake of productivity; the woman who had led me here had been a bill collector who often lined her own pocket by extortion, forced to choose between the suffering of her own or of others; the child’s father had, as a child himself, been sold by his family; sold and sold again at the whims of the oligarchs. Here, in this village, lived those who had labored and those who profited from that labor: the predators and the prey. Here, we live together, work together, eat together, speak together, create together.
It’s not easy to undo old patterns. It’s not easy to let go of old fears, of prejudices, of desires for revenge. I should say: it’s not easy for us, the adults. But the children here laugh and sing, dance and play, and they are teaching us.
Here, anything seems possible, for we had all believed ourselves walking dead. We had seen ourselves simply as those who hadn’t yet succumbed when humanity was cut down and leveled. But here, out of that which had seemed dead – this burned ground, this doomed people, springs new life where no one feeds upon the blood and sweat of another. No one profits by another’s loss.
It is a hard lesson to learn, and there are nights when I stand on our hill, looking out at the land around, still blighted and dead, and wish we had learned it sooner: what it means to be community, what it means to live in peace.
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse; a branch shall grow out of his roots… the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. And a little child shall lead them.
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ John 2: 3-5
For years, common knowledge among pastors and theologians has been that the Gospel of John must be of much later origin than the others, because of its high christology. Doing away with the big words that those pastors and theologians tend to enjoy, this simply means that it has long seemed that this Gospel focuses more on the divinity of Christ – the God-attributes, than on his humanity.
But this would seem, on its face, to give lie to that claim. Miracle aside, this is a very human moment: a parent-child interaction which, but for the water-to-wine specifics, probably feels familiar to anyone who has children, or anyone who has ever been a child. Certainly, the snarky interaction in which Jesus insists, “I’m not doing anything, this is not my problem,” and his mother replies, “You’ll do something, because I said so,” is a familiar refrain to many.
This moment, like so many in this Gospel, speak not to John’s supposed “high Christology”, but to the incredible importance, in this narrative, of the incarnation – the Word made very human flesh.
Because it is only humanity that requires prophecy.
It is only humanity that requires the voice of the prophets: those who try to bridge the gap between the human and the divine; those people of clear eyes and relentless truth-telling; those who shine a bright light into the many places that we’d really prefer to avoid, or at least keep secret, even from ourselves. Prophets are those who call out our shadows – our failures of conviction and courage – and who will neither rest, nor let us rest, until we let our own light shine. Prophets make us face the real needs of the world around us, the world that God loves; they call us into the light to face the fears that we use to keep those needs at a comfortable distance from our neat, orderly lives.
Humans need prophets to make us see clearly who we are, in relation to world. But we also need prophets to make us see who we might become, if onlywe dared to let go our fears.
And the human Jesus needs a prophet every bit as much as any of the rest of us.
This Jesus, who is (in John) more than simply one of those who shine a light; who actually is the light itself: even Jesus needs a prophet. Even Jesus needs this moment of vision. Even Jesus, the Word made flesh – very human flesh – needs a prophet… and needs one who knows better than anyone else ever could his particular uncertain, anxious, fearful flesh. Becuase the role of prophet is not to show us previously unknown abilities, but to call us to action. And so Jesus’ mother doesn’t tell him what to do, she simply tells him to do, and leaves the rest in his capable hands.
Because it turns out that his abilities are not at issue. There is no question in her mind or his whether or not he is capable of turning water to wine. Rather, at issue is his readiness to start down this road, the end of which he sees so clearly before him. At issue is his readiness to be the light, knowing how very much people fear to see even that which is right before them; knowing the lengths to which they will go to keep from seeing. At issue is his readiness to be Good Shepherd, the one who will lay down life for his sheep.
The human Jesus, the word incarnate, needed his mother’s prophetic light on his own fear. He needed that reminder of who he is, and who he will become.
I suspect that this, too, is familiar to us. For we, too, with our fully human flesh, all too often need that light turned on us, revealing our own readiness, our own willingness to use our abilities. We still need our prophets, as uncomfortable – and snarky – as they might often make us. We, too need to have our failures and our fears exposed; we, too, need to see clearly who we are, and who we might become. For we, too, push back against the calls to do and to be in this world; we, too, hide in the shadows of our own making, reluctant to admit that the problems before us might be ours to resolve.
However we imagine ourselves responding to the prophets in our lives: when the moment of prophecy actually happens, and the light lays us bare, that exposure inevitably makes us anxious, and anxiety makes most humans lash out. Unvarnished truth, however flattering to our own abilities, can be a terribly hard thing to hear. Which is why our response to prophets is consistent, throughout human history: in the face of prophecy, we become deflective, defensive, dismissive.
This is the response we saw with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: the wait-and-see, don’t-rock-the-boat, not-our-problem attitude of whites, anxious at the bright light that Dr. King and his colleagues shone on the systemic racism of the mid-20th cenntury. It was this response that prompted his Letter from Birmingham Jail – the jail into which the white authorities had put him, in the hopes of dimming or extinguishing his prophetic light.
Our response to prophets is neatly summed up in FBI label placed on Dr. King: “threat to National Security”.
Our response to modern prophets is visible in the deflective, defensive, dismissive tone that so many privileged folk take toward the Black Lives Matter movement; towards the plight of Syrian refugees, towards those in our own communities who are struggling with addiction.
What concern is that to me? we say, toward the modern-day prophets who are working to shine light into our current failures of conviction and courage; those prophets who are right now exposing our anxieties, made manifest in our snarky answers, in the refusal to use our obvious abilities to help.
Our response to prophets, major and minor, public and private; to friends and family, colleagues and church members who call us to examine anew who we are and who we might become is the most basic human survival response, which privileges anxiety over compassion:
My hour is not yet come we say, although not in quite those words. Often, it sounds more like:
They should have done what they were told.
What can you expect from that generation?
We’ve always done it this way before.
Whatever the words we choose, the response of separation and refusal speaks to the anxiety of being exposed.
Our response to prophets is splattered across pages of history, beginning well before Jesus attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee. He knew this history, and I do not at all blame him for his anxiety.
But we come after.
The response of deflection, of defensiveness, of dismissiveness speaks loudly to our continuing need for those prophets who will call us anew, in this time, out of our human-flesh anxiety and into divine witness and Christian conviction.
For we follow in footsteps of this Word made flesh. We follow in the way of the one who set aside anxiety for the sake of compassion; the one who learned from his mother that prophetic love will triumph over the shadows of fear.
And we are called, again and again, to listen to that prophetic love. We are called to follow the light, to follow the one who is light, even when it exposes us. We are called to set aside anxiety and fear for the sake of following the one who understands perfectly that very anxiety and fear, but who embodies for us a different response, a faithful response to prophecy. Out of the human-flesh anxiety of prophetic clarity, we are called to embody the extravangant signs of divine abundance, grace, and mercy that lift our abilities beyond all human fear.
Jesus, having gotten over his knee-jerk defensive “what concern is that to me?” response; having moved beyond the snarky anxiety of “my hour is not yet come”, starts willingly upon the trajectory to which the prophet called him. Jesus, exposed by prophetic clarity, gives us a new response: one which starts with the sweet taste of the best wine in abundance; one which starts not just with grace, but grace upon grace, both received and given.
It is clear, in this Gospel account, that he never forgot his own initial moment of very human fear, his own need for prophecy and light. For the only other moment in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ mother appears is right at the end, when we find her standing at the foot of the cross, with the unnamed Beloved Disciple – that character in the Gospel in whom we are to see ourselves.
And that mother, that prophet, is told to mother us; to prophesy to us, the Beloved Disciples, the disciples whom Jesus loves still.
And we are told to care for that mother, that prophet, however she might appear to us; whether as a voice on television, as a writer in a magazine or on social media; as friend, as family, as coworker, as churchgoer. We are called to care for that prophet as our own; to care even for that one who holds the exposing light, who shows us who we are, who we might become: purveyors of God’s abundant, extravagant grace, as sweet as the finest wine, poured out still, for us all.
“The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” -Genesis 21:17b-18
You’ll hear it over and over again: common wisdom holds that the Old Testament God is vengeful, heartless, bloodthirsty; while the New Testament God is one of grace and peace and love. As though they weren’t one and the same. It was a way, once upon a time, of creating distance between the Jewish community and the Jesus-followers, later Christians – identity formation often relies on “othering”, after all. Yet such broad generalizations, especially when they are as untrue as this one, only do us a disservice, we who use both as our sacred scripture. Such “common wisdom”, taken as infallible truth, closes our eyes to all but the most superficial readings of a Bible passage; closes our ears to the ways in which even ancient stories might speak to our lived reality today.
Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as though our revised common lectionary – the basis of so many sermons preached weekly on these very texts – are set up with these very biases at the core. As we read these snippets of text each week, we are tempted to take them out of context. In many ways, the structure of our lectionary – and the biases of a culture that divides narrative into “fiction” or “non-fiction” – sets us up to do some pretty serious mis-reading. It sets us up to read Genesis – and the Gospels, for that matter – as history rather than as a series of lessons about who God is, and how our relationship with God began, from a time when that relationship was just beginning. Reading in neat little chunks of text makes it easy for us to miss discontinuities pointing us to the larger themes, the ones that continue to speak to us today: we miss that Ishmael was already 13 a couple chapters earlier, yet his mother here carries him on her shoulder and casts him under a bush to die. We forget that Abram was promised descendants several times over, through multiple chapters. We lose the significance of Hagar: one of rare women to talk to God, and the only one to name God – and she was a foreigner, and Egyptian, to boot!
Significantly, we miss that this story isn’t really about Hagar or Ishmael. It’s not even about Abraham. This text is really about Sarah, and about God’s grace – yes, even in the Old Testament.
It doesn’t seem that way, from the few verses we read. It seems to be about a heartless God. At best, it seems to be about Abraham, and the development of the covenant: Abraham, who many chapters back, was promised offspring; was brought into relationship with God, even before the covenant was so painfully sealed. But in this story, it is Sarah’s role that ends up being the crucial one: Sarah, who hears the promises of children, but knows herself to be already old, so she deems God’s promises to be impossible. It is Sarah who takes matters – and common sense – into her own hands, sending Hagar to be the mother of that promised offspring. It is Sarah who takes action around God’s promises, which would seem to be a demonstration of her faith, but it is not. For it is not faith in God’s power, or faith in God’s abundance. Perhaps Sarah had heard the gospel according to Ben Franklin, that “God helps those who help themselves”… but that was not God’s word then, any more than it is in our Bible, or even our theology, now.
Sarah, consistently throughout these chapters of Genesis, sees things in human terms. She sees, not God’s knowledge or power, but her own age and the improbability of childbearing. She sees, not God’s breadth or abundance, but the practical impossibility of there being enough inheritance to go around, to support both Ishmael and Isaac. Sarah’s faith is in that which she can see, and touch, and understand with human perception and wisdom. And she refuses to be open to any larger possibility.
This story is about Sarah, certainly. But it is just as much about us.
We who so often judge by wealth; we who have lived so long in this materialist culture, believing in the American dream to the point where such a concept no longer seems weird: we who see even certain children as an inconvenience to be rid of; we are Sarah. We, who store away material needs for “just in case”, who live in the fear that there can never be enough, and that God’s promises require our manipulation, our negotiation, our assistance: we are convicted by this story, every bit as much as Sarah herself.
“I’m reminded that I live most days oblivious to my own wealth, comparing my standard of living to the standards of my upwardly-mobile friends and not to those billions of people worldwide living hand to mouth… For American consumerism thrives on a simple message – that what we currently have is not enough. Not big enough, not nice enough, not fast or hip enough. Not enough is hte matra of capitalism. At the same time, when it comes to my own economic habits, I can’t simply blame the capitalist machine. Pop culture may entice me to buy things I don’t need, but the truth is I like taking the bait. I like buying books instead of borrowing them from the library. I like new music and cardigan sweaters. Not enough is my mantra, too.
“But I’ve been thinking about the fact that the more I’m driven by an impulse to accumulate, the less free I am to meet the needs of other people… the more I need – or think I need – the less I’m able to love my neighbor with my wealth. If each morning I need an Americano from my local coffee shop, I’m not necessarily greedy (or am I?); I’m just less free to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to live responsibly towards my fellow human beings.” (p. 48)
In how we live, in how we understand ourselves and our place in this Creation, are we free to be in relationship with God? Have we so bound ourselves in fear and anxiety that we have entirely lost sight of everything but our own human needs, our own human senses and understandings? We are faced with God’s promises of life and of love in abundance beyond all comprehension… and our responses would seem to harken back more to Sarah than to Abraham – or to Hagar.
The authors go on:
“At least two things must be said: First, when it comes to caring for the poor in our localities, the sheer magnitude of the task can tempt us to apathy. However, on this point the Scriptures are clear: neglect those among us who have material and physical needs, and our rituals are meaningless… Second, many church leaders take this issue quite seriously. And each congregation has its own financial challenges, its own burdens to carry. But if God’s provision is going to meet the poor where they live, we must honestly assess what our church budgets say about our true priorities. Is meeting the needs of the marginalized a central or peripheral concern? What material and aesthetic comforts are we addicted to, and what sacrifices must we make so that all people have their basic needs met. Is the gospel we preach good news for rich and poor alike?” (p. 88)
In this culture, in this nation, in this church: are we preaching God’s grace, or human guilt? Do we trust, as Sarah couldn’t, in abundance? That there is, in fact, enough – enough resources, enough space, enough love, enough God to go around… and then some?
Do we, like Sarah, tend to our own needs first? Do we keep what we have for ourselves and our loved ones, do we live in that constant and abiding fear? Do we, as Sarah did, cast aside the inconvenient bodies so that our own might be better served?
Are we as absurd now as she was then?
God instructs Abraham to let Hagar and Ishmael go, as Sarah instructs, not because she is right in her actions, and certainly not because God is ruthless or cruel or uncaring – that’s us. This is the reminder to us that God considers all people, all bodies, beloved and worthy of life. This is the reminder that it is not God, but humanity who put not only grace and love and hope on the line, in all of our interactions and all of our understandings about this world, in our tendency to keep the very best things for ourselves. But we put on the line God’s very presence here among us in this creation, when we refuse to embody it ourselves and to live into it in everything that we do and every interaction in which we participate. It is not God but humanity who is willing to do harm to Christ’s very body, sacrificed, not on the cross, but on altar of scarcity which we ourselves have created, victim of our fears and our faithlessness.
Yet despite our blinding, heart-closing fear, this story is a demonstration of God’s grace, as God provides for Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, as God reassures Abraham of his son’s worthiness and well-being. It is, throughout these chapters of Genesis, a demonstration of God’s abundance and God’s grace – yes, even here in Genesis, even in the Old Testament, it is the demonstration of the God who has not changed since creation dawned. God, who gives with such generous to the stranger in a strange land, to the Egyptian slave woman, used and discarded by fearful humans. God, whose love encompasses beyond the covenant with Abraham and Isaac; whose abundance is so much more than we can comprehend, even we who still cannot count the stars! God, whose inheritance is big enough (and then some!) for both boys to become great nations in their own right.
God, is not like Sarah, is not like us. God does not measure on human scales of scarcity and need, but offers abundance to all: all, without measure; all, without restrictions; all who are willing to trust, and to be in relationship with God. What we see here in Genesis is what we see throughout our scriptures, lectionary notwithstanding: a God of grace, then and now and always with whom there will always be enough, if we can simply get our acts together, and learn to set aside fear, and to live in trust: of the promises made with such incomprehensible abundance.