Manute Bol’s name will never appear on a list of the greatest players in the National Basketball Association. For many people he represented something of an athletic oddity, even a freak. A Sudanese immigrant to the U.S., he stood 7 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed only 225 pounds. His career on the court was rather unremarkable. He played for five teams over his ten years in the NBA, and over that time he averaged fewer points (2.6) than blocked shots (3.3).
If he didn’t exactly grab headlines on the court, Manute Bol didn’t off the court, either, especially in the ways typically and tragically associated with too many professional athletes: drug and/or gun possession; entourages and strip clubs; and multiple children born to multiple women in multiple cities, with no marriage in sight or mind. He wasn’t into “bling” or flings.
Though he made a very good living in the NBA he was virtually broke when he died in June at age 47 from complications of a skin disease. In the final years of his life, he became even more of a side show act when he was hired to be a jockey, a hockey player or even a boxer against William “the Refrigerator” Perry, the massive former defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears.
But it was all for a good cause. It is estimated that Manute Bol, a devout Christian, gave away most of his estimated $6 million fortune to help Sudanese refugees. He once explained his motivation this way: “God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back.” Because of his heart and ability to look back, Manute Bol left a lasting legacy in the refugees he helped and the hospitals he built. Unlike the rich fool in today’s gospel reading, he tore down his own barns to make larger ones…for others.
When Jesus was invited to arbitrate a dispute between two brothers over their ancestral property, he demurred. Instead he used it as “a teachable moment” in which he used the story of the rich man with the abundant harvest as a cautionary tale to “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Those may be especially tough words for us in the U.S. According to the Self-Storage Association, public storage is now a $22 billion a year industry with over 15,000 facilities nationwide. According to the Pew Research Center, the median size of a new single family home in the U.S. grew from 1570 sq. ft. in 1980 to 2237 sq. ft. by 2005—an increase of 42% during a period when our families were getting smaller and the number of public storage facilities grew exponentially. It seems that, in some respects, our lives do consist of possessions!
During that same period one would also be able to trace an increase in the average work week, an increase in private debt as well as budget deficits at various levels of government, and company and bank balance sheets that were increasingly leveraged. It all came to a screeching halt in 2008. We are still recovering.
The ancient sage Qoheleth opened the Book of Ecclesiastes with the sobering cry, “Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” The original Hebrew hebel is much more vivid than “vanity,” for it more literally means “breath” or “vapor.” In his very practical wisdom drawn from experience over many years, he observed some things that are also familiar to us and sometimes seem just as unfair. For example, a person can work hard for many years or something but may only get to enjoy it for a moment or perhaps not at all.
Qoheleth could also see that not just things but work itself can be a form of vanity. This is a particular challenge for those of us whose identities can become too closely intertwined with how much we produce or accomplish, particularly when it all comes at the price of “toil and anxiety of heart” and sleepless nights. In the face of such insomnia, Jesus offers a simple over-the-counter prescription: instead of storing up treasures for ourselves grow “rich in what matters to God.”
In other words, as St. Paul might say, we need to recall that by virtue of our baptism (symbolized in part by putting on the white garment) we “have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.” This necessarily means that we must also “put to death…immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” Our idols can take many shapes and forms, some material and others less so. What they all have in common, however, is that they become our gods or what theologian Paul Tillich called our “ultimate concern.”
We can’t live double lives…at least not with integrity. Like the rich man in the gospel we will all have a day of reckoning, if not in this life then certainly in the life to come.
A little over a week ago, Milwaukee was hit with torrential rains that devastated much of the city. In one memorable incident, a Cadillac Escalade and a street light were swallowed up by a sink hole at Oakland and North Ave. The following afternoon I was listening to a talk radio show on which the host invited listeners to call in with their stories from the Great Flood of 2010. One woman who called described how she watched helplessly as her basement filled with water and destroyed much of her family’s property. At the same time, she also gave thanks that no one was hurt and she remembered her husband’s words as they began to clean-up: “It’s just stuff.”
God’s word and the example of a Sudanese basketball player invite us to get our stuff together and to decide whether what we leave behind will be fit only for public storage or will be a lasting legacy for others and a testament to God. +