The Problem With Blessing

Google the phrase “Is America blessed by God?” and you will be blessed in .29 seconds to have over 24 million results.


This is a strongly held opinion in the United States. In a 2008 survey conducted for the PBS news program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and the United Nations Foundation 61% of 1400 respondents said America was “specially blessed” by God.

Writers and scholars far more articulate and learned than me have diced this idea and penned a plethora of articles on both sides of the argument, some that I will link to at the end of this article.

But here is my struggle. Too often we talk about both individual and collective ‘blessing’ in material and military terms. We use the book of Deuteronomy as our guide and neglect the Beatitudes in Matthew.

Material: America is ‘blessed’ by God because we have more wealth than other countries, because we have houses and bank accounts and cars and college price tags of $160,000 and a plethora of other things unknown to much of the world. How often have you heard someone talk about being “Blessed” with a house? That’s wonderful – but if they had an apartment would they be less blessed? Does the blessing include cathedral ceilings, designer paint, and a pool in the back yard? Is the family of four living in 3000 square feet more blessed than the family of six living in 1000?

5641-God Bless AmericaMilitary: America is blessed by God because we have a strong military. Really? Are we using “Blessing” in the correct way?

The book of Matthew speaks a lot about blessing in a chapter called “The Beatitudes” literally meaning “blessings”. As I read it I realize that Jesus again excels in turning things upside down, challenging the crowd who is familiar with an Old Testament view of blessing –not once is a strong military or material wealth mentioned. Rather we have a dire list of adjectives that include poor in spirit, meek, mourning, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, pure in heart, peace makers, and persecuted for the sake of righteousness, insulted….At this point I want to scream: “Are we through yet?” No, there’s more – we end the ‘blessings’ portion with more persecution and false accusation.

The list is long, and drones, bombs, military intelligence, American exceptionalism, Wall Street, bonds, bank accounts, investments – none of these are included.

The struggle intensifies as I consider the idea that I as a Christian now living in America would be considered more ‘blessed’ than my Pakistani friends who claim Christ. This is unpalatable to me. The idea that a Christian living in a Pakistani village in a one room mud hut, one light bulb hanging on a string providing electricity for 4 hours of a 24 hour day, four children to provide for, and unable to read is less blessed than I am makes bile rise in my throat.

Because it’s false. A Biblical world-view tells me that all are created in the image of God – Imago Deiblessed by God for no other reason but that we are created in His image. And if I believe the words of Matthew then my Christian friend in Pakistan is far more blessed than I

I’ll put my idiomatic cards on the table: I do not believe it is Biblical to say that America is blessed because of a strong military and material wealth. I believe that this is making the military and money into idols, something that is strongly condemned in the Bible. To quote William Doino Jr. from an article in First Things:

“….Nothing is more alien to the Old and New Testaments than to sacralize the unholy, or divinize material things. To regard secular America as some kind of Messiah nation, or geo-political golden calf, is sheer idolatry.”

The problem with blessing is the meaning we currently ascribe to the word and the misuse of the word. Many continue to hold to primarily Old Testament meanings on prosperity and military success. The New Testament turned all that around and we are given a new picture of blessing, a picture that is spiritual rather than material. A picture that offers grace, and that in abundance, to all people of all times. Would that we recognize a Gospel of Grace and proclaim that as the one, true, never-failing, all-encompassing Blessing.

Blogger’s Note: So, this is a huge subject and it is ridiculous to think that a few more than 600 words can do it justice. But it’s been on my mind and heart and as always I have faith in you as readers, in your wisdom and insight; your ability to offer thoughtful comments and recognize the need for further study and discussion.

On that note here are some of the articles I mentioned above:

Early Morning Warnings

I get off the subway early. We, the early morning crowd, share a special bond. We nod to each other, though we don’t know each other’s names, places of work, or families. It’s the “We’re up with the birds” look, a “knowing” look. A “we’re up while everyone else is still asleep waiting for their alarms to ring” look.

I pass by people who I see almost everyday, say hello to Mary who sells the Boston Herald. And today Mary says to me, as she periodically does: “Watch your bag honey”. And I nod and thank her.

And so I watch my bag. Because Mary knows this area well. While I think I know it well, I’ve only been walking this route for a few years. She has lived and worked this area for many more. and she knows the various characters that live life on these streets. She knows who you can trust, and who you need to watch. She knows that poverty and homelessness does not mean you are automatically a good person who has fallen into hard times, does not mean you are automatically trustworthy. She is an astute observer of human nature and knows that the mean come in all sizes and income levels.  The sly and the underhanded, the mocking and disrespectful – these are not just categories that the middle-class and rich fall into.

It’s an interesting dilemma for me as a white privileged woman. I observe many white middle-class Americans, I read their essays on the poor and I wish they would talk to Mary. Because their subtext is that the rich are bad and the poor are good, the rich deceptive and the poor honest, the rich rude and the poor kind. But if we’re honest we know that’s not the case.

I have met wealthy people who give graciously and responsively, aware that every penny is from God. I have met poor people who would (and did) kill their last chicken to show you hospitality. I have met rich people who wear arrogance around their necks with their latest Gucci scarves, and poor who mock and yell and rant at all those who pass by.

And so Mary periodically tells me to watch my bag. She tells me who to give to and who not to give to, she tells me who to watch out for and when I should cross the street and go to the other side. And I listen – because Mary knows these streets.

Picture 188These early morning warnings teach me a couple of life lessons. One is that the worst and the best of humanity are represented in all spheres of society; the second is that in life we need our “Marys” – those people who know where we walk and can help us discern true and false, can help us walk in the ‘good’ way, the wise way.

Mary’s early morning warning made me think of one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It’s a verse that gives instruction from the prophet Jeremiah:

Stand at the crossroads and look; Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is – and walk in it.~ Jeremiah 6:16a 

So on this early morning, just as I chose to watch my bag, I will choose to ask where the good way is – and walk in it. 


When They Need a Martha, and You’re a Mary

“You need a Martha!” I declared emphatically “and I? I am a Mary!” I plopped blueberry muffins and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee on my mom’s dining table.

I had come to help my parents pack for a major move — Only I was the wrong person for the job!

Disorganized, easily distracted, given to rambling and reminiscing, I was working out of my weak place. How could I help? How could I be the support that they needed? How would we ever get the work done?

There are those life moments when you don’t just feel, you know beyond doubt, that you are not the right person for the job. There are so many others, all so much more qualified that you can’t even list all of them, but you can sure list your flaws, faults, and lack of ability.

But it was me who was there. There was no Martha – just me.

I did what Mary would have done. I began with muffins and coffee, and then I was ready — ready to channel Martha with her no-nonsense organization and “get things done” attitude.

Remarkably it worked. In what could only have been grace I packed and labeled boxes, organized spaces, and threw away trash. I became Martha. I had grace for the job at hand.

There have been many times in life when I’ve been convinced that I am not the right person for the job. Others with their skills and confidence – they are the ones who should do these jobs. Me? I’m at best under qualified, at worst a complete impostor.

Except that to God I’m not. When he brings about the job, he’s got the grace for me to complete it. Qualifications matter not to him – in those moments he transforms our ability and we sit back in amazement. He goes abundantly beyond, and we respond with open-mouthed awe and humility.

If we feel unqualified, we’re in good company. Our Biblical models are quite the folks. We’ve got a prostitute with a past in Rahab; a teenage mom in Mary; a minority queen in Esther; a pregnant woman your grandma’s age in Elizabeth…..they were all completely unsuited for the jobs at hand. And in their unsuitability God’s grace was given to them in mighty measure, poured out, shaken together and running over.

Today I will be filling out paper work that could take me in a different direction career-wise. Everything in me screams “I’m not qualified!” With every word I type I’ll be tempted to hit delete, tempted to shout “I’m a Mary and you need a Martha!” But there’s a compelling voice inside that says move forward and until doors slam shut in my face, I will move – even if it be ever so slowly. I’ll sip my coffee, eat my muffin, and beg for grace.

So when they need a Martha and you’re a Mary; or they need a David and you’re a Jonathan – take a deep breath, step back, and move forward with coffee, muffins, and Grace.

“The Story God is Telling…”

Yesterday I read an interview  in Leadership Journal – an interview for which I was grateful. The woman interviewed is Amy Black, a political science professor at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. She has recently written a book called Honoring God in Red or Blue: Approaching Politics with Humility, Grace, and Reason. 

Word is that several publishers refused the book – what sane company wants humility and grace when pride, animosity, and disfavor sell so well?

The posted piece is short and well worth your time, but what shouted to me from the page was this: “If someone takes a Bible passage and directs it to a specific public policy and says, ‘See, God says this is right, or God says this is wrong,’ I don’t think that’s a proper use of Holy Scripture. I think a proper use of the Bible is to ask, ‘What does this teach us about God? How does he act in the world? What matters to him?’ In other words, the pastor should be equipping congregants to read the Bible and to understand the story God is telling.” 

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United St...

And we have journeyed far from this idea. Journeyed far from making our first priority to understand the story God is telling, to proclaim the story God is telling. Instead, Christians on both sides of the aisle have made it a priority to convince people they should vote a certain way.

Because the story God is telling is not about a country. It is not the story of red and blue, of donkey and elephant, of Romney or Obama. It is not an American story. The story God is telling is a worldwide story of people and redemption. The story God is telling is far bigger than elections and opinions – it is a story that goes from Pakistan to Tasmania; from Iraq to Germany; from Russia to the Maldives; from Senegal to the United States; from North Pole to South Pole and all places between.

And on election day, no matter what the outcome, God’s story is still being written.  

There are many Christians whose politics I disagree with, many who I want to challenge, but if I don’t do it with grace, with humility, with reason, then I am forgetting the Story. I am forgetting that God’s heart is for people and redemption, not for a culturally based political process.

If my faith is dependent on the results of an American election than I am seriously misguided.

In closing, when asked if she had “any cautions for Christians hoping to change the culture through politics”, Dr. Black said this:

“We should be fully engaged in the political process. At the same time we must remember that government is by definition imperfect, because it is an institution made up of sinners. And sinners do sinful things. Government is certainly capable of achieving good things. And we have a wonderful, resilient form of government. But if we start to look at our government to accomplish what only God can, then we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment. I think sometimes people get this attitude like, Well, God’s on my side, therefore everything I fight for is right. But even when we take principles from God and apply them to the political process, we’re still applying them in our broken, fallen way.”

Amen and Amen!

Tripping on Cobblestone Streets

“If I should say “My foot has slipped,” 

Boston is known for its cobblestone streets; former cow paths really, filled in with cobblestone as first horse and carriage, then automobile, came along. It’s one of the things people find charming about Boston.

As someone who lives here, they are at times charming – and at other times annoying. While a hallmark of the area, they are hard on the feet. My shoes wear out quickly, uneven on one side of the heel, causing discomfort in my legs. Or I don’t see a change in the level of stones and my ankle turns.

It’s easy to trip. Lost in my thoughts, thinking I’m steady on my feet, I trip and I curse.

I want to cry. My foot has slipped and I think I’ll fall. I do that silly, quick look around that we humans do when we stumble, knowing that my thoughts are obvious to anyone who studies human behavior “Did anyone see me?” There’s someone at least two blocks away — I’m safe from having to acknowledge to another my human frailty. I right myself and I keep going. My thoughts, previously calm, turn anxious.

It happens a lot. And because I am who I am, I quickly draw the parallel between my tripping, my stumbling, and life.

I trip a lot in life. I lose balance. I stumble and sometimes I fall. I lose my way, tripping in the process. Anxiety increases as peace decreases. And I hate it.

“If I should say “My foot has slipped….” These are words from the Psalms that I learned long ago. But to be faithful to the Biblical picture painted by the Psalmist I must finish the verse. It’s not enough to just acknowledge that my foot slipped, that I’m embarrassed and frustrated.

“Thy loving kindness, Oh Lord, will hold me up.”

It’s an important ending to the verse, an important addition to my thoughts. I steady myself and take a deep breath. The cobblestone streets are still in front of me, they will not go away. They are a part of living and working in this area.

Life with its trips and stumbles is not going away. But thy loving kindness, Oh Lord, will lift me up. 

But there’s more: Continuing to walk, I remember the ‘more’ “When my anxious thoughts multiply within, your consolations delight my soul”. The tripping in life, the stumbling and falling is bound to happen, and with this comes anxiety. These verses acknowledge my inevitable slipping and God’s loving kindness; my related anxiety and God’s consolations.

“If I should say “My foot has slipped”, Thy loving kindness, Oh Lord, will lift me up. When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, your consolations delight my soul” Psalm 94:18

On Firsts

It’s my daughter’s first day at a summer job. The job is a miracle; a gift in an economy unkind to students, new graduates and 55-year-old men and women who have been laid off.

Firsts are hard. First days of school with their stomach-ache and tight new shoes; first days of jobs with their need to make a good impression; a first kiss with awkward lips meeting for the first time, the excitement coupled with sheer terror at moving into a new place in the relationship.

But there’s something I love about firsts.  It’s in the hyper-awareness I experience of everything around me. The attention to detail, the adrenaline that pumps, the feeling of accomplishment that I actually got to the place I was supposed to and logged on to a computer, or found my boss. That feeling at the end of my first day that “I did it!”. That honeymoon stage where despite everything being new, I feel truly alive. That’s what I envy of my daughter’s first day.

It is a contrast to the mundane where I think I know everything and I go through life on autopilot, sometimes not even recognizing new if it’s staring me in the face.

It was in the grey of November last year, a grey that comes after the brilliance of fall, that I longed again for a first. For a beginning. And in my case it was a spiritual beginning. My faith was old and stale; stale like the old bread on my counter that crumbles as you pick it up. So stale that preservatives are no longer effective. Not even fresh butter and home-made jam can take away the staleness.

I knew all the things I should do; I knew about Bible study and prayer, about connecting with people and service, about waiting and patience. But knowing those things was part of the problem. I needed to go back to a first – a first love. I needed to remember a place where all was new, each word, each concept, each discipline.

And so I started with the Beginning. I decided that I would read the Bible as though I’d never read it. I would have no schedule, there would be no rules, there would be no mantras – I would just read.

I began at Genesis and I began to read. And I read and read and read some more. When I stopped I left a piece of paper marking the spot. I didn’t write or journal, I just read. And pretty soon creation and the fall were over and I was into Exodus, and I continued to read. I read things I don’t remember ever reading, I felt no pressure or guilt, I just read.

And as I read an extraordinary thing happened. I began to feel like this was a first. It was like I was seeing these words for the first time. The adrenaline began pumping and I was hyper aware. Truth entered into stale, new entered into old, I felt I was reborn.

It is the end of June and I have just entered Samuel. The wordless petition of Hannah is over and Samuel has just heard the voice of God. It was his first.