Monday, December 14, 2009

Are we self-centered: Blessings and gratitude

Blessings and gratitude have been much on my mind this past year. Possibly as a result of the economic crisis, more people seem to be stating what they are grateful for and calling out their particular blessings.

Individual blessings are no doubt good and in times of economic distress, it can be useful to remind ourselves of how grateful we are to have houses, jobs, and health insurance while all around us people's lives fall into ruin and chaos.

At the same time, it can come across, even when sincerely and humbly meant, as a tad self-centered to celebrate one's own good fortune in the midst of the carnage. It is good to have a roof over one's head, a job and access to health care, and better yet to be grateful for them, but at the same time, it's a sign of the sickness in our society that not everybody has these things. What I often hear is a gratitude not centered in a context of abundance but in a context of scarcity. What I hear is not gratitude that we collectively are prospering but gratitude for my individual fortune. "I" am so grateful to have what others don't.

How would it sound if someone were to stand up in meeting and say: "I am so grateful to have air to breathe," if, just a few blocks a way, people were choking and gasping and possibly dying from lack of air?

What good is a blessing if others don't share in it?

I am convinced that God's true blessings are meant for everyone. When the Bible says the sun shines on the good and the evil alike, it points to the paradox of rewards but it also describes how God gives. God rains down blessings on us in great abundance. Indiscriminately. Not just on the "deserving," by whatever arbitrary measure we may devise to determine that, but on all people. Maybe all people are deserving in God's eyes?

The forces of evil would try to hoard those blessings for the few. But at the point, they get turned into something spoiled, like the manna from heaven the wandering Israelites tried to hoard. I don't think, for example, it's a blessing, in and of itself, to live in a huge house when others are homeless.

Things that are blessings for the few can linger and rot. When we think of haunted houses in the popular imagination, for example. we think of large old Victorian dwelling, with flapping shutters askew and inside, cobwebs festooning the once-fancy woodwork. Or we think of ancient castles. We seldom think of haunted huts or cottages.

Yet we live in a world that routinely encourages us to hoard the blessings for ourselves and our group, be it our own children, our faith groups, our cities, towns, counties, states or countries.

When the English ruling class started to enclose what had traditionally been common grazing lands, lands available to promote the common good and common prosperity, trouble ensued. Today, some don't care that water and air, traditionally freely available, at least in this country, have become polluted. There's money to be made by selling the clean versions of these-now--commodities.

As we contemplate Christmas and the birth of Jesus, it's integral--not simply a pretty embellishment-- to the story that he was born to bring grace to all people. He is a universal blessing. He brings a hope for peace and goodwill to all.

The challenge I am taking up is to try to be thankful for and to ask for blessing for all people. If I am grateful for a job, a home or health insurance, then I want that for everyone. If I deserve it, so does everyone else. I ask why isn't that blessing raining on everyone? What more can I/we do to ensure it?

When I think of the blessings I would most like to spread, they tend to be more of a spiritual nature: I would love everyone to have loving relationships, goodwill, peace, joy, beautiful surroundings, health, etc. But I also recognize that we are incarnate, material beings and the above spiritual needs are nurtured by physical security. Of course, we can have all these things in terrible circumstances--and the saints among us carry love, peace, joy and all the rest into the darkest dungeons--but most of us are not saints.

This is a roughly written piece, as I try to process these thoughts. I recognize that a crude equalitarianism is not necessarily a blessing either, though I think it might come closer to God's vision than what we have around us. Certainly we don't want to bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator but to bring everyone up to a comfortable place. I keep thinking of John Wesley's dictum: earn as much as you can, save as much as you can, give as much as you can. Do we agree with that? How can we take what we have--our blessings--and make them more of a blessing to everyone?


Hystery said...

From each according to their ability, to each according to their need? ;-)

I am interested in exploring the connections between Calvinist concerns with explaining the concept of predestination in the grossly economically and socially unjust colonial period to contemporary explanations of "blessing" from spiritual folks from the Christian right to the New Age in a time when we still struggle with injustice, greed, and poverty. Across the historical and political spectrum, those who have give spiritual explanations for their success thereby suggesting that those without are spiritually deficient, sinful, or otherwise undeserving. I think your post is an excellent contribution to the conversation and I particularly appreciate your point that thankfulness for blessing may seem to be a selfish act in one who is not also actively concerned with his/her neighbor's need.

Diane said...

Hi Hystery,

I'm not surprised we think alike and to the question: why do I have what others don't, I agree that it is easy to jump to the answer "because God loves me more," but the reality of how God works, as far as I can understand it, is that he offers abundance of blessings for everyone. So if people "don't have," isn't that a failure on the part of humans to rightly distribute God's gifts? Doesn't that turn blessings into curse? It's not as if there's not enough and God can only provide for a few.

Diane said...

But I would be interested too in tracing the argument that brings it back to "I have blessings because I am more deserving."

Lynn T. said...

Hi Diane-
I've been reading your blog for a couple of weeks now (it's wonderful) and when I read in your comment above "So if people 'don't have,' isn't that a failure on the part of humans to rightly distribute God's gifts?" the Spirit within me leapt up and said "YES!" Thank you for the post and for the follow-up comment. My family is grappling with how to share what we have, while not feeling we have much to spare at the end of the month anymore (things having taken a turn for the economic worse at our house, as at many people's). This is the struggle between faith and fear. We clearly still have so much more than so many others do... we must find a way, in faith, to "give all we can" and help rightly distribute God's gifts.

Peace to you and yours.
-Lynn T.

Anonymous said...

How does this square with Matthew 25:14-30 the story of three stewards?

Diane said...




I was thinking of the parable of the talents when I wrote this--that the steward who buried his talent (hoarded because his was a mentality of scarcity, of losing what little he had) suffers, while those who have the faith to put their talents to work--who assume a world of abundance--are rewarded. Hoarding gets us nowhere; spreading money, talents, gifts around generates abundance. Hhhm. Maybe the banks should be thinking about this. :)

Hystery said...

This reminds me of something my parents (who are extremely generous people) used to tell me when I fussed about money as a child. (I was a miserly child). "Money doesn't do anyone any good sitting in your pocket."