July 18, 2014

I Am Blessed (And I'm Going To Keep Talking About It)

 I'm sure lots (if not all) of you have seen that article that's making the rounds again, written by a former missionary, and published through Huffington Post about why Christians should stop saying 'blessed'. At the end of the article he says that he'd like to hear people's thoughts, and I had plenty of them.
Okay, so I'm just going to deal with this one bit at a time; there’s a *lot* going on here, most of which I heartily disagree with. (For the sake of reading, all my thoughts will be in red.) If you want to read the unsullied article first you can do that here.

I was on the phone with a good friend the other day. After covering important topics, like disparaging each other's mothers and retelling semi-factual tales from our college days, our conversation turned to the mundane.
"So, how's work going?" he asked.
For those of you who don't know, I make money by teaching leadership skills and helping people learn to get along in corporate America. My wife says it's all a clever disguise so I can get up in front of large groups and tell stories.
I plead the fifth.
I answered my buddy's question with,
"Definitely feeling blessed. Last year was the best year yet for my business. And it looks like this year will be just as busy."
The words rolled off my tongue without a second thought. Like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or placing my usual lunch order at McDonald's.
But it was a lie.
Now, before you start taking up a collection for the "Feed the Dannemillers" fund, allow me to explain. Based on last year's quest to go twelve months without buying anything, you may have the impression that our family is subsisting on Ramen noodles and free chips and salsa at the local Mexican restaurant. Not to worry, we are not in dire straits.
Last year was the best year yet for my business.
Things are looking busy in 2014.
But that is not a blessing.
Really? How exactly do you define a blessing? I’ll look it up in the dictionary for you really fast. According to Meriam Webster the first definition of Blessing is, and I quote, “the act or word of one that blesses”. I’m pretty sure that everything under the sun, arranged and orchestrated by God, who is the one true Blesser, qualifies as a blessing, it’s all a matter of choosing to see it in that light.  

I've noticed a trend among Christians, myself included, and it troubles me. Our rote response to material windfalls is to call ourselves blessed. Like the "amen" at the end of a prayer.
"This new car is such a blessing." It is.
"Finally closed on the house. Feeling blessed." You should feel that way.
"Just got back from a mission trip. Realizing how blessed we are here in this country." We are very blessed.

On the surface, the phrase seems harmless. Faithful even. Why wouldn't I want to give God the glory for everything I have? Isn't that the right thing to do?
No. Again I say, REALLY?! I feel like there’s a SNL skit about this. Oh wait. There is. I’m actually SUPER curious where you managed to accrue this notion that we ought not to do this thing. Please point me to somewhere, anywhere, in the Bible where it says that we are *not* to give thanks and rejoice for the gifts that the Lord graciously gives to us on a daily basis. Because what I’ve read so far seems to say just the opposite.  For instance, and this is really just the first one I remember, 1 Thes. 5:16-18 “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  See, I read “give thanks in all circumstances” and “rejoice always”, and I feel like that’s a pretty straightforward order. Give thanks. For everything. All the time.
As I reflected on my "feeling blessed" comment, two thoughts came to mind. I realize I'm splitting hairs here, creating an argument over semantics. But bear with me, because I believe it is critically important. It's one of those things we can't see because it's so culturally engrained that it has become normal.
But it has to stop. And here's why.
First, when I say that my material fortune is the result of God's blessing, it reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers. I am fairly certain that devout, God-fearing, Christians have been calling themselves blessed over an incredible variety of situations for a really, really long time. Acknowledging that God has, in fact, blessed us with a material thing is hardly treating him like a fairy.  A fairy gives us whatever we ask for regardless of how it will affect us or those around us, and with no plan or purpose for the granting. The same cannot, and should not, be said of God. Is he generous? Absolutely. Does his generosity often appear in the form of material things? Again, yes. Are all of the things he gives us part of a divine plan the depth and breadth of which we cannot hope to fathom? Yup! Ergo, not a fairy.

 I can't help but draw parallels to how I handed out M&M's to my own kids when they followed my directions and chose to poop in the toilet rather than in their pants. Sure, God wants us to continually seek His will, and it's for our own good. But positive reinforcement?
Haha! Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but the Bible is full of all kinds of positive reinforcement. “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land.” Ex 20:12. What is that again? It sure looks like positive reinforcement to me.
God is not a behavioral psychologist.

Second, and more importantly, calling myself blessed because of material good fortune is just plain wrong. I beg to differ.  It’s just plain silly to *be* blessed yet deny it. How very arrogant of you. For starters, it can be offensive to the hundreds of millions of Christians in the world who live on less than $10 per day. You read that right. Hundreds of millions who receive a single-digit dollar "blessing" per day. So, we cannot rejoice in any blessing that other people do not have lest we offend them? What about kids? Children are a blessing, given by the Lord (as are ALL THINGS; including money and material possessions), to some people and yet not to others. Should the people that have been blessed with children not rejoice and thank the Lord for that blessing because (and I will give you that it is heartbreakingly sad) other people cannot have the same blessing? What about people that are wealthier than you personally. Are they supposed to walk around glumly because you don’t make as much as they do? What about people who make less than you, but still more than the people who only make less than a dollar a day? What about the people that make a dollar a day; are they allowed to rejoice even though there are definitely people who make absolutely *no* money on a given day? Who gets to set the dollar amount where rejoicing and giving thanks for blessings of the Lord becomes uncouth and hurtful? I’m pretty sure God already did, and that He set it up so that there is no income range where it's inappropriate to thank him. 

During our year in Guatemala, Gabby and I witnessed first-hand the damage done by the theology of prosperity, where faithful people scraping by to feed their families were simply told they must not be faithful enough. If they were, God would pull them out of their nightmare. Just try harder, and God will show favor. AH! Here we get to the crux of the matter. And one of the points we agree on. Prosperity Theology is a heinous, terrible, sin. And it is a shame and embarrassment to the body of Christ that such heresy is spewed out (and tolerated) on a daily basis. It’s also true that no where are we promised material blessings as a payment for every single act of obedience, but that does not negate the fact that we *are* blessed with physical things.

The problem? Nowhere in scripture are we promised worldly ease in return for our pledge of faith. In fact, the most devout saints from the Bible usually died penniless, receiving a one-way ticket to prison or death by torture.
I almost agree with this statement, but it needs to be clarified. First of all, it’s probably a more accurate statement to say that a *lot*, maybe even *most* (if you’re being generous), of the saints from the Bible died penniless. Second, just because they *died* penniless does not mean they *lived* that way. Off the top of my head, Joseph of Arimathea, comes to mind. That guy had a pretty sweet tomb and those things were *not* cheap. (You might say that the Lord had blessed him over the course of his life and given him the means to purchase it [gasp of horror] for himself.) It was his. He owned it. He even planned on using it. But he held it loosely, and gave it back to God when it was time to do so.
I'll take door number three, please.
If we're looking for the definition of blessing, Jesus spells it out clearly (Matthew 5: 1-12).
1 Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him,
2 And He began to teach them, saying:
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I have a sneaking suspicion verses 12a 12b and 12c were omitted from the text. That's where the disciples responded by saying:
12a Waitest thou for one second, Lord. What about "blessed art thou comfortable," or 12b "blessed art thou which havest good jobs, a modest house in the suburbs, and a yearly vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast?"
12c And Jesus said unto them, "Apologies, my brothers, but those did not maketh the cut."
So there it is. Written in red. Plain as day. Even still, we ignore it all when we hijack the word "blessed" to make it fit neatly into our modern American ideals, creating a cosmic lottery where every sincere prayer buys us another scratch-off ticket. In the process, we stand the risk of alienating those we are hoping to bring to the faith.

Let me just stop you right there. Reading over those verses, I could not help but notice that every single item on that list an attitude, or posture of the heart. Nowhere does it say, as you would like to suggest, “Blessed are the people who don’t own anything, for they’ll be the holier saints in heaven.” It also doesn’t say, “Blessed are the people who hide their blessings under layers of guilt and sadness, for they’ll be the most joyful in heaven.”
And we have to stop playing that game.
The truth is, I have no idea why I was born where I was or why I have the opportunity I have. You’re right. You are very, very, blessed to be alive when and where you are.  It's beyond comprehension. But I certainly don't believe God has chosen me above others because of the veracity of my prayers or the depth of my faith. Point number two.  Still, if I take advantage of the opportunities set before me, a comfortable life may come my way. It's not guaranteed. That makes three. But if it does happen, I don't believe Jesus will call me blessed.
He will call me "burdened."
He will ask,
"What will you do with it?"
"Will you use it for yourself?"
"Will you use it to help?"
"Will you hold it close for comfort?"
"Will you share it?"
So many hard choices. So few easy answers. Really? (Reeaally??) This is entirely an attitude of your own devising. Instead of choosing to see your blessings as an opportunity to serve Christ and others, and instead of choosing to have a joyful heart, you see yourself as burdened. Poor, poor you. How much guilt you must carry for being so blessed .Everyone who is alive and breathing faces those questions every day. Some of us have more to consider than others but we must all consider it. It is the chief end of man to glorify God and enjoy him forever. How do we glorify God? By loving him, and doing what he commands. He commands that we be Joyful! With words of praise and thanksgiving constantly on our lips! We are to praise His unending, unsurpassed goodness all the time! We are BLESSED!
So my prayer today is that I understand my true blessing. It's not my house. Or my job. Or my standard of living. (Oh, yes, those pesky fake blessings, they do so get in the way.)
My blessing is this. I know a God who gives hope to the hopeless. I know a God who loves the unlovable. I know a God who comforts the sorrowful. And I know a God who has planted this same power within me. Within all of us.  This is Gnostisism at the core, really. You only have *one* true blessing, the spiritual kind, because all the earthly blessings are fake hollow forms of the essence of the true blessing? Well, as my high-school teacher always told me, “We Ain’t No Stinkin Gnostics!” Is the fact that Jesus came, died, and reconciled us to God as our true heavenly father the ULTIMATE blessing? YES. Is it our ONLY blessing? Not by any means.
And for this blessing, may our response always be,
"Use me."
Since I had this conversation, my new response is simply, "I'm grateful." Would love to hear your thoughts. This really gets me hot under the collar here. You’re grateful? Really? For what?! Blessings, I tell you, blessings. These abundant gifts of love.
  I propose that a more accurate way to correct the issue you’re grappling with would be, instead of just ending thoughts and facebook updates with “blessed” or “grateful”, to use both. Like this: I'm am grateful to be so blessed. Or #blessed #grateful . They should go hand in hand, so let them.