It is popular these days to count your blessings publicly. Well, not publicly in a face to face, in real life way, but through pictures and a few words on social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. It is customary to organize your updates with hashtags so that people all over the world can look up a hashtag and find all sorts of other people. Just another way to connect. Hashtags make it easier to find one another in a sea of people and words and images.
A popular hashtag these days is #blessed
By it, people mark the ways that they are blessed. It’s what you might expect:
Our baby was born this morning #blessed
I got a new client at work today #blessed
Our team won the big game — go Rebels — #blessed
My boyfriend got me flowers #blessed
I got a new car, new iPhone, new life #blessed
My child was the cutest child on Halloween #dinosaur #J #blessed
It’s a pretty neat hashtag and it is great to see the ways that people mark their blessings. We won’t get into the shadow side of it, which is the humble brag, showing off under the mask of humility, hoping to cause jealousy.
If we all just thought hard enough, we would certainly find the ways that we are blessed. Here in America, what else could we be? Perhaps blessing is a matter of perspective and if we could only see the ways that we are blessed then we would be more grateful and live better lives. We tell each other to forget how stressed we are and remember how blessed we are. We are quick to compare our situations to others noting that it could always be worse.
We have made blessing fit the mold of our American Dream and Protestant Work Ethic. If we recognize our blessings well enough, we will be rewarded with more. We are quick to name the ways that God is good.
All well and good. Let’s count our blessings and give thanks to God when life is good.
But what about when it isn’t? What about when life is unfair? When you lose? When things don’t go your way? When the check bounces? When your love leaves? When you face failure? When disappointment comes home to roost?
I think we have a crisis of faith in our country because we equate God with the good and we do not know how to make sense of the bad. Faith becomes superstition and an attempt to avoid the difficult. That’s never been God’s way of operating.
If blessing is about reward, what is it when the shoe is on the other foot? If God is behind our blessings, what about the flip side? Where is God then? What is God doing there?
Rabi’a was a Muslim saint, a Sufi mystic, a woman of deep faith in the 8th century. From Basra, Iraq originally, her life ended in her 80s on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
We don’t know much about her beyond her faith. She is famous for walking around with a pail of water in one hand and a torch in the other, saying, “I want to put fire to paradise and pour water over hell so that these two veils disappear and it becomes clear who venerates God for love and not for fear of hell or hope for paradise.”
We need to free God out from our accounting game. Of pluses and minuses, of reward and punishment, of a grand calculator for sin. This is a scarce theology, a shallow way of speaking about God. God is first and foremost abundant, deep, complex, and grand. The Creator loves pizzazz.
Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, when she looks at the cross sees God saying: “I would rather die than be in your sin accounting business that you put me into any longer.” The point isn’t to be rewarded or punished. The point is that this, all of it, is gift and God is here in the midst of it. High, low. Good, bad. Easy, hard. God is here and God is not finished yet.
God prefers to show up in our weakness, sadness, frustration, despair and need. When our hands are empty. When we feel we have nothing to give. When we are poor. When we grieve and are in mourning. When we feel the burn of injustice. When we are weak.
Why? Because we all end up there at some point. Because there, when we let go of all else, can we finally hold onto the one who is holding us. Because God is not done with us yet. Because God is blessing us beyond the curse.
Martin Luther suggests that if we want to know God, we ought to run to the manger. He tells us that true Christian religion begins not at the top as other religions do with guessing about God in the high moments. True Christian religion begins at the bottom where God meets us in the mess of life, in our suffering. If you want to know who God is, run to the Manger, and “find the mother’s womb, embrace this infant and Virgin’s Child in your arms, and look at Him — born, being nursed, growing up, going about human society, teaching, dying, rising again, ascending above all the heavens, and having authority over all things.”
If you want to know who God is, look into the places in your life where God is already present, where God promises to meet you. In the best moments, in the highest moments, sure, but also in the struggle, in the suffering, in the mess, in the chaos, in the plain, in the humble, in the day to day. God is here. God knows we’ll find him there.
Jesus stands on a mountain among the crowds and teaches them:
Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, those who yearn for justice, those who are meek, those who are persecuted and on and on.
Jesus blesses us where we least expect him to. Not where we are strong but where we are weak. Not when we are independent but dependent. Not when things are noteworthy but when we might be hidden from sight, pushed to the side, forgotten.
Jesus is on the mountain, but he is teaching us about life in the valley, when things are at their low point.
But before we turn these promises into another checklist: make yourself poor, weak, vulnerable, hurt, let us remember that Jesus didn’t come with a ladder to heaven so that we could, by our effort, climb one step closer. He came, God in the flesh, to us as one of us, born in a barn, and dead on a cross. These are not commands for a holy life but they are gospel words in the midst of all that life can throw your way.
Ten years ago the movie Garden State came out, giving my generation not only a soundtrack to our quarter life crisis but also words. The characters end up at a hole in the ground. It was supposed to be a mall but as the excavators dug, the ground underneath gave way, opening up an infinite abyss. It symbolized the vastness and powerlessness we come to face. What do you do with a hole you cannot fill? Or with ground that will not be stood upon?
You can slink away…. or you can shout into it.
Annie Dillard writes: “We don’t know what’s going on here. … Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” (Pilgrim, 11)
Jesus teaches us that even in the midst of poverty, we are rich, not because we have enough and need to change our perspective but because the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor. Jesus gives his blessing to those in poverty, whether it be in spirit as Matthew’s Gospel says, or in life as Luke’s Gospel says. Jesus then spreads his blessing onto those who mourn, promising comfort.
Jesus goes on and on about the ways we are blessed not only in the good, but in the hard, in the real, in the true.
It’s not about reward or punishment, but it is about the one who is able to bless beyond the curse.
In darkness, God brings light.
In chaos, order.
In evil, good
In grief, comfort
In death, life
St. Augustine said that we are an Easter people and alleluia is our song.
Rev 7:17 Tells us that God will wipe away every tear.
On this All Saints day, we acknowledge that there are tears we cry. Grief is the shadow side of love.
The Alleluias of Easter come only after the heartache of Good Friday and Jesus’ death on the cross.
We can shout into the infinite abyss that we feel and experience but instead of words of despair, we can shout words of hope. For God is there.
An ancient hymn and prayer long used at funerals is this: even as we make our way to the grave, our song is alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Praise God, praise God, praise God.
Not that we die. Not that we suffer. Not that we are poor. But because even in those places God is able to bless us. In poverty, wealth. In suffering, presence and comfort, in death, God makes life.