Monday, August 9, 2010

God's Blessing

blessing headline
I haven’t written a post specifically on faith since May 11. However, it is important to me to write only when I think I have something useful to say. My short series on alcoholism certainly was driven by my faith and I shared with you its central role in my recovery.
I have spent a great deal time during this period praying, reading, and thinking about what I could write on faith issues that might be helpful and relevant to you in your daily lives. I hope that this essay will strengthen you on your own spiritual journey.
Blessings and peace to you all.

The Bible speaks many times about the blessing of God and the blessings that God bestows on us. It speaks of God blessing particular individuals, even groups and entire nations. Israel, for example, is blessed, not just for itself, but so it could be a blessing to all nations.

But it also is clear that God bestows blessings on everyone, not just on the religious, and not even only upon on the good, but also upon the evil. Sunshine and rain, two essential ingredients of life, Mathew tells us, fall upon both the good and the evil.

The Bible also speaks about the blessings we should bestow on others. And, of course, it often tells us that we should bless God, both in gratitude for the blessings God gives to us, but also simply because God is God, and worthy of praise, blessing and worship.

But I want to move beyond these theological generalities, because, while they set general parameters for understanding blessing, I would like to bring the discussion down to a much more personal level, one with which we all, hopefully, can identify.

I believe that most people today would say that most of the thanks for the blessings they receive goes to themselves. If we are blessed, mostly we figure we have earned it. We believe that we deserve to be blessed.
A few of us will acknowledge those who came before us and laid the groundwork for our successes, whatever they are. But, still, we believe that we are the ones who built upon that foundation and made it into something. They gave us a leg up, but we did the real work. So, still, we think that we deserve the blessings we get.

The interesting thing about these notions is that they are, of course, partly correct. But only partly. There is something missing in that kind of thinking, something that we have not necessarily consciously forgotten, but that was forgotten long before we came along. Unless we are taught what that is, we will inevitably place our trust in the one we think is the source of our blessings: our own self.

And in doing so we still miss something we have lost, perhaps never really known that we had. That is because we, as a species, lost that something long before there was a church, or a temple, synagogue, or mosque. It was lost before there was anything like a formal “religion.”

And that is an awareness of God as the source of all blessing.

Long ago we lost the understanding that we wholly belong to God, that we are so dependent upon God that our very existence is in God’s hands. We forgot that our lives are nothing more than pure gifts, gifts of God’s steadfast love.

We have forgotten who we are and to whom we belong.

Now, if you are a believer and even, perhaps, a regularly worshiping believer, you may think that what I am saying does not apply to you. And if it really does not I am very happy for you. Unfortunately, I cannot say that it does not apply to me.

The truth is that day in, day out, I hear myself complain, or I get anxious, about things that are not going my way, or I try to control my life and the lives of those around me, seldom doing a very good job of that. And in the process I inevitably forget whose I am and how I am daily blessed by God. And I, of all people, should not do that. Allegedly, I know better. Alas, what I know does not always translate into how I live my faith.

For me, there is a simple word for such forgetfulness: sin. And, unfortunately for many of us, when we feel a bit too self-righteous, the Bible is there to remind us that we are all sinners. Not some, ALL.

The Bible stories in Genesis that tell us about the time just before Noah and about Noah illustrate the importance of God’s blessing. I will paraphrase the essence of these stories as I go along. [I won’t bore you with lots of scripture quotes, but, if you wish, you can read Chapters 6 through 9 of Genesis for the details. They are short and won’t take long.]
After the great flood, the story says that God tells Noah that God will establish a covenant with him, his descendants, and with every living creature. I doubt that Noah had much trouble understanding the importance of that covenant given that God had just wiped out every living thing on the earth, except for the animals and Noah’s family that were saved on the ark that God had told Noah to build.

God had wiped out all the rest of the land borne creation because the people had already forgotten the source of their blessings. By chapter 6 of Genesis they already had forgotten. To give you an idea how early that is in the Bible, look at it this way. A typical Bible is 1000 plus pages. Chapter 6 of Genesis will be found within the first 5-7 pages of that Bible, right after the stories of the expulsion from the Garden and of Cain and Able. Soon. Really soon.

According to the story, the people were already so evil that God was, literally, “sick to his guts” with their sin. And the Bible tells us that this “grieved him to his heart,” and concludes with a quote from the maker of heaven and earth saying, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created; people, together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But……

But, after the flood, God decided to make a covenant with Noah which would guarantee the salvation of not only humankind but of all of the creatures of the earth. God did this because God saw in Noah a righteous man. And Noah found favor in God’s sight.

In this tiny remnant family God saw enough goodness, enough understanding of to whom we creatures belong, to decide to keep our story going. So, as the story goes, without God remembering Noah, I would not be writing this and you would not be reading it.

And here is an amazing thing. Something that we inevitably overlook in this story. The story of the Noahic covenant starts with Verse One of Chapter Nine. And it starts out with a phrase we always skip over, perhaps because it seems so natural, so simple, so expected that we don’t even notice it. It starts, “Then God blessed Noah….”
Ah. That simple phrase. It just isn’t very dramatic, is it? I mean, we remember the big things that God does in the Bible, don’t we? We remember all the mighty acts of God in history. Those are the ones they teach in Bible School. Almost every child of a practicing religious family can tell you about Noah and the Ark.

Yet the blessing is by far God’s greatest act in that story, for without God’s blessing Noah would have failed even after the flood. It was the blessing that allowed the world to go on to become the world we know today.

Go back and look at the story of the creation in Chapter One. What does God do for humankind after God makes us on the sixth day? God blesses us. We are nothing without that blessing.

When people forget the blessing of their creator no good results. That is the moral of the story and of almost every other significant story in the Bible. Forget the blessing. Forget God. And God will not take that lightly. Fortunately, Noah did not forget that he was blessed by God.

It is easy for us to lose sight of the simple rhythms of God’s blessings in our lives. But we must not forget that there is a continuous, constant, steadfast presence of God in our lives, and it comes from those countless blessings. It is God’s blessing that brings to us fertility, family, nourishment, growth, nurture, love, and well-being. And these are the things that sustain our lives and that give quality to living. These are the “Simple Gifts” of life itself.
Noah knew that. Noah knew that he could endure the hardships of life, could endure the endless days on the ark as he rode out the flood, could endure the pain and loss of so many friends and relatives who chose not to believe, who chose to forget the blessing, who would not listen to God. He could endure because he knew that he belonged to God. He knew who he was, where he fit in the scheme of things, and, most of all to whom he belonged.

And, he knew that even before the flood. Before anyone, even God, spoke the words of blessing over him Noah knew who he was and to whom he belonged. He knew. And because he knew God considered him righteous.

Can we know as much? Or must we see amazing signs and mighty wonders to believe? Do we need to see some miraculous and overwhelming act of God before we remember to whom we owe our lives? It is not likely that in this lifetime we will see one of those mighty acts of God.
But if we just look around we can see God’s blessings everyday. The beauty those blessings bring is all around us. The world itself is a beautiful, wondrous, improbable place. It is a blessing that you can laugh, or work, or play, or think, or feel pain, or cry, or love and be loved. God provides life to us every day. Why do we take that for granted?

If we remember nothing else can we remember just this one thing? Can we remember that we are not necessary?!  Surely that thought has crossed your mind at one time or another. Our lives do not have to be. There is no necessity that we exist. One egg. One sperm. One particular egg. One particular sperm. That makes you. Any other sperm, any other egg, and you don’t exist.

Do you realize that in countless ways every day of your life you are exposed, vulnerable, to things that could eliminate your life in a single heartbeat? But here we are. And that is a blessing.

The life we have been given; the air we breathe; the people we know and love, and who love us, all these and countless more things we take for granted, all are blessings. They are gifts. Gifts from the one who created us and sustains us and loves us. Not “us Christians.” Not “us Jews.” Not “us Muslims.” Not “us atheists.” ALL of us.  All of us are blessed: by the God who gives us life.

For me it comes down to some choices. First, I choose to believe that this world and my life as part of it are not simply random acts of indifferent chance. Others do not share that belief. They are entitled to their beliefs, or lack thereof. Each must decide for him or her self what they believe about that fundamental choice.
Second, I have to constantly ask myself two questions lest I fall into the fallacy of self sufficiency: “Am I my own man, or am I God’s? And, if I am God’s, do I owe my life to my hard work or to God’s blessing?”

Too often we think that we are too busy to think about questions like these. Yet at times of stress, of grief, of illness, or great loss, times when there is no time to think, we often think that we are not blessed. Those are times when our self reliance and our self confidence in our ability to control our lives fail us. Those are the times when we feel most lost, most alone.

We feel alone because we have put our faith in ourselves, and when we fail ourselves we all too often blame that on God. It is very hard, indeed, to look in a mirror at times like those. But we must. We must be honest about who really failed. And we must, at our lowest times, remember God’s blessings.

We must, because it is when the god we have made out of ourselves, or our success, or our science, or our technology has let us down, and we finally realize that we cannot bless ourselves in ways that really count – that is when we must remember what it means to be blessed by God.

But we do not have to wait for some personal tragedy to start thinking about God’s blessing. We can take a chapter out of Noah’s book. Noah knew he was blessed long before the crisis came. He had thought about it and pondered it in the quiet recesses of his heart. He knew.

We too can know in our hearts that we are blessed; that we belong to God and that God takes care of God’s own. We can know that we are blessed because God has given us our very lives. We can know that we are blessed because God loves us. All of us.

It may sound trite, but it does make sense to count our blessings. Add them up. Get a sense of how totally pervasive they are in our lives. Get a sense of how totally indebted to God we are for our well being.

And then go out and pass on some of those blessings that you have been given to someone else. There is much to be thankful for, and one way to show your gratitude is by paying it forward to someone who needs to feel a blessing at a difficult point in his or her life. You are blessed, and, you can be a blessing to someone. It is a wonderful feeling.