A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a noonday bible study about cultural phenomena that shape a people’s religious identity. If I remember correctly, we were reading from Isaiah and discussing how the prophet instructs God’s people that the correct social institutions (those that care for the poor, orphaned, oppressed, etc.) help instill a right understanding of who God is and how he cares for his people. The contemporary example of this culture-first, religion-second pattern that we explored was the use of the term “blessed.”
In my experience, there are people I meet in my daily life who like to use the word “blessed” to describe how they are doing or how they hope to be doing at any particular point in time. When I ask, “How are you doing today?” I often get the response, “I’m blessed.” Or, upon bidding someone farewell, I sometimes hear, “Have a blessed day!” To be honest, my initial response to these expressions (prayers for?) divine favor is distaste. They usually sound hollow and poorly thought out, and I don’t particularly care for them. But, upon further reflection, I think they might be indications of a cultural reality that has shaped and continues to shape a people.
Although this might be short-sided, I usually think of people who throw around the word “blessed” in this manner as members of the evangelical (often Baptist) Christian community, many of whom are black. Most often, I hear these expressions of blessing either at the beginning or at the conclusion of an appointment with an applicant for financial assistance from our parish. “How are you doing today?” I ask. “I’m blessed…but I need some help with my power bill.” And again at the end of our appointment, “I know you still have a long way to go. Take care of yourself,” I say. “Have a blessed day!” is frequently offered in return.
The other day, after a lengthy conversation with a gentleman I’ve gotten to know over the past 18 months, we walked toward the office door. Although he used less familiar words to bid me goodbye, he spoke in the familiar pattern, “I hope God continues to bless you.” My response, perhaps to the unfamiliar phrasing of the same-old sentiment, was unrehearsed: “Well, God will continue to bless me. And if I look around hard enough, I’ll be able to see it.” I didn’t think much of it at the time. When I said it, the words were as shallow as any other “I’m blessed” remark I hear. But it stuck with me. It took root and grew inside my heart and in my mind. What does it mean to be blessed? What does it mean to search for God’s blessings?
Today’s gospel reading from the Daily Office (Matthew 5:1-12) is the Beatitudes. Jesus addresses the crowd, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” His list includes lots of people whom we normally think of as being un-blessed—those who suffer, those who are in pain, those who are lacking resources either spiritual or material. Yet Jesus says, “Blessed are you…” That’s the kind of blessing I must search for in order to see it.
When people say, “Have a blessed day!” they might not really mean it. They may not have ever given thought to what it actually means to be blessed. When someone answers, “I’m blessed,” they might not really feel it. In fact, those who come to me in a state of financial ruin might not have any idea how God is blessing them in their poverty, yet they say it anyway. And I believe that what might appear to me as an empty remark has the ability to take root. That which starts with “I’m blessed” just might grow into a realization of those blessings that otherwise would go unobserved. My theology of blessing starts with the premise that God is blessing the whole creation without ceasing. In those moments in which we become conscious of that blessing, the benedictional presence of God in our lives becomes real. Unless I’m searching for evidence of God’s blessing, I won’t be able to see it. And sometimes that search begins with a well-worn word or phrase.