This post is also in this week's The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's in Decatur, Alabama. To learn more about St. John's, you may click here for this and other recent newsletters.
I have not decided which I find more offensive----when people speak of their success as the product of luck or the result of God's blessing. I suppose it depends on whether I understand them to be ignoring the ways in which the deck is stacked in their favor or placing a special claim on God's favor. Is the so-called "lucky" person really the beneficiary of statistically improbable good fortune? Is the self-proclaimed "blessed" individual really one upon whom God has showered his love more completely? Then again, maybe those labels are merely the product of our instinct to point to something beyond ourselves and our control as the source of all good gifts. In other words, for a truly grateful person, maybe those are just two different ways of trying to say the same thing.
I was raised by two college graduates. My father's income enabled my mother to stay at home and care for my brothers and me. I was sent to a fancy summer camp and taken to chamber music concerts. My parents provided golf lessons and piano lessons and paid for overnight field trips and extracurricular activities and encouraged me to finish my homework and study for tests. I got a summer job when I was in high school not because my family needed the money but because it would look good on a college application. We went on vacation to the beach, to the mountains, and even once to Disney World.
I grew up as the product of other, harder to measure privileges, too. Throughout my life, whenever I have been pulled over by a police officer, I have never wondered whether it was because of my race. I have never felt excluded or shunned because of my religion. I have never questioned whether I would be taken seriously because of my gender. I have never worried whether my parents would still accept me because of the person I loved.
Now, I have my own wonderful, healthy, loving family. I have a rewarding job that provides us with enough income for my wife to stay at home and care for our children. I have more college degrees than I need, and I know that opportunities for further study are open for me if I choose to pursue them. I live in a great house, and we own two cars, each of which has leather seats. The golf lessons never paid off in terms of my handicap, but I am the beneficiary of the social and professional opportunities that my exposure to the game has provided. We have not taken our children to Disney World yet, but I trust that trip is in our family's future.
Where did all of those successes come from? As a student, as a husband, as a father, and as a parish priest, I have worked hard for most of my life, but did I earn the life that I have? Was it given to me? Am I lucky? Am I blessed? How many of those blessings can I take credit for? How many of them are the result of the privileges that I have been given by my parents, by my upbringing, and by the socio-economic and genetic lotteries for which my life represents a jackpot?
In 1 Chronicles 29, David stood before the people and proclaimed, "Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all." It is hard for me to imagine any earthly king (or parish priest, for that matter) standing before his people at the moment of their greatest prosperity and taking none of the credit for it. "Who am I?" David went on to ask, "and who are my people, that we should be able to make any offering to you? For all things come of you, and of your own have we given you" (1 Chronicles 29:11, 14). Sometimes we say those words in worship when we present the offerings of our lives and labors to the lord, but do we know why we say them? Do we know what they mean?
At the end of his life, as he prepared to pass the throne on to his son Solomon, David reflected not on what he and his people had achieved but on what God had given them. Surely they had all worked hard together to make Israel the great nation that it had become, but David took that opportunity in his farewell address not to thank his supporters or to remind the people of their victories but to point them back to the one who makes all things possible. After all, as the Bible tells us, David was a man after God's own heart.
Are we blessed? Yes. Everything we have is a gift from God. Every success, every relationship, every moment that matters to us, they all belong to God. But those blessings come to us not because God loves us any more than anyone else but simply because God loves us just as much as God loves all of creation. Are we lucky? Maybe some of us have beaten the odds a few times. Perhaps one or two of us has really stumbled onto great success through no fault of our own. But, to the extent that we have received more than our fair share of success, most of us have gotten that because we were given a leg up by our birth. That should not be a source of shame or guilt. Instead, conscious that everything we have is an underserved blessing, we can ask God to help us devote those privileges to what God is doing in the world by lifting up the downtrodden and setting the captives free.
Something happens within us when we discover that all of life is a gift. It makes us grateful. It makes us generous. It helps us see that the struggles of others are our struggles, too, and it helps us remember that the blessings of others are our blessings as well. Say thank you to God----not only with your lips but with your life----not because God needs or even wants the thank you but because your participation in the transformation that God is enacting in the world begins by counting your blessings and expressing humble gratitude for them.