I regularly read the “Advice” column in our local paper, The Record-Eagle, written by Jeanne Philips. When I read it daily I sometimes sense in an instant of Schadenfreude that someone has issues more complex than my own. More often I have a sense of incredulity, first, because of the complicated “pickles” in which people find themselves, or more often because very small “pickles” are escalated into big problems. Regularly these several plaintiffs receive answers that are terse and to the point, most often good common-sense wisdom.
One such column caught my attention the other day because it came from Michigan where I live. It was entitled “Non-believer Credits Work, not ‘Blessings for Success,” (Record-Eagle 2/19/2022). It was signed “deserving in Michigan.” The letter was from a woman with a “wonderful, well-paying job” sixteen years of happy marriage, a happy healthy daughter, and a stay-at-home husband/dad. The writer reports that she grew up in a “very religious family,” but that she is “no longer religious” and does not attend church. She reports that she works “extremely long hours” and has “worked my butt off to get where we are.”
The vexation about which “Deserving in Michigan” writes is her irritation that well-meaning people make “constant comments” that “you are “so blessed to be where you are.” She writes, “It feels wrong to equate my success to being blessed by God,” when she has the strong sense that she herself, though thankful for the people who have helped her, is responsible for her wellbeing. She deserves her wellbeing, and refuses the notion that her wellbeing is due to the blessing of God.
As we might expect, the answer to “Deserving in Michigan” from “Abby” (Jeanne Philips) is “Of course…you are deserving of your success.” But do not engage in “braggadocio”; simply nod and let it go. That seems simple enough, just what I would have expected Abby” to write. But even “Abby” agrees with “Deserving,” that she deserves, perhaps especially because she, like me, is from Michigan.
But of course “Deserving” poses a deep theological issue, one easily ignored by those of us who have “made it” in our competitive society. It would seem that “Deserving” is acutely unaware of or uninterested in those among us who are not so well off; perhaps she would judge that they are “undeserving,” thus accepting the systemic injustice from which both she and I have benefitted so much. Clearly any thoughtfulness would disclose to “Deserving” and the rest of us that the rewards of wellbeing do not come simply to the “deserving”; they come to the fortunate and the well-connected, especially to the fortunate and well-connected among us who are male, or white, or Western or all of the above. I have no wish to denigrate the letter-writer; her letter is nonetheless an opportunity for us to reflect (a) on the way in which we are “deserving,” (b) the way in which God’s good gifts indiscriminately are given (Matthew 5:45), and (c) the way in which our socio-political system apportions those indiscriminately given gifts and so selects winners and losers. “Deserving” is unaware and uninterested in all of this. She speaks for a lot of us who have been narcoticized by the system not to notice how the system takes generous care of some of us, and denies care to many of us. Her success, as for many of us, has numbed her to the social reality that lies behind her success. That social reality, moreover, remains willfully hidden until we make the effort to disclose it. With that social reality securely hidden from us, “Deserving” can readily imagine herself to be self-made.
THE ILLUSION OF AUTONOMY
Autonomy is a huge seduction for those of us who have prospered in an unjust system. Autonomy is the daring imagination that one’s successful achievement makes one an independent self-starter who can enjoy self without a reference beyond the self. We can observe that seduction of autonomy operative in many scriptural renderings.
Thus in the mock-song of Ezekiel Pharaoh is charged with such illusionary autonomy:
My Nile is my own;
I made it for myself (Ezekiel 29:3).
It is of course exactly the opposite. It is the Nile River that has made Pharaoh. It is the Nile that made possible the cultural sophistication and military prowess that permitted the dynastic line of Pharaohs to be dominant figures for a long run of world history. Thus Pharaoh’s words, put in his mouth by the prophet, constitute an act of self-delusion. In fact Pharaoh is quite penultimate, wholly dependent upon the “blessings” bestowed by the river. In his power and self-assurance Pharaoh was unable to acknowledge his penultimacy, and so he acts in hubris and imagines himself to be self-sufficient.
The same portrayal of self-delusion is evident in the familiar parable of Jesus (Luke 12:13-21). The farmer had land that “produced abundantly.” He had no thought or care for either the land or the neighbor. He thought only of his own abundance. Indeed, there is no limit to how much abundance he is able to acquire and willing to store for himself. This great abundance, in his utter isolation, leads him to reflect on his future and ask himself what to do with his great accumulation:
What shall I do, for I have no place to store my crops?
Then he decided:
I will do this; I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods (v. 18).
Having done all of that to secure himself, he is wont to celebrate in self-congratulations:
Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink, and be merry (v. 19).
This portrayal of the man is a perfect model for a system of economic greed that sanctions accumulation without limit or restraint and without regard for anyone else. That by itself would be a sufficient delivery by the parable.
As we know, the parable does not end there. Instead the narrative introduces into the man’s solitary world a new voice and a new agent, “But God said” (v. 20). This inexplicable, unexpected voice in the night promptly reduces the farmer to penultimacy. It places a decisive negative on his self-confidence, his hubris, and his sense that he “deserves” his abundance. No serious farmer would imagine that she is autonomous. Every serious farmer knows she is a creature of the land, and the land determines one’s lot. It is only industrial agriculture, in the wake of Enlightenment autonomy, that could imagine limitless abundance kept for one’s self as a viable way in the world. In the world of real agriculture, as in the rest of the real world, the true calculus is not one of “deserving,” but one of gifts given to the just and the unjust.
AN ALTERNATIVE PERSPECTIVE
In a world where the ideology of Pharaoh, the mentality of the parabolic farmer, and the self-understanding of “Deserving” in Michigan prevail, it is the work of the church to foster an alternative perspective that affirms that life is grounded in gifts generously given, and not in merit or desert. In Lutheran dialect, this is simply the issue of “law and grace,” but that simple either/or needs to be lined out in fresh ways in a culture that abounds in self-celebration and in endless promotion of the self-esteeming individualism. The proper response to “Deserving” in her self-sufficiency and self-congratulations is the affirmation and offer of gifts graciously given that may evoke gratitude.
It is the work of the church to foster a practice and policy of thanks that bespeaks an honest penultimacy before the inscrutable ultimacy of the holy God. Scripture everywhere gives voice to this truth for our lives. Here are some texts that have occurred to me:
In I Chronicles David leads his people in gathering the offering of materials for the temple Solomon will build. Of this abundance he prays in thanksgiving:
Riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you, and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to make this freewill offering? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you (vv. 12-15).
David voices thanks. He articulates gratitude for himself and for his people. He acknowledges that all his offerings are not other than a return to God of God’s own gifts. It is from this verse that we get the familiar formulation for church offerings:
We give thee but thine own, Whate’er the gift may be,
For all that we have is thine alone, A trust, O Lord, from thee.
In I Corinthians 4:6 Paul writes pastoral advice to the church so that,
None of you will be puffed up in favor of one against another (v. 6).
And then he poses a triad of searing questions to the church:
For who sees anything different in you?
What do you have that you did not receive?
And if you received it, Why do you boast as if it were not a gift? (v. 7).
The answer to the first question is that we can see nothing distinctive in the life or conduct of any of the members. The answer to the second question is, “Nothing.” They have nothing that has not been given to them as a gift from God. The answer to the third question is, We boast because we have not accepted that what we have is a gift; we have mistakenly come to regard what we have as an achievement, an accomplishment, or a possession of our own. These feeble answers permit us to draw only one conclusion: It is all gift! And because it is all gift, the only appropriate response is one of thanks that initiates a life of gratitude.
Psalm 116 provides a liturgical guide for thanks. On the one hand thanks is a verbal utterance expressed, for example, in verses 8 and 16:
For you have delivered my soul from death,
My eyes from tears,
My feet from stumbling…
O Lord, I am your servant,
I am your servant, the child of you servant girl,
You have loosed my bonds.
Thanks is the actual utterance of the gifts, naming with specificity that for which we are grateful. The naming is a recognition that we are on the receiving end of that which we could not generate for ourselves. But second, thanks is an act of glad yielding of something of value, of giving from one’s substance, an offering:
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people…
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people (vv. 13-14, 17-18).
The offering is an act of glad yielding of something of value in the awareness that it is not a gain to be counted, but a gift that mandates response.
It is then work of the church to nurture and evoke such practices of thanks that may issue in lives of gratitude. In a life of gratitude, the measure of “deserving” or “undeserving” simply becomes irrelevant. The center of our lives is reconfigured around generosity that need never be coerced, but is always glad and beyond limit or calculation. The competitive mindset of our economic system (that trickles into every facet of our lives) reduces everything to a quid pro quo measure. Gratitude, however, contradicts that logic. It affirms in active ways that the circulation of gifts, the sharing of goods, and the practice of generosity are never and can never be measured by a quid pro quo calculus. In the end, thanks is not just an attitude or a liturgical gesture. It is way of being in the world, an active appreciative recognition that the gifts belong to all the neighbors, and that the presumably “deserving” are, willy-nilly, in full solidarity with the apparently “undeserving.” It is no doubt the case that a life grounded in thanks will yield different neighbor practices and in different policies that upbuild the neighborhood.
For all our imagined autonomy, it is unsustainable. We finally must rely on generous gift-givers who, knowingly or not, reiterate the ultimate gift given, God’s own life given for the sake of the world. And thus we may gladly say of ourselves, “We are blessed.” We are blessed beyond measure by the self-giving of God. None of our illusions about being self-made or self-sufficient is finally persuasive. It is not that we “deserve.” It is that we are on the receiving end of a richness of blessing, mediated through thanks-filled lives, ultimately from the God of all gifts. So we act out blessings, share them and thereby refuse the self-regard of Pharaoh and the illusion of the rich, beguiled farmer of the parable. We know better than that; so we may live better than that!
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