I stopped at TJ Maxx the other day and was surprised to see the store jam-packed with people. Like much of the country, Ohio is experiencing a surge of coronavirus cases, and our county is among the worst. We must be extra vigilant these days because of an immunocompromised family member, so I chose not to shop that day. Instead, I stood at a distance, observing as people pushed overflowing carts through the long and winding check-out line.
Lamps and pillows, candles and paintings, comforters and coffee mugs, furniture, toys, boots, and large Christmas trolls were all popular items. I thought about how we self-soothe by buying stuff we don’t need. I wondered about the anxieties and struggles hidden behind each mask. It’s hard to tell when only the eyes are visible, but it seemed to me that no one looked happy. Next to the cashiers’ station stood a rack of framed calligraphy art. The one that caught my eye said, Blessed. I began to think about that.
A Malawian woman once asked me why God blesses America but not them. Is it because of witchcraft in our land? she asked. Is it because we’re cursed? I replied with a question: what makes you think you are not blessed?
To my friend and everyone she knows, blessing equals health, wealth, and comfort – a life of convenience in a land of opportunity. How can they consider themselves blessed when they live such hard lives in difficult places, watching their children go hungry? How can they believe God loves them?
I think we define blessing the same way here in the West. When everything is going well – when we can have our summer barbecues and vacation get-aways, our Friday night football games in packed stadiums, and our large holiday gatherings in festive, warm homes – then we are blessed. When every health report is glowing and our bank accounts are full – then we are blessed. When we can freely do whatever we want and succeed, then we are blessed. But in 2020, when one in six Americans may go hungry, when food bank lines stretch for miles, when hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs, millions have lost their homes, and over a quarter million have lost their lives to the pandemic, are we still blessed?
I asked a visiting African friend to share his thoughts on the state of the church in America. He hesitated before carefully speaking his mind: Americans don’t need God. You have bank accounts, savings accounts, checkbooks, credit cards, health insurance, government welfare programs. You have many things you can rely on other than God. For us, if we want to eat, we have to pray. If our kids get sick, we have to fast and pray. If anything bad happens, we have nowhere else to turn. We have no one but God.
While earthly comforts can be a blessing, to be fully aware of our need for God seems to be a much greater blessing, accessible to all, rich and poor alike. I think of a friend sitting vigil at her husband’s sickbed. His illness came out of nowhere and took him down without warning. Does she still feel blessed? I believe she does as she lifts her eyes heavenward, as she leans into the invisible realm, utterly dependent on God. She’s surely not thinking about whether her towels match her sheets. All distractions have faded away, and the only thing that matters is that which counts for eternity.
I need to let this topic incubate and write on it again another time.
For now, I’ll leave behind leave these words from the gospel of Matthew:
God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.
God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
In an upside-down kingdom, nothing is what it seems.