On blessings and woes

blessed life, theCall it what you will – the reign of God, the kingdom of heaven, the more and better life than you ever dreamed of having (John 10:10 MSG) – the quality of life you’ve been yearning for is right under your nose, and most of us never see it (Gosp. Thomas 113). Why don’t we?

Thomas Merton wrote, “If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live or what I like to eat or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for” (My Argument with the Gestapo). What are you living for? Can you describe it in detail?

The prophet Isaiah wrote poetically of the end of conflict and the establishment of justice and righteousness in the earth (Isa. 9:2-7); of wolf and lamb lying down together and being led by a little child (11:6-9); of an abundance of God’s blessings for all people, bar none (25:6-10). And the psalmist wrote of a future when historic enemies will live peacefully together as brothers and sisters (Ps. 87). What’s your vision of life as God is creating it to be lived?

The good news Jesus announced is that our waiting is over, that the life we’ve been yearning for is at hand, and he called us to start living as if that good news is true (Mark 1:14-15). And Merton wants us to be aware of what keeps us from living fully for it.

The chief reason we don’t fully live the abundant life that’s already ours, I believe, is that we don’t see it. We keep looking for it elsewhere: in the way things used to be in some golden past, in the way things one day will be in some golden future, in another time and place where circumstances are better and more opportune.

There are many ways to express the good news of Jesus. One of the best, I think, is in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy is preparing to return home and the Tin Man asks her what she’s learned. “Well,” Dorothy replies, “I think that it – that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – and it’s that – if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” It’s not enough to merely want the good life we dream about; we’ve got undergo a change of vision, a change in the way we look for it until we are able to see that it’s the ground on which we already stand.

It’s not enough merely to imagine a return to the good old days enshrined in our memories. It’s not enough to dream about the perfect future when tears and crying and pain will be wiped away and everything old will be made new (Rev. 21:4-5). We need to stop searching for the blessed life in another time and place. This life is not a preparation for a life after death. We need to heed Jesus’ invitation, come to our senses, and start living life’s fullness today.

So, back to the question I started with: Why don’t we see that more and better life, the life that Jesus said is spread out all around us, ready for the living? One of the answers is found in the Beatitudes that open Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke’s gospel (Luke 6:17-26).

The Beatitudes don’t tell us who will get into heaven later and who will be left out. They’re not about who will be blessed and who will be cursed in God’s final judgment. They don’t lay out the rules we must follow in order to attain that life one day. They tell us about our blindness, about the opportunities and obstacles we face in seeing and receiving today the more and better life that Jesus offers.

Blessed are the poor, Jesus says; blessed are the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated, reviled, and defamed by others. You are on the brink of unimaginable joy. Your lives are so broken open and empty that you have room to receive the new life God is already trying to pour into you.

But woe to you who are wealthy and satisfied, who have nothing to worry about, who are the toast of the town. Your hearts are so full of earthly concerns that you have no room for heavenly concerns. You’re so preoccupied by your to-do lists and your business obligations and your social calendars, that you miss the invitation to feast on the banquet of God that is spread out before you, free for the taking (Luke 14:15-24). You’re so full of the life you’ve built, you can’t receive the life God offers. You can’t see the blessed life that’s right under your noses.

Some years ago the church I served in Vermont hosted a mission team from Mozambique, the third poorest country in the world and the one with the highest incidence of land mines remaining from their civil war. Never in my nearly forty years as a pastor have I known people so filled with joy and peace. They needed nearly everything we had – food, housing, education, health care. But they had something we didn’t, something we desperately needed. They were a living embodiment of the old church-camp song – I’ve got joy like a fountain, peace like a river, love like an ocean in my soul – in a way that is rare here.

God filled their emptiness with more and better life than most of us ever dream of having. They were among the poorest of the poor, hungry and well acquainted with tears, discounted by the rest of the world. Nevertheless, a peace that surpasses all understanding guarded their hearts and minds in Christ (Phil. 4:7) and enabled them to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18).

So, “Rejoice always,” St. Paul admonishes, “pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Give thanks daily for all of God’s many blessings, whatever they may be. Recount them at the end of each day or whenever you think of them. Make a list of them not out of pride or satisfaction at what you’ve accomplished but out of gratitude for what God has provided.

And pay special attention to the things you lack: to the deep need that remains unfilled; to the soul-deep hunger that remains unsatisfied; to the tears that come from your deep sadness; to the quality of relationship you yearn for that remains unrealized. For there is where God is most deeply and effectively at work. There is where your relationship with God is growing stronger. There is where you will find that the true blessing of life is yours.

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