The Trouble with Blessings

I confess. I have a troubled relationship with blessings. That may be a shocking admission especially coming from a minister, but the truth is that I’m confused about what blessings really mean.

When I was living in the South I quickly learned that the familiar “Bless your heart,” means something very different from what my grandmother meant by it when I was a little girl (at least I hope so anyway). It’s not the good wish it once was. Now it’s a tongue-in-cheek insult disguised as pleasantry as in, “She thought stripes would give the illusion of height not width, bless her heart.” Ok, I made that one up, but you get the idea. It’s the kind of passive aggressive blessing I imagine being bestowed upon a shorty like me.

Then there’s the problem of blessings inadvertently expressed as evidence of one’s favored status compared to another’s loss. A friend of mine once described the agonizing pain she felt when another woman described herself as blessed because of her healthy pregnancy. My friend had just experienced the loss of her third pregnancy, and although she understood the other woman’s expression to be one of gratitude, she couldn’t help but feel cursed in comparison.

In this context, blessings are a tricky business. Surely a healthy pregnancy is a blessing, and by contrast the loss of one is not a curse. When a situation defies logical or theological explanation, it’s all too easy to employ a shallow definition of blessing that relies on one person’s privilege as divine favor. That understanding of blessing is especially dangerous because it suggests God ordains oppression. For example, blessing me with a life of relative stability while oppressing a refugee family fleeing war. That theology doesn’t work for me.

I experienced another expression of blessing while living in Bahrain. I often called our building’s caretaker to fix the appliances in our flat, which were all foreign to me. I daresay that my misuse was the root cause of their dysfunction but my friend and building custodian was consistently kind and patient with me. I offered my profuse thanks in return, but he insisted that I bless him instead.

It was a curious request, but I discovered that as a Muslim he held hospitality in high regard. Showing me respect as a guest was an expression of his belief, and a reflection of God’s presence in our friendship. By offering him a blessing when we parted he explained that I was essentially saying, “May God go with you.” In this context I was glad to offer my friend a blessing, even though I believe God is always present even when we’re not explicit about asking.

This is rarely the type of blessing I see people express on the social media stage. There, blessings often go parading around as the humblebrag, which ICYMI (In Case You Missed It) is defined by Fortune magazine as “people’s use of false modesty as a context to tell you just how great they are or how great their lives are.” It looks something like this, “I got the best birthday present ever, a brand new Lexus! I just hope the neighbors won’t mind me taking up so much street parking. #blessed.” This is clearly not a #blessing, instead it’s an annoying display of #luck, or #fortune, or #selfcenteredness.

Blessing, as it turns out, means different things to different people even at different times and in different places. With such a broad definition, I struggled to find my own. I feared I had come to a point of defining blessings by what they are not rather than adequately articulating what they are, so I just avoided blessings altogether. Then I discovered James Wright’s poem called A Blessing, which spoke the words that I could not.

Wright’s poem tells of a field at twilight just off a Minnesota highway, where he and a friend stop to admire the scene. You get the impression that most drivers pass by the field all the time without much paying much attention to it. Yet it is this field where he discovers the beauty in what is usually taken for granted. He notices the way the light bounds softly forth on the grasses, and recognizes kindness darken in the eyes of the ponies that graze there. Here he feels a supernatural connection to creation and is transformed by the experience.

The last stanza reads:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Wright describes a blessing in a way that works for me. It is pure, not platitude. It stands alone and doesn’t rely on comparisons. Without explicit language, Wright’s poem conveys God’s omnipresence, even when we’re not paying attention. By his definition, blessings are as ubiquitous as the humblebrag, but the difference is that blessings are equally accessible to all who stop to notice, not just the lucky few. Blessings are not contingent on distinctions of class, or race, or ethnicity, or politics, or religion. They defy boundaries and are recognizable to us when we do the same.

When we engage with creation and recognize it as a gift freely given, we are blessed. The beauty of an ordinary field in spring. The unearned gesture of another creature’s affection. An unexpected encounter with the supernatural. A blessing is that which elevates our souls upon the weight of its meaning. It’s something for which we are so profoundly grateful that we are transformed by it. If we stepped out of our bodies, we would break into blossom. May it be so!

How do you define blessing?