The Art of Receiving Blessings
Living in the Kingdom of Abundance is a dangerous business.
The bus roared away at 6:54, one minute ahead of schedule. My daughter and I stood for a few seconds watching the yellow hulk disappear into the pre-dawn mist before we realized what had happened. By the time we got back in the car, it was gone, sliding through the light at the end of the parking lot before we could catch it.
We regrouped with drive-thru hot cocoa and settled in for the long drive to school. About halfway there, my daughter sighed and said we’d probably beat the bus there, rattling off the stops it had to make, one of which is closer to home than the Starbucks we’d hit up on the way. Information comes out of sixth-graders when it comes out, not when it’s most useful. And we were all figuring out a new system.
The week before, we’d gotten a call that our way-down-the-waiting-list number for the admissions lottery at an outdoor-education charter school came up for a mid-year opening. We’d hustled and prayed for months to find a school for one of our daughters that could provide some needed structure and support while still nurturing her curiosity and love of nature. We said yes, but I held things loosely. The first few days, she really seemed to enjoy herself. When she agreed to try out riding the bus in week two, I was floored. She has always wrestled with some intense anxiety, and yet she was willing to hop on a bus with a bunch of strangers for a forty-minute commute. It all seemed too good to be true.
It still does. On balance, it’s going so well that I can’t call our new education option anything but a blessing. Missing the bus that one Tuesday felt a bit like a regression to the mean, and, I have to admit, I was more comfortable with that.
Sometimes Right Feels Wrong
I have no categories for what to do when something goes right or gets unexpectedly resolved. The best I can muster when something truly good (or even neutral) drops into my life is a sigh of, “Oh good, it took care of itself,” echoing Hail, Caesar’s Eddie Mannix. Recognizable goodness unsettles me. My response is usually not joy or gratitude, but anxiety—a heightened awareness of exposure to new, unmanaged risks. The other shoe will fall, I tell myself, it’s just a matter of time. I can’t really rest until the loop closes with some bad news. I resonate too much with Will Barrett (Walker Percy’s protagonist in The Last Gentleman), calm, purposeful, and downright happy in a hurricane, but unable to relax on a sunny Sunday afternoon to save his life.
This kind of living braced for the catastrophe comes naturally to me. I’m always ready to spring into action and sing perfect pitch harmony to the howling storms of life. A half-hour after the bus left without my daughter, I felt lighter. We had made it through the car line and I turned back toward the city to start my workday. Rolling past frosted January pastures and steaming cattle in an unfamiliar line of exurban commuters, I felt an odd sense of comfort. The morning’s hassle was a little confirmation that things might not be as good as they seemed after all. I was ready for that.
I never expect the eucatastrophe—the term J.R.R. Tolkien coined in his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” to describe how something that seems bad or comes out of left field may in fact resolve our deepest fears and longings. In fiction, this move often feels contrived (deus ex machina). A properly Tolkien-esque eucatastrophe is comparatively rare, something objectively bad that turns out to be ultimately good: the completion of Frodo’s mission in The Lord of the Rings only through Gollum biting off his finger or, in the real world, the crucifixion of Jesus.
Perhaps everyday blessings are the most eucatastrophic happenings in lives primed to expect the worst. For the perpetually anxious, good things come out of left field turning our lives upside down forcing us to realize that sometimes things that look good stay that way.
Somehow blessing can feel atypical even when we know we have a good God. How typical of God, who sends rain on the just and unjust and whose spirit blows where it will, to delight in disruptive good! In a universe that exists only out of his unforced joy, a world where trees give life, nonagenarians have babies to bless the world, seas part, prophecies come true, water becomes wine, and the dead live—what else should we expect? The planet is practically begging to burst into ecstatic rebirth at any moment.
When I stop and think about it for more than a minute, I can trace my distrust of blessings to its root. It’s the unpredictable nature of goodness that makes me weary. The gifts of God—opportunities, friendships, children, etc.—completely undermine my sense of control in a way that disaster doesn’t. Disasters happen in our world as surely as blessings, but they get your defenses up, focusing your attention and effort on mitigating them. Once you’ve ridden one out, you clean up and make notes for how to brace for the next one. With blessings, you can’t prepare, you can only receive. You can’t see them coming, it would be foolhardy to plan for them, and you can’t force them to stay confined to one corner of your life.
The Sin of Expecting Only Suffering
In an astonishing Harper’s essay, poet Christian Wiman describes an “unacknowledged sin festering” in himself that left him with an unfinished novel and later an unpublished essay. This unacknowledged sin was about the experiences he fictionalized in those works. The sin (“And I do mean sin,” he writes) was his insistence on writing poems about miracles while failing to appreciate the wonder that his sister returned to life and hope after decades of addiction.
Wiman says, “it wasn’t something wrong with the essay that kept me from publishing it, but something wrong with me, who had, in terms of my family and my relations to them, sunk into the form of despair that doesn’t simply refuse hope, but actively snuffs it out. I should have realized that a person who can find Christ in hell, as my sister did in that prison, who can see Christ working in hell and love this work even as that balm is withheld from her, is not a person whose soul is dead. Why must I learn the same lessons over and over again? That both life and art atrophy if they are not communing with each other. That it means nothing to make a space for the miraculous in one’s work if one can’t recognize some true intrusion into one’s life.”
I understand Wiman’s frustration with himself and his feelings of rejecting the idea of miraculous intrusion. And I wonder if he’s right to call it sin. What if failure to live expecting blessings is the very essence of sin?
Living in the Kingdom of Abundance
My tendencies toward bracing for the worst help me prepare for the reality of suffering, but it can keep me from seeing another, deeper reality: that God fills the land of the living with goodness. But I need help to see the vibrancy of God.
What Wiman experienced in his sister’s restoration was not only an intrusion of unbridled life but the return of a witness, a reader of his own life. Joy requires a witness, a scribe, in order to break through. For me, this takes a cloud of witnesses to help me see what God is doing. Usually, it looks like my wife, my friends, even my kids, rejoicing on my behalf when my joy is weak, pointing out what I can’t see. A gift is always held in common. It is only self-reliance that makes a blessing feel like a burden.
Living in the kingdom of abundance is a dangerous business. But I’m slowly learning to uncurl my toes and embrace the good disturbances, school buses and all.
Cover image by Jon Tyson.