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We Canadians have already celebrated Thanksgiving, one of my very favourite holidays.
Every year in early October, my family joins in a huge potluck feast with our extended family. My husband immigrated to Canada from Portugal when he was nine years old, and even decades later, this “extended family” includes several other Portuguese family units who are related not by blood, but by love.
The food – oh, dear reader – the FOOD. It is superlative in quality and quantity. Portuguese folks can COOK. When we join hands to say grace for the food, it is easy to look around the table at the dear faces and the glorious piles of food and feel deeply grateful for all these things. Bless us O Lord, and these thy gifts.
What does it mean to be blessed by God? I struggle with this, even in the moment when I’m called upon to say grace before a holiday meal – sometimes especially in that moment. We have food in abundance, loving companionship, homes that are warm and safe, and for all this we are thankful.
Does this mean that God has blessed us? Has God, then, NOT blessed those who don’t have some or any of those things? Are they less loved? Maybe there wasn’t enough blessing to go around? What does this mean?
For me, it’s helpful to step back and reflect on my ways of thinking about how God’s “economy of blessing” operates. When we view God’s blessing as a zero-sum game, it changes how we function within that economy. If we operate with the idea that there is a finite amount of blessing available, then when you get some, that means less for me – and all of a sudden we’re competing.
I suspect that some of the roots for this misconception go way, way back, and that one of those roots is the tradition of patriarchal inheritance. We see the overlap of this cultural structure and this mental model of God’s blessing in Genesis 27, when Isaac is planning to bless his oldest son Esau (the oldest, dare I say, by a hair), and accidentally blesses sneaky Jacob instead. We talk a lot about the trickery of Jacob, the conniving of Rachel, the can’t-catch-a-break misfortunes of Esau, but what about Isaac and his seemingly fundamental misunderstanding of how God wants to bless people?
Thanks to the stories in Genesis, we can pull back the curtain on Isaac’s faith formation a little further. Isaac had himself grown up in a spiritual and cultural climate where there was a rationing of blessings – a transmission of blessings only to those who “deserved them” by virtue of their lineage, their gender, and their placement within their family.
Even though God had promised Isaac’s father, Abraham, that all nations would be blessed through him – no limits, no strings attached – somehow Abraham missed the superlative, delicious grace of this. We see this in Abraham’s rejection of Hagar and Ishmael once Isaac was born. They had become disposable, even threatening to the blessing that Abraham and Sarah were convinced Isaac alone “deserved.”
Isaac seems to have carried on that view of God’s blessing as an equivalent to how inheritance worked in his culture. For Isaac, Rachel, Jacob, and Esau, the concept of blessing was unquestionably something limited to one person per generation, through the family’s male line.
All this makes me wonder, what if? What if Abraham had truly stepped into an understanding of the enormity, the infinity of the grace of God? In a limitless blessing-economy, there is no reason why Isaac could not have showered God’s blessing in full upon both Esau and Jacob. What if there was no scene of Esau howling, “Bless me too, Father!” and Isaac sadly saying, “What a shame, son, but all the blessings have been used up…”?
If only Isaac had taken his perceived limits off of God’s blessing, and raised both his sons up as equally beloved and blessed children of God. Imagine how powerfully this would have worked towards the fulfillment of the promise that God had given Abraham. Rather than the nations of Ishmael, Edom, and Israel being antagonists, they could have been distinct nations all seeking God in cooperation and mutual blessing.
Yes, we do live in a world of finite resources, that’s true. At the Thanksgiving table, if I have a piece of pumpkin pie, there’s one less piece of pie to be had. And yet, I can think of two other true things, and both hinge on our concept of blessing.
The first is that there are some of us who have more than we need, and we need to share with those who have less. We need to let go of every trace of the notion that since we have more, that’s somehow evidence that God found us deserving of a bigger share of “blessing”. We can be thankful for abundance and be generous with it at the same time. Much of our communal scarcity is due to our unwillingness to distribute resources fairly, not due to a true lack.
The other true thing is that we have a God of infinite blessing. When we act as conduits of God’s blessing in the world, we don’t need to be the ration police. There’s so much grace, so much love to go around. Who are we to tell someone that unfortunately they’ve missed the blessing buffet and that they must go hungry? That doesn’t sound like God to me.
When I try to wrap my mind around a limitless blessing-economy, I come back to Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
I might stumble a bit in the Thanksgiving dinner blessing as my mind stammers to grasp the theology of it all. Even so, I remain convinced that all of our intentional practices of gratitude lead to a healthier, more generous mental model of blessing, a model that we can participate in beyond squabbling over portions. Many of us contribute to the feast, and we all take joy in sharing it, no strings attached.
There’s a seat for everyone at God’s table, and the blessings are superlative in quality and in quantity. Let’s say grace.