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Good gifts

 “Quae tribuit deus, ante oculos non semper habemus.”

“We do not always have before our eyes the things God has bestowed.”[1]

his proverb was recorded from a common folk of 11th century Belgium by a priest named Egbert of Liége in a collection of saying he wrote down in Latin to help his students. Egbert titled his work Fecunda Ratis, or The Well Laden Ship. This metaphorically implied his pupils would benefit morally and intellectually from wise sayings as they traverse the sea of life. I’ve been enjoying Egbert’s book. Some of his proverbs are so obscure and confusing I suspect my 3 year old might have written them. Some have references so lost in the mists of the years that nobody knows what he is referring to. Some are even (in very earthy Medieval fashion) rude and surprisingly obscene. But Egbert’s collection of common sayings are often punctuated by sublime thoughts, issued from mental patterns nearly foreign to us, now a millennium removed from their originators.

The proverb above struck me in particular and started me thinking. I wonder how many blessings God has poured into my life that went unnoticed. Several potential categories come to mind.

Page detail from medieval Book of Hours (1533)

Blessings I took for granted. How often have I been more kindred in spirit to those nine unthankful lepers whom Christ healed, than to the one who ran back to thank Him (Luke 17:11-19)! I’ve come to expect God’s bounty in a thousand ways every day. I don’t feel happily surprised anymore to have a stomach satisfied with food, a body not racked in constant pain, a family who loves me, a job to go to, shoes to walk in, a computer to type on, books to read, a car to go places… The list goes on. The infinitely Good Father of light delights to give his children good things. That “sorrowful Dane” Kierkegaard reminded us that God’s “eternal love runs on ahead and makes everything ready, making ‘the good gift’ also ‘the perfect gift.’”[2]

Blessings I never even noticed. Beyond the things I see and seldom thank God for, there are many more bounties He bestows in his infinite generosity which I never even noticed. I suspect there’s not been a day of life that wasn’t floating on a current of thousand unseen benefits from the wise God who loves me so much. Perhaps that great old song which says “there shall be showers of blessings, showers of blessings we need” could be more accurately rendered as “there are showers of blessings, showers of blessings indeed!”

Curses averted. On the inverse side, there have been countless curses which God has doubtless shielded me from. Life is scary fragile and beset on all sides by both disasters and devils. At this very moment, there are probably a dozen ways I could be maimed or perish: and God is mercifully protecting me from all of them…evidently…since I keep typing these sentences. But why don’t I thank Him? Why do I spend so much of the priceless time He gives me hanging onto this spider’s thread of living breath, in grasping at pleasures I’ll forget in the next half hour or worries I’ll forget in the next twenty-four?

A similar thought struck my brain cap from a different angle as I put my kids to bed. I’m a guy who’s good at worrying. As in, I’ve become seriously good at it. I can think of things to worry about that my wife never even imagined as possibilities (and just kind of looks at me with this inscrutable expression when she hears about). I have it pretty well in life, and I’m grateful. But I suspect that with every baby I help bring into the world my capacity for creative anxiety increases about elevenfold. Big changes make me stress about the future. For example, with changes in my workplace, my response has too often been to work harder to make the company happy. But the company isn’t going to remember me in 20 years, no matter how many hours of my life were sacrificed on its altar, and I won’t even remember (much less care about) how many extra shifts I worked. What I will care about is how many hours of my life I didn’t spend with my kids and my wife. How often I’m worried about the wrong things!

Cowboy guy shooting at a strange alien, just because it made me laugh

But I digress broadly… Perhaps. Egbert of Liége reminds us that our wisdom, our high-paced American lifestyle, our breakneck consumerism, our constantly shifting hobbies, our mountains of stuff, may not be where God’s blessing is really coming from. We think something makes us happy, and miss the fact that our happiness is really coming from God, or even some more specific bounty God has bestowed on us (like time with our family). The trick in life, since we can’t turn time backward, seems to be in recognizing where God’s blessing is and seeking to maximize it. We too often search for happiness in the wrong places. That thought has often been said by many smarter people: but it’s worth remembering again.

Blessings in the leading of an omniscient God. Sometimes things don’t go my way. And generally, I don’t like that. Ok… Invariably, I don’t like that. Plans flop like naked and flightless birds, who started so well from their fledgling nest. People (little or big, on purpose or not) make us angry and spoil the groove of our sunniest days like listeria spoils a good potato salad. Sometimes even disasters hit us. I am one of those artistic experts in anxiety. I can imagine about four dozen bizarre disasters at every corner of life. Still, horrid things missed in my calculation might hit me in the chest and bowl me over. No… Not might, they probably will. But the breathtaking reality is that even these things turn out to be a way God blesses us. We don’t often see the things God has bestowed on us because we don’t like them. We see as a curse what God means as a blessing. This may not always true, and we certainly should be careful saying it to someone angry at his day and especially to someone in the throes of real mourning. But we should say it to ourselves, and remember that it’s true. The good things God gives are not always the things we’d have picked.

Understanding blessings.Every good and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of Lights, in whom is no change or shadow of turning.” James 1:17

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch by Niels Christian Kierkegaard (1806-1882)

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote a masterful essay on James 1:17 called “Understanding the Gift.” Under a heading that reads “Gifts are good and perfect because they are given by God” Kierkegaard asks what Paul means by “in whom there is no change or shadow of turning.” Paul did not write that God gives good gifts from a storehouse of heavenly things in contrast to the things he could have given that we’d not like. “What he emphasizes,” wrote Kierkegaard, “is that just as God’s might had made everything good in the beginning, so, too, even now, constantly, in every moment, He, the Father of lights, makes everything good: He makes everything into a good and perfect gift for the one who has heart enough to be humble, heart enough to be confident.”[3]

We can be confident in the annoying times and even the heartbreaking times of our lives, in the goodness of God, who knows how to give good gifts that we don’t always have before our eyes. Because the God who loves us is both omniscient and good, the things he brings to us will make us better. They will make us stronger. They might even increase our happiness when the gale-winds all blow.

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” -Romans 8:28

Be grateful. Let’s try to be more mindful of the benefits our beneficent God bestows on us. Let’s remember to live grateful lives to Him even for benefits we can only suspect, like wisps of pleasant odors we thought we smelled, or happy dreams we wake from and can’t quite recall. The good God our Maker shows the infinitude of his largesse in this mystery: that even the good things He personally scatters to us are so numerous that our finite eyes see only a fraction of them.

Let’s make a new science of benefitology! Let’s be people always studying His goodness with quick and joyous eyes, children laughing with pleasure at every new wonder we find our Good Father filling our lives with!

Skeletonic chicken, in case you’re studying poultry anatomy for a college class right now

[1] Egbert of Liége. The Well-Laden Ship. Translated by Robert Gary Babcock. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 2013. P. 61

[2] Kierkegaard, Søren. Spiritual Writings: Gift, Creation, Love. Selections from the Upbuilding Discourses. Selected and translated by George Pattison. Harper Perential. 2010.  P. 12

[3] Kierkegaard, Søren. Spiritual Writings: Gift, Creation, Love. Selections from the Upbuilding Discourses. Selected and translated by George Pattison. Harper Perential. 2010. P. 13

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