My thumbs move swiftly across my phone screen. One quick search on Instagram for #BLESSED shows over 100 million tags. As I scroll, I see pictures of sculpted bodies, expensive cars, tropical destinations, healthy babies, and shiny accessories. A few posts stand out as having some kind of spiritual message or focus on gratitude. Yet, I feel unsatisfied and uninspired. I’m longing for something grittier, more hopeful, and with more substance from a spiritual word like “blessed.” My role as solo pastor of a small congregation often requires me to wear a lot of hats in ministry as I go from the board meeting to the ICU to the pulpit, and so much more. Not only do I need language that is robust enough to carry through all these spaces, but I also need it to nourish me when I’m able to shift the focus to my own spiritual life.
Jonathan Merritt recently called “blessed” one of the sacred words that needs reclaiming since it has come to be trite, braggy, and materialistic. In a video to promote his new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing–and How We Can Revive Them, Merritt takes to the streets of New York City to interview people about the meaning of #BLESSED. As you might expect from its use on social media, most people either struggled to think of what it could mean or had a vague definition connected to gratitude and having good/nice things in life.
To be fair, the word “bless” is kind of a complicated word. It can be a verb that shows divine or human favor, care, endearment, veneration, holiness, permission, or gratitude. It can be a noun and an adjective. We use it to talk about everything from “having my parents’ blessing” to things that are a “blessing in disguise.” For so long, I didn’t realize what I was missing by not reclaiming this word in my life and ministry. As Merritt points out, when we lose spiritual language, we lose both the ability to engage one another in conversation about our spiritual lives and the ability to prevent the language from being co-opted and distorted by politicians, televangelists, advertisers, etc.
Now, of course, I could have told you that “blessed” was not as superficial as pretty pictures, but I had never paid particular attention to the word. If there was a suggestion for a blessing in the liturgy at the end of a service, I conveniently collapsed it into the benediction. I would stretch out my hands, facing the congregation, and would send them out with a charge. I was happy to talk more about grace and gratitude since “blessed” seemed like the domain of the “name it and claim it” preachers or the grocery store checker who always handed me my receipt and told me to “have a blessed day.”
Then one day I went to visit Marlene, a member of my congregation, after a nasty fall that left her with seven broken ribs and the need to enter a living situation that provided more care. As I drove through lonely back roads to get to the hospital, I listened to the audio version of Kate Bowler’s memoir Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. In the book Bowler recounts the personal journey of going from researching and writing about the prosperity gospel tradition in America to being diagnosed with incurable cancer. Read more