“Material blessings”?

From today’s prayers at our church:

O God, help us to remember that all good things come from you. Keep us from turning the many material blessings that you have given us into curses by relying on them instead of on you. Grant that our material blessings bring glory to you and to the good of others.

“Gratitude for material blessings” is a common theme in prayers, and of course it is perfectly proper that we should be grateful for the good things we have. However, there are two things that trouble me about prayers like this.

First, it assumes that the “default setting” for members of the congregation is that they do have “many material blessings”. So a prayer like this can reinforce the church’s status as a largely middle-class institution.

Second, to use the phrase “material blessings” rather than “wealth” or “possessions” is to make a very particular statement about our belongings: namely, that the only moral question which attaches to our wealth is what we do with it, not how we got it or whether we should have it in the first place. Under the guise of giving thanks to God, what we are actually doing is reassuring ourselves that we deserve our wealth and possessions: they are “blessings from God”, so to question whether we should have them is to question God’s wisdom and generosity in giving them to us.

To help us see this, a little thought experiment: imagine one Sunday that the intercessions include this prayer:

Keep us from turning the many sexual blessings that you have given us into curses by relying on them instead of on you. Grant that our sexual blessings bring glory to you and to the good of others.

Immediately we start to protest: “What about all the people in the congregation who don’t experience ‘many sexual blessings’: those who are widowed, or unhappily single, or in difficult or loveless marriages? And what about those whose so-called ‘sexual blessings’ are obtained in ways we find objectionable – such as committing adultery?”

In short, while we are acutely aware of the moral complexities involved in sexuality, we often seem blithely unaware of any similar complexities in relation to our wealth and possessions. Perhaps a start point would be actually to call them “wealth and possessions” rather than using loaded, self-exculpatory phrases such as “material blessings”.

Edit: Alastair Roberts made the following observation on Twitter in response to this post:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/#!/zugzwanged/status/107794001289150464"]

ExACTly.

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6 Responses to “Material blessings”?

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    I face some similar questions when I’m on prayer duty. For me, it is the prayers for our government and military that I find troublesome. We are to pray for those in authority, but sometimes the prayers I find at the resource site I use make an easy assumption that the government has authority and is not usurping any of its power. Sometimes this happens to an extent where I delete the whole section, or look for the prayer for that week from a past year. Other times I just add some lines that speak of temptations endemic to soldiers. Or pray that the unjust rulers will lose their power. Other times, where a good reading is possible, I’ll leave the wording in place, as I defer to whoever wrote the prayer.

    I would advise a similar approach here. Questions like you suggest should be asked, and should lead to some editing or rewriting at times. I would continue on occasion to use the given language, though. Where it CAN be given a good reading, I think it very well may be, especially if other prayers have raised the awareness of the congregation regarding the difficulties.

    The “sexual blessings” prayer could probably be prayed if it were not the only wording such a prayer was ever given. If it were part of a larger set of prayers that did address the problems you bring up, it might just work.

  2. what we are actually doing is reassuring ourselves that we deserve our wealth and possessions: they are “blessings from God”

    To paraphrase, what you’re doing is assuring yourselves that you deserve God’s blessings? Um, er… and you’re Lutherans? ;-)

    But to be serious, I take your general point entirely: yet the ‘middle class’ issue is rather relative, isn’t it? Pretty much everyone in the UK has many material blessings on a global scale, regardless of whether they are middle or working class.

    I guess how much you can alter this partly depends whether we’re talking intercessory or offertory prayer, here. The scope is wider in the former than the latter, and it would be good to pick up not only ‘unrighteous mammon’ but also the Proverbs’ emphasis on honest trading. I think it’s very important to avoid getting into political specifics or, which is worse, praying to the congregation rather than to God.

    Picking up Rick’s wider comment, it can be interesting to watch whether people’s political slant comes out in the way they pray for government and ‘political’ issues. I hope it would take a very keen observer to work me out, but I do pray quite consistently for things like peace, justice and liberty. My pastor, on the other hand, always prays for order-and-security, even when it’s Libyans, Egyptians, Syrians, Bahrainis and others opposing tyrants and attempting to throw off the shackles of oppression. :-(

  3. John H says:

    Philip: I think that’s why I do sometimes find the prayers at our church quite jarring – because they come from an LCMS source and are therefore written from a very different cultural and political setting. I still go into spasm at the recollection of a prayer for “our military, who maintain the lonely vigil for freedom around the world”. *barf*

    I tend to pray for “peace, with justice”. It’s my inner Vatican-II-Catholic at work again… ;-)

    Rick: I agree that either of those prayers could work in a wider context. The point is therefore why, in the first case, we are so relaxed about omitting the wider context…

  4. OFelixCulpa says:

    John,

    The dangers of wealth are indeed subtle! It is true that we can frame even our declarations of thanks in ways that demonstrate wrong attitudes (“I thank you that I am not like…this tax collector”).

    But I wonder if you are reading into these prayers something that isn’t at all intended and would be rejected by those who crafted them. If so, they could possibly be accused of not crafting the prayers in such a way as to clearly eliminate the possible interpretations you see, but it would be unfair to assume they are guilty of such attitudes.

    Like our statements of thanks, our concerns can also suggest attitudes that we may or may not hold or affirm. For example, from my criticism of the CCC’s position on the death penalty, someone might assume that I am of the gun-toting, execution-happy, lych-mob mentality. I don’t think that would be correct, but there is always a potential to be misunderstood.

    Similarly, someone might see in your concerns here a tendency to read scripture’s warnings about the dangers of wealth in terms of modern western-European culturally acceptable Marxist socialism (especially it’s penchant for seeing justice as entirely an issue of uniformity of wealth). I suspect you would reject such a characterization, though you were probably not thinking about making such a rejection clear in what you wrote.

    So, I guess I am wondering it a bit more lenient reading of the prayers you mention might be appropriate. What do you think?

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    John,

    I think we use the same LCMS source. I agree. I’m not comfortable with the idea of leaving these prayers as-is all the time, whether it appears to involve uncritical support of the government or uncritical support of the structures of wealth. I’m suggesting that a degree of rewriting is a good thing. I already do this myself with regard to another kind of petition.

    If I leave some of the prayers as-is, though, I think I run less of a danger of having people think I’m using the lectern was a bully pulpit for my own political views. Whatever I add I hope leads to more people feeling comfortable joining in with my petitions. How, for example, can we pray for those in authority when some in the congregation support them, some are against them, and some don’t think they have rightful authority in the first place? It’s a bit of a balancing act, and I think some of the balance comes over the course of many months of prayers. I don’t think any of these matters are put right on the first pass.

    Sometimes my balance comes with taking the focus off of the President and governor and putting it on the local mayors. One week I prayed for all the members of the Supreme Court by first name. Our fixation on the top guy can further a distorted way of thinking about how authority is supposed to function.

    Do you ever have prayer duty? Are you given leeway as to what goes into the prayers? For me these are very concrete questions, as my decisions on these matters do change the prayers at my congregation on a regular basis.

  6. Pingback: A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions | The King's English

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