Complicated Blessings

William Sloane Coffin Jr. wrote the prayer in 1983 when he was the pastor at Riverside Church in New York City. I had just started my ministry the year before and was inexperienced, idealistic, and naïve. But one phrase in his prayer has remained with me all these years: “And grant us to count our more complicated blessings.”

A Prayer for the Church in These Times

O God, whose mercy is ever faithful and ever sure, who art our refuge and our strength in time of trouble, visit us, we beseech thee – for we are in trouble. We need a hope that is made wise by experience and is undaunted by disappointment. We need an anxiety about the future that shows us new ways to look at new things but does not unnerve us. As a people, we need to remember that our influence was greatest when our power was weakest. Most of all, we need to turn to thee, O God, and our crucified Lord, for only his humility and his strength can heal and free us. O God, be thou our sole strength in time of trouble. In the midst of anxiety, grant us the grace to count our blessings – the simple ones: health, food, sleep, one another, a spring that is bursting out all over, a nation which, despite all, has so much to offer so many.

And, grant us to count our more complicated blessings: our failures, which teach us so much more than success; our lack of money, which points to the only truly renewable resources, the resources of our spirit; our lack of health, yea, even the knowledge of death, for until we learn that life is limitation, we are surely as formless and as shallow as a stream without its banks. Send us forth into a new week with a gladsome mind, free and joyful in the spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.  

When I pray, whether privately or in public, I often begin by thanking God for my many blessings: faithful parents; beautiful children and grandchildren; the opportunity to go to college; and the privilege of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, called to embody and share God’s love.

Each one of us has been lovingly created by God, blessed in order to be a blessing to others. As I have matured in my life and faith, however, I have discovered that there is also much pain, disappointment, and heartache in our world that calls for a response. There are not always easy answers to our questions, and in the midst of sighs too deep for words, I realize now more than ever the more complicated blessings of which Coffin wrote.

  • Failure is my constant companion, yet God continues to surround me with love and urges me to keep on keeping on.
  • When my faith falters and I cannot sense the “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:3-5), still Jesus whispers encouragement in my ear.
  • Complicated blessings, which include COVID-19, struggling economies, and a world turned upside, remind us that every life is precious and no one is more deserving than another.
  • Our lives are ultimately not our own. Rather, they are about how God desires for us to serve through personal sacrifice as well as by a sensitivity to the oppressed and the downtrodden.
  • We are connected to the welfare of all living creatures on this earth, which becomes complicated when we are unwilling to address our complicity in the inequalities that plague our world. Bearing the load of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation leads to liberation.

  • Our long and complicated journey toward becoming an anti-racist conference, an anti-racist denomination, and an anti-racist world gives us the courage to admit our own fears and prejudices and take active steps to dismantle racism. Anthea Butler writes in Faith and Leadership (Duke Divinity School), “In a season of reckonings, forgiveness is not forgetting. Extending forgiveness isn’t simply about comforting or healing those who have been wronged. There are emotional and psychological effects for all of us, especially when there is no hope of restitution or resolution.”
  • Our inability to let go of power and entitlement is challenged by our responsibility to create a more just world so that all people have the opportunity to become who God created them to be.
  • As we prayerfully await the results of our local, state, and national elections, we are reminded that government of the people, by the people and for the people continually creates a new birth of freedom.

The complicated blessings of liberty and justice for all must lie at the center of our commitment as followers of Jesus Christ to deeper levels of discipleship. Only when we are willing to give up ourselves, take up our cross, and humbly follow Jesus can we truly bless, serve, and empower others on their journey.

Regardless of how the election results come in tomorrow, may we all turn to our more complicated blessings to embody the hope that is in us. William Sloane Coffin Jr. offers one more complicated blessing.

May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short;
Grace to risk something big for something good;

And grace to remember the world is now
too dangerous for anything but the truth and
too small for anything but love.

13 thoughts on “Complicated Blessings

  1. For all my years of knowing you and listening to your wisdom, this essay is probably the best ever. It is the lift I need for me and also to share with others. May we love, may we be loved, and may we understand and be understood as well.

  2. Thank you always for your thoughtful comments and remarks each month. I read them faithfully, even though I retired from the Iowa Conference in 2004 from Des Moines First and am now serving as an appointed RE in East Ohio, where I live.

    My prayers are always with our dear denomination, that we may not let division seep into our fellowship and love for each other.

    I followed you when you were in Michigan, my home state where I reside in the summers–heard so many positive things about your work through the then director of the Foundation, a friend.

    Rev. Susan Bowman

  3. Fatigued in every capacity – this is a much needed / appreciated boost. Thank you for your courage, your blessing and your faith.

  4. I retired from the Iowa Conference in 1994. I am still “inexperienced, idealistic, and naive”–may I always be. I seem to overloaded today with “complicated blessings”. Yet it is in the realization of my inexperience, my idealization, and my naivetae that there is hope for me and for those I love. Thank you for bringing Coffin’s words, and prayer back to my mind, heart, and, as yet, my unfulfilled self.

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