Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Count Your Blessings, Room by Room?
The Chicago Tribune reported this Sunday that a local news anchor was putting his home up for sale for $749,000. Apparently the ten room, two and a half bath home on 1.12 acres had simply become too “crowded.” “It never was my plan to stay there. We love the place, but it’s a ranch-style house and we now have four kids.” I don’t begrudge someone wanting a separate bedroom for each of his children, though the idea that things are “crowded” is a little hard to take; the picture of the family room suggests that cell phones would be required to carry on a meaningful conversation. So apparently it’s time to leave the two fireplaces, vaulted ceilings, new closets, new kitchen with stainless steel appliances and granite counters, and the large master suite with a recently remodeled bath and dressing area behind.
For many of us the distinction between what we need and what we want has been all but lost. Almost all of us want something we don’t have – the extra bedroom, the new kitchen, the updated bathroom, the newer car. What we actually need, however, is a far different matter. It is no moral failure to acknowledge that there are things we want. Desire is part of what it means to be human. I suppose one could make the case that we don’t really need art museums or operas or a fine glass of wine or a good football game on a gorgeous fall afternoon. And sure, I understand wanting to provide a separate bedroom for each of your children, though I managed to grow up sharing a bedroom with my twin brother for eighteen years without acquiring permanent emotional scars. The philosophers invite us to seek the good, the true, and the beautiful, not just the good, the true, and the necessary. There is an aesthetic that ennobles and humanizes even if it isn’t absolutely necessary for life. It can nurture a disciplined desire to free us from utilitarianism that can deaden the spirit. No, there is nothing inherently wrong about wanting things we don’t need and there is nothing morally repugnant about indulging some of those wants.
It’s when we start turning all of our wants into needs that we get into moral trouble. This is what much of the advertising industry aims to do and the whole enterprise is about to go into high gear this Friday as our wants are injected with holiday marketing steroids. Thus a certain kind of spiritual discernment is all the more important. Satisfying some desires can offer joy and delight for ourselves and others. They need not be spurned, especially when the satisfaction of those desires does not overwhelm a generosity that allows others to satisfy even their basic needs. The church should not be in the business of layering every delight with guilt. Grim self-denial will not end poverty in the world, though it may impoverish our own spirits! On the other hand, the surrendering of some of our desire can serve to heighten our awareness of the needs of others not to mention needs we might not otherwise see in ourselves. The Christian tradition has made space for ascetics through the centuries who have taken on the vocation of denying most desires. And while this is not the vocation for most of us, it does help us know that not everything we desire will satisfy our deepest hungers. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, we might say, for they may have a better handle on what is truly worth desiring. After all, some desires are like cotton candy. They look so good we have to have them. But when we possess them we simply feel sick to our stomach.
Along with enjoying the feast, Thanksgiving is a good day to count our blessings, one by one, even if we end up doing so slumped in a chair with our belt unbuckled. Many of those blessings are extravagant extras, grace notes in the music of our lives that don’t carry the tune but somehow enrich them enormously. It’s when we start counting our blessings, room by room, that things begin to go badly astray. I hope our local television reporter is able to squeeze one more Thanksgiving celebration into his crowded home even as he dreams of spreading the feast out in a bigger dining room next year. What I really hope, however, is that he can stop to consider that the most blessed moments in his life may just be those times when all four of his young children leave their bedrooms to crawl into bed with him and his wife for a lazy and crowded and glorious morning together.
John H. Thomas