Counting Blessings

There is an old song that I haven’t heard sung in a very long while. Written by Johnson Oatman, Jr., it was published in 1897. The copyright on the song expired decades ago. It begins this way:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

On first reading, and upon first hearing the song sung, many may be tempted to simply roll their eyes and think that it’s shallow and simplistic. After all, when something horrible happens in life, it’s very difficult to think about anything else except whatever is paining us. And perhaps, in extreme circumstances, the song may not be a whole lot of comfort.

But.

The point of the song is not to imagine that somehow our problems don’t exist; rather, it is designed to help us put our circumstances into a larger perspective. It is designed to force us to take a more realistic look at our lives.

So, for instance, one January a couple years ago, I developed pink eye. My right eye suddenly turned red and sore. It was very annoying, especially after two of my three daughters had just recently came down with some sort of virus. Though neither of them developed pink eye, I couldn’t help but suspect that I had simply gotten what they had and for whatever reason, it was my eye that was displaying nasty symptoms.

At the same time, I’d been working on the never ending bathroom remodel in my house. I had finally got all the electrical work done, did the drywall and painting, installed the new linen cabinet and vanity, attached the sink and even attached the new faucet. The new toilet was in and functioning. But getting the sink and faucet plumbed was not yet done: the old pipes that were under the sink were completely wrong for the new sink, besides being so old that they were falling apart as I touched then. I was going to have to rip them out and put in new ones: an additional bit of work that I had not anticipated needing to do.

Meanwhile, my computer at the time was intermittently giving me the “blue screen of death” so I had to order a new one to replace it—but it hadn’t arrived yet. And I was working on the last third of a book, which had a rapidly approaching deadline. On top of that, my agent had yet to have found a buyer for my next book, though he remained hopeful.

And the new winter quarter of teaching Hebrew and theology classes had begun that very night.

Oh, and although I’d gotten the Christmas decorations taken down and the tree disposed of, I had yet to box up the ornaments and get them put back away in the garage. And my garage was a mess and really needed to be cleaned out. Still does, in fact.

Such are the ordinary sorts of stresses that pile on us as we go about our days: the stresses of work, projects and fixes that need to be done around the house, piles of stuff that need to be attended to, minor illnesses in ourselves, our children, our spouses. It’s like the drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet that never goes away and there are times that the multitude of little, ordinary things get to the place that they overwhelm us, making us want to run away and hide from it all—except that wherever we went to hide, it would probably need repairs. We feel like we don’t have enough time, enough energy, enough desire to get it all done.

And yet, if we stop a moment and try to think about the positive things in our lives—admittedly hard when we feel snowed under by all the things we need to do that are pelting us like drops of water in a storm—we may discover that “counting our blessings” can help us put the multiple, but minor stresses of our lives into better perspective. If we have a lot to do at work, at least we have a job. If one our kids has a cold and our wife forgot her lunch for work and needs us to drive it over to her, at least we can be thankful we have a family.

We can take comfort in the fact that we even have the things that are annoying us: when the cable goes out and I have to wait between noon and three for the cable guy to come out, well, at least I have cable in the first place. TV and cable are rather marvelous bits of technology that most of the time we take for granted. When I was a kid, we had three black and white channels that arrived fuzzy. I may have had problems with the plumbing, but hey, a hundred years ago, most people would be using an outhouse and boiling water on a wood stove so they could sponge bathe once a week.

And my pink eye was easily curable. A hundred years ago I might have just gone blind. And so it goes.

Johnson Oatman, Jr., the songwriter, lived a mostly ordinary life. He was licensed to preach in Methodist churches, but his primary career was in the mercantile business and later as an administrator of a large insurance company in New Jersey. He was married, with three daughters. Born in 1856, he died in 1922. During the course of his life, he wrote more than 5000 hymns, of which “Count your Blessings” is but one.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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