Johnson Oatman, Jr. was a failed singer. Try as he might, he could not reach the success of his baritone-voiced father who was in high demand by churches all over New England. Largely, he was a failed minister too. An ordained Methodist, he hoped to become the next Francis Asbury or Peter Cartwright – a circuit-riding evangelist – who could turn legions of souls from perdition. He never preached in more than a few local pulpits.
But as Oatman approached his fortieth birthday, his sense of calling and vocational ability finally crossed paths. He began writing songs, songs to be sung in church and at the frontier revivals of the late nineteenth century. Over the next twenty years he would author some 3,000 hymns and gospel songs. If you are part of a church that still uses hymnals or sings hymns you know Oatman’s music, even if you are unfamiliar with his name. “Worthy the Lamb;” “No, Not One;” and “Higher Ground” are a few of his tunes that can be found in almost any denominational songbook. His work with which I am most familiar is a song entitled, “Count Your Blessings.”
In the churches of my youth we sang this song at every Thanksgiving service. In fact, we seemed to sing it every other week or so. I can still recite the first stanza from memory: “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.”
A Sunday School teacher once challenged my Primary Bible Class to do exactly as the song implored: “Count your blessings.” She handed out sheets of wide ruled notebook paper with the red and blue lines, accompanied by fat, yellow, #2 Ticonderoga pencils. A dozen eight-year-olds went to work listing all of our heaven-sent assets, and we finished, of course, by singing Oatman’s hymn.
Have you counted your blessings lately, naming them “one by one?” I know all the “big things” would be on the list. Family, nation, shelter, food, children or grandchildren, employment; for all of these we are thankful. But to list all of our blessings, even the little things, would take a considerable amount of time, longer than a brief Sunday School lesson would allow.
Still, it’s worth taking pause to make such a list. You probably have a few days off, or at least a smidgen of down time with Thanksgiving Day coming. Use some of that time to actually catalogue a few of your many practical blessings. Maybe you could start with A and work through the alphabet to Z, concentrating on the little, often assumed, godsends.
I’ll get you started: Air conditioning. Band aids. Coffee. Distilleries (particularly those in Canada). Electricity. Football. Garrison Keillor. Hamburgers. Ireland. Jackson Hole. Krispy Kreme. Live Oak trees. Music. Newspapers. Online banking. Picnics. Quinoa. Refrigeration. Smoked Almonds. Tennis. Urinals (the ones that flush automatically). Vacations. Willie Nelson. X-Rays. Yogurt. Zyrtec.
On and on it goes, and that’s just the first list that rolled off my mind, a stream of consciousness (and obviously I wrote this while hungry)! This list could be reproduced a thousand times over with little thought, just observation, because blessings constantly rain down upon me. God’s ever-present grace surrounds me. Heaven smiles down, if only because I am fortunate enough to live at a time and in a place like this.
It’s not that complicated, not really. Take the time to look around your life and count your blessings – one by little one – if you dare. Give thanks to God for what you have, what you have experienced, for the grace you have received, and for the people you have known. Try to remember that Thanksgiving is more than a holiday, more than a day off, more than a circled date on a calendar. It is a way of life. Remembering this might change your perspective about things. It might change your attitude. And it just might change your life.