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A few years ago the actor and activist Michael J. Fox wrote a memoir of his life after receiving a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. His courage in the face of this debilitating disorder has been an inspiration. The title of his memoir, Lucky Man, calls to mind another celebrity associated with another terrible disorder. Lou Gehrig, whose name so represents Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) that almost everyone knows it as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” famously ended his farewell to the fans at Yankee Stadium in 1939 by declaring, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Gehrig meant what he said. The gratitude in his voice was unmistakable. Both men use the word “lucky” to mean blessed.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is not associated with any particular disorder or disease (although he did die of Lung cancer). He lived a seemingly charmed life, despite facing entrenched racism every day. In 1955 Duke Ellington told Edward R. Murrow that his success and longevity was due to “85% luck.” Duke, at the time, was at the height of his powers, his reputation had never been greater, and his life seemed to be an unfurling ribbon of prosperity and achievement. He attributed this to luck – the randomness of good fortune.
Sportscasters often remind us it is “more important to be lucky than good.” The Bible says something surprisingly similar. Ecclesiastes 9.11 states: The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to men of wisdom, but time and chance happen to all.
I am a lucky man, myself. Last year, in this very space I wrote a piece demonstrating that the odds of winning the lottery are better than the odds of enjoying all the blessings I have been given (health, American citizenship, Christian upbringing, stable home, advanced degree, et cetera). These blessings are from God, as is every good and perfect gift (James 1.17). This makes me deeply grateful and profoundly afraid. I am grateful because none of it is deserved. I am afraid because I feel things will eventually even out - as my old dominoes buddy, Maggie Burcham used to say, “There is a board waiting for every behind.” I wonder if receiving such an abundance of blessings is a product of chance, or of intention. Have I been lucky or have I been blessed?
Either alternative is problematic. It is hard to think that something like pure luck even exists in a world where the fall of a single sparrow is noted by God (Matthew 10.29). In fact the word translated “chance” in Ecclesiastes 9.11 describes unforeseen factors, not randomness. It describes the limits of human perception, not the chaos of the universe. However, if I am blessed, not just lucky, what does that say about God’s fairness? I am not a particularly good person. Why have I been given so much? Why do others suffer so?
Jesus, interestingly, uses the weather to explain God’s blessings, and His love of his enemies (Matthew 5.45). God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust equally. Does this mean that God orders each rainfall, or that He set in motion a meteorological system that doesn’t morally discriminate?
Whatever Jesus means, He gives us a handle on the question of luck by using the weather to explain blessings. Weather is so complex that it has yet to yield itself to our mathematics. We are better at predicting it than we used to be – but the 7 Day Forecast on your evening news is no more accurate than the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Think of all the possible paths we are shown every time a hurricane forms in the Atlantic. Hour to hour we are guessing. We cannot manage the weather, nor alter it – or even predict it with much accuracy. Maybe what we call “luck” isn’t random at all. Maybe the rubric of life and blessing is so complex that it looks like chaos to a finite human mind.
Despite that complexity, simple truths emerge we cannot ignore. God knows. God reigns. God blesses. We know He is the source of every good thing. We know to be thankful, and to say so. What else do we need to know?