November 09, 2018
The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’
A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live. But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Hello, this is Mariann Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Welcome back to this podcast series, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life. Together we’re exploring in-depth what it means to follow a rule of life, which is an intentional commitment on our part to adopt certain practices in order to open ourselves to receive Jesus’ love for us and to grow in our capacity to love others as he loves. There are seven practices in the Way of Love: to turn, to learn and to pray; to worship; to bless, to go, and to rest. Today’s focus is the sixth of the seven practices, to go.
“Go where, exactly?” we might ask.
The simple answer: “Wherever God tells us to go.”
“But how can we know where God is telling us to go?”
That’s not always an easy question to answer.
Thomas Merton, one of the wisest Christian writers of the 20th century, dedicated his entire life to listening to God and helping others do the same. He once wrote a prayer on this state of not knowing, and in particular, the dangerous terrain religious people can get ourselves into whenever we think we do know: “O Lord God,” Merton’s prayer begins,
I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, And that fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. (Thomas Merton, Pax Christi, Benet Press, Erie, PA.)
There is no shortage of tragic stories about people--often sincerely religious people--doing great harm while convinced they were responding to God’s call. Too much certainty in our ability to discern God’s call and thinking that we know without a shadow of a doubt where God is calling us to go can be dangerous. More often than not, this process of listening for the call and responding by saying, Yes, I will go takes time. There is often great uncertainty along the way, as we take one step, and then another, making course corrections as we go.
Yet sometimes I think we know exactly where God wants us to go, but we pretend that we don’t. We pretend, or we ignore, or we do anything to avoid where we’re being asked to go because, for a variety of reasons, we simply don’t want to go there. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that No is always our response to God’s call for us to go somewhere specific, but it’s often our first response.
There’s a great story in the Bible--pure fiction, by the way, but true nonetheless--about a man who, in response to the first time God asked him to go somewhere ran as far as he could in the opposite direction. His name was Jonah, and in the book that bears his name, we learn that God wants Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh to preach a word of judgement, for the citizens of Nineveh have sinned greatly and God is not pleased. But Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, because he doesn’t like the people there and it pleases him to think of them being punished for their misdeeds.
So to avoid God’s call, Jonah runs away, eventually stowing himself on a boat that’s going off to sea. A storm arises that causes the boat’s crew to panic and they throw Jonah overboard. You may recall that Jonah then finds himself in the belly of a large fish, where he remains for three days. That’s long enough for him to realize that going wherever God asks him to go, however unpleasant, was better than remaining where he was. So he cries out to God, God hears him, and at God’s command, the fish spits Jonah out.
Then, as the text says, “the Lord comes to Jonah a second time.” This time, when God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah says yes. He goes and warns the people of Nineveh that they face God’s judgment if they do not change their sinful ways. Just as Jonah feared, the people of Nineveh listen to him and begin the painful process of amending their lives. God, in turn, has mercy on them which irritates Jonah to no end. But despite his initial reluctance and bad attitude, Jonah went where God told him go. As a result, the people were spared.
The moral of the story: When God tells us to go somewhere, yes is a better answer than no, but getting to yes isn’t always easy.
Saying no to God doesn’t mean we’re bad people, and it’s understandable for us to resist a call to go somewhere that seems risky or dangerous, or less nobly on our part, merely inconvenient. Most of us want to maintain control of our lives, or at least the illusion of control. We’ll decide, thank you very much, where we will go and not go.
Sometimes we say not because we don’t want to, but because what God is asking is too much for us. We know where we’re supposed to go, but we just can’t just go there--at least not yet, and not on our own strength. There’s a story in one of the gospels of a rich young man who approached Jesus, asking him for guidance. Jesus immediately took a liking to this young man and invited him to sell all that he had and join the band of disciples. The young man couldn’t do it. He went away heartbroken, and Jesus’ heart broke a little, too. “How difficult it is,” he said, “for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
But I have the sense that God isn’t surprised when at first, or for a long time, we say no, that we won’t go where God asks us to go. God knows that what He’s asking of us is hard, and may well be beyond our capacity. Of course we say no at first. Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He knew where the path of faithfulness was taking him, but he didn’t want to go there. “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” he prayed. We want the cup to pass from us, sometimes.
Jesus went on to pray perhaps the hardest, most courageous, and yes, submissive prayer of all: “But not my will; thy will be done.” He submitted his will to God’s will. What will our prayer be in that moment when we sense the call to go to places we would give anything to avoid? Jesus invites us to stay in relationship with God, stay in the conversation, to bring our concerns and fear and protests to God in prayer. Remember Jonah, arguably the most reluctant prophet in all the Bible. Even in the belly of the fish, he stayed in the conversation with God, no wasn’t his final answer. It needn’t be ours, either.
So how does God help us move from no to yes?
Looking back on my life, there have been times when it seems as if God planted a seed of possibility for my future by asking me to go somewhere well before I could possibly say yes. Even in the times I tried to go, I failed at first, and as a result learned important lessons in my failures that prepared me for the the next time I heard the call to go. This is also a dynamic that we can see at work in those close to us. I have watched friends and family members wrestle with an emerging sense of call, going back and forth, categorically saying no, or trying and failing, then experience the same call surface again. One poet described this process as being pursued by the “hound of heaven,” (“The Hound of Heaven,” by Francis Thompson. The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse. Nicholson & Lee, eds.) and it can feel like that, until at last we’re ready to take the risk and say yes and have the inner capacity.
Another way that God coaxes us along from no to yes is through the example other people, and in particular, the people who inspire us. They inspire us, I think, precisely because they have crossed the threshold that could be our destiny. We see in them some unrealized potential in us, and we want to be where they are. We want to be like them, and part of us may even long to be them, which we can’t. We can only be ourselves. But what we see in them inspires us to go where they have led the way.
In my early 20s, I was befriended by a wonderful group of young adults in their 30s. I was a single and a senior in college; they were in the throes of early marriage and family life. We were all part of a small Christian community with a passionate commitment to serve homeless people in our city. I so admired my older friends, and I wanted nothing more than to be where they were in life. They were more than happy to adopt me into their tribe as a sweet younger sibling. I eventually realized, however, that I couldn’t leapfrog over my 20s and land where they were. I had to walk that road myself, which, in time, meant leaving my friends and the city where I attended college to find my own way through that turbulent, formative decade. Leaving the warmth of their community and the identity I so wanted to have among them was hard. But it was their that example inspired me to go.
Jesus was a master at using inspiring examples as an encouragement to those around him. He told what is arguably his most famous parable in part to inspire a young lawyer to live according to the highest aspirations of love found in the Torah, or teachings of Scripture.
You may recall that the lawyer approached Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus knew the lawyer already knew the answer to his own question, and so he asked him to recite the most foundational spiritual requirement found in the Torah: You shall the love the Lord your God will all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” “That’s right,” Jesus replied. “Do that and you will live.”
But the lawyer pressed further, wanting Jesus to tell him exactly which neighbor he was required to love, presumably so that he wouldn’t waste his energies loving the wrong people. That’s when Jesus responds with the story we know as the Good Samaritan, in which a man is beaten and left for dead on the side of road. Three men encounter him on the road; two pass him by, and one stops to help. The two passersby, to make the point even clearer, were righteous men in the eyes of the law. The man who stopped to help was of a despised race. Then Jesus asks the lawyer which of the three men who inspired him with his love for neighbor. When the lawyer answers, “the man who showed compassion.” Jesus simply said, “Go and do likewise.”
Who inspires you? What would it look like for you to follow their example? Even if it seems impossible to be where they are, could it be that they are your guiding light, directing you through their inspiration where God is calling you to go?
This power of inspiration is not only at work in us individually, but also in community. I often ask church leaders that are trying to discern future direction, “Is there a church nearby that is doing what you wish your church could do, reaching the people you wish you could reach? If so, be inspired by their example, and learn from them. Then, in your own way, as Jesus said, ‘Go and do likewise.’”
Now I want to make a shift here, because there is another way we can experience God’s call to go somewhere, completely different from that of resistance or struggle. These are the times when we sense God is calling us to places where we ourselves most want to go, that God is guiding us toward our heart’s greatest desire.
There’s a lot in the spiritual life that asks us to accept what we cannot change and bravely set our faces toward the places that most scare us, but there is also the experience of joy, of being led to places that are where we know we’re supposed to be.
The path of joy, of heart’s desire, is real. God gave us our desires for a reason, to help guide us in life. Sometimes we’re prevented from fulfilling those desires, for reasons that are beyond our understanding or control, but when the path opens to us, we are meant to take it, to go there, to follow, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “the voice of our own gladness.” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABCs (1993).)
I’ll never forget the time when a colleague said to me, as he poised to make a dramatic change in his vocation: “I have been preparing my whole life for this moment.” He was, I would guess, in his mid-50s. I was in my early 30s. So, of course, he seemed ancient to me at the time, in the sense that I couldn’t imagine myself being at his stage in life. I was also in complete awe. While I had no idea what my equivalent place would be, I knew that I wanted to be able to say the same thing someday. “I’ve been preparing my whole life for this.” It’s important to know our heart’s desire, to dig down deep for it, to discern how the strands of our life weave together into a tapestry of fulfillment. That deep desire is of God, and should the opportunity come for us to go where that desire leads, we need to be ready to say yes, without reservation, having prepared ourselves for that moment.
One final dimension of going to consider here: the times we are called to go, and yet stay where we are. In other words, God may be calling us to a new place, spiritually, relationally, vocationally yet ask us to remain in place. This is the call to depth and to maturity. In the wise words of the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister, “It may be the neighborhood we live in rather than the neighborhood we want that will really make human beings of us. It may be the job we have rather than the position we are selling our souls to get that may finally liberate us from ourselves.” (Joan Chittister, O.S.B, The Rule of Benedict: Insight for the Ages (New York: Crossroad Press, 2004).) Or in the words of pastor Mark Batterson, “If Jesus isn’t calling you out on the water, stay in the boat.” (Transcript from a podcast conversation with Carey Nieuwhof)
However we sense God’s call to go--to places that frighten or inspire us; to places we would choose gladly or do anything to avoid; to travel across boundaries or to stay put, physically and to deepen where we are--the greatest truth is this: we do not go alone.
I hope you know that. I hope you know that Jesus is always with you. And that God doesn’t expect us to get it right all the time, or even to say yes the first time, or the second, or third. But getting to yes, when we sense God is calling us to go somewhere, is, in fact, better than no. Even if where God’s calling us is right where we are, trying to determine the next faithful step.
May God bless us all in our going out and coming in, from this time forth and forever more. Amen.
November 08, 2018
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
1 John 4:7
If you were watching television or listening to the radio in the last week, amidst the media frenzy leading up to Tuesday’s election and the national response to those killed in Pittsburgh, you may have seen or heard Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. My mother called to tell me that she watched him on The Today Show. I happened to be with Bishop Curry at a meeting in New York on Tuesday when he slipped away to be interviewed for 1A, a syndicated talk show produced by WAMU 88.5, a public radio station here in Washington, D.C.
The occasion for this latest round of interviews is the publication of The Power of Love: Sermons, Reflections, & Wisdom to Uplift & Inspire. This small spiritual treasure contains the manuscript of his Royal Wedding sermon. It also includes several sermons Bishop Curry preached at the Episcopal Church General Convention this summer: one in which he introduced The Way of Love; another he preached outside a prison facility in Hutto, Texas where immigrant women captured at the Mexican border were being held, separated from their children. The book’s final sermon is from Bishop Curry’s installation at Washington National Cathedral in 2015.
Bishop Curry’s words are food for the soul and a reminder to those who follow Jesus that love is our way. “Yes, we live in scary times,” he writes. “Yes, people are hurting. Yes, people are hurting one another. But anger is not the key; revenge is not the answer. The way of love--love and the power of God--is the key to our hope and to our future.”
As news of yet another mass shooting and the swirl of political realignment fill the airwaves; as we ask ourselves what is ours to do to help realize God’s dream on earth, I pray that each one us might remember each day to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and our hearts set on his teachings. With his love in our hearts, we carry on. With his love, we can offer love where it is needed most.
November 08, 2018
Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more."
With the nation, we grieve the lives lost and forever changed last night in Thousand Oaks, California when a man armed with a gun opened fire into a crowded bar filled with college students. With this tragedy, the number of mass shootings in the United States in 2018 now stands at 307. In the same time period, there have been 160 fatal shootings within our diocese.
The unrelenting rituals of violence and grief, shock and predictable response (or lack of response) can desensitize us to their horror. But last week, as I presided at the funeral of one precious young man whose promising life was cut short by a bullet, I saw up close the devastating grief caused by gun violence. As I write, family members and friends of those at the bar in Thousand Oaks are awaiting news on their loved ones. “The scene inside is horrific,” a police officer just said on the news. “There is blood everywhere.” May God have mercy.
Our faithful response to tragedy is always to pray. But then we are called to act. As a prayerful and sacramental people, we act in the face of tragedy with a hopeful expectancy of change. As your bishop and as a fellow follower of Christ, I renew my commitment to do whatever I can to end the scourge of gun violence that has overtaken our land. I give thanks to God that so many in this diocese also feel called to this work. You are my inspiration.
Together, with our eyes on Jesus and his call to love, we carry on.
November 01, 2018
Blessed are those who mourn . . .
Monday October 29 was a day of memorials.
We began at Silver Spring Presbyterian Church where we celebrated the long and fruitful life of the Rev. Dr. Clark Lobenstine, founding Executive Director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.
For 36 years, Clark brought together the broad interfaith religious community in this region to collaboratively advance justice, build community, and nurture understanding. At his memorial service, leaders of many faiths spoke of how Clark welcomed, encouraged, and stood by them, always. Family members told of his devotion and love; colleagues and congregants of his abiding faith. Throughout his life, Clark served Christ by loving all God’s children, and finding ways for us to work together for good.
The Rev. Clark Lobenstine
Monday afternoon I had the sad task of presiding at the memorial service for Tom Marmet, a 22 year-old aspiring social worker killed by a stray bullet in Northeast Washington, D.C. Tom worked as a resident volunteer for the non-profit organization So Others Might Eat, at the agency’s job assistance center for recovering addicts. He had just left the center and was driving home to dinner at the home he shared with other SOME volunteers when he was fatally shot.
St. Alban's Parish was filled to overflowing with grieving young adults and their parents, all trying to come to terms with his sudden death. Family and friends spoke of Tom’s dedication to serving others, how he was a kind friend, passionate activist, loving son and brother.
Tom was also the 163rd person to be killed with a gun in the Washington metro area this year. I’ve spent time this week learning more about the others who have died by gun violence. In Washington, D.C., 21 were children and teenagers. The vast majority were people of color. Looking at their photographs and reading their stories is overwhelmingly sad.
Adas Israel Congregation
Over 4,000 people of all faiths and ages quietly lined up to enter the Adas Israel. Most of us had to stand outside and watch the service via live stream, but no one seemed to mind. We simply needed to be there--to pray, to weep, and to say that hatred will not have the final word.
What are we to do in the face of such loss?
While I am not one to shy away from the political issue of gun violence and the work to be done to prevent hate crimes, the first impulse in these times must surely be relational. We’re called to show up among the grieving, to offer our woefully inadequate words and heartfelt prayers. If you’re close to someone who is grieving on this All Saints’ Day, you might give them a call, write a note, or stop by their house with food. It will mean more than you will ever know.
Jewish leaders across the country are inviting all people of faith and goodwill to #ShowUpforShabbat this Friday this evening. We’re all welcome to attend Sabbath prayers at our local synagogue, as a sign of solidarity and to pray for peace. Is there one near you that you might attend? Paul Budde and I will be at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
If you can’t attend Friday prayers this week, consider writing a letter of condolence and support to a nearby Jewish community, neighbor, or co-worker. Your kindness will be long remembered.
Jesus said that those who mourn are blessed. We can be part of that blessing, whenever we show up to give thanks for a life well lived, grieve for one taken too soon, or to take our place among those who will respond to hatred with fierce, unwavering love.
November 01, 2018
When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Welcome to the sixth episode of this podcast series, The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focused Life. My name is Mariann Budde; I serve as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. Thank you for joining me once again for this in-depth study of the Episcopal Church’s rule of life. It consists of seven spiritual practices designed to deepen our relationship with Jesus and grow in our capacity to love as he loves. The seven practices are: to turn, learn and pray; to worship; to bless and to go, and finally, to rest.
My topic today is the fifth practice: to bless, a practice that is as life-giving to those who offer blessing as it is to those who receive blessing. I've found that simply holding the words “bless” and “blessing” in my awareness opens me to opportunities to both offer and receive blessing that I might otherwise miss.
Before delving into this truly wonderful practice, let me briefly say something about spiritual practices in general. If we’re honest, most of us feel inadequate when it comes to the disciplines of our faith. I know that I do. But here’s something to remember about spiritual practices: they aren’t meant to be chores to plow through or exercises to whip us into spiritual shape. In the words of the Benedictine nun Joan Chittister: “A relationship with God is not something to be achieved.” Rather, she writes, “God is a presence to which we can respond.” Nor is the spiritual life separate from the rest of our lives, but rather, “a way of being in the world that is open to God and open to others.” (Joan Chittister, O.S.B, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992).) Spiritual practices help open us to God’s presence.
Our practice for today, to bless, is one that allows us to participate in God’s blessing, God’s love for others.
The words “bless,” and “blessing” show up with some regularity in ordinary speech. For example, if I were to sneeze right now, you might automatically respond by saying, “God bless you.” Or simply “Bless you.” I would do the same if you sneezed.
Why do we do that?
It turns out that virtually every culture in the world has some phrase of blessing in response to a sneeze. Pope Gregory the Great, who lived in the 6th century, is believed to be the first person to have said “God bless you” when someone sneezed. It was no small blessing, for in his lifetime a severe bubonic plague had spread across Europe, and sneezing was one of the symptoms of that deadly disease. We now know that sneezing doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re sick, but still the impulse remains to offer sneezers good health.
Another common usage of the word “bless” or “blessing” is what we say, often in prayer, before eating a meal. This practice of saying words of blessing at mealtimes is also a universal practice. Christian blessings usually direct our focus to the food itself and to those of who will partake. You may know this prayer: “Bless these gifts to our use and us to thy loving service, Amen.” In Jewish table prayers, which would have been Jesus’ tradition, the words of blessing are directed to God: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, for you bring forth bread from the earth. Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, for you create the fruit of the vine.”
However, we say our blessing and whatever our focus, this intentional practice encourages mindfulness and gratitude for the gift of food. It helps us remember that no matter how self-reliant we are, we are also dependant on the source of all life for our life. To receive from that source is a gift, one that inspires us to give more generously in return.
The last common usage I’ll mention today is in response to the question we often ask each other as a form of greeting: how are you? Among the typical responses we give: “I’m fine, how are you?” “Not bad, thanks,” “Hanging in there,” is this one: I’m blessed.
What do you suppose it means when we respond to a standard question of greeting by saying that we’re blessed?
That life is going well for us, perhaps, or that we feel surrounded by good fortune. What’s striking about the response, “I’m blessed,” is that it doesn’t seem to depend on the outer circumstances of life, but rather on our inner response to whatever is happening. People will say they are feeling blessed not only in good times, but also in the hardest of circumstances. In the midst of a devastating illness, people will say they are blessed by the love of their family, or the care of their doctors. Others who have lost a loved one will give thanks for the blessing of their church community, or the friends that are carrying them through.
I’d like to explore with you three ways that the practice of blessing can draw us closer to God and help us grow in our capacity to love. The last of the three has to do with discovering blessing in the midst of life’s challenges and struggles. But I begin with two other ways.
The first is perhaps the most obvious: We bless others whenever we choose to offer concrete expressions of kindness to anyone in need or pain. It matters here that we act and not merely speak our blessing. As the Apostle James makes clear: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16)
Jesus makes the same point in the parable he told of the sheep and the goats.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25:35-40)
We offer blessing whenever our deeds demonstrate that we truly care for one another.
One of the hallmarks of our offering is kindness. As the poet, John O’Donohue writes,“Something deep in the human soul seems to depend on the presence of kindness.” “When someone is kind to you,” he explains, “you feel understood and seen. There is no judgment or harsh perception directed towards you. Kindness has gracious eyes.” (John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008).)
I had a bicycle accident recently. I wasn’t seriously injured, but the fall was serious enough to shake me up a bit. While I was riding on a trail alongside Rock Creek Parkway in Washington, D.C., my handlebars got caught in a bush on the left side of the trail, causing my bike to flip to one side. I fell hard on the pavement, with my head just inches from the road and oncoming cars. I lay on the trail for few minutes, a bit stunned, as people rode their bikes and drove their cars by me without stopping. All I could think of was that I was like the wounded man on the roadside in Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. I wondered if anyone would stop.
Like in the story, fortunately, someone did stop and asked if I was okay. And she made sure that I was all right--which, apart from a few scratches, and a very sore right side, I was. Only when I convinced her that I truly was fine did she continue on her way.
I regret never asking her name. What I remember most was her kindness. I felt the blessing of her presence and willingness to help.
The very next day I attended a dedication service for a tuition-free school for boys in the Diocese of Washington named after the late Bishop John T. Walker. Its mission is to provide African American boys in one of the most underserved areas of Washington D.C., with high quality, Episcopal school education. The Bishop Walker School recently moved into a wonderful new facility built within a larger complex of arts, educational and social service organizations in Southeast Washington, and we had gathered to celebrate this new chapter in the school’s mission.
Kindness is also at the heart of the Bishop Walker School. At the beginning of the ceremony, one of the students stood to recite the Bishop Walker School prayer: “Grant, O Lord, in all the joys of this life we may never forget to be kind. Help us to be unselfish in friendship, thoughtful to those less happy than ourselves, and eager to bear the burdens of others.” Then about 30 of the students sang a musical rendition of that prayer.
As I looked into the smiling, teary faces of those gathered for the dedication, most of whom had been financial supporters since the school’s inception, I realized that endeavors like the Bishop Walker School are only possible when we as individuals decide to strategically and collectively invest our blessings. For blessings to last generations, they must be embedded in institutions with a particular mission to bless. We couldn’t possibly accomplish sustained blessings like that on our own, but we can when we direct our energies and resources together.
I hope you know the power of your collective investment in blessing whenever you contribute to the life of your congregation. Individually, each of us can love and serve God, grow in love, and serve our fellow human beings. But when we collect our energies and resources into Christian community and offer them to God, our blessing has a sustaining, enduring quality far beyond our individual reach.
That’s the first way we practice blessing: by offering concrete expressions of love, both personally, when we show up and offer to help, and collectively as we contribute to institutions, such as churches and schools, with a mission of blessing.
A second way we can practice blessing is related to the Christian practice known as “benediction.” “Benediction” is an act of official blessing, spoken on God’s behalf, as it were, typically by an ordained minister at the end of a church service. Benedictions are also common in the books of the Bible, generally as the last words spoken by a revered leader, or at the beginning or the end of a text. In each of these contexts, the words are meant to give reassurance and encouragement, or to convey a sense of joy, peace, and affirmation.
Here are two of examples from the Bible that you might recognize:
“The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” (That was an ancient Jewish blessing, originally spoken by Aaron, Moses’ brother, as recorded in the Book of Numbers (6:22-26).)
This one comes at the beginning of St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi:
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:3-6)
But words of benediction, or blessing, need not be reserved only for religious leaders to be said in religious contexts. Anyone can bless another, anywhere. John O’Donohue dedicated his life to retrieving the lost art form and practice of blessing. By blessing, he meant, “words that create a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, and strengthen.” For him, the word blessing evokes a sense of warmth and protection. “It suggests that no life is alone and unreachable.”(To Bless the Space Between Us. ) We can all do this, anywhere, anytime. We can create circles of light around another person with words of kindness and affirmation.
Here’s what it looks like for me: When I’m in conversation with someone--be it a family member, a co-worker, a neighbor, a friend--when we’re at the point of saying goodbye, I try to offer some word of affirmation and encouragement. I’ll point out, for example, some quality that I see in them that I love or admire. Sometimes I’ll reflect back to something I heard them say, lifting it up as a statement of courage or love. If they’re going through a hard time, I acknowledge that fact and let them know I’m here. Or I’ll tell them how much they mean to me. Whenever I speak to our sons, I try to say something to put wind in their sails, to lighten their step. I try not to overdo it, but go deep within myself and speak from the heart.
It’s a wonderful practice--so uplifting, and a reminder of the importance of our words.
Of being people of blessing, Joan Chittister writes this: “The godly are those who never talk destructively about another person--in anger, in spite, in vengefulness. They can be counted on to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world. . . The holy ones are those who live well with those around them. They are just, they are upright, they are kind. The ecology of humankind is safe with them.”
As I’ve deepened this practice of late, I’ve discovered that I’m open to receive the words of affirmation another speaks to me, rather than dismiss their words in embarrassment or false humility. My mother, now 87 years old, says to me almost every time we talk or meet, “I’m so proud of you.” It’s always made me feel awkward. But now I say to myself, “Take it in, Mariann. Feel the blessing.” And I do. I encourage you to do the same.
The final practice of blessing that I touched upon earlier is the most difficult given its context: how we can receive and offer blessing in challenging times when the blessing comes to us in and through situations we would have given anything to avoid. I’m not saying that the difficulty is God’s will for us--I have a hard time believing that God brings hardship and suffering upon us, but I do know that one of the ways God reveals his love and grace to us is by blessing us with lifelines during the hardest times.
To name the blessings for ourselves has the power to transform our experience of suffering and change us as well in ways we are strangely grateful for, even though we would never wish our suffering upon anyone.
Examples abound of this type of blessing in life and Scripture. There’s a famous story in the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis, of a long and lonely night when a man named Jacob wrestled with a stranger whom he later referred to as an angel. The text doesn’t say that the man was an angel; it refers to him as a man. But in that struggle, Jacob found life-transforming blessing, and thus for him, the man with whom he wrestled was an angel.
A few things to know about this man Jacob. He was, by all accounts, a scoundrel. Early in his life he stole his brother’s’ birthright, the blessing his father intended to give to his brother. In ancient Israel a father’s blessing, once spoken, could not be retrieved, even in the case of mistaken identity, as it was with Jacob and his brother, Esau. You can imagine how well the two brothers got along after that.
The stolen blessing, while real, did not sit well with Jacob’s conscience. He knew that he needed to reconcile with his brother, which he eventually did. And he knew that he had to come clean with God. It was in that time of internal struggle, when he had fled with his family and camped out near a stream, that the strange man appeared and wrestled with Jacob all night long. It was, for him, a physical expression of his inner torment. Finally, at daybreak, when the man asked Jacob to let him go, Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
That’s one of my favorite lines in all the Bible. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” It seems as if we all must wrestle with things in life--hard things we would not choose but have come to us nonetheless. We must wrestle with them until the blessing reveals itself. That’s not to say that we are to pretend to feel the blessing when we don’t, to sugarcoat something terrible, but rather that we allow ourselves to receive blessing in our time of trial, however it comes. It could be the blessing of a hard-won truth; or a capacity that’s grown in us because of our experience, a gift that sustains us through through our ordeal. We would never wish what we have gone through on anyone, and yet the blessing, when it comes, is often enough for us to be grateful for the person we’ve become as a result of our trials. That is the miracle, the power of blessing.
In closing, friends, as you live your life, I urge you to keep your eyes and ears open for the opportunities that come to you to offer blessing, through your actions or your words, to another. And to receive in gratitude blessings offered to you. Should you be in a time of real struggle, real hardship, now, ask God to reveal or provide the blessing you need to make it through.
So that when others ask, by way of greeting, “How are you?” you can say, in all sincerity, no matter the circumstance, “I’m blessed.” More than that: I pray you know yourself to be a blessing, as you create circles of light and love for others, through your words of affirmation and concrete expressions of Jesus’ love. Such is the way of blessing. Such is the way of love.