My children and I have learned something about blessing from ARC Retreat Center. Each meal there begins with a detailed description of every food item – Today’s lunch is a salad of fresh garden greens and ripe tomatoes picked this morning with a buttermilk herb dressing made with thyme and basil. Here we have homemade rosemary polenta hot out of the oven with the velvety tomato sauce from our cookbook. And today’s tea and cookie pairing is vanilla rooibos tea with chewy almond cookies!” And everyone oohs and ahs in appreciation, and the whole thing is a kind of blessing, if you think about it. Then together we share a spoken or sung blessing before we eat, and then another one after we’ve lingered with the flavors and conversation and food to end each meal.
And when you awaken, before you leave your room for good, you are asked to change your sheets and pray a blessing for the next guest who will be staying there after you. So we make the bed carefully and then place our hands on the quilt and pray for the strangers who will get to come next. Since they were tiny, everywhere we’ve stayed away from home, my children have asked to do this, even at hotels.
And when it is time to leave ARC, the staff there gathers in a circle around you and sings, “May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you, guide you on your way home.” And then they gently lay their hand on your shoulder, and then you are ready to depart. And the blessing – even if it’s at first seems silly or cheesy, you can’t help tearing up a little because it seeps into your soul. The touch, the gift, being seen and sent. It somehow grounds us again in our humanity.
Last week we heard the story of God and Noah, where God was despairing, angry and brokenhearted at the people who keep turning on one another, insistent on destruction. And at the very center of that story, and those before it, was God’s persistent and stubborn longing for relationship with these ones created in God’s image, created for God and one another and the world.
And when all was said and done, God promised, no matter what, to never give up on humanity. Part of never giving up on the world is also never letting the world give up on itself – helping us see life as it truly is, as God sees it, instead of through the lens of selfishness and destruction.
So God decides to pick one family, and through that family, to bless all the families of the whole world. God wants to draw one family so close into God’s heart, to share God’s purpose and God’s vision and God’s love for the world, that others would be drawn in, would be cared for, and enabled to live fully and wholly who they were meant to be.
So we’re introduced to Abram. And the blessing of Abraham and Sarah.
And in a powerful and far-reaching promise, God plans to create from this family a whole nation that will bless the rest of the world.
But just in case we miss what blessing actually is, let us take note of who God has chosen here: They are barren. There is no way for them to fulfill this promise. No way for them to create a nation, let alone a single child, no way for them to be a blessing to the whole world.
This blessing has to come from God. God calls them and promises them, I will be with you; I will guide you. I will bless you. And through you all the families of the world will be blessed.
So, leaving everything he knows, all the ties he has, any previous blessings that were his, such as family and clan, Abram obeys, and he and Sarai set out with God’s promise holding them. The covenant God made with the world that God’s love would never give up on us gets legs in the covenant God makes with Abraham. God’s love will reach out actively to remind the world of its blessedness, of its purpose and its beauty and all people of their place and their blessedness.
And God is going to use people to help do this. Now we are being pulled into something. Now there is a charge on us. The chosen people of God are never merely recipients. We are participants. We are blessed to be a blessing. God wants to draw us so close into God’s heart, to share God’s purpose and God’s vision and God’s love for the world, that others will be drawn in, will be cared for, will enabled to live fully and wholly who they were meant to be. We get to be the ones who notice and celebrate their true nature, their possibility and their hope and their gifts.
So how do we share in this? How do we receive blessing? How do we bless?
Blessing first acknowledges that everything comes from God– it exists in God’s world and is part of this whole that God has put together. And then blessing sees a thing as it is, in its fullness, the darkness and the light of it, and embraces it. It holds it up to God’s care, and it enjoins it to be even more fully itself, to live as it was created to live. Hi there Squirrel! You are beautiful in all your nose-twitching, nut-burying, tree-planting, traffic-dodging squirrely-ness! Keep on squirrelling, making more squirrels and living out your squirrely part in this symphony of life!
Blessing recognizes something and names it as valuable. It thanks God for its place in the whole. Noticing and speaking truth, recognizing and appreciating, and saying aloud the gifts and benefits, the hopes and intentions of other people and things, this is blessing.
One of my favorite moments of blessing was this last Spring – the Presbyterian Women did a house blessing for Marge. We began in the living room, gathering all together in her space and speaking aloud the hopes and intentions for the space – people began tentatively, “This room has such lovely light! Look at the view! What comfortable space for gathering!” And then it began, may this room bring people together, may it be a place of laughter and conversation, of quiet thoughts and sunlit reading.
We moved to the bedroom and gathered around her bed, “For restful sleep!” one person said, we all grunted and nodded and sighed our agreement, for peace and comfort. For dreams and memories and waking refreshed to new days.
|a view from the toilet|
The kitchen, for sharing food and welcoming guests, for nourishing our bodies and holding treasures passed down and gifts baked up. The women amped up as they went, thinking of more blessings, getting into it, and Marge beamed, and the moment itself felt so blessed.
We ended by gathering in a circle in the living room once again and thanking God for Marge, and for her home, and for the chapter closing and the chapter beginning and for what God had in store for her in this new space, and we gave her a plant, part of the whole Peace plant- a tangible and visual blessing and reminder of her belovedness. And we all left feeling blessed.
Because blessing others blesses us. Reminding others of their belovedness makes us live out our belovedness.
Blessing can be as simple as pausing and noticing the noisy world waking up, the birds and and sunrise and crisp morning air and giving thanks. It can be laying a hand quietly on your son’s head as he sleeps, or hugging your friend. It can be speaking out about someone to them- recognizing their strengths, celebrating their humor or their honesty. Or giving a gift for no reason at all. This week I was blessed over and over again as I recovered from surgery with friends stopping by with a bowl of soup and a piece of chocolate, bringing me a book they enjoyed, giving me a call to see how I was feeling, making a lasagna for my family.
Barbara Brown Taylor says those who become very practiced at blessing might tell you that
“Pronouncing a blessing puts you as close to God as you can get. To learn to look with compassion on everything that is…to make the first move toward the other, however many times it takes to get close; to open your arms to what is instead of waiting until it is what it should be, to surrender the justice of your own cause for mercy, to surrender the priority of your own safety for love – this is to land at God’s breast.”
If that is what blessing is, what is blessing NOT?
The story of Abram and Sarai, who become Abraham and Sarah, can tell us something about What a blessing is NOT. Because sometime after God makes this promise they begin to doubt the blessing and their own blessedness. Instead of trusting God to fulfill God’s promises to the world through them they get tired of waiting and take the blessing into their own hands and try to make something happen. And so comes Hagar and Ishmael, and the human attempt to earn or produce what God has promised to provide.
Blessing is NOT something we manufacture or coerce. It’s something we receive and participate in and pass on.
This scheming on the part of Abraham and Sarah does not disqualify them from blessing, though. God still blesses them and fulfills God’s promise to bless the world through them and eventually they have Isaac, child of human impossibility and God’s intention. Because blessing begins with God and not with us.
And “blessed” does not mean “lucky.” It can be the same circumstances, the same good thing happening to you, but to call it lucky focuses on your worthiness or unworthiness to receive this gift. It compares you to others who do or don’t get good things, and questions their worthiness or unworthiness. And makes the gift itself arbitrary. It’s a way of rejecting the gift even as you accept it – wow, that was lucky! Subtext, it’s a fluke and I shouldn’t count on it!
But Blessed always goes back to the source. To say something is a blessing is to say, “I accept this gift as a reminder of God’s good intentions for the world and of my belovedness in God.”
My daughter is happy at school, that is a blessing. My test results came back negative, what a blessing! We were able to get together with friends for a such lovely evening! I accept this gift as a reminder of God’s love.
Blessing is not magic. Blessing does not make something holy – blessing recognizes the holiness that is already there, it reminds us that this place, this person, this opportunity is from God – by existing, it shares in God’s holy purposes, and thus it doesn’t matter what we think of it, whether we think it is worthy or not, God can use everything. That means that by blessing we give up being able to prejudge what is good or bad for us, Taylor says, “You may say a blessing when you break a bone the same as you do when you win the lottery. The two events may be more alike than you know. Live with either of them very long and you may discover that neither of them is as bad or as good as you first thought it would be.”
So Blessing makes us pay attention, it says of any experience, What might I miss if I don’t take notice? What can I appreciate that might open me to more? What might come of this?
And Blessings are NOT something only special, holy people can give. Since blessings begin with God, we are all recipients and sharers of blessing. Orthodox Jews are to give 100 blessings a day. And they all begin with Blessed be our Lord God, King of the Universe,
Who gave us this bread to nourish our bodies…
Blessed be our Lord God, King of the Universe,
Who gives us this bright, chilly day in which to live…
Blessed be our Lord God, King of the Universe,
For family and friends gathered here…
That means Blessings are not perfection blackmail. We don’t withhold Blessing until something achieves the “best” version of itself, we don't wait until someone is free of fault and weakness, or some situation is the way we want it to be before we bless it. That would imply that blessing is earned; but blessing is gift.
In the same way, we don’t refrain from blessing others until we are somehow holy or complete or in a good place. You can't earn the right to bless, that too is a gift. We are called to continually receive life as a gift that speaks of God’s good intentions and how much God loves us, and then to continually give that reminder to others.
"To bless means to say good things. We have to bless one another constantly. Parents need to bless their children, children their parents, [spouses their partners], friends their friends. In our society, so full of curses, we must fill each place we enter with our blessings. We forget so quickly that we are God's beloved children and allow the many curses of our world to darken our hearts. Therefore we have to be reminded of our belovedness and remind others of theirs. Whether the blessing is given in words or with gestures, in a solemn or an informal way, our lives need to be blessed lives."
Sisters and brothers, What would it be like to live blessed lives?
What would happen to us if we started blessing all the time?
What would happen to the world?
I wonder, this week, what blessings will you receive? I wonder, how will you bless?