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.