Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
One of the most highly-regarded religious leaders of the 20th century, Henri Nouwen, spent the last decade of his life living in a group home with a dozen mentally and physically handicapped adults and their caregivers. While not as big a story as Prince Harry and Megan Markle leaving the royal family, Nouwen’s move out of public life caused quite a stir in religious circles. Here was a man who had taught at Ivy League universities, lectured around the world, authored dozens of books, and was in constant demand as a teacher and spiritual leader. Why would he choose to live among those whose capacity to appreciate his gifts was so limited? Nouwen’s reply was simple: it was among the physically and mentally handicapped, those of little apparent worth to anyone except those who loved them, that Nouwen learned what it meant to be beloved by God. From that place, in the final years of his life, Nouwen wrote some of his finest work.
He wrote of a time when one member of the community, Janet, approached him as he was preparing for a worship service and asked for a blessing. He paused and made the sign of the cross on her forehead with his thumb. “No, that doesn’t work,” she said, “I want a real blessing!” Nouwen realized the inadequacy of his response, and he told her that he would offer a special blessing when the community gathered for prayer. With thirty or so in a circle together, he said, not really knowing what she had in mind, “Janet has asked me for a special blessing.” Janet left little room for doubt. She came forward, put her arms around Nouwen, and rested her head on his chest. He returned her embrace, and said, “Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s beloved daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, you kindness to the people in this house, and all the good things you do show us what a beautiful human being you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember that you are a special person, deeply loved by God and all the people here.”
Janet raised her head and smiled. After she returned to her seat, another woman, Jane, said, “I want a blessing, too.” And after her, several others stood up to ask for a blessing. Then one of the volunteer caregivers, a student in his mid-twenties asked, “Can I have a blessing, too?” “Sure,” Nouwen said, and he blessed him by saying, “You are God’s beloved Son. It is good that you are here. Whenever things are hard and life is burdensome, remember that you are loved with an everlasting love.” Tears came to the young man’s eyes. (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved (Crossroad Publishing, 1982) p.58.)
To bless is one of seven spiritual practices in The Way of Love, the Episcopal Church’s invitation to us all to live a Jesus-centered life. It’s my favorite of the practices, because it’s so affirming and life-giving, the exact opposite of the callous speech that bombards us daily, and our own tendencies to focus on each others’ shortcomings rather than our gifts.
God has entrusted us with the power to bless, yet we rarely consider the power of our blessing and how devastating it can be whenever we withhold blessing. Have you ever witnessed someone being slighted by another, by a gesture or tone of voice? It can be as painful to watch as it is to experience, our capacity for casual, mindless cruelty. Conversely, we’re moved to tears when we see someone blessing another–a teacher affirming a student; a passerby helping someone who is hurt; a child offering a drawing or poem.
From the Latin benedicere, blessing simply means “to speak well of someone.” It is, as Nouwen writes, “to affirm a person’s belovedness, touching his or her original goodness, and calling forth the reality of which it speaks.” The late Celtic poet John O’Donohue dedicated his life to retrieving the lost art form of blessing, which he described as “words that create a circle of light drawn around a person to protect and strengthen.” (John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), p. 186)
The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister describes what it’s like to be in the presence of those practiced in blessing: “They never talk destructively about another person–in anger, in spite, for the sake of a laugh. They can be counted on to bring an open heart to a closed and clawing world. . . they live well with those around them. They are just, upright, and kind. The ecology of humankind is safe with them. (Joan Chittister, OSB, The Rule of St. Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1992), p.24)Who among us doesn’t want to be that kind of person?
The story of Jesus’ baptism is all about blessing, the one Jesus receives that launches him into public ministry. It is the first of several such moments of blessing in his adult life that affirms his identity and clarifies his vocation. It’s also one of a handful of stories that shows up in all four written accounts of his life, and while they differ on details, what they agree upon is this: when Jesus rises from the water, he feels the power of God’s blessing: “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Everything about that blessing will be sorely tested in the days and years to come, but it remains the foundation of his self-understanding and vocation. He is God’s blessing to us.
Whenever we gather in church, we freely offer blessings to one another, particularly in rites of passage. When we baptize a child, pray for the Spirit to release God-given gifts in Confirmation, welcome those who seek to be fully received into the Episcopal Church, we assume the posture of blessing. Likewise, when we’re gathered for a wedding or funeral, we bless one another. In doing so, it’s as if we can see each other, if only for a moment, as God sees us, and love as God loves. I think that’s why we cry in church in such moments. We feel the power of God’s love.
Alas, those moments pass, and we go back to our existence that seems to be defined not by anything like a blessing. For we’re all less than whole, marked by the imperfections and contradictions in our character. We have hurt and been hurt by those we love. We live with the consequences of mistakes made, our own and those of others. What on earth does the blessing mean in light of everything else that is true of us and our world?
This is a leap of faith for Christians: daring to live as if blessing is, in fact, the larger context, the big picture, the unchangeable truth. All of the failings and imperfections, and even our heinous sins, are to be seen in blessing’s light. Bryan Stevenson, the amazing criminal justice reformer of our time, says it this way: “Everyone of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done. A person who tells a lie is more than a liar; a person who steals is more than a thief; even those who kill are more than murderers.” “There is at the back of all our lives,” writes the Anglican G.K. Chesterton, “an abyss of light, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness. Those who realize this know that it outweighs all lesser regrets, and that underneath all our grumblings there is a subconscious substance of gratitude.” (G.K. Chesterton, Advent and Christian Wisdom for G.K. Chesterton, compiled by The Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis and Friends (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori Press, 2007) p.9)
I’d like to offer two specific ways we all can practice blessing in daily life. The first is simply this: when in conversation with others–be they family members, coworkers, neighbors, friends, or those we encounter as we go about our day–at the point of saying goodbye, offer a word of affirmation or encouragement. Point out some quality in them that you love or admire. Reflect back to them something they said that struck you as brave or admirable. If they are going through a hard time, acknowledge that fact and let them know you are there for them. Tell them how much you mean to them. I’m not suggesting you shower people with false praise, but rather, like Henri Nouwen, to go deep and speak from the heart.
Think of him standing in a circle of people who no doubt had been told all their lives that they were less than human, offering his words of affirmation and kindness. We’re all part of that circle, actually, and God has entrusted to us this extraordinary power to offer, and receive blessings. I’m learning that the more practiced I am in giving blessings, the easier it is for me to receive blessings from others.
Second, and this is harder, whenever you’re about to make or laugh at a joke told at another person’s expense; or whenever you’re about to make a wonderfully insightful and critical observation about another person, or pass on via social media someone else’s scathing criticism, catch yourself, if you can, and don’t do it. I confess that I love political satire as much as anyone in this town, and I know that we all need humor to survive. But when the jokes or criticisms turn mean, no matter how right we are in that criticism, it’s worth asking ourselves what we imagine we’re accomplishing by adding fuel to that fire. As I heard someone say recently, rarely do people have a change of heart when we poke them in the eye. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t speak out for what we believe or that criticism isn’t necessary, for it is; nonetheless, there’s a lot of gratuitous cynicism in the air, and dehumanizing meanness. Remember that it takes no energy whatsoever to be negative. To be an agent of blessing takes effort. “People are hard to hate close up,” Brené Brown reminds us. “Move in.” (Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone (New York: Random House, 2017), p.63)
As an acknowledgement of this congregation, I’d also like to point out how important it is to grow our capacity for blessing. Your growth in recent years has been a wonder to behold. You’ve been through a lot, but you have made tremendous strides in congregational health, spiritual vitality and discipleship and service. You inspire faithfulness, courage and generosity in one another. I’m honored to be your bishop.
Let me close by asking a question that I heard James Ryan, Dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education, pose as a “bonus question,” at the end of a commencement speech. It’s taken from a poem by Raymond Carver entitled “Late Fragment.”
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
The haunting phrase, even so, acknowledges everything that we struggle with–all the fear, anxiety, disappointment and uncertainty of our lives:
And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
The poem goes on to answer:
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth. (James Ryan, Good Questions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bW0NguMGIbE. Raymond Carver, “Late Fragments,” in A New Path to the Waterfall. (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994).)
That’s what Jesus wants for all of us–to know ourselves, as he knew himself, as beloved on the earth. Jesus is an epiphany, a revelation to us of the depth and breadth of God’s love.
If you don’t know yourself as blessed, or, like all of us, you need to be reminded, know that that is God’s desire for you. Like Janet in that circle of prayer, you can ask for blessing and be reminded by people like me that you are beloved even when–especially when–you don’t feel it.
If you do know something of your belovedness, you know as well as I what a gift it is. Commit yourself this day, and every day, to offer yourself as a blessing, so that through you, others, too, might know themselves as beloved on the earth.