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September 23, 2007 | 6:30 p.m.

The Power to Bless

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 34:1–10
1 Timothy 1:12–17


The theological seminary on whose faculty I was a professor a number of years ago was part of a consortium of schools preparing people for ministry in the church. One of the schools was a Roman Catholic seminary. Through an agreement of reciprocity, students could take certain courses in other schools of the consortium for credit in their own school. One of the students in a class I taught on psychology of religion and pastoral counseling was a nun from the Catholic seminary. During the semester she asked to see me for counseling and spiritual direction. She stated that she missed being able to confer face-to-face with her own spiritual director in a distant state where she was based and to which she would return upon graduation.

We had a number of substantive conversations before semester’s end and her subsequent graduation. During our concluding session she hesitantly asked me if I would give her my blessing, as she was accustomed to with her spiritual director back home. I was somewhat taken aback by her request, as I had never had anyone ask this of me in such a pointed way before.

After discussing with her why having the blessing was important to her and what meaning it would have for her, she told me that it would signify to her the sacredness of the conversations we had had and would be a reminder to her that she was a child of God for whom Christ died and that she was a beneficiary of God’s forgiving grace, something she did not always feel but nevertheless believed. She went on to say that she considered our conversations to be for her as sacramental as her receiving communion at Mass in her church.

Setting aside my awareness of how strict Freudians might interpret her statements, I was honored both to be asked to bless her and to do so. This I did by placing my hands on the top of her head while offering a prayer for God’s blessing upon her and then voicing a personal benediction upon her.

For both of us it was a profoundly moving moment in which we sensed the presence of God and experienced being blessed, for in asking me to bless her, she in turn blessed me.

The phrase “the power to bless” may seem to be a contradiction in terms. Our associations with the word power seem to clash with our associations with the word bless. For many of us, power conjures up images of brute force and violence, of domination and destruction. It takes the form of broad shoulders and sharp elbows punching and pushing a way through a crowd of people; body-slamming collisions on a football gridiron; planes plowing into skyscrapers, pulverizing them in minutes; volcanic explosions of nature’s fury in the forms of earthquake, wind, fire, and flood; and the bloody carnage of war. Indeed, the word for power in the Greek language of the New Testament is the word dynamis, from which we get the English words dynamite and dynamic.

At the same time, we also know that power sometimes comes in small packages. A miniscule single cancer cell holds the power to start a process that can lead to death. A tiny drop of medicine holds the power to foster a process that can lead to healing. Then there is the idea that the flutter of the wings of a butterfly on one side of the world can create the shock waves of an earthquake on the other side of the world. And what about the power of the “still, small voice”? We know that whispered conversations and muffled voices behind closed doors in a congressional cloakroom or in other corridors of government can sometimes result in momentous decisions and actions that have huge historical consequences.

Sometimes people in positions of power overestimate the power they have, overreach and try to do what is beyond both their authority and their capabilities. I find, however, that the rank and file of us tend to underestimate our power, sell ourselves short, and function below our capabilities. Years ago here at Fourth Church, before we installed a signal light system that links the narthex, this upper chancel area, the organ console, and Stone Chapel, the way the ushers knew to come forward to receive the offering was for one of the members of the choir to touch his glasses. At that moment, the whole phalanx of ushers would move down the center aisle as if pulled by a huge rope or cord. The choir member charged with this responsibility was surprised when I pointed out to him that on such occasions he exercised a good deal of power, something about himself he was convinced he had little, if any, of generally in his life.

Social activist and musician of U2 fame, Bono, once appeared before an audience at a fund-raiser for starving people in Africa. As he stood before the crowd, he began clapping his hands together slowly. After a few seconds, as he continued to clap his hands, he said, “Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies of starvation. What are we going to do about it?” Whereupon someone in the audience piped up, “Well, you could start by quitting to clap your hands.” As I said, power sometimes comes in small packages.

On the other hand, our mental images of blessing seem to be more benign, gentle, ones we associate with tenderness and affection and babies, as with Jesus blessing little children. But such images belie the power inherent in the power to bless. In his letter to his young protégé, Timothy, the Apostle Paul traces the contours of blessing as he himself experienced it during and following his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. He does so with a heart overflowing with gratitude, giving thanks that Christ chose him and deemed him worthy, that Christ empowered him to be equal to the task to which Christ called him, that Christ appointed him to his service, and that the grace of the Lord had been lavished upon him. In other words, to be blessed is to be accepted, forgiven, deemed a person of worth and value, encouraged and empowered, chosen, dealt with mercifully, and lavished with genuine affection and regard. In a word, to have all of the negative names and demeaning and pejorative labels ascribed to us by ourselves and others—names and labels like stupid, dumb, crazy, loser, slob, and worse—and by which we so often live, replaced with a new name by which now with God’s help we can live: Beloved. That’s the blessing!

In Paul’s case the remarkable thing about the whole business was that the blessing came to him not because he had been a blessing to others, but in spite of the fact that he had spent a good deal of time putting the curse of violence, abuse, and death upon others, particularly upon Christians whom he had been taught to despise and whose destruction he had believed he was duty bound by God to ensure. If God were willing to forgive and transform Paul, who characterized himself as the “chief of sinners,” God could and would forgive and transform anybody. It was this that Paul was now convinced he had been called by God to proclaim—that the mercy and grace of God is greater than all our sin and can overcome whatever curse we may be living under. That God forgives a murderer named Moses and transforms him into a mentor of his people; that God forgives a liar named Peter and transforms him into a leader of the church; that God forgives a persecutor and terrorist named Paul and transforms him into a preacher and teacher. No wonder Paul, in this part of his letter to Timothy, bursts forth into a doxology of praise to the “King of all worlds, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever!” (1 Timothy 1:17, New English Bible)

This then is the choice before us, whether to commit ourselves, as best we know how with God’s help, to live our lives so as to bless others, or to succumb to our blighted impulses and live our lives cursing others. I don’t know of any greater impediment to our willingness to bless others, to be a blessing to others, than that of harboring past resentments and obsessing about how to get even with those who have hurt us. It seems to me at times that the world has become one great cauldron of vengeance. A recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times (16 September 2007) states that “in an angry and frustrated America, vengeance on the silver screen (in the form of such movies as Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and the current The Brave One) is back with a vengeance.” It is fundamentally what it is about in Iraq and the Middle East and, along with racism and the inequities of our criminal justice system, it is what it is about in Jena, Louisiana. When we don’t receive the blessing or refuse it when it is offered, when instead of feeling blessed we feel we are cursed, it is the curse that controls us and it is the curse that we thrust upon others.

The table before us is the Table of Blessing, God’s blessing in Jesus Christ. It is the table that reminds us that he took upon himself the curse so that we might no longer be cursed but blessed.

One evening a few weeks ago, I was watching two back-to-back television news programs when I became aware of how despondent I was feeling, as though a shroud of sadness had engulfed me. I had recently learned of the death of a friend of many years, another friend lay dying and would die later, and other friends were struggling with major health issues. Added to these things now were the images on television of people being hurt and killed and people hurting and killing other people here and all over the world it seemed.

At last I changed channels and happened upon the telecast of the Little League World Series championship game from South Williamsport, Pennsylvania. The American championship baseball team from Georgia was pitted against the championship team from Japan. Both teams were extraordinarily talented, and they played their hearts out. So evenly matched were they that the game stayed tied and had to go into extra innings.

Finally a batter on the American team sent a towering fly ball into the right field stands, a walk-off home run that won the world’s championship for his team. A look of indescribable joy as well as disbelief was on the lad’s face as he rounded the bases and headed for home plate, there to be met by his exultant teammates, who promptly mobbed him as the partisan crowd went wild. As the triumphant American champions went into a traditional celebration dance, the young fellows of the Japanese team were on the field, some of them prostrate on it, clearly experiencing the agony of defeat, the humiliation of losing face by losing the game, and feeling saddened, dejected, angry with themselves, and sobbing uncontrollably.

Suddenly, a strange and interesting thing occurred. The celebration by the American team came to a halt as one of the team members saw what was happening with their opponents, and the entire American team turned and went out onto the field and embraced the members of their rival Japanese team, comforting them and, in some cases, weeping with them. They gave up their joy and celebration in order to enter into the sadness of others and to give them the blessing of their consolation and care. It was a tender, touching, and poignant moment, reminding me that from time to time there can be seen intimations of God’s grace and love and care in the midst of the horrible things that happen in the world on a daily basis.

The love of which the Bible speaks is that kind of love. At its heart it is sacrificial. It gives up what it wants in order to give what is needed by someone else. It gives out of gratitude for having received the blessing. It gives not in order to get, but in order to bless.

As you come to the Table to receive once more the blessing of God’s love and forgiving grace in the bread and the cup, I encourage you to believe in the blessing, trust the blessing, and as best you know how, try to live in the light of that blessing, even if you don’t feel the blessing. In due course your feeling will catch up with your faith.

Bless you. Amen.