...my associate and I take turns sitting by ourselves in an empty sanctuary, blessings stacked up, ready to be given out. General blessings like the one above or specific blessings for this or that situation or circumstance–it doesn’t matter. They’re loaded and ready to roar.
It struck a nerve and I remembered reading something of this a while ago. It turns out it was more like five years ago. The article appeared in the Australian Lutheran Theological Journal 43/1, 2009, and the author was none other than Dr. John Kleinig (whom I have mentioned more than few times on this blog).
He astutely pointed out the lack of attention done over the issue of blessing as part and parcel of the pastoral task. His point about blessing mirrors the issue with private confession -- if the Pastor does not value it, neither will the people. Yet the framework of blessing is all around us. The standard greeting of Pastor and people is one of blessing: The Lord be with you. No Lutheran would get up to leave until the benediction is given (the blessing that says you can go home and God will be with you). The church is abuzz with issues of blessing (animals brought to church for a blessing day, same sex couples blessed, house blessings, and the more regular blessing of those who come to the rail but do not commune).
Kleinig rightfully distinguishes blessing from approval -- God blesses us even when He does not approve us what we are doing. Blessing does not connote approval or even acceptance but bestows gifts upon the receiver. Central to those gifts is the very presence of God with us, the gracious presence of the God who forgives, redeems, restores, and guides.
Throughout the Old Testament God authorizes the blessing of His people by those whom He has called into His service. Numbers 6, the classic text of the benediction most Lutherans are familiar with, commands the prophets to bless the people with these specific words. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, 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.“So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” Frame that with the last minutes of Jesus with His disciples before His ascension in which He lifted up His hands and blessed them.
I have often complained that the usual greeting for Christians is good morning (or other time) instead of the more Biblical "The Lord be with you." Strange that the decline in our understanding of blessing has come while we Lutherans have given up the greeting before the sermon and the votum afterwards. Perhaps the two are unrelated but I tend to think that we talk less about the things that mean less and more about the things that mean more. The language of blessing is throughout the Divine Service though we notice it less because our attention has moved to other things.
Perhaps the ultimate blessing comes from the very name of the Trinity that marked us in our baptism, that we acknowledge in the invocation that begins Sunday morning. The very name of God is a blessing and that He gives us this name to wear is the greatest of all blessings to a people who deserve nothing of His gracious notice and intervention.
People have come to think that the Church is always asking things from us -- things we do not want to give, like time and money -- when the reality is that the Church is the agent of blessing imparting to the world the saving name of God in witness and to the people of God the riches of His promised grace through Word and Sacrament. Maybe we have come to think of ourselves as entitled to it all or perhaps we think we no longer need God's blessing but the reality of it is that blessing is integral to the Gospel, to the worship of God, and to the ministry of those who serve us with His good gifts. Good things come from God whether we see or acknowledge them or not. Yet as good as the gifts are, they become blessings only when faith moves our cold hearts to gratitude and then to witness as we pass along what was given to us. Think of the ten lepers healed and the blessing that came only to one of them. We come as beggars and we leave wearing the new clothes of the kingdom, guests of God's richest grace, with an honored place set for us. When we get this part right, so many other things fall into place.