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The Weird Power of Blessing: My Struggle with a Strange Tradition

The Weird Power of Blessing: My Struggle with a Strange Tradition

My daughter was four years old the year our church started doing a Blessing of the Bikes. I wrestled her pink and black bike into the back of my silver Toyota Camry, twisting the handlebars and tires into just the right shape until I could slam the trunk closed. My own mountain bike had been recently purchased. It took an equal amount of contortion—and considerably more upper body strength—to load it onto my also-new bike rack.

As I loaded the car, my mind was also working overtime. I wasn’t sure what to think about this whole business of blessing bikes. In the Bible, there are countless examples of people being blessed. Sometimes directly from God, sometimes mediated by a person. In Deuteronomy 28, the people are promised a blessing for obedience:

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God:

Blessings, here, are a transaction. If you do what God says, you’ll have riches, children and land, as the passage goes on to describe.

In an earlier, passage, the people themselves are given the power to bless and curse:

When the LORD your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses.
(Deut. 11:29)

And of course we have the favorite story of Jesus blessing the children:

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them.” (Mark 10:13, also Matt. 19:14 and Luke 18:15)

The examples go on and on but from my rational, modern perspective the whole idea is a little murky.

Blessing from Numbers 6:24-26

In the ancient tradition represented in the Bible, it’s clear that words have power. God speaks and the world is created. The first people are given stewardship over the earth, represented by their command to name the animals. Jesus himself is called the Word made flesh. In that context, blessing (and cursing) make sense. By speaking over something, we are creating a future for it. The words themselves bring our intention alive.

In today’s context, that sounds an awful lot like magic. The right words, said at the right time, make something happen. Abracadabra and all that.

This was why, when my mother-in-law laughingly asked whether the blessing had “worked,” I had no answer. What standard are we supposed to measure these simple words by? Were we now safer as we tooled around the cul de sac? More Christian? Were are bikes now holy modes of transportation? I suspect the answer is “no.”

So I’m a little bit self-conscious as I admit that I’m strangely awed by the act of blessing. In a worship service, my favorite part has always been the benediction. That moment when the minister’s hands go up and the people are sent out in God’s power—it makes my spine tingle, whether I’m on the giving or receiving end of the blessing.

It turns out that there is power in words. When we bless one another, we aren’t changing our fate. We’re claiming our reality. The goal isn’t to say the right words and therefore make something holy. “Abracadabra, this bike is now holy!” That puts too much pressure on the right words and actions of the one giving the blessing. No, the point of blessing is to claim—out loud and with witnesses—that even the most mundane parts of our lives can be sacred. It is to remind ourselves that we belong to God, the world belongs to God, and everything in it should be put to God’s purpose.

Giving a blessing reminds ourselves that we belong to God, the world belongs to God, and… Click To Tweet

My bike no longer bears the ribbon we tied on our handlebars that morning. It quickly became tattered and dirty, then fell off after a couple seasons. But my heart still holds the reminder that each morning bike ride is an act of faith. Or that each family ride to the ice cream shop is love lived out in holy community.

So this year I’m picking up the mantle. We’re doing a blessing of the backpacks at church before school starts this year. I’m also thinking about doing more blessings here at home, although I’m not quite sure how that will look. And I’d be curious to hear from any of you: what’s your experience of blessing and being blessed? Is it part of your family life? Your church experience?

The Realm of God is a Hug Over Apple Pie

The Realm of God is a Hug Over Apple Pie

We were standing around a rather cheap folding table, the kind stored in closets and pulled out for Bunko nights and church potlucks.  This event was one of the latter.  The legs on the table looked suspiciously thin; I worried that the slightest nudge would cause the table to crumple and the apple pies sitting there would fall onto the white linoleum floor.  The old story was that this was a pie baking contest but everyone knew that the judges would proclaim each one “the best” and we’d all happily agree that it was a 20-way tie.  Once the illusion of judgement was blown, we’d eat homemade apple pie with store bought vanilla ice cream and waddle home for Sunday afternoon naps.

“What brings you to town?”  The woman in front of me struck up conversation with the man in front of her, a visitor to the church.

There was a slight hesitation as he fumbled with a serving spoon before looking up to gauge her reaction.  “I’m actually on my way to an alcohol treatment program.  I check in tomorrow.”

“Oh,” now the slight pause was on her end.  Then, “Good for you.”

She said this with real sincerity and warmth, not at all the sanctimonious “good for you,” that sometimes comes out of the mouths of people who mean well but have never encountered struggle.

Pie with Ice Cream

I do not know what was said next, only that that there was a brief conversation and then the woman was reaching for a napkin to wipe her crying eyes.  In the same moment, this stranger wrapped his arms around her in a hug that was at first awkward but then gained confidence.

“What was his name?”  I heard him ask.  Her answer was muffled by the pain of addiction and the grief of a hard death.  “I’m sure he was a wonderful person.  I’m so sorry.”  The man replied.

Then, even though no one was complaining that they were holding up the line, the two gathered up their plates and the man dished a generous serving of apple crumb pie and melty vanilla ice cream for both of them as she scanned the room for a place to sit.

This is everything I know about the gospel.  The wounded will become the healers and the healers will have their chance to hurt.  Jesus says as much, “the last will be first and the first will be last.”

This is not a threat, although we sometimes hear it that way.  This inversion of power is simply a promise; it is a promise that no one has to carry the burden alone.  If you’re downtrodden by life and dependent on others, this isn’t the measure of your worth.  And if you’re shouldering responsibility after responsibility and carrying a heavy load, your help will come from the most unexpected place.

While I don’t understand all this, and sometimes don’t even want it to be true (because I’m usually fine when I’m coming in first), it is a promise we can trust in.  Someday, sometime, all things will be made fair in a big, cosmic way.  Until then, we’ll take our glimpses of God’s kingdom alongside our slices of apple pie–bits of grace, fleeting but ever so sweet.


I’m linking up this week with the #wholemama women who are writing on “question.”  It might be a stretch since I don’t directly even mention the word but at the end of the day, I can’t separate the mystery of unexpected grace from the central questions of faith.  So I’m trusting you all to see the connection, to think about your own apple-pie moments and to embrace the mystery of who God is.  And then check out the other bloggers over at Erika’s place who have written more succinctly on the topic.  Erika wrote the post I planned to write but couldn’t get on the page, Sarah is talking about asking a better question, and Gayle is reminding us of the importance of curiosity and wonder as ways to break down barriers.  Enjoy them and the others!

When Fear Takes Hold

When Fear Takes Hold

Don’t be afraid.

The words came as a still, small voice in my head as I reeled from the Paris attacks.  Don’t be afraid.  I recognized these words, of course I did.  They appear in the Bible a gazillion times.  (365, actually, but not always in context.)  They did nothing for me.  The fear was weighing me down like plate mail armor and the biblical command ricocheted off without making the smallest dent.

I spent two days like this, wrestling with the terror and looking for comfort.  While others were praying for Paris, I sat mute in the horror.  I was sad, angry and afraid but the desperation wasn’t turning me toward God.  It was turning me inward, making me look for a way to shut out the dangers.  I honestly spent some time wondering if it was possible to just check out of this world altogether.  Could we buy a bit of land in some undiscovered corner of the world where no one could find us?  Could we stay where we are but never leave our home?  Was there any hope, when violence lurks in schools and movie theaters, on street corners and concert halls?  “Don’t be afraid,” seemed a mockery, a PollyAnna optimism that has no place in the aftermath of tragedy.  

I never found any comfort.  There are no words of reassurance for this situation, no promises that all will be well, that everything is under control.  What I found instead was the Gospel.  Not the cheap-grace “look at the bright side” version but the real, true, “What are you willing to sacrifice for another” version.  Oddly enough, It came to me via Twitter. It came as people rose up against the news that politicians were calling for a “pause” to accepting Syrian refugees.  (A “pause,” being a lovely, safe way of saying, “We’re going to let them die while we debate this.”)  

“I would rather die at the hands of a terrorist than be the kind of human who turns away from suffering,” someone tweeted.  I don’t know this person, I don’t even know why I saw this tweet but I do know that it hit me with all the force of an altar call at an 18th century revival meeting.  This is the Gospel.

Somewhere along the way, I had confused “don’t be afraid,” with “there’s nothing to fear.”  Those are two different things and only one of them is the way of Christ.  

Look, politicians will be trying to provide comfort.  They are looking to keep us safe.  They will be talking about risks, vetting processes and financial resources.  They do this because they, too, are scared and also because they want to look like they have the easy answer for a complicated problem.  But at the end of the day, we simply cannot let these discussions sidetrack us.  

The way of Christ was never, ever a way of safety.  

Believe me, that comes as hard news to me as I sit in my cozy house, typing away on my laptop as evening settles in.  So you all are going to have to help me out here.  We’re going to have to press forward together, not because we think we’re safe but because we believe that the way of love is worth the sacrifice.

The one bright spot I see in this whole mess is that we have companions on the journey.  I have been proud of Christianity, proud of the larger Church itself, in its response to the refugee crisis and the concerns of terrorism.  I have seen you all posting on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram demanding that refugees continue to be accepted.  I watched the statements from leaders across denominations roll in on Monday and I cried tears of pride and hope.  While the voice of fear is still clamoring, I’m hearing the voice of Christians raising above the din demand that we let compassion win out over fear.   

So let’s keep going.  Let’s walk the walk as well as we’ve talked the talk.  Let’s not let our passion get cold with the news cycle, or our comfortable commitments get in the way of real love.  Instead, let’s keep lobbying our government leaders, looking for ways to volunteer  and flooding relief agencies with donations.  Let’s drop the plate mail of fear and go into the world vulnerable and unprotected, clothed only in the clothes of Christ.  Let’s remember that while it is human to long for safety and comfort, it is Christ-like to long for peace and sacrifice.

 

Hope For The Time Of Doubt

Hope For The Time Of Doubt

Friend, I see you in this hard time. I know it’s a struggle, this faith business. I know that sometimes it all seems like a crazy dream or a silly idea that some people invented. Opium for the masses and all that. I know what a dark night of the soul feels like. I know how it feels to have your heart break because you can’t find God right now. I know how you’re asking for prayers and simultaneously wondering if it even matters. Is anyone listening out there?

I want you to know that I know. I see you there because it’s a place I’ve lived. I’ve been there, pacing the floor in the middle of the night, wondering about life and meaning and God and is it all in vain? You can see the place on the carpet where I’ve worn it down with all my pacing. Right there, down the middle. See?

I see you looking for the way out. The hallway of faith used to be so clear but now the light is dim and the doorway isn’t marked. What was that about following Jesus? Because his footsteps are getting pretty faint.

hallway

I have some words of wisdom I’ve saved up for occasions like this. I’d like you to know that doubt and belief aren’t opposites. No, they’re just two sides of the same experience. God can work with doubt. Every story of every biblical figure is a story of doubt. (I dare you…find one that isn’t.)

Plus, there’s a thing that Richard Rohr said when I heard him speak last summer. “There’s no shortcut to the transcendent.” This is written in my notes in large letters. Apparently, we have to go through the nitty-gritty in order to grow.
Of course, this sucks and is a small comfort when you’re in it but the point is, you’ll make it out. You will. You won’t be the same person you are now but you’ll make it.

Those might be helpful things to ponder. However, I definitely won’t tell you that a spiritual crisis is required for growth. A mentor told me this once and I cried all night. That’s just discouraging news, to think you’ll have to do this again someday. (Although, when you get there, you’ll have a little more strength because you’ll know that you did it before and you can do it again.)

Those are my words of wisdom, for what they’re worth. Really, though, the most important thing I can say is this:

I believe it for you.

I believe you will come out of this. I believe that God is there, and when you can find that again, you will run to God like a child finding a lost parent. And then you might go ahead and yell a bit, like a parent finding a lost child. You know, the kind of yelling that’s only brought on by intense love coupled with incredible fear. “Don’t ever do that to me again.” This is ok, too, when you find your way again.

Exit sign

I believe you will find your way again. Sometimes the trick to weathering a period of doubt and desperation is just to let someone else hold your faith for you. Give it up. Let them believe a bit because you just can’t.

I know, that sounds crazy. You’re used to bearing it alone, walking your own separate groove into the carpet because we don’t talk about faith and doubt very well. But trust me, it’s ok to let go of this need to hold it all together. Just set it down for a while.

Know this, though: someday, when the light becomes clear again, you’ll walk out. You’ll walk out and regroup, you’ll run and hug and scream, and when you’ve rested, you’ll turn around and look back. You’ll see that place you used to walk, the windowless room and the lack of exit signage and you’ll feel relief that you’re not there anymore. Then you’ll peer just a little bit closer, trying to figure out why that place had such a strong hold. When you squint, you’ll see another dim figure pacing the floor. You’ll know just what to do. You’ll carefully reach in just enough to hold their hand and whisper quietly, “I believe it for you.”

And you will.

When Belief Isn’t Enough

When Belief Isn’t Enough

I spent Earth Day 2015 outside. Having decided that I wanted more gardening space for tomatoes, I dug up part of our lawn. This part was easier than I thought it would be. In my exuberance, I overloaded the wheelbarrow with sod and wasn’t able to move it, so I texted my husband with this little honey-do for his evening. Then I surveyed the backyard.

It was April, so the weeds were taking over. They were poking out everywhere, including in between the stones of our flagstone patio. Why they are able to grow in that gravel is beyond me. They were also growing in the grass and despite the layers of plastic weed barrier and mulch, they were growing in the borders along the house. Weeds everywhere. With the still-dormant brown grass everywhere, our house looked trashy and unkempt, not at all lovely and spring-ish.

There was only one solution. I stomped into the garage, my happy go-lucky “I’m going to nurture a garden” attitude gone. High up on the ancient refrigerator that stores extra frozen food and home brewed beer, sits an old bottle of Round-Up. I remembered my husband bought it once in a similar fit of irritation at a patch of steadily advancing thistles.

The irony of spraying a wide swath of “Round-Up Extra Strength Kill Everything in Sight” on Earth Day did not escape me. That I was doing this while pondering what earth-related prayer I might do with my daughter to celebrate the day and also meet my self-imposed blogging deadline did not escape me either.

Apparently, no matter how fervently you believe in taking care of the planet, earth stewardship, creation justice and all those fancy words we religious folks like to throw around, you can be pushed over the edge by too many weeds, too little time and the slightest sense of despair lingering right around the corner.

It’s a parable of sorts, a reminder that “belief” is not enough as long as it stays an intellectual experience.

No matter how passionately we believe something, if that belief is mostly in our heads, it doesn’t really matter. We can talk all day about what we believe: God, Jesus, love the whole bit. We can craft creeds and mission statements and we can make people say them or else. But beliefs need to be held loosely so as not to choke the power out them. They need to be given room to grow wings and fly into the wind. Once they are held so tightly that they become the very focus of our faith, then they lose the power to change us.  Look, I have this belief in a lovely cage. See how pretty it is?

Faith needs room

I have long been a critic of traditions that place too much emphasis on belief and not enough on trust. Beliefs were never meant to be a litmus test for godliness, they were an invitation to know deeper. They were a starting point that lead to a relationship, a pointer if you will, not The Thing Itself.

We can blame language and translation issues for part of the problem. There’s a bit of evidence that the original Greek for belief held more of this idea. Faith, trust, abide, even. Belief is a starting point and a resting place, not the destination. You don’t get there and stop, you get there and start.

(Well now, this sounds all harsh and judge-y. Sorry. You can remind yourself that I was the one spraying Round-Up on Earth Day.)

Really, though, it’s not really meant to be judge-y. It’s meant to be an invitation. Let’s start here, together. Let’s start with what we believe about weeds and fruits, earth and God and then move forward. Let’s start with what we believe today and then see where that takes us tomorrow. Let’s let our beliefs fly, like butterflies discovering new wings. Who knows, we might just believe ourselves into a better world.

Path

Linking up today with #wholemama. Check out some other takes on “belief.” (You have to click the frog to see the other bloggers.