ESR Dean Jay Marshall delivered the following message during Earlham School of Religion Worship on April 29, 2015:
Many years back as I was sorting out what committed faithfulness looked like and what a call to ministry might involve, a group of charismatic Quakers were making their way around North Carolina, including the meeting where I was raised. Some good came from the affiliation, but theology, in part around the theme of blessing, ultimately caused me to seek elsewhere.
During an evening prayer session where one of the leaders was teaching about God’s love and abundance, she talked at length about how God wanted to bless us all. We had to be willing to stand on his Word and claim those blessings. Just that week, the devil had tempted her to unfaithfulness. In her recent prayers she had prayed for the new car she needed. Not just any car, but a Mercedes. (‘Cause nobody appreciates a sick ride like Jesus!) Maybe she had overdosed on Janis Joplin! That week she had seen a Mercedes that could have been hers and she was about to claim it as her own when she remembered --- she had wished for a red Mercedes, and this one was blue. Clearly this was a test of her trust in God to bless her with what she had requested.
I like songs with a bit of energy to them, which means when it comes to religious songs, I often like some of what comes out of the African-American Gospel tradition. Sometimes though, even when I like the rhythm I have to chuckle at the theology. One that is on my playlist currently is titled, “God’s Got a Blessing with your Name Written on it.” I don’t mind that sentiment. I even hope it is true. But one live recording I’ve heard includes the singer talking over an instrumental refrain and describing that blessing as tall, dark and handsome, about 6’4” to be exact. I guess the heart wants what the heart wants!
I share these two anecdotes to illustrate that there is a personal dimension to blessing, and it frequently is tied to what we desire or what we lack. The provision of those things is one way that some individuals, both ancient and contemporary, interpret confirmation that God loves them and has blessed them. I’ve got to admit that some biblical passages encourage that thinking. God’s blessing of creation in Genesis may focus on goodness, life, and new beginnings, but when God covenants with Abram, the visible parts of that blessing are offspring, land, a great name, plus blessing his good relations and cursing of his enemies. Land and children. Signs of wealth. As simply as that, blessing as the accumulation of things one desires to have a full life—not to mention status—is born. In the next generations mothers will scheme to position their sons to receive that blessing; brothers will deceive one another and even wrestle with the Divine in an effort to obtain what the other has. There is power in the blessing.
The beatitudes offer a corrective to the idea of blessing as excessive abundance by claiming that happiness exists in many of the conditions we ordinarily seek to avoid. Mourning, weeping, hunger. Those don’t typically make our bucket list of things to do before we die, though we seldom escape all of them. But the NT also feeds this fascination with blessing as abundance. When Paul urges the Corinthians to give cheerfully, part of his persuasion is the assertion that “. . . God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2Co 9:8 NRS) That sets the bar high for God to provide and for us to share.
High bar or not, I am a fan of the concept of blessing, but I acknowledge that thinking about it with so many variations is complicated -- particularly as we try to detach from consumerism and struggle with the realities of inequality.
It is important not to hijack the idea of blessing to justify divine endorsement of our petty whims or excesses or to permit the lack of stuff to convince us that we must not measure up in God’s eyes. However, blessing is virtually inseparable from the idea of favor, protection, and provision whether in the story or proclamation. But with a bit reframing, even that doesn’t have to appear overly egocentric. Indeed, blessings are deeply intertwined with ideas like affirmation, courage, and hope—all of which fortify us as we undertake the journeys to which God is calling us.
When I reframe blessing, I start at the beginning of the biblical story where God paused, took a look at creation and said, “Now this is good.” I am pulled further into the story as it introduces the idea that God creates humanity in the image of the Divine. Whatever exactly that may mean, it suggests that blessing begins with being. Being made, and being in resemblance to God. All of us can be, because each of us is! I intentionally opt for “being made” rather than “being chosen,” as often happens in OT conversations. It dawned on me one day that even though Esau was duped of the blessing, when he and Jacob meet again years later, Esau, too, has received his own abundance in the form of what God promised Abraham and Sarah—he too was blessed. What a wonderful thing to realize that God’s care and provision can’t be corralled or monopolized by a select group. God’s blessing belongs to no one exclusively to withhold from others. Rather, it is woven into creation and being.
When blessing begins with being rather than the accumulation of things, it is no longer limited to or governed by wealth or material abundance. We are blessed because we are, for such is the gift of life itself. And what we are is part of this greater menagerie of Divine creativity, which presents us myriad possibilities of how to be, to relate, to contribute to the grand design. That is to say, in being blessed we are to become part of the blessing.
That was part of the message to Abram, as I read Genesis 12. He himself was not only a recipient of blessing, but he was to be a blessing so that others were blessed through him. So if blessing begins with being it continues as disposition. That is to say, blessing affects how we are in the world. It influences our posture toward the rest of creation. It affects how we choose to encounter it. That has been brought home to me repeatedly by travel and conversation with persons in Central America. Initially it is difficult not to be shocked by the poverty one witnesses, but I was quickly, equally, struck by the joy so many possessed—their confidence in God’s care for them, their persistent hope, and the hospitality they demonstrated during my stay in their homes. They may pray for their next meal rather than a Mercedes, but they feel no less blessed and loved by God. God’s blessing is not responsible for creating the categories of have and have nots, but our sharing of the blessing is.
I consider blessing to be a subversive act. The disposition that chooses to encounter the other with affirmation and hope, instilling courage, is, in its own way, a subversive act. It challenges and interrupts an established system of inauthenticity, of detachment, of greed, and numerous other manifestations of a broken world in need of redemption. It intentionally seeks to inject goodwill, kindness, and hospitality into daily encounters. It doesn’t pretend that nothing is wrong; it maintains that what is doesn’t have to continue unchanged. That may sound minor, but it is a significant deviation from the norm that so many routinely experience. That disposition is a gift of blessing and it is one that you and I can offer to each other and to the world.
Over time, this disposition of blessing will assume the appearance of commitment, as our habitual blessing of others through the offering of our gifts, our words, our kindnesses, ourselves, invests and reinvests into the ongoing work of the Spirit that constantly moves among us. In words and in witness, in the affirmation we offer, in the hope we instill, our blessing one another conveys power that can break open both giver and receiver in surprising ways to the presence and accompaniment of God as these encounters touch the deep places of our lives.
There is a story in Acts 3 where daily a lame man is laid by the Beautiful Gate to ask for money. One day Peter and John pass by and the lame man makes his usual request for alms. Peter responds "Silver and gold I do not have, but such as I have I give to you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk." (Acts 3:6, NRS). That is the secret of the blessed life. We are not disabled by what we lack nor are we expected to give what we don’t have; rather, we must dare to bless one another with what is in our power to share.
The worship service concluded with Jay and the whole ESR community offering a blessing to graduating student Simon Thiongo (center) for his continued ministry and his new memoir, "An Amazing Journey of Survival."