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Earlier this week I was walking through the aisles of Michael’s craft store when I stumbled upon a large sign spelling out the word “blessed” in white wooden letters. I couldn’t help but think about Kate Bowler’s reflection called “# Blessed” from her devotional book Good Enough that many of us read during the season of Lent last year. She talked about how we live in a culture of #Blessed. Day in and day out, people post pictures of their perfect vacations on Instagram, photos of their perfect families dressed in matching Christmas pajamas and announcements about job promotions or their children’s acceptance into a prestigious universities all accompanied by the hashtag blessed.
Many Christians, Kate Bowler says, cross-stitch our blessings on pillows, hand-letter them in whimsical fonts, and tattoo them on our bodies, forgetting, perhaps, that Jesus turned the idea of what makes us blessed completely upside down.* Indeed, instead of blessing our picture perfect, successful lives, today we hear Jesus proclaiming people in the most imperfect situations, blessed: the poor, the hungry, the persecuted, the mournful.
The biblical form of pronouncing someone or something blessed is not something Jesus invented that day he went up the mountain and started teaching his disciples. He would have been very familiar with the form. The psalms and wisdom writings of the Hebrew bible proclaim lots of blessings but most of them have to do with some kind of action that leads to an observable reward. For example in Psalm 128 we hear the words “blessed are all who fear the Lord and walk in obedience to him, you will eat the fruit of your labor and blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine and your children like olive shoots around your table.” Most of these blessings read like wisdom for successful living.
So when Jesus used this familiar literary form to teach that the poor in spirit, the hungry and mournful, the persecuted and reviled were blessed by God it would have come as a complete shock to his followers. It would have been akin to us seeing that blessed sign from Michaels hanging up in a back alley or maybe even a safe injection site in the Downtown Eastside. What’s so blessed about being down and out?
But that’s precisely what Jesus seems to be saying, that when we are down and out we are blessed.
Many people have struggled over the years to understand what these beatitudes are all about. Perhaps we struggle because we too often interpret our blessings in a transactional kind of way. Live a good life and you will be blessed. Get a good job and you will be blessed. Have a good family and you will be blessed. Or maybe we struggle with them because we think they are like commandments telling us in order to be blessed we have to be meek, pure and persecuted.
Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor explains that the language of Jesus’ teaching about blessings is not at all transactional. There’s no do this and you will receive that and there’s also no shoulds, oughts, shalts and shalt nots either. Jesus’ language is all descriptive she says. It’s language that declares the goodness and the value of people regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves. What Jesus is doing in this Sermon on the Mount is teaching his followers how to recognize blessedness in people. He’s saying “you see all these people who are down and out, they are blessed. And you too, when you feel reviled or persecuted for the sake of peace and justice, you too are blessed.” It’s a good lesson for all of us because we so often get it wrong both about others and about ourselves. We think blessedness is dependent on our physical and emotional wellbeing or the state of our finances, or the state of our marriage or the scores we get on our tests, when in fact our blessedness is dependent solely on our very being. And if we are in a “lowly” state, Jesus teachings seem to be saying God’s love and compassion for us is even stronger.
Today as we explore the last of the three calls to the National Church to be Bold in our Discipleship, Daring in our Justice and Deep in our Spirituality, it’s worth noting that in the national church’s new strategic plan there are no objectives specifically related to deep spirituality. Over the last two weeks, we’ve been looking at goals in the plan that have included boldly inviting others to join us and taking seriously the ways we as individuals and as a congregation are living out of our personal commitments to seek justice in our relationship with the environment and among racialized and indigenous people and the LGBTQ+ community. In the National church’s plan there are actionable objectives in all of these area. The call to deep spirituality is more elusive and yet I think it’s what undergirds the entire plan.
If we don’t nurture a basic understanding of ourselves as blessed and beloved, how are we going to have this same understanding of others? If we don’t foster an awareness of ourselves as being enough regardless of anything we say or do to deserve it, what will stop us from our continual consumption of the world’s resources in order to make us feel like we are blessed or enough? If we don’t practice seeing each other as blessed regardless of our age, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic background, race or creed, it will be hard for us to actually believe that all of us are blessed. If we can’t find a sense of our own belovedness even when we are personally struggling, it will be hard for us to know that we are blessed even when things are going terribly wrong in our world. These are all spiritual issues that relate to our core identity as human beings. They also relate to the core values of the National church that talk about compassion, integrity, respect, community, equity, reconciliation, service and humility.
We need to practice being blessed in order to nurture a deep spirituality.
In her book “Altar in the World” Barbara Brown Taylor dedicates an entire chapter to the practice of pronouncing blessings. She suggests that the more able we are to pronounce blessings on the most basic and humble of people, places and things, the more able we will be to see the world the way God sees the world. Begin, she says by looking around you the next time you are sitting at the departure gate at the airport. Pick out the mother trying to contain her explosive two year old or the pock faced boy with the huge belly. Care for them even if you don’t know what’s going on for them. Pronounce a silent blessing on them. Every one of us is dealing with something significant in our lives.
If we think there are some things or some people that are so repulsive, worthless or destructive that blessing them would be like aiding the opposition, perhaps like declaring a place where people shoot up drugs in the downtown eastside blessed for example, the only way to find out, says Barbara Brown Taylor, is to try it. Find out how much humility is required, followed by how much mercy it takes to declare a dump blessed. Listen to your inner judge she says. Notice what happens inside you as the blessing goes out of you, toward something or someone that in your way of seeing does not deserve it or may even repels you. Afterall, she says, if you can bless a stinking dump, she surely someone can bless you.**
A couple years ago, a group of us spent about nine months praying through the life and teachings of Jesus. When we got to the beatitudes we intentionally revisited times in our lives when we had experienced grief, or poverty or persecution or mercy. We looked back to see if we could find blessings in those experiences, if we experienced compassion and care or if we could see that even in those challenging times God was with us. The more able we are to find those places of blessedness in our own lives, the more able we are to see them in others. The more able we are to see them in others the more willing we are to go to those places where others might be hesitant to go: to be with those who are grieving or dying; to visit a hospital or a care home or a homeless shelter; to see and stand with those on the margins.
Kate Bowler reminds us that although blessing people who are grieving and in sorrow or down on their luck might seem like a very counterintuitive thing to do, those are the moments when we most need to be reminded of the presence of God among us. It may seem a bit upside down she says but perhaps that’s how it’s supposed to be: our feet rooted in heaven.
*Kate Bowler, Good Enough, Penguin Random House, 2022.
**Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, HarperCollins, 2009.