As I get older, I retrace the unlikelihood of how I landed in Cleveland. A German Catholic girl from a middle-class Midwest family to now: wife of a Presbyterian Minister in a racially eclectic city on the north coast. I grew up in a homogeneous suburban community. We were white, religious and “Minnesota nice”. Diversity in Minnesota meant German Catholics and Swedish Lutherans drinking beer and eating lutefisk. Our public high school had one Jewish family and the 8 Africa-American students were imported from Cincinnati, Ohio.
I went to a Catholic elementary school and graduated from a Catholic women’s college. My idea of “clergy” were childless, poor, celibate men living all alone in brick estates smelling of incense and probably drinking the left-over communion wine. Now I am unofficially the “first lady” of this community of Presbyterians, raising PKs (Pastor Kids) and sleeping with the Presbyterian minister! My Catholic grandmother is rolling in her grave.
But the single best thing about being a “minister’s wife” is hearing stories from you: what brought you to this church, why you stay. The list is impressive. A courageous and proud tradition of social justice in this community. Strong engaging preaching. Elaborate Lenten dinners. Singing in this choir. Family camping at the Highlands. Faith Leaders. The right balance of inward/outward journey. Softball Championships. Abundance Acres. And of course, the Christmas Eve service with its evocative lighting and hushed beauty.
Well, I want to share one of my “favorite things” about Forest Hill. It’s a relatively new action but in my estimation – transformative. We will do it today, coincidentally. I’m talking about the service of blessing and anointing.
I will never forget the Sunday we first did this. John announced the new activity in worship – that ministers would be available at the railing for anyone who wanted to come forward, after they received communion, to receive a blessing, an anointing. I thought, “No way. Leave the pew, walk forward, kneel at the railing, be touched.? Get oil dripped on your forehead? This is too ‘Catholic’ for us Presbyterians.”
But what happened was amazing. People did come. And not just a handful. But lots! Even the unlikely suspects came forward – I didn’t go forward because I was completely touched by what I saw – so many people offering themselves, so many seeking a blessing. Like the woman who wants to touch Jesus’ garment, or the man in need of healing, people were seeking an affirmation. A reminder. “You are a blessing. You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased.”
The service of anointing and blessing quenches our need for identity, for affirmation. After a busy week, how good is it to hear that we are loved, we belong to God. We know in our heads that we are beloved children of God. How many times do you hear that from this pulpit?? But still we need to be reminded, with a word and with a touch, of who we are at our core. A blessing can balance our life. Restore our spirit. Connect our head to our heart.
Receiving God’s blessing is a widespread biblical activity. God is the source of blessing- the One who gives blessings. And to receive such a blessing is to be favored by God which brings about newness or wholeness to the individual or upon an entire community. A curse, the opposite of Blessing, when spoken would imply that evil forces were to destroy or control you. Blessing occurs 605 times in the bible. Curse – 200. Blessings can be bestowed upon God. But generally blessings are bestowed upon people. The first people to be blessed are Adam and Eve:”God blessed them saying Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:22) Abraham gets the “mega-blessing” “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen 12:2.) Think of Jacob stealing his older brother Esau’s blessing … and then later, after wrestling with the angel, demands a blessing for himself. The beatitudes suggest a blessing on people who perform specific actions or possess designated traits: Blessed are…they who mourn; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessings continue today. It is fairly common to say a blessing before a meal. When you sneeze, perfect strangers will say “bless you”. We easily think of our children as blessings—- at least in their sleep! We often name our families, our job, our health as blessings. Throughout our day we might name certain things as a blessing – coffee with a friend, a walk in the metro parks, the glorious sunset, the juicy peach, the exquisite voice, a drive in Amish country. As a church family we bless many things and occasions- bread, wine, babies, teenagers, couples, the dying, homes. Some traditions bless pets, Christmas trees, motorcyclists…even throats!
Receiving God’s blessing is familiar. But pronouncing blessings is a different beast. For whatever reason, we are reluctant to do so. I don’t feel worthy. I have no authority. That’s the clergy’s job. Speak in public? What difference would it make? But Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor (A “Professional Blesser”), in An Altar in the World, writes, “I think it’s a big mistake to perpetuate the illusion that only certain people can bless things.” She makes the distinction that the clergy do not confer holiness, but merely recognize the holy in the midst.
John and Clover, I am sure, would agree that their presence at a house blessing does not bring about the holy peace. They are simply naming, giving voice to the holy already present within the occasion. There is no special qualification or knowledge required. Anyone can do it. We only have to pay attention with new eyes. Again Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Start throwing blessing around and chances are you will start noticing all sorts of things you never noticed before.”
There are many ways to pronounce blessings but the practice I have latched onto is pronouncing blessings on people who annoy you. This is not easy. Pronouncing blessings on ugly, unlovable people— the ones you want to curse – can be powerful. Discovering that the annoying person is also a beloved child requires attention and compassion. To look beyond the rudeness and acknowledge the holy within – gives you the opportunity to practice mercy. To see the “enemy” as a friend doesn’t change them, it changes you. They, most likely, will continue to be annoying and unlovable and ugly. But you are transformed. You loosen your grip. Your perspective shifts. You discover your own judgments. You walk with humility. You see the world as God sees it.
This practice of pronouncing blessings on unlovable people has been my latest obsession. Usually I am not successful. I find it most challenging at the checkout line at Marc’s – and more times than not I curse under my breath. My children have certainly felt more of my wrath than of my blessing! But occasionally, I am successful. I was flying to Minnesota this spring to see my mother – my mother with fairly advanced dementia. Trips home used to be ones I looked forward to but now they are filled with sadness and anxiety – and the plane is full. I take my aisle seat – grateful for the leg room and eager to read uninterrupted for the next 3 hours. Twenty minutes into the flight, the man across the aisle one seat up starts to snore.
Now, normally I am a fairly tolerant and kind person. But two things really set me off – snapping gum and snoring. (My sister and I shared a bedroom and whenever she snored, I would go into the bathroom and get a wash cloth cold and wet and crawl back in bed and throw it at her.) So this guy is snoring. He is not letting up. I feel my blood pressure rising. I can’t stop him and I can’t get away. I am ready to scream. But then Barbara pops into my head. So with my teeth clenched, I quietly pronounced a blessing on him, “God this is your child. May he be blessed. We are both traveling – wandering away from home or returning home. So we share a story, the excitement and anxiety. May You be gracious to him and give him peace.” Guess what?
He kept snoring.
No surprise. What had changed was me. I softened. My rage turned into understanding. My intolerance gave way to compassion. I was no longer bent on cursing him. In honoring the holy in him, I could be gentle with myself. In seeing God in him, I remembered how gracious God is to me. In blessing him, I received a blessing.
Receiving blessings. Pronouncing blessings. Both offer a way for us to see and acknowledge the Holy in our midst. Whether you are a seeker or a cynic, a doubter or a do-gooder; burdened by the worries of the world or wondering when life will matter: Try it.
It doesn’t require a degree, a fee or any expensive equipment. It can be done with a word or a touch; silently or with clenched teeth. It probably won’t make a bit of difference…but it might just change you.
Be blessed. And bless. And notice what you notice.