Blessed Be June 2007
Through the prophet Jeremiah you spoke, Lord. Concerning the false prophets you said, "'Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They make you worthless; they speak a vision of their own heart... I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran. I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in My Counsel, and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from their evil way...'" (23:16,21-22) We come before you today, seeking your counsel, your words, not the visions of our own hearts. Give us worth, turn us to good. In Jesus' name, amen.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed Karen Oberst's upcoming book, But I Tell You . It's a book about the Sermon on the Mount. While reading the introduction, I was struck by a section called "Blessed Be." For today we're talking about blessing, blessing that we give through our words.
What is blessing? We have our ideas, but Oberst says this, about the term in its original Greek form..."The word usually translated 'blessed' is makarios in Greek. This is a poetic form of the word makar , which originally referred to the bliss of the gods, a euphoria that could not be known by mere mortals. In Jesus' time, the longer word had come to mean blessed, fortunate, happy, and privileged. It is the word that might be used to describe someone who just won the lottery; is pulled out alive from the rubble of a building days after searchers have given up looking for anyone; or finds out Grandma's old pot is worth millions. In short, makar is for someone who has had luck beyond the expected and is absolutely thrilled." (p.4)
As I read this discussion of what it means to be blessed , a small idea began to brew. Maybe we could think about what it means to give words of blessing by looking at the Beatitude portion, the "blessed are you" portion, of the Sermon on the Mount. Maybe we could understand the kind of deep, life-changing excitement Jesus wants our words to produce by looking at what he views as blessings. And maybe we could think about when and how to share these words with others, also by looking at the qualities of the "blessed" that Jesus pinpoints. In other words, we might figure out what to say to people, based on who Jesus notes they should be for participation in the euphoria of the Kingdom.
A quick look at the Beatitudes suggests that an easy approach to blessing-filled words will surely fail us. After all, here are the blessings Jesus extols:
Blessed are the destitute in spirit...
Blessed are those grieving...
Blessed are the meek...
Blessed are the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness...
Blessed are the compassionate...
Blessed are the clean in heart...
Blessed are the peacemakers...
Blessed are the ones being harassed because of righteousness...
Blessed are you when they reproach you and persecute you and say all evil against you...
because your reward is great in heaven. (Matthew 5:3-12)
So this is blessing? Bring on the party hats. And bring on wisdom and courage for me as I struggle with my words. For this is going to be a hard party to host, if somehow my words will be involved in making someone destitute; stirring up grief; encouraging humility; or developing a sense of justice, compassion, purity, peacemaking, resilience, and truth.
My first response is that of Isaiah, "woe is me, for I am a person of unclean lips." My second response is Anne Lamott's favorite prayer... "Help!"
But this is probably a good place to be. For, it seems to me that I'll not be gracious and effective with many of my words if I haven't begun my own journey into the blessings of the Beatitudes, beginning with being destitute of spirit.
Indeed, recently I've been musing on this as I watch a dialog that's going on between two associates—one a Christian, the other an atheist. The atheist is open for dialog. The Christian, on the other hand, keeps needling the atheist with pious platitudes. And rather than bringing the atheist even an inch closer to being destitute of spirit and thus ready for God's sustenance, the Christian is pushing the atheist into defense mode. It makes me wonder about the Christian's own heart and journey into Beatitude blessedness.
Contrast this with the prophet Nathan, who came bearing a story to King David. We don't really know anything about Nathan's personal journey. But we know he's a powerful storyteller. It seems as if he's perhaps confronted deep issues in his own soul, he tells his special story so convincingly and with poignant urgency.
Maybe you remember the story, and why he told it? King David had slept with another man's wife, then arranged the man's murder after the woman became pregnant. Nathan came to David and said,
"There were two men in one city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had exceedingly many flocks and herds. But the poor man had nothing, except one little ewe lamb which he had bought and nourished; and it grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him. And a traveler came to the rich man, who refused to take from his own flock and from his own herd to prepare one for the wayfaring man who had come to him; but he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him." (2 Samuel 12:1-6)
And David became angry about the man, demanding that he pay back fourfold for the lamb. And Nathan said simply, "You are the man!"
Then David admitted, "I have sinned against the LORD." (2 Samuel 12:13) This brief confession barely captures what David was feeling. You can get the full story by reading Psalm 51, but let me simply share verse 17, where David says, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise." Broken spirit, contrite heart... it sounds like the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the destitute in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom..." (Matthew 5)
The name Nathan means "gift." And Nathan gave David the gift of the truth in a way that David could hear it. Nathan blessed David with his words. But they were hard words. Not the stuff of blessing we ordinarily think of. They made David feel destitute in his spirit. Like I said before, I cannot prove anything about Nathan's personal journey, but I suspect that he was able to say these hard words with grace and boldness because he himself had struggled at some point with his own moments of truth, feeling destitute of spirit before the Lord.
In our culture, many popular preachers have the air of the positive. They are blessing us left and right with hopes of prosperity and advice on feeling better about ourselves. They are blessing us with good words. We hear them, and we walk away whistling. Maybe there's a place for this somewhere, but these kinds of words are not the blessings of Jesus' Beatitudes: Blessed are the destitute in spirit... Blessed are those grieving... Blessed are the meek... Blessed are the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness... Blessed are the compassionate... Blessed are the clean in heart... Blessed are the peacemakers...
Blessed are the things that make me ready for Jesus' gift, and ready to be like Jesus. Blessed are the hard words, the ones that make me oh so aware of my plight, my need.
Recently, I read a little book called The Smell of Sin. It was filled with hard words, hard word pictures, based on some of the difficult stories of Jesus. Sometimes I wanted to close my eyes to the hard words. They made me so uncomfortable. But, by the end of the book I felt grateful. Grateful to the author for making me see my sin for what it is. Grateful to Jesus for his hard gift, where He became the One Blessed Word that was silenced by human hands.
I was right there with the author when he made the big point. He said, "We realize that the grace of Jesus isn't some petty legal maneuver to help us 'settle out of court' with God, so that our small acts of sin aren't held against us. No. It's a thousand times bigger than that. And then some... Our sins are immense and we are guilty. We are tried and convicted, and it's a death sentence. And our time has come and the guards are stiffly escorting us down the long hallway to the electric chair that rightfully awaits us. Dead men and women walking. And when we round the last corner, the guards simply have to let us go... because the chair is already in use. Jesus is in it. And he's being electrocuted." (p.102)
Reading those hard words about Jesus' sacrifice and reading hard words about how my sin brought him to that place, I felt destitute of spirit. So when I read, a few pages later, this next statement, my heart felt ready for it... The author said, "I have found in Jesus' words a soberness that has compelled me to grow up and stop fooling around with my life." (p.123)
What do the people around me find in my words? Do my words first of all reflect that I am growing up, not fooling around with my life? And do my words, like the words of Jesus, compel others to grow up and stop fooling around with their lives? Do my words lead others into Beatitude blessedness? Blessed are the destitute in spirit... Blessed are those grieving... Blessed are the meek... Blessed are the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness... Blessed are the compassionate... Blessed are the clean in heart... Blessed are the peacemakers...
Sometimes my words are grown up and wise, and sometimes they are foolish. Sometimes they bring people to Beatitude blessedness, and sometimes they lead people away. Sometimes my words just plain hurt, with no redemptive end like Nathan's story to David.
The other day my children and I were discussing some grown ups who are hurting their children. My little Sonia asked, "Why do they do that?" I found myself explaining, "Well, maybe when they were growing up no one explained to them that there's a different way to act. Maybe their own parents never talked to them about how to solve problems with their words."
In that moment, I remembered that I too didn't necessarily learn what I needed to learn growing up, especially with regards to words. Most of the words in my house were foolish words, hurting words, fighting words, dirty words, selfish words, shaming words, lying words. The few words that stand out as having been helpful words were those my mother took care to read us from story books and poetry books and the children's bible. Thinking on all this, I realize that my life with words has been an upward battle, with very little from my childhood foundation to help me make my way.
"Thank God," as Adele Calhoun says, "we are inhabited beings." And that, "The Spirit of God lives in us and partners with us to change our verbal [expressions]. Indeed God intends to so renovate our tongues so that we become God's own word of blessing, truth and love for others. Healing and blessing others with our lips is one way God heals our world." (p.187, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook)
Yet the healing and blessing has to begin in our own hearts. For as Jesus reminds us, that which comes out of our mouths reflects what is in our hearts. If we're going to use our lips to bless others, we're going to have to first get a heart change. If we have learned to use foolish words, hurting words, fighting words, dirty words, selfish words, shaming words, lying words, we are going to need a mind change too. Praying scriptures, Calhoun suggests, is one way to get a heart and mind change. She says, "In the early centuries of the church, believers were taught to pray the Scriptures. Since the Bible is divinely inspired, they believed that praying the Scripture deeply connected them to the mind and heart of God." (p.246 SDH)
So, the Scriptures change us. And this can help us heal the world. However, I realize that the Spirit of God also uses other avenues. I consider my Sonia. I truly feel God uses her to redeem my words and show me a better way, a healed way of living. Like a few weeks ago. I was bustling around the kitchen, self-absorbed, self-important, driven to complete my tasks without care for the people in my space. My husband was in the way. Both my kids were in the way. Underfoot. "You're in my way!" I exclaimed with a scowl.
Sonia turned first to my husband. "You're in my way!" she giggled, and made it an excuse to hug him. She turned to my older daughter Sara. "You're in my way!" she tussled and laughed and hugged. She came to me. "You're in my way, Mommy!" My heart opened wide with relief at such happy redemption of my cold words and the comfort of a child's hug. I'll never be able to say those words again without thinking of hugs and smiles. Sonia redeems my words. So thank God, as Calhoun says, we are inhabited beings. But thank God too that we are co-habiting beings, living with others who can, if we let them, teach us new ways with words, and open our hearts.
I realize that if my heart were fully what it was supposed to be, I would use my words to bring Beatitude blessedness. Blessed are the destitute in spirit... Blessed are those grieving... Blessed are the meek... Blessed are the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness... Blessed are the compassionate... Blessed are the clean in heart... Blessed are the peacemakers... If I had full knowledge of God, I would hurt no one in trying to bring such blessings. As Isaiah says, nothing will hurt anything else on God's holy mountain when all things have knowledge of God. But my heart is not perfect. Nor does my changed heart always get reflected when I stick with learned behavior.
So I pray, almost on a daily basis, "Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips." (Psalm 141:3) Yes, indeed, I ask for divine censorship. Even a word burning, if need be, right there at the tip of my tongue.
Yet I know that God wants my active participation too. He doesn't want to play word-guard for the rest of my life—for my sake and freedom, and for the sake of what He'd like my words to do towards the healing of others. So I have to engage in some disciplines. Again, Calhoun speaks to me, in suggesting the discipline of silence.
She says, "In quietness we often notice things we would rather not notice or feel. Pockets of sadness or anger or loneliness or impatience begin to surface... And as the silence settles in and nothing seems to be happening, we often struggle with the feeling that we are wasting time. Everything we notice in this struggle can become an invitation to prayer." Calhoun continues, "As you quietly offer your body you can hone your listening reflexes. There is nothing you need to do here. This is not a time to come up with strategies for fixing your life. [The discipline] can form your life even if it doesn't solve your life." (p.108-109)
Recently, I've been taking daily opportunity for silence. I go outside with a cup of tea, sit under my pine tree on a red plastic sled. I listen only to the wind tickle the trees or the birds chattering to one another. But I am silent. In this silence, things happen as Calhoun says they will. I become aware of sadness, anger, loneliness, impatience. Memories from the past come up to the surface. I get visions for new ways to be. The silence doesn't solve my life, but it does seem to be forming my life, as Calhoun suggests. Or maybe re-forming my life. In quiet moments, I see where I am lacking in my own Beatitude blessedness. Blessed are the destitute in spirit... Blessed are those grieving... Blessed are the meek... Blessed are the ones hungering and thirsting for righteousness... Blessed are the compassionate... Blessed are the clean in heart... Blessed are the peacemakers...
Could you find time for silence too? A space to discover what's in your heart? Your words may depend upon this small discipline. Or, if your life is arranged so that you are too frequently in silence, your words may depend upon the opposite—finding community, finding the little Sonias of the world who can mirror your words but then redeem them and show you a better way.
Words. Calhoun says, "Everyone has tasted the power of words spoken in deep love and deep hate. We know that long after a speaker is dead and gone, their blessings and curses remain." (p.187)
So, may the words of our mouths... be acceptable. And long after we are gone, may our words still blessed be.
Lord, El Roi, "God Who Sees," see into our hearts and minds today. We want to be as Nathan to David, bearing true gifts in our words. So, Lord, El Roi, see the dark places, the wounded places, the confused places, the frightened and selfish places in our hearts that prevent us from using our words as gifts of truth and grace and love. Heal these places, we pray. Shake free the right words at the right times and bring them to light, that we may bring others to Beatitude blessedness. In Jesus' name, Amen.
© L.L. Barkat 2007. Do not reproduce without permission.