Tag Archives: blessing

Prayer: Stay until God blesses you

I added a couple of major commitments to my schedule. They are not like I just moved to Chicago for a new job; not like welcoming a new baby into the family; not like being enrolled at Philly’s University of the Arts and it shutting down in an instant; not like losing a lawsuit or finally ending up a felon after years of avoiding that outcome. But I am feeling the weight of new commitments. We all get new burdens placed on us, one time or another.

I got elected to my condo board, God help me. Plus I became more integral to my church. And I was feeling full enough before those things happened, since I have a job, like most of you do. I have a dearly loved family nearby. I have trips to take. I have to figure out the City of Philadelphia’s websites periodically and wonder what has happened to my latest lost online shopping delivery —  not to mention Gaza, and it is 126 degrees in New Delhi.


In the midst of all this, I noticed my prayer felt a little stale, for lack of a better description. It was still bread, but not as nice as fresh-baked. I realized that almost as soon as I sat down to pray, I was tempted to get up. Or some days I had to admit that I did not sit down at all, the schedule was so pressing. So God and I felt a little like “ships passing in the night.” At least the Lord was moving and I was a bit adrift.

One day I had that restless feeling and decided, “I am going to stay here, even if all I do is feel like I need to get up.” I did not feel trapped or irritated. I did not feel sinful. But I did not feel like there was room for intimacy, either. So I stayed.

The image that popped into my mind as I stayed was one of the most famous scenes in the story of Jacob in Genesis. You probably remember it. He is finally going back to the territory of his forefathers, Isaac and Abraham, and he is about to meet his brother Esau, who he cheated out of his birthright as the older brother and who he hasn’t seen for fourteen years.

Contemporary icon by Deacon Nikita Andrejev. https://n-andrejev.squarespace.com/

Jacob’s all-nighter

Here is the part of the story that intrigued me the most. Jacob sent his family and all his possessions across the Jabbok ford and into his homeland, now a threatening place. He stayed on the other side by himself all night and wrestled with God until he was blessed.

I realized I was doing what every God-lover needs to do. I was staying. I was staying like Jacob stayed all night. Fortunately, I was not fearing the 400 men my brother was reportedly leading to meet me. I just had a lot to do, and people throw trash out their car windows where I live. I needed to stay.

The art of having a relationship with God and becoming a non-anxious presence yourself requires staying. I had to sit in the chair where I pray, stay on the bench or kneeler where I pray, go into a bathroom stall in the office where I can be alone and stay until I felt blessed.

It is not that I am not blessed when I am figuring out my condominium problems, or  imagining how a traditional church can make a difference, or caring for my clients. I just don’t know I’m blessed. I have trouble feeling it. And I mean knowing in the “You dislocated my hip with a touch” sense; feeling  in the “I am walking with a limp because of you” sense.

God dislocates me when I am located in my preoccupations, fears, lusts, or ignorance, you name it. He sets me walking in a way that demonstrates I have been with her. I love that reality. But it is hard to stay in it, unless I stay. My spiritual awareness happens in time and in a body and always will. I need to do the physical things that allow spiritual things to overwhelm what overwhelms me.

Michel Keck will sell you this work. Click the pic.

Stay and meet God

As you can tell, the Jacob story has been grounding me. In it, I could hear Jesus asking me to stay with him as he wrestled in prayer in the night in Gethsemane. Such praying comes to good result:

So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. — Genesis 32:30-31

The place where Jacob stayed was named Penuel: “God was seen there.” Jacob renamed that place for himself, Peniel: “I saw God here.”

Whatever we are facing today, whatever is built up from the past, we need to stay with God in it until we realize we are blessed. Go to the place you pray and stay there. Otherwise, our prayer could be a place where “God was seen sometime.” But I think each day needs to be marked with “I have seen God here.”

Thank you Jesus. God is with us. Here and now.


Today is Kizito Day. He is one of the many Ugandan martyrs still remembered for keeping faith when it was new. Get to know this spiritual ancestor at https://www.transhistoricalbody.com/

Today is also Hudson Taylor Day. He is one of the most inventive, dedicated and strange missionaries ever. He made a huge impact in China. I think his story will challenge, puzzle and inspire you. Meet him at https://www.transhistoricalbody.com/



Eradication or remission: With what healing do I bless you?

What do you say when you bless a sick person?

  • “I hope you get well soon” or
  • “I hope you feel better soon?”

Both, of course, are expressions of love and a sick person probably gets the love, no matter what you say. I wondered, however, why I almost always say, “I hope you feel better soon” just like my mother.  Maybe get well, seems like a demand; while feel better is more tentative, more humble. When I say “I hope you feel better soon,” I think it is flavored with, “I am not sure where this is going. I don’t feel comfortable promising wellness. But I am hopeful.”

The other day some Circle Counseling clinicians got into the subject of getting well and feeling better applied to mental health. We discussed whether mental health was more about eradication (well) or more like remission (better). I had never really thought through the difference. Eradication vs. remission is often the tension cancer patients feel, right? They wonder “Is there a cure or will I have to worry forever?” That kind of tension also applies to mental illness. “Does being well mean I am just like I remember good times in my past — a return to normal? Is it acquiring an idealized future — what I always thought I should be?” Or is mental health feeling, thinking and behaving better, beginning where I am now and moving on?

Need to talk about power

I think eradication was paired with remission in our dialogue because people in the U.S. assume power is at their disposal or should be. Around here, successful treatment for many means eradication of the invading illness. Something like “Vaccinations would have provided a no-fly zone against the virus if people had just gotten one, two, three and now four!”

Like I was asking last week, many Americans see healing as an act of power. Should Jesus followers all be like Jesus and eradicate disease and mental illness with a word, a touch, or a prayer? Or is healing more typically resting at the feet of Jesus, having faith in the storm, and persevering in trust? In a powerful country, psychotherapists might lust for power — the power of my work, my touch, my method. I heard a different take when I talked to a person last week who lives half-time in Ecuador. They said it would be much more likely there to see health in terms of one’s relational context and one’s daily process. People there never expect to have power, so they are more comfortable with unpredictable destinations and more attuned to feeling present in their relationships and circumstances. They do not find suffering sinful.

But here, I think it is good for me to answer the questions. Am I more of a psychological technician, eradicating mental illness and discomfort? Or am I providing space for health to unfold? If the latter, I might be able to promise raising your pain tolerance instead of implying all pain is an anomaly. In a recovery mindset, I might admit I don’t know the meaning of your suffering, or whether some ideal of wellness might really be a trap!

I’m glad I travel with people who ask good questions.  At one point last week, I listened to an Indian psychotherapist (his choice of label) explaining why Native people might not take advantage of the services of the counseling center on the reservation. The elders told him the center’s idea of “wellness” was mostly about becoming individualized (as opposed to tribal) and medicalized. If one is poor or constrained by colonization, “getting well” might mean eradicating who one is to become more “white” and more acceptable to the power structure. One’s setting or one’s relationships might be the cause of mental illness, not only what is happening inside. If a person refused mental health care, that might be the same thing as resisting the indignities of colonization, the end of which would likely improve their mental health!

Eradication/Medical model

I was not sure the interesting binary argument we therapists were making between eradication and remission was reasonable. Aren’t most mutually exclusive labels easily placed on a spectrum that meets somewhere near the middle? But once I started looking, I found a lot of eradication models that feel pretty exclusive, mostly coming from the world of medicine, from which psychotherapy emerged. They looked a bit one-sided, as in this definition: “The biological approach of the medical model focuses on genetics, neurotransmitters, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy, etc. Psychopathology says that disorders have an organic or physical cause. The approach suggests that mental conditions are related to the brain’s physical structure and functioning” (link).

I usually love science. It is unintentionally miraculous. But I don’t love it when it dominates us. So I have mixed feelings about some relatively-recent approaches from the medical end of the spectrum that propose and sometimes promise eradication of mental health issues. Here is a collection.

  • A TV station gushed: “Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation is a depression treatment that is “turning lives around in five days.” By adding imaging technology to the treatment and upping the dose of rTMS, scientists have developed an approach that’s more effective and works more than eight times faster than the current approved treatment for the world’s leading cause of disability.
  • The medical terms are Psilocybin and MDMA. The terms you know are ‘shrooms and ecstasy. Psychedelics have resurfaced as a means to treat stubborn disorders. Psilocybin (the essence of mushrooms) has been used for severe depression and MDMA for PTSD. One of my clients ended up in psychotherapy because an uninvited night of ‘shrooms unveiled an inner world he never dreamed he contained.
  • Ketamine injections have become a new mental health industry, lately. The anesthesia has been found useful for treating depression, PTSD, social anxiety and OCD. Mindbloom is the company that a new client connected with; the effects were real, but apparently short-lived for them.
  • I am not sure I think of EMDR as a “medical model” in essence. But it is another way to short-cut lengthy talk therapy. I’ve done some training myself. It gives a lot of authority to the technician. Brainspotting seems, to me, like a more easy going, user-friendly version of EMDR. Both use bi-lateral stimulation of the brain to allow for entrenched feelings and patterns to be accessed and renegotiated.

Remission/Recovery Model

I hesitate to say the “remission” end of the spectrum is more “right-brained,” but there, I said it. While the medical model gets more specific and tiny all the time, right down to your neurotransmitters, the recovery model allows for a wider range of possibilities and contexts for the state called mental health. The documentary Bedlam is one of the latest critiques of the results of the medical model the recovery model seeks to correct.

The recovery model takes a holistic view of a person’s life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery from mental disorders and/or substance use disorders as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” SAMHSA outlines four dimensions that support recovery: 1) Choices that support physical and mental well-being, 2) a safe place to live, 3) meaningful occupation and participation in the community, 4) supportive relationships of love, emotional availability, and respect.

The recovery model is in direct response to the unmet promises of the medical model. Rather than focusing on “the elusive state of return to premorbid level of functioning” these are more systemic approaches emphasizing “one’s personal ‘resilience’ and control over problems and life” (NCBI). For instance, the medical model makes many promises to alleviate depression, the leading cause of disability  worldwide (WHO). The recovery model is honest about the shortcut approaches that sometimes prove ineffective and discouraging.

In the case of depression, a sufferer is moving toward recovery when symptoms respond to treatment and diminish, however slowly. Remission is achieving a symptom-free state and returning to normal functioning. After several month s of remission, one enters the recovery stage (more). For many people, looking for remission may be more satisfying than never achieving eradication. Finding a new normal, rather than lamenting the lost one, allows a person to live the life they have.

With what healing do I bless you?

I think I can bless someone with “Be well.” Whatever wellness you have in your present state today, I hope you can have it rather than lusting for what you don’t have and condemning yourself for not being healthier. If you don’t see yourself in the light of the medical industry’s “gaze” and label yourself according to your faults, I think you’ll find amazing tools there to use.

I also think I can bless someone with “I hope you’ll feel better.” Whatever process of development or recovery you are in, there is hope of appreciating it, moving beyond it, or suffering it creatively. You have personal resources – some you know about and some which are yet to be fully realized or even discovered. You are valuable as you are right now and there are likely people who can see that. Even when you feel ill and less capable than you desire, what you bring to the community is worthwhile right now and will likely grow in blessing as you learn to love and share your true self.

The Beatitudes as villages along the way of Jesus

Much of the Church spent 2021 wondering what to do with all the anger people dragged in from the troubles of the world. There were many reasons to be angry! The American Psychological Association has been naming a main reason for years: climate change anxiety. But there is so much more! The effort to finally put an end to racial injustice may bear fruit, but the process has left a wake of injury in many places. Covid-19 makes everyone cranky, especially after another holiday season was impacted — we lamented the other day that just when we think we are getting our footing, we get clobbered again! The natural response to all these things is to cut off and withdraw. So we can add relationship issues to all the rest. (Maybe the commitment to cut-off started in 2013, as some sociologists say).

I was talking to a friend about these things and he had the sense to find a way to encourage me through my soft spot: the Sermon on the Mount. I still feel that central teaching of Jesus forms the heart of the “lens” through which Jesus-followers, like me, see the world. My friend lightly touched on the progression of the Beatitudes because I was feeling beat up and mourning, and that’s where they start. At first, he felt I was being stubborn and implied I needed to move on into forgiveness and courageous action. But the more he listened to me, the more he accepted that my grieving would last as long as it needed to last. Nevertheless, he reminded me of that other world, always possible beyond my present troubles. He is right, we all need to keep moving today and be our part of the salvation of the world with Jesus.

As I am wont to do, I googled his idea about the progression inherent in the Beatitudes. I thought he was referring to a book he had read, and I came up with it. The idea that the Beatitudes have a progression to them is hardly a new idea, but a particular look at their progressive sense was recently popularized by an Evangelical pastor serving in the Chicago suburbs named Colin Smith in Momentum: Pursuing God’s Blessings Through the Beatitudes.

The blessings

The “intro” to the Sermon on the Mount got tagged as “The Beatitudes” in English because in Latin each line begins with “beati” or “blessed.” Add a “tude” to that and “beatitude” is “the state of being blessed,” and the “Beatitudes” are “the statements about being blessed.” If you take the Sermon on the Mount as basic to the way of Jesus laid out for his disciples, then you can feel the inherent progression in the Beatitudes. That sense of moving along can lean internal – they are the way to joy. If you add the idea that the sermon teaches the disciples how to be joy to the world then that sense has an external bent – they are the way to be a blessing.

My friend thought I should be a blessing, which I appreciate, since he thought I had it in me and might even be betraying my character and calling if I denied it. But he resigned himself to the fact that I had a way to go to get out of the morass of 2021 at this point. I might be a “blessingette” for a little bit each day, doing the best I could do for a while.

No harm in some reimagining. Thanks Pastor Tim from Iowa!

I think the first part of the Sermon on the Mount is so popular because it speaks to us from the beginning of our faith journey to the end — or, as I have heard, from messed up to blessed up. What’s more, it stays relevant. I am finding out one can get clear to the end of the Beatitudes and find himself back on square one at a deeper level.

What would a blessed 2022 look like? Is it having a happy intimate relationship? Is it grateful children or wise parents? Is it good health, surviving Covid? Is it not being the target of a climate disaster? Fulfilling work? Financial stability? Travel opportunities? Maybe you have an unconscious list you carry and are often irrationally angry when you don’t experience what is on it. Regardless, you probably noticed that none of the things I mentioned above. which are often on our lists, are on the Lord’s list.

Jesus doesn’t say “Blessed are the happily married,” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” He doesn’t say “Blessed are those who enjoy good health,” but “Blessed are those who mourn.” He does not to refer to what Americans generally associate with blessing: a just piece of the American dream. According to Jesus, the greatest blessings aren’t found where we normally look, but in places we aren’t inclined to explore.

Villages along the way

So here is my take on the progression inherent in the beatitudes (Matt. 5:1–12) as we begin our journey into more uncertain territory in 2022. We will arrive at little of external value if we don’t move into the internal, so let’s start at the heart of each of us.

When our Lord tells his disciples about life under God’s blessing, he describes a person poor in spirit, who mourns over sins, who meekly surrenders control, and so longs to grow in righteousness. These first Beatitudes feel counterintuitive to most of us. Being poor means you don’t have resources. Nobody wants that. But Jesus speaks of a kind of poverty that makes you rich. Mourning means you have great sorrow which is what we would most like to avoid. But Jesus speaks of a kind of mourning that leads to joy.

Smith and other Americans picture the Beatitudes like they present a course of discipline, something like the set for American Ninja Warrior. You get through one saying and you have another challenge until you ring the bell in verse 12. One interpreter saw them as rungs in one of those horizontal ladders next to the jungle gym. Traditional Catholic writers often see them as upward steps on the staircase of piety. Those interpretations might work for the Peloton generation. But they are a bit much for me. It think Jesus is inviting us all on a journey. It may be physical. But it is mostly the way of the heart. I’m not sure the heroic or better-abled have an advantage. Plus, is is not a race. We inevitably go at our own pace.

Click for Tolkien and the Beatitudes

So think of them as a journey with me. To get to the further village, you’ll need to pass through the one you are in, at least the outskirts. They are not the wheel of time but a natural progression, step by step. They feel seasonal; you get to the end of one season and the next one rises before you. You can start the whole process again at a deeper level, perhaps, when you get to a whole new season of life.

The first village is one everyone will reach. If you move further you will find the second, the third, and so forth. The place of forgiveness, then purity, and then peace follow after the previous. They need to be reached. The Beatitudes lead us there with Jesus leading the way.

Roots . . . Shoots . . . Fruit

The first three beatitudes deal with our need. We’re poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3) because we don’t have what it takes to live as our true selves; we are sidetracked. We mourn (v. 4) because our sins are many and we are sinned against; there are dark powers lording over us. We become meek, rather than resistant or avoidant (v. 5), because we admit we are helpless and not wise enough on our own. This turning onto a new path is the root of a blessed life.

Out of these roots come the shoots of the fourth beatitude—a hunger and thirst for right relationship with God and others (v. 6). The very soil where our unhappiness and need are rooted is where God reseeds us with a new longing. When we turn into and not away from the roots of the first three beatitudes, we are nourished, our desire for love and truth grow. I am experiencing this hunger right now. I am grateful to mark the end of a very costly 2021. I feel starved for new direction and community.

Continuing the metaphor, the roots produce shoots, and the shoots bear fruit. The first fruit of this blessed and godly life is mercy, or forgiveness and compassion (v. 7), then purity, childlikeness renewed (v. 8) and then peace, reconciliation with God and others (v. 9).

The order of the Beatitudes shows how to make progress 

 Our Lord also gave us an eighth beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted” (vv. 10-12). The others sayings reflect the character God’s people should develop on their way; but persecution is different. Though we shouldn’t pursue it, it will pursue us as we live in the light of the previous verses. I have often met up with people or forces I never expected along my journey — and I still love to travel! I have had a lot of v.11 insults and falsehoods thrown at me this year; I’m  still hoping it was because of Jesus somehow.

The order of the Beatitudes, then, shows us how to make progress in the Christian life, village to village. If you want the fruits of forgiveness, clarity, and peace in your life, then begin with the roots of accepting how poor in spirit you are, mourning over your sins and situation, and meekly relying on the guidance and comfort of the Spirit.

Suppose you are trying to help a friend who wants to forgive, but feels it is beyond her reach. She knows she should forgive, and she admires those who do, but she’s been hurt. Her wounds run deep. The Beatitudes lead the poor in spirit on a journey toward mercy where they find the strength to forgive. The point is not about behaving properly, it is about moving with Jesus.

Or suppose you are discipling a friend who struggles with shame. His guilt is trapping him; his frailty is closing him in. He longs to be free but he can’t get out. His despair can lead to mourning which will eventually release him into a sense of being free and clean. It is less a matter of achieving perfection than it is staying on the journey with Jesus.

I think Jesus did a good job of encouraging his first disciples and then the billions who followed them to stick with their Guide along the way. The lofty and beautiful life laid out in the Sermon on the Mount is not really good thinking that gets applied, it is a life which is continually realized, a journey. The Beatitudes are like welcoming villages where we are fed and conditioned to travel the next leg. We are always at a certain point along the way with Jesus and we are always about to move on with him toward wholeness.

When we look at the world at this point, the challenges of 2022 could easily seem insurmountable. So maybe this is a good year for the Beatitudes. They have such an innate generosity built into them which allows anyone who is poor in spirit to start along the way.

How to Bless Someone — 2/28/05

This is longer than a usual post, since it was a message in the Sunday meeting. I offer it to stir up some good-speaking in a mean era.

I love weddings. So I have had a good time presiding over quite a few of them in the recent past. I keep trying to convince the couple and the crowd, too, that the high point of the wedding comes after the bride and groom have exchanged their vows and rings and I say a prayer of blessing. This is the point we have all been waiting for, not the kiss. This moment of prayer is why the bride and groom came from their respective camps and made a processional through the town and up the aisle to the altar before God, to get the blessing, as pronounced by his duly-assigned representative, me. It would make more sense for everyone to clap after the prayer, not as the couple is  introduced. It would make more sense to stand for the prayer of blessing, not when the bride appears at the door.

I am not making much headway with my reforms. I think that is  because few people know how to be blessed anymore. We’ve lost consciousness of blessings, and that is not a good thing. So I want to talk about it. Before I am done, I hope you will know what a blessing is, to some degree, know how to receive the blessing and the blessings that God would like to give you, and, most of all, know how to bless someone else.

 What is a blessing?

 Literally, a blessing is “good-speaking.” In Greek: eulogy – like saying a few nice words at a funeral. In Latin: benediction – like the pastor says at the end of the meeting “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you his peace.” A blessing is the act of speaking goodness into being, naming goodness as present or calling it out, covering something with goodness. Like my father-in-law always prays before the meal: “Bless us O Lord as we take of Thy bounty. Help us and keep us in Thy way. Bless portions of this food to our bodies and us to thy service.”

When I bless the marriage, I am, in a sense, transmitting God’s power to seal the couples’ love with goodness, to grace it. I am being used by God to sanctify the union. Like when my father-in-law blesses the food, officially receiving the Creator’s powerful, good work and, in a sense, setting the food apart as having a special meaning, as the gift of God it is.

Many people kind of blow by such actions (even at our own wedding!), because they think they are a little weird. We don’t have much skill in handling spiritual things. I think a lot of people shy away from spiritual things because the whole idea of something being blessed or of some words conveying some kind of power can get way out of hand.

El Santuario de Chimayó | State Employees Credit Union
El Santuario de Chimayo

In many ancient religions people would recognize a place where a good thing happened and assume that such a place had good power. Soon people would go there for a blessing. I visited such a place called Chimayo a couple of years ago in New Mexico. There is a chapel built on the very site where in around 1813 a farmer named Don Bernardo Abeita had a vision while working in his field one day. The vision told him to dig beneath his plow where he would find earth with great healing powers. The farmer did as he was commanded and discovered a cross and pieces of cloth belonging to two long-ago-martyred priests. Ever since, pilgrims have come to the site to get a bit of this holy dirt in hope that it will cure them as nothing else can. Special dirt, special words in a special place will convey the goodness.

I suppose God could convey healing through dirt, but I doubt the actual dirt has much intrinsic power. Because one of the many great revelations to Israel that came after God chose to dwell among them as his own people was that God is not an impersonal force, God loves us and relates like a parent to us. So she bestows her favor as she chooses in relation to those she loves.

  • God’s first blessing can be found in Genesis 1:27-28. It shows how we can bless someone by speaking to them.  It says: God blessed [humankind] and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’ ”  To bless someone is a creative act. God is speaking goodness into being. Be fruitful. Be activated. Work well.
  • We bless someone when we speak well of them. When Jesus first revealed himself to the world in his baptism, as he came up out of water, taking on the form of a person who needed to be baptized, they heard a voice saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” To bless someone is an affirming, praising act. God is naming and calling out the goodness in Jesus. You are my pleasing Son, whom I love.
  • You also bless someone when you speak well over them. The prophet Ezekiel was speaking for God when he looked into the future and saw a better one. He spoke this blessing for God over the whole nation: “There will be showers of blessing…, the people will be secure in their land. They will know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them” (Ezekiel 34). It is like God is wrapping up their future and putting a wax seal on it. Setting the whole nation apart for goodness. You will be free. You will be alive with love and fruitfulness.

These days in this country, it is very popular to reduce the blessing of God down to a commodity you can get by saying the right words. A few weeks ago, Creflo Dollar, the pastor of the 23,000-person World Changers Church International south of Atlanta said, “The blessing of God is the ability to have success in every area of your life. When God’s blessing rests on you, it will transform your ‘average’ existence into a life of overflow. He teaches that we who are created in the image of God so we are little gods, since Gods do not give birth to other kinds of species any more than dogs do. So what we speak into being will occur, so we best speak into being the blessings of God.”

It is a compelling twist for people surrounded by what all the recording stars call the “blessing” of their wealth and what the the politicians call the “blessings” of democracy – everyone wants to get some of this American blessing! Meanwhile, Jesus looks suspiciously poor and unsuccessful. Meanwhile, when Jesus talks to the poor he says: How blessed are you who are poor, who hunger now, who weep now,…because great is your reward in heaven.

I definitely think we need to learn how to bless people. We are moved to participate in God’s creative activity by the Spirit of God who moves in us. But we dare not forget that it is God’s Spirit moving and whatever blessing we give is by God’s grace, not just a matter of dialing something up, as if we were qualified to commandeer God’s goodness. God speaks to us and names us and surrounds us. When God blesses us, he is speaking good – that good comes to us, it is called out of us, it creates and environment in which we can thrive.

Try it. People need a blessing.

I have never known anyone who found it easy to receive an authentic blessing from God. I remember one of my spiritual directors, tentatively but tenderly holding my shoulder as he prayed a blessing on me once. “May Rod know he is loved, beyond the lacks he feels, beyond the hurts he carries. May you reveal your tender love to him. In the name of Jesus, you are Rod the beloved of God.” Warmth flooded my body! My usual defenses began to melt and I sensed I was receiving that truth: I am the beloved of God! But almost immediately, it seemed, something in me kicked in and I was doubting what was going on. I inexplicably started to resist it.

The beginning of 4617 Woodland

It probably takes a half an hour a day, for who knows how long – maybe years for some of us — to listen long enough to God’s blessing: “You are my beloved child. I am pleased with you,” before we actual receive that message. To be blessed is not fast food – you can’t drive up to the window, demand your blessing, get it, and then drive through to your next success. It is a discipline of being transformed. God is takes a broken, bent up, corrupted creation and, according to its own design, brings it back to goodness, blesses it. It is like what Gwen and I and many friends have been doing with 4617 Woodland. We have been pouring ourselves and our riches into the new house where Circle Counseling will live – we are “blessing” that ruined building and transforming it. It takes time and effort. God wants to rehab us by blessing us with her presence and her wealth.

But even when we are good at it receiving this, there is so often the voice of contradiction that tells us we are cursed. God speaks well of us, or someone else does, and we say inside, “If you only knew.” I’ve got news for you – we know. You cannot hide how messed up you are. God knows very well and we know most of it too — we can see how banged up you are and we are going to speak well of you anyway.

How to bless someone else.

So you know something of what a blessing is: to speak well, to and of and over people. And you are at work to receive that blessing from God. Here’s the final thing and the point I wanted to get to: how does one bless others?

When I was a little kid I was taught an old song about blessing others. It was written in 1924, so it was about as old when it got to me as early Beatles songs are to Sadie Petersen. I’ve always remembered it — so let’s teach Sadie some good songs, too! It is called “Make Me a Blessing.” I couldn’t remember all the words, so I looked it up. If you know it, sing it with me:

Out on the highways and byways of life, Many are the weary and sad;
Carry the sunshine where darkness is rife, Making the sorrowing glad.

Make me a blessing, make me a blessing; Out of my life may Jesus shine.
Make me a blessing, O Saviour I pray, Make me a blessing to someone today.

That might sound a tad sentimental to most of us, since it is apparently part of this generation’s birthright to be responsible for no one but themselves and to be alienated about their chosen alienation. But the song shows the essential discipline for how to bless someone: you want to do it and you ask God to do it through you.

It happens just like I have been talking about, just like God does it and how God does it to us.

First, to bless someone, speak well to them

There is some power in our words. They can create or destroy. You may have heard what James said to the first believers: James 3:9-10 “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. …This should not be.” We need to determine to say good things to people.

“You are a good friend. You are a good person. Your hair is beautiful. You are God’s child. You are a gifted leader. You just spoke well to me. I love what you are trying to do here.” These are easy blessings. But they still take discipline.

One reason they take determination might be because you question your motives, or you listen when others question you. “Am I being dishonest about my true feelings? Won’t I be living a lie? I’m really mad – what if I just let that go? I’m bored – if I’m nice, will they stay around? I’m unsatisfied – I don’t want them to give up trying.” Blessing people is not for the shallow or the spiritually faint of heart. It takes heart muscles. It might take suffering to speak good to another person.

Second to bless someone, speak well of them

You call out the best in others, you strengthen what is good when you name it and bless it by setting it apart as notable, noble, holy. Proverbs 25:11 days, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” At the end of Proverbs the family is blessing mom: Proverbs 31:28-9 “Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:  [he says] ‘Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.’”

I don’t think anyone can get enough affirmation. We are on the edge of the cliff of curses ready to fall off into self-loathing, which we think is very realistic. When you speak well of me, in my hearing, I am blessed. When it gets back to me that you have spoken well of me when I cannot hear, it is like you are providing me a solid place to stand. It is person -building. It opens us up to our original goodness and reconnects us to the goodness of God.

Here’s few blessings from me (Who could use a blessing from you?):  Courtney has been an amazing addition to the office. Paul went to such lengths to make sure we were ready for drywall last week he got sick. Everyone, over ten people, who I asked to lead us during Holy Week said yes. You amazed me by coming up with more than our budgeted income so we can give a substantial amount for tsunami victims. Trevor Day has been a faithful cell leader for nearly four years. Dan Kayser has worked overtime to get plans for our new building done. It is really quite fun to bless. But it is not easy.

Blessing is not easy because we usually ask ourselves, “Am I being dishonest about these people to present just one side? Shouldn’t we get a balanced view?” No we don’t need a balanced view. Leave the news to Dan Rather. I don’t think anyone should be treated objectively at all. We can’t be “balanced.” We are to be loved. Jesus is so unbalanced he says: bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Luke 6). Peter teaches blessing as a discipline we practice:  Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing (1 Peter 3:9).  It will definitely take some effort. If we don’t make the effort we will probably lapse into cutting others down to build ourselves up – the most useless way to self-bless there is.

Finally, you bless someone by speaking well over them

This is kind of the “graduate school” of blessing. Isaac, son of Abraham, father of Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament beginnings of Israel, bestows his blessing on his heir in a very formal, irrevocable act of transmission of his power. “May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed” (Gen. 27).

People need to know they are blessed, that God is with them, that they are getting something spiritual and good. It is hard to receive these things. So if you stand in the place to give it, do it.

Yes, it does seem theatrical – the movies regularly make fun of people who do it. It does seem arrogant – but whenever you think, “Who am I to say this?” just say what you believe God wants to say, because all blessings flow from God. Maybe it seems a little grandiose? – but the blessing of God is grand, to feel surrounded by grace, endued with power is grand. We are grand. Why should we submit to what curses us? The blessing lifts it off and shields us from the power that would reduce us back to dirt. It is a very powerful weapon for good.

That’s why I wanted to encourage you to learn it, receive it and use it. Bless someone. Bless as many as you can. Will there always be results? No – for some the reception of the curse is deep. But quite often yes, quite visibly. Talk about that in your cell this week – name a time when you felt blessed by someone. It was probably a lovely moment, very worth sharing.

Wrestling for the blessing and becoming one

“Jacob Wrestling the Angel” (2012), Edward Knippers

One of the best stories in the Old Testament is told in just seven verses of Genesis 32. It begins:

So Jacob was left alone.

You might relate. Most of us feel alone and the feeling torments us.

What’s more, the pandemic weaponized the loneliness built into our society. Our “freedom” to be “independent” turned on us. We need to feel connected.

Then a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 

Jacob fled his home and his brother at sundown. He returns at daybreak. The point of this post will be, “I hope you also lean into your dawn as you wrestle.” Each of us is changing all the time and the process often, if not always, feels like “wrestling.” Now the whole world is struggling toward a post-pandemic life. We’re all wrestling.

When the man saw that he could not defeat Jacob, he struck the socket of his hip so the socket of Jacob’s hip was dislocated while he wrestled with him.

When they heard this story, people started setting apart the hip ligaments of slaughtered animals to honor the unknown, supernatural being who humbly wrestled with Jacob all night, even though he could have killed him with a touch.

Robert Alter says this being with whom Jacob wrestles is the “embodiment of the portentous antagonism in Jacob’s dark night of the soul. He is obviously in some sense a doubling of Esau as an adversary, but he is also a doubling of all with whom Jacob has had to contend, and he may equally well be an externalization of all that Jacob has to wrestle within himself.” [Strangely good price on Alter’s translation]

So many of us are furious with God for our dark nights and the wrestling that seems “forced” upon us. We think of our limps as signs of shame. But Jacob, whose original name could be construed to mean ”he who acts crookedly” is permanently bent by his wrestling match in order to stand before his betrayed brother in truth and stand (as you will see if you finish the story) in unexpected grace. If you are not marked by wrestling in the dark, you probably have minimal spiritual awareness and you are likely bound up psychologically. Wrestling does not always come to good, but no good comes without it.

Then the man said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”
“I will not let you go,” Jacob replied, “unless you bless me.”

The way Frederick Buechner tells the story, after he was made lame Jacob says,

“I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for dear death. My arms trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.

He said, ‘Let me go.’ The words were more breath than sound. They scalded my neck where his mouth was touching. He said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’

Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills. I said, ‘I will not let you go.’

I would not let him go for fear that day would take him as the dark had given him. It was my life I clung to. My enemy was my life. My life was my enemy. I said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ Even if his blessing meant death, I wanted it more than life.”

 The man asked him, “What is your name?” 
He answered, “Jacob.” 
“No longer will your name be Jacob,” the man told him, “but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.”

Jacob’s prevailing, and ours, means taking the risk to be alone with God in the dark and staying with the process of transformation, no matter what, until the day breaks.

Then Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name.”
“Why do you ask my name?” the man replied. Then he blessed Jacob there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, explaining, “Certainly I have seen God face to face and have survived.”

He did not get the power of handling the name. And we won’t get the power we crave, which does not belong to us, by defining and labelling things and people, either. But he did get the blessing of being named and having an experience that ended up with a face-to-face glimpse of God that felt like coming from death to life.

Unlike when Abram becomes Abraham, the story continues to primarily use “Jacob,” not “Israel,” when he is named. In subsequent poetry, when the nation is named, it will often be called Jacob in the first line and Israel in the second. I love how the Bible is so honest about who the people of God are! We are all Jacobs who limp with the memories of our sin and stumble with the death that stalks us in the night. We have all betrayed those we love and have been afraid we would be killed. We wrestle. But, if we prevail, we are also all Israels who get to the dawn with a new name and an astounded outlook. We face God and gain enough courage to get across the next river and so welcome the miracles that accompany intimacy with our Creator and reconciliation with others.

Lately I have felt like I am again wrestling on the other side of a “Jabbok,” my crossing-over place. In the darkness I have yearned for a blessing and resisted the necessity of becoming one in a new way. I can feel both movements in my heart at the same time, of course. I am likely to fear what is on the other side of the river even as I am delighted with how Jesus is leading me through it by the hand!

Today I am glad to receive the gist of the story of Jacob coming home as a call to stick with the process. Don’t think you know everything about what all this wrestling is about. And don’t be too surprised when you realize it is already dawn. Those touches of pain are usually the very places God is suffering with us to make us fit to be a blessing in whatever is coming next.

You can’t make me not be a blessing

If I heard right, Donald Trump said that although Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was great at using the internet, he was not as great as “Donald Trump.” Daniel Byman wrote “And of course, the counterterrorism success had to be about him. Trump noted that the Islamic State is ‘technically brilliant’ and uses the internet ‘better than almost anybody in the world, perhaps other than Donald Trump.’” So I guess Daniel heard it, too.

Image result for donald trump baghdadi
The information about the terror leader’s more specific whereabouts, the officials cited in the report said, came mostly from Syrian and Iraqi Kurds who continued to pass on the intelligence to the CIA, even after Trump announced the pullout — a move widely perceived to have been an abandonment of the US’s Kurdish allies. — Times of Israel

Donald Trump inspires me to godliness like nobody else, these days. ‘Take them out” he says about lesser targets, “but what I want is Baghdadi” as if the other deaths were of no account if he could not get the “big win” of the leader.  In a serious moment of military success, he makes sure to thank Russia, disparage the intelligence people investigating him instead of finding further targets, and dis Nancy Pelosi. He lies about what he wrote in his own book and complains about not getting enough credit for identifying Osama bin Laden, while taking undue credit for killing a man the United States death machine has been hunting for years.

Trump is an anti-blessing.  Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). With the best trained search-and-destroy soldiers in the world carried in eight helicopters, backed up by aircraft and ships, the U.S. came in to steal, kill and destroy, and, as the president later said, to secure the oil.

Blessing in the face of anti-blessing

When up against anti-blessings, a song usually comes to my mind, since much of what I know about godliness is derived from music.

We sang one prayer at our amazing Love Feast last Saturday that applies:

“Lord stop these wars where blood is spilt for money!”

And, strangely enough the old song Make Me a Blessing came to mind from my days in the Baptist church as a child. This song came from the Moody Bible Institute in the 1920’s and was a surprise crowd pleaser that made it into all sorts of hymnals. It has all the trappings of an insensitive, us vs. them Christianity in which the “lost” are pitied until they receive the message of Jesus and get into the fold. Being out of the fold as a child, I could relate to that. The song has issues, but it also has a prayer that answers the anti-blessings of the world

Make me a blessing, O Savior I pray. Make me a blessing to someone today.

Related imageI probably should not show this to you, but a quintessential “church lady” sang Make Me A Blessing on YouTube and I found it. She is apparently the woman Dana Carvey was channeling on SNL many years ago.


I like this no-instrument Church of Christ group from Alabama much more.

The word “blessing” is a bit overused in the Bible as a translation for several words that have a more nuanced meaning. When one speaks a blessing she calls out God’s goodness to fill a person or situation. When you bless someone on the train after they sneeze, it might seem risky, but it is a little act of sweetness retained from days of yore.

More, blessing is an act of identifying the goodness in someone and praising it, or calling goodness into someone or something  to protect or sanctify it. When you bless the food, you are in that territory. Praising the food and calling it into good use should be the basic behavior it is. Applying the same spirit to your children, church , or country is even more relevant. In my case, when I pray “make me a blessing,” I am talking about a defiant act of being, saying and doing good in the face of people and institutions that are bad, tell lies and do evil and call it good.

Living out of abundance

So a questionable song came to my mind and the Lord encouraged me by it. In relationship to Donald Trump, the anti-blessing, I want God to make me a blessing as long as I have life to live abundantly. Why shouldn’t I, who am so blessed by God, live out of that reality instead of reacting to all the nonsense around me?

Here is the kind of stuff I mean by being a blessing:

When my wife, family or friends are going off because they are too tired, too unprocessed or giving in to their worst instincts, I don’t want to take on their distress and feed it back to them just because they irritate or frighten me. I want to be a blessing to them, understanding, caring and feeding back love in whatever form it is necessary.

When my region if filled with trash, full of addicted and mentally ill people left on the streets, filled with anonymous people who are persistently self-protective, I don’t want to hide out or just clean up. I want to get more personal, turn toward, look for the source of the problems and feed Jesus into them in a way that people can receive.

When my country is self-destructing I don’t want to be threatened into silence or pushed to one side or another that is not beside Jesus. I want to note the goodness that is there and speak goodness into the process wherever I can find a hearing. But more, I want to defiantly be good myself, build a community filled with goodness and resist by existing.

You can’t make me not be a blessing.

Zeki and the Strings Attached in Istanbul

Istanbul is one of those places that has always been a big bazaar. Looking out from Topkapi Palace at the ships moving through the crossroads of Asia, it is easy to see why it has always been a good place to shop. Gwen and I are not great shoppers, so the Grand Bazaar was sort of lost on us. And we did not consistently do well with being asked to buy something every few steps along our way through the historic old city.

So when Zeki came up to us at the Blue Mosque we were a bit wary. He assured us he “worked for the mosque” and was not going to ask us for any money. He just wanted to give us a tour. We knew there were strings attached someplace, but we decided to go with it, since I didn’t mind taking him at his word and not giving him any money. The fact is, he gave us a great tour! The mosque would have been much less interesting and much harder to navigate without him. At one point he asked Gwen for her camera (which is a pretty nice camera) and went into the “restricted” area where women and infidels cannot go so he could get some pictures she would not get. They are good pictures. But he was gone so long that we thought we were never going to see the camera again; I thought I would have to charge into the restricted area and see what  happened. He reappeared, so we did not have to  wonder, “Why did we give Zeki our camera?”

By the end of the tour we were quite good friends with Zeki, so he told us all he asked was that we come visit his family’s shop. It was not too far away on a second floor. We realized that Zeki was a recruiter for the shop and it was undoubtedly the camera that made us look like possible rug buyers. We went with it because he told us the shop was air conditioned. It was cool and we got apple tea. (If you stick around in a shop you’ll get something to keep you there even longer. One day we had a three-apple-tea day!). The poor rug thrower flipped out all sorts of Kurdish rugs that were very beautiful and which we had no intention of buying.

Is God really like Zeki?

Fervent Christians often feel like they are Zekis. Their idea is: If someone really loves God, they will be out recruiting people to come to the store where the pastor will give them the pitch and they will buy Jesus, whether they want him or not. In some ways that has been an effective model. But it is not like God.

In my new favorite book, The Tangible Kingdom, Hugh Halter talks about this.

We think God tells us to serve in order to get people to respect us or like us so that they’ll accept our God. The real essence of biblical blessing is that it’s done with no strings attached. Hopes, desires, fervent prayer, yes – but no strings at all attached…Learning to receive God’s free, no-strings attached offer and then graciously living a life to extend blessing to others without charge and without expectation is different [than being a recruiter]. When we become comfortable with unconditional love, I think we will find that it does witness correctly to who God is. And it’s a power that naturally draws people in. (p. 143)

Zeki blessed me, but he had strings attached. Apart from his striking Kurdish blue eyes, I will remember him for his clever hoodwinking.

In our present-day spiritual environment in the megalopolis, which is very skeptical about Christians and their myriad claims to truth, being a blessing makes more missional sense than ever. If you are stuck being a recruiter for the church or for your cell and are frustrated that no one is “buying,” maybe it is time to change your mind about how God works. Be a blessing as you have been blessed. For the people you hope will connect with God, meeting up with an incarnation is a lot more alluring than buying an abstraction; being loved right  now is better than the promise of good things that could happen if they come to your meeting or join your cause.

Let’s count some blessings

Psalm 4:6-8  Many are asking, “Who can show us any good?” Le t the light of your face shine upon us, O LORD. You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound. I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD,  make me dwell in safety.

I did not grow up in a spiritually rich atmosphere, in most ways. But the atmosphere of the U.S. of my youth, as it still has in many ways, had a lot of spiritual direction floating around. Christianity was the background for a lot of popular culture, even though it was quickly being privatized and beginning to be deconstructed. The old movies that TCM keeps recycling taught me a lot about how to relate to God, even when they weren’t trying that hard. For instance, when I woke up in the middle of the night last night, I had a choice. I could count the undone things that faced me or I could “count my blessings instead of sheep” like Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (Aunt of George) taught me.

I am not always lulled back to sleep by my blessings, but counting them is a lot better  than counting my anxieties. Last night I was recounting the many amazing people who bless my life with their radical faith, dogged hope and expansive love. Once I got started admiring them all, I realized that I was surrounded and blessed. I was feeling Psalm 4.

Let me just name the top ten people who have blessed me this week, only. I could enumerate the blessings of my great wealth and delightful family, highlighting the good time I had with Josiah and Brendan, yesterday, and how I saw Rachel/Zach/Corie and Randy/Garrett at Seussical. But there are even more extraordinary blessings that should not go unsung. I hope I instigate your own enumeration.

1. Art Bucher and Aaron Dahlstrom, a twofer. They multiplied a cell. As we sat at the Morning Glory Diner, I was kind of too-ebullient, maybe, and acting out a bit, because I was in the midst of the best Coordinating Group ever. It is still amazing to see people replicating more outposts of the kingdom in an organic, authentic way.

2. Joshua Grace pulled Ralph Moore off the shelf and told the Inner Metro Green guys to center their efforts on planting a well-founded, oddly-relevant church in Lancaster. I admire his capabilities. And I was blessed by the audacity of the church planters, too!

3. Jeremiah Alexander took the Psalters to Manor Church on Thursday night to rile up some worship and make some partners for our mission of compassionate service.

4. Rebekah Edwardson took over the Treasurer’s job and began to preside over a brand new team of treasurer’s: Country (oops Courtney) Jones, Danny Bresler-Nowak, Kathryn Seyfried. They are really putting it together with their new remote access technology (when it works) and commitment to fastidious sharing.

5. Annie Kopena and a group of delightful women ushered Alice Puchalsky into adulthood last night with their own rendition of a red tent (which everyone should read).

6. Christina Kallas not only raises money for AIDS awareness and treatment, she has great relationships at Philly Aids Thrift where she tells people about and shows them Jesus. Her co-workers bought her a lily for Easter out of respect born in their unbelieving hearts just by knowing her.

7. Justin Pascale and Katie Linton were so worn out from teaching Thursday they almost fell asleep at our cell meeting. I am blessed by the teachers who pour out their lives for children.

8. Joshua Schnapf is excited about what the Events Team might be able to do. He wants to combine the imagination he gets from working with the Barnes Foundation with his life in Christ. He walks into our space and imagines art flourishing. Lovely.

9. Audrey Robinson jumped into the cleaning rotation and gets to the building even when it is not her turn in the rotation, I understand. You can’t have too many friends like that.

10. Toni Gardner and Kelly Musser both jumped into Rachel Sensenig’s cell to help give the leadership for multiplication. Daring women are what we need.

The more people I named the more I could name. But I decided on ten in advance. Maybe you’d like to add a few to the list yourself. The world can keep you awake at night – it is such a mess. But if we turn our sights on the resurrection life Jesus keeps raising from the dying things all around, it makes it easier to rest.