I never tire of the many versions of ‘The Blessing’ that have emerged around the world. They remind us of the huge diversity of people, traditions, expressions, cultures, languages, and ethnic backgrounds Jesus has blessed and called His own. They’re a testimony and a call to be the church in the best possible way, to work together in unity and harmony as powerfully as we sing together. The rendition below (at the bottom of this page) is another such expression from New Zealand.
I’ve been part of churches in various capacities for the past fifty years on three continents. Like most of us it’s been a very mixed bag of experiences. There have been some life changing times and relationships filled with profound blessing, while other life changing times and relationships have been filled with profound disillusionment. I know quite a number of people today who’ve given up on church altogether. They love God, read their Bibles, and genuinely want to serve Him, but they’re tired of fighting for acceptance among groups whose profession of faith hardly resembles the Gospel they proclaim.
Of course “no-one’s perfect” and where human beings gather there are always flaws. But why is it that many don’t feel blessed, don’t experience a safe place to fail, seldom find grace and unconditional love, and frequently get overlooked because they don’t measure up or fit the mold? I could go on but I’m not wanting to spew out negativity and judgement. I do want to acknowledge the deeply flawed universal church and at least own and acknowledge the reality of its failing for those who’ve given up. If I’m brutally honest I’m close to giving up as well, having lived in both camps for years; passionate excitement and commitment then wounded, an outcast, and disillusioned.
The songs of ‘Blessing’ declare that in the midst of the rubble and wrongness that plagues every human Christian community Jesus has not given up. He’s still shaping and placing living stones to build what we cannot – left to our own resources. Where He forgives we hold grudges, where we discourage and exclude He invites and encourages, where we stab in the back He pours ointment and forgives, where we hold back in fear He gives courage to press in. He helps us rise up in faith when nothing around us looks hopeful. He reminds us of His first church. A very motley rabble of fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, brothers and sisters, Gentiles and Jews, Pharisees, and Zealots. He poured his heart and soul into them, holding nothing back. Yet when times got tough and dangerous they disowned Him, fled for cover, betrayed Him for cash, and broke every promise they ever declared to Him.
They were the same as we are. They had to learn that left to their human resources, their fickle wills, and their very limited capacity to comprehend, no matter what they said, when it really mattered they failed Him and one another miserably. But when the resurrected Jesus appeared, broke through their walls and called them back to Himself a transformation of grace took place from the inside out. Now they knew they were weak but He was strong, they were prejudiced but He made all equal, they sought position and affluence but He called each man and woman a son and a daughter. In their flawed weakness His Spirit provided what they lacked. If they would humble themselves and allow His Spirit to move and flow like a river there would indeed be a light that shone through the darkness and could never be extinguished.
I was reading about the early Christian monks who lived in community on Iona, a short ferry ride from Oban on the West coast of Scotland. I visited there in 1980 and walked among the desolate ruins and the Abbey that still stands. It was established around 563 AD when St. Columba landed there and built a community to evangelize the area. In 795, 802, 806 and 825 AD the Vikings invaded. In 806 AD they killed 69 monks and pillaged the place. I wondered how I’d have felt as a monk, giving my heart to Jesus and living a life of sacrifice, simplicity and service? Why would all of that end in being speared by a Danish stranger? What’s the point or purpose? It’s a question for the ages. Now we declare that the Christian Gospel has always been under attack and it’s the blood of the martyrs down the centuries that have kept the light and flame alive and still spreading and growing. It’s a stark reminder; life and death often doesn’t make sense, seem fair, and is impossible to explain from our perspective.
There’s so much in church, life, and history that’s hard to comprehend. At the end of the day we have to decide where our focus is and what is the foundation upon which we stand. It’s the testimony of the love of Jesus I know in my heart and the blood of those who have gone before me that cause me to rebut cynicism and defeatism. If Paul can sit in a prison in chains and ‘count it all joy’ then so can I. If Polycarp (AD 89 – 155) can stand in a burning pyre singing the praise of Jesus when he faced his death as a man in his eighties, then I can suck up my complaining and choose his example to follow. Polycarp was put to death for failing to burn incense to the Roman Emperor (really?). “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Savior? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; ….I bless you, Father, for judging me worthy of this hour, so that in the company of the martyrs I may share the cup of Christ.”
To all my brothers and sisters on both sides of the church wall….. take stock, be humbly self aware, don’t give up on those on the other side and those beside you. We all have to repent of our attitudes and ways, secret and public. We have blamed, judged, ignored, drawn back, misunderstood, counted out, closed ranks, been exclusive… and the list goes on. Every flaw is an opportunity to grow if we live with transparency, integrity, and a teachable spirit. Let’s ask Jesus to help us make it easy for the disenfranchised and disillusioned to have faith and community restored. Let’s open wide the gates, listen well, ask forgiveness with pleasure, forgive with joy, and be all that God has called us to be; witnesses and living examples of love and grace in a very broken, unhappy and divided world (which too often includes the church).
We can sing the ‘Blessing’ in eight minutes to be inspired. Let’s spend the rest of our lives ‘being the Blessing‘ without being ashamed of our many and shared imperfections along the way. Let’s not be surprised when the foibles and downright ‘sin’ of others smack us hard in the face. Let grace and hope abound, be blessed, don’t take yourself too seriously, and rest in God’s faithfulness. Talk, communicate, explain, understand, express hurt and anger, grow in the context of relationship. Pray, but don’t use it as an excuse to avoid. Refuse to spiritualize what requires work together. Be bold and unafraid of mess and getting your hands dirty. Don’t merely help others get clean, share your dirt so they can help you as well.
Trust Jesus so deeply that we can sing the ‘Blessing’ with Paul and Silas in prison with such conviction that the earth quakes and our jailers encounter Jesus!