Randy Greenwald

Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Benediction

The Museum of Disappointments

[These are continuing reflections on the familiar (to some) benediction from Numbers 6. For other posts in this series, click here.]

If you were to draw a map to the conditions under which you would consider yourself ‘blessed’, how closely would it match what God has in mind when he commands the priest or pastor to speak over his people, “The LORD bless you . . . ”?

For me, the path of blessing would circle through days of predictable routine in which there is no conflict, no sickness, and no sorrow. In my land of blessing all my children are happy and my future is secure. All the bills are paid, my church is at peace and growing, and everyone likes me. Your map, though undoubtedly different in the details, probably travels in similar channels.

Artwork by Jessie Thetford – https://www.jessieleethetford.com/a-r-t.html

The desires hinted at in such dreams are not necessarily wrong or bad. They most likely ARE elements of shalom, the things we imagine possessing in a world ordered as it should be. To desire such things is to long for blessing, and in that sense, to desire what God desires to give.

These words of God, this benediction, convey his desire to prosper his church and lead his people to shalom, a desire for which he has spared nothing, not even his own Son.

And yet we often draw insufficient comfort from this. The original people so blessed were a bitter people. They had been marvelously delivered from bondage and were being taken to a land their own spies found to be full of rich and abundant fruit. But they rebelled, and complained, and demanded to be taken back to the place of their hated captivity. That seems a madness that we too often share.

Paisley Rekdal in a poem called ‘Happiness’ says

There is no end to ego,
with its museum of disappointments.

Instead of reveling in God’s promise of blessing we create our own private museum of disappointments. In my museum are displayed the dreams I’ve had to let go of, or the people who have rejected my care, or the loved ones I’ve seen suffer. Israel’s museum would have held displays stocked with abundant food once enjoyed, ample supplies of water once accessible, and visions of stability and certainty.

I have an annual pass to the museum of disappointments, and I make good use of it. As a result I fail to see the good things I have, and I cannot find hope in the promises of blessing yet to be received. Like the church in the desert, I want the fruit of blessing now, and I don’t want to walk through the desert to get there.

But it is, perhaps, in that desert place where we realize that to find contentment in the promise is its own blessing.

Our map to blessing may be skewed, but it’s not far off. God desires our blessing and our happiness. Eternity will be blessing in its fulness. There we will be made “perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.” (The Westminster Shorter Catechism)

The pathway may, in fact will, be hard. It may indeed pass through lands we would rather not visit. But the fact of the blessedness to come, the destination, is never in doubt.

More Than Mere Words

The American Library Association has changed the name of the award they give which honors works that make major contributions to literature for children. Formerly the “Laura Ingalls Wilder Award” it is now the “Children’s Literature Legacy Award.” That news moved one widely renowned American poet to tweet, “I hate my literary era.”

Hating the era in which we live, literary or otherwise, can be attractive at times. I’ve been there and often return for a visit, sometimes short and other times protracted.

The blessing we are studying (Numbers 6:24-26 and discussed previously here) was given to be pronounced over the people of God. Repeatedly. Repetition is necessary for those things we are prone to forget. And we can easily forget that the God who blesses and keeps us is the God of all history, even over our current era. Perhaps we need to look at this and every era with renewed eyes.

This blessing is a poem, and poetry serves meaning and memory. In the Hebrew, the first line is three words, the second is five, and the third is seven. The blessing is given with an economy of words exposing a depth of meaning. And so the matters pronounced and the desires longed for occupy our attention. God is commanding his blessing to be upon us, his people, in such a way that we not forget.

This command and the words which comprised it were given many centuries before Christ. It was given in a world and in a setting when all was not the way it was supposed to be. Its content would find resonance when God put flesh to the blessing in the incarnation, sending his Son to deliver his people from the kingdom of death and to bring them into the kingdom of his Son. It would be in the cross that victory over death was secured and in the resurrection that it was confirmed. But all that was far in the future and yet God was in the blessing and knew the way in which he would bless, even when the recipients could not yet see it.

The world in which we live suffers from the death throes of death itself, but the things we despise in it will not prevail. The content of this benediction is not empty. These are not mere words. They touch upon things that God is doing, will do, and cannot fail but do.

As Christians we have no right to be pessimistic. We have no cause to believe the father of lies who invites us to fear. We sorrow over the broken things, we seek the kingdom in our prayers and our work, and we accept the cost that that entails. But we can never forget that the God of blessing, the living God, the God of promise, the God of the empty tomb, is at work.

That we long for one that is yet to come to make all things well does not mean that we must hate the era we are in.

To Receive the Name of God

[These are continuing reflections on the familiar (to some) benediction from Numbers 6. For other posts in this series, click here.]

God gave me parents who saw to it that I was raised in a church. That church, the Loveland (Ohio) United Methodist Church, was a good collection of unpretentious people following Jesus in a small town in the 1960s, and they blessed me.

Artwork by Carol Arnold and used by permission. 

When I was a teen, I attended the church’s youth group, the “MYF” – Methodist Youth Fellowship. At the end of each meeting we would all stand in a circle, hold hands, and speak the words of this blessing to one another:

“The Lord bless you and keep you….”

After that we would lift our arms over one another’s heads and, still holding hands, form a tight circle and sing together the first verse of the hymn ‘Blessed be the tie that binds.’ I know we did not think deeply if at all about what we were doing. But we were doing something right. We were sharing a blessing corporately which was the way it was meant to be shared.

Each ‘you’ in this benediction is singular, and yet, the blessing was never singular in intent. Aaron and his sons were commanded to speak it to ‘the people of Israel,’ over many people considered as one. It is now given to the gathered people of God considered as a single entity. It belongs to the church.

Through this blessing God says, “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:27) When I entered into the covenant of marriage with my wife, I put my name upon her. I became a husband to her and she a wife to me. In sharing that name our unity could be seen. To speak this word over the people of God is to remind them that they, together as the church, belong to God in a devoted, committed, dependent relationship.

This does not mean that the blessing does not have individual application. It is not as if the church somehow is the object of God’s favor and not me as an individual. But it does mean that God’s heart is for his collective body. The blessing promised to me comes through my being a part of that body. To be of the church is to be in that place of blessing. To gather as teens with hands clasped was to be in the place where the name of the Lord was placed. So it was then, so it is now.

Elsewhere, this chord is played.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!…
For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore. (Psalm 133:1, 3)

His blessing rests upon that place where God’s people dwell as one people. There his name, his blessing, is placed.

My growth and stability through my teen years were not of my own doing. They were not a result of my careful practice of the spiritual disciplines or a result of a fortuitous set of high school friendships. It was a result of being placed in the place of blessing, among a people upon whom God put his name. So the church remains for the people of God.

To Desire Another’s Happiness

[These are continuing reflections on the familiar (to some) benediction from Numbers 6. For other posts in this series, click here.]

Since childhood I’ve known the story of the friends who so loved their crippled companion that they brought him to Jesus for healing. Confounded by the crowds they resourcefully cut a hole in the roof of the building where Jesus was teaching and lowered their friend through it and in front of Jesus.

Artwork from Jessie Lee Thetford, used with permission. https://www.jessieleethetford.com/

Jesus, unperturbed, looked at him and pronounced his sins forgiven. At this point, I can imagine the lame man saying to Jesus, “Dude, sin is not my problem here! Can’t you see that I can’t walk? That’s what I really need.”

But he didn’t. With Jesus’ pronouncement I think something was set free inside of him that day, something more important to him than mobility. To bless the man, Jesus gave him what he needed most for his happiness. For that, the man needed more than new legs. He needed a conscience set free from guilt.

Wonderfully Jesus went on to give what the man and his friends wanted. But Jesus first gave him what was necessary for his happiness.

To desire our happiness, this deep expression of love, has always been the way of God with his people. It just doesn’t always feel that way.

The benediction God gave Israel in Numbers 6 is an expression of this happiness desiring love. When these words are pronounced over us we should hear them as God announcing his desire that we be happy.

And yet we aren’t happy.

The man in the story walked away forgiven. We may be forgiven, and that is not without meaning, but we aren’t all yet walking. Disease persists, dreams die, relationships rupture, and the broken things don’t get fixed. Where is the happiness in this?

It has to be in the knowing that it will yet be given. God will not fail in his promises.

To know God’s desire for our happiness, and to have that given shape and form in a benediction repeatedly spoken over us builds for us an assurance that begins to affect our present state of mind. To know a gift that is promised (that all will be all right) will in fact be given can make the present shine with something of the reflected joy of the future. To know there are gifts yet to be given keeps our hearts fixed on that which is certain and wonderful, though future, and prevents us from turning aside to insufficient and inadequate substitutes in the present.

But we need a reminder. And so God gives to the church these words that we might repeatedly hear and believe them.

The LORD bless you and keep you;

the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;

the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

(Numbers 6:24-26)

Because our God desires our happiness it will come.

Everything Is Going to Be Okay

In many movies someone beloved of the hero is attacked or kidnapped or stricken with an illness or marred in an accident. The hero fights his way to the side of this loved one and says to him something akin to, “Everything is going to be alright. I promise.”

The stricken one is comforted by the presence of the hero, and the added promise and assurance allows him to close his eyes and rest.

And I cringe. How is it in the power of the hero to make such a promise?

It’s not and everyone knows it. But the wounded one accepts it, and in fact we accept it for him. We do so because at the deepest part of our being we too want that assurance that everything is going to be all right, and we will accept that assurance however tenuously it comes.

Sometimes we look at our hands, our talents, and our training and we say to them, “Bless me!” We ask them to assure us that by hard work and diligent effort we might craft a guaranteed future. We look to these for blessing, but they can’t give it.

Or we turn our eyes upon our land or our resources, our bank accounts or our retirement fund, and we say, “Bless me!” We ask them to assure us that they will always be there to provide all the pleasure and comfort we crave. We ask them for blessing, but they can’t give it.

Sometimes we look to others – to a loved one, a spouse, or our children, and ask them to always be around and stand with us and hold us up. We say to them, “Bless me!” But they can only care for us so far. They can’t do much when our health fails or age overtakes us. We ask them for blessing, but we ask for more than they can give.

We cast our eyes into the future trying desperately to find some measure by which we can assure that everything will be okay. What we want is for a hero to come alongside us who will say, unbidden, “Everything is going to be alright. I promise.”

God knows this. And through Moses and Aaron, he heaps words one upon another to assure us that blessing is what he intends.

“Thus you shall bless the people of Israel…‘The Lord bless you….’…and I will bless them.”

Number 6:22-27

I cringe at the movies because the one who says everything is going to be okay has no power or position to insure what he has promised. By contrast, when speaking for God a minister speaks to us,

“The Lord bless you and keep you….”

There is no need to cringe, only to close our eyes and rest.

To Be Blessed

My cardiologist told me the other day, “It is a privilege to spend time with those who are dying.”

I didn’t think my heart was that bad.

Turns out it isn’t. She was speaking generally about the privilege that she, along with others like nurses and pastors, have in walking with people through some of their darkest times.

It is a privilege. But I get to do more. I get to bless.

At the end of every worship service, I stand in some liturgically significant place and with hands lifted over the congregation, speak words, frequently these:

Artwork by Mary Ann Porter. Used by permission.

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

If we are lucky, we’ve heard these words (taken from Numbers 6) so often that they are like warm bread to us: comforting, familiar, and certain. They have become a part of who we are.

God gave these words to Aaron to be spoken over his people. “Thus you shall bless the people of Israel,” God said. This people, weary of traveling and not yet receiving the things promised them, needed assurances. And so God gave them words of blessing.

But they are not mere words. All the goodness and intention of God lies behind them. When spoken from God to us we are drawn into a reality that is not yet but is nevertheless certain. Our impatience with life invites despair. Things are not the way we long for them to be. We long for life to get better, for the pain to disappear, for the conflict to pass. We grow desperate, perhaps despondent.

And then I or some other pastor stands and speaks these words into our darkness because God blesses his people.

Years ago my wife and I, with a toddler and an infant, sat in a state of desperation. We had moved everything to St. Louis to follow our sense of God’s call to seminary. But I had no job, and we were out of money. We put the kids to bed, sat on the edge of the bed in our apartment and sang a hymn.

“Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what thou art….”

With this hymn we affirmed that we knew

“…thy certainty of promise and have made it mine.”

And we wept.

Yes, we knew the promise, and we wanted to believe its certainty, but we were having trouble making it our own.

Words of blessing like the ones we are here considering are necessary in such times. They serve as a bridge between what we know and yet struggle to make our own. They take the certainty of God’s promise and declare it to be real that we may rest now in what is yet future.

There is power in these words when spoken over the people of God gathered in worship that cannot be fully appreciated in a blog post, or twenty. Nevertheless, I’d like to spend some time teasing out some of this particular benediction’s richness in posts that will appear here every other week so that we might better know the certainty of his promise and make it our own.

Especially in those dark times through which we are each called to walk.

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