The Neglected Power of Blessing

One of the most meaningful things a pastor can do is short, sweet, and biblical.

Leadership Journal, Spring 2015

The Neglected Power of BlessingIn her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s fictional narrator is an elderly pastor named John Ames living in the small Iowa town of Gilead. His best friend, Boughton, is also a pastor in that town. They are so close that Boughton names his son after his friend: John Ames Boughton. But the boy grows up to be a disappointment—a scoundrel and a disgrace to his name.

As his father is dying, that prodigal son comes home to visit. Things don’t go well, and he decides it is best just to slip out of town. Pastor John, his namesake, meets up with him and walks him to the bus depot. He gives the younger man a little money and they wait for the bus. Here’s what happens next:

Then I said, “The thing I would like, actually, is to bless you.”

He shrugged. “What would that involve?”

“Well, as I envisage it, it would involve my placing my hand on your brow and asking the protection of God for you. But if it would be embarrassing—” There were a few people on the street.

“No, no,” he said. “That doesn’t matter.” And he took his hat off and set it on his knee and closed his eyes and lowered his head, almost rested it against my hand, and I did bless him to the limit of my powers, whatever they are, repeating the benediction from Numbers, of course—”The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.” Nothing could be more beautiful than that, or more expressive of my feelings, certainly, or more sufficient, for that matter. Then, when he didn’t open his eyes or lift up his head, I said, “Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father.” Then he sat back and looked at me as if he were waking out of a dream.

These words are your birthright, who you are, why we are different from others.

“Thank you, Reverend,” he said, and his tone made me think that to him it might have seemed I had named everything I thought he no longer was, when that was absolutely the furthest thing from my meaning, the exact opposite of my meaning. Well, anyway, I told him it was an honor to bless him. And that was absolutely true. In fact I’d have gone through seminary and ordination and all the years intervening for that one moment.

This sort of blessing has been practiced by Christians of many traditions throughout history, albeit sparsely these days. But I’ve come to believe this is a powerful “tool” of ministry that should be more regularly practiced even today.

The Ungiven Gift

Bestowing God’s blessing is to step into a holy mystery, much like serving Communion or baptizing someone. We associate it, of course, with the benediction, the going-away gift many of us give our congregations as they prepare to leave the worship service. But I’m surprised how few pastors I’ve talked with use a benediction elsewhere—like at a bus stop—and some never use it at all. They’re missing something precious and ducking their duty.

Blessing God’s people began when the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:’The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.’So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Num 6:22-27).

Only the priests spoke those words. They themselves didn’t bestow the blessing. God did. They were intermediates, from God’s mouth to their ears. 1 Chronicles 23:13 says, “Aaron was set apart, he and his descendants forever, to consecrate the most holy things, to offer sacrifices before the Lord, to minister before him and to pronounce blessings in his name forever.”

“The LORD bless … The LORD make … The LORD turn … So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”

The six-line Aaronic blessing is not the only way of communicating God’s blessing but, as Mark Buchanan put it, “All [our] blessings are a species of the Aaronic blessing.” Break down Aaron’s words by phrase and all our national treasures lay open before us. To bear the LORD’s name is to own all the benefits of his salvation and to be safely kept in the shelter of the Most High. To bear the LORD’s name is to enjoy God’s bright delight and his countless graces. To bear the LORD’s name is to have God’s constant attention and his shalom now and forever.

I believe we should watch for opportunities beyond the end of the worship service to bless God’s people. I teach “Introduction to Counseling” at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I require my students to memorize Aaron’s blessing, word perfect. It’s on the final exam. What better place to use it than with the brokenhearted or confused people who come to us for counsel?

What is this Blessing?

I’ve puzzled for a long while over just what those words are. They are not exactly a prayer nor a prophecy. They are certainly more than a wish, a greeting, or a farewell. So what is this blessing? What happens when it is pronounced over God’s people?

I was asked to offer a special prayer at Kelvin’s surprise birthday party. When my turn came, I thanked God for him and for his wonderful qualities and gifts. Then I put my hand on his shoulder and blessed him in God’s name: “The LORD bless you and keep you….” That, in particular, was what he and his wife thanked me for.

A birthday is the perfect occasion because the Aaronic blessing is our birthright. When we are born again and adopted by God through Christ, these privileges become our possession. They come with the new name written in heaven.

I only recently sorted that out. At the end of the service recently I asked everyone to stand for the benediction. While they waited I said, “These words are your birthright. Peter said of us, ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.’ These are the privileges of being God’s people. This is who you are, thanks to Jesus Christ, and why we are different from all other people.” Then I raised my hands over them and blessed them.

A few minutes later, Katerina waited for me in the foyer. She gripped my hand and with shining eyes said, “I have always heard the blessing at the end of the service, but this time the word birthright really got my attention. It changed the way I listened and received the blessing.” She went on, “It made me feel so special. I saw myself like a child just born to a King, now entitled to her Father’s riches. Thank you for saying that!”

A couple in our church, Ted and Margaret, have a beautiful little grandson whose middle name is Ziga. That name reflects the Rwandan heritage of his mother. It means, “Remember Who You Are.” To speak God’s benediction over his people, no matter what the occasion, is like saying, “Remember who you are.”

Sometimes, it seems, God can hardly give his blessing away! In that Gilead story about the forlorn son blessed at the bus stop, I’ve always wondered if he received the precious gift given him. That’s why I like it when people hold out their hands, palms up, when I speak the blessing.

Bless the Unbelieving?

Once I was doing premarital counseling for a couple who were not believers. I will marry unbelievers but it was long my practice to tell the couple that I would not pronounce the benediction over them at the end of the service. My reasoning was that if they didn’t want Christ, I could hardly offer them God’s blessing. I’m sure most couples wouldn’t even notice the omission if I didn’t bring it up, but I confess I wanted to shock them, so that perhaps they might realize what was at stake. But when I explained this to the couple, they gave me a blank stare, and then she said, “But is it okay if our photographer takes pictures during the ceremony?” God’s blessing was of no importance to them at all. Echoes of Esau.

I’m more inclined now to offer God’s blessing to such people. After all, the God-blessed Jacob blessed the Pharaoh twice, going and coming (Gen. 47:7,10). When Jesus sent out the 72, he told them, “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you” (Luke 10:5,6). God’s blessing may be the first sound of the gospel someone hears. The Spirit of God may stir them toward Jesus. And if they don’t prize it, it will come back to me.

That said, I don’t think pastors should be too quick to speak such weighty words. It is not some kind of professional courtesy. It would be a tragedy if such words begin to lose their meaning to us or to those who hear them. (At my coffee hangout the other day, I sneezed and a woman two tables away said, “God bless you.” It was nice to be noticed, I guess, but not much of a blessing.)

We are, after all, putting the LORD’s name over his people and we dare not do so casually.

Blessing Children

It’s significant that Jesus himself pronounces blessings to unlikely recipients. Like children. Mark 10:16 says that Jesus “took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” How do I, ministering in Christ’s name, follow his example?

Perhaps the most important time to bless God’s people is when we part.

Ten days after he was born on Christmas Eve, Haim’s parents brought him to church, all bundled up against the cold. Till he whimpered a bit and was taken out, he was there in the third row with his parents and grandparents, who had come all the way from South Korea. After the service, standing in the foyer, Haim’s father said to me, “Would you bless him?”

I remembered that my friend, Dr. Peter Cha, had told me that in Korean culture the pastor is often invited to homes and new businesses to bless important beginnings. So I agreed and we gathered in a tight little circle. I put my hand on that tiny head, and spoke the blessing that transcends our languages, “The LORD bless you, Haim … and give you peace.”

Jesus’ Departing Gift

Aaron was the first to pronounce those words, but then they became the Wordwork of every priest thereafter, right up to Jesus. He was God’s priest, voicing the birthright upon those to whom the kingdom of God is given.

There was another time when Jesus spoke his blessing. The very end of Luke says of Jesus, “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.” According to Leviticus 9:22, that was what Aaron did. He “lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. And having sacrificed the sin offering, the burnt offering and the fellowship offering, he stepped down.” Aaron was a prophet.

And so it was that Jesus’ last act on earth was to speak his benediction. Imagine Jesus’ nail-scarred hands stretched out over his wide-eyed disciples (and with them, us as well), “bless you … keep you … make his face shine upon you … be gracious to you … turn his face toward you ….”

Luke says, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” Jesus’ disciples watched him rising into the cloud and the last thing they heard was, “And give you peace.”

I think the sweetest and perhaps most important time to bless God’s people is when we part. When it is someone’s last Sunday in our church, I single them out at the end of the service, and though I am often choked with tears, I sing Aaron’s benediction over them. I’ve said it in hospitals and over mourners at gravesides.

Even when someone leaves because they’re dissatisfied with our church, I usually try to bless them. Though I don’t always feel like doing so, I handwrite notes to most people who leave, and I always end with the LORD’s gift. I hope they receive it. I know it is important for me to give it.

Not long ago a woman who has been “like a mother to me” came to see me. She hadn’t been in church in awhile. We chatted and reminisced. Finally, I said, “So what’s up with church?” She fumbled for words and finally told me my sermons just didn’t speak to her and that she was attending elsewhere. I ached and I argued a little. But in the end, I pulled my chair near hers, took her hands in mine, and prayed for her. Then, for her sake and mine, I blessed her, “… The LORD turn his face toward you, and give you peace.”

Lee Eclov is pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire, Illinois.

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