What Does It Mean to Bless?
Most people don't read complete sentences. They read the first part and guess the second part. I'm guilty of that. In the case of Psalm 103, I am a horrible example. I read "Bless the Lord," but my mind is saying, "Lord, bless me."
The problem is that I want to pour a fresh idea into a mind already corrupted with an accumulation of miscellaneous ideas I have picked up from my training. If anyone would ask me what to label this hodgepodge of information, I would have to say with a fair amount of pride, "This is my ; understanding of the Bible." Misunderstanding would have been more like it.
It's not impossible to put a new idea into a forty-year-old mind. Difficult, yes. But not impossible.
Our minds resemble buckets of paint. Let's imagine a conversation between you and me. I dip into my mental tank and pull up a bucket of yellow paint which I am going to pour into your mind. Your mind, however, is not empty. It is full of blue paint. What happens when my message reaches your mind? You will hear green. That is what happens when yellow and blue paint are mixed. A lot of time will pass before you really start hearing what I am saying.
That may explain why I had to read Psalm 103 so many times before I finally realized that it said I was to bless the Lord, not to ask the Lord to bless me.
Even more than this, I had to search for a new meaning to this superpowerful word. Is it the same as praise? Is it magic? If so, how are you going to perform sleight of hand with the Almighty?
If there really is a treasure chest filled with forgiveness, healing, redemption, renewal, and abundance, I needed to unlock it. And if blessing is the key, I needed to discover how to use it.
I turned to the Bible itself. An old Latin phrase spoken to me by Kenneth Scott Foreman flashed across my mind: Scriptura Scripturae Interpres ("Scripture by scripture is interpreted").
Within the Bible itself I find illustrations of people who took hold of the handle of blessing as a lever to move the world. In the Old Testament Isaac blessed Jacob. The story is told in Genesis 27. The simple narrative is that while Isaac was growing older he knew that he had to give a special gift to his older son. This was called a birthright. It had nothing to do with the goodness or badness of the son; it was simply his because he managed an earlier arrival than his other brothers. Without Isaac's knowledge, however, Esau, the older son, had traded his birthright to Jacob for a meal.
The incident was forgotten until that important day when the aged Isaac called his son Esau. He said, "Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death. Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison; And make me a savory meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die" (vv. 2-4).
Rebekah, Isaac's wife, overheard this conversation. She conspired with the younger son, Jacob, to trick Isaac into giving him the blessing. She made the stew, disguised Jacob, and sent him into the old man.
"And Isaac said unto Jacob, Come near, I pray thee, that 1 may feel thee, my son, whether thou be my very son Esau or not. And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said, 'The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau. And he discerned him not ... so he blessed him" (vv. 21-23).
What was the blessing? Let me repeat it here: "See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed: Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: Let people serve thee ... be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee" (vv. 27-29).
When this was finished, Esau came in from the field. He assumed that his father would be waiting with the blessing, but he was too late. Isaac realized he had been deceived. Esau was bitter. A mistake had been made. But there was no turning back.
Trying to recover what he could from his brother's trickery, Esau said, "Hast thou but one blessing, my father? Bless me."
Isaac did bless him, but not with the same blessing he had given his younger brother. He had to give another. "Behold, thy dwelling shall be in the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck" (vv. 39-40).
Whether or not I like the story, some interesting things come out of it.
There is no way that Isaac could feel like praising Jacob. In fact, if we were able to show some home movies of the Jacob-Esau scene, we would probably see that this trickster Jacob was always getting away with something. Esau, the plodding, earthy, hard-working son did all the work and Jacob got the credit. Even though Isaac's eyes were dim, he must have discerned that something was wrong. Certainly he would not praise Jacob for this.
As we venture a little farther into the magic land of blessing, we will see that the people who need blessing the most are the ones who deserve it the least. We cannot wait until they are worthy of praise before we bless them. God acts like that.
Jacob got the blessing and Esau had to be satisfied with a substitute blessing.
A Short Course in Cursing and Blessing
Sometimes the best way to explain a word is to tell what it is not. For example, white is the opposite of black; light is the opposite of darkness. Yes is the opposite of no. Cursing is the opposite of blessing.
It is not likely that anyone reading this far will feel guilty about cursing. "Nice people don't do it," they say.
Cursing persists. No place in the world, no matter how primitive or sophisticated it may be, is without its forms of cursing and blessing. Voodoo charms and hexes, curses and incantations all bring evil down upon people. Blessings and benedictions, rituals and ceremonies all try to place some positive force in action. It is so all over the world.
Do nice people curse? It's possible. Darling isn't always a nice word. I have met women who could nail their husband to the wall with the lilting word, Darling. Let's imagine how it can happen.
Let's create a scene like this. We are seated around the friendly table of a hospitable family. Conversation has drifted around to the subject of fishing. At this the husband proudly relates his prize fishing story.
"We were fishing in Kentucky Lake. I started to reel my line in and thought that I must have snagged the bottom of the lake. Then I knew I had a fish, a big one, the granddaddy of them all. For thirty minutes I fought that fish. When I finally pulled him into the boat, he was that long."
"Darling." The wife has spoken.
The air chills. The smiling fisherman wilts like yesterday's soufflé. Color drains from his face.
You steal a glance at his wife and discover where the color has gone. Veins in her neck began to stand out; her eyes narrow. War is on.
With a little luck you manage to change the conversation. The subject of fishing leaves the candle-lit battlefield. Subjects like politics or religion seem safer. Finally you and the other guests leave.
Now let us look back on the honeymoon cottage. Let us listen to the conversation.
"You certainly cut me down tonight, Hortense." "What did I say?"
"It's not what you said; it's what you meant." "What did I say?"
"You said `darling.' "
"Darling. All I can say, Henry, is that you must be getting pretty thin-skinned if I can't call you darling in front of a few friends."
At this point I would like to leave the imagined conversation. In fact, I would like to have left it a long time ago. However, it does make something pretty obvious. It doesn't really matter what precise words you use. Negative attitudes can leak out of almost any sugar-coated word in the dictionary, darling included.
A shocking fact comes to light. All forms of negative talking are some form of cursing. They certainly do not bless. Flowers will wilt under such a barrage. People have their natural milk of human kindness curdled by such talk. A broad treatment for all such talk comes from the Apostle Paul: "Bless and curse not."
How Do You Start to Bless Something?
Christopher Morley said, "No man has enough bees in his own bonnet to pollinate the flowers of his own mind. Import me a few strange notions."
Since your mind is the place where all these exciting miracles are going to take place, I should let you know my strategy. Whether or not you accept the commands of the Bible about blessing, I want to import a few strange, bizarre, and almost incredible stories into your thinking. You do not have to believe them, but you won't be able to forget them.
If you want to know if these stories are really true (They all are. In a few places I have disguised the names and places so that I will not embarrass anyone), simply think about the events. Then try the magic of blessing. Discover that it works for anyone who will use it. Then you will have your own stories; they will undoubtedly be more remarkable than mine.
Honestly, I have scaled down most of my stories because I want to pollinate your mind. I don't want to do more than mildly upset you.
How do you start? When you enroll in the school of blessing, you find out there are three grades. First, learn to bless God. Second, learn to bless yourself. Third, learn to bless other people and then learn to bless situations' and things.
The order is important. There seems to be no way to skip grades in God's school of blessing. Whether you are a confirmed churchgoer or a casual reader whose religion consists in vague memory of which church you stay away from, the course is the same. In a day of six-day diets and instant twelve-course Chinese dinners, this may come as a disappointment.
Actually the first-grade courses in the school of blessing are so exciting you will be tempted to stay in grade one. Resist the temptation.
The important thing is to start. Since there is no better time than now, let me give you a turtle-paced technique.
Marcie Espey taught me a lesson before she went to school. Marcie and the little neighbor girl were playing in the front yard of the Florida parsonage. As I approached, Marcie introduced me to her friend.
"Stephanie, this is Mr. Berquist."
"Hi, Stephanie," I answered. Then I paused to think of something else to talk about. Adults are not too good at this sort of thing, I discovered. "How old are you, Stephanie?"
The energetic little- brunette on the tricycle said, "I'm three."
Golden-haired Marcie responded, "I'm five."
I had no intention of entering a battle of age consciousness with the two beautiful girls. I was willing to retreat. The girls were not.
Stephanie was not put down by the superior attitude of Marcie. "Well, one of these days I am going to be five, too."
Marcie answered (rather haughtily I thought) "You gotta be four before you can be five."
There is wisdom in that. There are no grades you can skip in God's school.
The Magic of Blessing
As we plod along these strange pathways we may not move fast enough for the "theological hares" who like to speed to conclusions as soon as they read the chapter title. If you are in that class, feel free to skip to the last part of this book. You will find enough theological and biblical profundity to make you stay awake long past the eleven o'clock news. Pace yourself.
Feel free to dip into this account anywhere, move forward or backward. I have put some ideas on the top shelf for intellectual giraffes. Most of the good ideas are put down where I found them in the common experiences of run-of-the-mill people.
This is the plodding turtle-view of the path of blessing. Whenever you feel like sticking your neck out you can make a little progress. If you feel uncertain, simply pull your neck back in and think about things. I do that myself.
Ray was a reluctant convert to the idea of blessing. I don't mean that Ray was slow to understand. He is probably as close to being a genius as anyone we could afford to hire at the church I pastored. I stood in awe of his ability to grasp new ideas - every idea, that is, except the idea of blessing things. He was too slow for even the turtle-paced.
One Wednesday night I talked about the experiment made by Dr. Parker of Redlands University in California. Dr. Parker wanted to find out if there was a way to prove the value of prayer scientifically. The experiment is described in his book Prayer Can Change Your Life.
Two identical beds of seeds were planted. The soil was the same in both beds. The care was the same. The only difference was that the students were assigned to bless one bed of seeds and to curse the other.
To the one bed of seeds they would speak encouragingly. "What wonderful seeds you are, and what a tremendous future you will have as you come to flower and blossom." Confidence, even love, was expressed.
To the other group of seeds only negative ideas were spoken. "You wretched seeds. You will never amount to anything; you will never blossom. You will not make it."
Soon the results were apparent. The "blessed" seeds germinated early and produced healthy plants. They blossomed early, just as though they were trying desperately to make the nice things spoken about them come true.
Not so for the negatively treated seeds. Most did not sprout at all. Those that did brought forth spindly, sickly plants.
From this experiment I concluded that if plants could respond to loving care, certainly people would. If cursing is bad for flowers, it must be deadly for people. I encouraged my listeners to be positive-to bless people.
Ray was not impressed. That is putting it mildly.
"Most of the time you make sense to me, pastor, but tonight I have to laugh at you. Do you think I am going to believe that seeds in the ground are going to listen to what people say about them. It's not easy to get people to listen to you. Plants never would."
I replied, "I'm just reporting the facts, Ray. I believe it." That ended it.
It didn't really end it because after a few months Ray came into my office wearing a strange smile on his face. He said, "I want you to come outside and see a poinsettia."
"I have seen a poinsettia," I answered. They grow profusely in Florida.
"You haven't seen this poinsettia," Ray replied.
I was growing impatient. "A poinsettia is a poinsettia," I said.
Ray persisted, "This one is different. Last Christmas George and Margie Van Ness gave Margaret and me a poinsettia. It bloomed during December and January and by February the leaves began falling off. Finally there was nothing left but a bare stalk. We put the clay pot out on the back steps of our house because we didn't know what else to do with it.
"Then one day we thought that George and Margie might come by the house, see our abandoned flower, and think that we didn't appreciate it. So I planted it. By this time there was just a stub of a stalk about the size of a pencil on the verge of being thrown away. I planted it between the main building and the fellowship hall.
"Then," Ray continued, "do you remember that crazy story you told about people talking to seeds and flowers? I laughed at you. But one day I decided to see if it really would work. So each morning for the past couple of months I have walked by this poinsettia as I came to work. I usually carry a glass of iced tea. That's my breakfast. By the time I reached the poinsettia the glass would be nearly empty. I had been throwing the remaining ice cubes to the flower and saying a few words to it."
"What did you say?" I asked.
"I don't remember exactly," Ray replied, "but I would talk to it and say, `have a nice day,' or `you're looking good.' Things like that."
"Ray, let me see this poinsettia," I said.
What a demonstration it was. If I had ever been tempted to doubt the jack-and-the-beanstalk story, it would be difficult after this. The pencil-thin stalk of the Christmas poinsettia had grown until it was a bush fully six feet in diameter. It was covered with buds.
A week later Ray came into my office carrying a poinsettia blossom. Even in the peanut butter jar it looked regal. The blossom measured twelve inches across. It was a double blossom. I went out to look at the bush again. Every blossom on it was double.
I was almost speechless. Not quite, however. "That just goes to show what happens when people practice what I preach," I said to Ray.
I decided to practice the blessing principle myself even more fervently than I had done.
This amazing story has another chapter, a sad one. I may as well tell it here.
As this amazing poinsettia continued to grow and blossom I began to tell its story as I lectured. Soon people coming from far and near asked to see the poinsettia. Sometimes they questioned me, "Do you really have a poinsettia like you described or did you just tell the story?"
"Come and see," I replied.
In a world where superlatives are carelessly used to describe mediocrity I guess I can't blame people for being skeptical. On the other hand, a superlative shouldn't masquerade as mediocrity, not even a modest superlative.
The poinsettia never disappointed anyone. In. fact, as people came and bragged about the amazing bush it seemed to listen. I noticed one day that it had started bearing triple blossoms.
The story didn't end there. It has a sad chapter. Truth, you know, is a two-edged sword. It cuts two ways. It is great if you use it right and it is destructive if you use it wrong. In the case of the poinsettia something went wrong.
Even a miracle seems commonplace after you have lived around it for a while. As time went on I didn't pay much attention to our famous poinsettia.
One day I glanced at it and was surprised to see that it was shriveling and about to die. That would have been a tragedy. Like a dowdy queen abandoned by her subjects, the lovely flower seemed forlorn and forgotten. But why? Was the blessing principle just a short-term program? What had changed? Then I remembered.
Since the days of the first fantastic blossoms we had started a school. The church buildings were crowded with the students of Warner Academy. Students from kindergarten through high school stood in long lines to enter the dining hall. They walked by the poinsettia - they didn't touch or trample it. What did they do? As they walked by the poinsettia they talked about the cafeteria. They talked about the food.
In the event that you have not been in a school cafeteria recently you may not know the code of the road. Every student takes a silent pledge to complain about the food and the service. It is true from Maine to California, from the kindergarten to the university.
We thought perhaps they didn't like our choice of food. We let them choose their own. They complained about that.
"Pizza again. Ugh." Or, "Hamburgers, ugh," they said.
It was almost a ritual. I can't explain it. It is simply a fact of life. None of the students used profane language - our behavior code would not allow that. Sanctified complaining was almost as much a part of student life as homework.
The flower was dying. There had to be a stop to it. "Even if you don't like the food, students, say something nice to the poinsettia. It is not the cook," we pleaded. They must have listened because the flower took a turn for the better.
Erma Bombeck's Rule of Medicine states, "Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died."
My purpose is simple. I want to turn your conversation into a pattern of blessing. However many negative things there are surrounding you, there is a positive power to cope with them.
Although the first chapter of the Gospel of John means more than this sentence will imply, "in the beginning was the word." Words bless or words wilt.