The notion of blessing things is a prominent theme in virtually all religions, including Christianity. But what do we mean when we bless something? Though my hunch is that few would admit it, not far below the surface of our practice of blessing things is some primitive idea that speaking words and suspending hands over objects are like magic. Our actions and incantations infuse the thing with a certain mystical quality that will guarantee success and will serve as a forcefield in keeping evil away.
Over the course of my years as pastor, I’ve been asked to bless lots of things, some of them things that I have no qualms about speaking a word of blessing over, and some of them rather trivial. I’ve been asked to bless bibles and babies, dogs and dining rooms, Harleys and hams, and lots of things in between. So, what have I been doing? What do we mean when we set something aside to bless it?
For a long time, I’ve had some sense that what I was doing was setting something aside for a special purpose. But the more I think about it, the less that theory holds water. It’s really not about a special purpose. In fact, quite the opposite. We as asking for something to happen in that very thing’s intended use. For instance, if I bless a bible, I am not asking that it be used efficaciously only for some special use, but for the common everyday use that bibles are intended for: to read and study God’s revelation to us. If I bless a car, I’m not asking that it be set aside only to take the youth group on retreat or to take the family back and forth to church; no, I am somehow saying something about that cars intended use, whether it’s getting back and forth to work, hauling groceries, or taking the family on vacation.
I recently attended a conference on the notion of Christian blessing, a conference that was tremendously helpful in pushing me to think and act with more clarity about blessing. Dr. Ben Stewart of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, opened the conference theme with a sermon in which he suggested that to bless something is to open up a space between that common thing and God, a space for awe and gratitude and for recognizing that thing as a gift. In the week or so since I returned home, I have had a chance to reflect on Stewart’s notion of blessing and it has the strong ring of truth for me. If it’s true, then when I bless something, I’m not asking for anything magical to happen with that thing’s use, but that I recognize it’s presence in my life as a gift from a gracious God. That sense of gratitude leads me to think of the stewardship of that thing, and its right use in my life. So, if I bless the car, I’m opening up a space where I acknowledge that car is not ultimately my own, but is a gift from God. I am recognizing the goodness of God in the advance of human technology that allows us to make machines that foster the ease of getting from one place to another and hauling things over a distance. I am giving thanks for the hands that have made it, and I am somehow pledging myself to the proper use of that car. If I bless a bible, I am pausing for a moment to give thanks for the gift of language, of this thing we call a book in which words on a page can communicate ideas, and of the mystery and gift of divine revelation. And I am pledge myself to the proper use of that gift to accomplish God’s purposes in my life and in the world.
I recently spent some time with a couple in our congregation who just moved from their single family home — the home in which they raised their children and spent the first 10 years or so of their retirement — to a condominium. As you might imagine, it was a difficult move to leave behind not only the spaciousness of their home, but the vast store of memories evoked by every space in that house. Yet as they took me on a tour of their new home, there was a clear sense that this was the right time to downsize into a space more manageable and easier to leave behind when they leave town to spend the summer in their lake home. However, I had gone their new home not just for a tour, but to bless their new home.
It’s a beautiful rite. Starting at the entrance to the home, the blessing rite walks us through the entire home, pausing in each room to acknowledge the human activities that take place there, to speak a brief word of scripture that connects to that activity and then to speak a prayer of blessing. With a newly clarified understanding of what it means to bless, I walked through the rooms of their home reading scripture and praying with a new confidence and passion about what we were doing. I spent a few minutes in the introduction to the rite talking about blessing and why we were doing this. It was truly a powerful time as this couple stopped in each room to think of the common activities that will take place in their new home, to thank God for those activities, to thank God for providing this beautiful place for those things to take place, and finally to recognize God’s presence in those very activities. For instance, as we paused in the kitchen, we spent a few brief moments giving thanks for the gift of food and the flavors that bring joy and satisfaction to our eating. As we paused in the living room, we thought of the friends and family who will sit in that room sharing the gift of fellowship and sharing the stories of lives and relationships. And that couple was able to ask God to consecrate this home for lives that will share in God’s purposes for them, for their neighbors, and for the whole world.
God would have been present in their home whether we performed that rite of blessing or not. But I’m confident that my friends now have a much sharper sense of that presence, of their deep gratitude for God’s gifts, and of their own calling to live as God’s children. That’s what I call blessing!