Being a Blessing
Welcome back to intersections where we explore the wisdom of ancient scripture at the intersection of modern life and ask how can the one inform the latter?
Now, if you remember, over the past few months, we have been pondering the question: what must the church become to be relevant in the modern age? How might we form the church to be more relevant to a modern age that is filled with crisis after crisis, after crisis. And along the way, we have established what I call cornerstones, which are the limit the boundaries to keep us focused so that we understand the basis for church.
Those four cornerstones were repentance. In other words, if we are going in the wrong direction, repent and go the other way. And then respect for creation, honoring creation and all that life involves as sacred from God. And then we establish a third cornerstone of the necessity to have humility for the journey. And the fourth one, the obvious necessity, that we are going to have to make personal sacrifices on our own faith journey.
So, we established the four cornerstones. And then we laid the foundation stones within those four cornerstones, which we said, are all the various understandings of gospel justice. And then what will bind this all together? What is the mortar that will bind all these stones together and make a firm foundation for our faith personally, and for our faith is a faith community going forward? It is of course compassionate love. That is the mortar.
But now comes a question for what purpose are we doing this, what will be the outcome of establishing this strong foundation for the future church. And I am going to suggest to today, that that is to become a blessing.
As a backdrop for this discussion, on becoming a blessing, we’ve got the Beatitudes out of the Gospel of Matthew, the fifth chapter started with the third verse, you remember that? Jesus is addressing the largest crowd he has ever seen. The multitude from the mount, he keeps saying, blessed are, blessed are, blessed are. In doing so, he raises some incredible ideas of who in fact, is blessed. And by doing so, he is encouraging us to get involved in this whole act of blessing.
So, our focus is on being a blessing, but what kind of a blessing? How much of a blessing? And most importantly, how shall we do it?
If we go to our favorite biblical reference source, the new Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, and we look up the meaning of the Beatitudes, we find this understanding: “God’s Empire will bring a transformation of present circumstances and the establishment of God’s justice. And then the Beatitudes exhort us to behaviors in accordance with God’s justice.”
Okay, the way I want to explore this subject today is through the lens of the Church holidays that occur at the end of October/start of November. The days when we remember those who have come before us. As in “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day” but also in other secular contexts such as in the Mexican tradition “The Day of the Dead”. I will use stories out of my life example of those who have blessed me and have gone on since then.
But while I am relating my stories as example of how blessings affect your life journey. I suggest that you be thinking of examples in your own life, of those who blessed you along the way. So, with all of that as a backdrop, let’s begin.
My father was an Irish Catholic, just one generation removed from the Emerald Isle. My mother was a German, Swiss Lutheran. And back when they got married, that meant that my mother had to convert to Catholicism. And she had to agree that the kids be raised in the Catholic Church, which of course for me meant that I was going to Catholic grade school.
Now most of my neighborhood was Catholic. You could see the tall church spire from my house, it was two blocks over but it was a huge Catholic church with big bells that would ring out several times a day to call people to prayer, the angelus. In my Catholic school, there were three dozen nuns in typical black and white habits which covered everything up. The good sisters had very strict instruction methods. And there were all kinds of nuns I met but there is one I want to recall particularly. Her name Sister Adrian. Sister Adrian was an imposing figure. And she had a stare that could stop any misbehaving young boy with just a look. Fixed in place like a deer in headlights. And yet she inspired me to learn.
How did she do that? Well, every week, she would have an experience in a class where she brought something into the classroom and pass it around and ask the questions. What do you think this is? And how do you think it works? And these examples range from everything from a cow’s brain and a cow’s tongue that she had picked up in the marketplace, to stuff out of her garden, to even disassembled transistor radios. We would pass it around, poke at it, smell it and wonder what do you think this is? How do you think it works? And that Nun’s methods inspired me to forever want to answer those questions. What is this? And how does it work? This inspiration took me on an educational path which ultimately achieved four different university degrees.
If we were to put this experience in the terms of the Beatitudes, we would say: Blessed are the educators of young children for they sow the fruit of the future.
I want to fast forward my life experience. 20 years later, I am a young professional engineer, married a good young Catholic girl, we’ve got a couple of kids. We are active in our local Catholic parish in Michigan. Gloria is involved in religious education program. I sing in the choir and I’m on the church council because as an engineer, I’m looking out for the physical assets of the church. But during all that, in the midst of being deeply involved in our Catholic tradition, as well as everything else in life, we change parish priests. Now, that is not unusual in the Catholic Church. And back then, parishes never got a choice or even an answer in who they were going to get as a parish priest. The parish priest we got was a priest that was of the type, who would make the headlines later on. He was a type of priest, that the catholic church would wind up spending millions of dollars in liability compensation, because of his acts. And so, I went from protecting the assets of the church, to protecting the kids of the parish from their priest, making sure the priest was never alone with kids. And I wasn’t alone in this, there was a couple of dozen leaders like me, that we’re involved in this process. Actively working to make sure that our kids were protected from their priest, which is a terrible thing to have to say.
We of course, appealed to the bishop. But back then, the response of the Catholic hierarchy was always to deny it was happening. And so, we appealed the denial. And our appeal got denied by the next level, the Archbishop. So, facing having to live in that kind of tension, worship in that kind of division, some of us left the church. That was a huge, huge deal back then. But a group of us leaders left the parish, took our families, and we started to meet in our homes. But it’s controversial. As in how can we hold worship in a home because in the Catholic faith, you need a priest to do that?
Well, one of our members had a relationship with a missionary order. And there he met a priest who is back from Africa. The priest had spent several years in Africa and now he was back in the US to recover his health before he would go back on another assignment. And as a result of this meeting, Father Tom, good old Father Tom agreed to minister to our breakaway group while this controversy was going on. We had mass every week in our homes. I had babies baptized by Father Tom in my house. After a year of this breakaway experience when it was obvious that we were not stopping our protest, the Archdiocese quietly moved the priest out of the parish. This was the normal thing that the hierarchy did back then, when a priest was a problem, they would simply move him out. In fact, this priest was put over into the Navy as a chaplain. When that happened, some of our group went back to the local parish. Some of our group went to other Catholic churches. But for those of us who could not reconcile what had happened with what we believed it meant to be a good faithful Catholic, went to other types of churches.
My family and another family went to the local Lutheran Church and became members. But the thing is about Father Tom by his selfless witnessing and ministering to us in our time of need. None of us, none of the group fell away from the Christian faith. Because we had Tom’s witness of faith before us through an entire year. If we were to put this experience in terms of the Beatitudes, we might say: Blessed are those who serve as guides on our journey of faith, for they will be called the lights, who overcome the darkness of the world.
Let us fast forward in my life experiences once again. I will jump another 15-20 years. My wife Gloria went from being perfectly healthy to be permanently dead in a three-week period, three weeks! I was shattered. I was so deep into grief; I could not function. I was like a zombie. Now I have experienced grief before. I’d lost both parents at different points in my life. I had also lost a brother. But I never experienced grief that was so paralyzing as this. After the funeral, I had two sons off in college who were struggling with their own grief away at college. But I still had a daughter at home, a 16-year-old daughter who was dealing with grief every bit as much as I was. And I was not able to function. It was difficult to breathe, let alone accomplish a necessary task.
But you know, we did not go hungry. Because of a lady by the name of Jan. Jan was just a little lady, but she was a sparkler. She was just on fire in spirit. And she organized the women of that Lutheran Church, to deliver a meal every night, for a month. To my house, leave it on the doorstep. Every night, a meal was delivered ready to be eaten. In that month, I began the healing process where I slowly started to be able to function again. Jan was such a faith filled support in a critical time in my life.
I have a friend in Malawi, Africa, who was a Methodist pastor. In fact, he was a pastor of a dozen different faith communities in Malawi. His name was Rev. Smart Minsinko. (I always admired that his parents would plant the seed for his future career by naming him “Smart”). He came over and visited us one time. During his visit, he got to experience how we treat the details of death and dying. As in how we conduct the wakes, funerals, and other rituals. And he said, you know, you Americans do this all backwards. In America when someone dies, you absolutely swarm all over the people who are grieving for three days. And then you abandon them. In Africa, we have a custom, where every day, a different person goes to the person that is grieving and ask them to tell a story of the loved one that they lost. And they do this for 100 days. And in 100 days of retelling stories about their loved one, they begin to heal.
Once again, if we put these experiences in terms of the Beatitudes, we might say: Blessed are those who comfort the mourners for they will be called children of God.
It has been my experience that blessings are contagious. To illustrate, I’ll give you a few examples of that.
When I was going to seminary, on Sunday nights, I volunteered to drive a 12 or 15 passenger van to pick up the homeless and transport them to what we referred to as mobile homeless shelters. Every week, a different church would take on the task of ministering to the homeless and putting them up overnight, feeding them supper, give them breakfast and pack them a lunch and send them off. My job was to transport the homeless from the intake center at one church to whatever church was hosting them that week. It was interesting to see how different churches responded to this calling of ministering to the homeless. In some churches, I would bring the whole van load of people and walk them into the church. And there we would fine the hosts lined up behind tables. So there’s an immediate separation. The good church people would behind a registration table and they would lay out this is this: this is that: this is this; this is the schedule and this is what you’re going to do. Any questions? No? Go get in the next line. They were very formal, very stiff, very strict.
But there was one night I pulled into a different church parking lot. And before I got the van into park, the doors of the church burst open and people came running out. They were yelling: “Oh it’s been so long. Where have you been? Come in, Come in, we’ve got a meal all ready for you. Oh such a great meal we’ve got for you. Why it will be just like Thanksgiving all over again. You know we’ve been missing you. So please come in. Here let us help you with your belongings. Come in, Come in.
You could just see the homeless people beaming. Just beaming simply because somebody actually cared that they were there.
Blessings are contagious.
The first church that I pastored was actually two churches. And they were in two communities that were side by side, but the churches were separated by five, six miles. In one church, we decided to form a food pantry, a food pantry that would feed the local hungry. The church was located in the Rust Belt area of greater Detroit, in the far southern suburbs. When we raised the prospect of doing this ministry, the first response we got was, there is no hungry people in the suburbs. I said you are not opening your eyes.
We took on the task of forming a food pantry day that was open two days a week, for people to come without restrictions on a basis of just come, you can get what you need. But to learn how to do this, my wife Sinclair went to other food pantries that were already in operation. And she worked with them. And they even gave her startup food, to bring to our food pantry help with the start-up. We also learned what is all necessary for a pantry operation to be successful. What must happen to gain access to food supplies, shipments, funding etc. All the details that must be covered to be a fully functional food distribution point. And this food pantry, eventually started other food pantries, the same way.
Blessings are contagious.
But the other side is that the people who worked every week at the food pantry, two times a week, three times a week, were not all members of that church. Some of the volunteers were people who saw the blessings of this food pantry and simply wanted to be a part of it.
Blessings are contagious.
At the other church. In the next town over, we formed a community meal. Once a week, we would open up the church doors, take everybody down in the church basement and have a great big family meal. Open to anybody. All were welcome to come, Just come sit awhile enjoy a decent meal and some company, no requirements, no restrictions, just come as you are.
Once again, to learn how to operate a meal program, we went to other facilities that were feeding large groups of people who were in need. And we learned from them, the health regulations, the cooking regulations, the food supply and what kind of problems and issues you might need to get into it. And we in turn, taught other churches how host meal programs.
In fact, we didn’t host this meal by ourselves every week. Several weeks of the month, other faith communities would come into our facility and made the meal.
Blessings are contagious.
One of the first barriers we had to get overcome was to have the volunteers, the people who made the meal, who served a meal, who welcomed the guests in, actually participate with the guests in the experience. I had the requirement that they needed to sit with the people they were feeding and eat alongside them. To me, that type of experience is how we live communion.
Blessings are contagious.
We have a similar thing going on right now in our hometown in Aurora, Illinois. There is a community garden that we are a part of. And in the community garden operation, much of the output of the garden, goes across the street to supply the local food pantry that is sponsoring the community garden. But there is more benefit than just food production. The community garden is teaching people how to live sustainably, how to eat right, how to grow their own food. And I must admit I didn’t have the skill set. So, I’m still learning how to garden.
Blessings are contagious.
Blessings, when they are given, are never earned and they are never justified. They are always simply freely bestowed.
I want to conclude with is this understanding of what it means to be a blessing. It is biblically based as we saw in the Beatitudes but also in numerous other places in Scripture.
God is calling us to be a blessing for others.
God is calling us to be a blessing to our families,
-a blessing to our community members,
-a blessing to our neighbors,
-a blessing to our communities,
-a blessing to our nation,
-a blessing to our world,
-a blessing to the future of all God’s good children.
God is calling us to learn from the example of those who have come before us and have been a blessing in our life, and to take those lessons we learned and go out to be a blessing to others.
That I believe is the purpose of faith communities -to be a vibrant sign of God’s blessing in this world.
I want to close with one last little bit of Scripture. It comes to us from Hebrews 12: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely. And let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking at Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.
Take care. I will see you next time on Intersections where we will explore yet another topic at the intersection of ancient wisdom and modern life.