Find Your Blessings, Be a Blessing
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
June 3, 2018
Reading Beatitudes by Peace Pilgrim
Blessed are they who give without expecting even thanks in return, for they shall be abundantly rewarded.
Blessed are they who translate every good thing that they know into action, for even higher truths shall be revealed unto them.
Blessed are they who love and trust their fellow beings, for they shall reach the good in people and receive a loving response.
Blessed are they who have seen reality, for they know that not the garment of clay but that which activated the garment of clay is real and indestructible.
Blessed are they who after dedicating their lives and thereby receiving a blessing, have the courage and faith to surmount the difficulties of the path ahead, for they shall receive a second blessing.
Blessed are they who advance towards the spiritual path without the selfish motive of seeking inner peace, for they shall find it…
In this world you are given as you give
And you are forgiven as you forgive–
While you go your way
Through each lovely day
You create your future as you live.
May you be blessed. May you be a blessing. That’s the way a friend of mine ends all the worship services in his congregation.
But. What does that mean?
The word blessing can be a bit of an enigma to many of us as UU’s. With so many here who identify as humanist, or atheist, the concept of blessing is more likely to evoke images of the pope laying hand on a child on TV than of something we seek for ourselves, or seek to share with others.
Part of the challenge with the idea of blessing, I think, is its ephemeral, transient, intangible nature. It’s like prayer, in that way, or like well-wishes. I may offer you a blessing in my mind but there is no obvious substance there, nothing you can hold onto. In fact I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a member of this church earlier this year – who had some pointed things to say about the all too common response of political leaders to tragedy or disaster: sending thoughts and prayers. Sure, we’ll send thoughts and prayers to the people of Porto Rico after hurricane maria. We’ll send a big truck full of them. A big, wide open, empty truck full of nothing but thoughts and prayers.
That’s how we hear that term sometimes. And, frankly, that’s what it is sometimes, a big, empty bit of political or personal pablum with no substance and no merit.
So it’s not surprising if some of us react with skepticism to the concept altogether.
And then, there’s the kind of blessing that’s simply a turn of phrase. I’ve heard from my southern friends that you can say just about anything if you preface it with the words, bless his heart. There’s even a poem written about it. It’s by Richard Newman and he writes:
At Steak ‘n Shake I learned that if you add
“Bless their hearts” after their names, you can say
whatever you want about them and it’s OK.
My son, bless his heart, is an idiot,
she said. He rents storage space for his kids’
toys—they’re only one and three years old!
I said, my father, bless his heart, has turned
into a sentimental old fool. He gets
weepy when he hears my daughter’s greeting
on our voice mail. Before our Steakburgers came
someone else blessed her office mate’s heart,
then, as an afterthought, the jealous hearts
of the entire anthropology department.
We bestowed blessings on many a heart
that day. I even blessed my ex-wife’s heart.
Our waiter, bless his heart, would not be getting
much tip, for which, no doubt, he’d bless our hearts.
The poem goes on, but you get the idea. It’s not the kind of blessing you particularly want someone to bestow on you.
Then there’s a third kind of blessing. One that is meant to have some kind of impact in your life. The opposite of a curse. Like, may you have riches. May you live a long life. May you find love. May you recover the wallet you just realized you must have lost when you went to the bathroom at Starbucks yesterday afternoon. Specific wishes for good. That’s a kind of blessing.
Some people will travel thousands of miles to find a blessing like that. Or at least, that’s the cliché. You know, lost soul goes on pilgrimage to visit the guru on mountaintop to ask for wisdom or some good fortune, please. A genie-in-the-bottle type of request. Bless me, change my life. Intercessional blessing.
When my Dad was sick, his Catholic friends would often light candles for him at their church services. Now, I don’t know exactly what their theology was behind that action, but I know it didn’t line up with my Dad’s. My Dad was very clear that he did not believe in intercessional prayer, or intercessional anything really, because from his perspective there is nothing there to do the interceding.
I suspect in most UU churches he wouldn’t be the only one with that belief.
Nevertheless, when a friend told him he would light a candle for him, and immediately followed that up with, oh no, you don’t believe in it, my dad then answered: when YOU do it, I know it will help. He didn’t say that because he thought his friend candle would cause some external force to save his life, but it mattered to my dad, to know his friends cared enough to think of him.
While I can’t say I know whether there is or is not some external (interceding) force at work when we pray for or bless each other, I do know there’s something going on inside. Or, there can be. Some mystical, ephemeral, intangible intention, rising up in the heart and mind, an entirely invisible gift. That just might help, somehow.
It might help the person you are blessing, and it might even help you.
In her book, “An Alter in the World”, Barabra Brown Taylor notes how few people seem to embrace the spiritual practice of blessing. And that on the whole, most of us just don’t really know how this works.
“But the best way to discover what pronouncing blessings is all about,” she writes, “is to pronounce a few. The practice itself will teach you what you need to know. Start throwing [some] blessings around and chances are you will start noticing all kinds of things you never noticed before. The next time you are at the airport, try blessing the people sitting at the departure gate with you. Every one of them is dealing with something significant. See that mother trying to contain her explosive two-year-old? See that pock-faced boy with the huge belly? Even if you cannot know for sure what is going on with them, you can still give a care. They are on their way somewhere, the same way you are. They too are between places, with no more certainty than you about what will happen at the other end.”
“Pronounce a silent blessing,” she concludes, “and pay attention to what happens in the air between you and that other person, all those other people.”
I’ve tried this. In fact I’ve done it a few times at the airport because, what else are you going to do? Something in me softens. Something in me lets go. Something in me lightens. Something does indeed, seem to happen in the air between us. They are no longer just a random stranger (against whom I will soon have to vie for my place in the boarding line), they become a person – a human being to whom I have given just a tiny little part of me, of my attention, my hope. And what I gain, is a little bit, in Taylor’s words, of a feeling of kinship that wasn’t there before.
And a little bit of connection. Or recognition, maybe. That we’re not as separate, afterall, as we so often seem.
And it’s interesting, how that shift, that invisible shift that can occur when we choose to bless, we don’t know what will come of that. When we pivot, from one way of experiencing, into another. When we turn from what is, for many of us, a habitually defensive stance (like the one in the boarding line), to an intentionally open and giving one… We don’t know what might grow, in that space we’re creating with our blessings.
Pierre Praverand, author of The Gentle Art of Blessing, didn’t know. All he knew was that he was blocked. His stance toward his life was more than defensive, it was angry. He was hamstrung by resentment.
He had been working as an international developer, just living his life, when he found himself forced, by unscrupulous coworkers, into what he calls vocational hara-kiri. He’d been put in a position, he writes, where he’d either to have to forsake his morals, or leave his job. He’d been boxed in, he had no out, and he did, in fact, quit. But finds himself, in the wake of that decision, with a case of all-consuming resentment.
He tries to let it go, he meditates, he attempts to forgive, but the faces of those people, this action, it haunts him.
He’s restless and he can’t let it go.
Until one day he happens to stumbles across the phrase, from Jesus’ sermon on the mount, bless them that curse you, and it strikes him, and he tries it, blessing them. Wishing for them what he wants for himself, showering them mentally with contentment, wholeness and happiness. Wishing them well in total sincerity, from the bottom of his heart. And something begins to change, not only in relationship to those people, but in relationship to his life. He starts to do it more, blessing not only these ex-coworkers, blessing people on the street, in the post office, or supermarket, he does it while washing dishes, while falling asleep. Little by little, he writes, this gentle art of blessing people became like a silent song, and one of his greatest joys. It changes his life.
And sometimes changes things around him. He describes an incident of encountering an unusually uncooperative person, one time, whose help he needed to run an event. The man was inexplicably hostile and stubborn and Praverand found himself becoming angry in return, as you might expect. But then Praverand remembered – his new habit. And began mentally blessing this man instead. So even while his event planning partner is arguing with the guy, he’s blessing his integrity, his health, his relationships, he is blessing that man in every way he can imagine and then he blesses him some more. And at some point he begins to notice the man’s attitude changes. His belligerence softens, cooperativeness surfaces. The man does what they need, and, apparently, he even smiles as he does it.
Which is not to say blessing other people should be the new secret weapon to get people to do what we want but there is something about changing the quality of how we show up that can make things better for everyone, changing something in the air between us. We soften and sometimes other people pick up on it, and then, sometimes, they soften too.
It’s interesting, I had started out basing this sermon on the premise that as you look for the blessings in your life, you open up to the beauty that’s already here, and as you open up to the beauty already here, you are able to share it more and more. So: as you find your blessings, you become a blessing to those around you.
But in the process of writing it I found myself seeing almost the opposite. As we practice blessing others, as we practice blessing the world, we find more of our own blessings in the process. We simply can’t bless others without opening the door to a recognition of the blessings we have, ourselves.
Or maybe it doesn’t matter which way it works. Because whether we start with our intention to extend ourselves to others, or whether we start with our intention to expand our awareness of all the good life has already, we gain, and we can’t help but give it away.
And sometimes, blessings are just all around mutual like that.
Just a few weeks ago, I was with Celia Humphreys, our one and only Celia Humphreys, a few days before she died. Nans Rieser and Laura Evans were there too.
Celia was not doing well that day. Her eyes were half-closed, when she spoke it was very slowly and hard to make out. She was awake, but she was so weak.
So there we were, the three of us, me and Nans and Laura, but what could we do? There is so little you can do.
But Celia… knew. She said something to me. It was hard to make out. I didn’t understand. I had to ask her to repeat it.
Grab my arm, she said. Grab her arm? Was it hurting, did she need me to get a nurse? No. Just grab the arm. Okay, best to do as she asks!
I placed my hand on Celia’s arm, as gently as I could. Then she nodded towards Nans. And said to her – grab her arm, indicating, mine. We were all puzzled by this point until Nans suddenly got it and explained to the rest of us. This was a healing circle, something they would do, sometimes, in the women’s group. Celia was asking for a healing circle, a blessing for her, a blessing for her health.
So I held Celia’s arm, Nans held mine, Laura held Nans’, and Laura held Celia’s other arm. And with the circle complete we blessed Celia and we sang to her and we wished her well in whatever way we could think of.
And that room filled with this gentle sorta half-awkward kindness that is hard to describe. At some point I know Celia said to us or maybe it was just to me, later, how much she loved people. You let them know, she said to me, that I love them. I told her I would.
I didn’t know at that moment, that she would recover almost completely, it would seem, the following day. And I didn’t know, at that moment, that her recovery would be short-lived and that we would lose her just a few days later.
But what I did know, in that moment, that there was something in the air among us. And I did know, in that moment, an appreciation of Celia and of life that is always there but that found me from the inside out. And I did know, that we were blessed.
May we experiment with blessing each other, may we pay attention to the many ways we who are here on this earth are already blessed.
May we be blessed, may we be a blessing.