Post Author: Amber Slate
My thumbs move swiftly across my phone screen. One quick search on Instagram for #BLESSED shows over 100 million tags. As I scroll, I see pictures of sculpted bodies, expensive cars, tropical destinations, healthy babies, and shiny accessories. A few posts stand out as having some kind of spiritual message or focus on gratitude. Yet, I feel unsatisfied and uninspired. I’m longing for something grittier, more hopeful, and with more substance from a spiritual word like “blessed.” My role as solo pastor of a small congregation often requires me to wear a lot of hats in ministry as I go from the board meeting to the ICU to the pulpit, and so much more. Not only do I need language that is robust enough to carry through all these spaces, but I also need it to nourish me when I’m able to shift the focus to my own spiritual life.
Jonathan Merritt recently called “blessed” one of the sacred words that needs reclaiming since it has come to be trite, braggy, and materialistic. In a video to promote his new book Learning to Speak God from Scratch: Why Sacred Words Are Vanishing–and How We Can Revive Them, Merritt takes to the streets of New York City to interview people about the meaning of #BLESSED. As you might expect from its use on social media, most people either struggled to think of what it could mean or had a vague definition connected to gratitude and having good/nice things in life.
To be fair, the word “bless” is kind of a complicated word. It can be a verb that shows divine or human favor, care, endearment, veneration, holiness, permission, or gratitude. It can be a noun and an adjective. We use it to talk about everything from “having my parents’ blessing” to things that are a “blessing in disguise.” For so long, I didn’t realize what I was missing by not reclaiming this word in my life and ministry. As Merritt points out, when we lose spiritual language, we lose both the ability to engage one another in conversation about our spiritual lives and the ability to prevent the language from being co-opted and distorted by politicians, televangelists, advertisers, etc.
Now, of course, I could have told you that “blessed” was not as superficial as pretty pictures, but I had never paid particular attention to the word. If there was a suggestion for a blessing in the liturgy at the end of a service, I conveniently collapsed it into the benediction. I would stretch out my hands, facing the congregation, and would send them out with a charge. I was happy to talk more about grace and gratitude since “blessed” seemed like the domain of the “name it and claim it” preachers or the grocery store checker who always handed me my receipt and told me to “have a blessed day.”
Then one day I went to visit Marlene, a member of my congregation, after a nasty fall that left her with seven broken ribs and the need to enter a living situation that provided more care. As I drove through lonely back roads to get to the hospital, I listened to the audio version of Kate Bowler’s memoir Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. In the book Bowler recounts the personal journey of going from researching and writing about the prosperity gospel tradition in America to being diagnosed with incurable cancer.
Though she didn’t come from that tradition herself, she had gone from literally writing the book Blessed to embodying a reason to grapple with that kind of theology that turns divine blessing into a guaranteed formula. I was struck with the sense that this is a person who has wrestled enough with suffering to be able to trust enough to talk about blessings. I knew there would be nothing trivial about the language she used to talk about God. Bowler’s story and her perspective stuck with me as walked into the hospital in to find Marlene and wondered what I could say to this frail woman who was in pain and who was beginning to face the loss of her independence.
As it turns out, Marlene would teach me about what it meant to be “blessed.” As I sat next to her bed covered in extra blankets, Marlene shared about her life: the memories she was grateful for, the way God had walked with her over the years, and the loss she felt in this season. At the end of our visit, she grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go until she had a chance to bless me. Then she did. It was only a couple of sentences, but it was an incredibly powerful experience. The funny part is I don’t remember what the words were exactly. I just remember how they made me feel. They made me feel seen because they were particular, they made me feel hopeful because they connected my story to God’s bigger story, and they made me feel less alone because they were anchored by her hand on my arm.
Before I started to reclaim #BLESSED, I had never really understood the story of Jacob wrestling God for a blessing in Genesis 32. I instinctively knew what it meant to wrestle with God, but I couldn’t see what was so valuable about that blessing. I didn’t know why it would leave him changed on every level, from his body to his very name and identity. Through the spiritual practice of blessing, I have begun to know its power: the power to help us be seen, be connected to a bigger story, and feel less alone.
I’ve started to look for opportunities to embrace this spiritual practice in my own life and in my ministry. When I stretch out my hands toward the congregation, I can offer a blessing. When I sit next to someone, I think about how I can be particular, hopeful, and anchored with that person in a way that isn’t trivial. I recently picked up the book To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue. It is full of blessings for birth, death, and everything in between like a new home, a season of loneliness, or meeting a stranger. As reclaiming #BLESSED has invited me to be present before God, in myself, and with others in a new way, I want to share a blessing from O’Donohue inviting you to do the same:
“Awaken to the mystery of being here
and enter the quiet immensity of your own presence.
Have joy and peace in the temple of your senses.
Receive encouragement when new frontiers beckon.
Respond to the call of your gift and the courage to follow its path.
Let the flame of anger free you of all falsity.
May warmth of heart keep your presence aflame.
May anxiety never linger about you.
May your outer dignity mirror an inner dignity of soul.
Take time to celebrate the quiet miracles that seek no attention.
Be consoled in the secret symmetry of your soul.
May you experience each day as a sacred gift woven around the heart of wonder.”
Merritt, Jonathan. “What do Americans think of the word “blessed”?”. YouTube video, 01:46. Posted [September 2018]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yIq82oBlClQ.
Merritt, Jonathan. “It’s Getting Harder to Talk About God.” The New York Times, October 13, 2018. Accessed October 18, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/13/opinion/sunday/talk-god-sprituality-christian.html.
 O’Donohue, John. To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings, (New York, Convergent, 2008), 42.
The Rev. Amber Slate (she, her, hers) serves as pastor of Aurora Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Oregon. Amber grew up on a farm near Ritzville, Washington, as a part of the Mennonite Church USA. She earned her BA, Theology, from Whitworth University. After college, she served for five years as the Middle School Youth Director at a Sammamish Presbyterian Church near Seattle. She graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2017 with a Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Christian Education & Formation with an emphasis on Spiritual Formation & Mission.
In her spare time, you can find her attending The Moth for the great storytelling, and exploring the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest.
Image by: skeeze
Used with permission