But on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, so that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Peter 3.9)
To modern, American ears the demand made by Peter’s epistle to bless others in the face of cruelty and mistreatment can do little more than evoke a yawn. The concept of blessing as we experience it in our culture is anemic.
It roles off our tongues when someone sneezes, invoking the ancient superstition that considered a word of blessing divine protection against disease. No longer aware of either its Roman or medieval origins, it is a perfunctory response with little or no meaning. We are aware of its use at the end of religious services but scarcely aware of its theological significance in any specific way.
One of the most common uses of the word in our culture is the use of the word blessing to describe the prayers that we say prior to a meal: One mother invited some people to dinner and at the table, turned to her six year old daughter and said, “Would you like to say the blessing?” “I wouldn’t know what to say,” she replied. “Just say what you hear Mommy say,” the mother replied. Her daughter bowed her head and said, “Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?”
Against that backdrop, there is little wonder that Peter’s demand seems, at best, a quaint piece of advice and, at worst, a bit of pious nonsense. But the apparent problem has less to do with the nature of the advice itself than it does with our understanding of the word blessing.
In the ancient world, a blessing was a “performative utterance,” a word spoken with the conscious intention of “bringing about good for someone.” As such it belonged to a world in which the words spoken were spoken with economy and with a sense of their significance. And because the role of religious leaders was to align and attune the earthly order with the heavenly order when words of this kind were spoken, they possessed a reality that was somehow registered on a heavenly plane and could not be reversed. By definition, the spoken word attached considerable value to the one being blessed. Blessings were not given indiscriminately and although the practice of blessing only an eldest son is foreign to our own culture, nonetheless it is clear that the choice of particular people on particular occasions conferred a sense of value that was deeply felt.
In addition, more often than not, blessings pictured a special future for the recipient and included—or implied—an active willingness to fulfill the blessing on the part of one giving it. And the intention was, more often than not, underlined by a sign or touch that reinforced the importance of the moment.
Blessings were also given at some of the most critical transitions in the life of families and the community of faith. They marked the movement from one generation to another, lending intentionality to the transfer of responsibilities from parent to child, or from mentor to mentee. Kings, prophets, priests and elders gave blessings as a function of their office; and the association of the act with their role underlined the gravity of the act itself.
In fact, to bless someone was considered an extension of the role played by God in nurturing creation. By proxy, the community extended the gracious and nurturing activity of God by blessing others at critical junctures in the life of the community: “at times of universal significance”; “at times of individual or family crisis”; “at times of community or national decision”; and “at times of worship.”
For that reason, in both ancient Israel and the early church, blessings inevitably pictured the gracious activity of God on behalf of the one blessed. And God was the ultimate guarantor of the future implied in the blessing. As such, an act of this kind went well beyond notions of individual good will and they were hardly of a casual nature.
Seen in this sense, Peter’s demand to bless others resonated with a very different set of associations. It is hardly the limp-wristed word of good intentions that we might assume it represents. It calls us to do something that is infinitely more demanding. We are called upon to imagine a gracious future for those around us and, by blessing them in this sense, extend the nurturing activity of God.
Some scholars understand these verses to refer specifically to family life, others to the life of the larger Christian community. What is beyond debate is that there is wisdom here that applies to both. But given the occasion, it makes sense to think about the kind of behavior described in the passage as it applies to parents and children. If I focus a bit on mothers, the reason will be obvious, but let me stress in passing, that the same role belongs to fathers and it may well be extended beyond those roles to others around us.
Almost two decades ago, Tufts University educator David Elkind wrote a book entitled The Hurried Child, Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon. Prompted to write the book by a journalist who asked him about “spoiled children,” Elkind realized that the label the reporter used did not describe the children he was meeting. Far from spoiled, the children Elkind encountered in his research were burdened with the unsifted demands of the adult world.
“Dressed in miniature adult costumes,” exposed to “gratuitous violence and sex,” and confronted with a cocktail of the pressures to succeed and ever more chaotic, unstable home lives, Elkind was seeing an ever greater number of children who required clinical attention. Even in 1981, when the book was published, he chronicled the lives of children who, were urged to grow up, only to find in early adolescence that neither they, nor the world were ready for them to function as adults.
In the wake of shootings at Columbine High School and other schools across the country, we have forgotten the incidents that took place almost twenty years ago: The nine year old who stood on tiptoe and took $118 at gunpoint, becoming the youngest felon sought by the FBI; the ten year old apprehended for the nineteenth time for snatching a wallet from a woman’s purse; a fifteen year old sought as one of four suspects in the murder of a policeman; and the thirteen year old charged with killing two elderly women in attempted purse snatchings.
The problems we face today have long, complex roots and the last thing that I want to do this morning is to generalize about the nature of the causes. The individual stories clearly represent the results of a complex web of factors, that sociologists describe as over-determined. And in the weeks since the shootings in Colorado, one of the more disconcerting features of the public dialogue has been the easy generalizations that I have heard used to explain what happened.
Speaking both as a Christian and as a parent, what is clear to me is that—whatever the condition of our society might be, whatever kind of social progress we may make—the day we were blessed with a child, we were called upon to be a blessing. To think about “blessing” a child is an altogether different enterprise than “raising” one. If you “raise” a child, certainly good parents will include nurture in the task.
But to bless a child places an emphasis on nurture that the concept of raising a child does not completely capture. Preparation for life in the adult world is easily reducible to a series of tasks and competencies. But to bless a child is to think more wholistically about their spiritual and emotional development. Their activities become keys, not only to certain kinds of competency, but to ways of being. And they serve as a window to their own developing sense of who and whose they are.
Surrender that responsibility, and they will envision the future shaped by the random influences of our society. Some of those influences will ennoble them and deepen them. Others are just as likely to brutalize their worldview and reduce their understanding of life to a cycle of acquisition.
This is not to suggest that you can insure that your children will live into a vision of themselves as someone for whom God has reserved a special future. Try as you may, when they become adults, our children may embrace the blessing God has given them, or they may run from it. But the weight of our responsibility as parents is not diminished by the choices our children may eventually make as adults. Ultimately, as much as I care about what we do to diminish the violence in our society, I am unwilling to surrender my responsibility for blessing my child to anyone else.
There are many models for shouldering that responsibility. Some parents rely on a “table of accountability.” Insuring that they and their children eat their evening meal together as often as possible. I have heard adults reflect on how important that experience was in affirming that they are loved and in reminding them of the larger work of God in their lives (and yet estimates suggest that no more than 20 percent of our families do it).
Others accomplish a portion of that task by asking questions—and by listening. Without being inquisitorial, they exercise their responsibility to learn about the emerging shape of their children’s lives and attempt to provide guidance that will nurture still more growth.
And almost all of the parents I know who are successful in nurturing their children assume the less pleasant tasks that are, nonetheless, part and parcel of the effort. Unwilling to abdicate their responsibility, they gently, but firmly provide the direction their children need, even if they do not always welcome it.
Recently two dear friends lost their mother to a protracted battle with a rare liver disorder. Summoning an extraordinary amount of resolve, the two children—brother and sister—decided to give a eulogy at her funeral. Although I am reasonably sure that their mother would not have used the word blessing to describe their relationship, all the elements were there: The tireless efforts to remind them of their value; the careful nurture of their future with questions, words of advice and encouragement; a gentle touch that reminded them of parental care.
Reflecting on their final days together, her daughter said, “Fortunately, Mama and I left nothing unsaid. She knows how much I respect her. She knows I love her with all my heart. We were best friends. She was a gift from God.”
I cannot think of a single epitaph that could claim more, nor mean more. Nor can I think of words that more clearly echo the logic of Peter’s invitation: “Bless, for to this you have been called, so that you may obtain a blessing.”