In the classic holiday movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” Clark Griswold labors long and hard in the cold Chicago night, trying to string 250 strands of lights on his house. He endures defective bulbs, a fall from the roof and taunting neighbors. Finally, when the 250,000 bulbs illumine the entire metroplex, Clark is justifiably proud. Most of his family stands shivering in the yard, offering words of praise and congratulations. But his father-in-law, ever the critic, mumbles, “The little lights aren’t twinkling, Clark.”
We all have that person in our lives, the one we can never please or do enough for, the one who always finds fault and invariably withholds a word of blessing. But before we judge others, we must acknowledge the nasty sludge gurgling up out of our own dark souls – complaint, criticism, gossip and hateful, hasty judgmentalism.
Perhaps Advent is a great time to notice how much of the Good News of Jesus Christ is couched in words of blessing. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, a promise that the great patriarch would receive a blessing and be a blessing (Gen. 12:2-3). When Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was finally able to speak after a God-imposed period of silence, the first words out of his mouth were words of blessing (Luke 1:68). A few months later, the aged prophet Simeon took baby Jesus in his arms and blessed Mary, Joseph and the infant (Luke 2:34).
We have forgotten (or never knew) three things: (1) We all desperately hunger for a blessing. (2) We all possess untapped power to bless others. (3) Most of us underestimate our own capacity to grow, to become people who bless others instead of people who curse them.
Brain research reveals that negative messages resonate with us because we are genetically predisposed toward them. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains are hardwired to be scanners, to sniff out the doubtful, the dangerous or the deadly. Research also reports, however, that our brains can be rewired to see the positive, to speak and act our way into habits of blessing. (See, for example, the work of Phyllis Watts on The Science of Countering Anti-Muslim Sentiment.)
“Advent is a great time to notice how much of the Good News of Jesus Christ is couched in words of blessing.”
A year ago I preached a sermon on the daily choice of gratitude. Though I had long forgotten the sermon, a woman in my congregation had not. For an entire year, she has practiced daily gratitude, writing notes of appreciation and finding various ways to bless others. She recently reported to me that she now sees her own life more positively. In other words, the “blesser” was blessed.
In many churches the benediction may be the most underrated and underused element of the worship service. Sadly, many pastors use this concluding prayer as a place to dump neglected announcements: “Dear God, bless the offering for hurricane relief which we are receiving at the doors as people leave this morning,” or “Lord, bless the meal we will share downstairs in a few minutes, with the line forming at the south end of the fellowship hall.” Some pastors use the benediction to recap the sermon, in case anyone was sleeping: “Dear Heavenly Father, dismiss us with the assurance that Jesus purifies, protects, provides and perfects.”
Many years ago I began paying attention to the last words heard by my congregation before they departed the worship space. No matter how great or poor the music or whether the sermon struck fire, a carefully prepared benediction can find its way into people’s ears and hearts and become God’s good word (bene=good and diction=word).
All week long the people in our churches are brutalized by words which attack them, devalue them and challenge their core worth. The 15-year-old, told her body shape is not acceptable; the middle-aged man, informed that his skill set no longer meets the company’s needs; the memory care patient, ignored, alone and invisible – these souls are crying out for the healing balm of a blessing.
Words matter. Words can cut or heal (James 3:10). No matter what else went right or wrong in a worship service, I want the last thing my people hear to be good news: “God loves you. You are so special to God and us. You matter and possess infinite worth.”
No wonder Charles Dickens, in his immortal story, A Christmas Carol, allows Tiny Tim to have the final word. It’s a word we all need and a word which costs us nothing to share. “God bless us, every one!”
Related Advent commentary:
David Jordan | This Advent let’s reclaim the power of prophecy
Molly Marshall | The dim hope of Advent