Saturday, May 7, 2016

Bless Your Heart

Psalm 67
Easter 6
May 8, 2016
William G. Carter

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us,          Selah
that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.              Selah
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.

As a life-long Yankee, I’ve been a little slow in learning the nuances of Southern speech. Over time, my world has expanded and I have made friendships below the Mason-Dixon line. But there are words that Southerners say.

Sit down in an Alabama diner, order coffee and eggs. The plate arrived with a scoop of white glop. What’s that? “Son, those are grits.” I didn’t order grits. “Son, you don’t order grits. They just come.” That’s what she said.

Or sitting in a seminar of Presbyterians in North Carolina. Our leader spoke of American history, the struggle for civil rights, the historical events that preceded it. He mentions the Civil War. And a man with a slow drawl says, “Are you referring to the recent unpleasantness?” That’s what he said.

But my favorite expression from the South made the title of the sermon: “bless your heart.” I always thought that was a compliment, but no, I was wrong. It sounds like a compliment, but it is usually the lead-in to a sarcastic condemnation. For example: “Bless his heart, he is dumb as a sack of rocks.” “Bless her heart, she has no fashion sense at all.” And if you add “cotton-picking” or “pea-picking” to the phrase, it becomes a double insult. As in, “Bless your cotton-picking heart, you really have no idea how this works, do you?”[1]

According to the Urban Dictionary, “This is a term used by the people of the southern United States to express to someone that they are an idiot without saying such harsh words.”

When Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina was bullied, then criticized by Donald Trump, she tweeted back, “Bless your heart.” Everybody in South Carolina knew what she meant.[2] The CNN commentator translated it for the rest of us. She “brushed him back with some sharp elbowed charm.”

The irony, of course, is that the phrase is not a blessing at all. It’s more like a curse. It’s a way of putting somebody in their place while appearing to be nice about it. But it raises the issue of how words can be used as weapons. The ancient sages saw this clearly. Proverbs 12:18 says, “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (NIV)

Words have great power. From the same tongue comes blessing and cursing. And in Carolina, the curse may be configured to sound like a blessing.

I think of the story told by Robert Fulghum in his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten:

In the Solomon Islands in the south Pacific some villagers practice a unique form of logging. If a tree is too large to be felled with an ax, the natives cut it down by yelling at it. (Can’t lay my hands on the article, but I swear I read it.) Woodsmen with special powers creep up on a tree just at dawn and suddenly scream at it at the top of their lungs. They continue this for thirty days. The tree dies and falls over. The theory is that the hollering kills the spirit of the tree. According to the villagers, it always works.

Ah, those poor nave innocents. Such quaintly charming habits of the jungle. Screaming at trees, indeed. How primitive. Too bad that don’t have the advantages of modern technology and the scientific mind.
Me? I yell at my wife. And yell at the telephone and the lawn mower. And yell at the TV and the newspaper and my children. I’ve been known to shake my fist and yell at the sky at times.

Man next door yells at his car a lot. And this summer I heard him yell at a stepladder for most of an afternoon. We modern, urban, educated folks yell at traffic and umpires and bills and banks and machines–especially machines. Machines and relatives get most of the yelling.

Don’t know what good it does. Machines and things just sit there. Even kicking doesn’t always help. As for people, well, the Solomon Islanders may have a point. Yelling at living things does tend to kill the spirit in them. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.[3]

Words, words, words . . . don’t call them “mere words.” When the God of scripture wants to do something, God speaks: “Let there be light!” “Let life proceed on the earth!” In Hebrew thinking, words are deeds. God creates a world by speaking. God redeems a world by letting the Word become human flesh. Not only that, you learn everything you need to know about someone’s character by listening to the words they speak.

That brings us to the Psalm we heard a few minutes ago. Tucked away in the middle of the Bible is the brief poem we have labeled Psalm 67. Psalm 67 makes no argument, urges no point of view. The text does not instruct a lesson or tell a story. It simply sings of the blessing of God, offers the blessing of God, and asks God to continue the blessing.

What is a “blessing”? We have our smaller answers. It’s something we mumble before a meal. Or a blessing is  the pre-approval we offer before some kid pops the question to one of our daughters. But biblically speaking, a blessing is so much more.

One scholar summarizes it this way:

Blessing is the daily providential power of God that supplies and sustains life. Life-force and spirit-force, it causes all creation to flourish.  Blessing is also the power of affirmation bestowed by one human being upon another, most powerfully by parent onto child, through the gift of delight and the gift of encouragement. Blessing bestows vitality, potency, creativity, health, well-being, peace.[4]

Our very lives come from the blessing of God. Every good and perfect gift comes from the generous heart of God. John Calvin spoke frequently of God as the “fountain of every blessing,” long before the phrase found itself in a favorite hymn. And it’s this perfect goodness that God speaks into the world that invites us to be good to one another. Here is how Calvin said it in one of his sermons:

Ought we not to have much more compassion for one another, because we find in ourselves that which we pardon in our neighbors? God can find no infirmity in Himself, and how then can He be moved to forgive us? Even because He is the fountain of goodness and mercy.[5]

All kindness begins in the kindness of God, who breathes grace into a world that does not deserve it but can’t live without it. So the Risen Christ returns to his people after crucifixion and blesses them with wounded hands, saying, “Peace be with you.” And as we heard from the last chapter of Revelation, the final words of the Bible are the final words on our lives: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” (Rev. 22:21).

So we pay attention to our words today, as an expression of the love that God continues to show the whole world. We practice kindness to our mothers today, not merely out of obligation, but because God has been generous in granting us life through the women who have borne us. It’s all a gift, often in spite of ourselves. And there is nothing like a kind word which creates good will lasting an eternity.

Yesterday we laid to rest Isabella Huey Boal Stewart. I called her Grandma Ebo. She went around the track 102 times, so we have a lot of stories and memories about her. Our family gathered to remember her and give thanks to God for the gift she has been.

One of my last conversations with Grandma Ebo is the one that I always remember, so I give to you. Time was getting short and we both knew it. In one courageous moment, she blurted out, “I will love you always.” She said it to me and she says it to you.

It’s not just the word “love” that I hold in my heart. It’s the word “always.” This precious woman who was old enough to seem everlasting is now eternal, not because of her own strength, but because of the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead. The blessing – the life-force – is God’s gift to the living, the very breath of life. The blessing is also God’s gift to the dead, who shall be raised by the grace of Christ. It is because God loves us always, and God calls us to be a blessing to one another.

So what will be the blessing that you offer those around you this day? How will your words become constructive deeds, showing that the same love shown by God is to be shared with all around us? Give it some thought, and turn it into gracious work. And as you reflect, let me share a blessing that I came across this week:

God, bless to me this day,
God, bless to me this night;
Bless, O bless, Thou God of grace,
Each day and hour of my life;
Bless, O bless, Thou God of grace,
Each day and hour of my life.
God, bless the pathway on which I go,
God, bless the earth that is beneath my sole;
Bless, O God, and give to me Thy love,
O God of gods, bless my rest and my repose;
Bless, O God, and give to me Thy love,
And bless, O God of gods, my repose.[6]

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[3] Robert Fulghum, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989) 96-97.
[4] H. Stephen Shoemaker, “Blessing,” in Handbook of Themes for Preaching, James W. Cox, editor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991) 36-37.
[5] John Calvin, Sermons on Ephesians (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974), 483-485.
[6] From the writings of Carmina Gadelica

No comments:

Post a Comment