Into the fear, confusion, grief, heartache and uncertainty that the current pandemic is causing, has come The UK Blessing, the viral video where worship leaders sing a blessing over our disoriented nation.
“The Lord bless you, and keep you, make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord turn his face toward you, and give you peace”.
Yet what does it mean to pray a blessing on those who are trapped in a house with an abusive partner, on children who can’t play with their friends in school, on daughters who can’t hold the hand of their dying mother, on fathers and sons who face a painful death painfully alone, on ordinary workers who face the prospect of joblessness and the erosion of dignity that can bring, or on medics and nurses who care and serve and put themselves at danger day after day, dealing with hundreds of premature deaths, whilst storing up many lifetimes worth of grief in the space of a few weeks.
What does it mean to pray a blessing on them? Just that this would all go away? Is "be blessed" our equivalent of “thoughts and prayers”? Or is it something far deeper?
And how much sense does an ancient prayer, written thousands of years ago for a ‘special nation’ headed towards a land of milk and honey make for us in 2020. Should we even be singing it?
As someone who is part of, and loves, the contemporary worship movement, I know that grabbing hold of Old Testament texts and turning them into songs is one our favourite pastimes. This can produce real fruit. I think it was Baxter Krugar who said that one good song could cover up a thousand bad sermons. Yet the reverse can also be true – bad theology learned from a few poorly written songs can take a lifetime of faithful learning to unpick.
It is the job of a song to be both memorable and emotional, and when it is, it is powerful. Yet the power of a song can easily masquerade as truth (“it is powerful so it must be true”). So as worship songsters, if we are to do our job properly, we need not only to love the power of a song, but also love the truth in a song. This means understanding texts in their own time, the way their intended audience would have understood them, as well as understanding in what ways, if any, they make sense for us to sing today. It is good to sing scripture, but not all scripture is meant to be sung.
In Numbers 6, this Aaronic blessing is prayed over the nation of Israel as they prepare for life representing Yahweh to the world. Israelites were exclusively chosen by God to fulfill their priestly-nation role, centred on a single God-dwelling-cosmic-life-centre (building) in a single city (Jerusalem) in a single geographical location (Israel). Yet as this God-story arcs into the New Testament, it finds fulfillment, through Jesus, not in a exclusive super-nation, but in the form of an inclusive worldwide kingdom made up of multiple interconnected God-dwelling-cosmic-life-centers (human beings) from all nations and tribes and tongues. And so, in the same way this text was a blessing for Ancient Israel in Numbers 6, so it is a blessing for the Church and the world in 2020.
The Lord bless you…
Our current modern-day plague is of ancient-biblical proportions, yet it doesn’t seem that Christians are any less likely to be struck down by it than people of other faiths or no faith. This challenges the way the Church has tended to think about blessing in terms of prosperity, power, and healing.
Presenting these things as the true measures of God’s favour has always been a problem for me, particularly when we wrap them all up in this very Christian-ese word ‘blessing’: we are "blessed" to have a nice house, have our back healed, live in free country, preach on the biggest stages; but not "blessed" when navigating the trauma of abuse, living an unspectacular day-to-day life on a small wage, fearing persecution, or coping with mental illness that saps all our energy and enthusiasm for life.
Biblically, blessing's primary concerns are chosen-ness, belonging, being caught up in God’s story, knowing the fullness of God-in-us-and-God-with-us. These ideas also help us read the Beatitudes properly. If we think blessing is about financial prosperity, physical healing or achieving notoriety Matthew 5:1-12 will perplex us. Yet if we see blessing as being caught up in God’s story, knowing the God-in-us-and-God-with-us then they make perfect sense.
Why are the meek blessed? Because they are chosen, they belong, they are caught up in God’s story. God-is-in-them-and-God-is-with-them. So to pray a blessing over people is to join in and make known the song that heaven is already singing over all human beings: that they may see and know their chosen-ness, their belonging, the part they have in God’s story, knowing the God-in-them-and-God-with-them. As Dallas Willard said, a blessing is "the projection of good into the life of another."
So maybe when we next stand on our doorsteps and clap our health-workers, we should not just consider it a quick thank you, but a way of joining in with the applause of heaven, projecting goodness into every nurse, doctor and medic that is dealing with the crisis. We love talking about the manifestation of God’s presence in terms of signs and wonders: well maybe we would also do well to recognise how God’s presence is being manifest through healthcare workers globally right now, regardless of whether they would name it as such.
The climax of 'The Blessing' song: "And a thousand generations…your family and your children, and their children, and their children" is not in the original Aaronic blessing, yet I like the way it brings in other Bible-like language in a way that will resonate with the people of our world at the moment. The disruption being felt is often first and foremost in our own tribe – our family and friends. We are blessed to be a blessing, just like Israel were thousands of years ago when this prayer was first prayed over a nation.
We are not just praying for a momentary blessing that deals with the current discord, but a blessing that will multiply thousands of times across families and generation and nations forever, and ever, and ever, and ever. Amen. A lasting shalom peace in our nation, a sustained new sense of chosen-ness, belonging, inclusion in God's story, of the God-in-us-and God-with-us.
Neil Bennetts is an author, theologian, worship leader and songwriter, and is currently the CEO of The Worship Foundation, a charity that works with churches and organisations in the education, coaching and training of worship leaders, worship pastors and their teams.
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