Friday, December 07, 2012

Being a Blessing

I'm currently reading 'The Story we Find Ourselves in' by the somewhat controversial Brian McLaren. It's written in a style that the author calls 'creative non-fiction', but I prefer to think of it as 'intelligent fiction with a message.' I'm only a third of the way through, very much enjoying the dialogue between the Jamaican radical Christian known as Neo, the ex-charismatic agnostic Kelly, and the cheerful atheist Glenn. What all three have in common is that they have PhDs in sciences.

The style of dialogue in the book is discussion, questioning, and the gradual unfolding of the overall 'story' of Scripture, which is how Neo claims that it would originally have been understood by the story-telling Jewish culture in which it was written. It's all thought-provoking, and the fictional style makes it entirely possible to agree strongly with some points that are made, while being unsure about - or even disagreeing with - others.

Today I was struck powerfully by some comments about Genesis 12:2-3. God chose Abraham, who is in a sense the patriarch of all the three main monotheistic religions of today.  He chose him not because there was anything special about Abraham, and not for the sake of granting him 'eternal life' - something which would not really have been an issue in the culture of the day.  He chose Abraham 'to be a blessing'. In some translations it's even more direct - God tells Abraham that he must be a blessing. The command is not just to bless his own family, but so that 'all the families on earth' would be blessed.  Another word for 'families' is 'nations' - the two modern English words were covered by the same concept at the time.

Fast forward a few thousand years, and Jesus said something similar, when asked by his disciples what the greatest commandment was, in Matthew 22:34-40. Love God, and love our neighbours, Jesus said. Every other command, rule or requirement is subsidiary to those two principles. I wrote at length about what is meant by love in another post, but a further thought emerges: we are in a relationship with Jesus  primarily in order that we can show God's love to other people. Not his anger, or his judgement, but his love.

Something else Jesus said, in John 15:16-17 also makes a lot more sense in this context. Some Christians understand the words 'You did not choose me, but I chose you...' to imply that we have no choice in our salvation; that some people are 'chosen', and some are not. But that's not what Jesus says. The rest of that short passage tells his listeners - and by implication all his followers through the ages - why they were chosen: 'to bear fruit' and 'to love one another'.

God is our Creator. He made the world and the first people so that they could continue the creative pattern he programmed into them.  Apple trees bear apples, cats bear kittens, humans bear babies. And when we are chosen and thus given 'blessings' by God, we are to bless other people, introducing them to God's love, bringing them also into his kingdom.

What does 'blessing' mean? 

Blessing is rather an old-fashioned word, one which sounds vaguely to me like a benevolent old man laying his hand on his grandchildren's heads, as a gesture of good will and approval. It's also used as a Christian jargon word to mean gifts from God - maybe a cheque in the post, a promotion at work, an unexpected meeting with a friend. We might use it in more general terms too, to refer to good health, warm homes, happy families. Unfortunately, as with so much modern Christian jargon, the original meaning can get lost in our 21st century western context.

In Brian McLaren's book referred to above, there's some discussion about what 'being a blessing'  meant in the phrase given Abraham. Eventually the participants agree that it means 'to try to help, to bring resources, to encourage, to believe in, to support, to affirm, to have a high opinion of.' In summary, Neo suggests, it means 'to express love and support'. He points out that despite it being an age of kingdoms and battles, God does NOT tell Abraham to go out and conquer all the surrounding regions, nor does he tell him to force people to follow his commandments.

There was a comment after my post about love, mentioning a quotation attributed to Billy Graham: 'It's God's job to judge, the Holy Spirit's job to convict and our job to love'. I would suggest that God's 'job' primarily is to love too; it saddens me deeply when some people seem to see God as someone rubbing his hands, hoping to condemn sinners to eternal torment. However, the point of that quotation is that ONLY God is able to judge other people. So, it seems to me that our role is primarily to reflect his love outwardly, and 'bless' all those with whom we come into contact.

How we actually do that in practice will depend on our personalities, our circumstances and our abilities.

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