Barak (but not Obama)

About 25 years ago, my job moved from Red Wing, MN, to Memphis, TN. I moved from a small factory office building to the massive corporate offices. I moved 800 miles from a private office to a world of cubicles. Privacy didn’t exist. Early in my cooperate cubicle experience, I sneezed and was greeted by a dozen or so “Bless Yous,” which caught me by surprise. Apparently part of the Memphis culture was to communicate a blessing on anyone and everyone that sneezed.

In the last post, we talked about the song The Blessing, based on the Priestly Blessing found in Numbers 6. I have always been intrigued by the word bless as it appears in scripture (~500 times), wondering what the word meant to the ancient readers and hearers. It is used in a number of different ways, which was always a bit confusing to me. God blesses us as we bless him (especially as seen in the Psalms). It always sounded to me like a mutual admiration society…

Suspecting the word means far more than mutual admiration, I started to look at occurrences of bless in scripture, particularly in the Old Testament. Some significant instances from the beginnings of Genesis:

  • God blessed Adam and Eve
  • God blessed the Sabbath
  • God blessed Noah after the flood in a similar fashion as he blessed Adam and Eve
  • Noah, in turn said, “Blessed be the Lord”
  • In the calling of Abram, God said he would bless Abram so he and his descendants would, in turn, be a blessing to others (a significant departure from God being the sole ‘blesser’)

This is interesting, but on the surface it still smacks of mutual admiration. So, being a dabbler in Hebrew, I decided to see what I could discover about this word bless. The basic Hebrew word for bless is barak. Barack is the word for ‘knee’ and implies kneeling. That makes some sense. One approaches royalty on bended knee out of reverence and respect. In Philippians 2, we read that “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” – bended knee. So we bless God with great reverence, literally and figuratively, on bended knee. A Psalmic example:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits… (Ps. 103)

So, blessing God makes sense but what of God blessing us? What immediately comes to my mind is Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet. In John 13 we read:

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist…and began to wash his disciples feet.”

This is a great visual. Jesus, knowing full well who he was as God incarnate, showed the full extent of his love and began to wash his disciples feet, presumably on his knees. Picture that for a bit. The God of the universe, the Lord of lords, the King of kings in human form on his knees, serving his creation!

What kind of God do we serve that serves us? What royalty, when approached by a subject on bended knee, would in turn kneel before that subject? And then wash their feet? I remember watching a movie in which a young king left his throne to comfort a young subject (female, of course). He was quickly reprimanded by the elders for his impropriety – it was a scandalous act! I suspect to Jesus’ disciples, his washing of their feet was scandalous. It certainly was to Peter who anxiously tried to refuse Jesus’ gesture.

This is something worthy of our pondering. What does it mean that the God of the universe would want to bless us so scandalously? Does it make you anxious or give you peace? As you ponder…

The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.

A Pandemic Hymn (or Anthem?)

As I grew up, I found many of the hymns we sang at the Methodist Church to be onerous, at least for a kid. It seemed like most of the classic hymns were comprised of 5-6 stanzas and we sang all of them (except if the preacher was long-winded, then we only sang the first and last verses of the closing hymn – “music” to a middle schooler’s ears).

Did you know that states have a “State Hymn?” Minnesota’s hymn is Hail! Minnesota. I remember the first time I heard the U of M Marching Band sing Hail! Minnesota a capella at their indoor concert in Northrup Auditorium some 50+ years ago. I got the chills. (They apparently continue the tradition – Listen here.)

The definition of a hymn: a religious song or poem of praise to God or a god; a formal song sung during Christian worship, typically by the whole congregation. Its origin? It comes from old English, via Latin from Greek humnos “ode or song in praise of a god or hero.” New Testament writers spoke of the use of hymns in corporate worship. Example: Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts, Colossians 3:16. (By the way, my appreciation for the classic Christian hymns has improved significantly since my middle school days!)

A synonym for hymn is anthem. An anthem, by definition, is a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body or cause (i.e., a choral composition based on a biblical passage, for singing by a choir in a church service). At the Methodist church, the choir sang an anthem each week, which I enjoyed much more than the hymns. Sometimes they gave me chills.

Early in March as COVID-19 was descending upon us, reshaping the world as we knew it, an anthem for the pandemic was birthed. It was written in late February as a collaborative effort by Cody Carnes and Kari Jobe (husband and wife) with Elevation Church’s worship team. They collectively sang and led the song at an Elevation Church worship service on March 1st. It was an instant hit and likely you’ve heard it – The Blessing. If you haven’t heard it, you must. If you have, I encourage you to listen again (as I am doing as I write this).

My first hearing of The Blessing wasn’t the Elevation Church debut. The first rendition I heard was a virtual YouTube video put together by Christians from 65+ United Kingdom Churches specifically as a blessing over the UK. It gave me the chills! I’m sure it gave me “the chills” because it was the first time I had heard the song. But, more importantly, it was an obvious labor of love to the nation. It seemed so selfless and genuine – something us Americans could maybe learn from the Brits!

Most importantly, The Blessing came directly from scripture (remembering that the definition of an anthem is a choral composition based on a scripture passage). That scripture passage? The well-known blessing we often hear at as a benediction to worship servicesfrom Numbers 6, known as the Priestly Blessing. The Lord told Moses, to tell Aaron and his sons (the priests), This is how you are to bless the Israelites:

The Lord bless you
    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
    and give you peace.

If you find yourself feeling a bit whelmed as we enter into month 7 of disruption, I would encourage you to ponder the significance of the words of this blessing. Listen to either of the renditions as you ponder these words that come directly from God. Hopefully it will give you peace. Or the chills. Or maybe both!