Missing the Blessing

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“Jesus leads the way to a new vocation. Instead of the frantic pressure to defend the identity of people, land, and the temple, Jesus followers are, to the renewal of hearts and lives, to recover the initial vision of being a royal priesthood for the whole world, which is the Messiah’s inheritance and now will become theirs as well.”       NT Wright

That initial vision is what we’ve been talking about so far–from creation up until now. The “new vocation” is really an old vocation, as old as the garden of Eden. It really comes down to one word, that vocation. God called it going out and working the earth, creating community and beauty throughout the new world.

But basically, it’s one word. BLESS.

And I do not mean that the way a good Southern woman means it

Make me a BLESSING

 

The vision comes in the beginning, and it comes again clearer in God’s plan to create a people of his own when he speaks to Abraham. Because, by this time, humans needed it clearer. They had already lost touch with what God said in the garden and required a little Creation 101. So God speaks clearly:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”

Genesis 12.1-3 

Abraham’s call—his work and meaningful purpose in life (remember that fundamental blessing of Genesis 1?) is to bless the nations.

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Photo by Andrew Stutesman on Unsplash

The Nations Are Right Here, Abram

Yet when given the chance, he fails. repeatedly, before he succeeds. Nowhere more clearly than in the story of Hagar, one of my favorites. Hagar is a slave, a foreigner, and a woman. Talk about a triple whammy. She “belongs” to Abraham, more specifically to his wife. In some transaction, they took her with them when they left Egypt. Given those circumstances, he has a perfect opportunity to bless her—and thus fulfill his call.

Spoiler: He doesn’t.

Spoilers

Instead, when his wife Sarah says, “Hey, here’s my slave Hagar. Sleep with her so I can have a child through her,” he does.

I think we can assume consent was not part of the deal.

Hagar had no agency. No ability to choose. The power differential was completely on his side, and it was his call to choose blessing or harm. Abraham chose harm.

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Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Later, when Sarah again complains, this time that a pregnant Hagar is triumphing over her mistress, Abraham again has the choice to bless or to harm. He could choose to protect this woman and her son, to treat them as family, to apologize, to tell his wife that her jealousy has reached unhealthy epic proportions and she needs counseling, stat.

Spoiler: He doesn’t.

He allows her, the mother of his son, to be treated so terribly that she runs into the desert, preferring its certain death to her current situation.

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God’s Magic Is the Best

And that is when the magic happens. God’s magic, that is.

‘The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur. The angel said to her, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where have you come from, and where are you going?” (No, this is not the appropriate time to break into “Cotton Eyed Joe!)

“I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,” she replied. . . .

Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.” She also said, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” So that well was named Beer-lahai-roi (which means “well of the Living One who sees me”). (Genesis16)

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Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

God meets Hagar on the road. He sees her. She sees him. She, the foreign slave who one would suppose doesn’t even know Abraham’s God, is so overwhelmed by this that she worships and calls God by a new name. El roi. The God who sees.

Hagar—the foreign female slave—is the first person in Scripture to give God a name. Sit with that for a while.

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The God Who Sees

And what a name. She recognizes God as personal, invested, caring and compassionate toward her. Not simply in general but toward her, personally. She never expected that. She comprehends what it means. She does the only reasonable thing—bows in worship, speaks the truth, and allows that personal love toward her to strengthen her as she returns to whatever will come.

In the desert, Hagar is blessed beyond belief by feeling and knowing herself seen.

But notice who does the blessing and who does not.

God comes to her and blesses her.

Abraham, the one whose job it is to bless, does not.

As a result, he also doesn’t take part in God’s great action toward Hagar here in her desert struggle. Abraham never experiences this great blessing that God gives to his slave.

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Fear is counterproductive to blessing others.

Abraham has been so busy being afraid. He fears his wife and his neighbors. He fears rocking the boat of his marriage so much that he allows his own in utero son to be sent out to die. He is so afraid of disturbing the peace that he loses his peace.

Hagar finds it.

The one he refused to bless finds his blessing.

Isn’t God funny?

It makes me wonder about myself.

Wonderings

It makes me wonder about myself.

How often do I fail to bless others, and that backfires on me?

How many times is the person I failed to bless still seen by God, but I miss the whole thing?

Why would I ever risk missing such a great wonder of God?

It makes me wonder about our society.

It makes me wonder if God will bless those we refuse to bless, as a nation. If the foreigner, the abused women, the enslaved or encaged around us will see God while we stare uneasily at our clumsily manufactured peace and wonder why he seems distant.

It makes me wonder if we as a society are missing the very great blessing we could receive if we chose to fulfill our job to bless the nations. It makes me wonder if being great really means that greatness should give out the most blessings the most freely.

Hagar would say so. She knows what it is to be seen.

The Freedom of Blessing

While we wallow in fear, fear of the other, fear of the unknown, and now fear of everything (we truly all finally have pantophobia, Charlie Brown!), I wonder if it’s a mud pit of our own creation.

I wonder if we could be free of it if we chose the simple act of blessing.

As we allow this season of remembering sacrifice to envelop us, be flooded with the meaning of the body and the blood. See it before you, and remember.

  • Remember the slavery—Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the unquenchable image of God. Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the new and abundant life his death purchased. Hagar’s. Yours. Your neighbor’s. The foreigner’s. Everyone’s.

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It makes me wonder if God will bless those we refuse to bless, as a nation. If the foreigner, the abused women, the enslaved or encaged around us will see God while we stare uneasily at our clumsily manufactured peace and wonder why he seems distant.

It makes me wonder if we as a society are missing the very great blessing we could receive if we chose to fulfill our job to bless the nations. It makes me wonder if being great really means being the one to bless the most.

Hagar would say so. She knows what it is to be seen.

The Freedom of Blessing

While we wallow in fear, fear of the other, fear of the unknown, and now fear of everything (we truly all finally have pantophobia, Charlie Brown!), I wonder if it’s a mud pit of our own creation.

I wonder if we could be free of it if we chose the simple act of blessing.

As we allow this season of remembering sacrifice to envelop us, be flooded with the meaning of the body and the blood. See it before you, and remember.

  • Remember the slavery—Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the unquenchable image of God. Hagar’s. Yours.
  • Remember the new and abundant life his death purchased. Hagar’s. Yours. Your neighbor’s. The foreigner’s. Everyone’s.

“The Good News of the kingdom of God directly counters the Empire mentality by saying two important truths: 1. Every human has intrinsic value imprinted by God; 2. There is enough. The Eucharist shows us there is overflow at the banqueting table while simultaneously reminding us that the intrinsic value of human beings is worth dying for.”– Gena Thomas

Bless. Receive the blessing. And do not allow fear to rob you of it.

Redeeming Our Work

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Swinging open the kitchen door, I almost swung back out again. A skillet flew past my nose, and an answering saucepan flew a few feet farther in, lower and slower. The older brother had worse aim.

The two sons of the resort owner were fighting in the kitchen. Again. My first thought was to turn around; my second was that I had to get through this to pick up my order and get it out to the table warm. I ducked and ran. I was small and fast, and I needed the tip.

Though the volatile kitchen at the resort scared me, it was better than the summer I spent working at Long John Silver. Tips were good, when the diners were sober. At least there were no fryer burns involved.

Working my way thorough high school and then college meant restaurant work every summer—the only option in our small blue collar town.

I hated restaurant work.

Why don’t we like our jobs?

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Photo by Bethany Legg on Unsplash

Less than fifty percent of Americans like their job. In our continuing discussion about the Garden, the Fall, and other words important enough to merit capitalization for theological purposes, work matters from the very beginning. Like relationships, it inherits one of the greatest consequences of sin. The two things we most often find our identity in—family and career—are dealt the greatest post-Eden blows. Funny that, huh?

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.

It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3)

Humans not only don’t like their work, they appear to be destined to that dislike. Most of us are far removed from a life of sweating and digging for our food, but the reality remains—if you want to eat, you need to work. And work, according to over fifty percent of us, is disappointing.

Why?

Work sometimes merits this dislike

There are, to be sure, rotten aspects of he current state of work in America. Young people, even with college educations, often cannot find jobs that offer them longevity, health care, or a fit with their actual area of study. The gig economy hits them the hardest, and not surprisingly, they more often consider their jobs to be bad ones than older workers do.

Racial and gender bias cause minority and female populations to be more dissatisfied as well, given that they do the same work for less pay and are hired less often based on their skin color or gender.

Dead end jobs haunt us more than they used to when people could expect to climb the corporate ladder and move steadily upward.

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Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

More people want and expect their work to mean something, not just put in time. That’s not a bad thing for a Kingdom-minded person to want and expect.

These are valid reasons to hate a job. I will not discount them with condescending statements like, “When I was your age,” “Just pay your dues,” or “Be happy you’ve got a job.”

We all long for our work to mean something, and there’s a reason for that.

Work as blessing

The first work was part of the first blessing, just as family and community were.

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Genesis1.28-31)

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Work for the first humans meant joy. God created the Garden as a temple of sorts, sacred space where we could live with him and do what fulfilled our purpose. Work served as an extension of our being, a way of living in God’s likeness. Take this land. Reign over it as I would. Tame the animals. Spread this good garden over the earth. Be as I would be in this place, and it will give you meaning.

Ruining that first relationship ruined our work, too. It’s been a battle since to find that meaning again.

Work redeemed

Yet if Christ came, as mentioned last week, to renew all things, work, the first thing humans were set to do, must be among those things. Renewal and restoration of our work life must also be part of the promise. But how?

I think it goes back to looking at that original and doing some detective work. What about it can we take away to find the blessing in our work?

The original blessing of work

First, God meant work to be a a partnership. Adam and Eve both received the commission to reign. They both heard the word to create a people who would work together to form the garden in the world.

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Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Yet so much of our work today is done in solitude, or at least in self-imposed loneliness. We’re stuck in our cubicles, not considering that work could be more of a blessing if it was more of a community. But those boogeymen we talked about last week—fear and shame and pride and power—stick their noses up in the workplace as well.

  • We’re afraid to cooperate with others because they might steal our promotion.
  • We’re worried our ideas might get shot down and we’ll be ashamed, so we don’t offer them.
  • We’re intent on consolidating our own power and position and leverage so much that we miss the opportunities to listen and learn from others.
  • We’re fearful that there won’t be enough room at the table for us, too, if others succeed, and that scarcity mindset sends us into a spiral of self-fulfilling insecurity.

Second, work was done in the garden for the fellowship with God. That we could relate to God while we’re working seems foreign to most of our thoughts. Even more foreign, maybe, is the idea of bussing the table, typing the memo, or changing the diaper for His glory.

We’ve divorced God’s original intent and linked work to success, money, power, dreams—with the result that our identity is linked to our success and happiness and not our relationship with God.

Third, God intended work to spread blessing in the beginning. Does our work do that? How could we make it so?

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Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Now what?

Some of our jobs truly do stink. I can’t deny that. Yet in the middle of them, it seems we could still look at these three parts of the original plan and find a way to redeem them. Even as we plan and hope and pray for better.

  • If the work seems meaningless, maybe the purpose is to bless rather than be blessed.
  • If the work is boring, maybe the plan is to ask God into it, practicing his presence, as Brother Lawrence would say.
  • If the work feels lonely, maybe God meant for us to focus on supporting others’ work, refusing to believe the lie of scarcity, partnering with others outside of our tiny workspace.

It’s like evil to aim at the things most dear to our hearts and minds—family and work. It’s like Jesus to take them back for us and give us back the garden offer.

He can make work very good again.

The Wonder of Creating

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Photo by Sabine Ojeil on Unsplash

On a side street in Seattle, one of those streets filled with artsy shops and lined with glass sculptures that look like Willy Wonka has been there, in other words, a street made just for me, we watched artisans create miracles out of blobs of molten amber glass.

The Fascination of Creation

They shoved the golden blobs into the furnace on the end of poles, waited for just the right temperature, and pulled them out. Quickly, before the glass could cool, they pulled and trimmed and twisted it, until we could see four legs and a neck begin to form. A long nose appeared out of nowhere, then a mane and a tail, flowing wildly in the imagined wind. Finally, we saw the horse the artist intended from the beginning, though all we could see at first was a lump of glass.

Sometimes they broke a leg pulling it too far, or the mane didn’t flow the way they wanted it to, or it wouldn’t balance on those magnificent back two legs, pawing into the air. They would thrust it back into the flame, beginning again, intent on making that horse exactly as they had planned it.

We were fascinated. 

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Photo by eddie howell on Unsplash

Creation is fascinating. Creation out of nothing is miraculous. Creation with an intentional plan is . . . it’s an act of God.

At church, we’ve started working all the way through the Bible. The Creation story is familiar to us. Like Goodnight Moon, we could recite it with little effort. If not word for word, we know the idea, and we imagine there is little more to glean from it than what we know—God created everything. The Garden of Eden was awesome. The end.

There is so much more.

Look at some of the first few words.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1.3)

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Photo by Dmitry Bayer on Unsplash

“God said.” We never see God forming anything until humans. Always, God simply speaks, and whatever he wants to happen does.

I wish I had that power over, say, making dinner.

God’s word is enough to accomplish his intentions. This was true at creation. It was true when Jesus spoke to the Roman centurion about healing his servant. It’s equally true now. Nothing stands in the way of a God intent in creating blessing and beauty.

“The Spirit of God was moving over the waters.”

God moved. You know when you hear the words God’s Spirit moved, something is going to happen. This, too, is true today; it’s not a nice little fact of creation alone. When God moves, something is going to happen. Something big.

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Photo by Anastasia Taioglou on Unsplash

“In the beginning.” 

These first three words of Scripture, according to Old Testament expert John Walton, have a rich meaning we don’t get from knowing the meaning of those three words individually. It’s a phrase used to talk about plays and orchestras and the reign of kings. It’s a prelude—the time leading up to the big deal that’s coming.

In this case, it leads to the reign of kings indeed—the kings God is planning to create as the crown to his work. All of creation leads up to this—it’s the soliloquy before the play starts, the overture before the curtain opens, the bridesmaids walking down the aisle before the music swells and the bride steps out.

Why Order?

We see God creating morning and evening, concepts of time he doesn’t require in eternity. He fashions sun and moon, the ebb and flow of tides, the barriers between sky and sea and land. He forms flowers and trees and hyenas and platypuses and walking sticks—all, it says, reproducing “according to its own kind.”

What does all this mean? It means God knows how to craft a blown glass horse. He doesn’t need time in his eternity—but we do. He doesn’t need wheat that reliably reproduces wheat, not marigolds,  and cows that systematically reproduce cows, not jackals. But we do. It doesn’t matter to him if the ocean overtakes the land, but it matters to us.

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Photo by Vadim L on Unsplash

God, like the craftspersons in Seattle, knew exactly what he wanted the end to look like, and he would not settle for less. He may have begun with a blob, but he always had in his mind what that blob would become.

What blows my mind is that what was in his mind was to create a universe perfectly suited to us. We were the finale he had in mind. We were the denouement of the play. We were the kings meant to begin our reign.

He was pulling and twisting and turning a chaotic, empty universe into a masterpiece—with giving it to us in mind.

The intentionality of the creation astounds me. The beneficiaries of it outright slay me. Yes, we could get proud at the notion that the creation is for us—and we could abuse it and use it selfishly and carelessly. We could think we must be something else if God put in so much effort to bless us.

Or we could fall on our faces in wonder and humble awe that he would do such a thing for beings who would never deserve that gift.

God still creates order out of the chaos of our universe. God still speaks; God still moves; and God still fashions order in our lives, if we choose it. Often, like Adam and Eve, we opt to be our own god, but this leads to a chaotic, formless existence, as it did before God gave us order.

Rich Mullins had a song called With the Wonder, and I wish I could quote it all for you here, but copyright. (Which I deeply respect, given I live off it.) He sings about a God who filled with world with sights and sounds and concludes—“you filled this world with wonders, and I’m filled with the wonder your world.”

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Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

I’m filled with it, too. I’m filled with the wonder that its intentionality, its craftsmanship, came out from a master craftsman because he wanted to gift us with Swiss railroad-like precision, where every created thing has its purpose and plan. That we threw a spike in that perfect cog of order doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate it and work with him to re-create it.

Read Genesis 1 today. Marvel in its craft. Stand, or kneel, in awe of its intentionality. Then thank God for his wonder-filled gift.

Amen.