Blessing and Struggle
1 May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us,
2 that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.
6 The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
7 May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
This time of year my heart and prayers are with teachers, and of course this year that is true more than ever. My own teaching career was what I would describe as “brief and disastrous.” I’ve talked a bit about it before but for those who may not know, following college graduation I joined Teach for America, which is a program that places recent graduates in struggling schools across the US.
Now that my own children have been in elementary school a few years with incredibly talented teachers I have confirmation that my own attempt at teaching first grade truly was a disaster. I’m in no way exaggerating when I tell you that I had no control over the class, was coming up with lesson plans without any resources, and pretty much cried every single day before, after, and sometimes during the school day.
But I remember this little voice that kept piping up in the midst of this chaos.
And I’m not talking about the still, small, voice of the Lord.
I’m talking about a boy I’ll call Joshua in this story.
Joshua was in my class and from day one struck me as being quite possibly a 75 year old man trapped in a 6 year old body. He always wore a serious expression under his glasses. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back almost as if he were impersonating someone else. And that little voice, often out of no where without any reason would regularly turn to me and say:
“Miss Wolf, I do love the Lord.”
“Miss Wolf, I am blessed.”
To which, I would reply - “Me too, Joshua. Me too.”
The reality of both of our situations was that there was a lot of struggle. He and I each lived in very different circumstances and faced very different challenges. And, at the same time, as Joshua often reminded me- one thing we shared was that we both knew we were blessed and we loved the Lord. Our blessedness and our struggle were both realities of our lives - equally true. Equally important.
The gift we find in the book of Psalms is that within it, the 150 different hymns, prayers and poems hold together this same reality of human experience. The breadth and depth that we find in this book reaches into the deepness of despair, the sharp pain of grief, raging anger, AND overwhelming joy, shouts of praise and pretty much everything in-between.
If you’re upset - turn to Psalms.
If you’re grateful - turn to Psalms.
If you’re scared - Psalms.
If you’re glad - Psalms.
Turn to this book and I guarantee you will find the words and witness of someone who has walked that road before you and somehow just knowing that - that we are not alone in our emotional experiences of faith, good or bad, is like having the Holy Spirit take our hand to remind us we are not alone.
Like having a small child come beside us on a bad day and quietly say, “I am blessed.”
Our Psalm for today - Psalm 67 - finds the community of faith in a moment of gratitude. It’s likely that these words were used to celebrate a fresh harvest, the abundance of the earth, assurance that because God had provided them with food, their families would survive another season.
But in this moment one of the reasons they feel such a deep sense of thanksgiving is because as a community of faith they have told and retold the stories of times when the harvest did not come to be. Years of drought. Years of famine. The generations that wandered in the desert wilderness not knowing where their next meal would come from. The reason this community knows how good they have it is because they have also experienced fear and pain and struggle. All it takes is the flip of a few pages, forward or back, in the book of Psalms to recall what it was like in the days when food was scarce and the people feared God was not with them.
So on this day they gather - all the generations together and they recall the blessing that their ancestor Aaron was told to pray over the Israelites as they sought a life of abundance the promised land. Back in Numbers 6:
“The Lord said to Moses, 23 “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: 24 “The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’
So now they gather as the community of faith, all the generations - young and old, those who have lived through seasons of want and seasons of plenty. Those who toiled in the fields grab the hands of young children and steady the steps of their elders as they join together to repeat the blessing and praise the source of these gifts, the God of Israel.
For the church of Jesus Christ today, I believe the last five months have felt a lot like the canon of the Psalms. Struggle and blessing, held in tension together.
We are living in a pandemic of disease that has brought physical, emotional, and economic suffering to God’s people.
And at the same time has led many of us to take stock of our lives and cling to that which we love and value most.
We are living in a pandemic of racism that has led to the abuse and even death of God’s children fueled by hate and prejudice.
And at the same time, like never before, individuals and institutions are taking steps to atone, educate, and empower so that transformation and reconciliation might move forward in our society.
All of these things are our truths right now and it’s a lot to take in. It’s overwhelming. And in the midst of it all, we still have to figure out how to go about the every day work. The fields have to be watered and weeded if the harvest is to grow. The children need pencils and shoes and the teachers need our patience and encouragement and prayer and hand sanitizer and gift cards to buy themselves a treat.
The harvest doesn’t just happen. It is the result of both human struggle and God’s good blessing upon us. And when we see our brothers and sisters in Christ struggling, sometimes we need to be the little boy who comes alongside the frantic adult and says, “I am blessed.”
There is zero doubt in my mind that over the next several months we are going to continue to experience the full canon of the Psalms. Thank goodness God has provided us with this prayerbook, at our disposal for any of all of the sorrows or triumphs we may encounter as we move forward in faith. The voices gathered together in this book remind us we are never alone and that anything we may be feeling is seen and known by our God - who in Jesus Christ became flesh, fully human, willingly taking on pain and suffering for our sake.
Being willing to walk beside one another, to pray Aaron’s blessing not just as an “I” but as a “we" is the call of God’s people. Listen to how different it sounds:
“May the Lord bless me and keep me; the Lord make his face shine on me and be gracious to me.”
versus Psalm 67:
“May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us.”
The community of faith gives us strength when we are weary. It is what affirms our experiences of struggle and at the same time, gathered in by the Holy Spirit, points us to the hope of Jesus Christ. The love of our creator. The source of all our blessings.
Little Joshua had no idea that’s what he was doing for me all those years ago when I would wait until the class had gone off to P.E. to shut the door to my classroom and cry. He had no idea that when he would randomly turn to me in the hallway and declare a love of the Lord or the goodness of God’s blessing in his life that he was, even if it was just momentarily, lifting my spirits up out of the pit so that I could press on just a bit longer.
We never know what the people around us are struggling with. On any given day they might be singing a song of lament. The call of the church is to come alongside one another, in good times and in bad, in joy and in struggle, and lift our eyes to God, who we pray will shine upon us so that all may see the hope offered to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.