Unsticking the Stuck

I’m a collector of vinyl records. I gave up buying CDs several years ago. There’s a fullness of sound on vinyl that is not replicated on a CD. This quality of sound, though, has some draw backs. My stereo system picks up all the dust and scratches that accumulates on vinyl records. Sometimes the scratch is so deep the needle gets stuck and the same sound or note is played over and over again. What an annoyance!

Words can be like stuck records. Some words get stuck in our vocabularies being played so often that they’ve lost their meaning. Our Christian vocabulary is particularly susceptible to this. I have several words that I hope I don’t hear again. One of those words is “bless.”

How many times have we asked God to “bless” someone? As a friend of mine sarcastically commented, “If you were God, how would you answer that prayer?” The word has become so overused that it’s lost its meaning. The needle is stuck in the groove of a cliche and I’m tired of hearing “blessing” played over-and-over again. But, I’ve nudged the needle to get it unstuck and the word is now taking on fresh meaning.

I’m reading The Story, the NIV text that places the Bible in a narrative form. The Story is like an airplane ride through the Scriptures; we catch the panoramic, grand redemptive plan of God. I’m just getting started so the narrative is now moving into the life of Abram. Here’s what caught my attention.

When the Lord calls Abraham and gives him a promise, what word is at the end? “And all people on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). Abraham and his offspring were to be a “blessing” to the nations.

We’re part of that offspring — we’re descendants of Abraham by faith (Romans 4:16-17). It should therefore follow that our assignment is to bless the nations, starting with the people where I live, work, or play. What does this mean?

In his book Surprise the World!, author Michael Frost gives an extended meaning of the word “bless.” “Blessing” carries the meaning of God’s favor, experiencing both spiritual and material prosperity. As the Bible’s translation moved from Latin to English, the word came to mean “to speak well of; to praise, to pronounce or make happy.

Frost also notes that the etymology of the term “to bless” is “to add strength to another’s arm. In this respect, to bless others is “to build them up, to fill them with encouragement for them to increase in strength or prosperity.” Now we’re moving the stuck needle of “blessing” from a meaningless cliche to a meaningful act.

What would happen if we saw our life mission as one to bless others? By blessing, we mean having an assignment from God to speak good words that fill people with encouragement, helping them to increase in strength and prosperity. What would this type of life look like? Here are some ways I’ve been thinking about.

One obvious act is to bless by words. When the Apostle Paul was imprisoned, waiting a potential death sentence, many of his friends deserted him (2 Timothy 1:15). One friend did not. Onesiphorus tracked Paul down in the labyrinth of the Roman prison and “refreshed” him (2 Timothy 1:16). The word picture is like giving someone a cool glass of water on a hot day.

Mark Twain once said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” We all enjoy being affirmed and there is joy in affirming others. Now, we must be sincere. We don’t affirm to manipulate or win favor. Affirmation can start by describing what we appreciate about someone or how we’re seeing God at work in their lives.

In this time of covid fear and racial tension, what words can we wisely choose to bless someone with?

A second way to bless is by kind acts. I have a neighbor who asks himself, “How can I do good to someone today?” I’ve seen him help a widowed neighbor purchase a car. He’s helped me with a home electrical problem. The widower felt strengthened because someone cared. I was encouraged because an annoying problem was solved. Our hearts are strengthened when someone serves us.

We also bless people by being present with them. Sometimes word blessings do not help a situation. Common phrases like “God is in control,” “He won’t give you anything that you can’t handle,” or “Sometimes He closes a door and opens a window” can be meaningless and even insensitive to people facing a deep crisis or tragedy.

Proverbs 27:14 keeps this in perspective: “Whoever blesses his neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.” A blessing can become a curse when the blessing is shared at an inappropriate time and in an inappropriate way. Words may not bless but presence does. Sometimes a blessing though presence means lamenting with a friend about an injustice or grieving in another’s pain.

Blessing someone has an obvious assumption — I know them well enough to tailor-make a blessing for them. I’m close enough to discern if the need of the hour is a kind word, a kind  act, or being present. It’s difficult to bless from a distance.

My assignment to bless by word, deed, or presence is an act of evangelism that everyone can participate in. Frost cites a missionary study about two short-term mission teams in Thailand. The study labeled them the “blessers” and the “converters.”

The “blessers” went with the intention of simply blessing people in whatever practical ways they could. The “converters” had the sole intention of converting people and evangelizing everyone they encountered. Research found that the “blessers” had a far greater social impact.  They had almost fifty times as many conversations as the converters and were fifty times more successful at helping people find their way back to God. When the light of a godly life and a life of blessing penetrates darkness, conversations happen (Matthew 5:16).

Author and mission leader Mary Schaller says that research shows that there is one thing both believers and unbelievers dislike — evangelism! Many of us struggle with sharing our faith. Some of us have a shy introverted nature that is hesitant about talking the most personal thing about us — our relationship with God. Suppose we viewed blessing as an act of evangelism? Instead of a mission to only convert, what would happen if we saw our mission as one to bless? Blessing is the door to the gospel.

I think blessing is at the heart of the Great Commandment to “love our neighbor.” What better way to love than to build someone up, to fill them with encouragement so they would increase in strength or prosperity — to bless them. At the same time, the good news of Jesus is the ultimate blessing. Our hope is that our act of blessing would open up gospel conversations — the ability to share the “hope that is within us” (1 Peter 3:15).

We’re in a season where people need to be blessed. The covid pandemic is destroying businesses, taking lives, and creating anxiety. The racial strife is causing fear, rage, and rightful soul-searching. In what small ways can we bring a blessing — a word, an act, a presence — to these settings?

Frost writes that blessing is a missional habit — a quality of lifestyle that sends us on God’s assignment to a broken world. He exhorts us to bless three people this week with at least one who is not a member of our church. Let’s unstick the repetitive cliche of “blessing.” Let’s turn blessing into a life-giving and life-changing act of God.

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