Yesterday’s worship from Bethel UCC in White Salmon, Washington, where our daughter Laura is the pastor, concluded with the video, “The U.K. Blessing.” The recording features singers from a host of churches across the United Kingdom, and reflects the diversity of those predominantly evangelical congregations. The original song comes from Elevation Worship, the worship band of Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C.
The lyrics begin with the familiar Aaronic blessing (“The Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you”) from Numbers 6: 22, and then work in references to additional texts from Exodus 20:6, Deuteronomy 7:9 and Ps. 103: 17 -18.
During the COVID pandemic people have come together to produce their own versions of “The Blessing” to send out to the people in their place. So there is “The Hawaiian Blessing,” “The Toronto Blessing,” “The Australian Blessing,” “The Irish Blessing,” and many more, I imagine. The beauty and power of these recordings is enhanced by the variety of people coming together to extend God’s blessing to their neighbors in the hard and anxious times. The “U.K. Blessing” was the first of these I heard, sometime last spring.
I note a couple of things about “The Blessing.” One is that the focus in on God. God is the subject of the verbs. “God bless you and keep you. . .” “May his favor be upon you to a thousand generations . . .” “May his presence go before you . . ” “He is for you . . . he is for you.” God is the focus and this God is active, doing something in people’s lives and in the world.
Generally speaking, in the mainline or liberal Protestant churches the focus tends to be more on us. We are called to do this or that, to seek a world characterized by peace and justice. The emphasis is on our being more moral or loving or just. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this per se. There may be a lot right with it. But the hope, there, tends to fall more on us than on a God who is both amazing and surprising.
This difference explains why worship in the evangelical and historic black churches has more energy — energy derived from the power of a living God. What energy is derived from exhortation tends to be short-lived. Moreover, it often relies on an us-them contrast between the enlightened and the unenlightened, or the righteous and unrighteous. Or to put it in another way “religion” tends to be about what we should do, while “faith” tends to be about what God has done and is doing.
The other thing I notice in watching these various recordings of “The Blessing” is that those singing are really proclaiming their faith. While their performances are beautiful, they aren’t really performances of a piece of music with the emphasis on artistic ability or excellence in performance. Often, in my experience, in churches in the mainline tradition musicians and congregations place more emphasis on artistic ability and performance than on communicating faith and faith’s power.
Whether the emphasis falls on a living God and God’s action or on us and our actions is not, in the end, an either/ or but a both/ and. Nevertheless, it matters where the emphasis falls and what the starting point is. I find this aphorism helpful — “Salvation is all about grace (that is God’s doing); ethics ( that is our doing) is all about gratitude.” The first word is about God’s grace, forgiveness, mercy, liberation, reconciliation and new creation. The second word is about our faithful and bold response to what God has done.
The power of “The Blessing” comes from its emphasis on a powerful, loving, insistent, relentless and faithful God. And that is the good news.