I discovered a little notebook yesterday when I was cleaning off my desk. In it I had written down some notes about a year ago after reading a book by Richard Rohr called The Universal Christ. I wrote that somewhere around the 5th century, Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, started preaching and writing about something called “original sin.” He was trying to understand and account for the evil, death, and frailty of our world. This concept is useful for helping us to be realistic about and not surprised by the disappointing nature of other people, ourselves, and the world.
How is it, though, that over all these centuries, we have retained a focus on original sin, when we should have been paying attention to original blessing? After all, in the very first chapter of the first book of scripture, God creates the world and calls it good. Five times God calls creation good and even very good. And God speaks of man and woman being “blessed.”
If anything is original in this world, it is goodness and blessing.
So to live a life that is good and blessed is not an exception to the rule of original sin. It is not a discovery of something new or alien or unprecedented. To experience goodness and blessing is a returning to who I already and always am. Do I need to change and be changed and grow? Yes! But that change and growth is a recognizing and accepting of who and how God made me to be.
The prefix “re” means “again.” So we re-cognize (think again) certain qualities and ways of being in ourselves and others. Things re-sonate (sound again). Good writing and speaking brings us to re-member (put together again) thoughts and feelings that are already there.
To experience original blessing is to re-cognize and re-member something we were born with.
In another book by Richard Rohr I am reading now, he quotes the English poet William Wordsworth who is speaking to this original goodness that was with us before our birth even though we tend to lost sight of it as we get older:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our Life’s Star
Hath had elsewhere its setting.
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness.
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
upon the growing boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy.
On this day, January 10, 2021, Christian churches around the world are reading again the story of the baptism of Jesus. Jesus came up from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
This is the voice, these are the words, the speak so deeply to our souls. You are my son, my daughter, beloved. With you I am well pleased.
We are so prone to deafness to these words. We suffer from a profound amnesia—not remembering who we are. We are so afraid of feeling forgotten, of going unnoticed. And we will do almost anything to distinguish ourselves as special. All the praise we seek. All the recognition:
All the ways we endeavor to stand out. All the ways we use to assure ourselves
that we matter,
that we have a place in the world,
that we are loved.
All because we assume we have to accomplish something to be valued, that we were not born blessed from the beginning.
Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, left a position at an Ivy League university to become a chaplain at a community for physically and mentally challenged people. He tells about how there was one of his friends there who had a lot of physical and mental differences but was a wonderful woman.
She said to him, “Henri, can you bless me?” He remembers walking up to her and giving her a little cross on her forehead. She said, “Henri, it doesn’t work. No, that is not what I mean.”
He was embarrassed and said, “I gave you a blessing.”
She said, “No, I want to be blessed.” He didn’t know what she meant.
They had a little worship service and all these people were sitting there. After the service Henri Nouwen said, “Janet wants a blessing.” He had a long robe with long sleeves.
Janet walked up to him and said, “I want to be blessed.”
She put her head against his chest and he spontaneously put his arms around her, held her, and looked right into her eyes and said, “Blessed are you, Janet. You know how much we love you. You know how important you are. You know what a good woman you are.”
She looked at him and said, “Yes, yes, yes, I know.” Nouwen said he suddenly saw all sorts of energy coming back to her. She seemed to be so relieved because she realized again that she was blessed.
She went back to her place and immediately other people said, “I want that kind of blessing, too.”
The people kept walking up to him and he suddenly found himself embracing people. He remembers that after that, one of the people in their community who assists the residents, a strong guy, a football player, said, “Henri, can I have a blessing, too?”
Nouwen remembers their standing there in front of each other and he said, “John,” and he put his hand on John’s shoulder, “you are blessed. You are a good person. God loves you. We love you. You are important.”
God loves you. We love you. You are important. You are blessed.
I told this story at a Zulu church in South Africa a few years ago. We were there on a church mission trip, and there is this church some of us were working with in the community of Emmaus. Emmaus is a rural area about a five-hour drive from Johannesburg at the foot of the Drakensburg Mountains. At and around this church, they have no electricity, no plumbing, no running water.
We were helping with a preschool they have in the mornings for kids who live all around the church. It was an incredible sight to see children as young as 2 and 3 years old emerging—by themselves— from the tall grass of the African plains to go to preschool at that church and, at noon, leaving the same way by themselves heading home.
On Thursday afternoons they have a Bible study for adults, and since we were there they asked if I would lead the Bible study. It was a group of about 15 women from the church and a handful of young men. We sat in a big circle.
They spoke Zulu—no English. I spoke English—no Zulu. So a young man named Xolani sat next to me and translated for me. That is an unusual thing to do—speak with a translator. I had never done that before. I would say a couple of sentences and pause. Xolani would then express what I had said in Zulu—at least I think he was expressing what I had said. I had no way of knowing. They had been studying the Beatitudes, so did a talk on the Beatitudes.
It was very difficult and a little awkward. I wasn’t sure if what I was saying was making any connection at all. I realized as I was talking that some of the examples I used were things that they had no idea what I was talking about. I tried to tell a story about something that I realized they had no concept of.
I concluded my talk with the story I just told about Henri Nouwen and the blessing. When I got to the end of it, I spontaneously decided that I was going to go around and give a blessing to each person the way Henri Nouwen had done in the story.
So I got up and Xolani followed me. I went to the first person in the circle and put my hand on him and said, “God loves you, we love you, you are important, you are blessed.” And then Xolani said it in Zulu. I moved to the next person and did the same thing: “God loves you , we love you, you are important, you are blessed.” Xolani said it again in Zulu.
I went all the way around the circle and did the same thing with each person.
And with all the distance between us—
with all the distance between us, finally there was a connection.
You know why. Because these words of blessing are universal. They re-sonate with all people in every place and time. When we receive blessing, we re-cognize it. We re-member it and are re-membered by it. We hear it again. We think it again. We are put back together again. We all of us share a fundamental and primary goodness and love.
If anything is original in this world, it is blessing.