The assembly looked shocked the first time I gave the benediction.
Now, I grew up in a “middle-of-the-candle” tradition. If you can imagine Goldilocks coming to our house of worship, I would imagine her saying, “It’s not too high. And It’s not too low.” The churchmanship or style of worship, that is. We thought it was “just right.” Pastors wore robes. Sometimes. There was a little chanting. We called that part “the liturgy.”
The traditions we are shaped by become the standard by which we determine what is “just right.”
How often have you heard people, or yourself, say in evaluating public worship, “That seemed too Catholic.” Or, “That seemed too Baptist.” What we mean is: there was too much or too little ceremony for our taste.
In the Anglican and other traditions, liturgy classes in seminary are usually higher up the candle than most congregations. More vestments, more candles, more frequent use of the whole liturgical service. Dr. Mons Teig, my Liturgy and Worship Professor at Luther Seminary, showed us the “rite” way. We practiced saying words rite, singing rite, baptizing rite, and making the sign of the cross rite.
Then my first call came from a little-lower-than-low-on-the-candle congregation.
For them their traditions were non-traditions. Robe packed up. Of course, no chanting. Jesus’ words of institution at the Lord’s Supper were unadorned. Prayers were right from the heart.
I thought I was super adaptable. Then I got to the giving of my first benediction. I could see the finish line. I raised my hand and did that weird finger thing like Dr. Teig taught, and drew a cross in the air over what looked like a shocked crowd. Kids whispered to their parents. Couples grinned at one another. It was something that would make those Minnesotans say, “Well, that was different.” My memory doesn’t serve if I kept making the sign after the first week. But, in hindsight, I realize that, even though I did it the “rite” way, I missed the most meaningful part of benedicting.
It has been a great blessing to be able to work alongside a handful of retired pastors. Their benedicting is more mature than mine.
For beginners, benedicting is more concerned about form or “getting it right” or relief in making it to the end of another service.
Here’s an example. My father-in-law is a warm public leader. He typically sets the congregation at ease. He committed the services to memory so he could connect more easily with his flock.
Early in his pastoral practice, he stood with arms spread wide and a warm smile and launched into the memorized benediction. However, he got stuck toward the middle with a touch of brain fog. It was right about the time when the words of the standard liturgical benediction were changing from “the Lord lift up his countenance upon you” to “the Lord look on you with favor.” Maybe that was the problem?
Then in an attempt to find that lost phrase, he started again…and got stuck again. Finally, he said, “Oh buggers!” He grabbed the Service Book and Hymnal from the pew rack and read it. Beginning benedicting.
When I have a more mature pastor in the room, I almost always defer to them when it comes to benedicting.
They give the best benedictions, or at least give them best.
Sometimes they stick to the script, but you can tell it is coming from the deepest part of their heart, more likely the Heart beyond.
Sometimes they go rogue. Why not? What do they have to lose? It’s not like they are getting a stipend to benedict. They don’t have the same opportunities to preach like they did in the past. So they preach a little 3-pointer in-between the phrases.
Every time I’ve experienced this it is 5-star-gospel-gold. It is nearly impossible to spike the benediction with “you should” shots. It is pure promise. At the end, I ask the congregation, “Wasn’t it a good idea for Pastor Phil to give the benediction.” Everyone claps. Applause! For a benediction!
Why is a benediction from someone who is farther down the road so meaningful?
Is it because they are like cute old grandpastors? No, frankly, some have become kind of crotchety.
Is it from practice? I don’t think so. It isn’t a matter of rehearsal.
I think it is because most of them have descended deeper, and are still alive (sometimes barely) to tell about it. Some have buried children on the mission field. Some have deep regrets. Some have a spouse or kids that deeply resent the church. All of them watched friends and colleagues navigate betrayal. They have descended into the story of the adulterers and widows and widowers and the pregnant teen and the “can’t get pregnant” couple. And, they are still the worst sinner they have met.
Mature pastors ain’t messing when they are blessing. This isn’t just a sweet way to end the liturgy. This is blessing for battle. Manna for Monday. Tools for Tuesday. Weapons for Wednesday. You get the picture.
The benediction is the least religious part of the service. I don’t mean “least religious” like it doesn’t belong in the sanctuary on Sunday. I mean it is the hinge between Sunday and Monday. Between our call to gather and then our sending to scatter. We are the body of Christ both gathered and scattered. The benediction helps us understand our daily vocations as callings where grace is still necessary. Grace comes to us when we are gathered. Grace goes through us when we are scattered. The benediction is closer to the secular back door instead of the sanctuary altar. What could be more important than the promise that you aren’t going out there alone?
Old pastors are like that shepherd that the prophet-shepherd Amos talks about. The one holding two legs from a lamb and a chunk of its ear (Amos 3:12). There is no way to be holding on to two legs and an ear chunk without experiencing a bloody battle. The mature shepherd has gone to the battle instead of running from it. A benediction coming from this kind of shepherd is more than platitude. It is covenantal promise.
“The Lord bless you and keep you. You are in the grip of the one to whom all of heaven and earth belongs.” He says, “I will keep you. I will not let you go. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you grace. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and all of his favor and give you peace. Look, he is not frowning. You have heard the gospel. It is for you. He is for you and not against you.” He says, “I’m smiling and I won’t stop. Forever.”
Featured Image: Fr. Bryan White gives a benediction at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Birmingham, AL. Thanks to Dcn. Andrew Russell for the photo.