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An unexpected blessing

Tuesday’s Synod School message: We’re called out to be a blessing

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Salomè Jangulashvili via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Blessings can come from unanticipated sources in places we might not expect. For the Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield and her family, the place was outside a Goodwill dressing room, and the sources were two older women unknown to the Duffield family.

Duffield, the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, is convocation speaker this week at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School, being held online and in person at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. About 450 people are participating.

On the day of this blessing, Duffield’s husband took their then-middle school daughter shopping for a dress to wear to a school dance. After a number of unsuccessful forays inside retail stores, the two ended up at Goodwill, where the girl found dresses to try on, including one she ended up taking home and wearing to the dance.

“Ooh, you look so nice!” the two strangers told her outside the dressing room, “affirming my child who was struggling with her appearance,” Duffield told the Synod School crowd. Their daughter “was so pleased,” and her father thanked the women. Then the women offered the two shoppers these blessings, one after another: “God is good!” “And right on time!”

“We sometimes need reminders that God is right on time,” Duffield said. “Sometimes it’s kindness that can be lifesaving at that moment.”

Duffield labeled Tuesday’s talk “Called out to be a blessing.” She identified some everyday slogans that probably don’t fall into the category of blessings, including “too blessed to be stressed” and “I’m not spoiled — I’m just blessed,” which Duffield said she saw on a bumper-sticker adorning a luxury car.

The dictionary tells us a blessing is a spoken word with an inherent force that participates in the reality of what is wished for. It’s a performative word, Duffield said, like “Let there be light,” “Your sins are forgiven,” and “Let my people go.”

The blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26 — “The Lord bless you and keep you …” — is a blessing many Presbyterians hear at the close of worship. The Bible of course contains many other blessings, including Jacob’s famous all-night wrestling bout found in Genesis 32. Duffield asked her hearers what can be learned from such stories. “A blessing can leave you a little scarred sometimes,” said one. “Blessings transform us,” Duffield said, changing “our understanding of ourselves and of God.”

the Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield

“Sometimes,” Duffield said, “we just have to hold on tight and ask for a blessing in the midst of a painful set of experiences. Wrestled blessings sometimes hurt. They can transform us in ways that bless other people.” Asked who in history fits that category, Synod School participants listed Mamie Till (the mother of Emmett Till) and Nelson Mandela, who, Duffield said, “used the wrestled blessing to bless the world.”

In the Beatitudes, Jesus enumerates in his Sermon on the Mount “a great reversal that reveals God’s love for the vulnerable,” Duffield said. “This is a very different understanding than ‘too blessed to be stressed.’”

The priestly blessing in Numbers is a wilderness blessing, delivered to a people about to enter the wilderness. “It refers to God’s gifts, guarding and protecting people from evil,” Duffield said. “It’s the last piece of equipment offered to every Israelite before the journey begins. It’s relational to the core.”

God’s relationship with the people, the people’s relationships with each other and with the priests “remind people who they are and whose they are,” she said. “The same is true for us.”

“Have we been in the wilderness of late?” Duffield asked. “Have you felt God’s presence and experienced God’s provisions? I think so.”

The most memorable Old Testament blessing is probably God’s blessing given to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. After reading it, Duffield asked participants what phrases came to their attention as she read.

“Go,” said one.

“You will be a blessing,” said another.

“All the families,” said a third.

“I’ve got your back,” said someone else, and while those very words aren’t necessarily found in Scripture, they’re a testimony that “God has blessed us and equipped us,” Duffield said. “I need that reminder a lot.”

She quoted the late Rev. Dr. Patrick D. Miller, Jr., an Old Testament scholar: “The commandments serve to define the good neighborhood … a place to call home and feel at home … a place where the primary practice is the love of God as a character-forming enterprising. It is a place of blessing, articulated in the provision of life and the provision of good.”

“Our neighborhoods should reflect who God is,” Duffield said, “goodness and mercy overflowing in the streets all around us.”

“That could be right outside the dressing room of Goodwill, friends. Wherever we are, our cup overflows.”

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