When my wife and I sang in the Westminster College choir, we learned an anthem by Martin Shaw entitled “A Blessing.” Some forty-five years later, it is still one of my favorite pieces of music. In fact, when I was ordained to the ministry in my home church, the choir used that anthem as the benediction for the service. Many years later, when we left Richmond for Vermont, I asked that the anthem be used again at my last service as the church’s associate pastor. And when I retired from active ministry, Joan arranged for the choir at the Trumansburg Church to sing the same anthem. I had made it through that final service without too much emotion until the choir stood and the organ played the first notes of Shaw’s music, and my tears came easily.

The words are very familiar. While the lyric has been slightly tweaked to reflect inclusive language, the “original” words of this benedictory song are:

“Go forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast that which is good. Render to no man evil for evil. Strengthen the faint-hearted. Support the weak. Help the afflicted. Honor all men. Love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Ghost. And the blessing of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be upon you and remain with you forever. Amen.”

Having sung the anthem so many times in my college years, that was the first benediction that I memorized for use at the close of worship services. (Ah, music…as mnemonic aid.) When the NASA astronauts referred to our planet as “the good earth,” I added that to my version of the benediction and to this day I usually start it saying, “Go forth onto this good earth in peace…”  And, being a fan of inclusive language, I drop the male references and “render to no one evil for evil,” and urge the congregation to “honor all people.”  And, with the word “ghost” having entirely different meanings today, I use the term “Holy Spirit.”  With all those changes, minor to be sure, people still recognize this old blessing as being quite traditional, yet still full of meaning.

I should mention that something that has become a custom with me after all these years prompts me to call this “the walking benediction.” Because usually as I say it at the end of a service, I walk. I literally “go forth” as I say the first words. And phrase by phrase, as I walk the aisle of the sanctuary, I look worshipers right in the eye, as if to say, “You be of good courage.” “You hold fast to that which is good.” “You love and serve the Lord.” In most churches, I can time the walk so that the last words are spoken from the back of the church, as I raise my hands over the people offering God’s blessing upon them.

Some years ago, I read a seminary professor’s admonition that pastors often treat the benediction as a quick good bye, a throw-away line that leads to the last amen of the liturgy. But the benediction can be a profound charge and blessing, an exhortation to live the Love that lifts our lives, or as someone has said, here come our marching orders. “Support the weak! Help the afflicted!”  “And you there: honor all people!”

Now an admission: after all these years, until a few minutes ago, I couldn’t have told you where that old “blessing” came from. Martin Shaw didn’t write it. It appears in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. It’s been referred to as the Navy blessing in Britain, and as a Scottish prayer. The Pope has used it, as has the Queen of England. Unitarians and Baptists and Presbyterians use it. And composers other than Shaw have set the words to music. Now and then as I read the Bible, I run across a phrase or two and think, “Aha! But wait, it’s not all there.”

So here’s what I’ve discovered. If you take 1 Corinthians 16:13 and add it to 1 Thessalonians 5:13-22 you have the foundation of that charge and benediction. But you also have to add 1 Peter 2:17. Then edit the whole mix, dropping some lines and summarizing others. And you are finally ready to go forth in peace.

Several years ago a visitor to our church raised an objection to a couple of phrases in that blessing. She didn’t care for the lines about supporting the weak and helping the afflicted. An advocate for “differently-abled” persons, one sensitive to those whom society too easily labels “the weak” and “the afflicted,” she asked me to leave those phrases out, or to somehow craft words that recognized that not all “afflicted” people needed our help, and some people we call “weak” have great strengths not evident to the rest of us. In other words, she found that section of the blessing to be condescending, instead of empowering. She spoke with her white cane in one hand and her service dog’s leash in the other.

Her comment that morning was a helpful reminder that the familiar words, well-loved liturgies and  treasured texts, do not speak to everyone in the same way. We would do well to listen to ourselves and to imagine how others  might hear what we are saying. I didn’t succeed in amending the text to my friend’s liking, but I’ll say this: I never use that blessing without thinking of her comment and looking for her in the eyes of those I seek to bless with God’s good word.


Advertisements