File: The Power to Bless
Talk about embarrassing… I was doing a concert for the good folks at First Baptist Church of Knoxville, in one of the most beautiful sanctuaries in the country, when, after years of writing and weeks of recording and rehearsing, I got halfway through the title track of my album “Be Here Now”… and forgot the words. I paused, admitted forgetting, made a joke to buy time, and tried again…but no, it wouldn’t come. I finally had to just start another song and move on. My audience was gracious, but, gosh, what a helpless feeling… How badly I wanted to just disappear, erase the whole evening from my mind and my audience’s mind… Yuck.
After the concert, a lovely woman with long hair was one of the first in line to speak to me. She grabbed my hands and pulled me close so that I had to look into her face and could not avoid her intense stare. She then proceeded to thank me for how deeply moving and meaningful the evening had been for her at a very personal level. I was so full of embarrassment I was not able to receive that, and suspected that it was probably pity. But she left me no room to wriggle away from hearing it.
As she walked away, the next person in line said: “You know who that is, don’t you?” No, I said. It was Mary Costa, the voice of Sleeping Beauty, “Aurora,” the last of the original Disney’ princesses, the opera star who sang on 44 of the world’s great concert halls from the Hollywood Bowl, to the Royal Opera House in London, to the Bolshoi in Moscow, the acclaimed artist who not only premiered Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress,” but sang on pop TV specials hosted by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dinah Shore. She sang— get this— for John F. Kennedy’s memorial service at special request of the First Lady who, in those horrible and confusing days of personal and national tragedy, wanted to hear Mary’s voice. Just type her name into Google and read for yourself the long list of lifetime achievement awards, recognitions for charity work, and honorary doctorates.
But everyone is from somewhere, and Mary was from Knoxville, where she returned in retirement. Her bio on Wikipedia includes this line as though it were very important: “she sang Sunday School solos at the age of six.”
Then, I remembered; that morning, at the end of the service, the pastor, Tom Ogburn, had walked up the aisle speaking words of personal blessing for all to hear: “Bob, I’m grateful for you and your contribution to the life of this church…” “Ashley, I look forward to your happy greeting every Sunday morning. Thank you for blessing me with your smile…” Beautiful blessings. Then he walked out of my line of vision and I only heard him say: “And Mary, I want you to know that we love you for who you are, not who you were, and we are grateful to God for all the ways you find to bless us.”
He was talking to that same Mary, who had devoted her life— not to regaling people about her glory days in the world’s spotlight— but shining the spotlight of her own blessing on others. Somewhere along the way she must have realized that most people will never know adulation, many will never get the affirmation they long for, and some may never know the blessing of God’s love and acceptance and delight. Maybe she feels that her unique opportunities came with unique responsibilities, or maybe she has simply discovered the joy of being an agent of grace.
When people went to hear Jesus teach, the first words they heard were blessings. But notice whom he blessed: the depressed, the grief-stricken, the hard-working, victims of injustice, the forgivers, the heart-driven, those engaged in the thankless work of trying to bring about peace and reconciliation, those under persecution… maybe even those who spent their brief time in the spotlight forgetting the words to their own songs.
A blessing is not a compliment. It is not a well-deserved congratulations for a great accomplishment. It is a sacrament, a game-changer, a life-transformer. Its power to do all these things lies not in how much we’ve earned it but in how much we need it.