I played oboe in my college band, and every year we went on tour. It had long been a tradition that each tour concert finished with an unscheduled performance of the old hymn, Nearer, My God, to Thee. Many years before, when the band had been in Slovakia on tour, the piece had been scheduled on the program. At the completion of the program, the host of that concert asked the band to play the hymn again. “It would mean so much to us,” he said. “Here in Slovakia, we sing this hymn at every funeral.” So the band played an unanticipated encore, and it soon became a tradition. At the completion of every tour concert thereafter, the band members close their folders and play this beautiful hymn from memory.
Fast forward now 20 years to the year I spent in Slovakia as a Young Adult in Global Mission. I had been settling in and feeling a strong sense of God’s purpose for me in that time and place, when I got the devastating news, Oct 22, that the mother of one of my dearest childhood friends had been brutally murdered by my friend’s father. My world and my faith were torn apart. I couldn’t imagine a world in which this was somehow a part of God’s purpose, and if it was, I wasn’t interested in that God. I struggled and searched and mourned and cried… and come All Saints Day a week and a half later, I was at least ready to remember and give thanks for my friend’s mom at the All Saints Day service. Following worship, we all processed to the cemetery, on a gorgeous fall day surrounded by bright, fall foliage. People around me scrubbed clean the gravestones of their loved ones, crying and praying. And we gathered all together and said some names and some prayers… and then all lifted our voices in singing, “Nearer My God to Thee.” Or rather, those around me sang, and I wept. In that moment, memories good and bad flooded my mind, and God was nearer to me. I experienced God in a new way as my heart began to heal.
Each year as I read the texts appointed for All Saints Day, which is this coming Sunday, I remember how I felt in that cemetery, and try to imagine how others might be experiencing this day on which we remember the saints who have walked alongside us in our lives. In particular this year, I have found I struggle with Jesus’ famous words that we hear from Matthew: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The comforted bit I can get on board with. But this blessing business – not only for those who mourn, but for those in all sorts of different situations in life that many of us would not call blessed – can be pretty hard for any heart to take, let alone a wounded one. Even as healing began for me in that Slovak cemetery that fall day, I would not say I felt particularly blessed, or lucky, or happy, or congratulated, or any number of ways you could translate that word. The blessing would not be revealed until much, much later – and even now there are days I am not entirely convinced of it.
And yet, this is Jesus’ promise to us in this opening to the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed.” Blessed are you – when you cannot see through your tears. Blessed are you – when you are being unfairly judged. Blessed are you – when you feel entirely empty. Blessed are you – when your marriage is falling apart. Blessed are you – when you hear the dreaded diagnosis. Blessed are you – when you life has taken an unexpected turn. Blessed are you.
Not all of Jesus’ beatitudes are bad, of course – seeking peace, pursuing righteousness, being merciful and pure of heart, these are good things, and things to strive for! But what they all have in common is that they are all exhausting, and require a sort of self-emptying, which is never easy or fun. …It says something about how we are to receive blessing, I suppose, because the thing about being empty is that it is required in order to then be filled. And so it is when we are emptied – by our own efforts or, more commonly, by a circumstance that is out of our control – it is in emptiness that we are ready to be filled up by God’s love. Hard as it may be to see at the time, in that indeed is blessing.
What if these beatitudes were written for you, based on your life? What has emptied you in life, or what currently makes you feel empty, such that you are ready to be filled by the blessing of God, and what might that blessing look like? Blessed are the cancer patients, for they will discover deeper wisdom. Blessed are the divorced, for they will be equipped to comfort others on their journey. Blessed are the confused, for they are ready to learn.
Take some time this week to think up some beatitudes of your own, either from your own experience or from those of people in your life, people you are praying for. It can be something in history, something from which you have already seen blessings come, or it can be something current, in which you are still seeking and hoping for blessing. If you feel so inclined, leave your beatitude as a comment below, and let us hold them in each in prayer as a community of faith.