Vivian Elaine Johnson, The Benediction

George raised his thin arms. In a whisper of a voice and while seated in a wheelchair, he prayed the benediction over those of us attending a seminar:

     May the Lord bless you and keep you.
     May the Lord’s face shine upon you.
     May the Lord’s countenance be lifted upon you,
     and give you peace.

The words, and the heart from which they came, brought moisture to my eyes and slipped down my cheeks. George, at 87 and in ill health, has been my husband and a pastor for sixty years.  After all those years of ministry and of pronouncing the benediction, I wondered if this would be his last.

     May the Lord bless you and keep you…

What is it about the benediction that touches hearts? For me, the benediction is ointment on my wounds, wounds caused by the difficulties of life. We live in a world that is random, chaotic and messy. Random in that a tornado destroyed four houses on your block, yours remained untouched. Random in that one child was born into a poverty-stricken family, another into a wealthy one.

Life is also chaotic. Chaotic in that you carefully planned your financial security, then the stock market crashed or a spouse had a serious illness; the finances flew out the window. Chaotic when you had the job of your dreams, then there was a merger of companies where employees got the shaft. Chaotic in that when we needed national leadership, it was lacking.

Unfortunately, life is not only random and chaotic, it is also messy, often due to personal choices. You chose an occupation and learned that you hated it. Messy because you bought the house of your dreams and found that your next-door neighbor was the pits. Messy because you didn’t like your in-laws, or roommate, or co-worker. How do we make sense of such a world, such a life?

     May the Lord’s face shine upon you, the Lord’s countenance be lifted upon you…

Some people find an answer in religion, in a faith. Belief in God gives those people meaning and purpose in life, especially if they believe that God values and loves them. The words of the benediction, “May the Lord’s face shine upon you,” suggest that God finds pleasure and favor with people. People of faith believe they are in God’s hands, as the popular song goes, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” If they believe that God cares about the world—and its people—that doesn’t necessarily remove some of the randomness, the chaos, and the mess, but it may offer comfort and perspective.

Contrarily, some people believe that we invented religion as a way to cope with life in this world. That may be true; it seems plausible to me. My question is: if a person receives peace, comfort, and positive direction through religious belief, is it not helpful - even if religion is invented?

On my faith journey, as the wife of a pastor and after long years of ministering in the church, I have become uneasy with certitudes. I hear some people claim with certainty: “God wants everyone to believe as I do.” Or, “Religious people are moral,” as though the non-religious can’t be. How is it that some people believe they have the whole truth? As I heard a theologian say, “If people claim that they know with certainty all about God and God’s will, it shows that they know very little about the nature of God.” Holy books such as the Bible are not science books, nor books with answers that address all our contemporary issues. They are books revealing ancient people’s thoughts about God. I’m so grateful that we have been given intellectual and intuitive ability that can be used to explore the deep areas of life, to wrestle with questions, to doubt, to contemplate and meditate. What a gift to not have to know all the answers!

And if that exploration, along with life experience, deducts that there is no God, who am I to claim otherwise for them? For me, it is helpful to believe that there was a wise teacher named Jesus who taught us to love, forgive, work for justice, help the vulnerable, and live in peace. Was he God? I don’t know. But I do appreciate that he taught us how to live in this world. People of other faiths—Jews, Muslims, Hindus, to name some—also receive guidance from their holy books and their people of wisdom. In my experience, non-believers may also have a moral compass in their hearts that guides them in the path of loving concern for others.

     … and give you peace.

We started with the beautiful words of the benediction. I am grateful for this prayer of blessing found in the Bible. I need to hear these words. For me, the words “and give you peace” are so comforting, so reassuring that I feel safe, calm and, blessedly, at peace in the midst of our random, chaotic, and messy world. If we each live by these words—blessing, keeping, shining, giving—we will bring peace, wonderful peace, into our lives and into our wounded world.

And to you, George, my loving husband and good and faithful servant:

     May the Lord bless you and keep you.
     May the Lord’s face shine upon you.
     May the Lord’s countenance be lifted upon you,
     And give you peace.

Vivian Johnson is the author of “The Benediction.”
For more information, email Vivian at vivianelaine0@gmail.com