How we got our benediction

I wrote about our then-new benediction on my blog about a month after we adopted it. This past Sunday, I alluded to the line about beauty, and promised to fill you in on the background. Here it is.

We began ending our services with a benediction in the fall of 2012. To be precise, we already had a benediction–different words each week–but it was followed by the postlude. We like to applaud the musicians, so when the postlude was the very last thing, the service ended with applause. This didn’t always feel appropriate to the theme or mood of the service, and it tended to create the feeling that we had been at a performance.

I had visited other congregations where the very last words are a blessing, and I’d loved the way it felt. It seemed right to have the postlude (followed by its applause) and then an element that would help us to leave with a sense of participation, mutual care, and a turning outwards. Dan Harper suggested having the same words each week. And although it filled me with trepidation to ask everyone to hold hands, something we didn’t normally do, I knew I wanted for us to make a physical connection. So what words of blessing?

I have a great affection for this passage from the preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and will probably give a sermon on it sometime (I could fill a book with thoughts just on the most perplexing line, “Argue not concerning God”), but it didn’t really feel right. It sounds like a command more than an invitation, albeit a command to do some terrific things.

Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Dan and I both had stories relating to the benediction said in the Concord, Massachusetts, church, where he grew up and I have visited. Actually, it was the same story: of going to the home of someone who belonged to the congregation (they were not the same someones, but two separate families) and finding that they’d put the words of the benediction on their doors, where they would see them each time they left the house. They had become a blessing that they bestowed on themselves daily.

I knew them and liked them and wondered where they’d come from, so I poked around a little. First, here’s the Concord version:

Go out into the world in peace
Have courage
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings.

The Rev. Dr. Brent Smith has this on his website–I’m not sure whether it was, and/or is still, a regular feature at All Souls in Tulsa, where he previously served:

Be of good courage.
Search all things, and hold fast to that which is good.
Render unto no one evil for evil.
Strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, help the afflicted.
Love all men. Love all women. Love all children.
Love all souls, serving the Most High;
And rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

I’m guessing that both have their origins in the Presbyterian Worship Book, because I found another site listing this, used by the Rev. Herb Swanson when he was interim pastor at St. John United Church, Columbia, Maryland, and described as “adapted from the Presbyterian Worship Book and the Bible”:

Go out into the world in peace; have courage; hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the suffering. Honor every person that you meet. and Love and Serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I liked the Concord version, and pondered if anything essential to my theology was missing. Well, yes: love, which was implicit but not spelled out. All those moral imperatives–they were about expressing love through everything we did, as much as we could. That led to one new line. And what else? Well, if love is the work and raison d’etre of our lives, what sustains them–at least mine–is beauty: noticing it, cherishing it, creating it, allowing it into my heart. So I wrote two more lines, and this was the result:

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint-hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings.

At first, holding hands was a challenge, because we needed to hold the paper at the same time, and also because, as I said, we weren’t too used to it. Some people get edgy about that kind of contact, or are sick (or trying not to get sick), which is why I occasionally remind everyone that they can fold their hands in front of them instead. But it wasn’t long before most people didn’t need to see the words, and began reaching for the nearest hands, and stretching to include those who were farther away. Now every week, as we briefly connect and smile to one another as we say the words, we enact what Whitman said. Our very flesh becomes a great poem.