At workshop recently, as we were discussing the tension that often exists today between younger and older clergy, a middle-aged priest said: “I’d like to bless the younger priests, but they don’t want my blessing! They see me as a burnt-out middle-aged ideologue and everything in their attitude and body language tells me that they simply want me to disappear and give them space!”
Many is the parent who feels exactly that way as they stand before a sixteen year old, the mother before her own adolescent daughter; the father before his teenage son. That’s also true for many others: the teacher before her adolescent students, the priest or minister in the face of a less-than-appreciative congregation, the coach before his players, and the policeman before a paranoid and belligerent young man. It’s not easy to bless someone who, seemingly, does not want your blessing, before whom it would seem a flat-out lie to say what God said to Jesus at his baptism: “In you I take delight!”
It would seem that many of the young do not want our blessing. But is this so?
Not really. We must distinguish between the various levels at which we want something. On the surface, clearly, young persons often do not want the blessing of their parents, elders, teachers, and clergy. But that is the surface; they have deeper wants and needs.
Someone once said that a true missionary is someone who goes where he or she is not wanted, but is needed; and leaves when he or she is wanted, but not needed. That is true too for parenting, teaching, coaching, and ministry. We should not identity what someone wants at the surface of his or her life with that which they need and want at a deeper level.
Young people may not overtly want the blessing of their elders, but they desperately need it. Later on, after they have matured, they will want that blessing but, paradoxically, then they will no longer need it to the same extent. We should not be put off by the surface of things, where youth, naturally, push elders away and give the impression we have nothing to offer them. They desperately need our blessing.
And what does it mean to bless someone?
We see the prototype for blessing at the beginning of both the Old and New Testaments. The bible opens with the creation story and, there, we see that at the end of each day God looks at the world and pronounces it as good. Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism and, there, we are told, the heavens opened and God looked at him and said: “You are my blessed one in whom I take delight!” We bless others whenever we look at them in this same way.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once defined a blessing as “a visible, perceptible, effective, proximity of God.” He is right, but what does that mean?
To bless someone, literally, means to speak well of him or her. More deeply, that means to see someone’s energy and honor it as a source of joy and delight rather than as an intrusion or a threat. To bless a young person is to look at him or her and, without exploitation of any kind, give back to him or her an appreciative gaze that says his or her life and actions are a source of delight and joy for us rather than a threat and irritation.
But this can be very hard to do, especially inside of the same gender, when a young person’s life can seem precisely a threat to our status, popularity, and security, and especially when that life, in ways benign and belligerent, tells us that our own time is past. It is not easy then to say: “In you I take delight!”
But that is when it is most important to say it! When the young people in our lives give us the impression that they neither want nor need our blessing is precisely the time when, ironically, they probably need it the most. Their very aloofness is partly a symptom of the lack of blessing in their lives and a plea for that blessing.
We need to give that blessing. When we bless the young, especially when it seems that they do not want our blessing, we help lift a congenital constriction off of their hearts, like a mother cow that has just given birth to a calf turning around and licking the glue-like constricting afterbirth off of her young. And we need to do it, too, to lift a certain depression within our own hearts. God blesses. When we act like God we will get to feel like God – and God is never depressed.