Imagine how you would feel if, at the end of worship, the minister asked you to receive a benediction which began like this:
May all your expectations be frustrated.
May all your plans be thwarted.
May all your desires be withered into nothingness.
You might not want to receive it, and you might wonder, “Just what kind of benediction is this?”
Jean Vanier, who founded L’Arche and has given his life to care for the developmentally disabled, once offered a benediction which began with those surprising words. They don’t seem, at first, to do what a benediction is supposed to do, which is to bless the people of God with an affirmation of God’s presence, to encourage them for their lives in the world, to lift their gaze to the possibilities rushing into the present from God’s future.
Vanier’s words sound like a description of life as it already is, instead of a promise of what life might become. Many people live too much of the time with frustrated expectations, thwarted plans, and withered desires. A lot of people know more than they want to know about unfulfilled dreams, unrealized visions, and dashed hopes.
As Thoreau said, “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or a temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.”
When we let ourselves feel what we really feel, we sense the pain of disappointment, the embarrassment of unreached potential, and the shame of failure. These wounds alienate us from ourselves, isolate us from others, and distance us from God.
If Vanier had only said, “May all your expectations be frustrated, may all your plans be thwarted, and may all your desires be withered into nothingness,” there would be no blessing in his words. But he also said: “That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
It is a blessing to learn that we are, in fact, powerless and impoverished—to know that we cannot create love or generate meaning or manufacture hope or originate joy for ourselves. We can only receive them as gifts from God who sees us and cherishes us as children.
There are some things our hard work, our incessant striving, and our constant pushing cannot make happen; and they are the graces we most want: forgiveness, acceptance, rest, freedom and purpose.
Learning about powerlessness and poverty of spirit helps us to acknowledge, as Anne Lamott puts is, “the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little” (Help, Thanks, Wow.)
Because we are so loved, and because God, who does not cause our struggles, will work with us not to waste them, there is blessing in the darkness, mercy in our brokenness, grace in our failure, and courage in unwanted but unavoidable change. There are good gifts wrapped in hard circumstances. There is a loving God who meets us and sustains us in the desert of difficulty.