by Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
Lots of people, UU and otherwise, say a blessing before eating together. And for Thanksgiving it’s even more common. After all, that’s what the holiday is about—giving thanks. That’s what the blessing before meals does.
But if you think about it, that’s kind of a funny use of the word blessing. We give a blessing, or say a blessing, but usually when we talk about something being a blessing, we mean the thing itself, not words about it. Having good food to eat is a blessing. Gathering with friends and family is a blessing. Having a place to sit down together is a blessing. Stories that we share together are a blessing.
A blessing is something good that we don’t necessarily deserve. It’s a gift—maybe from a particular person, or maybe from the world in general. Beautiful sunny days with a light cool breeze are a blessing, as are trees that fill with light as their leaves turn color.
When we say a blessing, really what we are doing is acknowledging the blessing that is already there. We don’t make a blessing, we find a blessing, and share our thanks for it.
That urge to name our blessings and give thanks for them seems to be built into who we are as human beings. It’s a part of pretty much any religious tradition you can name. The Pilgrims celebrating the survival of a scrap of their original number were steeped in a tradition of giving thanks to God, and the Wampanoag who enabled their survival offered prayer and sacred tobacco in gratitude for the gifts of the earth.
In the Jewish tradition there are official blessings for pretty much anything you can imagine. There are blessings for the candles and bread and wine that mark the celebration of the Sabbath. But there are also blessings for getting up in the morning or seeing a wise person or finishing a book. All of these blessings begin “Praised are you eternal God, King of the Universe…” Every blessing connects the ordinary things of the world to the sacred and eternal.
Saying the blessings is what’s known in Hebrew as a mitzvah. Mitzvah is kind of a tricky word. The word itself means blessing. But it also means a responsibility or obligation. The blessings, the prayers themselves, are mitzvot (plural). But also, saying the prayers is a mitzvah. Doing a kindness for someone, or helping your parents or giving to charity is a mitzvah. You are expected to be a blessing to the world. You are blessed by being a blessing to the world. It’s all woven together.
I’m guessing it was a similar understanding of the intertwined nature of being blessed and being a blessing that moved the Wampanoag to help the strangers who arrived on their shores. Like so many indigenous people, the Wampanoag religion is centered in a deep awareness of “all my relations”—an understanding that all beings of the earth thrive only in reciprocal relationship, each sharing their gifts as they gratefully receive the gifts of others that enable them to live.
Recognizing our blessings, giving thanks for our blessings, fulfilling the obligation to be a blessing is all interwoven, as inseparable as the web of life.
If your family sits down to bless a Thanksgiving meal, perhaps you might want to do it by inviting each person at the table to share by saying:
I give thanks for the blessing of ______________. I try to be a blessing by ______________.
Perhaps you want to pair them: I give thanks for the blessing of my family. I try to be a blessing by teaching my younger brother. I give thanks for the blessing of food. I try to be a blessing by growing tomatoes. Or each half of the blessing could stand on its own: I give thanks for the blessing of air. I try to be a blessing by really listening to people who talk to me. I give thanks for the blessing of water. I try to be a blessing by calling my senator.
There are no right or wrong elements to this blessing. Each person knows best what they love and what they give. But there are ways to live in the world that are better than other ways. It’s true that we can choose lives that ignore the gifts that surround us and pretend that everything is owed to us, while we ourselves owe nothing. There are plenty of people who seem to live that way. But it doesn’t work.
Oh, it might work for them, in some sense of the word. They might have lots of stuff, even fame to go with their fortune. But this way of living breaks the world—it shatters our connections and steals from the vulnerable. It dishonors and degrades the earth until the earth’s gifts have all been taken and nothing is left.
If we all are going to survive—if we are to thrive and be whole—then we need to exist in the middle of a tangled web of blessings given and received, so interwoven that we might not even be able to tell which is which.
May you be a blessing. May you be blessed.