— By JOHN PAUL CARTER
When I was a kid, I always looked forward to the benediction at the end of the church service. Never mind the words, it set me free to escape the pew and talk to my friends.
Later those last words meant silencing my growling stomach by beating other churchgoers to the cafeteria.
I was in my mid-30s before my friend John Claypool helped me understand that benedictions mark, not only endings, but also beginnings. In the farewell there’s also a blessing as we go forth to live out the faith we’ve just embraced in worship.
When I preach at our church, I end the service with my own “Dobie Benediction.” I use the words of my hero, the Texas storyteller and folklorist, J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964): “Love and attend to what exists. Bear witness. Trust the grand design you cannot see; it is there and what you do is a part of it.”
I’m not sure how Dobie would feel about it because he didn’t belong to a church, or think much of organized religion. When he was young, his strict Methodist father read the Bible to his family every night and questions weren’t allowed. As Frank grew older, he openly opposed closed-minded preachers who denied modern science and politicians who used religion to further their own ends. That being said, his words describe an authentic faith that rings true for me.
First, Dobie urges us to “love” – to cultivate a loving heart and then let it guide our thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions. Our greatest duty, Jesus said, is to love God, each other, ourselves, and even our enemies regardless of our feelings – not just individually but socially, demanding justice seasoned with mercy.
The second word of Dobie’s wisdom is to “attend to what exists.” Sometimes we’re tempted to neglect the tasks before us because we think them meaningless. Countering, he echoes the wisdom of Proverbs: “Whatever is at hand to do, do it with all your might.” “What is” is the only thing that can lead us to “what’s next.”
Next, Dobie encourages us to “bear witness.” Doubting ourselves or afraid of the consequences of speaking out, we’re sometimes tempted to remain silent. Yet we each have a unique piece of reality that only we can offer. Even if our wisdom is lacking, until we risk speaking up, we stand no chance of being corrected. More often than not, the truth doesn’t lie in us but between us. At other times, bearing witness may simply mean showing up!
Finally, Dobie declares his own faith and invites us to believe: “Trust the grand design you cannot see; it is there, and what you do is a part of it.” It’s easy to forget the God-created connectedness of all life. Even the things we deem mundane – house-work, office-work, yard-work, childcare, small-talk, silent prayer – are a vital part of that whole. And as blind but faithful John Milton reminded us long ago: “they also serve who only stand and wait.”
We live our faith by responding with love to the opportunity that lies before us – even when we can’t see how God is fitting it all together.
Lord, bless us and keep us in the New Year. Help us to love, to attend to what exists, and to bear witness. Strengthen our faith in the grand design we cannot see – trusting it’s there and that what we do is a part of it. Amen.
John Paul Carter’s “Notes From the Journey” is a regular feature of Viewpoints.