A Good Word

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The late Richard Halverson was Chaplain of the United States Senate from 1981 through 1994. Prior to that he had spent years as a local church pastor. 

A friend once asked him, “Dick, what was the most significant thing you did that brought vitality and spiritual strength to the people you served?” Halverson thought for a while. Then he said quietly, “I think it was my benediction.”

Excuse me?

Why would Halverson not mention his thousands of sermons, the 14 books he authored, his counseling, or his profound influence on a whole generation of America’s elected leaders?

The benediction – some traditions call it the charge or the blessing – is the last communication delivered by the priest, liturgist, or pastor at a worship service. It literally means, in Latin, “good word” – God’s good word to everyone who is present.

Sadly, I count myself among those who over the years haven’t always given the benediction its proper due – sometimes treating it as little more than, “So glad we could be together, God bless you this week, drive safely as you exit the parking lot.” I didn’t use those words, of course, but that seemed to be the thrust of my message.

But Dick Halverson was different. Over the course of several decades of ministry, he always sent worshipers on their way with these words:

You go nowhere by accident.
Wherever you go, God is sending you.
He has a purpose in your being there.
Christ who indwells you has something he wants to do through you wherever you are.
Believe this.
And go in his grace and love and power.

My friend and colleague Stan Wood grew up in the Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, California. His pastor, Dr. James Henry Hutchins, closed every morning and evening service with these words:

May a dying Savior’s love
A risen Savior’s power
An ascended Savior’s prayers
And a returning Savior’s glory
Minister to us all
Now and forevermore.

Those are far more than God-bless-you-see-you-next-week remarks. Those are life-changing, heart-shaping words – reminders of who Jesus is today, tomorrow, and always. 

At least 15 of the New Testament’s 27 books end with a benediction. Here are some of them:

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
“Now may the Lord of Peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. The Lord be with all of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:16).
“Grace and peace be yours in abundance, through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord” (2 Peter 1:2).

Two benedictions in particular have long been cherished by the church:

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen” (Jude 24-25).

“May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever, Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21).

But the Bible’s most famous words of blessing are found in the Old Testament. 

Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, was commanded to turn toward God’s people and speak these words:

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

(Numbers 6:24-26)

Think of the six gifts embodied in those three sentences.  

God yearns to bless you – to provide for all your needs.   

He promises to keep you – to watch over you with unbroken care. 

God will cause his face to shine upon you. In the ancient world, citizens had no higher aspiration than to look into the face of their king and to see a smile, an expression of welcome and acceptance.  

God longs to be gracious to you – to assure you there is nothing you can do to make him love you more, and nothing you can do to make him love you less.

He will lift up his countenance upon you – or as Eugene Peterson memorably translates this phrase in The Message, “will look you full in the face.”  He gives us the gift of his complete attention.

God promises you peace – not the absence of chaos or trouble, but his own shalom that can see you through the darkest day.  

These are God’s life-giving words.

And they can even become the words by which we bless others. 

No, we’re not going to extend our arms like Aaron and literally speak them in the presence of friends and strangers alike.  But something happens when we approach other human beings and, in the quietness of our hearts, extend to them God’s blessings. “Lord, may this woman know your grace today. Help this teenager be convinced that you care for him. Guide me to become a vessel of your peace to everyone I meet.”  

When we choose to speak aloud words of encouragement instead of criticism, and to lift someone up instead of tearing them down, we may be doing something we don’t even recognize.

By God’s grace, we’re pronouncing a benediction: a good word. 

And by such words we may be changing all of somebody’s tomorrows for the better.