“Do y’all do blessings and shit?”
I asked it shyly, unsure of the proper etiquette (even though the sign in front of the white tent advertised all manner of blessings available). I hoped the casual and shit would mask how badly I wanted to be blessed, how I’d felt my heart pull me toward this corner of the campground over and over all weekend.
I said it with a smile, but what my heart whispered fiercely was “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
It was the last day of the Wild Goose Festival, the end of four days of camping and singing and praying and walking in the dirt of North Carolina summer.
I’d seen art and music and worked and danced and hugged my friends Luke and Esther and Tamara and Abby and Matt and Melissa and mostly chased my two filthy half-naked toddlers up and down the dusty stretch past the tents from stage to stage over and over again.
My heart was full of good music and good words and good people and my body was full of good food and sunshine. In an hour or two we’d begin the thousand-mile return pilgramage toward home. I was supposed to be breaking camp and packing up my bags, but instead I found myself in front of that white tent saying “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
Inside the tent, I was invited to sit in a circle with Father, Mother, Sister, and Brother. (I don’t know who they are, but to me and for this story these are their names. Just go with it.)
I turned my palms upward in a silent invitation to the Spirit, and they took my hands and prayed a blessing of peace into my life. I couldn’t tell you any of the actual words that were spoken, but I remember the way Mother’s hands felt on my shoulders as she rubbed the oil of frankincense and myrrh into my skin. (Perhaps this is the and shit part of blessings and shit? who knows…)
After they prayed, Brother told me about a picture he’d seen in his heart, of me walking through a cave. (I go to a charismatic church now, so I’m comfortable with this sort of thing.)
All around me is thick darkness — I cannot see the walls or the ceiling or the path below my feet. Right away I recognized the place he’s describing, the chaotic, terrifying world I’ve come to know all too well in the past few years. The places I can’t see my hand in from of my face, can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, can’t even turn around and make sense of what’s behind me.
The Baptists used to say that God’s Word (meaning the Bible, not Jesus of course) is a lamp to your feet, and while it doesn’t flood your entire path, it does give you just enough light to see the next step. Lately though, I haven’t even had that much light. I don’t often get to see where my foot will land when I take the next step. I just close my eyes, whisper a prayer, and keep walking.
Brother said that in the cave with me there was a speck of light, a glowing butterfly dancing in the darkness. I recognized Her too, the Spirit inviting me forward. To keep walking, of course.
I was about to leave when Mother said to me, “Before you go, would it be ok to give you another blessing? I think you should have a Father’s blessing, as you are a father to your own two young boys.”
I said yes, but also “… what I was really hoping for was a Mother’s blessing too.”
(I didn’t tell her how often I’d prayed to Our Heavenly Mother in the past year, asking God to please drop the beard-and-masculinity routine and just hold me for a while. I didn’t tell her that the words “Mother’s Blessing” on the sign outside the tent had been the ones that drew me back there all weekend. I was too shy. But she knew.)
Father put his hands on my head and ran anointing oil through my filthy sun-bleached hair as he prayed for me. He told me that God loves me the way I love my own boys, my squirming smelling irrational candy-obsessed covered-in-mud toddlers. I don’t remember what else he said, but I remember images in my mind:
There’s a picture of me and Emmett, when he was less than an hour old. I’m holding him against my bare chest, looking down at him and smiling. I saw it like those three years ago were just yesterday, but now I’m the baby and God is the young dad, all at once nervous and amazed and in love as He looks at me saying, “O my god, he looks just like Me!”
Another picture: I’m five years old now, Keenan’s age. Running barefoot in the front yard of my childhood house in Michigan. My Dad is sitting on the front porch, drinking a beer and watching me, smiling. I’ve never in my life seen my Dad drink a drop of alcohol, but in this picture he is, because it’s not just my Dad — it’s also me watching my boys play, and God the Young Father watching us too. I’m spinning and running and hands in the air and then
I’m in front of the stage on Saturday night watching Gungor. This picture is only a few hours old, and in this picture I’m also half-naked and barefoot, and I’m still spinning around with my hands in the air singing and dancing and God is watching me and I am aware of nothing but the sweat running down my back and the Spirit of God smiling on me and the songs I am singing. (This really happened.)
I can’t tell you all the threads brought together by those pictures, by the words spoken in Father’s prayer. I can’t begin to describe what it meant to me next, when Mother took my hands in hers and gave me a blessing for the next few miles of my life.
Even if I could recollect them verbatim, I couldn’t explain all the ways they reached around and through the corners of my heart. Just trust me when I say they were threads, woven through years of my life, stitching together pieces of my heart that have been broken apart and scattered along the way.
A few days ago I confessed to my cousin Josh how afraid I am that God isn’t going to bless me anymore.
Embedded deep within my religious programing is an idea that God won’t bless me unless I am good, and if you take a glance at my life over the past year or two it’s not hard to see that I don’t have a perfect record anymore. As I said this, I felt the whisper of God in my heart:
I was driving east across Wisconsin and I raised my eyes from the endless monotony of I-94 to the blue sky framed by green trees and accented with cotton clouds.
“Watch. Just keep watching for blessings. When they come, you’ll know that you do not have to be good for Me to keep blessing you.”
These words came back to me just then as a turned to leave the white tent. Keep watching for blessings. I had come looking for just one. I had been given three blessings instead. Perhaps my so-called imperfect record, my I-don’t-have-my-shit-together life, has nothing to do with the love of God for me. Perhaps.
I was halfway out the door of the tent when Sister said to me, “May I wash your feet in the river?”
I glanced down at my bare feet, caked in four days of dust, lined with a black ring of mud from dancing late into the night before.
God, that’s just too much. They’re filthy.
“But you wanted to see if I’d bless you, didn’t you?” God says.
Then I cried.
And as I followed Sister to the river, the Spirit came up next to me and whispered in my ear:
You came here saying, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.” But all along, it was Me chasing you, saying, “I won’t let you leave until I’ve blessed you.”
With the river flowing around my ankles, she baptized my feet and then said, “Now you can keep walking, a little cleaner. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit I bless you.”
I stood up as one raised from the dead, raised with Christ to walk in newness of life. Standing in the river, I whispered again the words of the e.e. cummings poem I’d scrawled in my journal just the day before:
“i thank You God for most this amazing day… i who have died am alive again today”
There’s another poem, by Mary Oliver, that begins with:
It was the Wild Goose Festival that first introduced those words to me a few years ago, and they stung like heresy on my dusty heart back then.
You do not have to be good still sounds too good to be true most days, but I’ve spoken those words to myself over and over again in the past year, scrawled them on my window, whispered them in my prayers, and tried to believe. At the Wild Goose, I carried them folded up on a scrap of paper in my pocket,
over and over announcing my place in the family of things.
Standing in the river on Sunday morning, I believed them again, for just a few moments.
There in the river, I saw stacks of smooth stones raised like memorials, one on top of another.
Memorials. There’s a word I haven’t heard in a while. It carried me back to Arkansas two years ago, when we spoke of raising Ebenezers and safely to arrive at home.
I though of how those memorials I raised in such earnest and naive faith have already been washed away, leaving only broken dreams and broken promises and broken hearts.
In the old Bible stories, the people of God used to stack stones at the edge of rivers as an everlasting memorial, but I suppose those memorials are long gone by now too.
It turns out that everlasting doesn’t last nearly as long as I once thought. Not in the way I’d hoped, anyhow.
These stacks of stones won’t last a week. Next time I set foot in the French Broad River, they’ll have disappeared— washed away by wind or by water or by butt-naked toddlers. Our memorials are only temporary — a few years in our lives, a few words in a story, a few moments in North Carolina.
But the River… She’ll be here. Winding her way down from somewhere up north, carrying with Her the stories of ten thousand stones. For all Her unpredictability and evershifting currents, She’ll still be here waiting for us — waiting to bless us, to wash us clean, to baptize us into newness of life again and again.
And that’s why we’ll come back again.
For the River.
[ image: Josh Liba ]
published July 14, 2015
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