Feeling the Beatitudes

The blessing of God comes not as power and wealth that the blessed one must deliver to passive others. Rather, it creates relationships of giving as it creates full life. That can only happen when the blessed ones are also vulnerable ones. —Kelly S. Johnson

Maya Angelou’s Aunt Tee worked 30 years as a maid and then 30 years as a live-in housekeeper. Once she was house-keeping for a couple in Bel Air, California, and lived with them in their fourteen-room ranch house, complete with swimming pool, three cars, and numberless palm trees. She watched her employers grow older and descend into a dry silence as they ate their evening meals of soft scrambled eggs, melba toast, and weak tea.

On Saturdays Aunt Tee would cook a pot of pig’s feet, simmer a pot of greens, fry chicken, make potato salad, and bake a banana pudding. That evening, her friends – the chauffeur from down the street, another house-keeper and her spouse – would come to Aunt Tee’s, where they would eat and drink, play records and dance. As the evening wore on, they would settle down to a card game. The weekly gathering was drenched in joy and laughter.

One Saturday night, during the card game, Aunt Tee’s employers cracked her door open and motioned for her to come into the hall. The man whispered, “Theresa, we don’t mean to disturb you, but you all seem to be having such a good time.” The woman added, “We hear you and your friends laughing every Saturday night, and we’d just like to watch you. We don’t want to bother you. We’ll be quiet and just watch.” The man said, “If you’ll just leave your door ajar, your friends don’t need to know. We’ll never make a sound.”

The blessing of God is the gift of the fullness and flourishing of life that scripture calls shalom, the gift of being drawn into God’s life and work. God’s blessing is not a static gift, but rather sets in motion cycles of gift-giving and receiving. In Kelly Johnson’s words, “Blessing opens up an economy of blessing” (“Blessings, Curses, and the Cross: A Scriptural View of Wealth,” ekklesiaproject.org – ‘Publications’ then ‘Pamphlets.’ Printed copy from Wipf and Stock Publishers).

The first beatitude in Luke 6 is, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” Johnson points out that the blessing named here is not poverty, but the Kingdom of God, and that the beatitude is addressed particularly to the disciples. Just a little later, in Luke 10, Jesus tells the disciples privately, “Blessed are the eyes that have seen what you have seen.” Jesus had sent them out in pairs with the message, “The Kingdom of God has come near you.” They have just returned, having been welcomed into homes, having healed the sick and seen demons subject to Jesus’ name. The blessed, says Johnson, are those who see the in-breaking kingdom.

The disciples have seen the kingdom and experienced the power given them in Jesus’ name, but after they were sent out “without purse, bag, or sandals.” They were vulnerable and dependent on those who welcomed them. The disciples had mighty gifts to give, but could do so only in the context of a relationship in which they received gifts as well. The mission of the disciples generates the cycle of giving and receiving. This is the economy of blessing. In this light, the “Woe to you’s” are directed to those who insist on living by other, less risky, financial arrangements.

The economy of blessing is the true economy of the church. To say the least, this is easier said than done. The social dynamics between rich and poor, between those with material and social capital and those without, quickly lead to a patron-client relationship in which “the powerless feign deference and the powerful subtly assert their mastery” (Douglas A. Campbell, Paul: An Apostle’s Journey. For a brief and very incisive description of these powerful social dynamics, see Campbell pp. 56-59). These are the very dynamics and deadly ways of relating that Paul confronted in his congregations, tirelessly giving embodied witness to an in-breaking kingdom characterized by unlikely blessed friendships and by gift-giving networks among equals.

Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville has been giving glimpses of this kingdom for ten years now. The fellowship is a rare mix of the housed and the homeless, the prominent and the ignored. They deal with these complex social dynamics in the glory and grime of daily, often intense, interaction. Presently taking shape on the front wall of the sanctuary is a 9-by-23 foot fresco by artist Christopher Holt. The context of this huge painting is the Beatitudes. More than 30 members of the congregation will be depicted, those who have come through addiction or homelessness and who now participate in the fellowship as “companions.” One of those companions is an elegant lady named Jeanette King. “I came for lunch and I found love,” she says, and for the last seven years she has moved serenely and redemptively through all the “holy chaos.” Jeanette will be depicted in the fresco, holding flowers in her left hand, and an upraised torch in her right.

Pastor Brian Combs, a vision-caster in this venture, is convinced that there will be a magnetism in this painting. “We know that people, when they look at a piece of artwork that’s inspired, it’s an invitation to mobilize their lives and not just their wallets.”

I for one already feel this magnetism, and can’t wait to see the completed fresco with its depictions of the blessed ones in our midst. I have to confess, though, that because of my aversion to vulnerability and my uncomfortable contentment to live in the mannerly mid-range of relating and contributing, I might honestly have to locate myself outside the fresco frame, like I’m peering through a cracked door at all the joy and laughter inside.

The “blessed are’s…” and the “woe to’s…” are not are not a drowsy list of toothless generalizations. They are a beckoning to welcome the in-breaking kingdom and to dwell in the economy of blessing. As Jeanette says, “Some things you just don’t feel until you’ve been here a while. After a while, you feel the Beatitudes.”

One Response to “Feeling the Beatitudes”

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  1. SUSAN ADAMS says:

    Beautiful work here, Jim. Thank you especially for this glimpse into life at Haywood Street Congregation!

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