Thursday, August 6, 2009

God Smiles

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.

                        Numbers 6.24-26 

The Prize of Belonging

Is there any feeling finer than delight in bringing an enormous smile to someone’s face? There are many as fine, but I’m not sure there’s one better. Giving joy repays joy. It’s a marvelous, hard-wired quid pro quo we’re intuitively aware of soon after birth. What’s more, cognizance of the smile’s ability to transfer joy isn’t limited to us. Many primates share smiles and some—Chimpanzees, most famously—exchange smiles with us. Turning this around, is there a feeling more dispiriting than what comes from eliciting a weak smile? It just clobbers us with condescension and slaps us with failure. Put bluntly, a weak smile makes us feel stupid, as though we’ve foolishly waded out beyond our depth, overestimating our ability to swim with the big fish.

A big smile rewards us with pleasure because it’s involuntary; it bypasses the conscious mind and connects being to being. A weak smile smarts because it’s voluntary, a cruel, personality-based ploy to intimidate. But there is one voluntary smile we treasure for its unmistakable pleasure and joy. There’s nothing weak or condescending about this smile because it’s volunteered in absolute strength and unmerited favor. Most of all, we cherish this smile because it conveys pride of ownership. It’s the ultimate prize of belonging.

Aaron’s Blessing

Numbers 6 largely concerns itself with establishing the Nazrites, a Hebrew monastic order of men and women who take vows of separation and abide by stringent personal standards. After God instructs Moses to announce the inception of the Nazrite community, He dictates a priestly blessing for all of His people: “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’” (Numbers 6.22-27) The benediction, often called “Aaron’s Blessing,” would lose none of its beauty had God bestowed it at any other time and place. In this context, however, it acquires stunning magnificence for God’s abrupt shift of attention from His selected few to His elected many.

As Moses goes on about God calling an elite class from the rank and file, what must most Israelites be thinking? Interest is probably high at first. But with each new restriction—no alcohol, no haircuts, no contact with dead bodies (including immediate family), and a finely detailed induction protocol—the recruit pool shrinks. It doesn’t take long before the chance to make God smile turns into perceiving the sting of His weak smile: We’re not good enough. He wants somebody else. Infinite wisdom alerts God to the sense of exclusion enveloping the congregation. So He issues an addendum to reassure all of His people they belong to Him. In verse 27, He tells Moses to relay Aaron’s Blessing to the priests “so they will put my name on the Israelites.” While a few opt to take the Nazrite name, God gives the whole of Israel His name. And here’s the final twist. Once He tells the Nazrites what He expects of them, He tells Israel what to expect of Him. What first seems like a weak, condescending smile bursts into beaming pride and acceptance. God smiles and Israel smiles back.

Ahead in the Long Run

God spends a disproportionate amount of time on the Nazrites—nearly 20:1 compared to Aaron’s Blessing—but Israel comes out ahead in long run. He repeatedly calls the Nazrites for consecration “to the LORD,” referring to Himself in the same way every time. In the blessing’s original Hebrew, though, He subtly changes inflection with each mention of His name, implying three distinct identities contained in one complete Being. Christian theologians avidly embrace this as a precursor to the Trinity: the Father (our Keeper), the Son (our Grace), and the Holy Spirit (our Peace). It’s a fascinating idea. But even so, I find the first half of each blessing all the more intriguing. God chooses to bless us; He voluntarily sees to our happiness. God makes His face shine; He voluntarily smiles at us. God turns toward us; He voluntarily comforts us.

Ephesians 1.3-4 reads: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Even considering how we begin to earn God’s blessings, make Him smile, or gain His attention already puts us behind. He’s way ahead of us. He has blessed us with every blessing. He chose us long, long ago—before the world was made. Because He selects some for special callings doesn’t mean the rest aren’t important. Because a few devote their lives to certain expectations doesn’t mean those who don’t aren’t worthy. None of us is better than the rest. As equals, we share equal responsibility to be holy and blameless in His sight. Denomination and dogma have nothing to do with identity. God has blessed us to put His name on us. We all belong to Him. For that reason alone, God smiles.

God smiles at us and we smile back. His smile is the ultimate prize of belonging.

(Tomorrow: Put Your Sword Away!)


claire bangasser said...

I find the blessing heading your post one of the most powerful blessings one can give anyone. In a way, it is a miracle blessing, as far as it goes in my life.
As to a weak smile being cruel or condescending, I don't think so. Not always at least. It would depend on the person who has it.
Another very rich post. Thank you.

Tim said...

It is a miracle blessing, Claire. Often when I'm reaching for added strength, that's where I go. I invariably find what I'm looking for.

You're also right to qualify my "weak smile" business. I probably should have kept to "condescending." There's a big difference between them and while I find condescending smiles are usually "weak"--i.e., purposefully contained--many weak smiles have more to do with the smiler than anything else. I need to go back and revise this. Thank you!

Blessings always,