By Melody Wilson Shobe
One of the highlights of my job as assistant rector is the work that I am privileged to do with our church day school. Each week I work together with the lay chaplain to conduct two chapel services, one for the Pre-K and Kindergarten students, and another for the 1st through 5th grade students. Chapel is always an adventure and a joy. With the older students, we follow the service of Morning Prayer from the Prayer Book. With the younger students, we follow the outline of Morning Prayer, but the words are greatly simplified so that small children can memorize them. In lieu of the entire Apostle’s Creed, we recite a children’s creed:
“I believe in God above.
I believe in Jesus’ love.
I believe the Spirit, too,
comes to teach me what to do.
I believe that I can be kind and loving,
Lord like Thee.”
We dance to funny songs, and we pray very heartfelt prayers. When I ask a question in my sermon, no matter what the question is, at least one child shouts out: “Jesus!” “What was the bread that God gave the Israelites in the desert called?” I ask. The answer comes back quickly and forcefully “Jesus!” Not quite what I was looking for, but a great answer all the same. I tell them about manna, but make a point to connect it to Jesus and the Eucharist as well. I find myself leaving school chapel each week with a smile on my face and a lighter heart; it is a truly uplifting experience.
Last week, I had a particularly meaningful “chapel moment.” At the end of the service I stood and turned to the children to offer the blessing. As I said the words and moved my hand in the familiar shape of the cross, something caught my eye. One of the first grade boys seated in the second row was moving his arm with mine. His face was scrunched in concentration, his little fingers shaped just as mine were, his arm also tracing the shape of the cross through the air. He was mimicking me. I’m not sure if he thought he was supposed to mimic my motions, like we do when we sing together, or if he was just being playful. Regardless of why he did so, as I was blessing him, he was blessing me.
In the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob tricks his father into giving him his brother’s blessing, the blessing that is traditionally reserved for the first-born son. Now, the authors of the Bible want you to prefer Jacob to Esau. After all, Jacob is Israel, the one on whom the rest of the Hebrew Bible will be built. So Esau is described as unrefined, both in appearance and manners. And yet, when I read the story, it is Esau who I identify with, Esau who I am pulling for. Because his response when he hears of what Jacob has done is heartbreaking. “When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, ‘Bless me too, Father!’… ‘Have you not reserved a blessing for me?’(Genesis 27.34, 36b) Isaac tries to explain, but again Esau cries out, ‘Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!’ And Esau wept aloud.” (Genesis 27.38) When I read it, the exchange almost brings me to tears. You can hear the pain and confusion in Esau’s voice. He wants a blessing more than anything else in the world, and somehow there is not enough blessing to go around.
As a priest, I am more used to doing the blessing than I am to being blessed. I haven’t been doing this that long, but already I have all but forgotten what it feels like to have the beautiful words of blessing spoken over me rather than by me. I think that sometimes, without meaning to, I feel like Esau felt in Genesis. I want a blessing more than anything else in the world; I yearn for it. But somehow I just miss the blessing. I don’t feel it. So when that little boy in chapel raised his hand and, without even fully knowing what he was doing, made the sign of the cross, I felt blessed perhaps more powerfully than ever before. What I had forgotten was that the act of blessing is not something I do, with my rehearsed motions and scripted words. It is something that God does to and through me.
Blessing doesn’t come in limited quantities, as Jacob and Esau thought. Nor is there just one blessing to be given and one person who blesses. What I learned from that little boy in chapel is that blessing is a two-way street. I can bless someone in God’s name, and I can receive a blessing at the very same time. When I, like Esau, cry out, “Have you but one blessing, Father?” God’s answer is clear: “No.” When I ask, with all my heart, “Bless me too, Father!” The blessing will come. Maybe in an unexpected way from an unexpected person. But it will be a blessing all the same.
The Rev. Melody Wilson Shobe is Assistant Rector at a church in the Diocese of Texas. She is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary and is married to fellow priest The Rev. Casey Shobe.