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Essay

Blessed Are You

By September 12, 2012 One Comment
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Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Mary Hulst, Calvin College’s Chaplain. Mary spent eight years serving as the senior pastor at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids before leaving to pursue a Ph.D. in communication ethics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her bachelor’s degree is in classical studies from Calvin, and her Master of Divinity was granted by Calvin Theological Seminary. She taught for one year in the Communications Arts and Sciences Department at Calvin and then for two years at Calvin Theological Seminary, as Assistant Professor of Preaching, where she maintains a teaching position.  Mary has been College Chaplain since 2009. 

This sermon, given in chapel on Monday, kicked off the all-campus bible study on the Beatitudes that we’re engaged in at Calvin College this fall.  Check out the Chapel website to see more fully what we’re up to–and to follow along with us too, if you’re interested.

Beatitudes Kick-off: Monday, September 10, 2012

So here we are on this first Monday of the school year.  We’ve started new routines, met new students, professors, friends.  We’ve found our way into new buildings and offices and labs and practice rooms.  Some of us have even found the rooms for prayer tucked away in the basement of this chapel.

There is a lot of new, which is great.  And there is a lot to do, which is also great.  Buck Fridays, Chaos Day, Mud Bowl, homework, articles to read, articles to write, lectures to hear, lectures to give, emails to send, emails to answer.

With the start of a new year come many, many things to do.  Many, many things to choose. 

And we exist in this world of achievement, this world of more: 

I can carry 16 credits, and play in band, and be dorm president. 

I can teach 3 classes, and be an elder in my church, and spend every Saturday watching my children’s soccer games. 

I can run this campus office, and volunteer at hospice, and see my grandchildren every Thursday night. 

Someone who came to our Calvin community from another college said to me a few years ago, “This place just churns.”

We do.  We churn.  And we take a odd pride in our churning.  Let’s add another institute, let’s pursue another degree, let’s find another student org to join.  Because that is what gets rewarded.  That’s what can go on the CV or the resume or the tenure application.  That’s what will move me ahead in this world.  That is where I find my worth.

It’s interesting in the list of Beatitudes that Jesus gives that none of these appear:

Blessed are the honors students, for theirs are the scholarships. 

Blessed are those who complete their PhDs, for theirs is the true mark of wisdom.

Blessed are those who volunteer compulsively, for theirs is centeredness and peace.

Blessed are those who succeed, who are busy, who are in demand, for they are the ones I like the most.

Nope. Not a single one of those is on the list. 

And so, dear Calvin College, over the next 10 Mondays we will pause, right here at the start of the gospel of Matthew, and dwell on these words.

Because we are in desperate need of correction.  We are in desperate need of realignment.

We are in desperate need of true blessing.

We seek blessing in so many ways.  We call our parents and tell them that we made the choir.  We submit our recent publication to the Academic Bulletin.  We call our child’s teacher and let him know that we will bring handmade, peanut-free, gluten-free cupcakes for the bake sale.  Mom, bless me.  Department chair, bless me.  Teacher, bless me.  Look at what I am doing for you!  Look at how good I am!  Look at how hard I am trying!

Aren’t you tired?

Aren’t you tired of seeking the blessing of others? 

Aren’t you tired of pretending that your heart isn’t empty?

Aren’t you tired of pretending that your plate isn’t too full?

Are you ready to be blessed by someone whom you do not need to impress?

Someone who does not have a grading scale?

Are you ready for Jesus?

The ones who gathered around Jesus on this hilltop were those who knew they were not good enough.  They were disciples who hadn’t been picked by any other rabbi, they were sickly people who’d been freshly healed.  They held few illusions that they were better than anybody else.  They had nothing to offer.  No credentials to display.

These people gathered on this hill had lost the idea that they in their own merit could achieve anything.  The disciples in their own could not start a religious movement.  The formerly sick could not have healed themselves.  They had existed on the margins, unaware that anything could be better and fairly certain that if things did change, it wouldn’t be them that did it.

So when Jesus shows up and calls them and heals them, it wasn’t because of a resume.  It wasn’t because of ability or beauty or intelligence. 

It was because of Jesus.

It was the call of Jesus, the healing power of Jesus that led these people to the top of this hill.  It wasn’t them.  They had nothing to offer. 

And Jesus looks at them, looks at their lives of emptiness and broken promises, their lives of disappointment and pain, looks at them and says,

Blessed are you, for you understand that there is more to this life than this life. 

Blessed are you, because you are unencumbered by success. 

Blessed are you, because you know that the blessings of this world are shallow and flighty.  Blessed are you, because you have nothing you are trying to show off. 

Blessed are you, because you are just here, sitting on this hill, wholly mediocre. 

Blessed are you.  

And in these words Jesus upsets our careful hierarchies of

assistant, associate, full professor

intramurals, JV, varsity

3.0, 3.5, 4.0.

In these 12 verses at the beginning of Matthew 5, Jesus blesses the student on academic probation and the prof who can’t get that dissertation finished and the staff person who keeps dropping the ball.  He blesses the mom who forgot about the cupcakes, and the dad who keeps missing dinner to finish off a project at work.  Jesus blesses those who are trying to hold it all together and finding that their hands are slick with grease.

He blesses people who aren’t making it and are tired of faking it.

He blesses you. 

He blesses me. 

Not because of who we are, but because of who he is. 

Because he is ushering in the kingdom of heaven.  A kingdom in which there are no applications required for admission, no bonus points or extra credit, no all-MIAA, no Fulbrights, no MacGregors.

Just Jesus.

Just Jesus. 

Reaching out his hands and laying them on your head and saying, Blessed are you, my dear one, blessed are you. 

Just as you are. 

Just as you are. 

Blessed, blessed are you.  

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

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