These days the benediction is a significant and precious part of the worship service to me. It wasn’t always. When I was a kid, I thought it was the signal to gather up my purse and peppermints and jacket. Sort of like the dismissal bell at school. I could never figure out if I was supposed to close my eyes or not. A quick glance around would reveal a bewildering array of postures and attitudes on the part of the worshippers around me. I preferred to keep my eyes open because then I could check out each minister’s particular brand of blessing – from the dignified two-handed approach, elbows correctly bent at perfect right angles, to the more inclusive, widespread reach favoured by some of the younger pastors. Then there was that unforgettable pastor who jackknifed himself over the pulpit with arms stretched forward as if poised for a high-dive plunge! And why didn’t the elders bless us when they had to read a sermon? It didn’t make much sense to me.
Eventually my understanding of the purpose of the benediction matured. I learned that the benediction was not a prayer. I wasn’t required to close my eyes. I discovered that the salutation and benediction were moments of precious intimacy: God speaking directly to me, welcoming me into his presence and then embracing me with an encouraging word as I left to do his service throughout the new week. As I began to experience the benediction this way, I was indeed blessed. The childish interest I had in the minister’s gestures and stance gave way to a relative disinterest in the person on the pulpit. I focused on the love I was receiving – God’s personal words designed to heal and refresh my sinful and often tired soul. I understood the benediction. I thought.
It was a sweltering morning, August 3, 1997, when Rev. J. Nutma mounted the steps of our pulpit to preach the Word to us. The air was electric, and it wasn’t just the heat. This was the first time our beloved former pastor, who had served our Wyoming Christian Reformed Church from 1971 – 1977, would be leading a service since his devastating stroke three years earlier. There was gratitude. There was worry.
Rev. Nutma had nearly died. He had recovered to suffer the indignities and pain of paralysis. His rehabilitation had been agonizingly tedious for him, for his wife and family, for all who loved him. There was relief that his life had been spared, and yet shared sorrow over his reduced mobility and impaired speech. After a long career of energetic and faithful service in the church, there was undeniable pathos in the onset of a debilitating illness just months after his retirement.
But, by God’s miraculous grace and Rev. Nutma’s own dogged persistence, there he was, on our pulpit once again, ready to direct our service. Ready? That was the worry. There was a tension in the sanctuary, a fear that the stroke and its aftermath had been too much. Would he be able to cope with the emotions surrounding this return to his former congregation? Was he up to it physically?
Rev. Nutma began in his usual manner. There were noticeably long pauses here and there. He mixed up the order of worship at one point. As planned, an elder led us in the congregational prayer so that Rev. Nutma could sit down for a few moments and catch his breath.
And then he stood to share the Word of God. He preached on Psalm 25, referring also to 2 Samuel:18 and 19. He showed us David, who yearned after his God. He showed us the grieving King David, who loved his wicked son so much. He showed us David, a man acquainted with tragedy and loss. As was Rev. Nutma. But he didn’t mention his own ordeal. Not once. He spoke comfortingly to those who face cancer, to those who cry for wayward children, to those who mourn the absence of a dear spouse. He urged us to reach out to one another, and, above all, to cling to David’s God, a steadfast and loving Father, a God who could be trusted, even in bitterness, in rage and in defeat. Rev. Nutma didn’t need to point to his own recent crucible. His very bodily presence was proclaiming the truth of his message more profoundly than his words.
It was time for the benediction. I looked at my pastor. He lifted only one arm high. That didn’t surprise me. I knew there was some residual paralysis. But then…
My vision was blurred by spontaneous tears. There came the other arm, struggling up. It drooped at shoulder height, the wrist limp. With his arm quivering like a crushed wing, Rev. Nutma blessed the congregation. In that wounded benediction, I received a double measure of grace. Christ and his servant offered me their love – a costly salvation and a costly faith.
I went home awed.