Blessing begins lifelong journey for Bible majors
By Jennifer L. Marcussen
On a Friday evening in early May, a group of students, their families and faculty members gather in the rotunda of the McInteer Bible and World Missions Center. With commencement a little more than 12 hours away, campus is crowded, congratulations are shouted and parking spaces are full.
However, for this group, amid the festivity, a quiet reverence appears. The students — male and female Bible majors — are excited about completing their undergraduate journey. But before they walk across the stage and receive their diplomas in the morning, they will receive a more personal gift tonight, a blessing.
Behind the blessing
The College of Bible and Religion began hosting a Blessing Ceremony for graduates in December 2005. But the idea sprung from a tradition that has existed for thousands of years.
The concept of bestowing a blessing on children is witnessed numerous times in the first book of the Old Testament. In Genesis 17, God, in the role of "father," blesses his "son" Abraham and tells him he will be the father of many nations, although he is childless at the time. Some years later, Abraham blesses his son Isaac, who later blesses his twin sons, Jacob and Esau — even through deception. Finally, in Genesis 49, Jacob blesses his 12 sons. Here, the blessings are mixed with constructive criticism and even prophecy, such as the revealing of the tribe from which Christ will descend — Judah.
History reveals that the custom of speaking a blessing from father to child remained a significant part of Jewish life during the life of Christ and is important in many families and communities today. In the New Testament, Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus blessing children: "And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them, and blessed them" (Mark 10:16).
Fast-forward a couple of millennium to 1986. That year, authors Gary Smalley and John Trent, inspired by Jesus' and the Patriarchs' use of blessings, wrote The Blessing. In this book, they encourage parents and teachers to continue the tradition of blessings, making sure children and students receive a message that conveys love and acceptance. Five elements comprise the "blessing," each one supported in Scripture.
The first, meaningful touch, emphasizes the importance of the giver of the blessing placing his hands on the person receiving the blessing, much like when Isaac blessed Jacob in Genesis 27.
The second, spoken words, conveys the significance of the giver speaking the words and the recipient hearing them. Abraham spoke his blessing to Isaac, as did the other Patriarchs, the words representing a transfer of power from one to the other.
Spoken words contain an expression of high value, the third element of the blessing. In it, the speaker tells the recipient how he or she is treasured and loved. These expressions may contain vivid and powerful descriptions, such as Jacob calling Judah a lion (Genesis 49:9).
The expression of high value is often coupled with the picture of a special future, part four. The speaker's portrayal of confidence in the recipient's future helps him or her develop a positive attitude toward life.
Finally, the fifth element, an active commitment, binds together the first four aspects of the blessing. The giver promises to be there for the recipient, not just with words, but also with actions.
Upon reading the book, Bible faculty members realized the importance of blessing their students, knowing all too well the challenges that arise from full-time ministry or just trying to remain faithful and focused on a daily basis. Thus, they decided to implement principles from The Blessing and host a college-wide ceremony.
Today, "blessings" are held twice a year, in May — for spring and summer graduates — and December. All majors are invited: missions, preaching, youth and family ministry, vocational ministry, Bible and religion, Bible and ministry, and Christian education.
In his welcome to family and friends on May 9, Dr. Monte Cox, now dean of the College of Bible and Religion, explains why this ceremony is important to the spiritual growth of both faculty and graduates. "We take seriously our marching orders, which come from many places in Scripture, such as 2 Timothy 3:14, 'But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know from whom you learned it.'"
Before the individual readings begin, Bruce McLarty, vice president for Spiritual Life, emphasizes the community aspect of the ritual and ultimate goal of the evening. "There are three words we want the students to hear tonight," he says. "'Congratulations.' You did it. 'Commit.' Our relationship with you does not end tonight. 'Commission.' We send you out with a commission."
Several weeks preceding the ceremony, faculty members selected students for whom they would write blessings. The writer then crafted a one-page statement built around these two open-ended sentences: "I see in you," and "I pray for you." Because of time, the whole message is not read, but each presenter incorporates all five elements from Smalley and Trent's book when giving the blessing.
Over the course of an hour, 38 students are blessed. Some are simple, such as the words from Assistant Professor Allen Diles to Nathan Myers ('08). "My prayer for you is that you may be a blessing to many — devote to him the best of your head, heart and life."
Others demonstrate a mentor/mentoree relationship between teacher and student, such as Professor of Bible Dale Manor's remarks to Rachel Mosby ('08): "What a joy you have been to my classes and my life. May others continue to see in you his reflection."
Many are a call to action. "I suspect you are one of the few I have met who's born a natural leader," Marvin Crowson, missionary in residence, tells Wesley Woodell ('08).
All are heartfelt, sincere and encouraging — but words spoken from men, for "God is the one who ultimately blesses," says Cox.
While these blessings are given at the end of the students' undergraduate years, they signify a new chapter about to begin in their lives. "We want you to remember the love we have for you and the faith we have in you," says McLarty. "The heart of ministry is simple," he adds. "It is following in the footsteps of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."
As the ceremony closes, participants and audience members join together to sing words that, perhaps, best summarize the hope, expectations and prayers that the faculty has for these men and women: "Rise up, O men of God. Have done with lesser things. Give heart and mind and soul and strength To serve the King of kings."
When missions major Travis Trull ('08) graduated May 10, he breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be done with classes and tests. But his break did not last long. One week later he was in a wedding — his own. And within a month of marrying Anna Lauren Greek ('08), he and his new wife set out for Africa. Their destination: Tanzania.
The Trulls are part of a mission team planning to move to the East African nation in 2010 for at least 10 years. This month-long survey trip allowed them to travel the country and find locations where they might have the best impact among the population of 38 million.
"My parents were actually missionaries," Trull explains. "I grew up in Kenya until I was 9 years old. I've always been interested in what my role might be in Africa or remote places."
This childhood desire, along with an internship last summer in Togo, West Africa, cemented his commitment to return to parts of the continent with no Christian influence. But receiving a blessing by Dr. Ken Neller helped instill in Trull the confidence he needs to carry out his plans.
"Just to hear from such a great man … to hear the confidence he has in my future, my dreams and my plans … to hear someone I look up to say he expects great things from me is exciting and encouraging, motivating as well," he says.
For Trull, the Blessing Ceremony signified the close of one chapter and the beginning of a new journey. He was able to reflect on the impressions made by Bible faculty members on a daily basis. "I was able to experience their passion for the message of God and sharing it with others. Learning more of who God is and how he interacts with the world is very influential."
But he also saw the opportunity to look toward the future and what he can glean from men such as Neller and Dr. Monte Cox, his faculty mentor. Both are members of Trull's supporting congregation, where they serve as minster and elder, respectively.
"Downtown [Church of Christ in Searcy] is sending our team," he explains. "It is encouraging to know that they will continue to be there for you, to teach you more when they have the opportunity. I'm excited that the relationship can continue.
"It makes me want to rise to their expectations."