I was walking the dog the other night, and it occurred to me to bless the neighborhood. It was such an arresting thought that I stopped in my tracks.
Could I bless the whole neighborhood, I wondered, in a kind of general benevolence? Why not?
We live modestly, in a community of mostly upwardly mobile people of all ethnicities, many of them first-time homeowners who grew up in worse areas and are making better lives for themselves and their children.
There are some rough edges, such as "Pay your rent!" signs plastered on a neighbor's front door, very public domestic quarrels, or even drug transactions in the dark of night. It has certainly occurred to us to protect ourselves and our children through various means including prayer, but not to bless the whole place.
Prayer in this context means, to me, a need to recognize that only God's goodness can really be going on, and to see that goodness as so inclusive as to drive out evil.
I started my prayer by taking a couple of minutes simply to thank God that we lived there, that there was enough green space to satisfy the dog, that there was a playground and a basketball court for the local children, and that we weren't too far from the commuter train into Washington, D.C.
As I thought more about it, I realized that God, who is ever present, was surely in this place, too. The all-presence of God means that all of us are wrapped up in God's love. It was right, then, for the families in our neighborhood to enjoy safety, beauty, cooperation, shelter, and happiness - all of them God-derived qualities of life. Seeing God as the source of these good neighborly qualities must inevitably bless all of us.
I thought of the biblical story of Jacob, wrestling at the place he later called Peniel. (The whole story is in Genesis, chapter 32.)
Jacob was returning home after an absence of several years, having fled after cheating his brother of his inheritance. He knew that his brother, accompanied by several hundred men, was coming to meet him.
No wonder Jacob was uneasy. That night, while he was alone in his camp by the Jabbok River, Jacob's struggle ended in a blessing. He experienced a character regeneration so complete that he was renamed.
Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, commented on the passage in her major work, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures": "The result of Jacob's struggle thus appeared. He had conquered material error with the understanding of Spirit and of spiritual power. This changed the man" (page 309). Jacob, renamed "Israel," named the place Peniel, or "face of God."
How profoundly this new geographic place name must have affected Jacob and his people. Today, pilgrims still travel to this spot in what is now the kingdom of Jordan to contemplate being in the "face of God."
Could I think of my neighborhood in the same way? I hadn't had Jacob's titanic struggle, of course, but isn't it possible for us all to experience something of the power of the Spirit right where we are? I am certain that we can. A good place to start is by acknowledging God as the only source of good.
Gratitude for evidences of this good - seen in someone's repairs to the front of the house, or another's efforts at beautifying his front yard, or in a mother's loving care for her children - makes me feel better about my community. It has led me to welcome the new family from Honduras, greet my musician neighbor, magnificent in his dreadlocks, and chat with another fellow about the best exterior paint for our climate.
Maybe my neighborhood isn't yet ready to be renamed "Face of God," but we are experiencing God's goodness more than ever before.