You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,too great for me to understand! (Psalm 139:5-6)
When I was a kid, growing up in the Punjab province of Pakistan, I was taught to seek out the blessing of the elders in the room. We were instructed, together with all the children in the region who had been schooled in this from birth, to approach an older person, tuck down our chins, bow our heads, and wait patiently for the hand of the older one on the top of our heads. Punjabi children had been nudged forward by eager moms since they were barely walking, their tiny heads pushed into position. We followed their example, doing what they did, and with the first whiff of a weight on our heads, we were gone, running around with the other children.
I suppose it really was less about the blessing conferred as it was about honour. This was a tangible indicator that the elderly were respected. We bowed our heads to those who had earned that homage by virtue of having lived life before us. These people had experience. They knew grief and joy. They had tasted loss and generosity. They had worked hard, from sun up to sun down. Their hands were calloused and rough edged on our heads. They were worthy of our respect and so we bowed our heads to them and waited, however impatiently, for their hands on our heads.
It wasn’t just a custom for children. I remember my dad, middle aged at the time, approaching an old grandma in one of the villages, or an elderly grandpa in another, with his head bowed, in anticipation of the blessing.
This blessing didn’t result necessarily in a tidy tradition. Whenever we’d arrive in a village, stirring up the Thal Desert sand under the wheels of the old green Land Rover, people would gather to welcome us. We would peel ourselves off the vinyl seats, exit the vehicle, and the greetings and blessings would begin. My brother and I would approach all the aunties and uncles and grandmas and grandpas. Children would circle around my mom and dad. Hands were up and down and new heads were underneath and around for the next hand. Of course there were some hugs in the mix, as my parents greeted their Pakistani peers and friends. If we had others in the jeep that had caught a ride with us they were also welcomed with hugs and blessings from their elders. It was a wonderfully bobbing chaotic circle. No one ever felt uninvited, or unwanted.
Soon the greetings were over and the crowd disseminated. The women moved toward the outdoor kitchens to stir up the coals and put milk on for chai. Teenagers were sent to get fresh covers for the out door bed benches. The men wandered off to check out the sugar cane fields, or to examine a water buffalo, or to sit on the bed benches waiting for the chai and to enquire after one another’s health and the health of their children. The kids scampered off to play.
It was a mutual moment. The younger had to approach the older. They had to position themselves to receive the blessing. But the older person also had to be willing to extend their hand and place it on the heads of the younger. My paternal grandmother once came to visit. Our lives didn’t really slow down while she was with us. We still made several trips out to the villages each week. Often she would come with us. Now we brought our own elderly person with us. The circles of blessing and greeting were widened. Middle-aged Pakistanis queued up to receive a blessing from her. Children and teenagers also formed a line. They deemed her worthy of respect and they wanted to show that. They wanted to seek out a blessing from her. It was everything she could do to keep placing her hand on various and strange heads. The mustard oil they used on their hair repulsed her. The risk of lice or worse was always in her mind. For the most part she was a good sport but every once in a while it became too much for her. The shock of this particular culture rose up within her and she couldn’t bring her self to extend her hand.
You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand! (Psalm 139:5-6)
Meditating on Psalm 139 brought back these memories of those village blessings I knew as a kid. The psalmist songwriter mentions that same sort of blessing. Whereas as a child I was expected to show the posture of honour to my elders in this way, now I’m invited to bow my head to the God of the universe and He marvelously, miraculously, mystically places his hand of blessing on me. I tuck in my chin and know that I am in the presence of holiness. I wait with expectation, acknowledging his presence, knowing he is infinitely worthy of worship and respect and honour… and he graciously extends that hand and places it on my head.
Even more astounding to me is that he is not repulsed by me. He does not shrink back. He does not push me away, or wish me away. I’m not too much for him….nor too little. It’s unfathomable, but true, he loves me. And he blesses, deeply, sincerely. The weight of glory rests now, undeservedly, upon my head.