November 7, 2007

Bless You

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever.
Psalm 145

Maybe you've heard the one about the American couple touring through Germany. They enter a shop full of collectibles and, overcome by the dust, the wife sneezes. "Gesundheit," says the shopkeeper, politely. "Oh thank goodness," replies the husband. "Finally, someone who speaks English!"

Stocky words like gesundheit ("good health") often turn feeble from over usage, but a dull word is about as useful as a dull blade. Both hack and saw and chop, but hardly expose much worth tasting. Words too easily pass over our lips that have not passed through our awareness.

I fear "bless you" may suffer from a similar fate. One is liable to hear plenty of "bless you's" this time of year, what with cold season now right on its way. And for those of us who have grown up in the South, it seems we've been trained from birth to lead our latest gossip with "bless his/her heart." Folks from other parts soon discover this is often little nothing more than code language for "I'm giving myself permission to say what I otherwise would never say about him/her." Turns out, it may just be the speaker's heart that needs the blessing. (But that's a meditation for another day.)

What is in the Biblical tradition a rich and compelling verb—to bless—tends to be shopworn in our everyday usage. Like the gesundheit in the joke, we have lost sight of its grand origins. Behind its usage in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, is a deep conviction that words have power (Psalm 34:13). Words matter, because God has endowed us with the impressive ability to bespeak what we think, feel, and perceive (James 3:5). Words are like dynamite: They can either blast away obstructions so that living water can flow, or they can tear down precious structures that are difficult to rebuild. Either we bless or we curse, but in both cases there is great power in play. Words matter. No wonder that the gospel of John imagines the Father speaking the world into existence through the Son (John 1:1-4, the "Word").

So "to bless the name of the Lord" is to point the power of our praise and awe in the direction of God, who is worthy of both. In our singing and our praying, on Sunday or on any day, we offer potent words to celebrate what we have come to know of God's grace. Worship is not merely a cerebral nod in the general direction of a benevolent cosmic force. Christian worship is the bold act of passing powerful, specific words of thanks and wonder across our lips, directing them always to the ears of the great Triune God—that One who is Speaker, Word, and Breath. "Bless you, O Lord," is not a response to a Divine Sneeze, were such a thing even to exist; it is our most basic form of celebration for who God is, has been, and will always be (Psalm 103).


Take a little time each evening, just before your living gives way to resting, to bless the Lord for the graces and gifts of the day now gone (Psalm 96:2). Be specific. Be bold. Bespeak a true blessing. Gather up a few words of thanks for the one who has so generously given you another day. Even better, bless the only Lord of Life who will surely see you through another night. After all, it is not for great sneezes that we bless the Lord, but for so great a salvation.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.
Psalm 103:2