What does "God bless you", mean?? I’ve been sifting it lately, trying to get to the root. It feels right to say it when that stranger in the grocery aisle sneezes. I don’t know why...it just does. It feels like a compassionate gesture of solidarity. It’s like in saying "God bless you", what we’re really saying to each other is, "I acknowledge YOU (and your sneeze). There’s no need for embarrassment. Even though you honked that wet, beastly sneeze out, I want you to know I’ve been there too. We’re in this together!" The blessing is usually offered with a comforting wink and smile, and typically returned with a bashful, "Thank you".
But beyond the confines of sneezes, "God bless you", has always been that one phrase; the one that doesn’t roll off my tongue well. When I consider using it, it gets hung up somewhere in the back of my throat, in that space where my ‘nervous spit reserves’ are stored; just for moments like this, so my emergency ‘nervous spit’ can strategically pile up around my words forming an impassable blockade.
For those of us who grew up "Christian", we’re well acquainted with the specific scenarios where "God bless you" is customary and merited. The scenarios include, but are not limited to, the completion of a selfless act such as helping stranded motorists, walking blind elderly pedestrians across busy intersections and caring for the homeless. "God bless you", is also widely used when Christians meet fellow Christians at random. But being that I can’t seem to form the words unless initiated by a sneeze, has made me wonder (at times), what my issue is.
All this blessing business began to trouble me EXTRA, this week...
As I rolled to a stop at the end of my freeway exit, I could see him. I knew he would be there. He’s always there. Standing at his corner, in his spot; ankle deep in parched, yellow clumps of untrimmed grass and weeds. He holds a sign that says something about food and money and maybe a job too. Last week his sign said he was a vet.
For years I evaded the searching glances of the "corner dwellers". I’d approach the intersections with caution, doors (double) locked. Once pinned between the red light and that forlorn expression, I’d feel suddenly inspired to carefully examine the carpet and the passenger seat or maybe aimlessly scroll through my phone for anything to keep me from having to make eye contact.
Eye contact was the last thing I wanted because making eye contact means I can’t deny that I’ve seen him. I can’t ignore him and his needs. I can’t just flee this scene of insufficiency in my comfortable, working vehicle; retiring in relief to my provision-filled life.
About a year ago. I met a girl who works with the homeless population of downtown Seattle. She confessed to me that she also used to struggle with feelings of guilt and shame over having so much in the presence of someone who has seemingly nothing. She understood the burden of wanting to do something; anything, but feeling overwhelmed by the blatant magnitude of the problem.
Cuz 5, 10, 20 or even a hundred dollars isn’t the cure...it’s a band-aid. Offering money might ease my conscience, but that person will (most likely) still be standing on that corner tomorrow, looking for more.
While understanding of my struggle, this person challenged me to see the homeless ‘corner dwellers’ differently. Not as mere unabashed beggars, working that sympathy card, but as fellow humans, worthy of acknowledgement. Maybe money is an appropriate gesture...but maybe it’s not. Maybe money is an impossible gesture, but eye contact, a smile or a small wave go far to affirm a person and their value; acknowledging that they possess real thoughts, emotions and obvious struggles. These simple, nearly effortless interactions are offerings of compassion.
So, over the past year I’ve been intentionally, cheerfully acknowledging the homeless men and women who pace the roadside near my car. I don’t have cash to share, but what I have I give often and freely: granola bars and water.
Which brings me to the incident…
The paragraph earlier, about the familiar guy who stands at my freeway exit with his sign...he’s real. Over the past few months I can’t tell you how many granola bars and water bottles I’ve off-loaded on him. He’s always very appreciative. When I have nothing physical to offer, I make it a point to smile and acknowledge his presence.
There were a couple of weeks where I had nothing to offer and could spare only smiles, but as I was leaving my house a few days ago, his weathered face came to my mind. Having gone shopping, I made sure to load my purse with snacks for him before darting out the door.
I was just about home from spending a lovely, kid-free afternoon with a dear friend, and there he was, on his corner, as usual. I suddenly remembered my stash and quickly rolled down my window to hand them over. He accepted them sweetly and you wouldn’t believe what awkwardly came out of my mouth as the light began to turn green… “God bless you”.
The entire 2 mile stretch, from the freeway exit to my front door, I spent in stunned disbelief. How did those words so easily tumble out of my mouth?? Why had I said it? Of course I wanted God to bless him, but I’ve never felt comfortable saying "God bless you". Those words belonged with nuns and grandmothers, but not me. Even as I spoke them, I wondered why I was saying them. The words felt so flat and forced. What had compelled me to say "God bless you"? I wished desperately that he had sneezed!!
Was I trying to make a shrouded proclamation that this benevolent granola-bar wielding philanthropist was assuredly a Christian? Did I say it because I believed those words would change something within him or alter his circumstances somehow?? I wondered if he felt God’s blessing. I wondered if my words settled in his ears, leaving him with more questions than answers.
Here’s the thing...I think that generations of old have shared the phrase, "God bless you" with passion and fervor. They meant it and the recipients appreciated the sentiment. It worked because when people heard it, the interpretation was, "God loves you" or "I wish HIM to be with you". The problem for me is this: I don’t know that "God loves you" is the contemporary interpretation. I kind of think it’s not. Times have changed and people have changed. The old one-liners don’t work like they used to...they don’t even work well on us church folk. Possibly "God bless you" has become cliche.
So, today I saw a shirt that said, "Non-believers doing good, doing good for goodness sake". I have to admit, it sort of irritated me, but writing this now, I think there’s a deeper issue there that might need to be addressed...and it’s a hard one. We, Christians, struggle to just love and help and obey the silent urgings of our hearts without publicly claiming the deed for God.
Writer and fellow traveler on the road of life.