Achoo, Thank You, Bless You, Bless the Lord!
Are you bothered by cashiers and others in customer service jobs when they don’t say “thank you?” I am. Recently I was at a national restaurant chain of the “fast casual” type (name starts with “P”), and the young man who took my order was being trained by a young lady. Both of them barely acknowledged my presence, just enough to get my order; they were both focused on the training aspect of their work and almost not all on the customer service aspect. Neither of them said “thank you” after I paid for my order. To be fair, the lady that delivered my order was very friendly and thankful.
This happens to us a lot. We stand in line, we pay money for goods or services, and the cashier, waiter, front desk person, or whoever does not say “thank you.” I am bothered by this. My bothered reaction has roots in my twelve-year experience in my teens and 20s working many service jobs, the first of which was bagging at Jewel at the age of 16. Following that job I worked in the fish market, served the cafeteria in college, sold shoes, worked retail clothing, delivered office supplies, worked in two family-owned pharmacies, and worked as a bank teller. I said “thank you” to nearly every customer no matter how I was feeling. It was the simplest thing I could do to recognize our common humanity in those jobs.
One of the joys of working in a service job is getting to know the regular customers. While working at the second family-owned pharmacy I was a college graduate and going to school again to become a teacher. I would often read while working as a cashier in between customers, and my reading led me into discussions with a regular customer, a retired professor of linguistics from Lithuania. At the time I was a relatively new “born again” Christian, and I was very passionate about my evangelical faith. The professor was an atheist. I was in my mid-20s and grew up in the comfortable suburbs of northwest Chicago in a Christian, church-going family. The professor was in his mid-70s, and while he had fond memories of his childhood in Lithuania, his country was dominated by Poland, the Soviets, and Germany in World War II. He graduated from college early and was rounded up not long after with nearly all other 200,000 Lithuanian Jews and sent to the concentration camps. He was the sole survivor of his family; nine of ten Lithuanian Jews did not survive the Holocaust. Lithuania was an important center of Jewish philosophy and practice for centuries and their community was wiped out in less than three years. I don’t remember the gentleman’s name, but I remember the prisoner number tattooed on his arm. I remember our deep conversations about philosophy, the existence or non-existence of God, and science and evolution. I most especially remember how gracious he was and how he witnessed through his life’s story to the importance of giving thanks for everything. He was fluent in several languages and was functionally literate in several more languages. He learned how to say basic pleasantries like “hello” and “thank you” in countless languages. He taught me how to say “thank you” in about two dozen languages. “Thank you” in Lithuanian is “ach’-oo” [ačiū.].
In English those two syllables “achoo” are associated with sneezing and with our reply of “bless you” or “God bless you.” How interesting it must be for Lithuanian speakers living in the U.S. to have these repetitive sounds and words constantly bouncing around in their daily experiences: sneezing / “thank you,” “bless you,” “thank you” / sneezing, “bless you,” and so on … Why do we “bless” people when they sneeze? No one knows for sure, though there are several possibilities, some related to the connection of the body to an individual’s soul or the presence of spirits. In some suggested reasons for the practice, sneezing itself is a sign of being “blessed” or having “good luck” or conferring the same to those sneezed upon. Conversely, “bless you” to the sneezer may have to do with bestowing protection in the presence of evil spirits. We simply don’t know. But we do know that the practice of saying “bless you” to an “achoo” is an expression of good manners, just as saying “thank you” to a customer should be an expression of good manners.
If you look at the cover of the bulletin you will see a word cloud of all 150 Psalms from the Bible. A word cloud is a visual depiction of a text where word frequency influences the size of the word. I spent some time last week making this image using a plain English version of the Psalms with the help of a website that creates word clouds. You can choose shapes or upload your own and tweak several parameters to adjust the outcome. After much trial and error I received the image you see this morning, and then I highlighted the words “praise” and “thanks.” This image represents approximately the 100 most frequently used words in the Psalms, including their variations. As you can see, “praise” and “thanks” are quite common. You will also noticed several negative words, especially “enemies,” and others of less frequency but still in the top 100, such as “wicked,” “destroy,” “attack,” “oppressed,” “shame,” and “evil.” However, notice how the “Lord” and positive words dominate the Psalms. As we heard in the other three sermons on the Psalms this month, the Psalms address head on the full range and depths of human and historical experience, of distress and devastation in all sorts of circumstances. With few exceptions, the Psalms of “lament” are often poetic expressions of why we should praise God, thank God, bless God. So many Psalms express the distress of being surrounded by enemies, and yet the authors cry out to God to “bless his name.”
In verses 8-10 of Psalm 103 we heard:
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.”
In other Psalms, such as Psalm 9, that speak of God’s judgment, we encounter words like these in verses 7 & 8:
“But the Lord sits enthroned forever, he has established his throne for judgment. He judges the world with righteousness; he judges the peoples with equity.”
As hard as it is to understand, God’s judgment is an important part of God’s blessings and mercy. The Psalmist in verse two of Psalm 103 encourages us to
“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.”
The scholars point out that the word for “benefits” here almost always means “recompenses” or “retributions” in other places. The connection here between “judgment” and “blessing” is so important to struggle with and grasp, as tenuous as our grasp may be. We are to “bless” God for his actions of judgment. The Psalmist explains the connection in verses 6 & 7:
“The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.”
Vindication and justice for the oppressed implies judgment and correction of those who are doing the oppressing. God’s people in Israel knew this truth in Egypt, and so did their Egyptian oppressors … eventually. After the exodus from Egypt, Israel herself would experience episodes of being oppressed again and of being the oppressor. God’s heart for vindication and justice remains and holds within all of the tensions of our complex and complicated human history, as symbolized in the heart-shaped word cloud.
And now here is the real tricky part to living a life of “blessing the Lord,” of living a life of gratitude no matter what comes our way. We each have our own individual and incredibly small vision of how the world should be, and thus we are occasionally or even constantly disturbed and annoyed by the way the world works because it seems so obvious to us that this, that, or the other thing should not have happened, or should have happened, or so-and-so should not have done this or should have done that.We can learn from the Psalms, even with all of their requests to God to dispense judgment, that God’s judgment is proportional to circumstances and that the “steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting,” in the words of Psalm 103, verse 17. God’s love, mercy, and grace are unbounded, everlasting. Whatever situations we find ourselves in, we can rejoice and give praise to God’s name. As you know, this is not easy to do because we are finite creatures and are sometimes caught up in circumstances that are grim, oppressive, and seemingly hopeless. Yet, it is precisely in those times that we can find hope in praising God’s name because, as with sneezing and “bless you” and saying “thank you,” we can verify our createdness, our common humanity, our desperation for something better by uttering those simple words, “thank you” … “bless you.” They may not be consciously directed at God, but those simple words go out into the universe as appeals to a higher ideal of mutuality and respect and love. Uttering the words “thank you,” at their core, remind us we are not alone and that we need others for our very survival.
Focusing on the narrow outcomes of life will lead us to narrow outlooks on life.
How many times have you told yourself, “If only …,” and then your imagination spirals into other scenarios of regret or revenge in an attempt to replace what actually happened with what should have happened? Many times, I am sure. Be heartened, however, because you are not alone. Even Jesus, even God himself suffers from the same “what if” mindset. Jesus begged to bypass the crucifixion. God repented of his planned destruction of Nineveh in the story of Jonah. This is why blessings and mercy and love do and must come before all things, and the simplest way we can keep that truth always before us and in us is by expressing thanks and ultimately by praising God for who God is–the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sustainer of us all–not for discrete actions in history and in our individual lives, accomplishments, and stuff. Of course we should be thankful for the things that sustain us, but we should be careful not to confuse stuff with God’s character, with God’s essence because it is all too easy to seek and be satisfied with the “stuff” instead of seeking the “stuffer,” as it were.
In our Wesleyan tradition we emphasize that, to quote our denomination’s website:
“Our inner thoughts and motives, as well as our outer actions and behavior, are aligned with God’s will and testify to our union with God.”
God’s will is not about discrete outcomes, whether or not this or that happens, God’s will is about an outlook on life. Remember, in the very beginning, God’s first commandment is to “be fruitful and multiply,” not to do this and not that. First, the will of God and our will should be aligned in our outlook on life. As Moses said in one of his last speeches in Deuteronomy 30:19 & 20:
“Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.”
As Jesus said in John 10:10:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
As Paul preached in Romans 12:2:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Some Christian traditions teach that everything happens according to God’s will. Everything … even the Holocaust. That is a very bitter pill to swallow. My old, customer friend at the pharmacy could not swallow that pill. He lived according to God’s heart, according to God’s will, despite his intellectual and existential disbelief in God, which was fully justified by his experience. He understood the humility and the power of living the “thank you” outlook on life. He gained a deeper insight into the reality of the amazing blessing of life. I’d like to think God is quite pleased with his “thank you’s” and his life of graciousness and that God does not mind much about his earthly rejection of the classical belief in a God, pulling the strings of a marionette universe. I can only assume these 20+ years later that my Lithuanian linguist friend is now with God at the other end of time when and where we all know and live the true will of God, the great “shalom,” the “eternal peace” intended for creation from the beginning. Let us pray …
Thank you, dear God … [prayer] … Amen.