A student sneezes in class. A fellow student says, “Bless you.” Somehow the student who uttered the blessing is suspended. How do we go from point A to point B? When I read about the incident in several online news sources, I was immediately confused. You can read about the events here: School Suspends Teen Who Said, “Bless You.”
All over the world there are cultural responses to sneezing, and the vast majority of them are verbal. Just because they lack the words “God” or “bless” does not mean that they are not blessings being offered to the one who sneezed. Many articulate wishes for good health, speedy recovery (assuming the sneeze was a sign of illness), and long life. While I personally wish we did not need a sneeze as a catalyst for such interactions, I am grateful that people still wish good things for one another, even if it comes out perfunctory. To respond is to show concern, to acknowledge presence, and to open space for interaction. Most times the subject of the good wishes is thankful for the response, even replying “thank you” in some form. Is it an evil to show interest in another person? Let me assume that you want nothing to do with my God or my God’s blessings, but does that mean that you want to be isolated and ignored?
In American culture and social etiquette, the “bless you” response is almost innate. Many times I have said it even while preaching before I could help myself. Looking back on it, it helped me to look beyond myself and look to another person who might be struggling with illness or allergies. It makes me focus outside me and upon another person of significant worth in God’s eyes. That is a good and joyful thing, not to be so self involved. We may never know exactly what transpired in that Tennessee school room, and I accept that. What disturbs me is the notion that we are truncating the relationality of being in close proximity and living in community. All over the world our actions elicit reactions. If the worst reaction one of my actions induces is a blessing from a deity or for good health, then I count myself lucky indeed. In a world where people respond all too readily with violence and offense, a well wish is a welcome relief. If a Buddhist blesses me, then thank you. If a Hindu offers a prayer for my long life, then I am honored to be acknowledged. If an Atheist wishes me to feel better soon, than I rejoice in our drawing closer even for just a moment. The response is not the issue for me, but the intention. If we desire to stop our activity to connect even for a few syllables, then God bless that. If that is unacceptable to someone, then I pray that God blesses them anyway.