Faces on Faith: Well, bless your heart!
My mother is a native of Vermont – as was my grandmother. Mom was raised in the southwest corner of the Green Mountain State, in Bennington. And, as is true of most Vermonters, still waters runs deep. She never really wore her emotions on her sleeve. Don’t misunderstand, she was (and is) affectionate, and we all knew we were loved – but there is a certain stoicism about her so typical of Vermonters. Over the course of her life, Mom has lived in a number of places, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Nebraska and for some 25 or 30 years now, Kentucky. Still, through the many moves, Mom remained a Vermonter – so imagine my surprise when she started using a colloquialism no Vermonter would ever use on any sort of regular basis. I think I first heard her use it when she was talking several years ago about some difficulty my disabled father was experiencing. After she told me of his latest physical limitation she shook her head and said, “Bless his heart!”
Now granted, if you come from the South you understand – sometimes the phrase is used with a touch of irony – as if to say, “You poor soul, you really don’t understand do you?” The New Englander goes to Kentucky and orders tea at a restaurant, and gets iced tea instead of the hot tea she was expecting. She complains, and the waitress says, “Well bless your heart, honey, down hear tea always means cold tea. We just need to know if you want it sweet or not.”
But often, the phrase is used in a positive way to emphasize one’s gratitude or appreciation. A neighbor stops by to bring you a plate of homemade cookies and you say, “Well, bless your heart! These look delicious! Thank you so much!” At other times it can be used as a way of saying, “I feel for you, I empathize with you – I know you are dealing with something difficult and I hope you will experience healing and grace.” Which, basically, is what my mother meant that first time I heard her use it.
A Hebrew word often used in Bible is barakh. It can translate as “to bless” or “to be strong” or “to kneel.”
Blessing is a way we seek to invoke God’s favor. When you invoke, you call on someone or something to help. When we are invoking God’s favor, we are calling on God to be of assistance in a particular situation. I sneeze. You say, “God bless you.” It is a way of wishing me good health. It is a way of saying, “I hope you don’t get sick.” If God is the source of all healing and health, who better to invoke at such a time. God bless you!
Following 9/11 there was a dramatic upsurge in the use of Irving Berlin’s song “God Bless America.” In many baseball stadiums, it was added to the regular singing of the national anthem and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Many a church service ended with it – as did a wide variety of other public gatherings. As a nation under siege, we cried out in song, invoking God’s favor, God’s protection. God bless America.
But blessing in the Bible extends beyond our own circle, for it calls on us to be a blessing to others.
Physician Rachel Remen relates the story told to her by one of her colleagues – an internist named Frank. One Monday he was scheduled to see one of his patients, 80-year-old Mrs. Gonzales. She was in the last stages of breast cancer and no more active treatment was available to her. But he saw her every week to monitor her pain.
That day Frank met with her as usual, made the necessary adjustments in her medications, and then, before going on to the next patient, he paused to consider if there was anything else he might do for her. And seemingly out of nowhere came a thought: offer to pray with her. Frank was not a religious man. He hadn’t prayed with any regularity in years. The idea seemed a bit risky to him. But finally he decided to follow the inner prompting.
“Mrs. Gonzales,” he said, “perhaps it would be good if we prayed together.”
Mrs. Gonzales started to cry. And then said, “That would be very wonderful, doctor.”
But, she told him, I am Catholic. And she was most comfortable kneeling to pray.
For Frank, the risk factor went up a notch, but he agreed, and very slowly helped her to her knees and then knelt beside her.
Mrs. Gonzales prayed in Spanish, and then in English. And when she was done, Frank remembered a childhood prayer and repeated it as they knelt together.
“Then,” writes Remen, “very gently the old woman reached across and touched his cheek. (Then) first in Spanish and then in English she asked God to bless him and strengthen him in doing his important work. (Frank) says he can still feel the touch of her hand even six months later. He remembers it when things get tough, and it helps him.” (Kitchen Table Wisdom, 254) And prayer has become a regular part of his practice and his life.
Barakh – to bless, to be strong, to kneel.
God’s favor not only invoked for ourselves, but passed along to others as well.
Might God bless your heart – so that you might bless the hearts of others.
The Rev. Dr. John H. Danner is the senior pastor at Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ.