Creative Team Building and Leadership Resources - In our Elements

Enough Already

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Proverbs 30:7-9) transports me to the the mid 1950s Milledgeville, Georgia home of novelist Flannery O’Connor. Having gained the reputation as one of the more brilliant short story writers, O’Connor was stung one day by a critic who said that while her stories were intriguing, she wasn’t particular gifted at writing good sentences. She took that criticism as a personal challenge, and like Miss Willerton, one of the characters in a story she had written ten years earlier, she set out to craft the perfect first sentence for her next story. What came out as the opening sentence to the short story You Can’t Be Poorer Than Dead, later expanded into the novel The Violent Bear It Away, is judged by many to be one of the more brilliant sentences in literature. Judge these 88 words for yourself: Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up. The novel goes on to do what O’Connor always does with such biting wit and vivid character description: lampooning the idiocy of rich and poor alike, all the while extolling the grace of God that comes from the most unlikely sources with the ability to break through the pomposity of the rich as well as the desperation of the poor.

The writer of Proverbs must have been a little like Miss Willerton and Flannery O’Connor, working and re-working words in the obsession to craft good sentences. There isn’t a narrative in this book, no in depth character studies or plot lines. Just a series of stand-alone sentences. And here in the 30th chapter, we get what I judge to be one of the more brilliant sentences in the Bible, if not in all of literature. Judge these 64 words for yourself, as the proverbial sage distills his prayer life down to a simple two-fold request: Two things I ask of you; do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, or I shall be full, and deny you, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or I shall be poor, and steal, and profane the name of my God. A perfect ethic if ever there was one. Honesty, and avoidance of reckless riches and profane poverty. It is a petition we should all be reciting every day in our devotional lives, every time we gather for worship. Hear our prayers, O God, and may we live to see them answered!

Just imagine what our communities would look like if God granted this simple two-fold request to all of humanity. Give us integrity, and save us from the twin disasters of poverty and wealth. I’m reminded of a prayer I heard in a church in Havana on my very first trip to Cuba in the late nineties, where an old man stood up and prayed, Lord, I want to be honest with you. We need a little more, but not too much. He knew the desperation of the poverty that came to Cuba during the Special Period of the nineties. He was also well aware of the dangers of concentrated wealth that lay 90 miles to his north. Lord, we want to be honest. Keep us from having too much or too little. We don’t want to be driven to steal our bread, and neither do we want to be driven to over-consume. Until we get serious with that prayer, and until we see it answered, we are doomed, I’m afraid, to live our lives resembling characters in a Flannery O’Connor short story or novel.

How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on FB, Google+, Twitter, etc.

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Comments

  • April 25, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    Speaking of first sentences, you had my full attention with yours today, Stan. Anytime Flanery O’Connor is mentioned, I sit up and take notice as she is one of my favorite writers. As for where this posting takes me on my faith journey, I imagine I am like many of your other regular readers: we recognize ourselves and our lives, where we really live them, in much of what you post. We are devotees of “In Our Elements” to hear a clear, honest voice in the cacophony of voices that make up our lives. Thank you.

    Comment by Mary Jo Crawford

  • April 25, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    This proverb has been a key text for me as well. I think of it as an ethic of sufficiency, an economy of manna. Our “preferential option for the poor” is not because poverty is to be recommended.

    Your story about the prayer overheard in a church in Havana reminds me of a pungent comment made by a member of our partner congregation in Camaguey. One in our delegation asked if he thought the US and Cuba would ever re-establish diplomatic relations.

    “Yes, I think so,” this lay leader–a middle-aged computer programmer–responded. “But my fear,” he continued, “my fear is that when that happens, your country will simply buy our country.”

    Hope and fear always seem to remain in a short stone’s throw from each other.

    Comment by Ken Sehested

  • April 26, 2012 at 7:21 am

    Mary Jo, thanks so much for the comments; it’s so gratifying to know that these posts are reaching some folks who find them meaningful. Glad to have you in the conversation!

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • April 26, 2012 at 7:23 am

    Ken, you’re right, we need not romanticize poverty and more than we do wealth. I like your term, ethic of sufficiency. It reminds me of another line from southern lit, Fred Chappel’s I Am One of You Forever, where the old man sitting at supper pushed his plate back, and when the host offered more, he said, “No, that was a humble sufficiency; anything more would be a superfluity.”

    Comment by Stan Dotson

  • April 27, 2012 at 5:16 am

    Your great sentence remindes me of one in Loren Eisley’s “The Firmament of Time,” — There is a sense in which we can say that the planet, with its strange freight of life, is always just passing from the unnatural to the natural, from that Unseen which man has always reverenced to the small reality of the day.

    I am struck by his deep spirituality, borne out of his science, that reminds me of your theme: When/If we can be commensurate and accountable to the Unseen with what we have made seen, or with what we make the choice to see — like the Three Bears, not too much/hot/hard, not too little/cold/soft, perhaps we can see adequately and aright for the living of these days.

    Strange freight,
    Marc

    Comment by Marc Mullinax

  • April 28, 2012 at 6:25 am

    Great quote, Marc – haven’t read Loren Eisley in a long time, need to get him back off the shelf. Strange freight, indeed. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Stan Dotson


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