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.