Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On a Sense of Place: From Edwin O'Connor's "The Edge of Sadness"

"For this was a moment I had postponed for a long time, and one I had never dreamed would finally take place.... I had come back, not to stay, but only for an hour or so -- long enough to see and savor again...that small and surprisingly unchanged part of the city where I was born and had spent so much of my life, where I knew every building and back alley as well as I knew my own front yard, where I had been a young priest, where I had had my own parish, and where, as in no place else, I had belonged, I had been at home. I suppose it's the mark of the provincial man, but in any case I find I have a special and lasting love for this place, which is so obviously just a place, which has no particular beauty or grace or grandeur of scene, but which is, quite simply, a neighborhood, my neighborhood, a compound of sights and smells and sounds that have furnished all my years. What kind of a man is it who, after almost fifty years, can still spend half his time remembering the cry of the chestnut man, as it came floating down the street on a winter night...?"

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Conviction and Humility

Grant us grace to pursue passionate conviction with commensurate humility. Conviction without humility tends toward coercion and eventual violence. Humility without conviction tends toward mere sentimentalism and eventual subjectivism. Passionate conviction with commensurate humility. This is the way of truth in love.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Disappointment and Hope: Martha Speaks to Jesus

In the daily lectionary for today, the gospel passage -- John 11:17-29 -- locates us in the midst of the story of Jesus and the raising of Lazarus. Yesterday's text -- John 11:1-16 -- launched us into the story. Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha, has fallen deathly ill. The sisters send word of the illness to Jesus. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live in the village of Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem. Jesus, seeking to avoid further controversy and danger from his recent visit to Jerusalem, is a good distance away with his disciples, across the Jordan River. Though Jesus has a close relationship with the sisters and brother, when he receives the news of Lazarus' condition he enigmatically decides to remain in the trans-Jordan area for two more days. After those days, Jesus determines to go to Bethany in response. His disciples, deeply anxious, remind him of the danger in being so close to Jerusalem. As they all know too well, powerful figures in the city desire to do away with him. Nevertheless, Jesus departs for Bethany, and the disciples grimly accompany him.

Martha, hearing that Jesus is nearing the village, goes out to meet him. And here we come to one of the truly plaintive addresses to Jesus in the entire gospels. Martha greets Jesus with these words, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." (John 11:21, 22; NRSV.) Do we not hear the anguish in the conditional statement, "If you had been here..."? Do we not perceive the rebuke in the unstated conclusion, almost accusation, "...but you were not"? And so Lazarus, dear brother of Martha and Mary, has died, to the sisters' great sorrow. Then Martha continues to Jesus, "But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him." (John 11:22; NRSV.) And do we not hear in this second statement the beginnings of Martha's inward movement of heart and soul toward trust and hope in Jesus, despite the disappointing and painful circumstances? In these two sentences addressed to Jesus, we come to one of the great significances for us of this gospel story of death and life.

For just as we find ourselves at this point in the midst of the biblical narrative of Lazarus' illness and Martha's response to Jesus after her brother's death -- a response marked by seeming disappointment and anguish, then tentative trust and hope -- so we hear the story speaking to us in our particular circumstances. Most of us at times find ourselves disappointed and even anguished with life, whether a specific situation or a more general and overall character. We, like Martha, live in the narrative of those two sentences. Frustration, sorrow, pain. Jesus, if only you were here, things would be different. Trust, hope, love. Jesus, you are compassion incarnate, life in and beyond death. All things are possible with you. Between our birth, rebirth, death, and resurrection in Jesus, the story of our life moves through the hard space, the potential space, between Martha's two sentences: a narrative of lament and praise interwoven.