Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Who is this? I have no idea. A somber-looking stranger, sitting on a bench beside some spectacular roses in Hexham, England. I didn't even take the photo--Mike did. But there's something in it that arrests me. For lately I've been thinking a lot about gratitude--actually, my lifetime habit of IN-gratitude, of taking for granted the unutterable riches that have come to me by virtue of being alive on this earth. And there's something in this stranger's face that bespeaks the opposite, despite his distant expression. For he looks to me like a man who's suffered, who knows the worst that can happen to a fragile human being. Yet he stations himself within the realm of beauty. Knowing full well how fleeting is life, he is grateful for the mutable, the brief but stunning blossoming of roses.

Today's Old Testament reading was one that has always made me shudder: the faithful Hebrew mother whose seven sons are to be slaughtered before her eyes for their refusal to engage in profane practices. If they remain steadfast, they are all doomed, these young men she once carried through pregnancy, nursed and protected and raised to healthy adolescence despite the dangers of the world. What does she tell them? "I do not know how you came into existence in my womb; it was not I who gave you the breath of life nor was it I who set in order the elements of which each of you is composed. Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shapes each man's beginning, as he brings about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law" (2 Maccabees 7: 20-31).

Her grateful awe for the miracle of their existence is so profound that she does not even think of selfishly clinging to them. Instead, she urges them to be noble, to be true to their faith, to respect the God who gave them life by refusing to defile his holy name. And so they die, and she is left alone, a widow with no sons to care for her. Her gratitude is not thoughtless or cheap but comes at a terrible price: loss, grief, insecurity.

I look at the stranger in this photo, his white shirt carefully buttoned to the neck, the cane that rests beside him against the bench, and I see the marks of physical pain upon his face, pain that has perhaps kept him from a life he truly wanted: wife, children, grandchildren, a community of friends. There's loneliness in that distant gaze. Without the roses, he might well become an icon of suffering.

The roses, however, redeem the scene. Their fragile beauty speaks of grace, the limitless bounty of a generous God, his endless showering of love upon the world. And this man knows that. You can see it in his grip upon the handrail, the resting of his weary hand beside the flowers. Unlike me, who demands perfect safety for my loved ones, who whines about shaky finances and lost opportunities and political disappointments, this man is grateful for what he has been given: a warm place in the sun, a bow of exquisite blossoms.

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