The following is one of the pieces from my upcoming collection of poetry, The Cardinal Turns the Corner, titled “Passion.” Hope you enjoy it! I can’t wait to share this new book with you. For more information on the book release, read here.
My wife’s grandfather passed away a few days ago, and his funeral is this morning in South Carolina. This poem is in honor of Elbert Benjamin Newman, Sr.
I couldn’t help but notice your hands first, Granddaddy,
Your nails yellowed by coarse decades of work,
Your veins the color of wine.
Against the white cloth of your rolling hospice bed
They seemed translucent, thinning from the groan of
They’ve worn age well, these spotted hands,
Covered in the creases of your full life,
And I admit I laughed a little when your great-grandkids
Scooted close to say hello,
And you peered through the bifocaled tunnel of time
To smile back and twinkle two fingers
As best you could.
But when you winced and adjusted the tape on your bruising skin,
Scratching the IV in your limp fist,
I wanted to run out of that hospital,
Down the front, tightly-manicured lawn,
And leap into the clouds to see your life in sum,
Every living scene all at once.
I wanted to see those hands wriggle a ring on Grandmama’s finger,
Twist the ripcord of your parachute in the War,
Peel a hundred avocados, stranded in the Philippines.
I wanted to see you vote for Stevenson in ’52,
Build a furniture business with the strength of your iron will,
Raise a nurse, a preacher, and an heir to your company,
Then see your lineage expand
As generations branched and took your torch into the future.
I wanted to see your hands cradle each and every grandchild,
Each and every great-grandchild,
As you breathed in the lily air of new life.
I wanted to see your hands take up the fork and knife
And silently thank Grandmama’s every move with your cutting,
Pancakes, chicken, pie, and all her other glories,
Then gulp your gratitude after swishing sweet tea
From cheek to cheek.
They’ve worn age well, these spotted hands
That pulled me back down from the sky of my daydreaming
As if to say it’s time.
And it is.
So let us all smile and say goodbye, Granddaddy,
Loud enough for you to hear,
As we crowd around your recliner in our minds
And carry your legacy forward
Into another hundred years and more,
Speeding ever faster from a quiet pond in Camden.
William Blake (1757-1827) was a world-class poet and artist in England whose deceptively simple verses, though they did not resonate loudly in his own time, have served in recent years as shining examples of Romantic poetry in Britain during the time of the French Revolution right across the channel. Two particular publications of his, Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), represent what he termed the “contrary states of the human soul”, that is, the divide between the light and the dark that permeates each human heart. Blake was fascinated with the transition from innocence to experience, that elusive process of shedding childhood and donning adulthood, of seeing the sunlight of day set into the mystery of night.
For Blake, something seemed inevitably lost in the move from purity to worldly knowledge. In his poetry, he often ponders the divine, pure, and perhaps even godly innocence of a child and its painful peeling away as he or she becomes more sophisticated, cultured, educated, and experienced. He considers the grinding corrosiveness of city life (as it was flooded by scores of people drawn to the burgeoning, industrialized London) in stark contrast to the Edenic majesty of the countryside; it was a reminder to him of the unfortunate degeneration of aging against the lily-white innocence of a wild childhood in the fields. In short, Blake fixed his focus on the corrupting influence that growing up seems to have on the human experience.
So it is without wonder that one of his short pieces titled “My Pretty Rose Tree” exposes Blake’s nervousness and fear towards marriage as the poem examines the speaker’s attempt to preserve its sanctity and unity. Here’s the text:
A flower was offer’d to me,
Such a flower as May never bore;
But I said “I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree,”
And I passed the sweet flower o’er.
Then I went to my Pretty Rose-tree,
To tend her by day and by night;
But my Rose turn’d away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.
The poem is rather simple: the speaker resists the temptation to abandon his wife for another woman only to discover his wife turning away from him out of jealousy, leaving him in a state of despondency and loneliness.
Blake accomplishes many things in the course of this brief verse. It’s notable his central setting is the pastoral landscape (a favorite for Blake) in which discussions of innocence averting temptation take on symbolic meaning through flowers and rose-trees. One can even see the primal example of sinful enticement from the serpent in Genesis 3 evoked in the sweetness of the offered flower.
But the full power of the poem is its ironic turn in line 7. The reader seems to expect the speaker will be rewarded for his fidelity, that the Rose-tree will embrace her champion for resisting the lure. Yet, that is not Blake’s aim, and that is not his conclusion. So what are we to make of this sorrowful ending? What is Blake getting at?
The lonely, dejected condition of the speaker in the final line is a result of his attempt to create a good marriage on his own merits. He desires acceptance, praise, and devotion from his “Rose-tree” for having courageously and adamantly refused a sinful offer. Look how good I am at resisting temptation, he seems to say as he returns to his tree to “tend her by day and by night.” I have been so careful, so loyal, so good.
Such conceit and self-assurance, however, is not what produces strong, faithful marriages. No husband can hope to serve his wife and tend her well if he is looking to his own strength and grit-teeth commitment for validation. The problem of Blake’s poem – why does the rose-tree reject the speaker when he decidedly “passed the flower o’er”? – cannot be answered by human effort. Only God can bind a man and a woman together. It is not within human reason, imagination, will, or power to create or sustain a marriage. Only God can forge the two to become one flesh, and “what God has joined together, let no man tear asunder.”
So Blake’s poem concludes on a painfully tinny, ringing chord, unresolved. The speaker who had hoped his good work had earned a happy marriage is left confused, alone, and nestled knee-deep in thorns, and I cannot help but wonder how many of our marriages end on the same sour note. But I did everything I was supposed to do, the wife mutters. But I never cheated on her, not even once, the husband rants. I followed all the rules, did everything right, cooked and cleaned, provided for and protected…Why is my marriage in such ruins?
The quiet answer to these questions lies only in the God of good marriages. He is the author of all things good. God is Love, and our expressions of love to each other can only be completed in and through His indefinable grace. We cannot earn a good marriage. We can only look to Christ as the center of all things and pray He sustains our union through both the sorrows and the splendor. Remember, we may have excitedly slid rings on each other’s fingers, but only God can keep them there.
In the tail end of Ephesians 4, Paul shifts his thoughts from what are, as my dad calls them, the redwoods of theology and doctrine that constitute Ephesians 1-3 (you know, the veritable grab bag of predestination, depravity, progressive sanctification, and a side of nachos) toward the stuff of practical living. He begins in 4:25 with the exhortation to “put away falsehood” and to “not let the sun go down on your anger,” clear encouragement that is forthright and incisive.
But what seems to be fairly easy-going in the first few pieces – speak the truth, be angry and do not sin – becomes quite complicated as the list continues. By the end, we are told only to speak what is good for building up and to let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice be put away from us. Sheesh. It’s safe to say this collection of living wisdom requires the work of the Holy Spirit in us to bring it about, a truth which is more than likely Paul’s entire point.
Yet, as we rely on the Spirit of the Living God to be at work in us (Phil. 2:13), we are not given the allowance to drift slowly to sleep as Paul’s list reveals itself. Though it is God at work in us, we are still commanded to put our whole being to the task of sanctification with “fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
With this sort of focus and examination in mind, I’d like to hone in on one of Paul’s commands in particular:
“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” -Eph. 4:28
Though there is much to be gleaned from this verse on the virtue of work, the value of sharing, and the necessity of compassion in capitalism (for a separate post, I’m sure), I’d like to offer three observations regarding theft in the life of a Christian.
#1 – Taking what isn’t yours and not taking what is yours are both sins.
While the knee-jerk reading of this verse tends to lean toward a “Thou-shalt-not-steal” cautioning, we must not neglect the possibility of a more ubiquitous form of theft: robbing oneself. It is true that we must not steal what is not ours, but it is also true that we must not steal what has been freely given us by not allowing ourselves to enjoy it. This form of theft is quite familiar to many of us. How often have we refused the gift of forgiveness Christ offers? How many of us live under the condemnation and guilt of gracelessness when the grace of Christ has been extended to us? How many of us decline the gift the Giver has lavished on us in the name of self-reliance? For too many of us, we admit Christ broke the chains that bound us but rather than leave them at the foot of the cross, we pick them up and flagellate away. The chasm between penance and penitence is vast.
We must believe God when He says, “I give you grace, forgiveness, justification, joy.” To say no to these is to say no to Christ. We steal from ourselves when we acknowledge Christ with our mouths but decline the gift of salvation, the whole gift with all its bells and whistles.
#2 – Thieves steal more than treasure.
Stealing a car is bad. Stealing money from your neighbor is bad. Stealing time your children deserve is…well…
Though many American Christians balk at the notion they must be told not to steal (“Please, I wear a tie to work. I’m no thief.”), far too many of us steal regularly when it comes to the passing of our time. When Paul tells us we must no longer steal, we ought to look at the time we steal from our spouse by overcommitting to hobbies, time we steal from our children by lying on the couch, time we steal from our pastor by staying home. It would seem we do not need ski masks to be thieves.
#3 – Taking what must not be taken and not giving what must be given are both sins.
Similar to observation #1, this truth tends to glisten when you tilt the verse at an angle. Paul ends his verse with the overall purpose of the command: “…so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” Paul gives us the why. We must no longer steal but work heartily so that we may have something to share with anyone in need. This means that it is not enough to simply stop stealing and start earning. Hoarding is theft. When we fill our own barrels for the sake of grinning at their fullness, we rob those in need of what God has called us to share. As the sage once said, humans have two hands and one mouth. We ought to contribute twice as much as we consume.
Most importantly, we must remember that “honest work and just reward” (to quote Javert) existed pre-Fall, thus they are a design feature built in to God’s original plan for mankind. Adam was employed in the garden before he was evicted from the garden (Gen. 2:15). We must enjoy our work as a part of God’s design which means we must both give of our plenty and receive of God’s plenty with the widest of smiles.