As I was driving to pick up my great granddaughter this morning, I was praying for these poems. It occurred to me, as I prayed, that I really don’t know where my poetry comes from. I desire to be a poet, yet in some odd way I feel more like a transcriber than an originator. (I do not mean by this to say that these poems are written by God or carry some special godly authority. I do mean to say that these poems are the result of a nearly life long conversation with God about God and me—and, in that conversation, suddenly, often without expectation, as a kind of surprise, a poem emerges, as it were, “out of the blue.” Lewis was “surprised by joy”; I am often surprised by poetry.) I rarely sit down to write a poem; I am often compelled to write a poem. An idea or turn of phrase occurs to me and, then, there it is. These that follow are the result of that conversation and have been in some sense brewing for quite a while.
[Crucifix by Will Johnson]
THE 7 WORDS
These are not the last words;
He has much more to say along the way:
Next to the beach over a cooking fire,
Walking along a road after Jerusalem,
In locked door rooms; in a garden
outside a tomb. Ascending. These, instead,
are his dying words.
People once listened and carefully recorded
Last words; it is possible to find collections
Of famous last words. I’m told persons,
Thoughtful about their deaths, once composed
Such lines in anticipation. A legacy of famous words.
These seven words are spoken by a dying man, hanging
From a cross. These words are from a used cross
Rooted in bloodied rock. These words, not his last,
Ring a surprising tone of compassion.
For all others; perhaps, even for us; for his mother’s
Well being; for a repentant random other
Crucified alongside him. Human words.
Words you might expect from a dying man—
Abandonment, thirst, yielding. Ordinary words
For the most part made holy by
Circumstance and speaker.
Word 1. “forgive”
This is no execution looked away from, locked
Away and seen only by a few official witnesses.
This is no lethal injection administered with
Clinical correctness in a sterile room on a gurney.
No chair wired for quick startling death.
This is public death. Officials and passersby can
Chat as they watch and lay odds about the certain,
If eventual, outcome. Not odds on if, only when.
Nothing hidden here. No modesty. The pain.
The blood. The nakedness. The anguish. The blood.
Thirst. Death displayed in front of God and everybody.
Then, this word—“forgive.” It must have silenced the
Noise momentarily, at least. Passersby stood, perplexed,
Mouths open. (Such perplexing irony. The one unlawfully
Condemned—a victim of power politics and privilege—
Says “Forgive them.”) Yet, unwilling to consider what this
Word means, too quickly return to idle chatter
And easy mockery, missing this cosmic moment
when dying God intervened
For mercy on those who have accomplished his death.
Word 2. “paradise”
A conversation on crosses.
A conversation in extremis.
Straining for breath, rasping out words,
Like after a hard run or a steep climb.
Parched words. Hoarse.
Straining muscle to pull up, to take a breath
To expel words with one who speaks words
Of anger and escape and one who
Speaks words of hope and release.
As they hang dying, they discuss their fates.
One, at least, regardless of the obvious, senses
Something more here, something else and begs.
Asks to be remembered. Re-membered.
Remember these bones. Remember me.
You will be remembered, the One says, and it
Will be paradise. A garden. You will be remembered
As you were…no, as you were intended. As we all
Were intended in that place of rivers and peace,
Of beauty and order where all was as it was meant to be:
“with me.” Today. With me. In paradise. As once
I walked with the father and mother of us all
In the cool of the evening, so we, today, in paradise,
Word 3. “Behold”
What do you notice when you are dying? A fly?
An unfamiliar noise? The smells of dying?
In moments of anguish, what do you hear
While other friends and family hide?
Two are near, a woman and a man.
One you call mother and one you call
Beloved. You notice, in midst of your pain, they
Are alone. Bereft. Your cross, your death, creates a
Welcoming space where two alone can meet
And embrace and find connection in face of
Anguish shared is anguish borne and loss
Is found begins to fill:
Mother, your son; beloved, your mother.
In the midst of such startling pain, such desperate ache,
Such dangerous despair, two meet and secure a
Sacred space and begin their journey to peace. The
Sword piercing her heart is slowly released and
Word 4. “forsaken”
He begged to be spared this.
He begged to avoid the deep pain of deeper loss.
He begged for another way to sidestep this valley.
This well of loneliness, a lightless hole that sucks
All light and life leaving more absence of light
Than dark. He begged and bled through his pores.
He tasted this tasteless bread and drank this flat wine.
No surcease. Nothing. Absence. Forsaken. Abandoned.
He, once one with his father, is now alone, alone, alone.
All, all alone.
Yet, still, he calls on the abandoning father to
Understand why such despair is necessary.
What does he learn in this absent light?
What we all know as existential loss—
An untethering from the source. Anchorless.
An unreachable pier. A severed rope to which we
Clung. A rootless tree.
Word 5. “thirst”
The incarnation in a simple sentence. Subject Verb.
In the midst of a cosmic-everything-changing-moment,
This essential human need. Stretched between
Heaven and earth—never more human.
Never holier. The word made flesh
And thirsted among us. We are 60% water.
An ocean flows in us, yet
We know thirst. Headaches. Muscle aches.
Thirst focuses our attention more than any
Other need—all consuming thirst.
We die more quickly from thirst
Than hunger. The body drains and must be
He who said I have food you know not of as
He sat by Jacob’s well; he who spoke and
Bound the sea that covered the world,
Word 6. “finished”
In every beginning, there is an end. Death has
Stalked this one since the age of two. The end arrives;
Death closes in. Eagerly. But why? What is needed?
A fulfilled sacrificial ritual to satisfy and pay off
An angry, hurt God demanding ransom? There are
Those who say so. Is it nothing more than
The end of a life, well, yes, it is that.
But is there more to this word?
I have done all I know to do.
I have been all I know to be.
I have loved courageously, even recklessly.
My heart has bled and my pores as well.
I’ve given sight; I’ve straightened limbs;
I’ve settled spirits and made mad men sane;
I’ve brought the dead to life—after days
Of stinking flesh. What more might I have
Done that I did not do? What more can I have
Been than I am?
Nothing, I think, nothing more than this:
That I lay down my life for my friends—
And foes. Why? Because I love you with the fierce
Love of my Father and want the world to know,
To see the wild beating heart of God.
Here it is—I show it to you even as it slows and stops.
This is God’s heart broken for you—all of you
Who hate me and who love me. The father’s
Heart for you. It is enough.
Word 7. “reunion”
A God has one son and sends him away
To a far country where the son works
Hard on the God’s behalf to help all see
The God’s heart. The son walks and walks.
Talks and loves; heals and feeds multitudes
And individuals. The son goes far and
Wide and says, pointing to his heart,
“This,” this is the heart of God
And not that bloody temple.” The son loves
Recklessly, at risk and in danger, always
Misunderstood, because the God had been
So misunderstood, more feared than respected
And more feared than loved.
What God wanted was to love and be loved.
The son wants all to know the God and to see
God’s wild beating heart.
Yet fear instead emerged; a fear so great of
undermined position and loss of power and
Prestige. And fear kills: Either the one who fears
Or the one who causes fear—or both. And, so,
Here we all are, at the foot of a cross watching
The agony of the Son, who only wants freedom to
Love, dying for love. Love of God; love of others.
Finally, this son sent on a long and dangerous journey
Goes home. And as we stand before that cross, at
Last, we see it—there on this particular cross
At this particular time and particular place, we see it.
The passionate, wild, beating
Heart of God who risks all for us and invites us
Home, back to the garden.
Together in an embrace wide and strong enough
To hold each of us and all of us—the whole
World of us.
World without end. Amen. Amen.