Command in Sardis

Since you ask, I’ll answer your questions–

But I’ve only a moment: Yes.

It’s all I expected

By now I’ve been trained

learned my lesson well–

in this era of tolerance, it’s still safer

not to speak your mind.

I thought they were my friends

more still my comrades

united in perspective and purpose.

But when it was time to rise up

demand justice, speak truth

They sank deep into their seats,

tried to look oblivious or not at liberty

or else disapproving, even knowing better.

I looked the fool–is that what they wanted?

There was a dragon at the door–

threatening to burn the house down

with fiery, smoking sneer

Was he their true friend, or do they

fear him more than they love–love what?

You don’t know either.

I tried to warn them–

When I came away singed having stood by myself

they all should have known!

Everyone would have been better off

if I had been wrong

or–things would have been easier–

but I wasn’t.

And still the dragon sits.

You hear him too.

He’s made another foray, into the vestibule,

the altar shudders with the pounding of his

weighted, claw-tasseled steps

and the temperature has risen 17 degrees.

You see

I’m putting on my armor and preparing a proclamation

but I won’t hold my breath.

Though the ranks have shifted,

the command changed sleeves,

the character is the same–

the fear is endemic, in their nature.

I’ll sally forth as I must

but I know this to be true:

He who would take a stand, must stand alone.

I’ve done it before; I’ll have to do it again

and trust I won’t fall before friendly fire

as my comrades unwittingly ally themselves

to the furnace-like nemesis.

He never has to do much, really,

because they do it for him.

The house divided–how can it shield itself

against his breath?

Do they believe in dragons?

Yet not know one when they see it?

Perhaps they can’t recognize him,

don’t see his bulk, his scales, his spiny ridge,

his great webbed ears and springbok horns,

don’t see his uneven fangs and claws of adamant–

still surely they must feel the heat!

But in the council chamber

you’d think I was mad for wanting him out

wanting to meet him face to face

and tell him to Get Lost!

Better to let the house burn down than make him angry!

But…wait…what is he doing here anyway?

If you can explain it, tell me quick before

I go in to meet him

I should like to know why I’ll be the only one,

thus the necessity of being reduced

to a heap of ashes.

But God help me, I can do no other–

my conscience won’t give me peace

if I just sit down

if I just walk away

like everyone says.

All I asked was that they

do the right thing.

But they don’t know the choice exists–

that here there is right and wrong.

They try to hold me back–why?

Why not just come with me?

Maybe we’d come back alive

but even if not, at least

our epitaphs would be worth reading.

And so I look the fool, I get told off–I am lectured,

and in the end, I still must do it!

I should have expected this–

isn’t it always the way?

But I’ll let you go now–

the dragon is waiting

and this heat is unbearable.

Dragon in Sardis

After Psalm 140

When the Psalmist said,

The Lord will maintain the cause

of the afflicted,

I knew I’d been wrong–

O Lord, only You can grant repentance!

O Lord, only You can grant justice!

O Lord, only You grow love of the truth!

O Lord, only You can stop the mouths of slanderers!

O Lord, now I repent of my anger,

of faithless impatience–

I have not prayed as I ought

and I have seen myself ensnared.

I fell into his trap

by giving over my gaze–

but now turn my face back to You,

or I’ll remain in the shadows and

forget what You look like!

O Lord, only You can open unseeing eyes

make ears to hear, soften and warm hearts!

Like cool rain after a drought

is Your mercy on us,

gentle on our heads and

life-giving to the ground.

Your voice is a song,

with a tempo to march to,

and Your words signpost our way.

Gather up and put in order

Your scattered and scatter-brained flock,

Raise our hearts, minds, eyes,

and empower us to resist Obsession–

Discouragement is an arrow;

Distraction is a crossbow bolt.

From bondage and defeat and exile

again and again and again

You have delivered Your people;

from Egypt and Moab and Midian and Philistia and Assyria and Babylon,

and sin and Rome;

do so again, according to Your promise

and for the sake of Your own name.

We repent of our hand in our trouble,

speak to us, save us–

imbue us with wisdom and strength

and bind our thoughts to You in righteousness

You Who are all compassion.

Payment Method

In this age of the In-between,

this long corridor in both space and time

I can stand on my toes and look back

to older brothers and sisters of yester-centuries

they nod to me and my companions of the Now

Like He was, many were stricken

they heard your call, heeded it,

to sword-point, to gallows, to beast’s maw and saw-blade

blood staining earth and hand

yet running life-giving stream deep to the roots

of the garden of God.

I see the faces of a few in the crowd,

from furthest to nearest

They paid what was asked

of them–I’ve seen the receipts:

Felicitatis, of good family under Marcus Aurelius:

1. seven children, all martyred;

2. one life, method of payment: beheading.

Overseer Sabinus from Spoleto:

1. one hand, with which he struck Jupiter;

2. one life, method of payment: scourging.

Alban, whose ticket I’ve read in the original:

1. the prestige of a pagan priesthood;

2. one life, method of payment: beheading.

Gardiner, of this our Bricstowe:

1. all worldly possessions gained as a young merchant;

2. one life, method of payment: roasting.

The queue is indeed long

of all these who have gone before

in such a way!

So much dross consumed, such gold refined,

Too many to count, too many to honor,

all these who cry out from beneath the throne.

From where I stand,

I face again the other way,

but that end of the hall is dark.

Only He knows what lies ahead!

He lights the way just before our feet,

and no more.

I do not know yet my own bill,

what will be demanded when the time comes.

The yoke’s on the shoulder for now,

and heavy enough it so often seems.

But His hand is at my back, under my arms–

the heat, the grief, the pain–

He bore it, and then bore them,

torture could not loosen their hold,

for the cross in its turn

strengthened their grip upon itself–

it seems He still carries us

and the weight

through the flames and the waves,

over spikes and over coals;

and with a glance back at the cloud of witnesses

–somehow they’re both behind and ahead!–

my companions and I, we say:

‘If this be all You ask of us, then we must do it.’

The Rap Sheet

Can you read?  The times, the word, the people—anything?

The wisdom of serpents, gone to the wayside while the

Viper of envy and gossip are nursed

in the heart of the church

And the vulture, Apathy, scavenging on the misty,

Windswept heaths and parched deserts of the soul

Stealing away all capacity to be stirred—

Comfort, reassurance of a tightly held but convictionless

Belief—that we’re all all right.

What’s happened when the dog barks, the hills ring out,

A clatter of horses’ hooves—

There should be panic, a cry for rescue—

But instead the village cries

To be left alone in their burning homes.

God will preserve only those Who Are

His People—

Those Who Persevere in His will.

‘Depart from me!’ and how stunned some will be.

–There’s no appealing to reason

There’s no convincing them

Of the rot in the house

The house has been said to be

‘Untouchable’ for aeons

All evidence to the contrary,

There’s no shaking that

Principium from the wall.

‘But we’re a good people,

And always have been

What have we to do with judgment?’

Try showing the bad—

It’ll blend right in

There’s no knowing it in that place

For the ones who foster it.

It’s long been impossible to catch the disease.

And no note of symptoms nor signs of decline

Will ever convince them otherwise—

The doctor is a quack.

How stunned some will be when once they hear unto them thus:

Depart from me!

Life is pain, the truth hurts, and everyone lets you down.

All except the one who defined faithfulness, truth, and life—

You share the best day of your life with people—

People you love, and then find you can’t trust them.

They aren’t who you thought they were,

They don’t think the way you do, and never did,

The piece of the world you knew you knew

–was a mirage, only an ideal—is it your fault?

Did you misinterpret?  No—that can’t answer all

Because they were your friends

No matter the shock of discovering

Unexpected unsuspected flaws,

God forbid they should turn on you and blame you

For all their shortcomings,

For more than having put them on a pedestal in the first place.

But what sort of pedestal is this:

‘You are a Christian and my friend;

I can trust you to honor God and love me’?

Hardly a designation of perfection.

What a burden it is to see things as they are,

To know the world as it is!

You say so, and people think you’re sad; need to get out more.

How profound!

It was never about their shortcomings, their illness

—it was about your medicine.

You shouldn’t have observed, you shouldn’t have diagnosed.

Don’t see, don’t inform, don’t prescribe—

Then they needn’t be ill.

When somewhere is too good to be true,

Don’t get comfortable—it probably is.

Sweetness is all on the surface.

To assume all is ‘fine’—

That doesn’t happen here—

You may as well claim

People don’t sin here.

And we know that’s not true.

Don’t we?

Did ever you see such peaceful rolling fields?

Little white church nestled lovely

against farmed hills and woods,

With dawns and sunsets to sigh over.

Tight-knit, all third cousins and something removed,

And three miles down you’ll find the same.

It should have been easy.

But then the fairy dust settles

And tongues loosen.

The problem is new, is it?

Perhaps you should try on for size

Your rap sheet:

One: historical, unresolved, interfamiliar, intraecclesial disputes.

No one will talk about it, yet all act accordingly.

AND I’M SUPPOSED TO KNOW?

Two: elections are held, and no one has prayed—

none of the voters has cracked the pastoral epistles in years.

The real quacks sit round the table,

first mates with have no knowledge of the sea.

When the storms come up, when rigging is lost,

they’re left fumbling on a sodden deck.

Shouts, cries, orders go up that make no sense, but the sailors

Slip, slide, try to obey—how can they know any better

Under such time of command as this?

The cabin boy, worth his salt and his reading,

readies the lifeboat at the captain’s behest—

The crew would have him overboard anyway.

Three:  a walking tumor.  No doubt it’s malignant—

It’s aggressive, demoralizing and destined to spread.

It presents with a scowl and a scoff,

Contempt, rudeness, derision– topped off with scorn.

Its vice seeps, like noxious damp, slowly and with a shadow,

Purplish-green like the coming of plague,

Through the sanctuary, through the worship, through the flock itself.

But they’ll defend it, because in so doing they defend themselves.

And besides, they’d miss it if it was cured—it’s not so bad, and everyone knows it.

Four: Empty heads.  And content to be so.

They’re part of the family; they live good, do good, are a-okay.

How could God expect them to get their brains out of bed?

They’re so… comfortable.

Somebody has to know the Scriptures, but that’s what you’re here for.

Just to know them, apparently—not to impart what you know.

And the kids?  It’s never crossed their minds

That they might leave Churchtopia—

When—not if—when they then will have to give a competent,

Reasoned, intellectually self-responsible defense for their hope.

And then they may discover they have none—

And now, no hope.

Five: Antinomianism.  Grace they’ve got down pat; don’t need no more books.

Holiness?  Not so much.

Six: willful neglect of the Counselor and His gifts.

Certainly if it (He?) were important

Granny would have passed it down with the

peanut butter cookie recipe.

Seven: baseless glorification of Christian education.  When it’s done in a ‘school’.

Eight: baseless dismissal of Christian education.  When it’s done in the church.

Further sins of omission:

Nine: aiding and abetting vandals by failure to discipline.

Encourage disharmony, attack the credibility of the pastor,

Self-aggrandize, Pedal what you think is your wisdom, carelessly slander—

And this crew will do nothing though you deserve the Cat.

Again, we just don’t talk about it!

Ten: enable a woman in the dissolution of her covenant with her husband.

No thought for him, none for her—none for the church—

All are hurt by such selfishness, laziness—

But thinking about it will stress you out.

Don’t you wish you weren’t on council this year?

Eleven: resentment against those who make you feel your sins of omission.

Some are only taking turns, don’t you see?

You can’t expect elders to have to make tough choices,

to accept being called upon to do the right thing

though it’s hard!

Twelve: apathy, the evangelical epidemic equal only to ignorance itself.

Thirteen: Coldness of many colors: spiritual, empathetic, communal.

This is a little world that rarely prays,

scarcely loves in the most important ways.

And there is no passion for the Truth.

And yet you wonder why God does not receive your sour sacrifices!

3 & 13 May 2015

Gavel in the Gaze

The bright blossom of my enthusiastic conviction

Wilted under what you might call friendly fire.

How can there be confidence

In the face of such incredulous stares?

‘It’s nothing personal’, and yet there is something

So terrible, shaking in a brother’s cool skepticism.

I just want to share my heart… but…

How else to take ‘You sound like a fool’

How else to file ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’

How else to interpret ‘I don’t want to know’?

Cold it is, and lonely too

Just ask, or listen—or both.

That blank stare cuts to the quick!

Show that you love me by having some faith—

Hear me out!

It’s all I want, and it’s just what you need—

Admit you’re curious—

I’ll tell you what this word meant,

Explain how this felt—

I need you to meet me halfway.

The Lord has stretched out His hand;

Reach up with me

Here, I’ll hold this one—you raise the other high.

My words shouldn’t be strange, my tale shouldn’t seem tall

You should know His voice too.

It’s sometimes so frightening

To look into the faces of friends

The judgment and the censure

Are so much harder to bear.

8 & 13 May 2015

Last One Out (The Memos)

I remember the day we gave Cappy the boot.

The sergeants, beats and rookies

cast their votes–only two went with Suarez.

It was the end of the worrying, the grousing;

we’d finally got the problem sacked.

He was taken away, if you can believe it,

muttering under his breath.

Some things about so-and-so and you-know-who,

about the dirty, the liabilities,

and memos…

For so long he’d been on about those memos…

But everyone knew he’d been railing awhile,

the Naysayer, the Querulous, the Source

of all the ‘negativity’.

We’d pick back up now that he was gone!

He never fit into the community anyway.

It’s now been six months;

We never believed it would come to this.

The Commissioner’s shut down our precinct.

Folks have had enough, so has he–

with cold cases,

up rates, down trust,

and back-biting in the ranks.

I’m cleaning out my desk, my locker is next–

the last one out, the lights fittingly off.

There’s paperwork everywhere;

I’m not a little ashamed.

We were good cops, once upon a time.

What was the millstone that sunk us?

The Commissioner was done.

He’d never said anything when we drove Captain out–

but I’m not sure anyone ever called him.

I’m peeling the photos of my kids off the door

of my locker now, and one of my wife,

with a lipstick mark on it.

An old lunchbox I never took home,

a private notepad

on a case I never cracked.

Gym shoes, gummy bears, spare clothes and a jar

with colored sand in it

my son made me in school.

It used to sit on my desk

when I still had the space.

Boxes fill up quickly with all these ‘personals’.

I leave the locker unlocked, or better, open–

who knows what will happen to the old precinct now.

My badge resting on top, I take the heaviest box first,

sad slow paces down the hallway, til Stop–

the big board to my right on the way out the door–

and there they are.

I must have walked past hundreds, thousands of times,

and never noticed.

All the bulletins, the cares, the concerns,

the reports, the orders, the assignments–

O’Hara, Kirkcroft, Shaughnessy and McRae,

and Others…

the allegations, once grounds for dismissal–

he’d put them up here, ’cause no-one backed him up.

This was proof, before my eyes, under my nose,

the memos

but I–we never read them, never bothered,

and we’d never done anything about it.