The Swarm Fell on His Back

Painting “Plowing the Field” by Joyce Lapp

When the plowblade struck   
An old stump hiding under   
The soil like a beggar’s   
Rotten tooth, they swarmed up   
& Mister Jackson left the plow   
Wedged like a whaler’s harpoon.   
The horse was midnight   
Against dusk, tethered to somebody’s   
Pocketwatch.  He shivered, but not   
The way women shook their heads   
Before mirrors at the five   
& dime—a deeper connection   
To the low field’s evening star.   
He stood there, in tracechains,   
Lathered in froth, just   
Stopped by a great, goofy   
Calmness. He whinnied   
Once, & then the whole   
Beautiful, blue-black sky   
Fell on his back.
~Yusuf Komunyakaa “Yellow Jackets” from Pleasure Dome

Horse Team by Edvard Munch

Death by a thousand stings.

This poem is twenty years old, yet shattering to read by the light of the events of this past week and this past year. Written by a Pulitzer Prize winning Black poet and Vietnam War veteran, it is a stark description of a teamster and plow horse going about their routine work when a hive of yellow jackets is disturbed.

The farmer saves himself.

The abandoned work horse remains harnessed and chained to the immobilized plow, eventually falling crushed beneath the swarm on his back.

How many times recently have we witnessed this stark reality of the power of the angry swarm – whether the target is someone set upon and killed by law enforcement gone rogue, or last week, a man in blue defending the U.S. Capitol, beaten and crushed by rioters who pummeled him senseless with the pole of the American flag?

A poetic metaphor about an enslaved worker dying in chains expands to include us all:

-we are the farmer who panics and runs for his life in the midst of crisis
-we are the harnessed plowhorse obediently and calmly doing his job, becoming the sacrifice for the sake of the farmer
-we are the angry swarm whose well being and security is threatened so all hell breaks loose
-we are the poet whose words try to make sense of the senseless.

Ultimately, the Writer of the Word is our rescuer: rather than abandoning us to our fate, He saves us by becoming the sacrifice Himself.

He allowed the swarm to fall on His back rather than on us.

A Hammer and a Nail

I’d rather be a hammer than a nail
Yes, I would, if I could, I surely would…
~Simon and Garfunkel from “El Condor Pasa”

If I had a hammer,
I’d hammer in the morning,
I’d hammer in the evening,
All over this land,
I’d hammer out danger,
I’d hammer out a warning,
I’d hammer out love between,
My brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.
~Lee Hays, Pete Seeger

Strangely enough~
it is the pointed and piercing nail,
rather than our blunt hammer,
that binds together,
forming the strength,
the safety,
the permanence
of corners, foundation,
walls and roof
until the battering winds
threaten to pull them apart.

Yet the nail is useless
without the hammer.

The hammer
pounds the nail in
where it is most needed
where it won’t be forgotten
where, if ever removed,
the hole it leaves behind
is a forever reminder
of what our hammers have wrought
and how we are forgiven.

abandoned schoolhouse near Rapalje, Montana

Turning Darkness Into Light: The Broken and Blemished Restored

Knowing God
without knowing our own wretchedness makes for pride.
Knowing our own wretchedness
without knowing God makes for despair.
Knowing Jesus Christ strikes the balance
because he shows us both God and our own wretchedness.
~Blaise Pascal from Pensées

We yearn for perfection,
to be flawless and faultless,
aiming for symmetry,
straight and smooth.

Life serves up something
far different
and our eye searches
for whatever is flawed like us:
we find the cracks,
the scratches and damage,
the faults and frailties.

Somehow Christ bridges
Himself between God and us —
becoming a walkway for the wretched
to redemption and renewal.

In the beginning we were created
unblemished,
image bearers of perfection.
No longer.
We bear witness to brokenness
with our shattered lives,
fragile minds and weakening bodies.

To restore
our lost relationship with Him,
Christ strikes the balance;
He hung broken to mend us,
a bridge to carry us across the gap,
binding us to Him
forever.

Refrain
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You has got a manger bed.
All the evil folk on earth
Sleep in feathers at their birth.
Jesus, Jesus, rest your head.
You has got a manger bed.

1. Have you heard about our Jesus?
Have you heard about his fate?
How his mammy went to the stable
On that Christmas Eve so late?
Winds were blowing, cows were lowing,
Stars were glowing, glowing, glowing. Refrain

2. To the manger came the Wise Men.
Bringing from hin and yon,
For the mother and the father,
And the blessed little Son.
Milkmaids left their fields and flocks
And sat beside the ass and ox. Refrain

Turning Darkness into Light: A Glow Shall Wake the Sky

I tell you… if these should hold their peace,
the stones would immediately cry out.”
~Luke 19: 39-40

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.

Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.

~Richard Wilbur “A Christmas Hymn”

Feeling heavy, dull and dumb,
I am convinced
I’m no better than a simple rock,
inconsequential and immobile,
trod upon and paved over,
forgettable and forgotten.

I could believe
there exists no pulse
in my stony heart,
incapable of love
if I turn away
from a God who has come to walk with me
on this humble ground .

Yet the low are lifted high by His descent–
every stone, even the dumb and lifeless,
shall cry out in community with Him,
even the silent will find a voice to praise.

Even my own voice,
meager and anemic,
shall be heard.

Even a barn can harbor heaven,
straw a bed of spun gold,
a stall becomes a shrine,
as a glow shall wake the sky.

I am no longer forgotten.
In fact, never have been forgotten.
So hard to reconcile:
if the stones and barn and stalls
have known Him all along,
so should I.

Turning Darkness into Light: Someone Almost Here

Around December first, the summer people
All have gone. Some had stayed to see the fall
And some for hunting season—all have gone.

We walk deserted roads. The first snows came
But dried away to traces in the ditch
And snowy patches on the forest floor.

In town the Christmas lights are blinking bright,
The tourists few. The locals are subdued,
At peace with what some still call Advent time.

It’s dark by four. We light a fireplace fire.
We have a drink and share a meal and read
Until it’s time to go to early bed.

Outdoors to fetch tomorrow’s wood, I stand
Beneath the stars. It’s moonless, clear and cold.
The constellations reach like outspread hands.

Star bright but not at all a silent night,
There seems to be a constant trembling—
Someone surely there, someone almost here.
~Steven Peterson “Advent”

During these quiet quarantined days
when we no longer share meals
meeting on screens rather than living rooms,
there is a sense of trembling anticipation,
waiting and watching for
the world to feel safer again.

We wander, wondering,
looking for Someone
who is almost here
but not quite yet.
Born to die
for poor ornery people
like you and like I.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
That Jesus my Saviour did come for to die
For poor on’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

A Foot in the Door

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air. 

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make roo
m.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves
Our kind multiplies

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth. 
Our foot’s in the door.
~Sylvia Plath from “Mushroom”

This overnight overture into the light,
a parturition of “ink caps” after a shower.
As if seed had been sprinkled on the manure pile,
they sprout three inch stalks
still stretching at dawn,
topped by dew-catching caps and umbrellas.

Nearly translucent as glass,
already curling at the edges in the morning light,
by noon melting into ooze
by evening complete deliquescence,
withered and curling back
into the humus
which birthed them hours before.

It shall be repeated
again and again,
this birth from unworthy soil,
this brief and shining life in the sun,
this folding, curling and collapse
to die back to dust and dung.

Inedible, yet so Chrisincredible,
they rise beautiful
and worthy
as is the way of things
that never give up
once a foot’s in the door.

Bright Drupelets

I eat these
wild red raspberries
still warm from the sun
and smelling faintly of jewelweed
in memory of my father

tucking the napkin
under his chin and bending
over an ironstone bowl
of the bright drupelets
awash in cream

my father
with the sigh of a man
who has seen all and been redeemed
said time after time
as he lifted his spoon

men kill for this.
~Maxine Kumin “Appetite” from Selected Poems: 1960-1990.

I’ve always wondered if there was a name for the small round globe that is part of the whole aggregate berry like a thimbleberry, raspberry or blackberry – they are so smooth and perfectly formed, each a uniquely homogenous part of the whole. Yet if separated and by itself, nearly invisible.

So I found out each individual is called a drupe, or more familiar and lovingly, a drupelet. Despite such a plain name, each little drupelet bears its own beauty, and a special flavor to be savored and unforgotten, only made sweeter by being part of the whole – – even sweeter when redeemed and consumed.

Kind of like us, willing to die for just such a taste of eternity.

Kind of like us.

photo by Nate Gibson

This Field, This Sky, This Tree

What words or harder gift
does the light require of me
carving from the dark
this difficult tree?

What place or farther peace
do I almost see
emerging from the night
and heart of me?

The sky whitens, goes on and on.
Fields wrinkle into rows
of cotton, go on and on.
Night like a fling of crows
disperses and is gone.

What song, what home,
what calm or one clarity
can I not quite come to,
never quite see:
this field, this sky, this tree.

~Christian Wiman, “Hard Night”

Even the darkest night has a sliver of light left,
if only in our memories.
We remember how it was and how it can be —
the promise of better to come.

While the ever-changing sky swirls as a backdrop,
a tree on a hill became the focal point, as it must,
like a black hole swallowing up all pain, all suffering,
all evil threatening to consume our world.

What clarity, what calm,
what peace can be found at the foot of that tree,
where our hearts can rest in this knowledge:
our sin died there, once and for all
and our names are carved into its roots for all time.

Bathed in Beauty

We do not want merely to see beauty…
we want something else which can hardly be put into words-
to be united with the beauty we see,
to pass into it,
to receive it into ourselves,
to bathe in it,
to become part of it.


We discern the freshness and purity of morning,
but they do not make us fresh and pure.
We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.


But all the leaves of the New Testament
are rustling with the rumour
that it will not always be so.


Someday, God willing, we shall get in.

~C.S. Lewis from The Weight of Glory

We are wounded by the grime of this world, no question about it. Just one look at the headlines shows how tainted and sullied we’ve become, so long separated from the beauty and perfection for which we were created.

The wounds we bear are from beauty banished when we desperately wish to bathe in it. We’re offered just such a cleansing when we offer up our soiled selves.

Come on in, the water is fine.

A Scorched Land of Fierce Color

And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows; a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

                        On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
~R.S. Thomas “The Coming”

“Let me go there”

And He did. Knowing what awaited Him.

As a result, we are forever changed.

Fifty weeks of dirt rows
Plain and unnoticed.
Could be corn, could be beans
Could be anything;
Drive-by fly-over dull.

Yet April ignites an explosion:
Dazzling retinal hues
Singed and scorched, crying
Grateful tears for such as this
Grounded rainbow on Earth

Transient, incandescent
Brilliance hoped for.
Remembered in dreams,
Promises realized,
Housed in crystal before shattering.