The Plumb Line

Amos 7:7-17

With a plumb-line, the wall of Israel was erected
with closely-fitted, well-joined stones.
These perpendicular stones were the very bones
of a great nation, but a careless people neglected
their promise to the Lord. They failed to stay the ruin.
And now the Lord is holding a line and plummet
against the wall. It is used for building up;
the line is also used for tearing down
as the demolition crew decides how much to raze.
The Lord bears long, but the Lord won’t bear forever.
The herdsman Amos foretells the coming days
of desolation for an errant nation who lost its way.
The bowing, bulging wall is put to the measure;
by the sword of justice, the edifice is swept away.

Image: Goðafoss, Iceland

Contact info: www.davebaldwin37@gmail.com

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The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

I’m feeling special standing in the temple.
I’m such a sight to see!
I lift my words to you my Lord.
Behold: take a look at me!

Indeed, I have risen above the rest.
Lord, you know it’s true.
Unlike these fools, I mind your rules.
My bearing says, “Better than you.”

[Chorus]

Better than you,
better than you.
Lord knows
he’s better than you.

Who needs to ask? I tithe and fast.
My piety’s beyond compare.
It makes me proud to show the crowd
how to strike a righteous air.

My public look is by the book.
My face is pale and wan
and I raise my hands at the proper times.
I show the people how it’s done.

[Chorus]

Better than you,
better than you.
Lord knows
he’s better than you.

The temple is blessed to witness the best;
it’s all about the show.
I’ll close my hour on the temple floor
with this, a truly grateful prayer:

Thank you, Lord, that I am spared
from living a life of sin
like that tax collector over there
and all the others in this room.

[Chorus]

Better than you,
better than you.
Lord knows
he’s better than you.

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Lao Tzu Advises the Board of Directors

The best manager is a gracious guest in my house.
As host, I am pleased to do my best.
We both get what we want.

The best manager is hardly recognized.
Good results come naturally
and the workers say: we did it all ourselves.

The worst manager is known too well:
from below—resentment, hatred, fear;
from above—a ruthless rising star.

Results destroy the worst manager.
Until that day, how many broken lives
will litter the shop floor?

If managers have no further desire
than to embrace and protect, the workers
will have no further desire than to enter and serve.

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NOTE: From Bud and Mary. The year was 1956 when I was 14.

Friday Night Fights Every Night

The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports–Boxing
from Madison Square Garden
with the Look Sharp/Be Sharp theme song
and Jimmy Powers announcing
was a regular Friday night event
for Dad and me.

Dad never boxed himself,
but he loved the manly art,
the sweet science
as it was called.

I was fascinated
by the different styles of boxing:
the peek-a-boo face shield defense,
the flailing perpetual-windmill offense,
the powderpuff jab while backing away,
the lethal left cross,
the unexpected uppercut,
and the thunderous knockout right
when the victim drops his guard.

For entertainment,
the best matchups paired
the buzzsaw free swinger
against the cautious counterpuncher.
It was fun to watch.

But buzzsaw vs. counterpuncher
was no fun at all
when the parents squared off
later in the 1950s.
It was Friday Night Fights
every night of the week.

Mother was a free swinger,
always throwing the first punches,
launching one haymaker after another:
accusations of bad faith
and compromised loyalties.
Dad deflected the blows
with his annoying fact-checking,
his claims of innocence,
and by pointing out she needed help.

There was alcohol, always alcohol,
to juice the aggression.

In the olden days,
boxers used to fight
until only one was standing.
My parents fought and fought and fought
every night
and all they did
was hold each other up.

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She Loves You

The Kennedy assassination stunned the nation
like nothing else since the attack on Pearl Harbor.
We all remember what we were doing
when we heard the news.

What followed was six weeks of sorrow.
The grieving widow and her two small children.
The horse-drawn caisson to the Capitol.
The Requiem Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby.
The endless documentaries on network TV.

This went on until the end of the year.
Six weeks of sustained sadness.
Six weeks of ruefulness!

I returned to the Berkeley campus in January
to finish my first semester classes.
I passed through Sather Gate
and entered the Student Union Building
where I met a deafening wall of noise.
The Beatles were singing on the sound system,
“She loves you YEAH YEAH YEAH.”
Everyone in the building was singing along with them
as outrageously as possible,
especially loud on the YEAH YEAH YEAH.

This was our release—
we were done with the enforced solemnity.

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Back Jackknife

for Bud Baldwin

His rigid arms are pointing down as he walks
the diver’s practiced pace toward the edge
and deftly spins around to set his feet.
The crowd grows quiet as he is on his toes,
to seek and find the pulse of limber steel.
With that assured, arms come up, palms flat
and facing down; knuckles nudge his gaze.

Silence snaps—he takes the backward leap,
exploding blind at forty-five degrees
(too high, you flop; too low and over you go),
and belly muscles pull his daggered toes
into a row of waiting fingertips
still reaching out directly from the chest.
He shuts the knife exactly at the apogee;

his body forms a tight, symmetrical V.
And just a blink beyond, he pops the knife.
The head flies back and arms in tandem follow
violently; so head, arms, and back design
a deadly blade to cut the water clean.
He nails the perfect dive. And slicing through
the bottom of the sky, he suns in blithe applause.

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[tanka]

the boy who came
to be my father
kissed her cheek
what did my face look like
before that happened?

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The Alpha and Omega of Gratitude

Giving thanks in your heart is the alpha of gratitude.
Gratitude is the sum of what you sense and say.
Remembering to offer your thanks is the omega of gratitude.

Longing for things you lack is a flawed attitude.
Always be thankful for what you have today.
Feeling grateful in your heart is the alpha of gratitude.

Do not devalue the goods you currently hold.
What you have today was only hoped for yesterday.
Remembering to offer your thanks is the omega of gratitude.

Lust for things puts you in an anxious mood.
You’ll find your happiness in the persons you most enjoy.
Giving thanks in your heart is the alpha of gratitude.

The lives of those you love will increase in magnitude
as you count your blessings and walk with them in the Way.
Remembering to offer your thanks is the omega of gratitude.

The ungrateful person is one who journeys in solitude.
Appreciation is the greatest kindness, far and away.
Giving thanks in your heart is the alpha of gratitude.
Remembering to offer your thanks is the omega of gratitude.

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[tanka]

a pinwheeling leaf
strikes the watercourse
and floats around the bend
gone forever
do you ever think of me?

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Wheel of Water

For God’s Creation

Grass emerges from the winter snow.
Blades lengthen. Flowers grow.
Trees in the wind sway and sough.
The summer of life is all we know.
Autumn breezes start to blow
and all of life begins to slow.
Brown turf is snuffed in snow.
Life and death come and go.

Clouds roll in over the plain
releasing countless drops of rain.
Water flows in the seaward drain
only to rise once again.
The wheel of water is an endless chain,
an infinite loop of wax and wane.
The land upholds loss and gain,
but land itself cannot sustain.

Dust is scattered, dust restored.
Not even the land can say: Never!
For children of light who love the Lord,
the wheel of water is a passing pleasure.
We praise creation with one accord
and promise to save this tender treasure.
The children of light love the Lord
and the love of the Lord lasts forever.

NOTE: This is one of the poems I wrote for the liturgical cycle. It was for Sunday, June 7, 2020 (Trinity Sunday), and the scripture was the opening of Genesis. I set these words to music. The St. John’s Episcopal Church choir will be singing it this coming Sunday as a celebration of Earth Day. The tune is ‘Blaenwern’ written by William Penfro Rowlands in 1905.

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Clicking Hyperlinks

John 15:9-17

Above all, love is seen in the love
of the Father. When we click on the word Father,
it opens on the Father’s love for the Son.
When we click on the word Son,
it opens on the Son’s declaration
that he shows his love for the world
by laying down his life for his friends.
When we click on the word friends,
we learn they are friends of the Son
for as long as they follow the commands
of the Father to love one another.
Reading the unfolding message
of the Gospel of John
is an endless explosion and expansion
of hyperlinks where all words
are interconnected and self-referential,
summed in the seamless command of love.

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1066

Historians lust for great events,
the violent one percent,
so nothing happens nearly every year.

Stamford Bridge and Hastings stretched a month;
whatever happened years before
or since that raven glut?

For each combatant, hundreds more
were not involved, as Norseman, Norman, Celt
and Saxon plowed the green

or toiled the cold Atlantic,
gave birth in perishing huts or softly sang
for children alliterative lullabies.

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NOTE: I wrote the following poem a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill I, the leader of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church, claim they are waging a Christian holy war in Ukraine. Their claim is the very opposite of the teachings of Jesus. War is NOT the answer.

Sacralized Violence

Look down on the Great Plain of Esdraelon
from the hilltop at Nazareth. History is written in blood.
Deborah and Barak routed the kings of Canaan

at Taanach by the waters of Megiddo. The torrent Kishon
purged the Canaanites. Josiah was slain by the forces
of Pharaoh Neco at Megiddo. Saul and his sons

were decapitated after battle with the Philistines.
At Jezreel, Jehu killed Jehoram and Ahaziah
and, following that, he slaughtered all their men

and all the prophets of Baal. Then he turned
to Jezebel. He ordered his men to throw her
to her death from the palace window where she was eaten

by ravenous dogs. But Jehu wasn’t done!
He hunted down and killed all the royal princes
and had their heads displayed at his command.

Jehu invited the worshippers of Baal to come
to a ceremony, then trapped and murdered them all.
He converted the Temple of Baal into a latrine.

Thousands of ordinary men were killed or maimed
because ambitious kings invoked the deity.
The arms of the survivors were weary from all the decapitations.

Kishon is a winding river of entrapment and slaughter.
The Plain of Esdraelon is a place of tragedy and war.
The oldest scriptures record such sacralized violence
by men. To credit God is the brief of the nihilist.

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