To read the poem “As For Man” explained below, click here.
Laura and I walked into his room at Unity Hospital with hesitancy. A strong, gentle pastor that had been a rock for us during two difficult years of our lives as a newly married couple now lay before us in a bed, covered only in a hospital gown and a sheet, slumped slightly to one side. One tube that was wrapped over his ears and down to his nose supplied him with oxygen. An IV attached to a touchy machine that loved to beep every time he moved his right arm provided him with a steady stream of fluids. In stark contrast to the steady, precise manner in which he used to speak to us those Tuesday afternoons in his office at church, his words were now slurred together, and his thoughts were, at times, jumbled and incoherent. The former Bolivian missionary recognized Laura and was quick to switch to Spanish, a very comforting sign showing just how much of him did remain after the stroke that had suddenly taken him just the evening before. There, in that little hospital room on the ICU at Unity Hospital, I read this dear man Psalm 103. “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,” it begins. Pastor Tom closed his eyes as if in deep concentration, and the eternal word of God began to comfort him like nothing else could. The very same word that had been his food for so many years was sweet to him again as he heard it afresh there in his hospital bed.
Verses 14-17 impacted me the most as I read them aloud:
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.
Truly this man whom we considered a giant in the faith and who had been such a powerful instrument of God’s good grace to us in our time of desperate need was but grass. One day the wind will blow over him, and he will be no more. One day the wind will blow over me and I’ll be no more. “But” —and what a beautiful conjunction that is in God’s word— “the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him.” There in that hospital room, the glaring reality of that truth was unmistakable. We are nothing and will come to such. God alone is eternal and will endure to everlasting as he has been from everlasting. We can place no hope in man, not even in a good man like the one we came to visit after his stroke. We can have all hope in God. Praise him that his steadfast love endures forever.
The Technical Stuff and Meaning
This poem is an Italian sonnet, which is a fourteen-lined poem divided into two parts. The first eight lines are called the octave and the remaining six lines are called the sestet. The first eight lines follow the rhyme scheme A-B-B-A-A-B-B-A and the last six follow the rhyme scheme C-D-C-C-D-C.
In the octave I developed the picture of one lily out of a field full that grew up above the rest. I had in mind this beloved pastor and mentor whom Laura and I visited in the hospital. He was dressed “in fairest white and luscious green.” He was a mature, fruit-bearing Christian. He was one to whom God had imparted much grace. And God had given him such grace for a specific purpose: to minister grace to others. Laura and I and countless others are the “lesser lilies.” I had in mind struggling lilies growing up underneath this one, towering lily, and that one helping the others to survive and even thrive despite the scorching sun.
In the sestet I shifted the focus from the strength of the lily in helping others to its demise and the uncertainty that that causes us lesser lilies— those of us who have been so helped by this one—to feel. The word bower means “a shady leafy shelter or recess in a garden or woods.” That’s exactly what Pastor Tom had been to us. The thought of losing a man that had been such a source of comfort and hope is troubling to say the least. And yet, precisely in feeling such trouble the words of Psalm 103 hit me so hard: “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone…. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting.” This precious flower of God will fade. God’s love for him and for all the other flowers of his field will not. What hope is ours. Bless the LORD, O my soul.
Find other editions of “Behind the Poem” below:
Behind the Poem: “It Is Enough”
Behind the Poem: “Innocence Lost, Glory Gained”
Behind the Poem: “Unrestrained”