Archives For Pleasing to the Ear & Eye (Poems & Art)

There once was a king and a queen who ruled a small kingdom in a beautiful country.

They took great pleasure in their castle and in the art they had made which filled the castle’s rooms. They delighted in the gardens they had planted and the large trees around which they had built the castle. The ravens they had rescued from a nearby mountain when the ravens were young were now tame and flew about the castle and its grounds.

River Scene with Castle (by Gilbert Munger)

The king took special pride in his master servants. He had chosen them from many walks of life, and he trained them carefully to manage the activities of the castle and the kingdom. He patiently educated them, taught them, and encouraged their creativity.

“I cherish all that I have, my dear servants, but you are my greatest joy,” he told them.

One day he gathered his servants together. He told them that he and the queen needed to leave them for some time. While he was gone, they were to be in charge of his castle.

“I trust you to rule as you have seen us rule,” he told them.

Several years later, when the servants had begun to doubt whether the king and queen would ever return, they were awakened on a bright cold blue morning by trumpets and soldiers they recognized to be of the king and queen’s personal guard.

“You are to appear immediately at the front gate,” the soldiers said.

The servants hurried to an assembly of nobles and guards surrounding the king and queen who sat on thrones the servants had not seem before. The servants noticed the king and queen did not seem to have aged and in some ways looked even more vigourous and wise than ever. The servants also noticed that the muscles of the king’s jaw were tight and his expression stern. Tears ran down the cheeks of the queen.

“What have you done while we were gone?” the king demanded.

“We have built new mansions for ourselves,” they said, “and created new tools that make our lives easier and new toys that give us pleasure.”

“And what about our castle?”

The servants looked around and saw what they had done. To make their own mansions and machines, they had neglected the castle. In fact, they had dismantled much of it and used the salvaged materials for their own mansions. What remained of it was turning to rubble. The trees of the grounds had been felled for lumber. The gardens uprooted. The servants had sold off the art they could get good prices for and used other pieces of art for sport. At least one piece, they had noticed, had gone missing early on.

The servants were silent in shame and fear.

Except for one.

He met the lord’s gaze directly as he spoke.

“We knew you would come again, great king, and make everything new. So we used the power you gave us for our pleasure. We are, you said, what you are most proud of. You can fix all this, can you not?”

The king did not acknowledge this statement but asked the assertive servant, “And where are our ravens? I do not hear their cries. They did not come to us when we called for them.”

“They were very messy, very noisy, and had minds of their own,” the servant said. “Nor were they good to eat. Keeping them alive and happy  was too much for us. We used our time and the resources we had for more important things. Instead, we have made mechanical pets that are much more orderly and much more useful. Would you like to see –“


The king roared in pain and fury. He ordered for his soldiers to take the servants to the borders of the kingdom and to never let the servants return.

The servants, with the exception of the proud and assertive one, were shocked and dismayed. They pleaded with the king to be allowed to stay. They promised to do better. They promised to fix everything.

The king said, “The castle was ours and yet you destroyed it for your own satisfaction. The art was ours, and it is no more. We treasured the beauty of the garden and the food that was harvested from it. The ravens were birds we took great pleasure in, and they will not give us company again. It is clear that your hearts have not not been shaped by what I taught you and showed you. You will never be happy with me nor will I be happy with you. What is best for you and the queen and I is for you to be gone forever.”

The assertive servant stepped forward with his head held high and did not bow. He looked his king in the eye

“My king,” he started, and it seemed to some that he put particular emphasis on the first of those two words. “You gave us your kingdom and told us we were your greatest pride and joy. You chose us and gave us power. You created. We have created. You cannot do this to us. If what we did was wrong, it was your fault.”

The king’s eyes narrowed. He stood, and the fearful power in him seemed to fill the air.

“Your words and your actions have shown who you really are,” said the king. “You knew in your heart the pleasure we took in everything in the castle. It was ours. You were our servants. Yet you diminished and destroyed it. Did you not see that we took pleasure in seeing the castle, the people, and the kingdom prosper? Did you not see how we ruled?”

“And you are the worst of all,” the king said to the assertive servant. “With intelligence enslaved by your twisted heart, you have twisted my words and my intentions. A child would know in an instant that what you have done is wrong.”

The king commanded that the assertive servant be led off in chains to the prison.

At that moment a large black bird suddenly flew toward the thrones and came to perch on the queen’s shoulder.

“Night!” the queen exclaimed in surprise and delight.

“Where did our raven come from?” demanded the king.

A guard pointed to a poor man standing on the outer circle of the assembly next to a battered cart.

“Come forward,” the king commanded.

The poor man came into the king’s presence and knelt deeply before him. He brought the large cart with him.

“Where did you get my raven?”

“Your highness, I heard what your servants were doing so I snuck into the castle to try to save your ravens. I was only able to save this one. He was nearly dead. I am sorry I could not save more. But I did save one other thing.”

He pulled away old blankets and hides that covered something large in his cart. It was their favorite piece of art. It was a painting they had made that depicted their kingdom and all of its life and its beautiful country.

The king and queen arose quickly from their thrones and went to examine the painting and talked excitedly again of the days when they had painted it together and of their favorite parts of their kingdom. They laughed and tears again ran down the queen’s cheeks.

“How were you able to save this?” asked the king.

“My friends and I snuck in again one night, and when I heard of your art being sold. I knew that this was your favorite. After that I was unable to save more. Please forgive me, my lord. Your…your castle had been so beautiful.”

It was the poor man’s turn to shed tears.

To the great surprise of the assembly, the king and queen embraced the poor man.

When the king and queen could finally speak, the queen asked, “How can we thank you? What can we give you? You have done so much for us.”

“Let me have a simple room with simple meals. Let me help rebuild your castle and the country of your kingdom. I do not know very much. I am no longer as strong as I once was. But I love your goodness and what you have done for us. Nothing would gladden my heart more than to see your castle restored.”

“That is all?” the queen asked.

The poor man hesitated and then spoke, “Your highness, if my friends could sometimes join me for good food and tasty ale, my heart might have a bit more gladness.”

The king, the queen, and the assembly laughed.

“Your wish is granted.”

The king, the queen, and the poor man spent many good years together restoring the castle and its grounds. New art was made. Young trees were planted to take the place of those that had been felled. In time, the restored garden again produced fruit, herbs, and vegetables. The poor man and his friends and family lived in one of the mansions built by the servants.

Of the king and the queen and the poor man It was hard to tell who was happier. It was hard to tell, too, what gave all of them the most pleasure – renewing the castle and the country or being together while doing so.

Earlier this month, I saw a performance of the one-person play Map of My Kingdom at the meeting of a farmers group in downtown Chicago.The play was commissioned by Practical Farmers of Iowa and written by Iowa’s Poet Laureate, Mary Swander. In the play, the words and remembrances of Angela Martin, a woman who uses her legal and mediating skills to helping farm families transition their farmland from one generation to the next, immerse the viewer in the complexity and emotional intensity of those transitions. There are many references in the play to Shakespeare’s King Lear. In that story, of course, King Lear makes cavalier and egotistical decisions about how he will divide his kingdom among his daughters so he can enjoy a care-free retirement. This goes tragically wrong. Mary Swander’s play reveals to us how human frailties and legal complexities can cause generational transitions to likewise end tragically for farmland-owning families today.


Yet, the play ends on a cautiously positive, understatedly hopeful note. Because that note comes from a story that relates to the themes of this blog so directly, I asked Mary if I could run that final story segment here. She generously agreed.  

In the segment you’ll find below, Angela tells the story of how a husband and wife (Marilyn and Gerry) were inspired to do the hard work of carefully transitioning their family’s land to the next generation because they came to realize that being committed stewards of the land was something their Christian faith called them to do. 


(ANGELA opens up the LAST BOX.)

But sometimes when it starts to fall apart, a family finds its way. Sometimes I help . . . I am learning to help more and more.

I had known Marilyn and Gerry for a long time. They had a large farm—really thriving. They survived the Farm Crisis, grew responsibly—real respected members of the community. I was surprised when they walked into my office—for a year Gerry worked closely with his lawyer, accountant, and a consultant to make a plan for his land—for after he and Marilyn stopped farming or…well if something happened. Gerry reached this place where he and Marilyn had digested everything that the consultant and lawyer and accountant suggested. Then they set up a meeting with me.

Gerry and Marilyn had everything in order—the books, the abstracts—they had asked tough questions and were working those out together. They worked on a mission statement, a plan for the farm and got their kids and family on board. It had seemed easy.

I didn’t know how hard it had been for them, how hard they had worked to make it seem easy, until Marilyn came into my office a few weeks after Gerry’s passing to put that plan we had made together into motion.

She sat down, exhausted from the funeral and those lonely, weeks after—all that work tying up loose ends, all that work that nobody ever sees, all that work that leaves little time for doing, let alone feeling anything else.

Marilyn came in. I put on the coffee and we just sat. And then she told me a story.

(ANGELA takes on MARILYN, grabbing mug from the box, and sits. She takes a big breath, and exhales quietly. A beat.)

I went to see the pope once.

(A beat.)

Never thought that would be something I’d want to do. Not Catholic, you know. But the Pope was traveling across the states, visiting churches, you know…blessing people…and I got the idea that I was going. This is what I was going to do—see the pope.

Gerry…he was busy, not interested, but said “go on”…you know, knock myself out. With the pope.

That’s funny.

(A beat.)

So I drove into the city—people everywhere—he drove up in that…that Pope-mobile…and you just start waving, you know—can’t help it. He’s there in his little . . .aquarium. . .and you raise your arm up in the air and he’s waving and I felt he was saying “Hi” right to me and I just start hollering, waving, whistling. I mean, I never got to see the Beatles or Elvis, so I guess I got it all out of my system with that pope.

And we settle in to listen to him—sitting on these hard bleachers to…you know…hear the pope.

And Gerry was at home on the farm choring, doing the milking in the barn. I guess he turned on the radio and they were broadcasting the pope…so I was sitting in the bleachers and Gerry was milking, but we are both listening to what this guy had to say. And what is some guy from Rome, you know, with the fancy robe gonna have for us—me on the bleachers, Gerry on the farm? I mean, really?

And the pope started to talk and I was looking around at all these people and Gerry must have been milking, not really listening much and then suddenly we heard the pope talking about the need to be stewards of the land and how we are called to leave the Earth, the soil in better condition than we found it. . . “The land is yours to preserve from generation to generation.”

That hit me. And it hit Gerry.

I started to cry. Right there, the pope talking and tears running down my face.

I got home that night and Gerry was sitting at the table. No, “How was it?” or anything just sitting there—hands folded, thinking.

“Gerry?” I said and he reached over and took my hands…

(MARILYN reaches out, thinking about the moment. A beat.)

Gerry told me he had listened on the radio and almost fell on the barn floor when the pope talked about the land. Gerry started to think about our kids and what we were leaving them. And how we were leaving the farm to them.

And I said, “Me, too.” The pope’s speech did the same thing to me. And we sat there a bit . . .thinking . . .and then we got up, cooked dinner and.. . Well, that was it . . . So we just decided we wanted to figure out what we would do next.

(ANGELA takes off MARILYN, puts mug away, stands.)

And they did.

They found a way to communicate to their kids what they valued and hoped for the land going forward. Everybody signed off on the plan—no surprises. One son was going to stay on, farm the land while renting from his siblings. Gerry had him build another house down the road, far enough away so that he couldn’t see Gerry and Marilyn’s farmstead. Gerry figured that would keep him from trying to meddle in how his son was starting to farm and keep his son from trying to fix what he thought Gerry was doing wrong.

And that wasn’t really the fix you know—it just got the issue out in the open, got them talking about it, Gerry and his son, and they figured it out as they went right up until Gerry passed. It wasn’t easy, but I learned that day how hard they had worked, how much honesty or courage it took to make it look like it was.


mary-swander photo

I again offer my thanks to Mary Swander (in the photograph above) for allowing the excerpt to be  reprinted here. If you know of a group who might find this one-act, one-person play meaningful, please contact her to discuss arrangements. It’s a play worth sharing, especially in rural areas.

Watching the play also reminded me of the power of story and art. It also reminded me that how we treat the land reflects, as do our choices in many other realms of our lives, the real values we live by. 

My children, like their father many decades ago, have found the animals of our old nativity set particularly fascinating and fun to play with.

And as I have become more convinced that the whole world, the whole universe is loved by God and of eternal concern by God, I have also paid more attention to the location of the birth of Jesus – in a feeding trough in a place where animals were kept and fed.

That Jesus was born in such a place is often used as another illustration of how modestly and humbly God came into this world. There is truth in this.

But there is another way this birthplace was symbolically right. Genesis begins with the Divine, humanity, and the rest of Creation together in harmony and relationship. How appropriate that Jesus’ birthplace would again bring them together as a foreshadowing of the redemption that will be both the end and a second beginning for everything.

Nativity scene by Jans tot Sint Geertgen (1490)

Nativity scene by Jans tot Sint Geertgen (1490)

I was delighted then to discover the Christmas hymn The Friendly Beasts while skimming through the United Methodist Hymnal in preparation for our family’s Christmas Eve celebration. Here are the lyrics which I’ve pasted into this blog post from a densely informative web site. (Interestingly enough, there are some slight differences between the hymnal’s version and the web site’s.)


Jesus our brother, kind and good/Was humbly born in a stable rude/And the friendly beasts around Him stood,/Jesus our brother, kind and good.

 “I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,/“I carried His mother up hill and down;/I carried her safely to Bethlehem town.”/“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

 “I,” said the cow all white and red,/“I gave Him my manger for His bed;/I gave him my hay to pillow his head.”/“I,” said the cow all white and red.

 “I,” said the sheep with curly horn,/“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm;/He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”/“I,” said the sheep with curly horn.

“I,” said the dove from the rafters high,/“I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry;/We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I.”/“I,” said the dove from the rafters high.

Thus every beast by some good spell,/In the stable dark was glad to tell/Of the gift he gave Immanuel,/The gift he gave Immanuel.

“I,” was glad to tell/Of the gift he gave Immanuel,/The gift he gave Immanuel./Jesus our brother, kind and good.

According to the same website, the song is based on a 12th century Latin song Orientis Partibus which was first sung in France. The web site says, “The tune is said to have been part of the Fete de l’Ane (The Donkey’s Festival), which celebrated the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and was a regular Christmas observance in Beauvais and Sens, France in the 13th century. During the mass, it was common for a donkey to be led or ridden into the church.”

The Latin song quickly found a home in England in the 12th century as well, and so the web site notes that some references will state the song’s origins are English. Early in the 20th century and thanks to the creativity of Robert Davis (1881-1950), the Latin song evolved into an English hymn about the gifts the animals present at the nativity provided to Jesus.

A variety of famous musical artists – Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Risë Stevens, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Garth Brooks – have recorded this song. You may also know of the hymn by its other names: The Song of the Ass, The Donkey CarolThe Animal Carol, and The Gift of the Animals.

Is the hymn true? It is in its deepest sense. Phrases from other hymns also capture that deeper truth:

In Joy to the World, we sing of earth receiving her king. We also sing of heaven and nature singing.

And the last verse of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear is this:

For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,/When with the ever circling years shall come the time foretold/When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,/And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.

That truth, that message of good news for the whole world, makes Christmas an especially hopeful time for me.  I hope it is for you as well.