Barnabas is on his deathbed unconscious, and Paul is at his side hoping for a chance to say his last goodbye. Gasping for his last few breaths, Barnabas says, "I love you, Paul." A glimpse into a situation that might have been becomes a potent ode to strength and meekness, weakness and forgiveness.
There was a bond between these men
As deep as one could dream, and when
The others left, in silence Paul
Would sit and keep his vigil all
Alone, and listen to the hiss
Of lanterns by the bed. And this,
He thought, must be a load
Of love released, lest it explode.
The old man lay unconscious now,
And Paul would wipe his wrinkled brow
From time to time, as gently as
A nurse, or only son. "He has
A tender touch," the women said,
"Hard to believe someone could dread
This man. He sits there day and night
As patient as a mother might."
The women whispered softly in
Another room, "Twould be sin
To break that holy atmosphere."
Sometimes deep in the night they'd hear
His voice and recognize the word
Of God from some great prophet heard
Of old, as Paul recited it.
He prayed that it would benefit
The old man's soul that night, then took
A parchment of Isaiah's book:
"Thus says the Lord, O Israel,
I have good news, now listen well,
And ponder what I pledge to do:
To gray hairs I will carry you;
From mother's breast to icy grave
My hand will carry and will save."
The slightest twitch touched on
The old man's lips, and then was gone.
But Paul had seen it: "Barnabas.
It's Paul. Can you hear me?" There was
Another twitch, and then a sound,
Between his lips. Paul looked around
And took a moistened cloth to wet
The old man's lips and tongue, and get
The crusted tears out of his eyes.
"We haven't said our last goodbyes,
Old friend. It isn't like you just
To up and leave . . . unless you must.
I've been here seven days. Mark came
To get me." Then he paused.
Beside the cot made shadows play
Across the red-grey beard that lay
Outside the blanket on the old
Man's chest. The coastal town was cold,
And wintry wind cut through the stone
And mortar walls.
The rest have gone to bed. It's late
Now. Barnabas, I sure would hate
To lay you in the grave this year
Without a chance for you to hear
Once more what you have meant to me.
I would have crossed the widest sea
For this, or come from any land.
"If you can hear me, squeeze my hand...
listen, aged friend:
You know, I hope, that to the end,
And from the very start, you've been
To me a father . . . took me in
When no one dared, and risked your neck,
And told me later that the speck
In my young eye was tiny bone
Compared to logs inside your own.
I never did believe it when
You said the words, nor now.
I've learned that things look diff'rent from
The inside out. A tiny crumb
That's nothing for an elephant
May be a boulder for an ant.
The Lord taught me more grace through you
Than any other man. He knew
What sort of father I would need.
"From Antioch you came to plead
With me in Tarsus, I recall,
‘Come, help me teach the Christians, Saul!'
As though a king should beg a drone
To share the glories of his throne...
Which is, of course, in simple speech,
The awesome Gospel that we preach.
"I've never known a man live grace
Like you, and leave a trace
Of Gospel Truth on all his ways."
But suddenly Paul stopped his praise;
The old man's hand gripped like a vice,
His shoulders shook, his breath came twice
As fast, and all at once a wave
Of grief broke on his cot and gave
Way into heaving sobs. His head
Rocked back and forth as though it said,
Some old unspeakable regret
That Barnabas could not forget
Had bitten through his heart again.
Though startled, Paul remembered when
He'd seen this once before. It was
In Antioch, and Barnabas,
Now years ago, had left the claims
Of Truth, because some men from James
Had pressured him and Cephas there
To cut off fellowship, and share
No more at meals, with Gentile saints.
For Paul the source of such constraints
Was not the Gospel of God's grace,
And he opposed them to their face
And used the very words he just
Now spoke to Barnabas: "We must,"
He said, "Live grace and leave a trace
Of Gospel Truth on all our ways."
And Barnabas had wept for days.
"O Lord, I didn't mean to raise
That up again." Paul dropped his head,
And as he prayed, the wrenching bed
Grew still, but neither loosed his hold.
Then deep and quietly the old
Man whispered low, "I love you, Paul.
I weep because I owe you all
shook his head, "You prayed
For me when I was stoned; you laid
My head across your knees outside
The gate at Lystra, and you cried
To God until I breathed again.
What do you mean you owe me then
mean that when I strayed
Out of the path, when I betrayed
The King, and postured as a dove,
You struck me in the face with love."
The old man cracked his eyes and gazed
Up in the face of Paul, and raised
His hand to touch the soldier's arm:
"You've never done me one day's harm.
The Lord taught me more truth through you
Than any other man. He knew
The bane and weakness of my breed
And just the son that I would need."
And that was all they said. These two
Whose bond of love was deep as you
And I could ever dream. The one,
A warrior for the truth, and son
Of grace; the other, quiet, kind,
And much to clemency inclined.
Each had his way of being meek;
And both were strong and both were weak.
Now come and ponder candle four
Some new and tall, some used before;
Some soft and barely kept afire,
Some glowing like a temple pyre;
Some bending by the heating grill,
Some freezing in the window sill;
Some thin and hard to keep upright,
Some broad and safe all through the night.
Whichever burns in you today,
Let jealousy be put away.
You have a call to something higher:
If mine burns out I need your fire.