A POEM ABOUT POEMS (for Poetry Day Ireland)


Martin Sheen Serve

T-Bone Burnett is a songwriter, better known as a producer, and as the latter has given us some of the finest film sound tracks of that last twenty years - O Brother, Where Art Though, Cold Mountain, Crazy Heart etc etc. He has a line from his song Trap Door that I have been quoting for 36 years:


“It's a funny thing about life

You've got to give up your life to be alive”


Martin Sheen is an actor who played my favourite ever part on television, President Jed Bartlett on West Wing. He is also a Jesus follower who in interviews shares real spiritual wisdom. I love particularly a phrase he has used often but I am quoting from an interview on Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast:


“And we had a phrase when I was young, in our community, that one serves oneself best by serving others first.”


Jesus was a carpenter from Nazareth that billions of us believe is somehow God in flesh and blood humanity. One of Jesus poetic phrases I have built my life upon, John 10:10:


“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”


Or as a friend sent me today the Hawaiin Pidgin translation:


"Da steala guy, he ony come fo steal, kill, an bus up da place. But I wen come so da peopo can come alive inside, an alive to da max."


That invitation to life in all its fulness drives my life and ministry, gives constant impetus to my aspirations. 

The next thing Jesus says after the offer of full life is:


“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.


We are back to Burnett and Sheen… giving up your life… serving others.

Jesus would later give us another beautiful refrain:


“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”


Theologians would call Jesus paradigm man - a model for humanity. We are not only beneficiaries of his laying down his one for us. We are to follow the example. In that following I believe we find 10:10, the life in its fulness… “you’ve got to give-up your life to be alive”.

Martin Sheen did not say that he was taught that serving was a good thing… or a nice thing… or even a Christian thing. He said “that one serves oneself best by serving others first.” To be find 10:10, serve!

Let me finish with a wee paraphrasic twist. Giving up your life for a friend can seem to huge. It is not likely we will have to. So we can dismiss it too easily. If we changed it for effect - “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down half an hour of your life for one’s friends.” 

Half an hour. To serve. To give. To be in that place where as human beings we might just discover why we were made and find that right there we are living 10:10… life in all it fulness!


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