Poem: God saw – and God knew. Exodus poems 2

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River Deben

This is the second poem I’ve written on these themes, drawing from the Exodus account of the life of Moses.  It carries with it many of the things that struck me as I was writing the first, Pharaoh’s daughter, and the child.  I have been thinking about how one group of people can be pitted against another, in fear, in believed superiority, and how, in this story, small acts of love and compassion begin the unravelling of this separation, and injustice. In particular, I have been turning over in my mind the idea that the unjust law of the Egyptians – all the Hebrew baby boys should be thrown into the River Nile – is so evil that it carries within it the necessity and means of its own overturn.  That this ark of rushes holding the baby Moses is one of the seemingly small means that begin the overthrow of an unjust system is fitting.

Once again, there are echos of the Gospel stories that tell of the beginning of Jesus’ life.  Tbe improbability, the vulnerability of a baby, cradled in less than ideal circumstances – a basket in a river, a manger in a stable – being so vital to the outworking of God’s love, challenges us in to how we think change for good might be accomplished.  Here, the urgency and reckless hope of a mother’s love, meets the compassion of a princess, and undermines an economic and political system which was cruel, and seemingly all-powerful. May we remember this, as we work for a more beautiful world.

My last post retells the story, and gives you links to the Bible passages.

But for this poem, what struck me was a few small verses at the end of Chapter 2.

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help…. God saw the people of Israel – and God knew.

Once again, this story of emnity between groups of people, of inequality and injustice, carries warning and hope for our current situation.

What happens to any of us happens to all of us. What would happen if we thought that might be so?

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Moon over the marshes at Walberswick.

 

God saw – and God knew   Exodus poems 2
During these many days,
the king of Egypt died –
that man who thought
himself a god, having
a god’s power of life
and death –
and God saw, and God knew.

Those living between walls
of cool marble,
dressed in linen,
making offerings to the gods,
those who floated down the Nile
while others laboured –
They thought, being rich,
being mighty, they had
the ear of God.
And God saw, and God knew.

During these many days,
those oppressed cried out –
those forced to labour,
those whose race was
feared, then despised.
They cried out,
and did they dare hope
that God saw, and God knew?

God saw and listened long.
Endlessly.  Through
many days, through
incessant lamenting,
God saw, and God knew.

So, I stand and ask, why?
why so long, those many days?
And will not soothe
myself with “perfect timing”,
or “plan”.  Under the
slavemasters’ whip,
such words sting.
And yet, God saw,
and God knew.

I lower my gaze.
Caught in the reeds,
there is a dark basket,
black as pitch,
that desperate hopeless hope,
that boychild cast by his mother
into the Nile, a loving reversal
of a cruel law –

and within that law’s dark heart –
an ark of reeds and pitch
woven tight of love –
with fists curled,
was one who would
overturn that cruelty.
A tiny child.
crying, hungry,
and alone.
And God saw,
and God knew.

Retold: On the banks of the Nile

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River Deben in Suffolk

Having shared with you a poem earlier, Pharaoh’s daughter and the child, I thought I might give you the story to read too.  This is from my book, The Bible Story Retold, and draws on the Sunday Retold series on the blog.

The retelling is in twelve chapters, and, at the beginning of each chapter, I allowed myself a bit more freedom to imagine what it must have been like for those living out the story, and to give some interpretation and inference to engage us with the big themes of each chapter.

One of the really powerful things about this Exodus narrative is how it tells the story of slaves, which is obvious, but we can overlook its significance.  Our history is famously told by the victors, the conquerors, the empires.  This one gives us an insight into long-ago lives whose story was not otherwise told.  Now, we can more easily listen to those on the edges, on the underside of current history, but the Bible is revelatory for this ancient insight.  It is a powerful narrative, which leans towards the powerless and those on the fringes, and hears their voices.

 

On the Banks of the Nile.

Jochebed and her daughter Miriam slipped out just before dawn.  They walked silently, shapes blending into the darkness. At every sound they stopped, afraid the slave mastrs might hear them.  They crept down to the green banks of the Nile, the great river that was the lifeblood of all Egypt.  There, by the trembling papyrus, they stopped and set down their load.  It was a tightly woven basket, a tiny boat, contaiing Jochebed’s three-month-old baby son.  She lifted the lid and leaned down to kiss him, splashing him with her tears.
Miriam said, “I’ll stay nearby and try to keep him safe….”
Jocobed slid the little boat into the reeds, and ran back to her cramped mud-walled slave house.  “May God protect and keep him!” she prayed.
She knew Pharaoh wished her son dead, along with all the other Israelite baby boys.  For the Egyptians hated the Israelites now.  The Egyptians had forgotten how Joseph had saved them from starvation many generations ago.  In Egypt, the Israelites had grown in number and strength, and the Egyptians looked at them with fear in their eyes.  So they made them slaves, but they could not crush them.
In his anger Pharaoh summoned the two midwives who delivered the Israelite babies, and gave them a terrible order:
“When the babies are born, let the girls live, but kill the boys.” The midwives bowed as they left, but they would not do such a terrible thing!  The baby boys continued to live, and grow strong.
Then Pharaoh commaned everyone.  Throw all the baby boys into the Nile!”

Miriam stayed by the Nile, hidden among the reeds near her tiny brother’s basket, and waited.  Then she heard the sound of singing, and saw the princess, Pharaoh’s daughter, coming towards the river with her maids.  Miriam hardly dared to breathe.  Would the Egyptians find her brother?  The princess and her attendants were so close now.  Miriam watched the princess take off her jewels and glide into the water.  It shimmered like gold in the early morning light.  Then the princess stopped.  She had seen the basket in the reeds, and sent one of the slave girls to fetch it.
Peering inside, the princess saw the baby crying. Her heart melted.  “This is one of the Israelite babies!” she said.  Miriam seized her chance.  She scrambled out of the reeds, and bowed down before the princess.  Swallowing her fear, she spoke.
“Your Highness, shall I find one of the Israelite women to nurse this baby for you?”
“Why yes, go as quick as you can!” For the baby was crying very hungrily indeed.  Miriam ran back home to get her mother.
“Care for this child, and bring him back to me when he is weaned.  I’ll pay you for your trouble!” said the princess, gently placing the baby in Jochebed’s arms.
Jochebed’s heart nearly burst with joy.  She had her son back! So she sang him Hebrew songs, the songs of the Israelites, and told him of thier God, and his promises, while he was a young child.  She prayed for him, and cared for him tenderly until it was time to give him up to Pharaoh’s daughter.  The princess called him Moses, and adopted him as her own son.  He grew up as an Egyptian prince, educated by the best tutors and trained to rule.

And from Prayers and Verses

Hope is a thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all

Emily Dickinson (1830-86)

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Both books can be ordered using the links above, or another internet bookshop.  If you have a local bookshop, they can order them for you.

Poem: Pharaoh’s daughter, and the child. Exodus poems 1

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The banks of the Deben, high tide

As I was coming to the end of writing the Lockdown Poems, a couple of things were tugging at my attention.  One was the thought of doing a series of poems on the I Am sayings, revisiting some of the prose and prayer from my book.  The other was the huge sweep of the cry for justice that is circling the world – the cry for racial, environmental, and economic justice.  One of the things the coronavirus crisis has done has been, as we’ve said before, to reveal painful things – to draw back the veil and show aspects of society that many of us have been fortunate enough to be able to overlook.

As I was looking at the origins of the I Am sayings – Moses’ experience with the burning bush – I was deeply struck by the relevance of the Exodus story  to our current world situation.  I would encourage you to read Exodus Chapters 1-3 to start with, if you can, and see what strikes you.  Many things opened up for me, and I intend to explore them imaginatively and prayerfully, inhabiting the story, and asking for wisdom. I hope I’ll return to the I Ams again, but for now, these matters seem too pressing to ignore.

We can see how the story of Exodus progresses.  It begins with forgetfulness.  Forgetfulness of the way Joseph, ex-slave, ex-prisoner, had saved the country from famine with his vision and good management, forgetfulness of how we are all interconnected, and bring gifts to our situation.  The Egyptians forgot, and were afraid.  Their enslavement of the Hebrew people is told as an act of weakness, not strength.  How that fear led to justifying the terrible law for the slaughter of baby boys – there are echoes of the Gospel here, where the baby boys of Bethlehem were killed, and Jesus’ family escaped to Egypt.  At the time of Exodus this was the known world’s richest and most powerful empire, and the process of unravelling that power and wealth seems to be begun within that unjust law. So contrary to all that is good and right in human relations was it, that it carried the seeds of its own undoing. And maybe that sheltering of the infant Jesus was, knowingly or unknowingly done, a kind of restitution.

In this story of Exodus, I’m powerfully struck how the action of one young woman changed nations. Her compassion was the point of turning. That is not to say that we measure our small acts of kindness by their global impact, or only do them if we feel there will be some kind of payback, but that this story reveals the hidden power of compassion, and can offer encouragement to us to not think better of our moments of better feeling, but to act on them – to reach out and help, offer what we can.  What those feelings and acts accomplish is, in many ways, not our business. We can offer them, release them, and what happens happens.  If we praying people, we can simply offer them to God, with no thought of future benefipayback. They can cease to be our own. Of course, we can try to be mindful of unintened negative consequences, but we seek to act from love and goodness independent of outcome for ourselves. For Pharoah’s daughter, if she survived to the time of the plagues and freedom for the slaves, this mercy to Moses may not have seemed such a good act after all.

The other thing which struck me forcibly was the fact that she acted from a place of safety, and privilege.   She did something that would have brought swift punishment if someone else had done it.  She seems to have used her safety almost without thought of the consequences, to help this one child.  We don’t know any surrounding information – what her attitude to her father’s law was before, or after.  All we know is this one thing about her. This one act.  Maybe it can encourage us to listen to one another, in different circumstances, to speak of our difficulties when we experience them, and to speak and act for others when they cannot do so for themselves.
And here is another thing our current crisis has revealed – deep wells of compassion and community, the capacity of people to act to help and support people they know, and don’t know.  The veil drawn back has shown us good, too. There is hope in this deeper reality.

The ending of this poem carries an echo of William Blake’s The Divine Image, which is incredibly apt for our current situation. It was published in 1789, and carries its message of equality in language of the time.  It’s a powerful read.

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There are major shifts happening in the world right now, and I am attempting to listen, to keep my mind open, to pray, and to understand, and to act.

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Taken from Exodus Chapter 2

 

Pharaoh’s Daughter, and the child.  Exodus poems 1

You named him Moses,
drew him out of
that small ark,
a precious cargo.
Out of the Nile-reeds,
where crocodiles wait,
out of the flood and the snakes
and the hum of mosquitoes,
out of the sentence of death
your father had passed.
In that moment, your heart responded,
the moment when you heard him cry
hungry, closed in the dark
and the silence
of his pitch-black basket,
in a moment, you reached out your hand,
and touched – not a slave-child,
but simply a hungry one, alone.

From your place, at your father’s side,
standing in his love for you,
you saved one small life
from his fearful stony heart’s rage,
from the might of law and empire.

Marvellous princess, you did more.
You paid a slavewoman wages,
you acted with justice and mercy,
you saw a child, and not an enemy.

And so you are remembered,
you are thanked by generations
yet unborn
For an act of kinship with one
from a feared race,
as golden Nile-waters
swirled and eddied and
rippled outwards, outwards
from the place where you stood,
shining in the light of dawn.
Mercy bore, in you,
the beauty of a human face.

Poem: Snake, not in the grass

Since my series of Lockdown Poems came to an end, my new notebook is filling up with different things…. I’ll share more with you another day, when I’ve worked up something more shareable, perhaps more complex.

This, though, was what happened yesterday, and I wanted to share it with you now.  If anything, it’s an unlockdown poem, reflecting the impact that increased traffic has had on one creature.  Once again, I feel pulled in different directions.  I am glad our local businesses are cautiously open again, but I miss the quiet roads and the space for nature.  I wonder how many creatures had become used to safely crossing, and have lost the habit of caution.

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The road earlier in the Spring, quiet in lockdown.

I am not particularly keen on snakes.  I don’t recall seeing a grass snake in this area before, and certainly I’ve never seen one in or so close to the garden..  That the first one I have a chance to look at closely should be dead saddens me.  It has troubled me, and I still can’t shake the image from my eyes. We can hold more than one impression – I am a little afraid of this snake, but I see its beauty, and feel its loss.

Our garden continues to be full of life.  The newts are back sheltering under the red watering can, and there are small frogs among the strawberries – I hope they are growing larger on the slugs.  Maybe this snake was on its way to our small sanctuary, and didn’t make the crossing.  Maybe I’ve run over things myself, and not even noticed – I must have done.

This one dead creature seems to be weighty with significance, so, as ever, I have explored that with words.

 

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Grass snake from Animalia on Pinterest

 

 

Snake, not in the grass

There’s a coil of something
long, with a faint gleam,
on the road by our drive.

A prickle crosses my neck.
The heat rising from tar
brushes my legs as
I take a slow step nearer.
Silver underside, dark stripes.
Snake.

Its tail is flat,
its pale interior exposed
to this drying sun,
It doesn’t move.

Its shape is burned
in my mind.
I can’t forget it,
can’t settle.
Such beauty,
such strangeness,
dead.

The road must not be
its resting place,
unnatural with the
hardness of cars
and the smell of tar.
Its long fluid form,
its pale green and grey,
the strip of yellow brightness
by its intelligent head,
these things call for
softness, and respect.

I do what I can do.
Not enough.
Scoop it as tenderly
as I can with my
cautious spade,
and lay it in the long grass
where I try to grow wildflowers.

 

I am so sorry this was your end,
beautiful creature,
beneath wheels,
you, the first snake seen here,
in this place.
It’s a strange welcome,
but welcome you are.
May you rest in this pale
dry grass,
be part of this land,
thank you for your life,
your part in the life
of this place.
We are the poorer
for your loss.

Poem: Grandiflora – Lockdown 35

When I wrote this next poem, as the volume of traffic increases, as the number of people we encounter while out walking near our home increases, I felt that it was the last one.  The last one named and numbered for lockdown.  This series had come to a resting place, I felt.  The lockdown was ending, possibly disintegrating.

And there are all the mixed emotions that go with everything to do with the covid crisis.  Of course, it is such good news that fewer people are afflicted with this terrible disease.  I am glad my little local shops are beginning to trade again, and people in my community are able to support their families.  I worry that this is a lull, and not an end.  I worry that we are missing an opportunity to make things better in our scramble to make things normal.

But also, I have really enjoyed this method of writing, and then sharing with you.  Thank you for your company.  I hope these poems have given moments of peace, or thoughtfulness, or connection, or beauty – as they are, and as you need.  I will continue writing like this, and also seeing what else calls to be written.  I think there are new things.  So, there are 35 of these, in this series.  I also wrote seven poems for Good Friday.
That’s quite productive for me, and some recharging of my creative batteries, some reading and thinking and seeing, is required.  Having said that, I may miss doing this so much there’ll be something tomorrow!

This last poem seems to say some things that had been rising up in me for a while.  I am finding, in my response to the multiple crises that are unfolding, that I am trying to understand what is going on, rather than value my own opinion so much.  There is a letting go for me here, which is the first step of learning.  It’s seeking to adopt a beginners mind, or seeking to become like a little child.  There is a reference to the wonderful piece of Medieval mysticism, The Cloud of Unkowing, in the poem, and you can read a bit more about that here.

Thank you again for your time, for sharing your time and virtual comany with me, and for your attention, and bless you.

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Grandiflora  Lockdown 35

I am tired of argument,
although curious,
and seeking understanding.
I am done with the
certainty of knowing.

There is so much more
to be explored in unknowing,
so much awaits
in that soft mist
that rests on the skin.

These magnolia leaves,
rattling in the breeze,
some yellow, and falling,
some green, and shining,
do they know the flowers
will begin to open soon?

The flowers will open,
known or not,
releasing their
creamysweet
scent above me –
joining with
the honeysuckle,
with the rose –
revealing their strange
strong hearts.

Each day,
a new flower
will open.
Each day,
I will receive
their beauty,
and, in turn,
pour out tea leaves
for their dark roots.
I am finding
it is enough.
It is enough.

 

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Poem: The company of bees – Lockdown 34

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This is the last but one of the Lockdown Poems. Something will continue on after, but whatever it is, it’s not quite this.  Whatever strange time we are in now, it’s not quite lockdown, although I know that many are still keeping at home, and we are all missing those we love and haven’t seen for months.  Thank you for your time and company as we’ve been watching this season unfold.

At times during this strange spring, I think we’ve had some painful space in which to consider the ways we live, and the injustices and destruction we have thought were inevitable.  In seeing those injustices and destructive forces stripped bare, and also in seeing the great machine of Mammon halted briefly, we’ve had a glimpse of the hope that lies at the bottom of the well of all that is not hopeful.  Nadia Bolz-Weber’s sermon to prisoners this week speaks so powerfully into the nature of hope, it’s short, and so well worth listening to. I think what we are beginning to see is the struggle of a vision of a more beautiful world, the birthpangs of something more whole and holy, that are real and painful and require effort and will.

So, this next poem started off as a morning contemplation of what was before me, and moved to a brief touching on the tragedy, or tragedies, we are facing and facing up to at present.  There is a folklore that you should tell the bees the news of those who have died, and that seems a hard task right now.

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I had a problem with the memory card in my camera, and by the time I sorted it out, the bees had gone deeper into the bush, and I couldn’t catch them.  Here are the tiny flowers they love. In the winter, the birds will eat the white berries.

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The company of bees  Lockdown 34

I will quieten my spirit
in the company of bees –
so many.
Honeybees to my right,
filling the snowberry bush with
their eager hum,
the tiny flowers constantly
visited, endlessly
searched.

Bumbles – white tailed, and red,
carder, and buff –
to my left,
climbing up the steep
slope of the gladioli flowers.

You should tell the bees
news, they say,
tell them the news
of who has died.
There are so many,
so many now.
We must speak
our sorrows,
even though such
speaking is beyond us.
These lives
must be more than
numbers –
loves and hopes
and the seemingly
endless tide of
breath, ended.
So much had been
lost.

And what do the bees
do with our sorrows?
can they carry those
heavy loads away?
And those bees,
when do they speak
of their own loss,
the meadows stripped bare,
the poison they
bring back to
their hives,
their place of
safety and plenty
dying too?

This small place
of nectar and
kindness, it’s
all I can offer,
for both.

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A mown path through the wild flowers – it’ll be full of yellow when the sun comes round.  What sort of path do we wish to walk, what sort of path do we wish to make? Maybe there is a choice before us.  Can we choose life?

 

 

Poem: Beans coiling uncoiling – Lockdown 33

Welcome to another small moment of noticing – this time we’re back to the veggies. These lockdown poems are often a celebration of paying attention, noticing the small wonders that are before us every day. Since we’ve had some rain, the beans have been racing ahead.  I seem to have managed to keep the pigeons off them for now, but, with all the little seedlings, they are strutting around looking interested.

I am intrigued by the way the stems search out their supports, and coil around them.  It’s beatiful to come back day by day and see what progress they are making.  All from a small bean, and the earth, and the rain, and the sun.  No wonder they inspired fairy tales.

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Beans coiling uncoiling – Lockdown 33

How does the bean know
to twist itself so perfectly
around these tall sticks?

How does the stem grow
close on one side, where
it touches, stretched
out on the other,
open to the air
and the sun?

I uncoil it tenderly
from where it has
strayed.
How long until it
cleaves to its
new home?
How long until
it feels safe,
and thrives?

Poem: Longing for Rain – Lockdown 32

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We had an intensely hot, dry stretch of weather, in May, which was a time when the few miles to the sea was an impossible journey.  Even as the lockdown eased, and journeys became more possible, we’ve been tentative in our outings, and sought out remote and deserted stretches of coast.  I have been recalling the longing for rain, and the longing for the sea, even as the garden revives, and we’ve heard and smelled the sea.  I’ve been turning those two things over in my mind.

This poem expresses some of the longings of lockdown, and is part of the series of poems that are emerging at this time.  I feel we may be getting closer to the end of that series, and then, it may be time for something new to emerge.

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Longing for Rain  Lockdown 32

The sea has felt so far away,
here, in this sheltered space.
The sound of water lapping,
lapping, seems miles of
dry ground from here,
while the little strawberries
are hard and intense,
like jelly sweets,
and the grass begins to yellow,
and leaves curl,
under a white sky

There is a symmetry
to this longing.
The journey I long to make –
to the sea, to the
spume and the sea mist,
the grey stones and the brown waters,
and the journey I long for
those waters to make –
to visit us here
on this drying land,
blown by the wind
on rivers of cloud,
then falling softly –
hissing, hot-earth-smelling
rain.

May our paths cross,
our journeys
be completed,
may the life-giving waters
soak and soothe us.
May it be so.

Little Free Pantry update

This is just a quick post to thank the wonderful people of Melton and Woodbridge for keeping the Little Free Pantry well stocked during the coronavirus crisis.

It’s in the porch of St Andrew’s church, and is opened by volunteers every day.  We aim to have it available from 10 am to 5 pm seven days a week.

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Thank you to Elaine for the photos, and keeping an eye on things.  Thank you to everyone who has participated, either by giving or by taking food.

 

It’s very simple.

Give what you can, take what you need.

The porch is open, and unstaffed, so you are free to come and visit the pantry if there is no one else there, without coming in to contact with anyone else. You are free to bring food, or take food, or both. It’s free, and freely available.  It’s a sign of neighbours loving each other, and of the love of God which holds us all.

 

It’s so good that our community is working together in this way, taking care of each other.  A hopeful sign.

 

Poem: Pink – Lockdown 31

This next Lockdown Poem is far more exuberant.  I love the way the dominant colours of the garden change as the season rolls on.  We start with yellows, add blues, and by the time we get to early June it’s a festival of pink – fragrant pink at that.  I presume the different insects who are around at different times of year favour these colours and scents.  Whatever the reason, the things that seed and spread, as well as the things that are planted, do adopt a certain pallette of colours.

I hope you enjoy a brief tour.  I hope it refreshes your eyes on this grey day, especially if you are somewhere away from these changes in the natural cycle, or the view from your window is particularly damp.

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Pink  Lockdown 31

Roses, columbines, geraniums,
the arresting gladioli.
Suddenly its all pink,
and fragrant,
a boudoir from the age gone by,
a powderpuff of loveliness,

Rejoicing and loud
and with absolutely
no subtlety,
calling to that
eager hum of insects
to come, taste,
drown in sweetness.

Life.  Glorious,
singing, life.
It’s here.
It’s now.
Come, taste.

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This rose is a gift from friends.  It’s planted by the door, and called Blessings.