Retold: Moses, the rescuer

 

candles_flame_in_the_wind-otherI’ve been sharing with you an emerging series of poems drawn from the first chapters of Exodus, in the Hebrew Scriptures.  I am finding they help give me a way of thinking about our own difficult time.  Sitting alongside those, I’m writing some posts which tell the story in prose, drawing on my book, The Bible Story Retold.

This next fragment falls in between two more well-known stories – On the banks of the Nile, and The Burning Bush. You can read these by clicking on the titles.

It’s a powerfully revealing fragment.  It shows Moses, perhaps becoming aware of the injustice his people were facing, taking violent – indeed fatal – action to defend them. This character trait of rescuing, or establishing justice, is further revealed in his actions defending the young women at the well – but this time, the incident ends with being received into Jethro’s family, and marrying one of those young women.  There seems to have been some progress in how Moses uses his impulse to defend and rescue.  It’s so easy, in rising up to oppose injustice, to become a mirror – demostrating the same behaviour as that which we might oppose.  Part of this narrative’s purpose is to show us different ways good ends can be accomplished.  And they begin with a change in us, a change in how we see, and understand the world.  This one will begin with a powerful encounter with the mysterious I Am of the burning bush.

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I explore this a little more in the poem, Moses, and the Burning Bush, which you can read here.

Now, back to the prose narrative……

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From Exodus 2-4

Moses never forgot his own people.  He could not walk among the carved colonnades of the royal palace without shuddering, for they had been built by the slave laour of his brothers and sisters.  Then, one day, at one of the great building sites, he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, and anger rose in him.  He came to the defence of the slave, but killed the Egyptian, and gave him a hurried burial in the sand.

“So this is how he repays our kindness to him!” roared Pharaoh when he heard the news. “We brought him up as one of our own, and now he’s fighting against us, on the side of those lazy slaves!”  When Moses saw Pharaoh’s anger, he ran to the desert, the land of Midian, fearing for his life.

He came to a well and sat down, gasping and exhausted.  Soon, seven young women arrived to water their sheep.  But some shepherds tried to drive them away and take the water for themselves.  Moses came to the girls’ rescue, and helped them water their flocks.  The young women returned to their father Jethro, a wealthy herdsman, and told him what had happened.  Jethro welcomed his daughers’ protector into his family.  Moses married one of the girls and cared for Jethro’s flocks.  He learned the ways of the wilderness: where to shelter from a sandstorm, the best paths through the high places.

Then, one day, as the sheep grazed on the slopes of Mount Sinai…….

This is where the story moves to the moment of the Burning Bush.

And from Prayers and Verses

O God,
How long must I call for help before you listen?
How can you let this wrongdoing go on…
all the fighting and the quarrelling?
Wicked people are getting the better of good people;
it is not right, it is not fair!

I will wait quietly for God to bring justice.
Even in the middle of disaster I will be joyful,
because God is my saviour.

based on the book of Habakkuk

 

This post draws on the Sunday Retoldseries.

Poem: Moses and the Burning Bush – Exodus Poems 4

I have continued to turn the Exodus story over in my mind, as one that may help us as we think about the multiple, colliding crises we face. I am finding it illuminating, as we consider how we might move out from the situation we find ourselves in, to the possibility of a more hopeful future. These meditations are forming the basis of a series of poems. If you would like to read the stories, you can do here.

You might like to read the other poems so far, and you can find the links here.

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

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

Poem: Holy Ground, barefoot. Exodus poems

In this latest poem, I wonder what it must have been like for Moses, who started out so full of hope and promise, who so wanted to defend his people, to right wrongs, that he responded force against force, and killed a slavemaster. In fear, he ran, ran away from all he had known, he built a new life away from Egypt. Did he remember his brothers and sisters, did he despair of this system of oppression that he had been unable to change? It must have seemed so powerful, so resistant, too cruel to those he loved to even hope for freedom.

I wrote about Moses, and this encounter with God, in my book, Jesus said, I am – finding life in the everyday. You can read a little more about that, and some extracts, here, if it interests you.

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Walking down from Golden Cap, in the sunset dust of Storm Ophelia

What do we do, when it seems we’ve lost our chance to work for a more beautiful world? What do we do, when it all seems too fixed, too permanent ant, too big and powerful for us to make a difference?

Maybe we can see things differently, maybe our eyes can be opened to deeper truths, as the old ones crumble before us, and something new – something that was always there – begins to emerge.

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Moses and the Burning Bush

You stood on that dry mountain,
eyes narrowed against wind
and sand, scanning
the bright horizon,
looking for threat, or grazing
for those sheep.

Were you content to be a shepherd
now, Prince of Egypt?
Were you reconciled to this life
smaller than your dreams?
Did you think it was all too late,
too late to do anything
to help your brothers,
to help your sisters,
the slaves,
to reclaim your people?

Shepherd, with the bleating
of the flock about you,
did you dream still,
under the strong sun,
of what-could-or-should-have-been?
Did a new world seem impossible?
Or were you breathing
in this moment,
with the dust smell,
and the sheep smell,
and the plants thick with resin?

It was no dream,
what happened next,
no could-or-should-have-been,
that burning bush –
crackling, smoke smell,
burning, but not consumed.

In that moment you took
off your shoes, and learned a
name for God that is no name,
I am what I am.
I will be what I will be.

In a moment,
your reality peeled open,
revealing fire within,
the truth within,
giving you back
the discomfort of hope,
giving you back
your people,
and your way.

Poem: Stamps

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Photo from the EADT, from some time before the coronavirus crisis

I had to go to the post office today, walking through the shopping street of the market town where I live.  It was much busier than it has been, which is good for trade, but means you have to engage in a complex dance of awareness and courtesy to give people enough room, especially near those who seem to be moving to music all of their own and not noticing the paths of others.  There is some anxiety even seeing your neighbours and friends, trying to remember to keep your distance, and suppress the desire to be close, to hug perhaps.

I remembered this poem as I was at the counter, which I shared with you some time ago.  I remembered it as I felt the absence of the connection I associate with running errands in the town, a lack of touch, and often of looks and smiles, as we seek to navigate a world where we look different in our masks, and sometimes don’t yet recognise each other in these new guises.

It’s a poem about contact and connection through a perspex barrier, how we long for such connection, and seek to make it.  It is also a poem about the gentleness we can adopt with strangers, not knowing the sadness, the burdens, they may be carrying.  It seems an appropriate poem for today.

 

Stamps

Two of the blinds were down,
Position Closed, but yours
hovered, unreadable, just
above your head.

There was   no queue,
and I approached you
cautiously,
clutching thick manila
envelopes.

Are you open? I asked.
As you raised your head,
I saw trails of tears down
your smudged cheeks,
such large heavy drops.

First class, two –
I’m so sorry.
You smiled, and
I stretched out my
hand and touched
fingertips to the glass,

Passed warm coins
through, which you
held a moment,
then gave me stamps,
straightening your back.

 

Poem: Strawberries

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The main crop strawberries are over now, but these little alpines continue – first one part of the garden, then another, is the place to hunt.  It depends on light, and shade, and water, and when the robins and blackbirds discover them.  We – people in our neighbourhood – are sharing plants, and produce, when we have surplus.  It’s part of the deeper connections we’re working to make, to give and to share.  It’s a kind of abundance and connection that gives me hope.  The Transition Woodbridge movement have been doing a marvellous job of facilitating sharing surplus plants and produce, especially during lockdown, and are continuing to plan harvesting from the community fruit trees as the seasons begin to turn.

 

I wrote this poem when the space under the rosebushes was full of big juicy strawberries – and I took photos, too, but my memory card was playing up, and they were lost. So the pictures are of the smaller ones, which seem to keep going most of the warmer weather. Whenever I eat the big maincrop strawberries, I think of the friend who gave me the parent plants to all I now have.  She lives further away now, but is still growing beautiful things.  She taught me a lot about gardening, especially about listening – to the land, and the things that grow there – and learning from your place.  I miss her, and, when harvesting strawberries one day, I thought of the good fruits of friendship, and its spread and reach, and how it enriches our communities and lives so much, along with the plants and the produce.  We see the goodness of the fruits.

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Strawberries
for Kay

Today I am thankful
for strawberries,
growing under the rose bushes,
festooned with casual netting
like a green scarf.

Some rest on the old
stone path, ripening fast,
others are hidden among
leaves of ladies mantle,
sheltered from sun and beaks,

And most of all, I am
thankful for the friend
I watched as she gently
dug the parent plants
from her own rich patch,
who held them out to me
with a reminder to
plant at dusk,
in the cool.
How they have spread
since then.

Friendship, too,
sends out long runners,
who knows where,
small plants that root
as the moment arises,
and how, years later,
these too give
sweet red fruit,
again, and again.

 

 

Little Free Pantry Update

 

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Thank you Elaine for the pictures.

Some local friends will know about the wonderful Little Free Pantry at St Andrew’s Church, Melton, Suffolk, UK.  You can read more about it here.  This year, during the coronavirus crisis, it has been a valuable way for neighbours to show neighbours some love and care, but it’s had a bit of a bumpy ride.  For a while, we had to close it down while the church building was shut, and then, when it had been running again for a while, the church tower was struck by lightning making the porch unsafe.

I’m delighted to tell you, if you hadn’t heard on the grapevine, that the pantry is operating again – but this time, from the foyer of the church room at the other end of the building.  You can access it via the little lane and the rectory garden.  We’ve been blown away by the generosity of people leaving food for one another. Word of the new location is getting out, and people have been amazingly generous. We’re so glad that people are able to use it to both give and take food, for themselves or on behalf of someone else.

The principle of the pantry is so simple:

Give what you can, take what you need.

Just come, no questions asked.  You don’t have to meet anyone, or explain yourself.  It is open
Monday to Wednesday, 10 am to 5 pm.

Church room foyer, access via the lane and Rectory garden.

If you are standing in front of the Church, facing it on the pavement, go to the right of the building, past the end of the wall.  There’s a little lane.  Turn into the Rectory drive and immediately turn left – you only have to skirt through, you won’t be disturbing anyone or anything – and you’ll soon be passing the church bins and by the door to the Church room. Do come.
It’s such a good way for the community showing love and solidarity at a difficult time.  We’re aware people’s financial situations may be quite precarious at present, and want you to know that the pantry is there to help you and your family, as a sign of the love of the community, and God’s love unfolding in this place.

To all who use the pantry,  to give or receive or both, thank you and bless you.

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Some of the additional supplies.

 

 

Poem: Meadow

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The meadow flowers close up, a few weeks ago.

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We’ve been leaving more of the lawn long this year, especially at the end pictured, where the grass has been unsuccessful, and other plants want to grow.  It’s been so good to see butterflies and bees above the flowers, and, in close inspection, to see  so many small creeping things below.

We have various heights of hawkweed growing prolifically now, and I particularly love their seedheads – like dandelion clocks.

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There is something very special about these windborne seeds – their profligacy, abandon, opportunism – which I find good to think about right now.  When our movements and interactions are reduced as we seek to keep one another safe from the virus, I find it helps to think of these seeds blowing freely. You never know where they will go, and what their impact will be.  The task of the plant is to produce the seeds, and to release them to the wind.

It reminds me of the extravagance of the parable of the Sower, and of the many times Jesus talks of seeds falling to the ground.  These things help remind me to be less attached to outcome, to just do the task before me, and to trust the blowing of the wind.

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Meadow

I love the softness of this path
mown through the long grass,
the many yellow flowers.
How it curves to here, where
the old gate is bound by ivy,
where the silver birches,
planted as chance seedlings,
are growing tall and graceful
above wild strawberries.

I love the round seedheads,
the not-dandelion-clocks
of hawkweeds,
that dip their opaque globes
in the breeze,
and the self-heal,
and the speedwell,
beneath.

The seeds shake in the breeze,
and blow free.
The lightest fragments of life.
Who knows where they will
blow to?
Who knows, the smallest of
things – a thought,
a hope, a prayer,
can be borne up
by many breezes,
and tumble and travel
through many airs,
and find a place to catch,
to break open, to root,
and to grow.

Poem: Butterfly Path

This next poem is another written following a walk by our river, the Deben, as we make our way down towards the sea.

You can read the first, Waldringfield Salt Marshes, Seal, by following the link.

This poem is about a diversion.  We could not pick up the walk where we left off, by the seal, on the other side of the water.  The footpath was closed, there were diggers and warning signs as the flood defences were being shored up.  We took another route, and were rewarded by butterflies.  I am seeking to learn the names of the many wondrous plants and animals I see, to name them and honour their names.

Some of you may have come across the beautiful book, The Lost Words, written and painted in response to the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to lose nature words from its children’s edition.  It’s a beautiful, elegaic work – incantations of the names that are nearly, but not quite, lost.  Musicians too have responded, and I have been listening to The Lost Words Blessing, as I seek to do the work of honouring the natural world, and learning its names. It’s a fine piece of music, from Folk by the Oak. I find the lyrics very moving, and resonant.  They express what I hope to do in many of these poems, so coming across the piece was like finding someone who shares a way of seeing the world. Each verse begins with a variation on this refrain:

“Enter the wild with care, my love
And speak the things you see
Let new names take and root and thrive and grow”

it ends..

“Even as the hour grows bleaker, be the singer and the speaker
And in city and in forest, let the larks become your chorus
And when every hope is gone, let the raven call you home”

You can read them all under the video, reached through the link above.

I didn’t take any pictures of the butterflies, unfortunately, but here are some from the Butterfly Conservation website.

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Comma

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Ringlet

 

 

Butterfly path

Evening.  High summer.
To our right the open grass
ripples in the breeze.
And a kestrel hovers,
tail splayed, intent on
what is beneath

the surface of this
silvergreen
watery rippling,
while we walk
down the path
by its side.

Less a path, more a strip of
wildness, of wood and scrub.
Rich with nettles and pink
flowered brambles
and tumbles of flowers
under the shade of thorns
and oaks and hornbeams,
and before us, and around us
on our bright sandy path,
are butterflies.

Ringlet and meadow brown,
the showier admirals,
tortoiseshells and commas,
gatekeeper, small copper –
I am learning these names,

saying these names
for a beauty
I hardly ever see.
Years ago, they say,
butterflies rose in clouds
about you as you walked.

We did not intend to take this path.
Our planned way,
by the river,
was closed.
And so, I receive this shimmer
of beauty as a gift,
in a harmony
of grassland and field edge,
and scrub and wood –
We walk amongst plenty,
amongst what could yet be,
again, cradled in lightness,
and sadness for
what we have lost.
We walk quietly among
many wings,
eyes open,
wide open.

Poem: Midsummer evening

I have been trying to share with you poems soon after they appear in my notebook, keeping a kind of record of the times.  Going back a few pages, I came across some jottings I’d overlooked while working up some other pieces. So, although we are a little past midsummer, the world still has that midsummer feel, of short nights, and abundant life, and I thought I’d share it with you now.

There are a few East Anglian dialect words for some of the large flying insects we have at this time of year in the poem, I do love those words.

I don’t have garden evening photos for you, but here are a few from the footpaths nearby, taken by my husband, Peter Skevington, which are full of the beauty of a summer evening.

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Midsummer evening

Ten o’clock, there is
a glow of light in the sky.
The honeysuckle is sweet,
and the lawn, a pale round
glade in the darkness.

Around that glade, bats
fly, rapid, light, and silent –
at least to me,
around and around,
threading back, and forth,
through the feast of gnats.

Against the deep turquoise
of the low sky, smaller
dark shapes drone
heavily, slowly, on,
rising improbably
over the old barn.

Billywitches,
cockerchafes,
precarious stag beetles,
wings unfurled,
weighted.

Night is short,
and full of life.
Night turns slowly
on this pale circle,
Earth turns slowly,
too, a moment
of almost stillness,
before it begins again,
when the deer comes,
and the night birds
start their callings,
as I turn my back,
turn away to sleep.

Hush, hush now,
these are creatures
not of the human world.
Creatures of their own
quiet, and their own time.
I leave them the gathering night.

Poem: Waldringfield salt marshes – seal

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These beautiful photos are by Pete Skevington, with thanks.

We haven’t been far from home, since Lockdown started.  It’s been astonishing how that restraint has made us more inventive, seeking out places we haven’t been to, or haven’t been to for years.

We have a very loose walking project of seeing how far along our local river, the Deben, we can go. How much of it is walkable, and accessible by footpath. The river is an estury downstream from us, an unstable and changing and hazardous landscape.  At times, the public right of way marked on the map crosses open water.

We hadn’t attempted to walk this particular route for a very long time ideed.  My memory of it, my first experience of this kind of landscape, was nearly losing my boot in sinking, sucking mud, and being unable to pull myself free.  Now, being more accustomed to the great outdoors, we tried again, knowing the route would be completely different.  How far could we get?

Having got as far as we could, we paused where the marsh-creek joined the river, surrounded by mud and flowing water.  I ate some of the salty samphire that was growing there.  And then, we saw the head of a large seal in the creek, very close by.  The whole experience of being out on those marshes was full of awe, transcendent and earthy at the same time – a deep, lively peace, a beauty and a rightness.  Being met by a seal at the furthest reach of our footsteps was such a gift.

I’ve tried to catch some of that in the words of this poem.  I hope you enjoy an excursion over saltmarsh.

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Waldringfield saltmarshes – seal

This thin strip of solid ground
turns away from the shore,
snaking through saltmash –
sea lavender, sea purslane,
samphire glowing
in the fading light,
the saltsmell of algae –
until we are far from
ploughed earth,
far out on this wide,
flat, dizzying
land-water-scape.

Pools of infinite grey mud,
the hiss of water receding,
we walk just as the tide
turns to ebb,
this winding path our
thin line of safety,
draped with a strand-
crust of drying weed,
studded with hundreds
of tiny white crab-shells,
oysters, mussels.
How fragile I feel myself
to be.  How quick to be lost.

After many turns further,
and further out,
we come to the place
the path stops.
On the other bank,
we can see the woods
where great white egrets nest.
At my feet, the red of a
spent cartridge hurts
my eyes
as I hear oystercatchers,
and sweet skylarks,
and water,
and wind scuffing the water.

There, at the end,
the limit of where we could go,
we saw, in the water,
the seal –
a low flat head,
intelligent eyes,
sleek and fat,
as grey and rounded
as the mudbanks –
swimming.
We crouched, concealing
our profiles from the
luminous sky,
we held our breath,
and watched its dive,
and breath, dive,
and breath.

And as it swam upstream,
we turned to go back,
retracing our steps exactly,
watching its joy,
its contentment,
as we grew closer to solid
ground, the smell of ripe
barley after rain,
and mallows,
and sweet chamomile
carried on the breeze,
welcoming us.
But the taste of the saltmash
sustained us,
sustains us,
the peace of the seal
stayed with us,
stays with us.
And the cry of the curlew
remains.

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Retold: The Burning Bush, from Exodus

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You can read a Lockdown Poem on this burning bush here.

I’ve been sharing a few poems drawing on the Exodos story, and, to sit alongside those poems, I’m also sharing extracts from my book The Bible Story Retold.

I am also sharing from its companion volume, Prayers and Verses through the Bible.

I hope that these passages will place the poems in a wider and deeper context.  Thank you to all the people who are reading my blog.  I really value your time and attention.  I’m aware that people from a wide variety of places and backgrounds gather here, in virtual space, and I hope these extracts enrich your time reading.

Here are links to the poems so far:

Pharaoh’s daughter, and the child.

God saw, and God knew.

Holy ground, barefoot.

 

And here is my retelling…. based onExodus 3 (and 4:27)

 

Then, one day, as the sheep grazed on the slopes of Mount Sinai, Moses saw something: it was bright flames leaping up from within a bush.  He began walking towards the burning bush, curious, because he saw that although it was crackling with flames, the bush was not being burned up. And then a voice called from within the flames.
“Moses, Moses!”
“Yes?”
“Don’t come any closer.  Take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground!”  Moses obeyed the voice.
“I am the God of your forefathers: the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob…”

Moses hid his face, afraid to look on God.

“… and I have heard the cries of my people.  I have seen their suffering, and felt their pain.  I want to pull them out from under their slave masters’ whips and bring them to a good, gentle land: a land of plenty.  You are the man I have chosen to send to Pharaoh.  You will rescue my people form Egypt.”

Moses was stunned, utterly shocked.  “But…. but…. I can’t! Why me? What if they ask me who sent me?”
“I am God, and I am sending you.  I am the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob: the God of the Israelites.”
“But…” Moses was still full of fears at the thought of returning to Egypt and speaking for his people.  He blurted them out to God: no one would listen to him; he stuttered; there had to be someone else for the job.  But God did not give up.  Glod promes to help, and to work miracles through Moses.  Aaron, Moses’ brother, would help him, and God would be with them.

So, fearful and uncertain, Moses left with his wife and sons.  And, as he raised his eyes toward Egypt, he saw his brother, Aaron, running to meet him.

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And from Prayers and Verses

Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty; and save our souls from being so blind that we pass unseeing when even the common thornbush is aflame with your glory, O God our creator, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
WALTER RAUSCHENBUSCH (1861–1918)

 

Dear Lord, Help us to see you today in all the ordinary things when we walk, and talk, and play; help us to know that the whole earth is full of your glory, and that the ground is holy. Amen

 

 
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS (1844–89)

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This post draws on the Sunday Retold series on this blog, which pairs the readings and prayers together.

If you’d like to order the books, you can do so in the links in their names at the top of this post, or through your usual internet shops.  If you have a local bookshop, they should be able to order it for you quickly.