Poem: Holy Ground, barefoot. Exodus poems

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Cockle spit near the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, Essex

We come to the third poem I’ve written drawing on the early chapters of Exodus, the Bible’s second book. I intend to go back and write more – in particular about the burning bush – so I’m holding off formally numbering this one for now.  However this exploration proceeds, I’ll make sure numbers on the poems work with the story in Exodus, so they can be read together.

I was drawn to write from this foundational story as it begins at a mighty civilisation’s turning point – a time of divided peoples, of injustice, inequality, and exploitation.  The world we are in right now seems to be at a turning point, where things cannot go on as they have been.  I’ve been seeing echoes, and warnings, and hope, in this story from long ago.

For this poem, I have continued the theme of God saw, and God knew, from the previous poem, which you can read here.  I have progressed the story to when Moses stood before the burning bush, and took off his sandals, for the ground is holy.

You can read more from the Exodus text here.

Some things struck me, in addition to the themes I’ve explored before.  The first is, the matter of holy places, and temples.  For those of us who have a practice of corporate worship, most gather in a set-aside space.  Not all – there are many gatherings in homes and coffee shops and dance studios and woods where people, together, are open to the divine.  Now, we cannot gather, and our relationship with these places is changed, as well as our relationship with our worshiping communities.  Although I know, as the poem explores, that God has no need of temples, I find that maybe I do.  I include two photos here from the ancient chapel of St Peter-on-the-wall, founded in the seventh century.  And the wall of its name, the wall it is on, is Roman, so its history is very long. There is real peace in that space.  I find my spirit soothed by such places.  And I am finding, as the poems on this blog show, that I connect deeply with the divine in nature, too.  I am increasingly barefoot, on holy ground.  This seems a very deep and helpful truth, especially now.  It gives me hope.

A little tentatively, I have been thinking about gods and idols as I’ve been reading Exodus, and wondering what our equivalents might be. As I’ve been mulling over our economy, the systems that drive our lives that seem bigger than any of us, I have reached for the ancient language of idol.  I have found the word Mammon comes to mind, and it says something significant for our times.  I’ve mentioned it briefly before, in my blog post on The company of bees. As a modern person, I’m aware I’m dipping my toes into something that may stir up ideas of superstition, and that I don’t really understand what these concepts of idol and god meant to those whose culture they belong to.  But I do know that now, as ever, there are forces bigger than us, which we don’t seem to control, in our daily lives.  We call them economics, or big corporations, or debt. The ancient stories suggest they have feet of clay, and can fall.  They are human constructs, agreements and stories we hold in common about how the world works and what matters, they may become more…. but they are not laws of physics, and we can, through collective effort, change them.

I wonder what that might look like in our current world, where these systems, or machines, or idols, seem to be demanding the sacrifice of life to their ends.  We can see that in some places with the response to coronavirus.  We can definitely see it in how we contine to destroy ecosystems and drive creatures to extinction.  Are these things really more important than life? Can we decide to do better?

Here, in this poem, I look at how the enslaved Hebrew people were forced to build temples to gods who didn’t hear them, or help them.  I wonder how many people, in today’s economies, might feel they are doing something similar, as they are made to serve the demands for more, and faster, and cheaper.

This poem, though, only touches on these things.  It turns to something more hopeful, a promise of the deep reality of the glory of God in all things,  and carries echoes Isaiah 11, and our deep hope – of the dream of God, of the kingdom we pray will come. It circles back to the beginning, to considering a holy place, where we are safe, and heard. Even when there are no places of worship available to us, these things are true.

We can be grounded in the earth, in the depth of our connection to God, and to all.

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Inside the chapel (660-662 AD), looking out.

 

Holy Ground, barefoot.   Exodus poems 3

This people had no temple,
no worship-place.
This people built temples
for others,
for gods they dreaded,
rising in terrible power
over them, having
no regard for
their misery.

They prayed under
the weight of their burdens.
They cried out in
the unprayer of pain,
and God, having no need
of temples, heard,
as God always hears.
And God, leaning to the
brokenhearted, saw,
as God always sees.

For the very earth is holy.
The ground under our feet.
Take off your shoes and feel it,
feel the dry-ground-powder
and the sharp stones,
the infinite tiny beings
that call the earth home.

 
Take off your shoes.
Know you are part of
all this, part of the
the glory that fills
all things, as the waters
fill the seas.
You will be heard,
wherever you are.
You can listen,
wherever you are.
You are home.

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.

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.

Prayers and Verses – 3 The burning bush

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UK publication date – Friday 17th June 2016

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It’s nearly here!  the official publication date for Prayers and Verses!
I thought I would share something from Chapter Three of both books – Prayers and Verses and The Bible Retold.
The story of Moses, and how people escaped from slavery, is absolutely central to our understanding of the story of the Bible as a whole. It is truly remarkable.  Written records usually tell the story of the victor, of the rich and powerful.  This ancient narrative tells the story of the slaves, the powerless, the people pushed to the edges.  It says that God is listening to them, and is sending someone to bring them out of slavery, into freedom.

Prayers for those who labour under heavy loads, who bear much sorrow, are included at the opening of the chapter in the prayer book.  The Hebrew scriptures are full of reminders to be compassionate, to remember the hardship, and to let it soften your heart towards others that suffer – strangers in a strange land.  That is why the story is recalled again and again, because it has the capacity to centre us once more on love, on justice, on humility.  It builds our faith that God does listen, and then respond. The faithfulness of God is spoken of again and again. And the turning point of the story is when Moses is stopped in his tracks by the burning bush, and the experience of God he has there.  At a time when he must have felt he had blown all his chances, and had let down his people, this prince of Egypt encountered God when he was simply living out his own life on the edges, as a humble shepherd.  This encounter changed everything, as encounters with God tend to do.

To go alongside this snippet of story, I have chosen an extract from Prayers and Verses which will, I hope, encourage us to open our eyes to the possibility of God being present with us as we go about our daily lives.

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.”

 

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)