Poem: Gaia at Ely Cathedral

As we are beginning to venture out a little more, we thought we would pay a visit to Ely, and the vast indoor space of its ancient cathedral. They often have contemporary art there, which helps the old stones continue to sing, giving a new perspective on ancient truths. We knew that Gaia, an installation by Luke Jerram, was going to be there in July, and so we went and saw this beautiful, astonishing sight. The comparative emptiness of the cathedral space made it all the more powerful as it floated above us.

And as the space is vast, and it takes time to walk up to, around and beyond the piece, you do have time and space in which to allow the work to speak to you, to stir up responses, and to pray. I am sure that one of the intentions is to give us all an opportunity to experience something like “earthrise”, when the astronauts first saw the whole of the Earth from space, and how that shifted their perspective, and began to change the way all of us are able to see our home. The staggering, indescribable beauty of the whole called out my sense of awe, which sat uncomfortably alongside my awareness of the damage we are doing to our precious, unique home.

In the setting of the cathedral, as Gaia hangs in the nave under the painted ceiling which tells the long stretch of the Bible’s story, I found the language of repentance surprisingly, and helpfully, came to mind. Repentance both in our more familiar understanding of sorrow for wrongdoing, and desire to amend, and in the possibly more ancient meanings carried in the old texts, of returning home, and of undergoing a profound change of mind – a paradigm shift in the way you see.

Much of my writing celebrates the beauty of the natural world, how lovely, precious, and vulnerable it is. But sometimes, that love spills over into grief. So the old stones, and the old story, seemed illuminated by our current crisis, and, in turn, those ancient words seemed to express something necessary, and powerful, and, in the end, with the potential for hope.

You can listen to the poem here.

Gaia at Ely Cathedral

She seems to float, lit up with her own light,
slowly turning, blue and blooming with clouds
as we walk up, look up, small before her.

While above our steps,
the familiar painted roof
rolls on, telling its painted story,
from the tree, and the garden,
on towards this

fathomless shining beauty,
the ‘all’ that was so very good
in that beginning.
Now as she turns
we see how she hangs
below the story’s last scenes –
the gift of a beloved child
held on his mother’s lap,
held forward towards us,
loved and given and giving,
and the wounded golden king,
who gives still.

And below, below hangs the whole shining Earth,
dazzling, vast with sea,
turning and flowering with clouds
from the southern ice-shine,
melting although we do not see her weep,

And the land, those small green swathes
and swags, are dressed in white too,
a veil of vapour,
while the deserts spread brown
and red above our eyes.

The lands are small, countries
seem tales we tell.
What is certain is this one great
flow – ocean and ice and cloud –
and the unseen winds that bear them
through our blue, breathing air.

And the people stand beneath her,
lit by ice, and hold up their hands
as if to carry her, or hold her,
or save her from falling.

How beautiful it is.
How strange and wondrous
that we should be creatures
who live within so much living perfection.

And as she turns slowly
under the child and the king,
I wonder, what do those
familiar words mean now,
‘the sins of the world’,
as the stain of our reckless harm
seeps through the blue and green,
through all this living glory,

And is there any hope in our
waking up to beauty with grief
and loss, even as dust and ashes
float across the sky,
across us all, late as we are
in our repenting?


And is there hope,
hope that we might be granted
this grace – time
for amendment of life,
to tend the garden
with its leaves and fruit,
shining and greening,
to take part in the work
of loving and healing,
of restoration,
of making all things new.

Looking at Gaia from behind the communion table brought to mind the words of repentance from that service, and I was aware of my sense of what “the sins of the world” might mean was creaking open a little wider.

A poem and a reading for Pentecost

I’m very grateful for the interest people have been taking in my poems based on Bible stories. Thank you.
I’m sharing this one again, as it may help in people’s preparation for, and celebration of, Pentecost. Both poem and reading show the way that the Spirit can burst through our shut away places and times, taking the ordinary and transforming it. I hope you find some encouragement here.

Wind and fire – two of the ways people have tried to describe the Spirit.

As we approach Pentecost Sunday, I am sharing with you some readings and a poem.  Please feel free to use them if they help you, saying where they are from.

Firstly, a reading from my book The Bible Retold

From the fields it came: the first sheaf of barley cut for that year’s harvest.  It was carried high through streets crammed with visitors, and on to the Temple. And then the priest offered it to God, giving thanks for the good land, and for the gift of harvest. For that day was the celebration of the first fruits.  It was Pentecost.
Meanwhile, the disciples were all together, waiting.  Then, suddenly, it began.  It stared with sound – a sound like the wind – but this was no gentle harvest breeze.  This was a shaking and a roaring: a sound of power, whooshing and howling about the house, rattling every door and shutter.  The sound seemed to come down from heaven itself, and filled the house as the wind fills sails.  Then, the disciples watched wide-eyed as something that looked like fire came down, and tongues of flame peeled off it and rested on each of them without burning them.  All of them were filled, for the Holy Spirit had come.  And as it happened, their tongues were loosened, and they began to speak as the Spirit gave them words.  These words were not Aramaic, their own language, but in languages that were unknown to them.
A crowd had gathered by the house because of the extraordinary sound, but then they heard voices. There were pilgrims in Jerusalem from all over the known world, and they recognized the words the disciples were speaking.
“He’s talking Egyptian!” said one.
“That one’s talking my language,” said a visitor from Crete – and the same was true for all.  Each person heard God’s praises in their own tongue.
“What can it mean?” they asked each other.  But others among the crowd joked that the disciples had been drinking.
The Twelve heard what they were saying, so Simon Peter stood up to speak to the crowds.
“Listen, I’ll tell you what’s happening.  We’re not drunk! It’s too early in the day for that! This is God’s promise come true.  Do you remember what one of the prophets wrote long ago?
I’ll pour out my Spirit on everyone – young and old.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
young men will have visions, and old men dreams.
All who follow me – men and women – will

be given my Spirit, and there will be wonders!

4epenb-jyoti-sahi-pentecost

And in response, some prayers from Prayers and Verses

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours, no feet but yours…
Yours are the feet with which he is to go
about doing good,
and yours are the hands with which he is to
bless us now.
St Theresa of Avila 1515-82

Pentecost

Spirit of God
put love in my life.
Spirit of God
put joy in my life.
Spirit of God
put peace in my life.
Spirit of God
make me patient.
Spirit of God
make me kind.
Spirit of God
make me good.
Spirit of God
give me faithfulness.
Spirit of God
give me humility.
Spirit of God
give me self-control.

From Galatians 5:22–23

When I’m retelling stories from the Bible, I often spend time before them quietly, sinking into the story, wondering what it would have been like to have been there, to have seen and heard and felt…..  As well as the retelling, this poem emerged from that process of contemplation.

SPIRIT

How would it feel, then, to live
in that God-shaken house?
To feel the wind,
like the very breath of life,
like the stirring of the
deep before time,
gusting through these small
daily rooms, clattering and pressing
against doors and shutters,
not to be contained?

How would it feel to look up, eyes
dried by wind-force,
and see fire falling, flames bright
and crackling, and resting with
heat that does not burn on each
wondrous head?

To be blown open
lock-sprung
lifted
with wild reckless joy
as words tumble out into
the clear singing light?

It would feel like this,
it feels like this,
and it is still only morning.

Acts 2 1-4
This post draws on the series Sunday Retold

IMG_0557

Poem: The tenth plague – Exodus poems 11

I feel this is the ending of this sequence of poems, on how the Hebrew people escaped their slavery in Egypt. This poem is a dark sister to the opening one of the sequence, which you can read here. If you have been following this blog, you may see that this last has been a long time coming. It’s been hard, thinking of this last and terrible plague, when the oldest sons of the Egyptians died overnight. I’ll write a post telling the story, with links to the passages, another day.

We normally explore this story from the point of view of the Hebrew slaves, and how they shared the first passover meal, and escaped their slavery. For now, I felt drawn to continue my exploration of these ancient stories from a slightly different place – the place of the Egyptians. As we are beginning to wake up to the ways in which we have exploited the good Earth, and its good people, I have wondered whether we are more like the Egyptians in this story than we would care to admit. I wonder if, as climate disruption and pandemic unfold, we can find some resonance in this story of disasters rolling over the land, one after another.

And of course, this is the worst -the death of the children. It is hard to face up to the possibility that we are leaving a hard future for those who are young now, but that is what we are doing. And we have seen our young people rise up in school strikes, and action to protect their places, seeing that they will pay the price for much of the seemingly endless growth we have attempted. This taking and holding, building and amassing wealth now, seems to rob the future. These thoughts troubled me as I considered the death of the children in this final plague. Of course, there are other meanings, deep and true, but find that I need to consider this one.

There is also a clash of world views – the view of the Egyptians, of empire, wealth, might, and the view of the slaves, who seek freedom, community, worship of God, a different way. In the end, the slaves find their freedom, and the opportunity for living out a different way. As the story of Exodus shows us, there is much hard learning on that road. But, for those who despair of our current difficulties, thinking power and might are bound to win, they may find that power and might carry the seeds of their own destruction, and that hardness of heart will not triumph.

There is no triumph in the Exodus, but there is an exodus. There is an escape from a system that seemed invincible for 430 years. It was not. The world shifted for those slaves at least, and they had the chance of something better. When we, from our place at the beginning of the twenty first century, look back at the systems of thought, and money and power that have dominated for a similar length of time, it’s hard to imagine that they might shift. But I think they are. The shifting is painful, and, as we tend to resist, more painful than it might be. But, perhaps an exodus into a different type of common life is possible. Many of the books of law in the Hebrew scriptures explore what that may be, and they include some radical ideas, for example relating to debt, and land, and these seem radical even now. But that is for another day. For now, we have this hard story, and a costly freedom.

In traditional hedge-laying, the stems are cut and bent to the side, and then they grow vigourously.

The tenth plague – Exodus poems 11

Is this what it takes
for your hand to unclasp?
Your dearest thing,
your dearest one,
taken, even as you
chill your heart
to the warning?

The cold hand
of your son
now lies still.
Do you hold it,
and weep over it?

Your way ahead barred,
flooded by grief,
the future stolen
as the young lie
lifeless.

Lie still, bound by
your hardness of heart,
a fearful echo of
those slave-babes
cast in the Nile – lost
into bloodied waters.

Yet now, in this darkness,
when each hard drawn
breath is a shock,
even now, you cannot
let go,
you chase them still in
fear and rage and grief
with chariots and swords,
as if more death would
fill the chasm broken open
in your land.

And as the sea of reeds
rolls back,
rolls back and floods
over all your might,
your chariots and swords,
as those who were slaves
turn back and watch
from higher ground,
all your grandeur runs
through your clenched
hands like water.

For they stand now, on the
other side, out of your grasp
at last,
with a wild dance,
with song and tambourine,
in this hard and desperate
aftermath of horror,
life pulled up from the
swirling waters,
standing at last
in a new and
strange freedom.

Holy Week and Easter at home – again! Some resources you might find helpful

Last year, I gathered together some links for poems, readings and prayers here on my blog. All of them, on the theme of the road to Easter, are included in this revised post. I’ve also added some links to additional material. You will find sections for different days, with links included. I’ve noticed that quite a few people have been looking at Holy Week and Easter posts, and I’m really grateful for the interest. Thank you for joining me here. I hope you find this update helpful. I’ve also been contacted by some churches in the USA asking if they can use my poems in their online services. I am very happy to share my writing in this way. It really helps me if you acknowledge my authorship, and this blog as the source. It is a real encouragement if you feel able to post a comment about how you have used the material, and also how it went. I do love reading those!

I really didn’t think, when I gathered this stuff together last year, we’d still be keeping these holy days at home, or on zoom, or in very small gatherings, this year. But, as we are, I hope you find what follows useful. At the end, I share a link to a poem I posted for last Easter Sunday, which deals with the themes of being shut away. I wonder if this second strange Easter season may continue to give us some new insight into the isolation and separation recorded in the Gospel accounts.

This season of Holy Week and Easter is filled with realism and hope. It looks darkness, despair, violence and loss full in the face, unflinchingly. And then, it shows something new and good arising. It shows us a strange, unsettling hope for new life. It shows this hope birthed in a tomb. I think our recent collective and solitary experience may help us understand more deeply.

Perhaps we can focus on an inner journey, something quieter, more contemplative. As we do so, we may find, as many have before, that we get to a place of deeper connection, more grounded truth, fuller love. We may find new meaning in Jesus’ teaching and example – how he let things fall away, how he found himself alone, how he loved and forgave even so.

Please feel free to use any of the resources you find helpful, and to share them, saying where they are from.

***

The links will take you to blog posts where you will find extracts from my books, too. The books include:

The Bible Story Retold

Jesus said, ‘I Am’, finding life in the everyday

Prayers and Verses through the Bible

You may have local bookshops open – if you do, they can order these for you. Otherwise, they are available wherever you usually do your online bookshopping. The links above take you to Bookshop.org, which supports local bookshops in the UK.

The Retold thread of my blog gives you sections from my book, “The Bible Story Retold in Twelve Chapters”, and “Prayers and Verses” that sits alongside it. They are good for all ages, and have been used in all age worship, Messy Church, and care homes alike.

***

******

The House at Bethany, the Raising of Lazarus

Many spend time with this Gospel story in Holy Week.  It’s a story that means a great deal to me.  You can find some links below.

Readings: Sunday Retold – Lazarus raised from the dead

Here you will find the readings, and some things to ponder, as well as one of my Mary at your feet poem.  If you would like to focus on the poetry, you could go here:

Poem: The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – Two

Poem: The ‘Mary, at your feet’ poems – Three


This last also contains a contemplative prayer/writing exercise.

There are readings, things to do, things to reflect on, in the I Am series which draws on another of my books.

Jesus said, I Am – for Lent. Chapter 5, the Resurrection and the Life

mary-anoints-the-feet-of-jesus-by-frank-wesley
Artist – Frank Wesley

********

Palm Sunday

Reading: Retold – Palm Sunday

********

Other Holy Week stories – You can find these in Chapter 11 of my retelling – both editions:  The Bible Story Retold, and The Lion Classic Bible, which share the same text.  The second of these has lovely illustrations by Sophie Williamson.

Prayers and Verses also has a section in Chapter 11 called The Road to Good Friday, which you might find useful.

********

Maundy Thursday – The Last Supper, Jesus washes their feet.

Readings: Retold: Maundy Thursday

Poem: Jesus washes Judas’ feet.

We also find two of the great I Am sayings in this narrative:

Jesus said, I Am – for Lent. Chapter 6 – I am the way, the truth and the life.

Jesus said, I Am – For Lent. Chapter 7, Vine

Later in the evening, when Jesus is arrested, there is a further I Am moment:

Lent: Jesus said I Am …… Holy Week, I am he – Jesus betrayed

Jesus Washing Feet 11
Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples, 1898 (oil and grisaille on paper) by Edelfelt, Albert Gustaf Aristides (1854-1905) © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden Finnish, out of copyright

******

Good Friday

Reading: Good Friday Retold

Last year, I wrote a series of poems for Good Friday, which were used in a number of churches near where I live. It was a great honour to be able to do this. I put together a recording and posted it on Youtube, and there’s a link to that below. I also compiled a suggestion for a Good Friday Meditation, with links to music and the poems. It’s all here, I hope it helps!

The poems themselves: Poems – Seven Sentences from the Cross

The meditations: A Good Friday Meditation – including 7 new poems

A video of me reading the poems: YouTube Seven Sentences from the Cross

And here is one of my lockdown poems, on a theme which might be appropriate for the day.

Poem: Two trees

Francisco_de_Zurbarán_Angus Dei
Angus Dei  Francisco de Zurbaran

*****

Easter Sunday

Reading: Retold: Easter Day!

If you are following in my books of Bible retellings and prayers, Chapter 12 moves us into New Life.

I think the following poem is very appropriate for this year, too.

Poem: Easter Sunday 2020

img_0786

Thank you for joining me.  I hope you find these things help.
Keep safe and well.
Bless you.

Poem: Stone Heart/Let Go Exodus Poems 10

I’ve been working on a series of poems drawing on the first part of Exodus as we have made our way through this strange, upended year. I had a sense that these stories had something to say to us, speaking into our year of pandemic and political upheaval. I feel I may be nearly at the end of the sequence – maybe one more, but we’ll see.

I’ve been mulling this one over for a couple of weeks, and felt at the end of last week, I’d soon release it into the world and see how it got along. Reading it again today, in the light of the Presidential election, I’ve hesitated. As I was writing, I was thinking how important it was for us to be able to see something of ourselves, from time to time, in those characters who are not the heroes of the story. So often we assume we are Moses, or Miriam, and very rarely wonder if there are aspects of our lives where we might be Pharaoh.

And so I was thinking about the ways in which we may – knowingly or not – participate in systems, and make choices, that are in the spirit of Pharaoh. I was seeking to make a gentle equiry of myself – are there ways in which I might be hard-hearted, grasping, not recognising the consequences of my actions for others? I was speaking to myself, and to our consumerist societies, in addressing Pharaoh in this poem. Of course, we have Pharaohs in our age too, be they elected or other sorts of political leaders, or people of immense weath, and power over our lives, and the state of their hearts matters very much indeed. Maybe one reason they matter so much is that they do seem to embody the values we come to live by. If you want to mull over the role of leaders, be they kings, emperors, or their elected equivalents in power, you might turn to this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, 1 Samuel 8 – quite a picture of a hard and grasping heart. As ever, there is much wisdom to be found here.

My poem is what it is, and I will trust it, and release it into the world as intended. Its narrative frame is the series of plagues that struck Egypt, recorded in Exodus 7-12. Each time, Moses warned that there would be consequences for not letting the slaves go, and each time, Pharaoh refused. I’ll post my retelling of the story, and some more thoughts about the plagues, soon. It’s a difficult, heartbreaking part of the story of the Hebrew people’s road to freedom, and so important. But in the meantime, here is my meditation, here is what came to me, as the story filled my mind.

Stone Heart/Let Go  Exodus poems 10

You will not let them go,
you will not unclasp your hand,
your heart hardens even as
the people suffer, and so
troubles run together,
clattering across
the exhausted land,
the exhausted people –
Nile turned to blood, undrinkable,
frogs and gnats, sickness and storms,
locusts and darkness,

Each thing connected,
all interdependent.
The river dies, and its
death ripples outward,
and still your heart is hard,
and still you will not let go
as the frogs hop
from poisoned mud,
and gnats rise in swarms,
and all brings death and disease,

You are asked, again, and again,
to let them go,
unclasp that grasping hand,
release the slaves who work
this land, as the land itself
cries out,
exhausted
from the taking, and taking,
and not letting go

barren under a hard human heart,
groaning under the bent human backs,
as you take life and strength
from mud and field and hand.

Step aside, Pharaoh,
from your endless taking.
Instead, let go,
release, free, unbind
all this wealth
that seems so necessary
to you now.

Open your hands,
do not trust in your grasping,
as Moses stands again,
and stretches out his hand again
over the weary land.
Soften your heart. Let them go.
They were never yours to hold.

Poem: One and Many

This week, as the darkness and the weather continue to close in, and the news is full of sadness and anger, I’ve been doing something I have never done before – as so many of us are.

I’ve been participating in an online retreat, by zoom, with the Community of Aiden and Hilda, which should have been at Lindisfarne – Holy Island. I’ve never been to such a retreat before, and had not planned to go, but I was encouraged by a friend to try, and dip my toes into those North Sea waters from further south. The week’s subject is The Way of Three, exploring the Celtic love of Trinity.

Celtic prayers and blessings are full of references to this threefold presence of God – not as inscrutable doctrine, but as a deep way of experiencing God, and indeed, all things. Its participatory, and dwells in the dance of interconnection. I have had a growing awareness of this other way of seeing, and just begin to explore it in the chapter on the True Vine in my book, Jesus said “I Am” – finding life in the everyday. You can read a little from that chapter here.

It’s a beautiful and wise retreat, full of welcome and love. I am so glad I joined. On the morning of the second day, I woke with a really strong sense of how everything is bound together, held together in love, and how our new understandings of interconnectedness in ecology and physics and computing and economics are opening our eyes to a new way of seeing and being in the word. As we see reality as interconnected, it gives us a picture, a frame, to help us see God as participating in a dance of love. We find it hard to open up our understanding of God, and these new ways of looking at the world can work as metaphors, helping us picture what is hard to comprehend. What was, at least to me, a doctrinal puzzle, from a perspective of separateness, is now something liveable, relevant, and joyful. It’s taking me a while to find a way of articulating and knowing more deeply this sense, but in the meantime, here is a poem, which I wrote that morning – the day before yesterday. I hope it helps.

One and many

In my garden, I greet the birds
as they slow to land, and hop amongst
the plants, and the feeders.

I greet too the plants,
arriving more slowly still.
I work with what is.
I seek to welcome what grows,
and as things come to the end,
I thank them for their presence,
their work in the garden.

This space is encircled with green,
protected,
so the sharing and flourishing
is open, free.
And within, and without,
all is joined together
in the air, the light, the
rain, and the soil,
the pale threads, deep, deep
in the dark earth that join
under fences and hedges.

Sometimes, I look and see
this bird, this tree,
and flower, and butterfly.
And then my eyes widen,
my focus shifts
and I see the whole,
bound together
in all that is.
I see one loud
singing green,
and that glorious,
and that, welcoming me.

Be the eye of God dwelling with you,
The foot of Christ in guidance with you,
The shower of the Spirit pouring on you,
Richly and generously.

Taken from Wise Sayings of the Celts

This morning, I watched and listened to this beautiful piece by David Whyte – another blessing.

And a quote from today’s notes….

Maximus the Confessor (6th century theologian):
“To contemplate the smallest object is to experience the Trinity:
the very being of the object takes us back to the Father;
the meaning it expresses, its logos, speaks to us of Logos;
its growth to fulness and beauty reveals the Breath, the Life-giver.”

Poem: Moses waits by the Nile for Pharaoh. Exodus poems 9

On the banks of the Deben

Here we are, then, in this series of poems drawn from my meditations on the book of Exodus – we have reached the first plague. The first of ten terrible blows to strike at the stony heart of Egypt, when Pharaoh refused to release his slaves from their labour.

You can read this section of the story, and reflections on its meaning for us, now, in our time of crisis, in my previous blog post here. As I’ve said, I find the story of the plagues hard to read, hard to understand in the terms it is set out. What I do see is a picture of God who longed for this people to be free, who cared for their suffering, and who asked their oppressors, through Moses, to release them. I see that the slaves found it hard to hold on to hope, as did Moses. I see how Moses and Aaron persist at risk to themselves, and their people, in asking for freedom, and to warn of the consequences if freedom is not granted.

It seems to me, that in the Hebrew scriptures, plagues and national disaster are linked to injustice – especially towards the vulnerable, and even to the land itself. We see this in the book of Amos especially, but it runs through the words of many prophets. However we interpret these stories, the ancient wisdom gives us connections between not following the ways of justice, and mercy, and peace, and the unravelling of nations.

This poem, like others in the series, is uncertain. We are part way through a story, and if we are to honour the story, we can acknowledge the confusion, the fear, that must have been felt by those who lived it. We are used to reading stories in the pages of scripture, and they can become, in time, stories we know well. We can forget that these people’s stories were full of deep uncertainty, fear, and confusion, as we find our own lives to be. But if we remember, and enter into them compassionately and prayerfully, we may see where they found their hope, and how they lived even when hope was not to be found. Perhaps we can draw some encouragement from their ancient wisdom.

This poem echoes the first in the series, Pharaoh’s daughter, and the child. It draws out the parallels between the beginning of Moses’ story, and this moment when the plagues begin. That seems significant to me.

Thank you for joining me on this walk through this most foundational of the Hebrew Scriptures. I hope it helps as we navigate our way through difficult times.

Moses waits by the Nile for Pharaoh.  Exodus poems 9

Here you stand,
by the place where your mother left you
in a basket,
where your sister stood watch,
all those long, restless years ago.

In the place where a Princess’
attendant drew you out from the water,
crying,
out from the Nile-reeds,
where crocodiles waited,
out from the flood and the snakes
and the hum of mosquitoes,
out from the sentence of death –
instead, adopting you,
making you her own.

And now, all these long,
restless years later,
another from the royal house
makes his way to the bathing place,
just as she did,
and will find you there

as you stand, with your brother
by your side,  
as golden Nile-waters
swirl and eddy and
ripple outwards, outwards
from the place where you stand,
shining and fearful
in the dawn light.

And, as there was no freedom
to be granted that day,
You raised high your staff,
brought it down to
strike that golden water
which thickened and reddened
and turned to blood.

And the Nile,
which should be the life-blood
of the land,
became instead the blood of death.
Death like that
of newborns
cast without help or mercy
into these waters, long restless
years ago, at the time
when you were saved.


Judgement,
could this be judgement,
stretching out like
darkness over a dark land?

Where is peace, and mercy,
and life to be found now?
Where a soft heart
in this dry land?
Where freedom?

Poem: The space in between – Exodus poems 8

Photos of the River Deben, dusk – an in-between time.

Welcome to this continuing series of poems drawn from the ancient account of Exodus. I’m finding some common ground with current events, and much wisdom, in that story. It’s an account, from the perspective of the slaves, of their journey to freedom from the Egyptians. Both Hebrew and Egyptian suffer on that journey.

It’s taking me a little time to come to meditating on the plagues that beset Egypt. In many ways, it seems to raw, too close in the time of pandemic and climate upheaval, as well as a challenge of interpretation. What does it mean, to speak of God acting in these ways?

If you’d like to read more about the story so far, you can do so here.

For now, I feel I am standing on the brink of the time of plagues. Still in the space in between, between the request Moses makes – Let my people go – and the beginnings of the consequences for Pharaoh of his stony and cruel response. But I’m nearly there. Watching the news yesterday evening, I felt like I was watching something like it beginning to unfold in real time. The pandemic is accelerating once more, beginning to break away from attempts to manage it, and many are now enduring the related sorrows of environmental destruction with Atlantic hurricanes, wildfires, and difficulties with harvest. In response, we have the understandable political upheavals that arise at a time of fear and uncertainty. On Sunday, in the UK, we watched David Attenborough’s remarkable programme on Extinction, which helped us see a little more clearly how these different elements are related, related to our lack of care for the Earth, and for each other. Even those of us who live in what we may regard as a developed country, with a tradition of plentiful resources, can see this does not protect us from the common fate. Being a great and long-lasting empire did not protect the Egyptians. We are all connected.

In some ways, this gives me hope, as we can work together on deep-level solutions to all of these, by seeking to love and tend the earth, and to act with justice and mercy towards all – all creatures, all humans. It gives me hope that we will not be stony-hearted in the face of all this difficulty, not turn to fear, but instead, to compassion, justice, mercy, and the pursuit of the welfare of all. And where we cannot work together, we can take small steps ourselves. Jesus offers abundant life, God’s call is to live with peace – shalom, justice and mercy.

For now, we are in a space in between, where there is time – but we too are faced with questions about where we will stand at this moment, and also, how we will respond to the call for justice and freedom, just as Pharaoh was.

May we, this day, seek to live within God’s shalom, within abundant life, and justice, and mercy, for ourselves and for all.

The space in between  – Exodus poems 8

You stood in the space
in between
palace and shanty,
power and poverty,
ease and despair,
slavery, and freedom.

Knowing the language
of both, being
of-them but
not-of-them both,
you stand, now,
and with such reluctance,
such unquenchable fear,
in this dark no-mans-land,
this swirling God-space

You make in
the court of Pharaoh
as you ask for mercy,
and freedom.
It is holy ground,
where you speak
with the voice
of the silenced,
speak with the very
voice of God, but
no-one takes off
their shoes.

You spoke to power,
and it paid no heed.

And so, YHWH,
breath, life, being,
I am that I am,
will stretch out a hand
in justice.
What follows will be
strange justice,
A steady unfolding of
consequence,
stretched out like darkness
over the dark land.

Poem: Bricks without straw II – Exodus poems 7

This is the next poem in the series, continuing to stand in that difficult moment after Moses and Aaron had asked Pharaoh to let the people go, and before they reached their freedom.

At this point, as the slaves began to stand tall, and to hope, and to make their presence felt as fully human rather than cogs in the power machine of empire, things grew worse for them. Their labour was made harder. The first poem of this pair explores the moment more, and you can read it here.

It can be hard to see the way forward…..

Here in the UK, our steps towards returning to more normal patterns of work and school, of re-invigorating the bonds of family and community, are faltering, as we see that the virus is on the rise once more. Hope deferred is hard. Steps towards “building back better” seem to be faint and hard to find. Once again, we see those calling for a better world, for respect for all people and all living things, opposed.

But, but…… we know the right dwelling place for hope is in these dark and difficult times. Hope does not belong with blind and sunny optimism, but with the courage to walk along hard and stony ways, and to act from the faith that there is a movement towards goodness and justice and flourishing in the world. What is more, by acting, we can help bring such things about. We can know that Spirit broods over the face of chaos, seeking to nurture something new, and calls forth balance, harmony, and the flourishing of life.

So, as we reflect on how hard it must have been for the slaves, to see their hopes seemingly dashed, perhaps we can draw courage for our own situations, and know that this is part of the process, and that vision, and persistence, are powerful even in the face of those who seem to hold all the power.

If you would like to read more of the story, you can do so here.

Bricks without straw II  Exodus Poems 

Hope.
The people hoped
when they knew that
God had heeded their
pain

Spoken
through fire and thorn,
Spoken to Moses –
the one placed between
palace and slave,
of-them,
but not
of-them.

Shown Signs –
The staff-snake,
the whitened skin,
and its healing.

So long,
so long looked for –
through four long centuries
of silence and slavery.

But see now how
this hope has
shattered.
Their deliverers,
Moses and Aaron
have roused Pharaoh’s wrath
put a sword into his hand.

Now, the people
scour the fields
bent double,
gathering straw
to make bricks out of mud.
A cruel reversal of
their old story,
when God moulded
the first human,
in God’s own image,
out of the very earth.

Instead of hope’s promise –
liberation, a new land,
they were
crushed, broken breathed.
They could no more
hear the consolation
of the prophet.

 They dared not hope.
Their state was worse than before.

So it is
when liberation begins.
So it is.

Poem: Bricks without straw I – Exodus Poems 6

New things are struggling to begin.

It’s been a little while since I shared a poem with you. August was hot, a month for resting, and exploring some of the new freedoms of a loosened lockdown to see people, and do things, that hadn’t been possible before. I also wanted to take some time to think where the Exodus Poems might be going. I knew there were more things to explore, but wasn’t quite sure what. As ever, patience and openness helps. Not forcing or worrying, but waiting for whatever it is to emerge.

And as the hot month rolled on, I felt that what I needed to write about was the moment that Moses and Aaron went to see Pharaoh to ask leave to go into the desert – “Let my people go”.

The meadow – our lawn just before mowing

It’s a key turning point, and one we often overlook in our hurry through the story. We know that this people will, in the end, find their freedom, and go to the wilderness. But what must have it been like to be in this moment, when they ask for freedom, and Pharaoh doubles down on their slavery, making it so much harder for them to work? Now, they have to make bricks without one of the main ingredients – straw. I have written two poems on this moment so far. I may find there is more to come, but I’ll share these with you. I’m also sharing the story from my Retelling, and you can read that here.

Power is not relinquished readily. As we see the rising tide of unrest in the USA, calling for civil rights, as we see the creative protests of Extinction Rebellion beginning again in the UK and elsewhere, we see how reluctant those in power, and perhaps more humanely, the systems they too are caught up in, are to change. We see the usual blame – people are lazy, not being good citizens, disruptive…. Perhaps it is instructive to see this Exodus account – unusually written from the perspective of the slave, the oppressed – and realise how instinctive, how ancient, this reaction is. Perhaps it will help those of us who seek change to anticipate, and to plan ahead. If we know how Power is likely to respond, perhaps we can use all our creativity and self discipline to remain peaceful, and compassionate, in our calls for justice.

It has also crossed my mind that the demands we are hearing in the UK for people to get back to work has something of the same desperation about it. Those who depend on the machine need the machine to keep running, just the same as before. I hear the crack of a whip in my mind. But we have had some time away from our normal rhythmns of work, and now, many who can work at home prefer to do so, finding their lives more harmonious, less harried. In time, this may provide the impetus for a shift to a more local, more sustainable, greener economy. But that is not the whole story. There are many who long to go back to work, and fear for their livelihoods. They may fear they do not have jobs to go back to. That is a very different situation. And the insistence on going back to work must seem particularly cruel for them.

In the meantime, we can return to our Exodus narrative, back to the Hebrew slaves, and consider how their situation may help us interpret current events. Their first steps towards liberation must have looked like something very different: an increase in crushing labour. The second poem on this part of the story will turn towards their experience, in particular.

Often, it seems, the beginning of hope, the beginning of progress, looks a lot like falling apart, and disaster. There is no certainty that disaster will pave the way to something new and better, but within these challenges, we can begin to remember the resurrection hope, and the dawn that follows the darkness.

Hollyhock seeds

Bricks without straw I – Exodus poems  6

A few days they asked for.
A few days to journey
into the wilderness,
and worship.
A few days to lay down burdens,
to stand tall, and to freely bow.

A few days of music, and laughter,
to feel the hot desert wind
that hisses over the sand.
To camp amongst thorns,
to live free, open to immensity.

They stood in the courts of Pharaoh,
they dared stand there,
and ask these things.
They did not draw swords,
They did not rage.
Instead, they stood,
tall in their humanity,
in their dignity,
speaking of loyalties
beyond those of labour
to Pharaoh.

But Pharaoh could not hear.
He only knew these cogs
in his great machine
were stopping.
Not working.
His heart hardened.

Lazy he called them,
rebellious,
and added to their burdens.
Now, they must scour the fields
for straw, and make bricks,
as many as before.

So it is, how power responds,
When asked.
Resists. Clings tight,
presses down its heel,
strong, and cruel,
certain of victory,
certain of rightness.
So it thinks.
So it thinks.