I wrote this when it was darkening fast – by the end I could not see the marks my pencil was making in my notebook. Darkness comes so early now, but that change into night is beautiful, and, if we can take a moment to notice it, has things to teach us too.
So I have no photo of this moment, but am offering you others from autumn, and hope that you will have a chance to look out of the window, or walk through darkening paths, and see the trees as they settle for the winter, and the birds as they settle for the night.
November trees – twilight
It grows dark. The trees are black lines against a yellow sky which shines, illuminating through a net of ink, and the last birds drift overhead to their roosts by the river, and the last birds murmur and settle in those darkening trees,
And quiet sadness creeps like frost across the grass, as the last flowers bow their rimy heads.
And suddenly, the question – What are we to do? seems a different kind of puzzle. Not one to solve, but one to lay down, in its many pieces, on the cold grass, slowly, in wonder.
All this before me knows what to do, and does it. Rooted, patient, receiving the weather like weather – whatever comes, comes.
From this place, it will act when action stirs it with the unsettling brightness of spring. When the ink stirs once more with green sap.
Until then, the cold trees will net the light, and wait, and deepen, the darkness will spread as I am learning to be grateful for this breath, to watch this red leaf spin on a thread of spiders web, to feel the cold sting me alive.
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.
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.
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.”
Yesterday was the Autumn Equinox, and now, today, there is more dark than light. Yesterday, too, in the UK, there were announcements from politicians about measures to slow the spread of the virus. We are still experiencing pandemic, and six months to the day the first lockdown began. Many will be feeling anxious about the thought of the winter ahead. It feels as if the world grows smaller again.
I’ve been exploring some aspects of our crisis in my meditations on Exodus. You can read the latest poem in that series here. In those reflections, I’ve had at the back of my mind how we hold on to hope in difficult times, and I’ve been thinking of hope as an act of defiance, a radical act. Today’s poem looks at joy in a similar way. As well as looking at the difficulties we face, I am seeking to cultivate joy too as an act of defiance, a radical posture that looks deeper than circumstance, real and pressing though that may be. Of course, it is not always possible. Sometimes, we sit with our sorrows, or our sorrows sit with us, and are reluctant to leave.
Often, though, we can take this stance. Maybe, we can receive both the gift and the grace of joy when it comes, and maybe we can also work to cultivate it as a habit, a practice, a spiritual discipline, a work.
Can we do that? Can we, at least some of the time, choose to take joy where we find it? And even cultivate it, and treasure it?
When that is too hard, perhaps even such beauty as this poem seeks to share will be some help.
The hot lane is full of wings, rising over the sand-blown tar, spiralling together with the urgency of life.
Dragonflies, dozens – red, blue-green, yellow, joined or unjoined, flying with rainbows caught in their light, clear wings – I have never seen so many.
And large white butterflies dancing, spiralling, looking like great white poppies caught in the breeze, seeking each other, dazzling in the dazzling light.
How it lifts you to see them, how it lifts you to feel the warmth of the sun on your skin as it turns on its balance point towards sleep, and coldness.
And then, down past the foot ferry and the wild swimmers it all opens up – the great windy marsh-weave of river and saltwater, island and marshland, blue of the sky rippling in water, shining mud, and the hiss of rushes in the north wind
Which carries other wings. Long skeins and lines of loud geese, endlessly joined by threads of sound – the strong echoing call, the beat of thousands of wings that bring dark with them on their dark flight feathers, racing with cold at their backs.
And we know how winter comes, we know the night lengthens with its endless stars, we know our days grow short
Even as this joy rises, even as it rises up, bears you up like wings that beat with such effort of heart, with effort of voice to cry out, cry out like this – look, look how good it is, how good.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
This next in a series of poems drawn from the story of Exodus circles again around the mystery of the burning bush. Like all these poems, it draws on my meditations on the Hebrew scripture held in one hand, and an awareness of our current situation in the other. I am exploring what this ancient story may have to tell us at this critical and bewildering time.
This poem takes the delightful idea that maybe there are burning bushes all around us, and moves us to a consideration of what the voice from the burning bush said to Moses, and what that may mean for us if we are on the look out for revelation, and hope, as we go about our daily business. It follows on from Holy ground, barefoot – an earlier poem in the series.
This poem touches on an episode from the gospels, where Jesus is revealed in brightness on a mountain in the presence of Moses, and Elijah. The two stories are deeply connected. You can read about the Transfiguration here, if you would like to. It is the time of year when some churches celebrate the Festival of the Transfiguration, and my link will lead you to a beautiful blog from the Iona Community, “This new light”.
If you would like to read the story of the burning bush, you can do so in my earlier post, here. If you do, you will also find some fragments of writing by others which helped inspire this meditation.
On fire, but not burned Exodus poems 5
Do angels speak
from every bush?
Whispering in the
rustle of leaves,
the low hum of insects –
or louder, clearer,
Was that holy fire
for one place,
or might it
could it happen –
The bush on the hill
of Horeb was aflame,
we read of it –
worth turning aside
from the work of tending
sheep, or finding water,
turning aside to see.
But I glimpse, too, a deeper
peeling back an ordinary
moment to reveal
depth, and warmth,
I catch a glimpse,
a hope, of
each living thing
with a heart of life-fire,
not of burning,
not of perishing,
but of God-fire growing,
giving, sustaining, all.
Maybe, angels still speak,
to take off our shoes,
for the very earth is holy.
of a God who has talked
with our ancestors,
those who walk behind us
speaking old wisdom
we tend to forget.
But most of all
these living flames
speak of affliction,
they spark forth
the pain of all things,
of a suffering people,
they call to the work of
the body of one
who will listen to
who will turn aside
to gaze on
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.
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.
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.
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,
to reclaim your people?
Shepherd, with the bleating
of the flock about you,
did you dream still,
under the strong sun,
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,
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
and your way.