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: 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.

Retold: On the banks of the Nile

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River Deben in Suffolk

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

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

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

 

On the Banks of the Nile.

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

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

And from Prayers and Verses

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

Emily Dickinson (1830-86)

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

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

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The banks of the Deben, high tide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taken from Exodus Chapter 2

 

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

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

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

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

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

Poem: Grandiflora – Lockdown 35

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

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

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

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

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

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Grandiflora  Lockdown 35

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Poem: Longing for Rain – Lockdown 32

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

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

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Longing for Rain  Lockdown 32

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

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

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

Little Free Pantry update

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

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

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

 

It’s very simple.

Give what you can, take what you need.

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

 

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

 

Poem: Night Music – Lockdown 22

Thank you to those who have recently joined in following this journey of the imagination, and attention, through the experience of lockdown.  We still face pandemic, and uncertainty, as we begin to think about how to emerge.  It’s good to have your company here in these difficult times.  I hope the lockdown poems, fragments, give you moments of tranquility.

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This one isn’t quite like most of the others, and I wondered about including it.  It’s more a clearing of the mind and spirit in the morning after a troubled night.  But we all have troubled nights, perhaps more especially now, so I hope this small poem helps.  I wondered also about changing the line where I talk of consent, consent to the work of the nightshadows in disturbing the day…. I am well aware that many times the shadows do their work without our co-operation, but I kept it, as it recorded how I felt in that moment.  Having noticed, I could, at that moment, chose to decline.  Many times I have not felt that choice.

It helped me sit, in the early morning, and set my intention to sing the song I had found in the night.

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Night Music  Lockdown 22

The night has been casting shadows
again, long fingers of darkness
seeking to pluck at my mindstrings,
heartstrings,
but I know today
they only draw
their discordant melody
from me if I consent.

So I watch their fretful
silent movements,
acknowledge them,
bless them even,
and turn away
to the starfilled skies,
to the nightingale,
to the birds that begin
so early, so early now
to sing.

I choose their song.
I choose too,
to be a small
singing creature
in that great dawn chorus,
while the darkness
does what work it must.

Poem for Pentecost, and some readings

Sharing again some readings, prayers and a poem, for Pentecost.

I gave a variation of this reading for  St Edmundsbury’s service, Catching the Fire.  You can watch the whole thing here.

Andrea Skevington

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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…

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Poem: Home/Safe – Lockdown 16

A very small poem today, the next in the Lockdown series, but written a few days ago.  It’s another moment captured. Today, on the Friday before a bank holiday, there are more cars about, but I find I am noticing the pattern of quiet in between the sounds, and holding onto that stillness, at least today, in a way I haven’t before.

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The feeling of safety is so important to me, as to us all, and its so good to have a place where you feel safe.  One of the things I have valued at this time is an increased feeling of safety, and peace.  I know this is not everyone’s experience.

I am glad that some action is being taken to support those who are not safe in lockdown, that the police, Boots the Chemist, and others, are opening ways for people to receive help. It’s good to find safe ways of speaking up, and for all of us, it’s so important we listen to subtle clues that someone might need help.

Here are some UK links

Government website
NHS support
Refuge helpline

 

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The bluebells are wilting in the heat now, but this is how they were, growing and flourishing.

May peace and safety grow, and bless our homes.  May we have safe spaces.

 

Home/Safe   Lockdown 16

In this quiet,
so few cars,

Behind this green hedgerow
my feeling of safety,
a feeling of home,
grows, along with these
bluebells.
it is a good place,
a green pasture,
and I am learning here
not to fear,
where all is well,
where there is peace.

 

 

And for when we venture out….

May God make safe to you each steep,
May God make open to you each pass,
May God make clear to you each road,
And may he take you in the clasp of his own two hands.

From Carmina Gadelica – included in my book, Prayers and Verses