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.

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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.

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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

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Palm Sunday

Reading: Retold – Palm Sunday

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

The coming of the Magi – Epiphany

Today, I’m sharing with you an extract of my retelling of the Story of the Magi – the Wise Men. Today is the day we celebrate their arrival, and their gifts. You can read a previous year’s bog post here – where I write of how so many different people came to know about the birth of Jesus in so many different ways. How attentiveness can lead to the joy of finding a King, a hope, even in the most unpromising circumstances.

Today, I’ve been mulling over the ways we can fail to see. In this story, people fail to see – or see and profoundly miss the point. There is Herod, insecure in all his power and wealth, seeing only a challenge to him personally. Unaware, as they all are, of how this is a different kind of king altogether, he responds with fear, and manipulative cruelty. He knew of the birth, but could not see beyond his own enclosing neediness. His sight turns inward. And then there are the experts in the law. They knew, too, in the sense that they pored over the scrolls and could give and answer to Herod’s questions, but they don’t seem to have done anything good with that knowledge. On the contrary, they share their knowledge with Herod, and so contribute to the terrible sequel to this story. They did not seek out the new Messiah as far as we are told – I wonder why not? Were they so caught up with their own study of the scriptures that they did not step outside to see what new work of God was opening so close by? Were they so caught up in the service of Herod, or at least their influence with him, that they could not see outside the wealth and power of that palace? Were they afraid?

We don’t know. What we can see, throughout the Christmas stories, is how God is at work in places and in people you would not expect. And, if we look to the religious experts, and those in power – Herod and these experts in scripture – we find they are so full of their own power, their own position, they are unable to see this glorious new thing.

But let’s not stay in Herod’s court. Let’s journey in strange and wise company, looking to the star to guide us. Let’s enter the house where the child Jesus and his mother are, and lay what we have before this most extraordinary of kings. Let us open our eyes to the unexpected, and look for God to be at work.

Jesus Washing the Feet of his Disciples, 1898 (oil and grisaille on paper) by Edelfelt, Albert Gustaf Aristides (1854-1905) chalk and grisaille on paper 58×47 © Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden Finnish, out of copyright
From Visual Grace

They Followed a Star

Far away from Jerusalem, in a land to the east, wise men looked up at the clear night skies above the desert and saw a star rising.  For years they had studied the movements of the stars and planets, and they had never seen anything like this before.  They unrolled their charts and plotted its path.
“This means a new king has been born to the Jews!” they said to each other, as they gave hurried orders to their servants to prepare for a journey.
When these strangely dressed foreigners arrived in Jerusalem, they began to ask “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” Troubled rumours spread through the city, for there had been no proclamation of any birth.
King Herod the Great’s advisors approached him nervously.
“Your Majesty, strangers from the east have arrived in the city. They are searching for a child who they say has been born King of the Jews.  They saw a sign in the heavens!”  Herod caught his breath, and turned white with fear. He had been given that title himself by the authority of Rome, building palaces and the great Temple to spread his fame.  What kind of king was coming to challenge him?
Then he asked his advisors “Where is the Messiah, the Anointed One, to be born?”  The scholars unrolled the scroll of the prophet Micah, and read out loud:
“Bethlehem will no longer be
the least important of the towns.
For from it will come a leader
who will rule my people Israel
like a shepherd-king.”

“Bethlehem, eh?” murmured Herod. He gave orders for the wise men to be invited to the palace.  He listened to their tale of the star with keen interest, nodding and smiling as if he were delighted at the news.  He told them all about Bethlehem.  “Go and find the child, then please send a message so I can join you in your worship.  What wonderful times these are!” Herod hid his crooked smile.
As the wise men set off from the cool marble and mosaics of the palace, they looked up at the sky once more.  And there was the star, guiding them to Bethlehem.  They followed, and found the child with his mother, Mary.  She was astonished to receive such guests – who bowed low, and spoke of her son with reverence, and unwrapped precious gifts to lay at their feet.

She unclasped the caskets one by one.  The first shone, it was full of gold.  The second opened to a rich, sweet smell.  “The smell of the Temple,” Mary murmured to herself.  It was frankincense, used in worship. The third contained an earthy, dark, resin.  It was myrrh, more valuable than gold, used in burials, and for healing.  Mary looked up at her visitors, and thanked them for these extraordinary, extravagant gifts as the smell of the incense and the myrrh hung in the air about them.

The wise men did not send word to Herod in Jerusalem, for that night, they were troubled in their dreams about him.  They paid attention to the warning, as they had to the star.  So they slipped away, avoiding the city, to cross the desert once more.

From The Bible Story Retold

Lord Jesus,
The wise men brought you gold:
Let us use our riches to do good.

The wise men brought you frankincense:
Let our prayers rise like smoke to heaven.

The wise men brought you myrrh:
Let us seek to comfort those who are sad and grieving.

…….

Let there be little Christmases
throughout the year,
when unexpected acts of kindness
bring heaven’s light to earth.

…….

What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him –
give my heart.

Christina Rosetti

From Prayers and Verses

Advent 3 – Joy

Here, I’m reblogging some thoughts for the third Sunday of Advent, as we draw closer to Christmas.
This week’s theme is Joy, and we consider the way joy and difficulty might be held together. We also think about how the presence of another person can help that holding. This year, that’s hard, but I’m greatly encouraged by the imaginative and determined way we’re seeking to connect with each other, even when it’s far from ideal. I have also noticed how very precious these apparently small meetings are, how amplified in their capacity to sustain us.
Small gestures, small connections, with neighbours and friends and people far away, really matter.

Andrea Skevington

maryelyladychapel.jpg Mary by David Wynne, Lady Chapel, Ely Cathedral

I love this contemporary statue of Mary in the ancient setting of Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel.  I love the bright, pure colours of blue and gold, which are probably  much closer to the original look than the current mellow stone.  Most of all, I love her stance.  It is open, powerful, ready to receive the extraordinary gift that was promised her.  It is joyful – with a joy that acknowledges the reality of the difficulties to come, I feel.

Once again, this week, we have a powerful word – Joy – as our theme.  Once again, we are aware that our immediate circumstances may not point to joy, but to sadness, or anxiety, or emptiness.  Once again, we see examples in the stories of Christmas where people have faced great difficulty, as Mary must have done with her unexplained pregnancy. The consequences…

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Retold: The plagues of Egypt – Exodus

Sitting alongside my series of poems drawn from Exodus, I’m sharing retellings from my book, The Bible Story Retold. I hope this gives some shape and context to the poems, which are free meditations, drawing on what has come up as I’ve spent time in prayer with the stories. This, on the plagues, is a companion to the most recent poem, Stone Heart/Let Go.

This is a hard story. The journey to liberation for the Hebrew people passes through great difficulty. The new beginning comes after a terrible ending. It is a story of the stubborn refusal of Pharaoh to let go, to release the people. It is the story of catastrophies piling up, one on another, or of a cascade of difficulty. Some of the Hebrew scholarship I’ve looked at in researching this section of the story invites us to consider how we can usefully refect on this section as environmental disaster, where exploiting the land and labour leads to these terrible consequences. One of the traditions of Hebrew scholarship is that of midrash, where different ways and levels of reading the story are held, each one having some light to shine for us. So there are, of course, other ways of seeing things, but for me, now, this one is speaking, and illuminating a path to action..

What if we, as individuals and as a culture, let people go, released them, allowed people to do something as apparently unproductive as to journey into the wilderness, and worship? What if we acknowledged that God desires justice, and mercy, and humble walking? I wonder what that would mean for us. Perhaps there is some hope for us, as we find ourselves at a time when difficulties mount up, when things are falling apart,that this could be a turning point, part of the process necessary for things to change.

It’s a long extract, so I’ll leave it to say what it says. You can find the Exodus account from Chapter 7 to Chapter 12, if you would like to read the original. I hope to write about the last plague, but now doesn’t seem the right time. Now, I’m turning my attention to Advent, and hope. When I do write the end of the Exodus series, I’ll share it with you here, and put together a post to help find all the Exodus material together.

Ten Blows for Egypt

Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh of the terrible things that would happen if he did not set the slaves free, but he would not listen. And so, it began.

First, they spoke to Pharaoh by the Nile as he went down to bathe. Moses and Aaron stood by the banks of the river and said, “This is what our God says: you must free our people to go to the wilderness. If you won’t listen, the river will become blood red, undrinkable, stinking. Egypt will be thirsty.”

Pharaoh turned away and carried on toward the bathing place. Then Aaron raised his staff and brought it down on the water with a mighty splash. The water swirled, thickened, and reddened, like blood, and gave off a foul smell. Fish floated gasping to the surface and died. But Pharaoh’s magicians could change water too, so he simply went back to the palace, unimpressed. He would not let the people go.

Second came the frogs. Once again Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh, and once again he ignored them. So Aaron went around the land, stretching his staff over the Nile and all of the pools and ditches. They heaved and swarmed with frogs. The frogs came up into people’s houses, hopping on beds, clustering together on the plates.

Pharaoh was disgusted. “Yes, yes, I’ll let them go!” he said, and Moses prayed to God, and the frogs died. The Egyptians swept them into festing heaps. But then Pharaoh changed his mind.

Third came the gnats. There was the warning, and the refusal, and then gnats rose up in clouds like the dust of the destert. All people and animals were covered with bloodsucking insects. There was no relief. Pharaoh’s magicians had never seen anything like it; “This is God’s doing,” they warned him. But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and stubborn. He would not let the people go.

Fourth came the flies. “Go and confront Pharaoh on his way to his bathing place. Tell him he must let my people go. Warn him of what will happen next – the air will be thick with flies. But they will not come to Goshen, the place where my people live.” God’s words were clear, but Pharaoh did not listen. Soon the air was loud with buzzing, and every surface was crawling with flies – all the food was speckled and black. Only Goshen was free from them.

“Go on, then,” said Pharaoh. “Go to the wilderness.” But then he changed his mind.

Fifth came the animals. Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh, but his heart was as hard as ever. All the livestock sickened and died; all the cattle, the sheep, the horses that pulled the chariots, and the traders’ camels – all dead. Only the animals in Goshen were spared.

Sixth came boils. The warning was ignored once again, and Moses threw soot up in the air right in front of Pharaoh. The soot blew onto the people, and they were covered with red, pus-filled boils. The boils spread, but Pharaoh remained as hard and cold as stone.

Seventh came hail. “This is what God says,” Moses told Pharaoh. He’s warning you: ‘You’re still building your kingdom on the backs of my people. You do not recognize my power, and so you will see more of it. I will send hail. Get everything under cover, for nothing will survive.'”

Pharaoh’s servants heard these words, and some hurried to hide their families and animals. Then the sky boiled with clouds and shuddered with angry thunder, and the hail come down. Huge white hailstones bounced on the earth, smashing everything. Nothing could survive in the open – and the crops were pummelled to a sodden pulp. But in Goshen, the sky stayed clear.

Eighth came locusts. When Pharaoh’s court heard the terrible warnings, they said, “Why don’t you listen to these men and let the slaves go? Can’t you see that the whole country is being ruined?” But Pharaoh’s stony heard would not soften, and so a terrible army of locusts marched across the ground, hungrily devouring everything that had been smashed by the hail. Not a tree, not an ear of grain, was spared.

Ninth came a heavy, suffocating darkness. The air was thick and hard to breathe. Such was the darkness that for three days and nights no one could leave their homes. All sat and talked in whispers under its weight. except in Goshen, for there was light in Goshen.

Tenth was death. Terrible, terrible were the warnings that God gave, heavy with the knowledge that Pharaoh would not listen, for his heart was set against God and the Israelites.

“This is it: get ready. After the tenth blw, Pharaoh will beg you to leave,” God said. And so Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and warned him of the grief that would crush Egypt if he did not let the slaves go.

“This is the final message from God, your last chance to change your mind. Listen now to God’s last warning: ‘Every firstborn son will die. From Pharaoh’s son to the son of the lowest slave woman who grinds the grain by hand, no one will be spared if you do not spare my people. When this terrible thing happens, all our people, courteirs and servants alike, will beg on their knees that you let my people go.'”

Pharaoh listened in stony silence. He would not relent

From my book, “The Bible Story retold in twelve chapters”.

You can buy the book online, for example at

Eden

Bookshop.org

The Bible Story Retold – an idea for Christmas 2020

This post is a follow up from yesterday’s on ideas for using my children’s picture book, The Little Christmas Tree, this year for Advent and Christmas. You can read that post here.

I’ve also been contacted by another person who’d like to use my retelling of the Bible this Christmas. My old friend Rev Jenny Tebboth of Chalfont St Giles has had a lovely idea for involving families in an alternative crib service out of doors, which should be possible even if there are restrictions. Jenny has very generously given me permission to share the outline of her idea, in case it is of any help to another community trying to plan Christmas activities…. It’s well worth thinking about if you are puzzling over what to do for a crib service, or nativity of any sort.

It’s like a treasure trail…..

“Families will work through the story in six scenes round the village, read part of the story at each scene, pray and listen to a carol – ending behind the inn for hot chocolate.”

I’m so excited to think that my retelling will form the framework for such a lovely idea. The book is in twelve chapters, and Chapter 8 is mainly the birth and early life of Jesus, so there is a good flow of narrative for the six scenes. It’s a very exciting and innovative way to do a socially distanced Christmas adventure. Being out in the cold of winter will be a powerful way of entering into the Nativity story imaginatively, and offers something new and memorable to do to feel involved in Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter, and the birth of Jesus. It’s a beautiful idea, and I look forward to hearing more about it. I’ll post an update when I know more.

If you’d like to read more of my Christmas Retold, you can do so on a previous blog post, here. There, you’ll also find some prayers from my book, Prayers and Verses, and some beautiful pictures.

Here’s some of the story, though, to give you an idea:

At last they came to Bethlehem, but it was not the end of their troubles.  The city was noisy, bustling, and heaving with crowds, and Joseph searched anxiously for somewhere quiet for Mary to rest – her pains were beginning, and the baby would be born that night.  The inn was already full of travellers, and the only place for them was a stable.  There, among the animals, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him up tightly in swaddling bands and laid him in a manger full of hay.  Then, she rested next to the manger, smiling at the baby’s tiny face.

There were shepherds who lived out on the hills nearby – the same hills where King David had once watched over the flocks, long ago.  The sheep were sleeping in their fold under the shining stars, while the shepherds kept watch.  Their fire flickered and crackled, and the lambs would bleat for their mothers, but they were the only sounds. All was peaceful.  All was well.

Suddenly, right there in the shepherd’s simple camp, appeared and angel of the Lord, shining with God’s glory and heaven’s brightness.  The shepherds gripped each other in terror, their skin prickling with fright.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m bringing you good news – it will bring joy to all people!”  The shepherds listened, awestruck, their faces glowing with the angel’s light.  “This is the day the good news begins, and this is the place.  In the town of David, a saviour has been born.  He is Christ, the Anointed One, the one you have been waiting for.  And this is the sign that these words are true: you will find a baby wrapped tightly in swaddling bands, lying in a manger.”

From The Bible Story Retold in Twelve Chapters


If you’d like a copy of The Bible Story Retold, you may well be able to order through your local bookshop even if it’s closed. Alternatively, there are the usual online places. I’m particularly excited about this new venture, though, and commend it to you….

Bookshop.org is a new enterprise which supports local bookshops while selling online. It’s applying for B corporation status in the UK, which means it operates to high ethical standards and makes a positive contribution to communities. You can read a newspaper article about it here.

If you follow this link, you’ll find my book The Bible Story Retold on sale there. It may be they don’t have many copies, so….

You can also find it on Eden bookshops, and all the other online shops.

Once again, it’s so good to hear and share these ideas. If you’d like to use any of my material, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like, I can share what you plan to do on this blog nearer Christmas. You are very welcome to use my material whether you get in touch or not. Please do acknowledge where it’s from, and that will be good.

Retold: The first plague. The river’s lifeblood – Exodus stories.

I’m working on a poem based on the first of the ten plagues of Egypt, where the River Nile was turned to blood. It’s not easy, this whole business of plagues, as I’ve said before. It feels an ancient interpretation of events, and I’m seeking to be honest about the unease that interpretation stirs in me. At the same time, a series of catastrophies befalling a nation, even as great an empire as ancient Egypt, seems so current, so in line with our daily news broadcasts, that I’m sticking with it, and seeking to be open to the movement of the Spirit, to show us what wisdom, what help, there may be for us. One of my guiding principles when I find a passage difficult is to ponder – if all scripture is useful for teaching us goodness, then what use is this scripture? What goodness might be learned from it?

As I’ve been allowing my mind to inhabit the story, a number of things have come to mind, and won’t be shaken. The first is the symmetry of the story. The story most people remember about Moses – if they are familiar with the narrative at all – is how he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket concealed among the reeds in the Nile, found in the morning when she went to bathe. This new Pharaoh seems to keep to the same tradition, of visiting the river at dawn to bathe, accompanied by attendants. Moses therefore finds himself standing near the place where he was left by his mother, and found by the princess, waiting to challenge Pharaoh. The symmetry is so striking I’ll copy the retelling from my earlier post Retold : On the banks of the Nile.

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.”
From The Bible Story Retold

Within this symmetry is also a terrible symmetry of justice. This is the subject of the poem I’m still working on, so I’ll say more when I share that with you. But I’m sure you’ll note, if you read the story above, that the river at this time was a place of death for the baby boys born to the Hebrew slaves. The river that was the life-blood of Egypt had become for them a place of death. On doing a bit of research, it seems that some ancient commentators suggest that this first plague was a punishment of the Egyptians for that terrible act, and that ties in with description of the plagues as judgement. My previous poem, The space in between, also holds this possibility.

Others see the plagues as a challenge to the Egyptian gods, and this one is a challenge to Hapi, often seen as a symbol of life and fertility brought by the river’s floods. As we’ve seen, the cruelty of the command to throw the babies into the Nile is in itself a serious undermining of that understanding of the river as a source of life and fertility, and perhaps an offence to those principles even under the Egyptian’s own belief system.

If there is some truth in these understandings, then this first plague might also be a foreshadowing, a forewarning of the last and most terrible – the death of the firstborn boys. We shall explore further.

For now, here is the fragment of story we are dealing with, taken, as they all are, from my book, The Bible Story Retold.

You can find the original Exodus account here.

Ten blows for Egypt

Moses and Aaron warned Pharaoh of the terrible things that would happen if he did not set the slaves free, but he would not listen. And so, it began.

First they spoke to Pharaoh by the Nile as he went down to bathe. Moses and Aaron stood by the banks of the river and said, “This is what our God says: you must free our people to go to the wilderness. If you won’t listen, the river will become blood red, undrinkable, stinking. Egypt will be thirsty.”

Pharaoh turned away and carried on toward the bathing place. Then Aaron raised his staff and brought it down on the water with a mighty splash. The water swirled, thickened, and reddened, like blood, and gave off a foul smell. Fish floated gasping to the surface and died. But Pharaoh’s magicians could change water too, so he simply went back to the palace, unimpressed. He would not let the people go.

From “The Bible Story Retold in Twelve Chapters”, published by Lion

The next thing I’ve been thinking about in the light of this passage, is our own waterways, and whether they bring life, or death. If this difficult passage is useful, and I believe it is, one of the things that it may be teaching us is that actions have consequences. We can live harmoniously with God, with each other, with creation, or not. And those choices have consequences.

Yesterday, it was revealed that not a single one of Britain’s rivers met water quality standards. This is terrible, a tragedy for all the life that depends on rivers. And all life does depend on water. As we reflect on the ancient story of the Nile, the lifeblood of the country, turning undrinkable, we can remember how important our own rivers are, and how the actions of people, and corporations, may make them instruments of harm, rather than good. If this passage is to train us in goodness, and perhaps rebuke us, this is one way we can permit it to do so.

We can seek to become aquainted with our own rivers, our own watershed, and seek to care for it – perhaps with a litter pick, or perhaps with simply our respect and affection. Maybe, as we explore, we may notice things that spoil – outlet pipes, plans for unsympathetic development – and then take action. We may notice things that help – conservation efforts, stands of trees, efforts to clean up rubbish – and wish to join in. We’ve been walking our river the Deben over the lockdown, and you can read a poem about that here. If we start with love, and respect, then our care may lead to different action.

Perhaps you can see why it’s taking me a while to write my poem about this first plague! There has been much for me to think about, to prayerfully mull over. I’ll share it when it’s ready, and I hope that’ll be soon. Thank you for joining me on this Exodus journey.

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.

Retold: Mary visits Elizabeth

For those who have joined this blog following the Lockdown Poems, here’s a small taste of something else.  Another occasional series here is Sunday Retold, drawing on my retelling of the Bible.  This – although not on a Sunday – is part of that series.

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Pascale Deloche

We often hear this story – of how, in the early part of her pregnancy, Mary visits her older, also unexpectedly pregnant relation – as part of the cycle of stories in the run up to Christmas. It is part of the preparation for the birth of Jesus.  But traditionally, now is the time it is remembered and celebrated, in keeping with the months.

It seems very appropriate that we should read of these two women supporting each other, and being moved by the power of the Spirit to speak, just at the time of Pentecost.  The Spirit is indeed being poured out on all, young and old, men and women.  These two are obscure, unimportant to those in power, on the edges of things, and we see, yet again, that is where God is at work.  Mary sees that too.  Her words are a real challenge, upending power, pride and privilege.  Regrettably, we need those words of challenge now just as much as we ever did.  Inequalities of race, gender and wealth are still a potent source of injustice.  Mary sees justice coming, though.  The Kingdom promised is one of justice, and hope.  We can work for that, as we pray for it in the Lord’s Prayer.

We pick up the story just as the angel Gabriel has told Mary what is to be, and how Elizabeth, from her own family, is with child despite her age….

Then Mary thought of Elizabeth. “The angel knew all about her – I must go to her.”  She got ready, and set off quickly for Elizabeth’s home in Judea to the south, near Jerusalem.

As soon as she arrived at the house, she hurried to Elizabeth and took her hands.  At the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby leaped inside Elizabeth, and the Holy Spirit filled her.  She understood at once what had happened to Mary.
“You are blessed among all women, and blessed is your unborn child!” she said.  “Why have I been so honoured? Why should the mother of my Lord God come to visit me?” Elizabeh laughed, and put Mary’s hand on her belly. “You see how my child leaps for joy at the sound of your voice?”

At last, Mary could say all that was on her heart.

“I’m so full of joy my spirit is dancing
before God, my Lord, my Saviour.
God did not turn away from me
becase I am poor, and now
I will be called blessed by
all the generations yet to come.
God, the great, the holy,
has done so much for me.
God brings down the powerful,
but lifts up the weak.
The well fed are empty,
and the table of the hungry
is piled high with good things.

“God looks at us with kindness,
giving hope to the hopeless,
caring for those who trust him,
remembering his promises to our people.”

From The Bible Retold

You can read the story in context in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel.

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, makes a powerful basis for prayer. Going through each part, holding it before God, allowing it to search you and being open to the possibility of being moved to change and to act, is a worthwhile and humbling way to pray.

It is widely said and sung in Christian worship.  There are many versions you can find online.  This one is Arvo Part’s setting.

As we think of those two women supporting each other, it’s good for us to think of ways we can continue to be present for one another, and listen and share lives, even when separated at this time. It’s good, too, to remember the slow growth of a child, how much patience is needed, as we wait and work and pray for the coming of the Kingdom.

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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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Sunday Retold: The road to Emmaus

I thought I’d share with you a reading from my book, The Bible Story Retold, and something from Prayers and Verses, as we continue thinking and praying through Easter this year.  As with all the Sunday Retold series, I hope it will be of help for all ages, wherever you find yourself.

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The road to Emmaus by Daniel Bonnell

Things often emerge while walking.  Conversations can be deeper.  These two disciples, possibly husband and wife – Mary, wife of Clopas was at the foot of the cross – were leaving Jerusalem, their world fallen apart, talking over all that had happened.

Maybe, when we are out walking, we can be open to noticing the ways we need to talk through our fears and sadnesses, and then, be open to the possibility of a new perspective, a new vision, a new life.  It’s worth noticing how Jesus gave them time and space to tell them their story from their own perspective, and then, how he invited them into a new way of looking.

On the road

Two of Jesus’ followers left Jerusalem that day, walking to the village of Emmaus.  While they walked, they began to talk about all that had happened.  And as they shared their grief and bewilderment, Jesus joined them and walked with them. But they did not know who he was.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.

They stopped, and stood still on the white, dusty road. “Are you the only one from Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s been going on?” said Cleopas.
“Tell me!” said Jesus.
“There was a prophet called Jesus of Nazareth, a true man of God. But the chief priests handed him over to be killed, and he was crucified.” Clopas paused. “We had hoped he was the one God had promised from long ago.  But then…. today, some of the women went to the tomb and came back saying it was empty, and that Jesus was alive!” For a moment, hope glimmered in Cleopas’s eyes, but then he shook his head.

“But don’t you see?” Jesus said.  “Haven’t you read the teachings of the prophets?  Don’t you know that these things had to happen?” And so he began to explain.  It was as if he were unrolling scroll after scroll along the road before them – all the Law, and all the teachings of the prophets – letting them see that the Messiah had to suffer and die and rise again.
“Stay with us, it’s getting dark!” the pair said as they came to Emmaus.  So Jesus stayed at their home.  Then, at the table, he took bread, and blessed it, and broke it to share with them.  In that breaking and sharing of bread, their eyes were suddenly opened and, with a gasp, they recognized it was Jesus who sat before them. But then he slipped from their sight.

“Did you feel it too, as we walked along? That buning – that deep, rising joy – that sudden understanding?” they asked each other as they grabbed their cloaks.  And they set off back to their friends in Jerusalem through the thickening darkness, laughing with joy, and leaving their supper on the table.

You can read the story in Luke’s gospel

 

From Prayers and Verses

When we are sad, help us to speak of our sorrow, and hear words of hope.  Help us know you walk with us, as you walked with the two on the Emmaus road.  Help us to recognise you in the breaking and sharing of bread, as you warm our hearts with your joy.

 

Please feel free to share my work, saying where it is from.