Keeping Ten… Or Not

“All pay heed! The Lord! The Lord JEHOVAH, has given unto you these fifteen [Moses drops one tablet and it shatters] – Oy.

Ten! Ten Commandments for all to obey!” – Mel Brooks as Moses in History of the World Part I.

If you had given us fifteen commandments, God,
we would have kept them… even worse.

You shall have no other gods before me.

Except for wealth and power. Except for claiming
our self-righteousness. Except for comfort.
Except for what fulfills a moment or a day.

You shall not make for yourself an idol…

Except for units of exchange. Except for statues
celebrating history founded in illusion.
Except for pale-pigmented skin.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your god…

Except to justify oppression. Except to conjure up
Your favor of injustice. Except to claim
that wealth and power, even evil, are Your will.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.

Except for the essential workers. Except for those
we will not pay a living wage for their six working days.
Except for those at home we do not pay at all.

Honor your father and your mother…

Except for those the stresses of the world overwhelm.
Except for those whose errors are still lesser than their love.
Except for those we choose to lay aside.

You shall not murder.

Except for those we find a threat.
Except for those whose nations we oppose.
Except for those we fear.

You shall not commit adultery.

Except upon intense desire in a moment.
Except upon a disappointment with the spouse. Except
when something better comes along.

You shall not steal.

Except to maximize my profit over others’.
Except to minimize my workers’ compensation.
Except to claim Your work is mine.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Except to emphasize my righteousness and power.
Except to render powerless the ones in opposition.
Except to maintain structures of oppression.

You shall not covet…

Except… every damn day.
Every damned day.
Every damnable day.

If you had given us fifteen commandments, God,
we would have kept the other five… even worse.

A poem/prayer based on Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year A, Proper 22 (27).

The photo “Broken stone” by smallcurio is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Grapes Inherited

Sour grapes – that’s our phrase. “It’s just sour grapes.”
We use it to disguise injustice.
We use it to to discredit injury.
We use it to avoid accountability.
“It’s just sour grapes,” and therefore we
bear no responsibility.

For Jeremiah and Ezekiel, however,
sour grapes were something that passed on,
with parents’ sour sufferings
experienced by children. “As I live,” said God,
“this proverb shall no more be used.”
That’s true – but the proverb’s truth remains.

The child of the refugee is hungry.
The child of the battered woman cries.
The child of the homeless has no home.
The child of the oppressed is marked.
The child of the person of color
wonders when their life will matter.

Will we blame you, O God,
that we reject the refugee, that we
refuse the see the signs of the abuse,
that we permit a child to be homeless,
that we accept oppression and
we give excuses to this violence?

Of course we will.

And you will say, to quote Ezekiel,
who wrote from exile in the shadow
of the walls of Babylon, who knew
disaster from the inside and from out:
“Repent and turn from your transgressions,
or iniquity will be your ruin.”

And so it is.

A poem/prayer based on Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, the Revised Common Lectionary Alternate Reading for Year A, Proper 21 (26).

Icon of the prophet Ezekiel attributed to Terentiy Fomin from Vologda – photo by shakko, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8828814.

And Now: Two Hundred Thousand

How does one even start to grieve
for ten, for twenty, for a hundred?
How does one even start to grieve
when headstones reach a thousand?

How does one even start to grieve
at tens of thousands, fifty thousand,
when the interring earth is flying,
the crematory flames arising?

How does one even start to grieve?
One grieves for one, each one,
a precious human soul, and with
a hand of comfort, weeps.

Two Tambourines

I wrote this piece as part of a prayer/poem/song conversation with Maren Tirabassi, reflecting on the crossing of the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) and Song of Miriam in Exodus 14 and 15. Links to the other pieces in the conversation are below.

They told us to hustle; no time to leaven bread
“Take only one bag or all of us are dead.”
The strap is over my shoulder as I flee from Egypt land
with a tambourine clutched within my hand.

[Chorus]

I will ring my tambourine as I dance along the shore.
I will shout the joy of freedom over welling waves restored
while another tambourine is sinking in the marsh
and the wailing widows of Egypt mourn.

They called out the soldiers, their chariots and spears.
Will we go back to servitude or will our graves be here?
At the hip of a chariot driver a tambourine has room.
He brought it to celebrate our doom.

[Chorus]

The walls of water billowed as slogged through mud and weeds.
Will we lie in murky graves or will we all be free?
The waters took the army in the moment of our need
and left a tambourine fouled in the weeds.

[Chorus]

A live performance by Eric Anderson from September 16, 2020.

Horse and Rider Thrown into the Sea (Eric Anderson)

For World Suicide Prevention Day, September 10, 2020 (Maren Tirabassi)

Drawing of a tambourine by Biblioteca de la Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias del Trabajo Universidad de Sevilla – 1004173. Uploaded by clusternote, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26967109.

I Got a… Denarius

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received [a denarius] the usual daily wage. – Matthew 20:9

“I got a rock.” – Charlie Brown in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Nobody hired us. You could say I didn’t try.
At least, I didn’t try the ones with work.
I promise you I tried the ones that didn’t,
at least the ones who said they didn’t.

Another day of working to find work;
another day of working without pay;
another day of wondering just how
the evening’s meal will come together.

“Why are you standing here so idle all the day?”
“I’ve chased the ones who will not hire
from this end of the marketplace to that.
So now, I stand, because there is no hope for work.”

Or is there?

Now that was just an hour ago. I worked
to pull the weeds and stake the vines,
but to be honest, darkness came too soon
to make much impact on this vineyard.

Darkness came too soon to make much impact
on the emptiness of my larder.
Darkness came too soon for work to be
rewarded with enough to keep our lives.

But look: there in my hand. The owner
of the vineyard has presented me
with a denarius, a coin whose worth
will keep us fed today, perhaps tomorrow.

I run back to the marketplace
for oil and flour, beans and dates.
My family will not believe
the owner’s generosity – I hardly do!

Behind me I hear quarrelling.
I pay no mind if others’ eyes are evil.
My family will eat tonight
because someone was good.

I usually imagine Jesus’ parable from the perspective of the all-day workers, the ones “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” For this poem/prayer, I thought I’d choose another point of view.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 20:1-16, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, Proper 20 (25).

Photo of a denarius by Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=534248.

Horse and Rider Thrown into the Sea

“…and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” – Exodus 14:30b

“Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.'” – Exodus 15:20-21

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

I can’t imagine where they found the energy
to sing, to sound the tambourine, to dance.
My feet are lead; they sink into the marshy mud
that runs along the reedy shore.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

We were not last in line, but close enough
to feel as if we were the least in all of Israel.
No doubt the chariots and archers were not close
enough, but we could feel their breaths upon our necks.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

I ran, we ran, we galloped through the slime and muck
and knew – and knew – we were too slow. We were
too late. We were too weak. We knew – we knew –
that swords and chains and whips would be our lot.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

Then suddenly we climbed the bank, the shore
had made its way to us, it seemed, lest we
expire before our limbs had carried us to it.
And still we heard the cries of the Egyptians.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

With trembling I reversed my gaze to see
the sword that shortly would relieve my life,
and saw the waters closing, heard the malice
of Egyptian voices carried off by wails of fear.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

And now… I cannot summon up the strength
to sing, or dance, or beat the tambourine.
When breath returns, perhaps I will be strong
to sing a song of thanks that now I do breathe free.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

The churning waters have devoured the Egyptians.
The shores are strewn with all the corpses of the drowned.
One gazes up at me with vacant eyes, no more
surprised than I to see I live and he has died.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

So when I sing, dear Lord, in celebration of this gift
may I remember to regret the slain. Though ill
was their intent, and evil was their goal,
they, too, could claim the title of your children.

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea.

Oh, will a sunrise ever come, O God, that sees
the power-filled renouncing their prerogatives?
When slavery in all its forms is done? When death no longer rules?
When no one casts their eyes on corpses,

Gasping, panting, wheezing on the edge of the sea?

A poem/prayer based on Exodus 14:19-31 and Exodus 15:1b-11, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading and alternate Psalm Reading for Year A, Proper 19 (24).

The image is Miriam’s Song by Samuel Hirszenberg, Center for Jewish History, NYC – https://www.flickr.com/photos/center_for_jewish_history/3560756375/, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41533409.

Two or Three or Seven or Seventy-Seven

It sounds so… easy… Jesus.
Like when those friends of mine
cajoled their mother into asking you –
the gall! –
to ask you if her sons could sit
at either side of you upon your throne.

Oh, yeah. Like that was gonna happen.
I knew full well that your ideas
were not in line with theirs –
the gall! –
but also, well, they weren’t in line with mine
but trust me, you’ll see my way, won’t you now?

Such simple steps. First me, then me and Andrew, say,
or me and Matthew or Iscariot
to talk to James and John (and mom) –
the gall! –
and get them straightened out. And if that
doesn’t work, we’ll get the group. And you.

But really, just how many times
will I be forced to make this run-around?
How many times will James and John (and mom) –
the gall! –
be able to repeat this sorry circle
and distract us from your better work?

Once ought to be enough. Or twice.
They’re smarter than they ought to be, you know,
these Sons of Thunder and their mom –
the gall! –
but I’d be willing now to go as high as seven
and then they can be tax collectors to us all.

What’s that you said?
Like… Matthew?
Oh.
The gall.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 18:15-20 (with references to Matthew 20:20-28 and 18:21), the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading for Year A, Proper 18 (23).

The image is Le Christ rencontrant la femme et les fils de Zébédée by Paolo Veronese – photo by Tylwyth Eldar, 2018-08-04 11:05:41, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71396860.

And After That

And [Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. – Genesis 45:15

Where does that conversation start?
“You sold me into Egypt.”
“Well, yes, we did. We, um, thought…”
“Well, we didn’t think…”
“Mostly, Joe, we felt…”
“Yeah, we felt, and mostly what we felt…”
“…Was angry.”
“Yeah.”
“Angry.”

I get angry, God. Oh, yes.
Despite the best advice, I’m ready now
to test You. Yes, and such a test.
For if our weary state is not
so great a hardship as the state of slavery,
or worse, imprisoned and yet guiltless,
or worse, awaiting a deliverance
that should not be delayed, yet is…

Our weary state is bad enough
that I can set it side-by-side
with seven years of famine and
with seven years of harvests
left to rot amidst the fields.
We ignored the Josephs who would tell us to
prepare for harsher times…

Well.
Suffice it to admit my heart is aching
and my blood is pounding and
I do not weep for resolution but
I weep in deep frustration and
I am not ready to embrace
my not-so-sorry siblings.

I hesitate as well to reach for You, O God.

So.

May I swiftly come into that place “and after that”
enjoyed by Joseph, Reuben, Judah, and the rest.
Restore to us the unity of family.
And… as I come to You, may my tears drench Your neck
and may Your tears run down beyond the collar
of my robes, as sweet upon the ground
as is the dew of Hermon.

A poem/prayer based on Genesis 45:1-15 and Psalm 133, the Revised Common Lectionary Alternate First Reading and Alternate Psalm for Year A, Proper 15 (20).

The image is Joseph Recognized by His Brothers by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois (1863) – http://www.culture.gouv.fr/Wave/image/joconde/0419/m015586_0004599_p.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8740999.

The Wind is Against Us

We left you there upon the mountain, Lord.
The safest place for you – or well, for us –
well insulated from the crowd’s demands
for things that we, in truth, cannot provide.

If you are there upon the mountain, Lord,
then you will not repeat those awkward words,
“You give them something now to eat.” With just
five loaves of bread at hand (as well you knew).

If we had known about that pair of fish,
well, that would surely make the difference
in our well-meaning cluelessness. “Bring them
to me,” was all you said, and all were fed.

So you are there upon the mountain, Lord,
and when we have once more resumed our breath,
when we are not so weary carrying
those baskets full, we will be there for you.

But now that you are on the mountain, Lord,
we find that we cannot return to you
with quite the ease we promised. Now a wind
opposes our return to land and you.

We’d rather be upon the mountain, Lord,
instead of struggling with our oars and sail
to make some headway into this head wind.
How can we find your presence once again?

But now the wind blows from the mountain, Lord,
and with it moves a terrifying shape,
a figure of the dead and of our deaths,
to take us from your side for now and ever.

“Take heart!” we hear. “Do not now be afraid!”
Oh, these, we know, are words of angels, heard
by those they summon to great deeds, the likes
of which are not within our feeble skills.

And, “It is I!” you cry, O Lord, a word
of doubtful reassurance. Who is that
who walks upon the gale-tossed sea? A ghost
we comprehend; a Savior, not as much.

But when you were upon the mountain, Lord,
we strove to come to you despite the wind
and now see you come to us, and how
can we do other but to meet you here?

So call us from the mountain, Lord, and call
us from the heaving sea, and may we take
our faltering steps upon the waves and reach –
and find – and grasp – your outstretched loving hand.

A poem/prayer based on Matthew 14:22-33, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year A, Proper 14 (19).

Panel from a Christopher Whall window in Chipping Warden, Northamptonshire. Church (St Peter and St Paul). Photo by jmc4 Church Explorerhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/52219527@N00/5384683573/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18275704.

Midnight Wrestling

Hoarsely breathing.
Sweat’s aroma growing.
Taste of dust across the teeth.
A shapeless silhouette against the stars.
Muscles aching, skin abrading, jaw clenched tight,
we wrestle to the dawn.

In ignorance I strain.
In ignorance I fumble for a hold.
In ignorance I push or pull or pivot.
In ignorance I gasp for breath, inhale, exhale,
and beg for blessing, beg for name.

Is this you, God?
Do you produce this ache
by dislocation of my frame?
Is this the silent panting struggle with Creation?
Is this you, God?

No name.
Just a name for me,
a name for a devoted wrestler, but
I weary of the struggle, weary of the pain,
weary of the ignorance.

If you must put
your arms about me once again,
might it be a parent’s warm embrace
and not to separate my fragile, aching bones.
Oh, bless me as I am.

A poem/prayer based on Genesis 32:22-31, the Revised Common Lectionary First Reading for Year A, Proper 13 (18).

Drawing of Jacob wrestling with the angel by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov – http://religionart.narod.ru/gal9/photo45.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9087629.