Glory in the Skies! An Anishinaabeg Tale and a Hebrew Psalm

I am currently in the skies somewhere between Winnipeg and Montreal.  When we land, Dave (my manager) and I will rent a vehicle and drive down into NY state for a short swing of concerts that begins in Glens Falls, NY and ends in Newtown, CT.

I’m quite mindful that the concert in Newtown has a certain weight to it. Newtown is the site of the horrific shooting where the lives of twenty children and six adults were lost. I’ll be singing in a church that held several of the funerals.

Earlier this week I was lying on my living room sofa, wondering what I might be able to say in response to the tragedy, when my imagination suddenly caught a glimmer of God out of the corner of my eye.  Seriously.  A figure was suddenly standing there with arms crossed, and a furrowed brow:

“Exactly what wisdom do you have to bring to the situation Steve Bell? I’m keen to hear.”

My soul blushed in embarrassment.

“Just sing and tell your stories as you always do. If I choose to speak into the situation, I’ll do so despite whatever words happen to tumble out of your mouth.” 

I have no doubt. Forgive my presumption.

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Yesterday, I was back on the same sofa reading a book I recently picked up: Centering Anishinaabeg Studies / Understanding the World Through Stories.

I’ve long been intrigued with how sacred stories function in Indigenous cultures. This book is a collection of custom essays about just that — how stories hold and transmit deep knowledge about perceptions, values and worldviews.

My own faith culture has stories too. But sometimes I think that we (of European descent) have inherited an inordinate rationalism that has knocked the stuffing out of our stories.  We believe them to be true, but we don’t trust them. We tend to want to fortify our stories with doctrine and dogma.  Indigenous peoples, it seems, don’t necessarily believe, or need their stories to be true, but they trust them implicitly.

Here’s one of the stories from the book. It’s very simple, but it caught me off guard and stuck to me like glue.  I’ll just tell it like I remember it, which may be different than the words I actually read:

A hunter’s arrow found and downed a moose.  As the hunter was gathering wood for a fire to prepare the meat, the  hunter discovered all sorts of wild vegetables and fruits as well. Overwhelmed by the bounty, the hunter didn’t know who to thank, but felt a bursting need to thank someone. So he simply looked around, and said “thank you.”

This, is where giving honour (religion) came from. 

Insert another fine teller of tales. From William Shakespeare:

Such tricks hath strong imagination
That if it would but apprehend some joy
It comprehends some bringer of that joy

Ah… gratitude.  Someone once said that the tragedy of the atheist is that s/he has no-one to thank.  I know atheists who would probably disagree with this statement, but the point is well made: heartfelt gratitude is foundational to human well-being.

As I’ve been sitting here on the plane, thinking about the story of the hunter, I suddenly detect a voice in my spirit saying (quite distinctly), “read Psalm 8.”

I know I’ve read the Psalm before several times, but I can’t remember a single word of it.  The voice is very particular: Psalm 8.  So I open my iPad, and find the psalm.

Whoever wrote this ancient poem was clearly experiencing something similar to the hunter in the Anishinaabeg tale. And as I read, I too begin to tear up in gratitude for my own life: for my wife and children; for parents and grandkids; for songs and dances and poems; for cumin and celery and carrots; for pets and neighbours and friends; for kisses and tears and the memories of such things to sustain us in our twilight years.

As I sit here, high above the fray, I am not unaware of tragedy. And there will certainly be deep disappointment and loss to face in my future. But at this moment, it is the weight of goodness I feel. And I have to respond. I have to say something to someone.

So here is my version of the Psalm as it imprinted itself on my heart:

On Reading Psalm 8  | Steve Bell

Oh my…

I can hardly breathe…

Your name, oh God…

There is none like you in the whole of the cosmos!

Since all creation is your creation, nothing in creation can compare. That would be a logical impossibility.

Your glory is far beyond anything knowable to the senses.

Yet the mere babble of infants is enough to shame your adversaries; the joy of children enough to silence your foes.

As reason begins to comprehend the heavens (ie: your handiwork: the moon and the stars, which you have placed and set like a master jeweller), imagination begins to apprehend the mind behind your glimmering craft.  And we are utterly astonished you have a mind/ heart for us at all.

We too (humankind, that is) have been established and crowned by your will. Not quite the same as angels, but close.

You have entrusted to us the loving care of your handiwork: all flocks and herds, the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, and all that nourishes and sustains them.

You have invited us to be a mindful part of the whole.  How can we respond to this unique honour?  What words are adequate to voice our humbled thank you?

Oh Creator, forgive our inadequacies. Redeem our errors. Ennoble our efforts.

Again… your name… I can hardly breathe…

Thank you.

In closing, let me offer a song I wrote a few years ago after having had a similar experience:

My friend, Heather Bishop, made her cabin available to me for a week to retreat and write. One day I sat out in the tall-grass prairie that surrounds the humble hay-bale abode.  I sat for hours, absorbing the thrum of creation. When the sun finally fell, and the light retreated, the deep cosmos became visible, and this song (inspired in part by a Richard Wilbur poem) came bubbling up with an irrepressible force:

 

 

 

GOOD FRIEND
music by Steve Bell
lyric adapted in part from Richard Wilbur’s poem: Mayflies

On somber night
When shivering clouds bemoan
The aching of souls alone
Then stars appeared
One arc of their dance showed clear
And glittering song intoned

Be but your own good friend
And be good to the other
Cherish those sisters and brothers
On the road
And to the earth extend
Every reverence and wonder
Tend to the wounds of your blunders
And honour God who formed our home

When sun is low
Bright bands in forest glow
Fair fiats of love. Behold!
See shimmering flies
In their quadrillions rise
Weaving a cloth of gold

Be but your own good friend…

 

 

 

Good Friend can be found on Steve Bell’s 2011 CD release KINDNESS.  Preview or purchase…

15 thoughts on “Glory in the Skies! An Anishinaabeg Tale and a Hebrew Psalm

  1. beautiful, eloquent words, Steve. I am continually wondering, as I read your daily musings, when might we see a book (the first of many?), appear at the tables with your cds. It’s ‘bound’ to happen 🙂
    Be blessed

  2. This is so perfect, and the thread of sentiment that needs to flow through many minds. Well said!

  3. Hi Steve,
    Thank you so much for these words. My second Bible study, ‘Woman of the Word-A Memorizing Scripture Experience,’ is a group learning of Psalm 8. I’ll be presenting that workshop at two retreats this month and with your permission, I will share this beautiful interpretation of yours.

    So grateful to you for your songs!
    A fan,
    Ruth C
    Radio Host- Words To Inspire

  4. steve …. oh steve … your writing skills are only surpassed by your musical skills … great thread on the befor and after Psl. 8 … love you brother ….

  5. Did you get my text? Your blog fully explains, what I could not in a few short sentences. But perhaps instead of thanking you, I should be thanking God for you? 😉 And I do, and for his crossing our journeys so personally, and still, I thank you, friend. Jodi

  6. Sitting here at the edge of the forest on a beautiful sunny day listening to your music and reading the wanderings of your heart and mind.
    Ah…Gratitude.

  7. Hi Steve:
    I was reading your blog about how God spoke to you about what to do when you are in Newtown.
    Immediately afterward, I checked the blog of Les Ferguson Jr, which I only discovered yesterday when listening to an archived Drew Marshall interview. Les has been through tragedy akin to Newtown. His blog of May 6th entitled ‘Judging Fixing Helping Loving’ is about what to do for hurting people… It fits in with God’s word to you on the couch.

    Blessings to you Steve, we support you wholeheartedly in your work.

    http://www.lesfergusonjr.com/

  8. Steve,
    I enjoyed your blog. For me all things changed when I began to read the bible like a First Nations Cree, I saw humour and pain where I didn’t see them before. Humour like in the story when Abram gets a new name, when he is almost 100 Creator calls him father of many nations, in Cree this would amount to calling an old man Mr. Virility, it is very funny. This explains why his wife laughs, but it also accentuates the words of Yahweh when he says, “don’t laugh,” at this point the whole thing is turned on its head. I saw pain and grace in Genesis when Creator says to his son and daughter, “I was looking for you but I could not find you…” Grace because we were not made to live forever in this fallen state but we were made ready for redemption. Anyway story is the language of community and right relationship. Some truths are so big they can only be captured by a story. If you cut the story up, you have destroyed part of the whole thing because it is not just the words but the space between the words and between the teller and listener, this is sacred space as well.

    One more thing, I was telling a story to young girl, I think she was in grade 1, she asked me if the story was true, I told her it was real. From Descartes people are very worried about what is true, but they are the one’s who are in control of truth, much more difficult for the West to give up control live in the real world. Maybe they have good reasons for this.

    Ray

  9. Canadian Forces Chaplain in Kabul. This is one amazing article that I am sharing with my troops. Sometimes, we allow all of our problems to overwhelm us, and our vision becomes narrow, and tunnel-like. Oh how he loves us…to keep it simple, to be thankful…to move beyond ourselves, Glory To God who made the poor and the rich…both can easily become unthankful,,,,10,000 reasons!

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