WestJet Flight 318, Seat 3D: An Anishinaabeg tale and a Hebrew Psalm
By Steve Bell
Canadian Singer-songwriter Steve Bell has made a career out of telling stories. Whether through music and lyrics, or in his betweensong anecdotes, the Winnipeg-based, friendly-neighbourhood troubadour has always recognized the power of story as a way of connecting audiences to the deeper themes of music, Christianity, and life in general. A recent flight to Montreal was the source of timely reflection—on creation, generosity, and the overwhelming gratitude as declared by the Psalms—a reflection shared with you by the master storyteller himself, Steve Bell.
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 New York state for a short swing of concerts that begins in Glens Falls, New York and ends in Newtown, Connecticut.
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 20 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.
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 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
Someone once said that the tragedy of the atheist is that he/she 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 wellbeing.
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
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 jeweler), 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…
Let me offer, as well, a song I wrote a few years ago 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 insuppressible force:
Lyrics 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
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…
Steve Bell is one of Canada’s most loved and widely recognized Christian musical artists, and blogs regularly at stevebell.com, on which this article originally appeared. When he’s not sharing stories all over the world, Steve resides in Winnipeg.
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