June 18, 2018
Second Sunday after Pentecost
Make a joyful noise to God, all the Earth.
Worship the Holy One with gladness;
come into her presence with singing.
Know that the Holy One is God.
It is she that made us, and we are hers;
we are her people, and the sheep of her pasture.
Enter her gates with thanksgiving, and her courts with praise.
Give thanks to her, bless her name.
For the Holy One is good;
her love endures forever, and her faithfulness to all generations.
Some of you know that John and I have been making joyful noise—that is, music—together for many years, and we recently wrapped up our seventh album, which we call The Last Giraffe. Though our music is out in the world, for sale and streaming, and we sell a song or an album here and there, I guess it is mostly a labor of love. We funded a portion of this new CD with a Growing Edge grant. We are grateful for the support and want to share a couple of songs and a taste of their genesis with you. Thanks also to Jesse for joining us on one today and for workshopping these songs in the songwriters group we are all part of.
To me the key phrase of psalm 100 is right at the beginning: “all the Earth.” I’m sure that when most of us hear the final phrase, “faithfulness to all generations,” we hear “generations of us,” homo sapiens. When people talk about protecting the Earth, or conserving “our resources,” for “our grandchildren,” I think about the grandchildren of the elephants, the gophers, the grebes, the goldenrods, all the species on the verge of extinction, whose joyful noise is being extinguished because of the vast appetites and nasty habits of our species. My maternal grandfather was in the cavalry during World War I, stationed in New Mexico. I am told that he and his fellow soldiers sat around the desert and shot at birds to relieve their boredom. I always imagined that my paternal grandfather was the kind one, until I reread in his memoir about his knack for killing bears—also “for fun”—while stationed in 1911 with the Geodetic Survey in Alaska. Neither their schools, nor their parents, nor their Christian churches taught my grandfathers to cherish the Earth and her creatures. Children today are not necessarily taught any differently.
One morning last week I sat drinking coffee and listening to the song of a nearby wood thrush, which is often described as “haunting” and “flute-like”—but decide for yourself. We live on the edge of a 50-acre wood, and, though thrushes, wrens, robins, bluebirds, and a number of other species remain common, the dawn chorus, still dense and exuberant when we moved there in 2003, has diminished appreciably. It’s like this all over the world. Soundscape ecologist Bernie Krause, who has been recording terrestrial and marine habitats since 1968 (from coral reefs to rain forests to Arctic glaciers), says that more than half of the 3,700 habitats represented in his archive, once so gloriously symphonic, are now either “altogether silent or so radically altered because of human endeavor, that they can no longer be heard in any of their original voice.” Listen to the progression of sound he recorded in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in California between 2004 and 2015; it really diminishes in 2009, then . . . disappears.
Because this silence breaks my heart, when I am moved to write a song, to come into God’s presence with singing, often what comes out is a lament, like:
Where are the giants who lived underwater?
What became of the shining mayfly?
I must have dreamed the impossible creatures
On a blue spinning ball in the sky
Does my little expression of sorrow do anyone any good? Joanna Macy says it’s vital, because “The losses continue because they aren’t registered, they aren’t marked, they aren’t seen as important. By choosing to honor the pain of loss rather than discounting it, we break the spell that numbs us to the dismantling of our world.” When we wrote the title song of The Last Giraffe last year, I thought that the future I was imagining was inevitable. But we live in head-spinning times, and the future is already here: giraffes’ status on the Endangered Species List moved to “vulnerable” last December. Thich Nhat Hanh has said that “What we most need to do [to save the world] is to hear within us the sounds of the Earth crying.” It isn’t just the loss of the big, marquee mammals that matters; I say a little prayer and grieve for every possum and raccoon, every turtle and field mouse I pass who has been run over on the road (and there are so many of them down where we live); all the butterflies who no longer come to open blossoms; all the trees bulldozed for housing developments left in smoldering piles on raw red earth, or cut down and stacked for lumber, whizzing by on trucks.
It is often a challenge for me to worship God with gladness and thanksgiving, and not dwell on the loss. Singing helps. Being part of a community that honors heartbreak, as well as joy, helps a lot. Nurturing and feeling a direct connection with the other beings on Earth—plants, rivers, rocks, nonhuman animals, all-inclusive—is the most worshipful experience of all.
Doing creative work of one kind or another – music, poetry, fiction, even philosophy in a way – has guided the course of my life ever since I can remember. It has often felt selfish. Often, I’ve experienced a conflict, or even guilt, about how to divide up my life so that I can do that work, but also pay attention to the needs of others, both those close to me and the wider world.
Seekers is the first place that has given me a fresh way to look at this. What if I was called by God to be an artist? — to write songs and stories and poems, to feel my life simply had to express whatever it is that art expresses? We at Seekers believe that call is a good thing. And, we also believe that there is an inward journey and an outward journey. As an artist, I am on the inward journey of creation. But two things follow from that: There is an outward journey as well, when the results of my creativity are shared with others. And what I learn about the holy spirit in the course of my work can also inform my Christian journey. That’s really a fancy way of saying that art doesn’t have to make you selfish. It can also sharpen your awareness of the needs of the world, and your determination to walk in Christ’s path.
I think something like that has happened for me. Most of my songs are inward-looking, but not all. And while I write to please some infinitely more sensitive and gifted version of myself, I’m not indifferent to how others receive my work. I want to communicate, and feel that my deepest concerns are shared by others. So here’s one:
I feel like sometimes all our efforts to change the world – including what all of us do here at Seekers – are just pushing against the tide. And the artist’s contribution is even less likely to help. Could a song really do any good? So I wrote a song about that. It’s called “Holy Fools.”
Here’s another song that looks outward, and also inward, I think. Last summer, Trump had just gotten the Republican nomination, and I wanted to write something that could express my despair, but also the hope that, in the end, America’s best self would prevail. Then something occurred to me. The album Katie and I were working on wouldn’t be finished until sometime in 2017, at which point anyone who listened to it would know who won the election. I decided to write a song that acknowledged that strange situation – that listeners would know the answer, would know something so important that I myself, at the moment of writing, could not. It’s very short and simple. It’s called “By the Time You Hear This Song.”
I have to confess: I did imagine, rather confidently, that when 2017 rolled around, those “hosannas” would be cries of thanksgiving rather than pleas for God to hear our lament. So it goes.
On the CD, that song has a cello accompaniment. We wanted to have cello parts for two of the songs, but weren’t sure we wanted to pay for a good cellist to play them. The Growing Edge Fund came to our rescue. For the Offertory you’ll hear a song that I wrote and John arranged that features not one, not two, but three cello parts. It was sparked by a chapter called “Recognizing that all living beings are our mothers” in a Buddhist meditation handbook I was reading, and it took off in its own direction.
And that’s the note we would like to end on: It took off in its own direction. We’ve tried to share a little bit about how some of our songs came to be written, and how they connect with the promptings of the holy spirit, but we’ve only given you half the story. For every song with a clear “meaning,” I could play you another that is much more mysterious. In my experience, music is unruly, self-determining, and, in a word, alive. It takes off in its own direction. I think that’s why, even during this dark year we’ve just lived through, a lot of the music on The Last Giraffe is upbeat, rhythmic, and fun. The Holy Spirit doesn’t show up to be your mouthpiece to comment on current events. It is much bigger and more beautiful than that.
Katie & John:
Go and make joyful noise!