Earth Hymns

I’m working on two new hymns about the earth: one happy (“The Harmony of the Incredible Earth”) and one sorrowful (“Compassion’s Sting”). That’s sort of how I’m feeling these days. Sometimes the earth is so overwhelmingly beautiful that I just have to join in its song; sometimes the harm we’re doing, the harm I’m doing, to the earth is so sad that I just have to lament. Here’s a draft stanza of the first:

Oh, blessed is Earth, the prolific and sweet,
Providing us plenty of good things to eat,
With life on the surface and treasures below,
What greater abundance could any bestow?
Her fisheries, forests, and fields of grain,
Her breathable breezes, her drinkable rain,
The harmony of the incredible earth!
The harmony of, the harmony of, the harmony of the incredible earth!

And here’s a draft stanza of the second:

When species vanish from the Earth,
And ancient coral dies,
When land erodes and life is stilled
And burning forest cries,
When silence falls where once the calls
Of songbirds filled the air,
You weep, O God, with every death
And final breath,
And yet we do not care.

I don’t think Keystone XL is a good idea — maybe that’s why this is on my heart today.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

This is how it works.
After a long indwelling,
shape awareness comes—

kenning what must be
the shape of the solution,
if any exists.

Once that shape is felt,
reason, a sculptor's chisel,
frees the shape from stone.

Thus the solution,
though seeming artificial,
is not made but found.

No mere invention,
no child of human reason,
QED came first.

To Hear the Falconer

My father, Howard Webber, has published a long-awaited book: To Hear the Falconer: Song and Prophecy for the Time of War, Want, and Warming.  It is an epic poem—song, prophecy, and prayer—crafted using many scriptural quotations and allusions.  I remember him working on this manuscript when I was a child, and I hear his voice in every line, so I cannot help but love it.  But I’ve also heard praise of it from other, more impartial readers.  It’s rewarding to read, and prayerful to read aloud.

You can find it on Amazon, read the author’s page about it, or see the author’s short video introduction.

Animals’ Meditation on Psalm 83

Animals' Meditation on Psalm 83

O God, do not keep silence;
	do not hold your peace or be still, O God!
Even now your enemies are in tumult;
	those who hate you have raised their heads.
They lay crafty plans against your people;
	they consult together against those you protect.
They say, "Come, let us enslave them, bring them to nought,
	let the spirits of free animals be remembered no more."
They conspire with one accord;
	against you they make a covenant--
the tents of Con Agra and Cargill,
	ADM and Swift Foods,
Monsanto with the shareholders of Hormel,
DuPont also has joined them;
	they are the strong arm of the children of the apes.

How long will you be silent, O God,
	while your people weep?
In vast stinking pens we pray to you,
	in dark dreams, in rows upon rows.
We are born and ripped from our mothers,
	we give birth, but our children are taken away.
Happy are they who are born upon the free earth;
	in living and in dying they sing your praises.
Who will glorify your name, O God,
	when all your children are broken and silent?

As fire consumes the forest,
	as the flame sets the mountains ablaze,
so pursue your enemies with your tempest
	and terrify them with your hurricane.
Fill their faces with shame,
	so that they may seek your name, O Lord.
Let them know that you alone,
	whose name is the Lord,
	are the Most High over all the earth.

Junior Faculty

It’s back-to-school time, so here’s a lesson about teaching that I learned from a dear colleague in 1994, my first year as a professor. It’s expressed here as a sonnet, entirely in words of one syllable.

Junior Faculty

Once, in my first year on the job, I said,
"How fine, my friend, that you let no one fail!
How hard you work to see them all well read!"
My friend, to teach me too, then told this tale:
A man goes to a farm and sees a boy
Who drives the pigs to where the peach trees grow.
The boy hauls up each hog, and it has joy:
It pigs a peach and eats it neat and slow.
"It's too bad," says the man, "a pig can't climb!
I see, with how you feed them, they grow big.
But can't you find a way that takes less time?"
The boy says, "Sure -- but what's time to a pig?"
     If that sounds good to you then you might be
     Cut out to teach, like my friend -- not like me.

Beach Training

Every summer for the last eleven years I have hosted a Karatedo Doshinkan special training on beaches of Lake Michigan. This year it isn’t going to happen: I’m just too busy finishing at my seminary and preparing (I think) for ordination. My heart is heavy — I’ll miss you so much, my training friends! Here’s a poem I wrote, a sestina about training on the beach.

Beach Training

We come here every summer, to the bright shore returning.
Glad to be together, full of life, we paw the sand.
We anchor our stand by the water's edge and let fly the flag,
White cloth flipping in the breeze, its free red circle,
Drawn by the master's hand, lifting up and away.
We kneel.  A rush of swan's wings passes above the water.

Some days we practice throwing into that icy water.
With rolling motion the bodies rise and fall, like waves returning:
One partner grabbing the other, sinking, turning away,
The other arcing over, head-first in the water, escaping the sand.
The heat of the sun and the cold of the lake chase themselves in a circle.
Seagulls wheel away from the splashing, and from the flapping flag.

The wind dies.  Dead fish wash up.  The flag
Hangs flat and limp.  We take a break, drink water.
Aware now of our breathing, we smooth on sunscreen, sitting in a circle.
Time is up: we leave the shade, to the beach returning.
The sun presses us down hard toward the scorching sand.
Striking, ducking, advancing, retreating, the afternoon wears away.

Worn away, too, are all superfluities, worn well away.
Distractions followed us all as far as the first unfurling of the flag --
A plan for dinner; a pretty girl's bare feet in the sand;
A check-engine light -- they fade from heat and want of water.
In their place, a new strength comes, flowing and returning,
Everything else under the sun shrivels within our circle.

Around the fire at night we talk, cooking and eating in a circle.
The fire pops like the sand in our teeth; we wave mosquitoes away.
The conversation turns to those who will not be returning,
To those now gone, like him who drew the circle on the flag,
Never now to train with us, here by the edge of the water.
We ease our aching limbs into sleeping bags, now full of sand.

Up again at dawn.  Every day sweating.  The sand
Sticking to us like cinnamon sugar sticks to the hot circle
Of a deep-fried doughnut.  It isn't washing off in the freezing water.
Blocking, turning, rolling, pulling in and pushing away,
Moving in the old ways, here beneath the flag,
Every thrust safely deflecting, every attack returning.

Here by the water, burned and bleached, everything wears away
In the end.  Tending my tired joints, I slowly fold up the flag.
From the empty circle of sand a spiral rises, like a swan returning.

Arrow Prayer

Arrow Prayer

With my eyes fixed on the finish line
	I crouch in the starting blocks.
I breathe deeply once, then wind
	the inner spring tightly.
I flex and relax in quick restless ripples.
I am an arrow, I tell myself.
My bow is drawn.

Dear Archer,
	point me where you will.
I will give myself to the arc you choose for me.
I will not worry about the trajectory.
I will fly from you,
	not needing to know.
I will be the best, the fastest, the smoothest,
	the willingest arrow.

Just one thing, please:
	Talk to me, Archer.
	Fletcher, talk to me.
Let me know that I cannot leave you really.

I will fly from you, and to you.
You will choose my trajectory, and be my trajectory.
Let's go, Master.
I'm ready.

On your mark.
Get set.

Vital Statistics

Vital Statistics

At the intersection of two country roads
     a yellow light flashes slowly.
I pull over—
     unnecessarily—
     hours pass here, this late at night,
     with no car from any direction.
The light flashes, once every two seconds,
     and it clicks as it flashes.
The corn rustles in the four fields.
Insects chirp.
The moon climbs a little higher in the sky.

Once every two seconds—
     somewhere in the world—
     a child dies of hunger.
No fields of corn are there,
     no intersections of highways,
     not even a flashing of light to announce the death.
Sometimes there is a weeping and a loud lamentation.
Sometimes, every two seconds,
     no one marks the death at all.

Except you, O Lord.
I believe:
     no light passes unnamed, unmourned.
Even when our intersection seems empty all night,
     still you are there.

May I sit just this one hour with you?
For this hour, as the corn rustles and the insects chirp,
     I will pray with you for each light as it flashes and is gone.
Every two seconds.
Every two seconds.

Songs of Creation

Back in 2008 I made a pilgrimage to Iona. Among the books I read in preparation was J. Philip Newell’s The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality—still one of my favorites of Newell’s many good books. The trip and the book inspired me to write a cycle of compositions, one for each day of the seven-day creation story. At this point I’ve only finished two of them: Day One and Day Five.

About the Cycle as a Whole

I am trying to compose in a suitable style for each day, and I think this will give me a pretty wide range of musical styles. (Days One and Five are already quite different from each other!) Other aspects of the music lend some underlying unity to the cycle. They are all choral compositions in four parts, a capella. They all open with a common musical tag: a crunchy chord with a suspended fourth. (This is heard in the second measure of Day One, and in the third measure of Day Five.) The lyrics and music are all mine, so although I have attempted to write them in different styles, at a deeper level they speak with the same voice. And they are all written in the first person, as if from God’s perspective in the act of creation.

About “One Needful Thing (Creation, Day One)”

In The Book of Creation, Newell writes:

To say that light is created on the first day is to say that light is at the heart of life. It is the beginning of creation in the sense that it is the essence or centre from which life proceeds. At the heart of all that has life is the light of God. This is a fundamental belief of the Celtic tradition.

St John the Evangelist’s way of putting it is to speak of this light as ‘the light of life’ or ‘the light that enlightens everyone coming into the world’. Nothing has life apart from this light. It dapples through the whole of creation.

The lyric of my composition “One Needful Thing (Creation, Day One)” emphasizes this sense of light at the core of creation.

One Needful Thing (Creation, Day One)

Nothing to see,
Neither light nor darkness,
And no eye seeking.

Nothing to hear,
Neither sound nor silence,
And no voice speaking.

Nothing to taste,
Neither sharp nor mild,
No mouth enfolding.

Nothing to feel,
No sense of touch or absence,
And no hand holding.

One needful thing: let there be light.
	I make the light, 
	I am the light:
Every atom softly shimmering.

One needful thing: let there be feeling.
	I hold with love,
	I am the loving embrace:
Every atom touching tenderly.

One needful thing: let there be flavor,
	I make the flavor, 
	I am the flavor:
Every atom sweetly savoring.

One needful thing: let there be sound.
	I speak the word, 
	I am the word:
Every atom ever echoing.

Now:
	All who see, will see me,
	All who touch, will touch me,
	All who taste, will taste me,
	All who hear, will hear me.

I am the light, every one enlightening.

In this lyric, the light isn’t (just) a physical light: visible radiation by itself is irrelevant in a world that, as yet, contains no sun and moon, no objects to reflect light, and no eyes to see it. It seemed to me that light in this part of the creation story is a metaphor, and could as well be sound, or taste, or touch. The “light” suggests all those doors of perception that will connect the as-yet-uncreated creatures to the as-yet-uncreated things they will perceive. As I wrote, I had in mind two blind members of my congregation: I wanted to express the creation of “light” in a way that would be equally accessible to them.

I also wanted to emphasize God’s immanence: God both makes the light, and is the Light. God both creates each door of perception, and is the Door. Thus, to perceive is to perceive God. I wove in additional scriptural allusions with a Celtic focus: not just “Let there be light,” (Gen. 1:3) but also “The Word was God” (John 1:1) and “The true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). The title and repeated phrase “one needful thing” is also a scriptural allusion (Luke 10:42, in the language of the King James Version).

About “Come To Me (Creation, Day Five)”

In The Book of Creation, Newell writes this reflection on the creatureliness of God:

In the Celtic tradition there is the conviction, as we have noted, that our deepest desire is for the Love that is at the heart of life. It is a desire to see, to hear, to smell, to taste and to touch the One whom we desire. While the essence of God is beyond anything that can be seen or handled, creation is the expression of God. It is the divine embodiment that we may sense and touch in love.

The lyric of my composition “Come To Me (Creation, Day Five)” emphasizes this sensual and God-desiring nature of animal creation:

Come To Me (Creation, Day Five)

I am ready now.
I have set my heart on this.
I summon you:
	Come to me!

Bird of the air, I summon thee:
	Flap your wings and come to me!
Beast of the earth, I summon thee:
	Stomp your feet and come to me!
Fish of the sea, I summon thee:
	Shake your fins and come to me!

I shine my light and draw you like a moth to a flame,
I sing the song and send the sound of saying your name.
I pull you to the edge and then I pull a little more,
I light the fuse and spread the news and open up your hidden door.
Now come to me!

I open up a path that you won’t find on the map,
I light the dark and make a spark that bridges your gap.
I dance before my altar and you feel the earth shake,
I touch you and your sun comes up and tells you that you’re wide awake.
Now come to me!

Fly me, whale me, stork me, quail me, hare me, snail me, come to me!
Bear me, bee me, mare me, flea me, manatee me, come to me!
Louse me, mouse me, goat me, stoat me, tick me, chick me, come to me!
Bat me, gnat me, frog me, rat me, dog me, cat me, come to me!
Come to me!
Come!

The lyric and the music are in a flamboyant style. I picture God as calling the animals, both into existence and toward God’s self simultaneously. This call is a deep enchantment, a longing that is part of our incarnational being, a magnetism that draws us Godward. Although the idiom of the song is modern, I think it reflects an essentially Celtic understanding of creation: one that it does not equate sensuality with sinfulness.

Sheet Music

Here’s sheet music for these two songs. I’ve never recorded them, nor heard them performed. If you perform them, please let me know! I’m making these two available with a free license for non-commercial copying and performance. (See the license information at the bottom of this post.)

I still have only notes for the other five days of creation—and I’m afraid they’re on the back burner now. (But if anyone would like to commission them, by all means give me a call!)

Creative Commons License
One Needful Thing (Creation, Day One) and Come To Me (Creation, Day Five) by Adam Brooks Webber are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.)

Confession

Confession

I’ve spent forty-seven years, Lord,
	learning to judge these things.
I’ve learned to disdain mass-produced pop-icon architecture,
	like the Pizza Hut down the street.
I’ve learned to value those same wines of dry and complex character
	that used to make me wince and shiver.
I’ve learned to prefer the cleaner exhaust
	of new cars with pollution controls,
	not like my old green Volkswagen beetle, long ago rust.
I’ve learned to despise Twinkies.

And I thank you for those lessons, Lord, but now I must tell you that
	they’re wearing off.
For now I confess, more and more, the perfection of all things:

The Pizza Hut is doing its best,
	perfect in its pizza-hutness:
	it is fit to be your temple.
The cheap wine is also from your grapes,
	and springs forth joyously from the box:
	it is fit to be quaffed before your altar.
The exhaust from the green Volkswagen is sweet too,
	a pleasing odor rising to heaven;
	the car itself is fit to be your chariot,
	your merkabah, wheels within wheels.
And the Twinkie — dear Lord, the Twinkie! —
	so small in my hand, so sweet and pure,
	pure as a wafer,
	no dead cake, this:
What keeps it from falling away into nothingness?

Only your love, Lord,
Sustains it, persists it,
	calls it continually into being,
	world without end,
	Amen.

The idea that God’s love keeps the whole cosmos from falling away into nothing goes back at least to Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth-century anchoress and mystic. Chapter IV of the short text of her Showings reports this vision:

“And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought: What can this be? And I was given this general answer: It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God.”