The Holy Spirit and the Right Whales

THE DAY OF PENTECOST

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Romans 8:22-27

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Prayer of the Day: Mighty God, you breathe life into our bones, and your Spirit brings truth to the world. Send us this Spirit, transform us by your truth, and give us language to proclaim your gospel, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“O Lord, how manifold are your works!
   In wisdom you have made them all;
   the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
   creeping things innumerable are there,
   living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
   and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.”

Psalm 104:24-26.

It is hard to forget the greatness and wideness of the sea when you live on what amounts to a sand bar jetting right out into its depths. With Cape Cod Bay just a short walk from my house to the west and the open ocean less than three miles due east, I can’t easily escape the reach of the sea. Nor would I want to. I have grown to love the wet salty breeze that blows through our forests of scraggly pitch pines, the cry of seagulls and hypnotic pounding of breakers against the sand in their endless tidal dance of back and forth. It is strangely exhilarating, this existence at Leviathan’s doorstep. During the month of April, those of us fortunate enough to be on the Cape are treated to a rare opportunity for witnessing Leviathan’s sporting about. Each year at that time the magnificent right whales aggregate in Cape Cod Bay after spending the winter months off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. If you spend a few hours on Herring Cove beach in Provincetown, you are likely to spot them from shore.

Seeing these marvelous creatures is a bittersweet experience for me. As mighty and powerful as it is and as regally as it carries itself through the waves, the right whale is, in fact, a fragile creature classified as endangered. Climate change, habitat destruction, hunting and lethal encounters with commercial fishing gear have all reduced the global right whale population to a mere estimated 360. It breaks my heart to think that mine might be the last generation to see a right whale in the waters of Cape Cod. “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains,” Saint Paul tells us. That groan can be heard in the diminishing right whale numbers and the many other animal and plant species teetering on the brink of extinction. Selfishness, violence and cruelty do not wreak havoc only on the human family. They threaten the entire fabric of life on our planet.

While we tend to think of the Holy Spirit strictly in terms of Pentecost and the outpouring of that Spirit upon God’s people, it is worth remembering that the Spirit was around long before that. In the opening chapter of Genesis, we find the Spirit of God brooding over the waters, enlivening them with the potential for being, soon to be given shape, color and identity be the word, “Let there be.” For this reason, one faithful way to name the Trinity is by calling upon God the Speaker, God the Voice and God the Word. The psalmist tells us that all life, human and every other species, owes its being and sustenance to God’s Spirit (“breath” in the original Hebrew) poured out upon the cosmos. Psalm 104:30. Thus, human beings share a kinship with the rest of the animal and plant world far more profound than even the common building blocks of life we hold in common. All life is sustained by the same Spirit we invoke in baptism, confess in our worship and rely upon to sustain our faith until the last day.

There are profound implications for this broader understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work. The Spirit, Paul tells us, raises our prayers to God with “sighs too deep for words.” Romans 8:26. So, too, I believe this same Spirit brings before God the anguished cries of suffocating coral reefs, diminished pods of whales and the last song of each bird species lost forever to extinction. Earlier on in his Letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” Romans 8:19. When the human family finally learns to live as God’s faithful creatures and beloved children, when we finally understand that this good earth, that can surely provide for our need, will just as surely perish under the weight of our insatiable greed, when we finally take our place as God’s caretakers for this marvelous planet and learn to live gently on the land, then the creation’s bondage to decay will have ended. For the right whales, that day cannot come too soon.

Here is a poem by Charles Harper Webb giving voice to the groans of creation under the oppressive rule of human greed and exploitation. Webb memorializes some of the unique creatures whose calls will never be heard again, nor their forms seen in the flesh. Lord, in your mercy, hear your creation’s prayer.

The Animals are Leaving

One by one, like guests at a late party   
They shake our hands and step into the dark:   
Arabian ostrich; Long-eared kit fox; Mysterious starling.

One by one, like sheep counted to close our eyes,   
They leap the fence and disappear into the woods:   
Atlas bear; Passenger pigeon; North Island laughing owl;   
Great auk; Dodo; Eastern wapiti; Badlands bighorn sheep.

One by one, like grade school friends,   
They move away and fade out of memory:   
Portuguese ibex; Blue buck; Auroch; Oregon bison;   
Spanish imperial eagle; Japanese wolf; Hawksbill   
Sea turtle; Cape lion; Heath hen; Raiatea thrush.

One by one, like children at a fire drill, they march outside,   
And keep marching, though teachers cry, “Come back!”   
Waved albatross; White-bearded spider monkey;   
Pygmy chimpanzee; Australian night parrot;   
Turquoise parakeet; Indian cheetah; Korean tiger;   
Eastern harbor seal ; Ceylon elephant ; Great Indian rhinoceros.

One by one, like actors in a play that ran for years   
And wowed the world, they link their hands and bow   
Before the curtain falls.

Source:  Amplified Dog, (c. by Charles Harper Webb 2006, pub. by Red Hen Press). Charles Harper Webb is an American poet, professor, psychotherapist and former singer and guitarist. He was born in Philadelphia in 1938, but grew up in Houston. He earned his bachelors degree in English from Rice University, a masters degree in English from the University of Washington and an M.F.A. in Professional Writing. Web also earned a PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California. He currently lives and teaches in Long Beach, California at California State University. He has been awarded a Distinguished Faculty Scholarly and Creative Achievement Award as well as the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Award. His most recent poetry collection is Shadow Ball (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009). His honors include a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Kate Tufts Discovery Award, a Pushcart Prize and inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2006. His poems have appeared in literary journals and magazines including American Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Ploughshares. You can read more about Charles Harper Webb and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.  

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