The first book of Isaiah, written by the prophet Isaiah promises judgment and restoration for Judah, while the second part of the book is written by an anonymous author living under Babylonian captivity and describes how God will make Jerusalem the center of worldwide rule through the leadership of a great messiah who brings about the kingship of Yahweh.
This excerpt from second Isaiah was written during the Babylonian captivity, after Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon sieged Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. It takes the form of poetry and harkens back to another period of captivity and eventual restorations, the Jewish exodus from Egypt. The passages begins:
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
You don’t have to have much knowledge of the Old Testament – a cursory viewing of the 10 Commandments will do — to grasp the allusion to Moses leading the Jews through the parting of the Red Sea, being pursued by Pharaoh and his army on chariots and in quick pursuit. And while this allusion grounds us in an old story, the author is quick to tell us “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing…”
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me;
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people.
Throughout Holy Scripture – and not just our holy books, but also those texts sacred to Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus – nature and the natural world are used as rich metaphors for history, politics, and the human condition. As the environmental activist Kenny Ausubel noted, “One of the beauties of biology is that its facts become our metaphors.” I would go a step further, though, and say that the beauty of biology is that it tells our story, the story of how we got where we are and the story of where we are going.
The story that our planet is telling us today is a scary one. The language of climate change is expressed in heat waves, wildfires, drought, desertification, extinctions, ocean acidification, and floods. These languages aren’t new or novel for Christians, as Isaiah reminds us. After all, God has spoken to us through floods, burning bushes, and even frogs falling from the sky. God is still speaking and the Earth has a story to tell, if only we will listen.
The beauty of the world is all around us, challenging us to new understandings of ourselves and the creatures with whom we share this planet. In the 1960s, the marine biologists Katy and Roger Payne learned that whales sing songs and the longer they listened, the more we learned. The Paynes began with the knowledge that whales, like frogs and crickets and any number of animals, make sounds. Soon, they realized that whales sing songs like birds. Eventually, they learned that whales, like humans, are composers. Their songs are highly complex. They consist of six to eight themes. Each theme has a melodic phrase that repeats over and over again and then changes to the next one. Some songs are mating calls, but some contain sounds like clicks and are evidence of echolocation, allowing whales to detect the size and nature of objects.
You can listen to the whole album, just click the link above.
Katy Payne has noted with great concern that whale songs have changed radically since their first recordings in the 60s. Her concern stems from the increase in ambient noise in our oceans and waterways, the result of commercial fishing, sonar technologies, and marine seismic surveys. While throughout history there are stories of whales washing up on beaches, we are now witnessing mass beachings as never before. 5 sperm whales have washed up on the beaches of Lincolnshire and Norfolk this year already, representing the single largest sperm whale stranding in British waters in 20 years. 12 sperm whales have washed ashore in Germany and Holland on the shores of the North Sea. One of the most prominent theories as to why these are happening now, on the scale that they are happening, is that all the human-created noise in the oceans disables the God-given abilities of marine animals to travel the world safely.
It isn’t just whales that are telling a story about how deeply imperiled our seas and waterways have become, but water itself. Water tells stories of human consumption, conflict, and migration. The oceanographer Sylvia Earle, a fierce advocate for the Earth’s oceans, describes the importance of water this way, “With every drop of water your drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea. No matter where on Earth you live. Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by the sea.”
Sylvia Earle credits a childhood spent diving in the Gulf of Mexico with awakening her love of the ocean. Today, much of the life once found in the Gulf of Mexico is gone. As Earle points out, “Forty percent of the United States drains into the Mississippi. Its agriculture. Its golf courses. It’s domestic runoff from our lawns and roads. Ultimately, where does it go? Downstream into the Gulf.” Of particular concern is the nitrogen fertilizer from factory farms that is absorbed into the tributaries of the Mississippi, flowing ultimately into the Gulf where it cuts of the oxygen supply needed to sustain life in its waters, creating what researchers call a Dead Zone.
It’s worth noting that anywhere between 25 and 40% of the food grown and harvested in the United States is never consumed, but instead makes its way into landfills where it rots and turns into methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Fertilizer runoff from food we haphazardly throw away pollutes our water, then the food itself pollutes our air. This failure to care for creation and for one another points toward a tragic lack of trust in the goodness of God’s imagination.
In the Old and New Testaments, the Nile, the Red Sea, the Tigres and Euphrates – these bodies of water married creation and history. They told stories, they were rich metaphors for God’s creative presence in the world. Here in the South, we have the Mississippi. A river that Mark Twain once said had a new story to tell every day. Today, too many of the stories being told by the Mississippi are stories of human consumption, neglect, and arrogance.
So, what to do? How can we even begin to alter the course of destruction? Well, the Psalmist has an answer: that we should be still and know that God is all around, on land, in the seas and in our hearts. But what does that look like? How can we learn to be still enough, and silent enough, to meet God?
The life of Katy Payne, the audiobiologist whose study of whale songs revealed a whole new world to us, provides an answer because there is a deep connection between her work and her Quaker spirituality. Silence is one of the spiritual foundations of Quakerism. While there is a wide variety of practices within Quaker meetings, making room for silence is the beating heart of what happens when Quakers gather. Another essential element is the notion of an inner light, a belief that there is something divine in the human soul, that we hold the light of Christ inside of us. Quakers believe that silence can be active and that when Quakers gather together, silence causes the inner light to glow.
Reading Katy Payne’s research, it’s easy to see a Quaker understanding of active silence at work. After all, Payne spent more than thirty years living on the Argentinian coast and listening so intently to whales that she was able to interpret for all of us their songs and their cries. Today, she studies another enormous, sociable animal whose entire life is spent in matriarchal family groups.. any guesses? Elephants, she currently heads the Elephant Listening Project out of Cornell University.
She was at a conference in the early 90s when a friend invited her to spend a few days in the elephant enclosure at the Portland Zoo. Elephants have much in common with whales, they are both extraordinarily social animals with what scientists have learned are highly complex inner lives. Payne travels to the Portland Zoo and sits with three elephant calves and it is most definitely not quiet. The elephants blow their trunks and sometimes bark like dogs, but Payne is sure that there is more at work. She sits, she listens, and her listening turns into a feeling deep in her bones. She feels, at times, the air pressure changing in the enclosure. Silence, she begins to understand, is full of undiscovered meaning. She becomes convinced – and spent the next decade of her life proving – that elephants communicate with one another at frequencies beyond human hearing.
Payne describes the air around the elephants as “thrilling, shuddering, and throbbing.” The thrill of discovery – the thrill of experiencing an aspect of creation that makes the light inside each of us glow – that is where we begin the work of repairing the damage we’ve done to creation.
Our Scripture passage from today reminds us that God makes a way in parched deserts, creation continues and begins anew in Second Isaiah just as it does every day, in even our smallest insights. The work of creation is never finished. God remains at work in the universe: in the songs of whales, in the stories being told by our rivers, seas, and oceans, and in the shuddering silence of elephants talking to one another. Our charge is to listen, to protect, and to honor the creative work of God because bearing the image of God – as each and every one of us does — means that just as we have the power to destroy, we also have the power to create and to be co-creators with a God constantly at work.