From the Pulpit
Songs of Lions and Whales
"Let us sing the joys of each other, though we are different one from another, and let us join our enemies' arms and interweave their howl with our roar. Let our brilliant harmonies fill the days and nights of life.”
by David Clark Knowlton
Delivered at the First Baptist Church of Salt Lake City during the Utah Pride Interfaith service on June 11, 2005.
A rumble stirs the depths of the oceans, but human ears cannot hear it. Another low frequency sound vibrates across the plains, communicating over miles of land, but human ears do not hear it. Yet for whales and elephants these very slowly turning sounds carry feeling. They build relationships and make distance seem slight.
In contrast, the roar of lions five or six miles away from the pride singing to other lions can be heard by humans. Its cutting sound suggests all kinds of things to our fantasies and imaginations. We think of the male lion, big and majestic, with its collar of power, its mane. We see its head opening, its teeth shining in the light as it lets loose a roar stating intensely its male control as the king. As predator, the lion sometimes makes people its prey. We are small compared to these very large cats.
As a result the lion tamer of the circus who can meld these beasts to meet his or her will is a powerful image. It suggests that we humans, though relatively small and without large fangs and claws, can still defend ourselves against the lion and become the masters of our world.
But in this we use the lions and their roar and we miss the reality of their lives.
We do not see the female lions who really do almost all the hunting and we definitely do not see the senior female lion who rules the pride. The male is more a kind of consort.
Not until people started looking closely did we begin to grasp that lion society does not work the way we want it to. It does not model back the world of our society's desires. Similarly, once we looked and started recording, we found a richness of sounds that lions make for each other and for their own pleasure. The technologies that enable us to know more about lions gave us the surprise that the elephants we used to see as strong and silent, unless they were trumpeting into a stampede, also make a wide variety of sound. We just could not hear them without the ability to record and then speed up the velocity of the sounds' vibrations to bring them into the range of our ears. We were astounded when we discovered the richness of their communication. It caused us to question the primacy of human language and music as unique.
Still there is something amazing about the way we humans have used these animals to understand ourselves. I think of Ezekiel where the Lord compares Pharaoh to the lion and the whale promises to lay him low. "Son of man, take up a lamentation for Pharaoh king of Egypt, and say unto him, Thou art like a young lion of the nations, and thou art as a whale in the seas: and thou camest forth with thy rivers, and troubledst the waters with thy feet, and fouledst their rivers" (Ezekiel 32: 2).
The prophets use this imagery in their apocalyptic warnings to the Children of Israel. For example Isaiah said "Therefore is the anger of the LORD kindled against his people, and he hath stretched forth his hand against them, and hath smitten them … And he will lift up an ensign to the nations from far, and will hiss unto them from the end of the earth: and, behold, they shall come with speed swiftly … Their roaring shall be like a lion, they shall roar like young lions: yea, they shall roar, and lay hold of the prey, and shall carry it away safe, and none shall deliver it. And in that day they shall roar against them like the roaring of the sea: and if one look unto the land, behold darkness and sorrow, and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof" (Isaiah 5: 25-30).
I also think for example of the power of imagery and hope expressed in Ether (in the Book of Mormon) when the Lord tells the Jaredites: "for behold, ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea; for the mountain waves shall dash upon you. Nevertheless, I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea; for the winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and also the rains and the floods have I sent forth. (Ether 2:24)
Like song, the winds, rains, and floods come from the mouth of God, yet He promised to take care of the people he made like whales in the depths of the sea. He promised to bring them from the depths to dry land.
This promise, like that of the 23rd psalm where the Lord is the good shepherd and we shall not want, is carried by the prophets in their images of the Lion lying down with the lamb and both eating straw, as speaking of an end time of good.
The prophets also used the image of song to speak of the Lord saving us from predators and difficulties. For example, one psalm of David says in words that are particularly applicable to us on this day celebrating those who many would like to erase.
"I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD. Blessed is that man that maketh the LORD his trust, and respecteth not the proud, nor such as turn aside to lies. Many, O LORD my God, are thy wonderful works which thou hast done, and thy thoughts which are to us-ward: they cannot be reckoned up in order unto thee: if I would declare and speak of them, they are more than can be numbered. … Let them be ashamed and confounded together that seek after my soul to destroy it; let them be driven backward and put to shame that wish me evil. Let them be desolate for a reward of their shame that say unto me, Aha, aha." (Psalms 40 1-15).
This psalm makes me think of the many pits in which we can find ourselves, particularly those dug by people who would deny our existence and who would deny us the pride of a whale singing in the deep. They love their abstractions and their images more than they love God's creation. They are like the people who denied that animals could smile, or sing, or feel emotions. With technology we can now record and hear the complex counterpoint of songs made by lions and whales. And daily we learn more about the diversity of God's creation among people. We learn how diverse is gender and sex. We learn there really are intersexed people. We come to understand transgendered people and find them in history and other cultures. We know homosexuality is not just part of God's natural human variety, but is found throughout the animal kingdom. We know this and see it, even if many would like to not see it, because it troubles their preconceived ideas, like those of the male lion at the forefront of the pride.
The Lord enjoins us to love His diversity. When he said to love your neighbor, as yourself, he did not say "you do not need to love the Saracens for they are despised. You do not need to love gay people, or transgendered, or bisexuals, for they challenge your understanding of the world." Instead he simply said to love.
But to this many would say "ah. But I do love by warning them and speaking harshly." This is like the love of humans for lions when they wanted to make them the model of male dominated society and refused to see the reality of lions. It is a kind of love that values people only for their utility in supporting ones ideology, ones abstractions.
The great Catholic thinker, and very humble Trappist Monk, Thomas Merton, from whose poetry I took my title, wrote: "A sincere man is not so much one who sees the truth and manifests it as he sees it, but one who loves the truth with pure love. But truth is more than an abstraction. It lives and is embodied in [people] and things that are real. And the secret of sincerity is, therefore, not to be sought in philosophical love for abstract truth but in love for real people and real things-a love for God apprehended in the world around us." (Merton 2002: 59)
Not only does Merton tell us to stand up and love ourselves as we are, as parts of God's creation, but he tells everyone that truth is found in life, and not in abstractions. Love is found in engagement with reality, in close interaction with others, rather than in abstractions and distance, in walking arm in arm with God's diversity, rather than in witnessing against it without engagement.
Like David, we should join lions and whales and sing a song, for the Lord can lift us from the depths of social stigma, of conflict over whether we can exist, love, and marry, and put a song in our heart. S/he can bring us like whales from the deep or like lions from the steppes. S/he gives us a song of praise for God, and love for ourselves, as well as for those who would "despitefully use us."
As Matthew says:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:44-48).
That perfection Matthew talks of is the perfection of love, and not of other so called moralities, i.e. abstractions. Let us join together and sing a song of pride and love. Let us sing the joys of each other, though we are different one from another, and let us join our enemies' arms and interweave their howl with our roar. Let our brilliant harmonies fill the days and nights of life.