Column: All Things Bright and Beautiful

Rev. Richard S. DenUyl Jr.
Sentinel Columnist

Last July, 16-year-old Hanna Doyle and her family were aboard a small motorboat.

They were enjoying a beautiful summer day on Long Island Sound. Suddenly the water near them began to churn wildly. And then, much to their surprise, a huge humpback whale, twice the length of their boat, burst through the surface and high into the air. It was surrounded by a galaxy of baitfish.

After being absent for over 50 years, the whales have returned to this area and they are nothing short of spectacular. If you’ve ever been on a whale watch you know what I mean. If you haven’t, I highly recommend putting it on the top of your bucket list. There is nothing like it. Take the children and grandchildren. Anything Disney Word has to offer pales in comparison.

I will never forget my first whale watch. We were over Stellwagen Bank, just off the coast of Provincetown. We motored out on a ship with 200 people onboard. My first thought was, “This is some kind of a mass money-making scheme.” That is until the captain stopped the boat, killed the engines, got on the microphone and told us all to be very quiet. It reminded me of those moments of silence in church during a prayer when 200 people do not move or say a word. And then it happened. Suddenly a huge humpback whale breached. He was so close to us that we could count the barnacles on his back. For the next 20 minutes he continued his aquatic ballet, the sound from his blowhole absolutely prehistoric. Each time that huge creature broke through the surface of the water there was a chorus of “Ooh’s and Aah’s”, a kind of unison “Amen!”

The whole experience reminded me of the old British children’s hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful:

All things bright and beautiful; All creatures’ great and small; All things wise and wonderful;  The Lord God made them all.

Cecil Frances Alexander wrote those words in 1848. The hymn has been sung by little British school children with rosy cheeks ever since. It is both simple and profound as it interweaves a tender, child-like melody with an awesome theological claim:

“All creatures great and small”

The Lord God made them all.”

Ten years after that hymn was written Charles Darwin returned from his journey on board the H.M.S. Beagle. He had studied fossils and animal life, including a diverse variety of ground finches. From his meticulous research he proposed the theory that species descend, with modifications, from other species. In other words, “all creatures great and small,” including humans, are the result of an evolutionary process.

Darwin published his initial findings in a paper titled: The Origin of Species. The fallout was enormous. It seemed to challenge the deeply held religious belief that God had created the earth and all living creatures in six days.

For years, debates raged all over Europe and the United States, the culmination of which was the Scopes trial in 1925. You may remember it from your history class. John Scopes, a schoolteacher, was tried for teaching the theory of evolution in his classroom.

Recently, I read a wonderful article by Menno Schilthuizen titled “Evolution is Happening Faster than we thought.” Remarkably, the verifiable evidence is not in the rain forests and the jungles. Rather it is in cities, in deeply urban areas. Schilthuizen offers the following examples:

“City-dwelling black birds living in Amsterdam sing at a much higher pitch then their ancestors so they can be heard over the din of traffic. City birds are also less likely to migrate because cities are warmer and there is an abundance of street food. Because of the dense population, these birds also have less nervous personalities around humans.

Puerto Rican city lizards are evolving feet that better grip urban surfaces like concrete.” And my favorite: “Some grass is adapting to the relentless blades of lawn mowing by acquiring a shorter stature.”

I love that! Imagine never having to mow your lawn again? Or better yet, not paying someone else to do it!

I have never believed the literal interpretation that God created the earth and every living thing in six days, ending it all with a divine period. This suggests the creative process ceased a long time ago. Rather I believe God is the creative force behind evolution, which continues with a series of divine commas.

It’s the good news that God as cosmic artist continues to create with color, shape texture and hue. That God’s creative process is ongoing and unfolding, mystically connecting human beings to every living thing, to “All creatures great and small.”

I experienced that first hand several years ago. My daughter was five-years-old. We were on this beautiful beach that has a natural tide pool. After lunch we waded in with several other children and parents and began collecting periwinkles in a little plastic pail.

Suddenly a young boy came up to me and shouted, “Hey mister! Wanna know a secret?” “Sure.” I answered, “Tell me your secret.” The Boy replied: “If you want a periwinkle to come out of his shell all you have to do is hold it close to your mouth and hum.” 

Sing to it Mister! Hum to it! So I did. And it worked! A minute after I began humming, that little creature poked its head out of that shell and looked at me like a long lost relative! And the best part, as soon as they saw it, all of the other parents joined in—full-grown adults up to their knees in the primordial waters of creation, singing to tiny little snails!

From humpback whales to periwinkles:

All things bright and beautiful; All creatures great and small; All things wise and wonderful; The Lord God made them all.

Rev. DenUyl is the senior pastor of The First Congregational Church, Old Greenwich, CT.

1. Article by Menno Schilthuizen New York Times July 23, 2016

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