Are we There Yet?

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We’re coming to the end of the Noah’s ark story. The first couple weeks may have been really challenging and uncomfortable. Thanks for hanging in there.

We’re getting to the good news of the story.

In this week’s instalment, all the animals have been safely loaded into the ark. It has been well provisioned with whatever food the creatures will need. Now the rain comes, and it pours down. As the story continues, everyone waits in the ark for the ground to dry.

Throughout this story, we hear echoes of the creation story: In the creation story we hear that “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:2) Here, “a wind blows over the earth and the water subside; the fountains of the deep ….were closed.” Deep is often translated as the depths, the waters, the flood. As the world is being created, God blows over the waters to create the earth. In this story, God blows over the water so that the water dries up. In both stories it is the breath from God that changes the environment.

Like the creation story, there is a sense of anticipation, of waiting for God to act. The creatures in the boat can do nothing. In the tabloid Bible, you see this excerpt from an article:

“Navel experts were skeptical of the ark’s design. ‘This is not a boat, it’s a box,’ said a source at the navy. ‘He won’t be able to steer it and there isn’t even a sail.’ But Noah refused to give in. ‘What do I want to steer it for. There won’t be anywhere to steer it to. All it has to do is ride out the flood.”[1]

Noah and the animals can’t do anything but wait. They have no control over how long it will rain, how long it will take for the ground to dry up, how long it will take for anything new to grow. They just have to sit in the ark and wait. Sometimes waiting can be one of the most difficult things to do.

I want to know how things are going to work out. I want all the various problems of the world fixed yesterday. I don’t want to wait until things are different or until God can act. But the creatures in ark don’t have anything to do and can’t make the water dry up faster. Eventually, Noah had to do something so he opens the window and sends a raven out. The raven flies back and forth, back and forth—kind of a look out. It isn’t clear what happens to the raven.

Imagine what Noah and his family might see when they open the widows of the ark. It has quit raining but there is still water everywhere. There might be a tree or a rock poking up somewhere but nothing else and certainly nothing alive. Imagine the devastation they would see. The world as they know it has been destroyed. There is nothing left. And this is the world into which they will move.

But they still have to wait. Then Noah sends out a dove but it comes back. The next time he sends out the dove it comes back with a leaf. Finally, the dove goes out and doesn’t come back. These are signs that a new time is approaching. A new world is growing out there, beyond the water, beyond the destruction, something new is occurring. And Noah and his family still have to wait months before they experience this new world.

We need to remember that particularly in Genesis, we find stories that are, just that—stories. This story was not intended as fact in either of its forms. It was intended to help people understand and make sense of events that they saw or experienced. While Noah and his family witness the destruction and wait for the water to dry up they have time to think. It is an opportunity for them to reflect on what happens when they leave the ark. Will humans carry on as they have or will they head in a different direction? Will they focus their lives on the goodness of creation or allow the hurt, hate and violence of the world to intrude and become a normal part of life?

This is a turning point in the story. Here is an opportunity to recreate the world with a clean slate. Any time that we are required to wait is an opportunity to think about the kind of world we want to create around us.

And the first words God speaks to them as they leave the ark take us back to the creation story. “Be fruitful and multiply.” (Gen 1:28) The God of the story is remembering the creation and reminding the people of that creation. If we remember the creation story, we know that God created and saw that it was good. We also remember that we are created in God’s image. So in returning to the creation story, this God is helping the people to refocus on goodness and on the goodness that is in God’s image.

Anytime we have to wait, it is a time for us to make that same intention in our own focus. It is easy to get caught up in living our lives, just doing the things we need to do to survive—like I talked about last week. But the pauses, the waiting remind us to stop and think about what we do and why. Sometimes we can intentionally build pauses into our lives through prayer and meditation. Sometimes, like in this story, the waiting is forced upon us.

The question might not be “are we there yet?” but “what will we do when we get wherever it is we are going?” But most of the time we don’t know where we are going except that it will be different than where we are now. Noah didn’t know where they were going to land or what it would be like but he was given an opportunity for something different.

For those of you connected with St. Andrew’s, you know that the congregation is in the midst of some transition right now as well. We don’t know where we are going or what the future will look like, except that it will be different from what we know. This is an opportunity to reflect on what type of a world we want to create when we get of the boat in a new place. Next week there is a congregational meeting after worship. At that time, we will be continuing to ponder what type of faith community we are creating and how this community of faith will shape and interact with the community around us.

I invite you to take time to wait and to pause. In those moments consider what kind of world you want to live in and how your church can help create the world you want to live in.

[1]. Nick Page, The Tabloid Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 14.

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Left Behind?

left behind

From: http://cartoonsbydouglasorleski.wordpress.com/ 2011/10/30/how-it-went-down-noahs-ark/

This reflection is based on Genesis 7:1-24. Bible stories are all about how they are read. In the story of the exodus, we have Moses leading the people out of Egypt and into a new land. We forget about the people who were already in the land to which Moses led the people. When we read about the Babylonian exile we tend to think about the people being taken and forget that it was only the elite who were taken. Most were left behind.

In this story, we have Noah and his family and at least one pair of every animal being saved from the flood and we don’t dwell too much on what happens to the people and creatures left behind in the rain. The stories are easier to read if we focus on God saving the people. They are more comfortable and reassuring. This story reassures us that we are never separated from God, that God is in control of the world and that we can rely on God to save us…If we happen to be Noah.

But what happens if we are not Noah?

What would the story sound like if it were written by someone left behind?

It might sound something like this:

“Do you see that silly guy down the street building a boat in the middle of the desert? He says he’s got orders from God. Why would anyone build a boat in the middle of the desert? It seems like a waste of time to me when survival takes so much energy and focus.

I spend my life hunting and gathering food. I cook the food but first I have to gather the wood for a fire. Whatever we don’t eat right away has to be dried. And then there’s keeping the marauders away, protecting the children and making sure they survive to adulthood so they can provide for me. There are hides to be tanned, tools to make and repair, shelter to maintain. That’s my life. I can’t be bothered thinking about boats or even about God because if I stop, for even a moment, death might catch me or my family.

Now, he’s filling the boat with animals. Again he says, “Orders from God.” There’s a storm brewing and I can see the sky darkening. It’s going to be a bad one. Noah says that this will be the flood to wipe us all out. He believes in God but why is he chosen to build the ark and save the animals from the flood? Why not me? Why not someone else?

If we’re all going to die in this rainstorm, does that mean God doesn’t care about us? Does that mean I’ve done something wrong? Is it wrong just to want to survive? What’s so special about Noah? Aren’t I created in God’s image? That’s what the stories say. Why is Noah’s image more worth saving than mine?

It’s starting to rain. There’s thunder and lightning all around. The low parts of the path will be underwater soon and I won’t be able to get home to my family. I need to go now and make sure they’re OK.

Why God? Why are you doing this? If you are God why don’t you stop this now? If you are God, why will you destroy the creatures you made in your image? Either you can’t save me or you won’t save me? Maybe you don’t exist at all? Which is it God?”

Our stories about God, our scriptures almost always show God in a positive light as the one who saves, the one who creates. There might be a reason for that. Most of us have heard the saying that history is written by the victors. This also applies to scripture: It is written by the people who have survived and the people who perceive God as being on their side.

If we follow what the story tells us, God sent the flood. All we hear about the other people is that they were evil and they were destroyed. But, they weren’t around to tell their side of the story. If we view the story from the perspective of the creatures and people who were destroyed they would not perceive God as the savior but as the destroyer. They would have some questions for God about why they were not saved along with those on the ark.

When we read stories like this, we often place ourselves into the role of the ones that God saves. But if we are faced with destruction like this in our own world, how can we trust God to save us particularly. In this story, God only saves Noah, his family and a select group of animals. Why would we be special enough to warrant special treatment?

The people being destroyed were not necessarily evil but it is much easier to justify destruction when viewed in this light. The writers, in their own way, were trying to make sense of why so many were destroyed. The idea that God was wiping out evil allows us to perceive God as being in control. It also means that the events had a purpose and were not just random. It is very comforting if you are Noah or one of his descendants. Not so comforting if you are one of the ones left behind in the midst of disaster.

Going back to last week’s conversation again, we need to question God’s motives in this story. We need to question how this story unfolds. We need to question the motives of the people who wrote it. But the story should also lead us to a deeper sense of compassion for the world. The people being destroyed could be us. We won’t necessarily be cast in the role of Noah.

The story should draw us into a recognition that people who get caught in natural disasters and other horrific events are often just like us…human. It should lead us to have compassion for the creatures and plant life that were destroyed. They are a part of us.

There is another saying, whose source is uncertain, that says’ “there, but for the grace of God, go I.” We could easily find ourselves as the ones being destroyed. Will someone recognize our common humanity and respond with compassion? Will someone recognize our common humanity and respond with love?

Will we recognize our connections with other people and creation and respond with love and compassion.

 

Does God get a Pass

The next several weeks will be reflections on the story of Noah and the Ark. This week focuses on the first part of the story: Genesis 6:5-22

Most of us know the story of Noah and the flood. We just heard the first part of the story today and over the next few weeks we will hear the entire story. We often think of Noah’s ark as a pleasant children’s story. We have images of animals going into a boat, God saving Noah and rainbow. What can be wrong with that story? If we dig deeper it becomes a scary story of death and destruction before there is new life.

It’s a familiar story and begins with God looking at the creation. In the beginning God created and saw that it was good. But life happens and people hurt each other, violence occurs and God witnesses this violence. The image that God had of the original creation is destroyed.

If you were listening carefully, you will notice that it sounds like the author is being repetitive. There are two voices in this story, the Yahwistic (written about 950 B.C.E.) and Priestly (written about 550 B.C.E.). The Yahwistic tradition was especially concerned about theology – how the people understood God and it is written as folklore. The Priestly tradition is constructed during the period pf the Babylonian Exile and is concerned with helping people make sense of exile experience. This emphasises that God upholds the cosmic order and “ensures the survival of the world,” and that we are never separated from God.[1] Both of these traditions come through in the story and were originally two separate tellings of the same story. Throughout our biblical story, we find that different people tell the stories differently, with different emphasis.

There’s a temptation to read this story as people are evil and therefore God had to get rid of the humans to get rid of the evil and the story has often been read this way but several commentators wonder if this story has more to say about God than about humans. As God looks and sees the world, W. Lee Humphreys describes God as being in pain and grief because of human behavior.[2] Walter Brueggemann describes God as “a troubled parent who grieves over the alienation.”[3] And finally, Karen Armstrong writes that God is at best “like a petulant child who is tired of the castle he has created with his building blocks and knocks it down. At worst, he appears as like those tyrants and dictators in our own century who have assumed godlike powers and have attempted to purge the world of what they regard as evil.”[4]

These are all quite different images and yet they give us a nuanced view of God. What the images agree on is that God created the earth and saw it was good and that God saw what was happening on earth and it was not good. We would like God to be all powerful so that God is in control and that is certainly what the Priestly tradition tries to tell us. God is in control and God will always save the world…maybe not all humans, but the world certainly. Both Humphreys and Brueggemann’s descriptions of God seem plausible: God is hurt by human suffering and is like a parent watching youngsters go off in a different direction. God is concerned about the path that humans are on. I can live with these suggestions.

Armstrong’s description of God is more troubling.  Many of us have watched children build something with lego or blocks and then knock it down. God as a pouty child is an interesting image. But then, likening God to a dictator who is on a purging mission is a terrifying idea. We can look around the world today and see several places where genocide and purging kills are happening. We wouldn’t excuse a dictator who engaged in this action, so how can we excuse God? Can we really imagine God in the role of the one ordering the purging and killing?

What do we do with these images of God? I like to think of God as essentially good and I have trouble reconciling a God who sends a flood and wipes out almost all life with that image. It doesn’t fit and yet I have to deal with the story. One way I address this conundrum is to diminish God’s control. If I want God to be good, then God can’t control everything because a good God wouldn’t send bad things. A good God wouldn’t cause harm. In my mind, I often think that anything bad can’t be the result of God’s action or inaction. Earthquakes, floods, tornados, illness and so forth are just random. We can’t control or prevent these events and neither can God. Human actions that result in violence stem from our lack of community, discrepancies in income, some kind of brokenness or hurt in a person’s life, sometimes it’s just poor choices or bad luck. That’s how I see the world. The bad things are not the result of God. They are either random or the result of our disconnection with God.

I am challenged by an image of God as dictator. That means God is in control and that anyone who isn’t living up to God’s potential for them is eligible for destruction. It means that God does directly punish. Armstrong also notes that if we imagine God as the dictator and excuse God’s behavior, then we can also excuse humans who step into that role.[5]

I don’t think any of us would allow someone who ordered genocide or a purge a pass. So why would we allow God one? If God ordered the flood and wiped out the creation, I don’t want to believe in that God. The choices are either no belief in God at all or to change my belief. I’ve chosen to change my belief. I’ve chosen to change the kind of God I believe in.

That leads to another dilemma which writers of scripture and theologians have struggled with. Do we get to hand pick the characteristics of God that we like and toss out the things we don’t like or don’t want to deal with? If there is someone we struggle to get along with, we don’t get to throw out the behavior or attitude that annoys us. It is still a part of who they are. We can choose to focus on other aspects of their personality but everything about them makes them who they are.

If we are made in God’s image, then possibility that God can do bad things exists. That possibility exists in us. We also have the ability to grow and change. We have the ability to learn from our mistakes. As God interacts with us, God grows and changes. God learns from the experience of the flood.

It’s somewhat tempting to put God in a box and have one image of God but our scriptures are full of different images and the images change over time. Even in this story we see a variety of images. We humans are complex and so it makes sense that the God, whose image we are made in, is also complex even when it’s inconvenient, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

I don’t have an easy or straightforward answer for how we handle these types of issues. Faith was not intended to always be comfortable or easy. There are times when faith may have the ability to comfort and heal but at times faith, and remaining faithful in the midst of violence, natural disasters and illness, may be very challenging.

And so we have Noah watching violence in the world around him. I wonder if he questioned what God was doing. Did Noah challenge God and try to bargain with God to prevent the flood or was he just resigned to the violence and the outcome of death? How often do we look around and see violence or destruction and find ourselves just resigned to it as the way of the world? If Noah, and ourselves, give God a pass on sending the flood, how likely are we to give a pass to others who perpetrate violence in our world.

Over the next owfew weeks we will continue with the story of Noah and the flood. As we continue, I invite you to dig deeper into the story, to think carefully about the characters, how they act and respond to the disaster of the flood. Be uncomfortable in the midst of destruction as we move towards renewal.

[1]. Frank S. Frick, A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2003), 96, 100.

[2].  W. Lee Humphreys The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 65.

[3]. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 77.

[4]. Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 40.

[5].  Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 46.