Sunday, October 2, 2011

That kind of story, that kind of God

This is the third in a chronological narrative series through Genesis, which began with Creation and the Fall.  This reflection spans Genesis 6-9, and the story of Noah.

Sometimes a story is so overused, so adapted to the wrong context, that you stop hearing it altogether.  And then if, for whatever reason, you decide to give it a second look, you are utterly horrified at what you see, it’s not at ALL what you thought it was.

I think, for example, of nursery rhymes sung to children, ring around the rosie, pocket full of posie, ashes ashes, we all die of the black plague, is what that’s really about.  Or tearing down a monarchy and having the children sing, “down will come baby, cradle and all!” 
And so often when we’ve stopped hearing the words or remembering where they came from and we pass them onto the children without a second thought.

Let me be clear right off the bat.  Noah and the Ark is NOT a children’s story.  So let’s leave the two-by-two wallpapered nursery and stuffed playsets and first say it like it is.  This is a really disturbing story of what looks like God giving up on creation and destroying the whole entire world and everything in it, but saving one guy and his family to start over.  Right? Even in the best light, is this what we want our kids looking at from their cribs?

At first glance, real glance, this seems like an awful story. At least to me. There are any number of things in it I don’t like, not least of which is the idea that God gives up on what God had just declared “good”, and lets the whole rest of creation get sunk along with humanity.  Or that God is so abidingly upset about how violent the world has gotten, that God violently washes it away. 
And then there’s the nagging question, What made Noah so saveable and everyone else so damnable? 

And what exactly is the promise here? I always heard it in Sunday school as God promises not to destroy the world by FLOOD ever again. Phew, I thought at the time. That eliminates ONE method. Of course, God may use any other means God desires, but at least flood is off the table.

From the point of view of the people who bit the dust, this story sucks. From the point of view of Noah and his family, it’s nice to be saved, but beyond that, not much better.  It can’t have been a pleasant task. 
And most of all, from our point of view, what on earth are we supposed to do with this thing?

To be honest, I am still wrestling with this story. I don’t like it.  It’s not a nice story. It’s not an easy story. And part of that is because it is a story of God’s judgment. At least in part.  There is judgment in this story, God deems something unacceptable, some people unacceptable, and punishment – or what feels like it – follows.
And so, we hear the words of our song earlier, O Sinner Man, where you gonna run to?  This God gets the last word.  He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness’ sake, because you’ll be held accountable in the end.

But, if I might be so bold as to say this is what is so great about the bible, and about our faith.  These things are hard to understand, and we are invited to wrestle, like we’ll see in a few weeks Jacob wrestling the angel, and to leave blessed but limping from the exchange. You can’t enter into this dialogue with any honesty and not be changed.

So while we haven’t made easy friends, this story and I, I’ve come to discover there is far more than meets the eye. And I’ve actually had something of a change of heart.

It came when I remembered, finally, that this story, which is part of a much bigger story, has a primary protagonist, and sister, it isn’t Noah.  (In fact, just in case we begin to think Noah is some perfect person, the story is immediately followed by a bizarre incident involving alcohol, nudity, humiliation and disproportionate rage. So, no saints here). 

The central character of this story is God. This is a story about God. And we’ve already seen that this God who wields the power to create an entire universe out of nothing, has also opened Godself to these creatures made in God’s own image and invited them to share God’s love and care for the world and one another.

But the relationship is broken. And the brokenness affects God.  The brokenness does not exist simply between human beings or between them and God, it is carried inside God.  The grief of a parent over her child destroying himself and rejecting her, and any love or help she seeks to give him, standing on the sidelines where he has thrust her, watching the inevitable destruction he is hurtling himself towards cannot begin to touch the grief within God’s own heart over what is unfolding in this creation God poured God’s soul into.  And the devestating fracture runs deep between God and these ones God has planned to share life with who have utterly turned their backs on God and devoted themselves to the violent tearing down of one another at all cost.

And I wonder if at some point, amidst the grief and the anger, God doesn’t take it on Godself: this is God’s own failure as much as it is theirs.  God made it, and clearly they are unable to pull themselves out of the death spiral, so God’s going to fix it.  Wipe it out and start over.

So God reverses creation.  In language paralleling the creation story, the dome of the sky that separated the waters collapses and the deep that was pushed out by land wells up again and everything is returned to the chaos from which it was liberated and created.

Except God can’t quite do it.  Can’t quite obliterate all of it.  It was so beautiful. so good and God loves it so much. Perhaps it could be good again? Perhaps it can be saved?  So God chooses this one little family out of everyone else to save, to begin again.  And a sample of every kind of animal as well; maybe it wont be an utter loss.
 And then God rages and weeps and releases all of the wrath and sadness and anger, and creation is violently dismantled and returned to nearly the nothingness from which it first emerged, except for this boat, bobbing on top of it all, this odd little remnant of hope. 

It’s a tragic and horrifying scene, a heartwrenching scene:

21And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; 22everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred and fifty days.
Then after this purging and cleansing, the time of recreation begins:

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3and the waters gradually receded from the earth.

And finally the ark comes to rest and the inhabitants pour out into a brand new world.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you… that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’
12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth….16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’
And here’s the kicker.  Here is where the story turned and grabbed me, where I realized I don’t hate this story at all. This is a marvelous story, an astounding story, a deeply and beautifully true story:
God began the story seeing no other way but to write it all off and begin fresh.  But when all is said and done, and everything is dead and gone, and the earth goes back to its watery formless state, something happens inside God.  Because by the time the water recedes and the naked and fresh earth is exposed, and it is ready to begin again, God is in a different place altogether.  You might say God has gotten some clarity and made some decisions. 

God realizes that over and over again humanity is going to choose death instead of life, choose hatred instead of love, choose to cut off from one another and from God, instead of live in the connection that God created us all for, that even flooding the whole earth hasn’t washed away sin from the hearts of humanity.  But even seeing that, despite all of that, God hangs God’s bow in the sky, the weapon of a warrior God puts down, and pledges to all creation never to wipe out the whole earth again. 

...the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind… nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 
22 As long as the earth endures,
   seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
 shall not cease.’

What does this mean?  What is God promising?

Nathan Nettleton says it beautifully:
This story is telling us that God neither gives up on us, nor clings to the right to wipe us out if we get too out of hand or the pain we cause becomes too great for God to bear.
It tells us that God voluntarily gives up some freedoms; voluntarily accepts some new restrictions on what God can and can’t do. God signs away the right to simply treat us as we deserve; to dish out punishments that are simply direct and proportional consequences to the crimes.  God swears off such options, and makes an irrevocable commitment to wildly disproportionate generosity and mercy.  And God does this with open eyes, knowing that such a commitment means signing on for continual betrayal and heartbreak, continual grief and frustration and pain.
But that is a price God is prepared to pay. God makes a personal commitment to be open to the pain, to enter into the pain, to absorb the pain, and to go on loving without limit.

This God, I want to know more. This God I want to see at work in the world and feel in my own life.  I want to recognize this God in the lives of those around me, and hear within the stories of those far away that I will never meet but who share this same world with me signs of the unquenchable love of this God.  
 This God gives me hope.

I will admit this today, that I still don’t completely understand these old stories of our faith, the prehistoric ones that were carried by heart and mouth from generation to generation and finally written and passed down to us today.  But I’m willing to wrestle with them until they bless me. And I’m willing to go away limping as well - rearranged, humbled.  Because these stories are part of my story.  I belong to this God.  These people - whether the ones in the stories themselves ever existed as we see them here or not, whether the drama depicted ever unfolded this way or not - these people are my people, and this God is my God. 

And it helps me to see and live in the world, claiming this story.  It helps me notice the ways I choose death over life, and gives me a way to grieve and even rage over the violence we do to each other and creation. 
And then it quiets me in the awe of a God who goes on loving without limit.  Who “neither gives up on us nor clings to the right to wipe us out if we get too out of hand or the pain gets too great.” 
Who begins here, with Noah, to live in a covenant with humanity, a kind of indestructible commitment to humanity that culminates in plunging right into this world with us, alongside us in utter solidarity and taking onto Godself the darkest and most broken parts of us in a relentless resolve to share life with us, and tenaciously work towards restoring us to the wholeness we were created for. 

So I press on in the story, and I invite you to as well.  Dig in, wrestle, question, open yourself and press on. Together we’ll watch what comes next.

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