Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘genesis’

Living on the Dry Ground

EXODUS 14:15-16; 19-22  

I grew up in Indiana and Iowa. Tornadoes happen there.

tornadoI remember one day in the summer when I was a kid. I was walking home; this was in Indiana. The weather was so strange. Everything was eerily calm. It was like listening to music really, really loud and then someone pulls the plug and it all goes silent all of a sudden. It’s weird. No wind, no sound, nothing. Storm clouds did not appear on the horizon; it didn’t smell like rain. There was absolutely nothing that would serve as a warning sign for extreme weather. The sky was a beautiful orange color and then it almost looked purple? Did I mention how calm it was?

But then, as I got about halfway home, the wind picked up. It wasn’t gradual either. From one moment of calm, things got crazy in a second. Leaves and branches and debris started blowing behind, in front—all around me. I shielded my face and covered my eyes…

And I started to run.

That’s what we did in the Midwest when the eerie calm turned into a malevolent, strong wind. You don’t look back; you don’t take your time; while the sirens blare, you just run to the nearest place. I made it home. The winds got worse and a funnel cloud formed a few miles away. It’s amazing to see such a thing if you are looking at it from a distance. It’s beautiful. It’s short-lived.

Tornadoes, for the most part, last less than 10 minutes. That’s it.

Some tornadoes only last for a few seconds and then they’re gone.

But in a short time, a lot can happen.

Consider my former front porch in Iowa. The entire thing was lifted off by a tornado. Ask the farmers who discover farm equipment miles away from where they left it.

Weather is really not something we can control, right? Sadly, though, some are trying to control it with chemicals and other things. Perhaps one of our most fatal human mistakes is when we try to control nature. It always ends badly, doesn’t it?

Just ask the great Pharaoh of Egypt–perhaps Ramses II [and thousands of ancient Egyptians]–the ones mentioned in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. Insects, plagues, strong weather, and parting seas bombarded them. This is the Exodus story, a tale rich with natural images, but also a story that displays a two-sided, yin and yang theme. Nature can act beautifully and protectively. But on the other hand, that beauty can turn ugly and the protection can turn to destruction.

Moses and the Israelites, seeking to escape slavery and Egypt, cross the Red Sea because Moses lifts up his staff and the waters part for the Israelites. They cross unharmed, but the Egyptians, in hot pursuit, do not make it. The once-dry land spills over with raging waters and they all drown. The Israelites win and the Egyptians lose.

Even as the Israelites journey on to the Jordan River, they see the floating Egyptian corpses in the water.

There is a cloud by day and fire by night.

There is dry ground and there is flood.

There is a great escape from slavery, but then a famine.

There’s a heck of a lot more to this story than meets the eye, don’t you think?

For example, most Christians know that the New Testament contains Gospels [4 of them made it into what we call the canon]. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John passed the test and are printed in the various translations of the Bible. These Gospels tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but they do so in different ways. Each one adds and subtracts details and inserts different viewpoints about the same stories.

The same goes for the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures [OT]. In Genesis, we get more than one perspective about how the earth, sky, waters, animals and plants were created. We also get different points of view about how man and woman came to be. And in Exodus, we have varied perspectives, too.

How, you ask?

Well, just like in the NT, the OT books were not all written by just one author. Books like Exodus are compilations of different writers with different perspectives. Oral traditions got handed down and were added into the mix.

This particular Moses and Pharaoh story is told in three different ways.

The first version, and most likely the earliest version, is often called the Song of Moses; it appears in Exodus 15. It is a retelling of the Red Sea event in the form of a poem.

The second version appears in selected verses of Exodus 14.
This is considered a non-priestly version. A nice summary of this second version is provided by my OT professor from Princeton, Dr. Dennis Olson:

1. The divine cloud moves between Egyptians and Israelites

 2. The LORD drives the sea back by a strong east wind all night (no account of Israel’s crossing or any action at all by any of the Israelites, including Moses (see 14:14–“The LORD will fight for you; you have only to keep still”)

 3. Somehow through the pillar of fire and cloud, the LORD throws the Egyptians into a panic and they go into the sea and are drowned

 That version is dated much earlier than the third and final version, called a priestly version. This third version, also selected verses of chapter 14, could be summarized as such [again, thanks, Dr. Olson]:

1. The Israelites see the advancing Egyptians and cry to the LORD

 2. The LORD commands Moses to raise his staff over the water and the waters divide

 3. A path of dry land opens up through the sea with walls of water on both sides

 4. The Israelites walk safely through the Red Sea to the other side

 5. After the Israelites have crossed, Moses stretches out his staff and the sea waters return, killing the pursuing Egyptians

 Okay, why does this matter?

Because there is always more than one perspective to the story.

There is always more than one way to look at life.

Sometimes we are walking on dry ground and we feel like we’re being overwhelmed with floods of water.
Other times we may be inundated with rain and feel that we’re in a desert.

Sometimes a cloud can be wonderful. It can bring rain that sustains crops and provides sustenance. It cleans. It refreshes.
But other times clouds hide things from our vision. Literally, they “cloud” our path. They can also signal an upcoming, destructive storm.

A victory for some people means a loss for others.
Life for some means death for others.

We’re meant to live in this tension of duality the yin and yang [light and dark].

Creation and new beginnings are like that.

Yahweh creates something new.
People are invited to start over again.

They are asked to let go and to walk forward.

But it is not easy to do.
There will painful changes that people must make.

Letting go is really, really hard.
Complaining is really, really easy.

We all crave the “greener grass” on the other side of the fence, but when it comes time to do what is necessary to make a significant change in our lives, we lose our enthusiasm all of a sudden.

Walk on dry ground?

Maybe not…

But that’s just it.
We have to let go and walk forward if we are to create and refresh.

If we don’t let go, we can behave like the Egyptians in the story [or any oppressors for that matter] and try to keep the status quo going, refuse change—at any cost. We are capable of enslaving ourselves and enslaving others.

If we don’t let go, we can behave like the Israelites did, and complain that the grass is always greener and that our current situation is always worse than somebody else’s.

When we don’t let go to let newness come, we drown in our stubbornness.

So the story invites all of us.

Let go.
Walk forward.
Live on the dry ground.

Live in the tension.

We are invited to see each day of our lives as an opportunity to be refreshed, re-created, and propelled forward.

After all, we cannot control the weather of life. And remember, weather changes pretty quickly.

Will we embrace the dry ground?

 

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Leaving the Church to Find God

 John 4:5-26

What are some specific places or activities that cause you to feel the presence of G-d?

Where or when is God especially absent from you?

 

Where do we think that God or the Divine or the Great Spirit or the Eternal Consciousness is?

Here?
[Sikh Gurdwara]
gurdwara

 Or here? [Hindu deities]
twindeities

Or here? [Mosque]
mosqueprayer

Or here? [Buddhist meditation]
WonFullMeditationCircle

 Or here? [La Sagrada Familia, Spain]
sagradaoutside

Or here? [nature]
NICA2 toucan CR1

Or here? Where you currently are…

Where and when we think that the Divine is present matters. Usually, it is in a building, a structure, a religious site supposedly constructed for the purpose of experiencing the Divine—whatever we call it—G-d, Jehova, Elohim, Allah, Brahma, the Eternal Consciousness, the Great Spirit…

What I learned last week as I visited seven different religious communities is that the Divine is definitely contained and limited by us.

Religion certainly can inspire and organize people to do amazing things that bring about peace and unity and justice. But religion, because of its limitations of the Divine, can also be so destructive that it turns people against one another—even leading to violence and killing and war.

Religion, in its extreme form, can limit our views and cause us to hold on to many prejudices and convictions that separate us from others.
It can isolate people and limit their imagination and creativity.
Religion can lead people to claim that they know where G-d is and where G-d is not.

But somehow this Divine Being or Eternal Consciousness we call G-d claims to live outside of walls, outside of religions, a G-d completely present with all kinds of people in many different places. G-d says no to restrictions.

Philosopher Paul Tillich once wrote: God is inescapable. God is God only because God is inescapable. And only that which is inescapable is God.

G-d is inescapable, not limited to buildings or even religions.

And this idea is promoted in the Gospel of John: the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

Talk about an encounter with someone outside of your comfort zone—this was it. Jesus of Nazareth, of course, was not a Samaritan. Jesus’ “people” and her “people” did not like each other and thought each other’s religions were false. Jesus’ religious temple was in Jerusalem and her religious site was on Mount Gerizim. They both read different scriptures. Their two religious traditions both made competing truth claims about G-d. The divisions seemed to be too much to overcome, right?

But unlike John’s story about Nicodemus, another character who encountered Jesus, the Samaritan woman meets with Jesus during the day—not at night. And unlike Nicodemus, a prominent Sanhedrin member [religious elite], the Greek rendering of Samaritan woman is like a double negative. She was powerless in society.

She doesn’t even get a name in the story.

What she gets instead is living water.

What is that? In her case, a new identity in life. No person [much less a Rabbi], had ever made her feel that she was fully human. In John’s Gospel, the word salvation is not about saying some words and “getting saved” by joining some religion. In this Gospel, salvation is being delivered from something that holds you back.
In her case, she was delivered from the limitations placed on her life.

But…

As I mentioned before, our religions [and our G-d-buildings] often prevent us from experiencing the Divine at all. Our religious limitations also lead us to prejudice, misunderstanding, and misconceptions. So it still was for the woman.

She was still caught up in the where of G-d’s presence. Wasn’t the Divine limited to a certain mountain? Jesus’ response is liberating, I think:

Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know…But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

All well and good, Jesus. But her religious traditions were so strong that she still was convinced that the Divine presence was limited to the future coming of a messiah.

Jesus responds, but he doesn’t say I am he.
He says simply:
I AM.

G-d is here. In this moment. You don’t have to wait for some messiah, you don’t have to run to some mountain or some temple—the Divine is here with you. The Divine is not limited to a certain space or even a certain time.

The Divine just is.

I don’t know what names you give to the Divine. I’m not sure where you think G-d resides. Truthfully, all of us around the world give different answers.

That’s okay, actually.
What we cannot do, though, is to insist that the Divine is surely in our churches or in our temples. What we cannot do is to claim that our religious buildings and traditions have more G-d in them than others. All the symbols, buildings, icons, and traditions that we create are simply meant to be reminders that the Divine is with us. That’s all. But they don’t contain or limit the experience of the Divine.

That’s why sometimes you will have to leave the church to find G-d. I am serious about this.

You will benefit from walking away from stained glass and pews and crosses and all that is familiar and religious to you. The Divine can be found and experienced all around you—sometimes in other people’s temples and places of prayer; other times outside amongst trees and birds and flowing water; or when you sit down with strangers or friends and share good food; or when life is heavy and sad and someone shows you compassion; or in a breath, a sunrise, a smile, a merciful act.

Let’s stop limiting the Divine to only what we know or think we know.
Recognize that religion is something that we humans come up with in order to give some cultural form to faith in a G-d we cannot see.

But if the Divine is a presence we believe to be merciful, loving, and universal—then the Divine cannot be limited to our spaces, times, and cultures.

May this impact how you live.

God Is Still Wrestling…

Genesis 32:24-31   NRSV
Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

jacob

Marc Chagall

The other week I went to my first Bris. Actually, a bris is Brit Milah, the Covenant of Circumcision. The wife of one of my friends just recently gave birth to a boy. In her practice of Judaism, the bris is an important religious and community-centered ceremony to celebrate this child’s identity and connection to his ancestors and current family. I was honored to be invited to such an event.

As my partner Maria and I entered the home in NE Philly, we spotted the ceremonial table, the empty chair for Elijah, the wine, the bris instruments, and an anxious group of family and friends.
The Mohel, an observant Jew who is educated in relevant Jewish law and surgery, was delightful in his explanations of the bris. He led us in singing and prayer. He made us laugh.
The Sandek [like a godfather], held the child on a pillow. Prayers and blessings were recited.
And then, the Mohel performed the procedure of circumcision.

On a personal note, I felt fine. I had none of those feelings of queasiness that some of my Jewish friends and colleagues warned me about. It seemed like I would make it through the ceremony without any problem at all.

But I was wrong….

The Mohel was done with the circumcision. He gave the child some wine and the little guy stopped crying. We sang again.

And then I felt nauseous; and then dizzy; and then the world started to fade to black.
I whispered to Maria:
I have to go outside for some fresh air.

I stumbled past the ceremonial table, trying not to make a fuss. I found the front door of the house and nearly fell on it. I struggled with the handle and finally got it open, only to collapse on a bench just outside. I put my head down and took deep breaths.

I was soaking wet–a cold sweat.

Meanwhile, inside the house, a little girl who was there with her family, stared at me curiously through the glass door as if to say:

I told you so. Don’t stand too close to the table!

Okay, so eventually, I felt better and was able to attend the rest of the ceremony. It was very nice. Mom and dad read words they had written about the child and his name. The mother talked about her relatives and how this boy’s name would connect to their lives and experiences. Afterwards, we ate food.

I celebrated the fact that hardly anyone seemed to notice that I had almost fainted and fallen right into Elijah’s chair.
—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

In the Jewish tradition, naming and identify formation is important. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, we encounter stories about people from infancy to death–often learning their names and journeying with them through the various stages of their lives.
In this case, we are journeying with Jacob.
He’s middle-aged now. He has some money, a family, a herd of livestock—he seems pretty set. But he’s having a mid-life crisis, for sure. His brother Esau, if you remember, was the guy from whom Jacob “stole” their father’s blessing. Apparently, Esau is still angry about it and wants to take his birthright back. So previously in the story, Jacob sends word to Esau that he is coming, that he is rich, and that he hopes that Esau will favor him. But Esau isn’t buying it. He instead approaches Jacob’s camp with an army of 400 people. Jacob is scared. So he prays to God out of desperation, asking for help. But Jacob isn’t satisfied with just prayer. He reserves a bit of his wealth and sends it ahead to give to Esau. Maybe that will calm him down.

Jacob doesn’t hear from his messengers. This cannot be good.
Esau will surely arrive with a fury and possibly kill him. So Jacob sends his wives and kids to meet Esau and his 400 strong!

Then, that night, Jacob [all alone] encounters a stranger. The person he does not recognize starts wrestling with him—throws him to the ground. It’s WWE of the Bible! Turnbuckles, full nelsons, flying elbows.

wwe
But Jacob holds his own. It’s a tie.

Jacob’s wrestling opponent is smart, though. He does some move that throws Jacob’s hip out of joint. What irony this his, because Jacob’s name means the Heel. Now the guy who was born grabbing his brother Esau’s heel can’t even stand up straight. He’s out of balance.

The wrestler tells Jacob that it’s time to go. The sun is rising. But Jacob hasn’t had enough.
“I won’t let you go,” he says, “unless you bless me.”

“What’s your name? says the wrestler.

“Jacob.”

“You are no longer called Jacob. Now you are called Israel. You have wrestled with God and with humans, and you have prevailed.”

“But what’s your name?” Jacob wanted to know.

“Why do you want to know my name?” The wrestler refused to tell.

The blessing finally comes to Jacob—after this whole process. Jacob is convinced he has wrestled with God, so he names the place Peniel. He limps off, heading to meet his angry brother Esau.

The story continues. Jacob does in fact make it to see his brother Esau the next day. Surprise, surprise, it is a joyful encounter! Esau embraces him with tears of happiness. Forgiveness. They are brothers again. And Jacob says something important:

“I have seen your face, as though I had seen the face of God.” [Genesis 33:10]

Jacob thought that he had met God Almighty in the nighttime. He thought he wrestled with Jehovah and won. But the next day, he realized that the whole time he was wrestling with himself. He grappled with his fear, his selfishness, and the avoidance of the truth of his past. The face of God awaited him on the other side of the river, where his brother Esau waited with 400. Jacob was a coward. He had sent his messengers, even his own family ahead to meet Esau! But he could not face his fears himself! So after the wrestling match with himself—after sorting through his own fears, guilt, and issues—Jacob emerged with a limp. The limp is a sign of Jacob’s imperfections. He still needs to mature. He still needs to grow and find balance in his life.

The story does end happily with the brothers’ reunion and forgiveness.
But Jacob is never the same. He is no longer Jacob the Heel. He is now called Israel. He walks with a limp. He will always remember.

Friends, this story can speak clearly to all of us. Oftentimes, in our struggles of life, we wonder if God is our adversary. Why is this bad stuff happening to me? How come I have so much bad luck, God? Why don’t you favor me more? Can I get a blessing, God? Come on!

We want to steal a blessing.
We hold on for dear life to whomever or whatever; we attach ourselves until we get the blessing or the relief from our suffering. We cling to the illusion that what we feel inside [fear, resentment, depression, self-loathing]—we cling to the idea that we feel these things, because everyone else or external forces are causing them. The walls, we claim, are put up by others. We cannot be whole; we cannot be at peace, because others won’t let us.

But our opponent is not God. And most of the time, our opponents are not people either; or circumstances.

Our opponent is ourselves.

In the dark of night, our minds race to thoughts of regret. Things undone. Maybe like Jacob we have broken relationships with family or friends. For years, we have blamed the other person. After a while, we are afraid to even cross the river to try to make amends. There is no way, we think, that this person will accept us or offer forgiveness. Perhaps this is true, in some cases. Not always do we have to cross the river and encounter the person face to face.

But we DO have to wrestle with ourselves.
We do have to look at ourselves in the mirror.
We do have to admit that our fear is inside us and not coming from the outside.

So here is the blessing that we don’t have to steal.
If we do wrestle with ourselves in an honest way and stop blaming God or external circumstances, or whatever—we find a special blessing.

Like my friend’s baby boy, like Jacob–we are blessed with new identity.

You see, throughout our lives we can start to take on the identity that the world or others give us. Our past experiences give us names. Sometimes they are good and healthy, but other times they are destructive and hurtful names. Those names can haunt us at night, fill our minds with fear and depression—even take over our physical bodies. Our failures, disappointments, resentment, and regrets can solidify such names.

But the blessing we don’t have to steal is God’s willingness to help us discover a renewed and refreshed identity. God is still speaking, still acting, and still encouraging us to keep wrestling with ourselves.

And it is never too late to be renewed.

Friends, it won’t be easy to wrestle with yourselves. Sometimes, in the nighttime, you will struggle with your past and sometimes you will fear the future. It will be painful. You may wish for some instant relief—for God to swoop in and tell you a bedtime story and tuck you in.

But God will do something surprising instead. Your God will speak to you and fill you, encouraging you to wrestle.

Who are the Esaus in your life?
What rivers do you need to cross?
And God will meet you in that place where hope seems far away. And you’ll wrestle.
And then you’ll discover a new name, a renewed purpose for yourself.
And God will lead you to the Esaus of your life.
And God will lead you to whatever rivers you need to cross.
And a bridge will be built for you to cross over.
And when you do, tears of joy, kisses of greeting, forgiveness, and wholeness await you.

So may you find strength to limp over to the other side of the river.
May you find wholeness, peace, and forgiveness inside yourself.
And may others see the face of God in your forgiving, and blessing of them.

Amen.

Jars of Clay

Jeremiah 18:1-6

 

Art in Me is a song written by Dan Haseltine, Steve Mason, Matt Odmark, and Charlie Lowell–otherwise known as the band “Jars of Clay.”

jarsofclay They are three-time Grammy award winners who recently released their 11th album [Inland]—this time under a new label. Jars of Clay, in 2007, left the contemporary Christian label called Essential Records and started their own label, Gray Matters. Why? On paper it seems that they have enjoyed a lot of success claiming the label of a Christian music group. But the members of Jars of Clay have never felt completely comfortable within the confines of this label. Dan Haseltine has remarked that the “Christian” label led to limitations.

“It’s a ghetto, frankly,” Steve Mason says of the category. “Unfortunately, it loops us in politically and socially to a bunch of things that we don’t necessarily buy. It is frustrating, sometimes, because we feel like what we’re doing is good art, and we want what we’re doing to stand up with the stuff that’s out right now.”[1]

The questions that Jars of Clay ask in their music can be identified by all walks of life — all faiths, no faith. They are honest questions. As Mason commented in an interview, Jars wants to make “room at the table for everybody.”

jars_of_clayGroupSad, isn’t it? This music group has encountered so much pressure to just “fit” into a category called Christian—to be lumped together with others who are completely different from them. I am glad, though, that the band decided not to change its name. Jars of Clay is an appropriate name for their honest, meaning-filled music. After all, clay jars are earthenware, pots, things made out of earth. They are formed, shaped, pulled, pushed, and molded until they are cooked in a kiln.

And all the pots are different; they are not the same.

But clay jars don’t form themselves on their own. They need a potter. Perhaps one of the most intriguing and misunderstood metaphors for God in scripture is the image of the potter. The prophet Jeremiah, as all prophets, sees things in the natural world and in everyday life and applies a deeper meaning to them. Essentially, this is a prophet’s job—to see and hear a little bit deeper and then to share this insight with people. Sometimes, though, as in Jeremiah’s case, what prophets shared was not always pleasant. The image of God as potter and people as clay is both comforting and challenging.

In Jeremiah’s day, clay was used for lots of things. Of course, there were expensive clay items that the rich would decorate and display. But the most common pots were the ones that Judeans used every day for practical things around the house. Maybe the pots were not perfectly shaped or adorned with color. But they were perfect to store grain, wine, or oil. The pots were life-sustainers. That doesn’t mean that the pots themselves would last very long. Because they were used so much, from time to time they would crack or break.

That meant a trip to the potter’s house.

The potter’s job, of course, was to patch up any cracks or breaks and, on occasion, to completely destroy a pot and remake it. So Jeremiah is called to the house of the potter—a common trip that people of Judea would have made. But we need to pay attention to the Hebrew word for potter here. Potter [in English] is a translation of the verb yatsar which means to fashion or form.[2] It is the same verb used in Genesis 2:7 when YHWH [God] kneels in the dust, grabs a piece of wet clay, and forms a human being. It is the same image we see in the Muslim scriptures [the Qu’ran]: human beings formed by God from clay.[3] So this is a direct reference to the creation story—a story that hundreds of ancient cultures tell in a similar way with humans being created from clay. For example, the Incas of South America tell this story:

Viracocha [God] raised up all the people and nations, making figures of clay and painting the clothes each nation was to wear. To each nation he gave a language, songs and the seeds they were to sow. Then he breathed life and soul into the clay and ordered each nation to pass under the earth and emerge in the place he directed.[4]

And the Hopis from North America tell this story:

The deity of the east made of clay first a woman and then a man, who were brought to life in exactly the same manner as the birds and animals before them.[5]

We must make this connection between the creation story and Jeremiah’s trip to the potter’s house. It shows us that this potter who Jeremiah must visit is constantly forming, shaping, dismantling, and remaking the clay. There is a reason for that.

The clay, now established as being human beings, is seemingly in constant need of repair.

Sometimes the clay pots even need to be broken up completely. At times, the potter’s hands slip on the clay and the potter has to restart the process. At moments the potter isn’t pleased with the pot’s shape and so it must be smashed back into a clump of clay and reshaped. If you’ve ever tried to work at a pottery wheel, you know that this is how it goes. It is a process full of trial and error, smashing, shaping, and remaking until you get the shape you desire. Making pottery requires a LOT of patience. And you have to get your hands dirty. And you have to make sure the clay is adequately moist and not too dry. And you have to spin the wheel just right so as to smoothly transition the clump into being a pot.

So the image of God as potter and humans as clay, shared by so many cultures and religious traditions, seems clear:

All of us come from the same natural, organic earth.
We share a formation by a patient, careful, detail-oriented potter.
Each pot formed from the clay is different—unique.
And the potter is never finished with the clay.

It is a powerful and wonderful metaphor, I think. But it can be misunderstood.

Sometimes we make the false assumption that all pieces of clay are exactly the same and so the pots need to look and act the same. Sometimes we can forget that it is normal for pots to develop cracks and imperfections. Often we look at overused, broken-down pots and assume that they are useless and cannot be remade. And also we can force other clay pots to be shaped in the same way we were—even though that is impossible. Each pot is formed uniquely. Each clump of clay needs a different amount of water and a different shaping technique. Homogenous pots do not emerge from the potter’s house.

And the metaphor hits home when we consider our own brokenness, our struggles, are cracks, fissures, and need for reshaping and remaking ourselves. Yes, we are cracked pots in need of patient care, love, mercy, and periodic trips to the potter’s house. And I think if we recognize that we share this with all others, then we’ll stop trying to force them into categories.

And we’ll embrace their clay-ness and their ability to be molded and shaped as the potter sees fit—not as we see fit.

So friends, recognize your clay-ness and recognize the clay-ness of others. Remember that you have something contained in that clay jar that is your life: a treasure. The treasure inside your cracked pot is the love and compassion of God that you share with others. May it be evident and may it shine through all the beautiful cracks and openings in your pot. Amen.


[1] “Jars of Clay Seek ‘Reintroduction’ With First Indie Release,” Hollywood Reporter, 9/4/2013, Rebecca Sun.

[2] Cracked Pots I Have Known and Loved, John C. Holbert

[3] Qu’ran 38:71: Indeed, I am going to create a human being from clay. Sahih International

[4] Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Ed. Richard Cavendish. Silverdale Books. page 187.

[5] The Traditions of the Hopi, by H.R. Voth, [1905]

The Symbols, the Symbols, the Symbols!

Genesis 8:1-12; 18-24:  God Knows Us Before We Know

Today is our last look at the story of Noah in the book of Genesis. The rain storms finally stop, the water levels lower, and a rainbow appears in the sky. This, of course, is the supposed happy ending, because Noah and company are saved. The horrific memory of the flood, corruption of humanity, and the destruction of the world is just that—a memory. This is how we want to the story to end. Rainbows and smiling animals are painted on Sunday school walls and everyone is happy. But I challenge all of us to think differently about Noah, the ark, the flood, and the rainbow. In the tradition of American Christianity we tend to ignore the difficult parts of scripture and limit the Bible stories to quotable quotes and easy-to-swallow symbols.

But this kind of shallow thinking about the story leads to problems. As I mentioned before, because of our often-sanitized interpretation of Noah and the ark, we leave plenty of room for confusion, theological missteps, and even violent results. If we don’t talk about the flood and what it means, why God was disappointed and sad over humanity’s corruption of a good creation, and that ALL humanity was corrupt, that even after the flood and the rainbow, humanity was still corrupt—then we are creating a different story. And in doing so we miss the point; and the grace in it. So let’s read the story as it is, and emphasize the important symbols in the story there for us, meant to help us get the message.

The symbols to note: the birds [a raven and a dove]; the ark; the mountain; the number 40; and of course, the rainbow. The birds are an oft-debated topic among Jewish and Christian scholars. Why a raven? The raven, as a bird in mythology, doesn’t always have the best reputation. It’s known for being a scavenger and therefore unclean, and in extreme cases, a symbol for evil. But in Noah’s story, I buy the more practical explanation. A raven has an important talent—it can fly high and far, and it can endure harsh weather conditions.[1] And so mariners or ancient sea captains would use ravens as their compass. A raven would find land or even scavenge dead animals available to eat, floating on the water. If a raven didn’t come back, it had found food. If it returned, there was nothing there but endless water.

Noah was connected to creation. He understood the raven’s important role; the raven went first. A dove, on the other hand, was more delicate—not as hardy as the raven. A dove also would not look for dead animal remains and would wait until the safety of land was near. The dove went out the first time and then came back. Seven days later, Noah released it again. This time, the dove returned with an olive branch, meaning that the waters had receded. A third time, the dove is sent out, and this time it does not return. All is safe for Noah and company. Of course, in American Christianity, the dove is often associated with the presence of God’s Spirit, due to a dovelike bird descending on Jesus of Nazareth when he is baptized by John. But in the Hebrew Scriptures, the dove is more of a symbol of sacrifice, caring, and gentleness. In many burnt offerings to God, indeed the dove was the sacrifice. References to doves were also meant to highlight a person’s caring nature.

The symbol of the ark is of course, an important one. This big boat, like Jonah’s big whale, was a place to be shut in for reflection. The ark contained within it the Biblical figure many see as a “second adam,” Noah. The ark also ended up on a mountain. That’s significant, because later on in the Genesis and Exodus story, another man named Moses is on another mountain where he receives special instructions from God. This Law, as it became known as, was eventually carried across many lands by the ancient Israelites, and was called the Ark of the Covenant. So the ark is indeed a special “meet God” kind of symbol—a place where God protects and reveals God’s self to humanity.

And the number 40 is of great importance to the Noah story, and to the whole story of the ancient Israelites. Moses was 40 days in conversation with God to receive the Law; the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 days. Goliath kept on strutting his stuff in front of the Israelite army for 40 days until David’s slingshot downed him. Elijah went to Mount Horeb to meet God for 40 days. Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh that they had 40 days to shape up. In the New Testament, Jesus of Nazareth’s time in the wilderness [often referred to as his temptation] lasted 40 days. After Jesus died, the book of Acts states that Jesus appeared to people over a period of 40 days. So you get it. 40 is important. But 40 is not just a number.

In Hebrew, letters have numeric values. The thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet is mem. Here is what it looks like:

Mem has several meanings: waters, people, nations, languages, and tongues. But we also know that the Hebrew word for water is indeed a mem word. So mem is often very closely associated with water. In fact, in its most ancient pictograph form, the letter actually looks like waves of water.[2] 

All this starting to make sense now? The number 40 is the letter mem which means waters. Symbolically, the Torah [the law] also is represented by mem, meaning that the Torah is a sea of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. And mem’s numeric value of 40 is a period of time necessary to bring something to fruition—a time for humans to be in the presence of the Divine in order to find wisdom and understanding. And we keep going back to water, don’t we?

That brings us to the most well-known symbol of the story: the rainbow. The bow of rain in the sky is an ancient symbol that parallels a warrior hanging up his bow and arrow as a sign of the end of war. The rainbow, in the Noah story, has little to do with our Sunday school murals. It is a sign of a battle ending–of the end of destruction and war. The Hebrew word bow in rainbow is indeed the same word for the bow of war. And it is not the most ancient use of this word. In 1928 a huge quantity of Canaanite texts was discovered in a village on the upper Lebanese coast. In one of these texts, hundreds of years older than Genesis, the authors describe the world’s creation, and El, the high God, “hangs his bow in the clouds” after finishing creation—something El could only accomplish after fighting a long, bloody battle with other divine creatures.[3]

Many historical interpretations of the Genesis rainbow point to this symbolism. In the 12th century in Spain, an important Rabbinical work by the Ramban [Nahmandides] teaches that the rainbow is an upside-down bow. The feet of the bow are bent downward to show that the heavenly shooting [rain, in this sense] have ended. And still more insight from the rainbow’s shape: the rainbow, wrote the Rabbi, is a half-picture, lacking a second half to complete the circle of wholeness. God can promise to never destroy humanity, but since humans are completely free to choose, God cannot guarantee that humanity will not destroy itself.[4]

So the rainbow of Genesis is intriguing, to say the least. Creation [animals, plants, earth, and human beings] is given a new beginning by God, a chance to live in harmony as it’s meant to be. But it is also a continuation of the good, in-harmony creation that God started in the first place. The really, really amazing part of the rainbow symbol is that God knows that humans are more than capable of screwing things up and turning harmony into disharmony. We seemed to be inclined to ruin a good thing. We’re meant to love and care for all creation and each other. Instead, we spend way too much time destroying animals, plants and creation. And we build walls of separation between our fellow humans on the planet. We invade, push down, hurt, and even kill. God knows this about us. And yet, in the Noah story, there is an eternal covenant made. It’s not an equal exchange, you see. It’s pure mercy on God’s part. The flood and the whole ark experience don’t make humanity perfect. But God still chooses to call humanity back to harmony and care and love. So God puts a bow up in the sky in spite of what God knows about us.

This spirit of believing in a harmony, wholeness, and peace that isn’t actually real yet has extended the rainbow symbol’s influence into modern-day culture. From the sky to banners and yes, flags—rainbows continue to inspire as symbols of diversity, inclusiveness, hope, and yearning. Years ago, Italy fashioned the peace flag.

 

 

 

 

 

In India, this flag, designed by spiritual teacher Meher Baba in 1924, is still flown during special times of year. The colors in the flag signify humankind’s man’s rise from the grossest of impressions of lust and anger – symbolized by red – to the culmination in the highest state of spirituality and oneness with God – symbolized by sky blue.[5] 

But of course, the world’s best-known version of the rainbow flag is sometimes called the freedom flag.

It became known as a symbol of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community’s diversity, struggles, and pride in 1978. And as the congregation I serve [United Church of Christ in Warminster] found out, though seemingly harmless in nature, a rainbow flag like this one does mean something. Shortly after hanging a United Church of Christ Open and Affirming rainbow flag on the outside of the church building, the flag was stolen. Of course, UCCW is not the only organization, church, or building to have a rainbow flag taken, defaced, or destroyed. Remember what I said about the Noah story in general—it’s not a sanitized, easy message. The symbols point us to a complicated and nuanced relationship between God and all humanity. God knows that we struggle with being good creations. We often resist caring for animals, plants, waters, and skies. We are often quick to judge and slow to include others. Do we put our bows in the sky as if to say, “I’m done with violence and destruction?” We haven’t. Our bows are still raised. All you have to do is open your eyes to notice that.

How could such an inclusive, beautiful, merciful symbol like a rainbow ever be negative or cause such division?

But that’s just it. That’s the Noah story applied to today. God loves; and recreates; and heals what is wounded; and repairs what is broken; and loves when love seems impossible; and God calls ALL of creation together. And God does this, knowing who we are and what we’re capable of. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t make me apathetic or jaded or hopeless. I actually feel more responsible; more connected; more inspired, because God gives us the freedom to bring harmony and mercy to others.

For there are rainbows in the sky and in our communities! There are opportunities to open the circle like a rainbow and invite someone in; there are moments in arks and in the wilderness when we find wholeness and perspective; there are birds that lead the way and offer new hope on the journey; and there are symbols shared by billions, across the planet–symbols like water–that bless, refresh, and heal. God knows us. And we still get the chance to know this merciful God, to know the harmony and balance of creation, to know each other.

The rainbow lacks a second half. It’s not completely whole. God has made the choice to love and recreate and bring together.

What will our choice be? Amen.


[1] The Mission of the Raven, David Marcus, Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

[2] NSW Board of Jewish Education, http://www.bje.org.au/index.html

[3] Opening The Old Testament: God’s Rainbow: Reflections on Genesis 9:8-17, John C. Holbert.

[4] The Ramban, Nahmanides, Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman Girondi, (1194 – 1270), Andalusia, España.

[5] Lord Meher, by Bhau Kalchuri, Manifestation Inc. 1986, p. 618

Rain, Rain, Go Away?

Genesis 7:11-24

I love the rain. I have a lot of rain stories. I’m sure you do, too. I remember the afternoon rains in the summer when I was in Mexico City. The rain fell, and I could see mountains in the distance–clearly from the pedestrian bridge that I walked across on my way to the Mission Church Betél. When it rained, the busy, chaotic city transformed into a busy, chaotic, beautiful, wet mess. Some people hailing microbuses and cabs; others running with umbrellas in hand; some going about their business as if nothing had changed; kids skipped in puddles; students splashed each other and laughed; business men and women hurried to the nearest overhang for shelter. It was a collective halt to life and for me, a moment of Zen—complete peace and pause. The rain made us all stop.

But I have another story. I was in Des Moines, Iowa, just out of high school. The famous, great flood of 1993–the costliest, most devastating flood in U.S. history, according to U.S. Geological Survey. Sec Taylor Stadium, home of the AAA baseball team, the Iowa Cubs, was filled with water. You can see it here.

Floodwaters covered as many as 23 million acres of agricultural and urban lands in the Upper Midwest for weeks. The Des Moines River overflowed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And I went to sandbag. I was able to make it into the northern part of Des Moines with  my parents to help in the great effort to block more water from engulfing the area. For hours we carried and stacked sandbags. Eventually, some official-looking vehicles pulled up. A man emerged from one of them, wearing a baseball hat, just like me. I didn’t expect this, but it was President Bill Clinton, surveying the damage. I admit to you, though, that while the president stood not three feet away from me, I couldn’t help but be more focused on the sandbagging. I was in flood mode. The rain had grabbed my attention, as had all the hard-working people who were giving their time and energy to help others save their homes.

And then, there are other rain stories that others have told me. I am sure some of you have heard stories about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, Louisiana and towns in Mississippi. Perhaps you remember the tsunamis that devastated Indonesia and Japan. And just recently, the storms that ravaged, once again, the island nation of Haiti. We cannot ignore these rain stories, though we may want to. And we cannot ignore the rain story in Genesis—Noah’s story. I want us to think about location, culture, and time. Think about Israel. In the Hebrew Scriptures [OT], Israel is described as the land of milk and honey. But it was not a land flowing with water, actually. The Holy Land was dry. Water was a limited resource. And this is why, in the Bible, we find water playing a central role in the theology of the ancient Israelites. Rain in Israel and Palestine was a sign of God’s covenantal-promise to the people. Like many ancient people of the world, the Israelites looked up into the great sky and hoped and prayed for rain. They were dependent upon the natural resource that proved to be so elusive. Take a look at Deuteronomy 11:13-15:

If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill.[1]

The Israelites were not alone. People around the world throughout history have depended on rain to soak the land in order to grow things for eating. Our context is the Americas. The ancient people of Mesoamerica who lived in these lands also depended on rain, because their way of life hinged on rain-fed agriculture. Thus, they were devoted to pleasing the gods of rain, who were known by many names. The Zapotecs of Oaxaca, Mexico called the rain Cocijo; the Aztecs honored Tlaloc; and the ancient Mayans’ rain god was called Chaac. Here is a carved figure representing Chaac and an artist’s rendition.

Chaac–the god of rain, lightening, and storms–is usually shown holding axes and snakes that he uses to hit the clouds to produce rain.[2] His actions made it possible for the Mayans to grow maize [corn] and other forms of vegetation. They viewed Chaac’s work as part of the natural cycle of life. The Mayans also viewed violent rainstorms, hail, and hurricanes as visual manifestations of Chaac, meant to be seen and respected.

I bring us back to these ancients of Mesoamerica for a reason. Today you and I have trouble recognizing nature’s acts with awe and respect. Possibly it is because we predict the weather with sophisticated machinery and at any moment, you and I can check our cellphone for the latest updates. How will my morning commute be on Monday? Will it rain? I can find out in a second. Rain is more annoying than awe-inspiring, because it messes up our day. The thought about rain soaking the land in order to produce food so we can eat just doesn’t cross our minds. We’re disconnected from rain just as we’re disconnected from the natural order of things. After all, if it doesn’t rain, we can use our hoses or sprinklers to water stuff. Looking up to the heavens and praying, dancing, or singing for rain just doesn’t seem necessary.

And that’s a problem, if we really want to understand the rain theology of the Noah story in Genesis. Even though Jerusalem is far from the Americas, the Israelites also believed, like the Mayans, that there was an other-worldly source of rain. They too prayed for rain. You see, this kind of theology, or way of thinking about God, is much, much different than our modern-day theology. The ancient Israelites and Mayans understood that they could not control the elements of nature. They were fragile. They saw rain as a gift. And they depended on this gift. Rain was a symbol–a sign of God’s covenant promise to care for humanity. This belief is entirely evident throughout the story of the Israelite’s exile. For 40 years [hmmm…40 days and nights in Noah’s story!] they wandered in the wilderness—the desert. They were dependent upon God for life itself. This was part of how the Israelites understood their intimate relationship with the Creator of all things. They were vulnerable; they were humble; they respected nature and their God.

A couple of weeks ago, I had my first experience with a sukkah.

A sukkah is a temporary dwelling place for those of the Jewish faith to retreat to during the high holy days of Sukkot [Feast of Tabernacles], right after Yom Kippur. A sukkah is built with natural things to remind us of our human vulnerability. It is symbolically returning to the desert and a spiritual state of humility and dependency.[3] Why do this? Because of what I said before—we are so disconnected from the natural world and our dependency upon rain, sunshine, air, etc., for life. I sat in the sukkah, made of tree branches and twigs, large leaves and tarps. On that particular day, ironically, it rained for the 2 hours that I sat and conversed there with a colleague. I did feel vulnerable. And my mind wandered to a certain week a few years ago in Hawai’i.

My wife Maria and I were with some youth from the Community Church of Honolulu, staying about a week at the UCC camp facility, near the place where they filmed the TV show Lost and the movie Jurassic Park. Now honestly, in the three years I lived on the island of Oahu, I did not experience much severe weather at all. Unless of course you count that particular week! It started to rain as it usually does in Hawai’i—very nicely in the afternoon for about 15 minutes. And I expected that after the rain, the sun would emerge suddenly and a Noah rainbow would stretch over the sky. But no such luck. It started to downpour. The wind was so strong that the famous “sideways” rain of the islands began and didn’t let up. For nearly an entire week, it rained. We were supposed to be at this camp so we could foster growth of native plants, clean trails, and help with conservation. But we just got wet. And we had no shelter. This camp was rustic—no buildings. Just tents and some tarps slung over wood walls to make a dining hall/slash meeting space. We were constantly outside. And it constantly kept raining.

The nights were treacherous. Thunder. Lightening. Sideways rain. And then, the realization on night #2 that our tents were not going to withstand it all. Water starting dripping inside and then water started seeping in. Our sleeping bags were soaked. We couldn’t sleep. Some of the youth in our group were scared. They yelled from their tent, “What are we going to do?” We had no way of dealing with this—at least not in that moment when it was completely dark and the rain was flying sideways in our faces. So we waited it out. In the morning we hurriedly constructed wooden platforms to place the tents on top of so we could at least be above the soaked ground. It was a helpless feeling. We had to no place to which to run. Nature was attacking us, we felt. Clothes were soaked. Shoes filled with mud and grass. Spirits were low. Frustrations and exhaustion were high. We were vulnerable.

Perhaps that is what rain theology is all about—no, not necessarily staying in tents for a week during a torrential downpour or wearing wet clothes for a week. But rain theology is all about being vulnerable—understanding that nature and God and life in general are really beyond our control. Maybe we’re meant to wander in the desert for a bit; or stay in an ark while the waters rise; or sit in a sukkah; or sandbag in a city. Maybe we all need to be shut in and shut down for a moment so we stop what we’re doing and consider how we’re living. I think the Noah story is more about reflecting on our lives and reconnecting with creation. So it’s sad that this story continues to be hijacked by lots of people. There is some awful rain theology out there—the idea that God is a destroyer of people and a saver of only the “good” people, whoever we define them as. Some even say that events like Hurricane Katrina or the tsunamis of Indonesia and Japan are signs of God’s wrath. Ironically, the Jesus they claim to believe in once said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.[4]

Friends, rain is a metaphor for God’s mercy and grace. God sends rain—not to kill or punish, but to restore and provide sustenance. As the Psalmist writes: You sent abundant rain, O God, to refresh the weary land.[5] You and I are meant to be refreshed, too. So notice the rain. Embrace it. Be vulnerable. Stop. Pause. Be refreshed. Refocus and gain new perspective. Discover new ways to love people and to stand up for justice. Let the rain wash over you; let the rain heal the land and heal you; let the rain be a blessing. Amen.


[1] New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Sharer, Robert J., and Loa P. Traxler, 2006, The Ancient Maya. Sixth Edition, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.

[3] Rabbi Lauren Berkun, SE director of educational initiatives, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.

[4] Matthew 5:43-45, NIV

[5] Psalm 68:9, NLT

Bill Cosby Is RIGHT!

Genesis 6:5-22       Right?!

Yes, that is the famous comedian, Bill Cosby, doing one of his earliest and most well-known routines, Noah. That was part one of his routine which portrays the Genesis story in a more honest way. And for those of you who did not get the Candid Camera reference [very old school], just think about the Jamie Kennedy experience or Ashton Kutcher’s Punked. Listen, I really appreciate Bill Cosby’s treatment of a story that we often find painted on Sunday school or nursery walls. What we see on those walls or in kid’s books is only a cartoony end to the story: the rainbow with smiling animals and humans. And yet, the majority of the Noah story is about a flood—a deluge that destroys everything and everyone because the God character isn’t pleased. It’s genocide in extreme form–horrific and quite contradictory to the God who just earlier in Genesis called everything good.

A couple of weeks ago I was carpooling with some of my fellow actors, on our way to perform in a show, and someone brought up the recent finding of an Egyptian Coptic writing referring to Jesus of Nazareth having a wife. Is it real, some were asking. Does it matter, others were saying. And that led to a conversation about Noah and the ark’s existence. This story is one that many people know. And still today there are people looking for that ark and they are not named Indiana Jones. You don’t have to identify as a Christian to know about this story and rightly so, because Jews and Muslims share it, too. And so do those of the Baha’i faith. Agnostics and Atheists are well-aware. And one big reason why is because Noah’s story looks a lot like a story in The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is a heroic poem much like Homer’s Odyssey. Written on clay tablets, it is known to be one of the oldest works of literature in the world—compiled by ancient authors anonymously—written as early as 2700 BCE and no later than 600 BCE. The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in what is modern-day Iraq in Sumerian languages like Akkadian, Hurrian, and Hittite.[1] It was actually discovered in the mid-nineteenth century in the ruins of the great library at Nineveh. One just cannot over-emphasize this work’s importance in our historical understanding of ancient religious texts [like the Bible].

There are various parts of Gilgamesh that almost directly parallel parts of the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures of the Bible. One such parallel exists in Tablet I of Gilgamesh, when the character Gilgamesh is described as part mortal and part god, just like the description in Genesis 6 of the nephilim, semi-divine beings often translated as sons of god. Look at Genesis 6:4, one verse earlier from where we began today: The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown {NRSV}. We tend to skip over these obscure, strange parts of the Bible, but they are there for a reason. This verse leads into Noah and the whole flood situation.

Both Genesis 6 and the Epic of Gilgamesh tell us that humans became like gods, semi-divine. Their arrogance led to a conflict with the creator gods—Elohim in Hebrew tradition, Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea in the Babylonian tradition. Noah’s flood story parallels much of the Babylonian story on Tablet 11 of the Gilgamesh Epic. The god of the Bible and the gods of Gilgamesh are not happy with humanity. The gods decide to destroy the earth by way of flood. In Genesis, of course, Noah is the character chosen to survive and has a conversation with God. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the god Ea warns the character Utnapishtimin in a dream. Both Utnapishtim and Noah are instructed to build a boat, sealed by pitch and multi-leveled. The boats were to be loaded with a few other humans and samples from species of other land animals. A great rain covered the land with water. The boats eventually landed on a mountain in the Middle East. Both hero characters sent out birds at regular intervals to find if any dry land was near. The first two birds returned to the ark. The third bird apparently found dry land because it did not return. The heroes left the ark, ritually killed an animal and offered it as a sacrifice. God (or the gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh) smelled the roasted sacrifice; the heroes were blessed. In the end, the Babylonian gods of Gilgamesh seem genuinely sorry for the genocide that they had created. The God of Noah appears to have regretted his actions as well, because he promises never to do it again. [2] 

I don’t draw this comparison to lessen the story in Genesis. But I’m being honest about how   flood stories are quite universal in the ancient world. If we decide to paint Noah and the ark on SS walls and read picture books about it to our children, we better understand that these stories are uniquely shared. Because frankly, just like with the Genesis creation stories, we U.S. Christians have a strong tendency to ignore the rich history, literary structure, culture, and language of the Biblical Noah story. This leads to all sorts of problems. Historically, it has led to genocide—based on thinking that natural disasters happen because God is mad and therefore punishes certain kinds of wicked people. It can lead to people assuming that they are the Noah hero characters saved by God, chosen to survive in an ark, while others are doomed to destruction.

Some of you might be wondering: Wow. Well, if Noah and the ark is not a TRUE story, then the Bible is just one big book of lies. Why care? Why meditate on it? Why read it at all? Or, on the other side: Wow. You are totally trashing faith in our Bible reading. The Bible is God’s Word. So this story has to be true. Why do you say these things, crazy preacher guy? Understand that the Bible is a sacred book to me. Its message gives life, encouragement, wisdom, and perspective. The Bible challenges me. But I really don’t care if the Noah story in Genesis was copied from an earlier Babylonian story or not. I actually think it’s quite cool that we can look at Gilgamesh and Noah on the same Sunday morning. I actually embrace the idea of faith involving the use of our brains and critical thinking. I even argue that the brain and the heart are harmoniously tied together. And friends, it matters how we look at the Bible and its stories. It matters how seriously we look at archeological discoveries, literary findings, clay and stone tablets, scrolls and cave drawings. All of these ancient stories matter. They matter as they inform our stories today.

That’s why I think Bill Cosby got it right. He treated this story as less of a sacred cow we have to tiptoe around and more as a metaphor for humanity’s confusing, crazy relationship with God and with itself. What would you do if you heard voices coming out of the sky; how would you react if out of nowhere some god told you to drop everything in your life and do something insane that made no sense? You don’t have to be a religious person to empathize–it’s crazy! Who me? What? Build an ark? Right! What’s a cubit? A flood? Right!  Who is this really? In an imperfect, broken world–an imperfect, broken character encounters the confusion of being called to do something insane by a god he does not see. Right!?

So Cosby helps me see the story as it is. Sometimes the chaos and uncertainty of the world so overwhelms me that I want to find a boat to jump in. Daily I look around me and see genocide, violence, destruction, and pain. I resonate with God’s sadness because I’m sad, too. I long for a world in which everyone has access to clean water, fertile soil, and clean air. I long for a world that doesn’t destroy habitats or ecosystems or steal the lands of native peoples in the name of so-called industrial progress. I long for a world that sees everyone as equally human—regardless of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or whatever. I want to live in a world full of people who care less about Big Bird politics and selfish agendas; I long to share this planet with people who care more about human needs and human dignity. So I understand the sadness of God.

But our tendency is to focus more on God’s anger and vengeance, rather than God’s sadness. We see the ark and the flood as punishment. But in fact, it is God’s grief that wells up out of love for the good creation in the Noah story. This is what bewilders us and makes us say sarcastically: Right! God’s love for creation far exceeds our comprehension. Just think about the story. God creates all things good. It’s in harmony—all of it. And then we destroy; we hate; we kill; we abuse; we separate; we forget who we are and where we come from. Creation is broken and wounded. God, as great creator-parent, is saddened by such a turn of events. In this sense, the flood is a metaphor–not of destruction–but of tears.

Friends, so often we are disconnected from our creative selves and where we come from. The Genesis creation stories remind us that we come from the earth and are made to care for it. But we also have the invitation, all through the Bible, to join the still-caring God in becoming caretakers of each other. But we won’t care for creation and each other if we keep running around aimlessly, getting lost, obsessing over money, worrying about unimportant things, isolating ourselves from others, and shirking our responsibilities to care. Like Noah, we’re going to have to hear a still-speaking God interrupt our lives. And this God will ask us to do insane things: Love our neighbor? Serve the poor? Accept everyone as they are? Forgive? Tolerate? Embrace those who are different? Stand up against injustice and hate when no one else does? Believe that the sad beginning to the story can still have a hopeful and reconciling end? Right!? Who is this really? What’s a cubit?

The good news, friends, is that even though God may grieve over the ways we destroy a good creation, this God continues to be gardener, planter, and cultivator of good. I like the way Norman Wirzba, research professor of theology, ecology, and rural life at Duke Divinity School, puts it:

But God continues to dig and plant, water and weed. The good news is that he takes the refuse of our mistakes, sloth and belligerence and turns them into compost that can fertilize his garden kingdom of life. When we take flight from the garden, shirk our gardening responsibilities, God remains faithful and merciful, hands in the dirt, delighting in a world made delectable and beautiful, always inviting us to join him in the gardening work that heals and sustains the world.[3]

Yes, this Noah story starts out quite awfully, but the story is meant to be read from beginning to end. So stand with Noah and recognize how easy it is for us to blame God for all the destruction that we cause—yes, that we cause. Recognize that we have a responsibility to care for creation. Stop what you’re doing. Pause a moment. Build something. Invite in and bring people and good creation together. Forgive. Reconcile. Right! Embrace the story that doesn’t end with a flood. Embrace the story that continues in our stories and in the stories of others. Enter into honest, real relationship with your Creator and recognize your ability to love, build, and include. To be continued…Amen.

 

 


[1] trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh, N. K. Sandars. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1972.

[2] The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh, Frank Lorey, M.A., Institute for Creation Research.

[3] Norman Wirzba, The gardening way of God’s keeping, Faith and Leadership.

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