“By the first day of the first month of Noah’s six hundred and first year, the water had dried up from the earth. Noah then removed the covering from the ark and saw that the surface of the ground was dry.” Genesis 8:13
This morning was not the first time I committed the irreverence of rolling my eyes at my Bible reading. I grew up in the sort of Christian community in which the Bible’s magic was often told in dramatic testimonies: stories of people just opening up to a random page, and then God’s Word for them that day miraculously spoke out.
I am not dismissive of the treasures to find in the Bible, but my relationship has often been more of a miner. History and language are my geology, teaching me where to dig and what to look for and how to interpret what I find. The interventions of the Holy Spirit leading me exactly what I need today are something I religiously believe are possible, but which I viscerally hold a sceptical distance.
So my Bible reading began today with Noah celebrating his 601st birthday. Oh how very relatable. And so the, “Well, this ancient text isn’t gonna be for me” eye roll commenced.
Relability is a strange moving target, an ideal that borders on idolatry in youth minister circles, I’ll confess, where I have more than once found myself in conferences surrounded by men ten years older than me whose hobbies and musical tastes and sartorial sense were frozen in 1998. “Gotta relate to the young people.”
But this absurdity goes beyond. In pop culture, we strive to connect, too. For ten years now, we are often asked a question on Top 40 radio. “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?” Katy Perry’s introducing question to her affirmation hit song “Firework” is a homelitician’s nightmare. Do you ever ask a witty opening rhetorical question to a parish of blank stares? I don’t know that I have ever felt like a plastic bag, but I have felt like Katy Perry, fumbling through an awkward failed-to-connect introduction into trying to make someone else see that they’re a gorgeous God-reflecting firework. That is more my youth ministry experience than proving Jesus is cool through my sick skateboard moves. (My athletic attempts are not how Thomas Aquinas would convince anyone of the existence of a wise Creator.)
Ah yes, is my own point about awkward and rambling introductions that don’t seem relatable some kind of meta technique? Let’s talk about Noah’s birthday.
Noah was 601. Despite claims of my own children, our children’s church, my own daughters, and a few particularly sassy undergraduates, I am not. As the peasant said to King Arthur in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, “I’m 37, I’m not old.”
But lately I have been feeling six hundred and one.
If not old, then at least unduly weary. And I am watching the wave of weariness. That too, while not usually fatal, is proliferating. Children are not at all immune from this. It is an ordinary experience of maturing to slowly realise the adults you held in your mind as omniscient are indeed fallible and confused, too. But never have we had a whole generation of kids learn at the same time that the adults do not know what is happening or what to do. Their teachers do not know when school will start. The premier does not know when it will be safe. Their parents do not know what to say.
Like Covid-19 itself, the weariness we are feeling can infect us all, but its consequences and severity are not equal. The flood we face is both universal and unfair. Some people can swim. Some people have boats. Some people have life jackets. It has broken my heart to see how our current crisis is a great amplifier of all the injustices we had back in the simpler times of early March. It has always been advantageous to have a big house with a backyard, or to be in the prime of life, or to be in good health, or to have a flexible and stable employer, or to be in a country with modern and accessible medical care, or to live with others who love you and with whom you are, in every sense, safe. It is a fact in our community that we have a full range of safety and vulnerability, and that most of us probably would look at the list I just shared and see in ourselves a mix of those risks and privileges.
But this is amplified now. It’s good rhetoric to say we’re all in this together. We are all in the same flood. But we need to admit we are not all in the same arks. And that is why in the face of the same flood we are not all experiencing the same things. I remember a very old Sesame Street book,We Are All Different, We Are All the Same. (My sincere belief it was a better theology text than some of the Doctors of the Church have written is how I got into the speciality I chose.)
So here we all are, feeling like we have been on our arks quite long enough, but knowing that the ark is life and safety, for ourselves and others. The ground outside is mud. Floods are simple. Dry land is simple. This is a mess. Our public health officials and our government leaders are telling us “there is a dry patch here, but it’s wet here.” It’s safe for you, but only if you wear this, but not safe for you, even if you wear this. The messages are conflicting. We are on arks stuck in mud.
I want to be like Noah and get off the ark onto dry land. I want to see the rainbow. I don’t want a rainbow in my window saying Ça va bien aller. I want a rainbow in the sky and to shout, oui, ça bien. I want to know it’s over.
It is not. So, meanwhile, look at your ark. Look at other arks stuck in the mud. Send some doves with branches of peace and love and sourdough starter. Be honest about what you can do to make your ark better for the next storm. Spiritual rearranging of furniture, so to speak. Ask why your neighbours’ arks are in disrepair. God knows, for God has heard my very strongly worded prayers on the topic, that I don’t want to have another pandemic like this again. But I don’t control that.
I only control what I do to keep those I love safe, and how I work towards health and safety being justly and fairly accessible for all. I believe in and will fight for a guaranteed universal basic ark policy. When I prayed God end this and let me on dry land, God opened my Bible to a seemingly unrelatable verse about 601-year-old man and provoked me to think about arks for a few pages. Well played, Holy Spirit. I repent of rolling my eyes. I need those eyes to find some dry land soon.
–Jean Daniel O’Donncada
Image credit: J.M.W. Turner, “Waves Breaking Against the Wind,” Tate Gallery