Dear Grace Family,
I’m sitting on my Mother’s porch which overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains in Tennessee before my family wakes up and thinking of you. I hope you will or have taken some time for rest and fun this summer too.
If you are around during the third week of August I hope you’ll spend as much time as you can with your Grace Church family. Our brothers Sean and Victor will be visiting with us from the Episcopal Diocese of Panama, there will be evening Vacation Bible School Monday through Friday for kids and adults, a cook out at Rosemary’s and my house and a Latin American themed farewell party the night before Victor and Sean go home. Please see the details below and sign up at coffee hour this Sunday. And speaking of this Sunday, Henry Faulkner is preaching. Lucky you!
I wrote the following piece last year about Noah for a gathering Temple Beth El. It has to do with our bitter sweet connection to this beautiful world and it seems like a good reflection for the summer as many of us try to set aside time to get re-connected to nature, whether that time is spent hiking or laying under a poplar tree in Van Vorst Park. I hope you enjoy it.
See you next Sunday!
And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. 2 The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. –Genesis 9:1-2
Once on a weekend vacation in the Poconos, my wife Rosemary and I had just pulled into the driveway of our friend’s lake house with a few bags of groceries. I was engrossed in telling her a story while reaching into the trunk; so engrossed that I didn’t hear the preternaturally calm way she was softly repeating my name. Rosemary only uses this tone of voice to break the news about family members being diagnosed with life threatening diseases or impending natural disasters, so when I finally heard, my heart stood still as I asked her:
“There’s a bear beside you.”
“There’s a bear beside you. Keep calm.”
I turned my head slowly to the left and there he was; about four hundred pounds of black bear, looking back at me with innocent, brown eyes, twitching his tiny, teddy bear ears, scrunching his nose. His shiny, black fur was almost blue at the tips in the noon day sun and he was panting. It was a very dry summer and while I wondered if he would momentarily rip my arm off I also wondered if he was thirsty. He sat down in his spot, almost as if to say, “Don’t worry neighbor! I’m not going to bite!”
I asked Rosemary in the same, calm, cancer-tone what we should do. She recommended walking slowly to the house, which is what we did. By the time we closed the door and dashed to the window to look outside again the bear was gone.
I was sorry he left. I wished, from the safety of the living room, that I could have thrown my arms around his neck and touched his velvety ears. I imagined he must have smelled like pine needles. I wished Rose and I could have brought him buckets of water, made him twenty ham sandwiches and a chocolate cake. But we couldn’t be friends or neighbors with a black bear, even for the weekend. As dangerous as bears are to people, people are more dangerous to bears. The best we could hope for was that that bear would be more afraid of people than he evidently was and run as fast as he could, as far into whatever woods were left to him, away from us.
In the first chapter of Genesis, God gives the Creation into the man and woman’s care and tells them to subdue and have dominion over it- to love it with their hearts and tend to it with their hands. By chapter 6 of Genesis, God can no longer willfully ignore the sin we have unleashed on the earth instead. And as we know all too well, our sins against the creation are like a cancer, multiplying cells, invading everything God called “good”.
So in verse 6 of chapter 6 in Genesis, God cries. I think God must have cried the way a child cries when a jealous peer tears up a beautiful picture she has painted or the way some of us cried when a mad man came after the Pieta with a sledge hammer.
Chapter 6 of Genesis is when even God finds out what profound loss is like. Following Kubler Ross’s stages of grief, God is angry. He says he’s sorry that he made the creation and us to begin with. He tells Noah, who knows enough not to say anything back, to build the ark and to load it with a male and female of every animal. When Noah finishes, God slams the ark shut and allows the waters of chaos to consume the world.
At the end of the flood narrative God comes to acceptance. He decides he would rather live with our sins than without us. God puts the world back into our care, but before he does, he turns to all of the animals he has made- to the black bears, the polar bears, the bald eagles, the squirrels, the buffalos and butterflies- and God says to them “Be afraid of human beings. When you see them run away.”
This is why it was so easy for Noah to get the animals on the ark to begin with. Noah didn’t have to catch them because God hadn’t told the animals to be afraid of us yet. Noah called, they came. Maybe when the black bears arrived in front of the ark Noah did touch their little velvet ears and wrap his arms around their pine needle scented necks.
One thing is for sure- before the bottom of the ark got snagged on the top of Mount Arafat, when Noah released the dove for a third time searching for dry land and it flew away forever, Noah didn’t know that the moment he let the dove go from the window of the ark, was almost the last moment before God told the animals to be afraid.
We live in paradise but we are outsiders to paradise by our choices. God stays with us. God loves us no matter what. But something is broken.The flood narrative records it.
Here’s a poem about the moment before that brokenness.
In a flurry of fingers and wings
a tender thing departs from the breast
of an old man, across a deepness
that is something more than sea,
and as she does, the weight of all
animals shifts beneath his feet.
Can he know that the message of olive
leaves is bitter-sweet?
Can he know ? Does he pray?
Does he reach up at the undertow
of the sky, to catch the last white
pinion of a fallen paradise?