How Long Can You Tread Water?Posted: September 16, 2011
“Hey! You up there!”
“What do you want?”
“What is this?”
“It’s an Ark.”
“Aha. You wanna get it outta my driveway? I gotta get to work. Listen, what’s this thing for anyway?”
“I can’t tell you. Hahahahaha!”
“Well, I mean can’t you give me a little hint?”
“You wanna a hint?”
“How long can you tread water? Hahahah!”
The Story of Noah is often treated as a children’s story with all the animals two by two, but then when we tell the story to children, we skip the part after the door of the ark had been shut and sealed, and people were frantically beating on the door of the ark to try to get in. The image of god in the story is judgmental and vindictive. I like the way Bill Cosby handled that part of the narrative, “how long can you tread water?” Laughter in story telling covers a multitude of sins.
There are multiple levels of possible meaning in the Story of Noah. One meaning that showed up on the Bible Study page was the care of God to supply everything needed for rebuilding the world. God asked Noah to build the ark and then to bring on board two of every living creature and all plants needed for food. Someone asked the question what would you bring on the ark? Some of the suggestions were: something sustainable, a mobius strip, the Energizer Bunny, a Kindle, a solar powered charger, a sprig of rosemary. It is a good question to ask. What things are so important they should be preserved? Sometimes even today, people have to make those kinds of decisions like when the river is rising fast in a flash flood, or when there is fire in the middle of the night. Maybe the Noah Story contains some deep truth about the human race. Most of the time when there is a house fire, we save the other people first then the pets.
The Noah Story should also remind us to take special care of endangered species. Think of the earth as an ark and we are charge with the responsibility to preserve all animals. Once a species disappears we may never be able to reclaim it again. And we can’t always predict how important a particular animal can be in maintaining the balance of nature. As much as we joke about not bringing the mosquito on board the Ark, some bird species eat their weight in mosquitoes every day to survive.
Another important meaning that emerged in our study came from Kay Campbell who pointed out that God enlisted the cooperation of humans in order to save what was good in the world. “Like God can’t (or won’t, as Bishop Tutu puts it) do it alone.” Like the point Maxie Dunam makes when he says, “there are some things God cannot or will not do until people pray.” God either can’t or won’t save our environment until humans cooperate. Maybe God can’t or won’t bring peace until humans cooperate. We need to take seriously our need to cooperate with God in repairing the world – tinkum olam.
It reminds me of the story of the young man who went in search of the Messiah and Rabbi Akiba tells him to go look at the City Gate. When the young man arrives at the City Gate he sees all the beggars there, the sick, the lame, the blind. Finally he notices one of the beggars who seems to be trying to help some of the others, so the young man asks this beggar if he has seen the Messiah. The beggar pulls himself up and says, “I am the Messiah.”
The young man is taken aback, and he says, “well if you are the Messiah why aren’t you healing the sick, and feeding the hungry, and stopping wars? What are you waiting for?
The Messiah looks at the young man and says, “I wait for you!”
I think Jesus is saying to each one of us, “I wait for you! There are some things I cannot or will not do, until you answer the call of discipleship.”
Another level of meaning in the Noah Story is god deciding to have a “do over.” Remember playing as kids, sometimes during games after a really bad move or a bad shot, someone would ask for a “do over?” There are some golf tournaments that have built in the concept of a “do over,” they call it a “mulligan.” You can find it in Wikipedia. Charity golf tournaments will sell “mulligans” as a way of raising extra money – sort of like the medieval church’s practice of selling indulgences. Sometimes if the second shot is worse than the first, they call it a “Finnegan.”
In the Noah Story and the chapters that follow it looks like god got a “Finnegan.” God blotted out human kind except for Noah and his family. God then put a rainbow in the sky and said let’s do over, and look what we got – mess.
I think there is a cautionary tale about regret in the Noah Story. God regretted having created the humans, so god wanted a “do over.” But after wiping out all the humans except Noah’s family, and all the animals except those on the ark, God regrets: “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
Regret can be a terrible burden. Worrying over what we have done, and wanting a “do over” can paralyze us. “Do overs” seldom work out well. We’re more likely to get a “Finnegan,” rather than a hole in one. We need to learn to pray ahead of time, act boldly relying upon God’s grace, and then be at peace with what we have done. What’s done is done. We cannot change the past, we can only choose to act differently in the future. Regret, like guilt serves a useful function for the first hour or so, after that regret like guilt is an indulgence we can ill afford. Too often regret is over the fact we got caught, not because we are truly sorry for what we did.
If I had known it was going to work out this badly I wouldn’t have done it. Jesus Christ offers us the grace of God’s forgiveness so we don’t become bogged down in regret or guilt, but we can keep moving ahead bringing love, forgiveness and grace to others.
One more thread of meaning I would like to follow up, and allow me to return for two minutes to Bill Cosby’s version of the Noah Story.
‘Course Noah had a heck of a job really. He had to go out and collect all the animals in the world, by two’s: Two mosquitoes, male and female. And he had to keep telling the rabbits only two, only two, only two.
So we find Noah pulling up the last two animals two hippos and he’s really in a hurry to get ‘em up because he’s afraid that the Lord’s gonna call him and ask him to do something else and his nerves are shot. This is one heck of a job for a man 600 years old. So we find him pulling up the two last hippos, and of course the Lord does call him there.
“Com’on fat hippos hurry up. Com’on will you please?”
“What? What you want?”
“Gotta take one of those hippos out, and bring in another one.”
“‘Cause you got two males down there and you need to bring in a female.”
“I’m not bringin’ nothin’ in, you change one of em.'”
“Com’on you know I don’t work like that.”
“Well I’m sick and tired of this I’ve had enough of this stuff. I’ve been working all day, working on it for days and days and I’m sick and tired of this!”
“How long can you tread water?”
“Yeah, well I got news for you, I’m sick and tired of this whole mess. The whole neigborhood’s out there laughing at me. They’re all having a grand time. Look at good old Noah there. I went out there to my best friend Larry. I’ve been talking to the Lord, Larry.
“Larry said, ‘Oh, really?’
“Yeah, yeah, Lord, Larry, Larry, Lord.”
He walked off laughing. And I hear ’em all laughing at me.
You know I’m the only guy in this neighborhood with an Ark? People around here laughing, picket signs walking up and down, I’m sick and tired of this stuff here. You let me go out there and do all this stuff here. You never even looked in the bottom of that Ark. Have you looked down there? No? Who’s gonna clean up that mess down there? I tell you I’ve had enough of this stuff. I tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m letting all these animals out and I’m gonna burn down this Ark, and I’m going to Florida somewhere ‘cause you haven’t done nothing.’ I’m sick and tired of all this mess. You foolin’ around.
And you haven’t done nothing!
(Sound of Thunder)
And you got it rainin.’ It’s not a shower is it? Ok Lord me and you right? ‘Cause I knew it all the time.
How often, when we answer God’s call to service, if the going gets rough, or the service proves more demanding or inconvenient than we want, do we start to complain? And whenever God asks us to do something there will always be a stubborn hippopotamus. And we do complain, if God asks us to clean out the bottom of the Ark. Why me Lord? We complain right up until the time the rain starts, and then it’s you and me Lord. We complain loudly about what God asks us to do – tithe, invite people to come to church with us, serve on a board or committee, teach Sunday School, come to work day, clean up after the tornado, host mission volunteers.
We complain loud and long over what God asks of us, and some us even resent it so much, we don’t do it. We refuse. We put our hands over our ears and chant loudly: “la, la, la, la ,la, la.” We tell God to take a hike.
How do we know when it is God calling? God usually asks us to do something we don’t want to do. Something hard like forgiving an enemy, extending hospitality to someone we don’t approve of, inviting someone to dinner we don’t like, taking time or money away from our own people in order to do for those people we don’t like, or of whom we are afraid. God asks us to do things we don’t necessarily want to do.
When the chips are down, however, when we’re in trouble, or we’re sick, or our kid is in trouble, or when we are in the valley of the shadow of death, we want to be able to say: “you and me Lord, you and me all the way. And when we’re in trouble we need faith, we need to be able to trust that God is with us, and if we tread water long enough, there will be a rainbow. Trust in the God of the rainbow.
How long can you tread water?