How long, O Lord?
How much longer, O Lord?
How much longer until we can leave our houses and go back to our jobs and resume worshipping together in person? How much longer until we get a paycheck or a stimulus check or an unemployment check to help us pay the bills? How much longer until we can feel safe again? When will we be able to hug our friends and visit our loved ones and sing with the choir and swim at the health club and get our hair cut and row on the river?
When can we leave this stinky ark?
Apparently there is a human inclination, whenever a difficult situation feels interminable, to count the hours and days and weeks and months. It’s as if we need to justify our impatience, to measure our frustration, to catalog our suffering, to remember what we endured, to be able to hold on tightly to something–even if it’s just a number. Or maybe the counting just helps us keep track of time when the days and weeks all run together.
Did you notice all the numbers in the story of Noah’s ark? Most of us were taught that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, which seems more than long enough. But it turns out, according to the story, that Noah and his family and the animals–two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life–were stuck on that big boat a whole lot longer than that.
After the rain stopped, the floodwaters kept rising for one hundred fifty days. Then it took another one hundred fifty days for the waters to recede enough for Noah and his family to be able to see the tops of the mountains. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s more than 10 months of living on a big boat with no WiFi, no Netflix, no hiking trails, no trips to the grocery store, no garbage pickup, and no escape.
Kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?
I’ve never spent much time thinking about what all those days and weeks and months on the ark would have been like for Noah and his three sons, their unnamed wives, and the giraffes and the gerbils, the wildebeests and the wolves, the lions and the llamas.
But now, as most of us begin our ninth or tenth week of coronavirus pandemic lockdown, I’m beginning to feel some kinship with Noah and Company. Now, as we worship from our own arks for the ninth consecutive Sunday and expect to continuing doing so for at least several more, perhaps we can learn a few things from their story.
The ark was a safe place in a dangerous world. Now I’m sure it got old, after a while, and we can certainly imagine that life onboard was loud and smelly, cramped and confining. But the ark kept Noah and his passengers safe and dry and secure, and I’m guessing they thanked God for it several times a day.
I wonder if we who have our own living spaces, we who have sufficient financial resources to get us through this time, are just as grateful. Sure, those four walls might be starting to feel a little confining, but what a gift they are. To have a warm place of our own to lie down, food to eat, a roof to keep off the rain and sun and snow (in May?!?) is always to be blessed. But now? When the virus is raging through nursing homes and prisons, when people who don’t have homes are even more vulnerable than usual, our homes and apartments and condos are arks carrying us safely through a deadly storm. Now, when more than 20 million Americans–including many of our neighbors–have lost jobs because of the pandemic, our paychecks and pensions, Social Security and unemployment and other sources of income are lifelines keeping us afloat.
Thanks be to God.
But when the storm finally subsides–when the waters begin to recede and the coronavirus curve begins to bend–the yearning to get out, the demand to re-open, the need to re-engage with the world and go back to business as usual can all but consume us. I understand that. I can imagine Noah’s sons and their wives just itching to open the hatch, put out the gangplank, feel the fresh air on their faces, and run out into the new world.
Now, I don’t have to imagine those feelings of impatience and irritability, frustration and desperation. I see them in armed men storming state capitols to demand a re-opening of the economy. I see them in Trump supporters on the Calvin Coolidge Bridge holding signs declaring the pandemic a hoax. I read about them in a letter from some church pastors to Governor Baker demanding that they be allowed to open their churches. And I hear them when I call you to check in and more and more of you are saying, "I am getting really tired of this."
I understand. I’m right there with you.
And even though I know you will not do anything rash or irresponsible, even though most of us are coming to understand that physical distancing will have to continue for quite some time, I feel and share your grief, your longings, your anxiety, and your loneliness. And beneath our existential "how long" questions, I hear important practical and strategic questions: How will we know when it’s safe to begin re-opening? How will we decide when it’s okay to come back to church? What will that look like? How will it go?
Again, I wonder if Noah’s story might be both instructive and comforting. You see, he didn’t just open up the ark when he felt like it. He didn’t give in to his sons’ nagging or his family’s disapproval. Instead, he relied on the ancient equivalent of science to determine when it would be safe to leave the ark.
First, Noah sent a raven to check things out, and it came back pretty quickly. Then he sent out a dove, but it also returned, which seemed to indicate that there was no place for it to land. So Noah waited seven days, and then sent the dove out again. This time the dove returned carrying an olive leaf in its beak–a very, very good sign. I can imagine Noah’s family insisting that they leave right then. Instead, Noah waited another seven days before sending the dove out again; this time, it did not return.
It was only then that Noah removed the covering of the ark and saw for himself that the floodwaters had receded. And still the family waited, until the ground was dry. And still they waited, this time for a word from God. And when it came, and only then, did Noah and his wife and his sons and their wives leave the ark, and every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moved upon the earth, went out of the ark by families.
Thanks be to God, science has come a long way since the days of Noah and his dove. We have masks and PPE, plexiglass and disinfectants. We have virus test kits and the reporting of cases, contact tracing and antibody tests. We have frontline workers saving lives and keeping things running, laboratory scientists researching treatments, developing vaccines and new monitoring tools–why, scientists in the Netherlands who have been tracking the coronavirus in sewer systems found that virus genes showed up in Amsterdam’s wastewater six days before the first case was reported. And if wastewater can tell us when the virus is coming, it could also tell us when it has gone.
Here at home, there are new guidelines being developed almost daily–by public health officials, local and state governments, school systems and even the Southern New England Conference of the UCC. At First Church, we’re putting together a ministry team of knowledgeable members who will address safety concerns and make recommendations about when and how we can begin to re-open and gather in small groups.
In the meantime, we will stay in our respective arks, apart but together in the Spirit and on YouTube and Zoom, by telephone and mail and appropriately distanced walks and conversation. We will grieve together andmove forward together, imagining a new world that is not only more safe but also more just, more peaceful, more compassionate, more loving, and better for the environment. And by God’s grace we will co-create new and exciting ways of being the church–loving God, our neighbors, one another, and ourselves. Together.
Until then, and always, we will ground ourselves in God’s faithfulness, heighten our awareness of God’s presence with us, and rejoice in glorious representations of God’s goodness–rainbows and doves, children and grandchildren, friends and families of all kinds, music and nature, arks and sanctuaries in many forms, and so much more.
And someday soon we will come together to praise the God who brought us through the storm. Someday soon.