Somewhere Over the Rainbow
There are some texts in the Bible that disturb me.
For example, there is this one story in the book of Judges where this guy is being accosted by these men who want to do vile things to him and he gives them his concubine (sort of a slave with "benefits") and they rape her all night long. She dies as a result, and the guy cuts her into twelve pieces and then sends the twelve pieces of his dead concubine to all of the tribes in protest.
Find some meaningful life lessons in that.
I don't always know the meaning of some of the texts that I read in the Bible, and I've been at this Christian thing for a while. It must really be a bummer for people who are just entering the story and trying to figure it all out when they latch on to a Biblical passage like the one I just mentioned.
Or even a more "main stream" kind of story like Noah, the Ark and the Great Flood, which has its own issues that we usually gloss over because it's just so darned familiar.
I don't want to begin some sort of treatise on how to determine between something that is"factual" and something that is "true," here. Nor will I venture into the whole argument of whether or not the Bible is "inerrant" and "infallible," or something altogether different and mysterious like "inspired." There have been countless trees felled and ink spilled to create the tomes that contain those arguments, and frankly... I am just not that smart.
I will say that if we focus our interpretations of stories like Noah and the Ark---or even the horribly violent story of the divided concubine---completely on the surface, we do them a disservice, and, quite frankly, veer sharply away from even their original intent.
So, if I get completely hung up on the idea that God seems to be ticked off in Genesis 6 and decides to flood the whole earth to kill everyone but a few people... I run the risk of making one point and missing what could be the main point altogether. Then again, to borrow from Brian McClaren and Tony Campolo's book, part of this whole faith journey when it comes to being a Christ-follower is a series of "Adventures in Missing the Point."
And the real point of this story---at least in my mind is not destruction, but redemption. I mean, the narrative in Genesis 6 is pretty straightforward about how bad things here on earth must seem to a holy God. We all get that part. Evil, sin---what the Genesis account defines as "wickedness"--is all around us. And the Genesis narratives capture that in full. God, who is completely holy, abhors, is grieved, is even angered by the evil and the sin that exists in God's Creation. God is so just, in fact, that the very essence of God cannot abide the existence of sin, the presence of evil. According to the Genesis account, God decides to give that which is evil what it so richly deserves: justice--a reckoning.
The picture that I have posted on this blog is of a street preacher in the sleepy little town of Eustis, FL where I happen to be a pastor. This was taken outside of a huge community event that our city holds each year to commemorate George Washington's birthday. Hey, before you hate... It's a small town, and we've been doing it for 107 years. At any rate, this street preacher, who I have encountered before, was not allowed inside the festival. He set up shop outside, waving his huge banner that condemned (among others) "Immodest Women," "Gangster Rappers," and "Masturbators" to judgement. Nice.
Something tells me that people like my friend here in the picture would love it if God straight up just washed everyone else but them away in some great cataclysmic flood. Especially the masturbators.
But God made a deal with all of Creation. It was the kind of deal that required no amount of action or obedience on Creation's part. It was a one way covenant, what historians and Bible scholars call a "royal grant." "Never again," God told Noah in the Genesis account, "will there be a flood to destroy the earth." Further God goes on to say that when humans see a rainbow in the sky they will know that it is a sign from God that God has promised that "the waters will never again become a flood to destroy all of Creation."
God didn't create the rainbow at that moment.
Rainbows are made when light passes through water droplets and create a prism---which is also pretty much the extent of my scientific knowledge of rainbows.
Oh, and when you see two of them together, you need to make a wish.
So God created things like light and water droplets pretty much on the first day of God's Creating. What God does here in the Genesis account is God reclaims the rainbow as a sign and a symbol of something holy, something sacred. The rainbow becomes a sacrament.
What God is saying here is that evil, sin and wickedness no longer have the last word. That despite the evidence to suggest that judgement from a just and holy God is rightly deserved, that over-arching, capricious judgement is not the end result.
And the story that follows everything after this point in the Biblical narrative is all about how God never stops pursuing, cajoling, wooing and reconciling all of Creation to Godself.
It's a story that culminates with God taking on our own identity, our flesh to show us more intimately what God is like. That God did this in the form of Jesus the Christ, a poor, Palestinian Jew in a nondescript part of the vast Roman Empire demonstrates God's desire to reconcile the world from the ground up.
The Flood narrative demonstrates the mighty power of God to be able to wipe out sin and death with an incredible, destructive and divine act.
The Incarnation demonstrates how God prefers to redeem all of Creation with love from the margins, using the most unlikely, unpredictable and inefficient of means... us.
Unfortunately, far too many people who claim to be Christians get hung up on the judgement parts of the story of God redeeming Creation, never digging any deeper, never being able to hold the holiness of God in tension with God's indescribable love. And as a result, some become intolerant and narrow-minded, like the guy at my city's festival, waving his sign and preaching hate.
Others begin to believe that there is no way they can ever be free from the things that have enslaved them: consumerism, addictions, self-loathing, guilt... There are some followers of Jesus who tell themselves that they will never be good enough to be used by God and as a result become immobilized by fear, by shame or, worse yet, by apathy.
And all of them miss out on the joy of being an agent of transformation in God's burgeoning kingdom, God's reckless, irresistible redemption.
A few years ago, I was working as a hospital chaplain and happened to be on duty when a friend's son was brought in to the emergency room when he was found wandering the streets of Orlando, high on crack cocaine. He was found shirtless with no shoes, no money, no identification and no idea where was. Eventually his mother was contacted and she called me that night. I went into what we commonly called "the emergency psych-ward," where they had placed him. A police officer and several large orderlies was present in the room, which contained several people all in various stages of mental distress. I found my friend's son, lying on one of the beds. I remembered him as a 20-something-year-old handsome young man with unbelievable musical talent, a sharp mind and a winning personality.
What I saw on that hospital bed did not resemble the young man I had known.
He was painfully thin, pale and haggard. He had the stench of the street on him--body odor, urine, cigarette smoke and something else that smelled like... death. I greeted him and he started awake. When he saw and recognized me, he began to moan, "No, no, no, no," and covered his face with his arm. "What are you doing here?" he asked me in a half-mournful/half-angry voice. "Get out of here and leave me alone."
I remembered how weeks earlier he had come to my office at the church where I was also serving as a pastor. He had wanted prayer that he would be able to fight off the urges of his addiction for that day. I did one better, I anointed him and prayed for his protection and peace. I told him that the fragrance of the oil would remind him that he was loved, that God was with him, that the Spirit of the Lord would be upon him.
He stayed sober that day.
But when I saw him on the hospital bed, I knew that the addiction he was fighting had claimed victory over him once again. I told him that his mother had called me, and that I was working as a chaplain in the hospital. I asked if I could pray for him.
"I am beyond help, man. Don't waste your time on me. It's a lost cause." I prayed for him anyway, but felt the coldness of his words settle on me like dirty water... like flood water.
Months passed, years went by, and there were stories of the young man from time to time. How he was in rehab and doing well, and then how he was wandering the streets again, lost and alone.
He's married now, and trying to find his way back. He goes to church. I have heard that there have been moments when he has felt weak, but the sober days have long outnumbered the other days, and there is hope on the horizon... a sign of dry land, perhaps for this young man who has felt as though he was drowning for far too long.
In the end, the Flood in the Genesis account didn't have the last word. Instead there was a rainbow and the promise that God so loved the world that he would do anything to redeem it... all of it.
Our sins, our addictions, our obsession with wealth, our destruction of the earth, our hatred and violence toward our fellow children of God, our self-righteousness, our neglect of the poor and least... all of these are like raging, muddy waters that threaten to drag us under, drowning us in their murky depth.
This is not how the story ends. These are not the last words on the page.
The last words are God's, and they are...