If staying home is the smell of onions, leaving home is the smell of rain just before a heavy storm: cool, weighty petrichor. It’s too easy to forget anything is different just by looking around. The sun shines, the sky is blue; the bags from the grocery store are heavy with oranges and oatmeal and cheese; the birds call and the mailbox clangs when you relieve it of another clutch of Christmas cards, now more than a week late. But something hangs in the air, heavy and foreboding and not quite familiar. Noah, six hundred years old, may have caught it before he boarded the ark. Sure smells like rain, he might have thought. This pile of junk better hold together.
Noah is described in Genesis as both “blameless” and “drunk,” which I appreciate. After he pulls off the modest achievement of preserving male and female samples of all earthly life, he plants a vineyard and really leans into it. (Following my abstemious ten months of pregnancy, I could relate.) Who could fault him? Now more than six hundred years old and having spent however many months (I gave up on the math in Genesis 8; let me know what number you come up with) on the ark, he probably felt like he’d earned the fruits of his labor. We leave Noah at the end of Genesis 9, hungover and cursing Ham, before living to nearly a thousand years old. Some real highs and lows in this Noah story.
I usually spend a lot of time thinking about the Christmas story at the end of the year, but in 2020, I found myself thinking of Noah. Clearly not as blameless as he was initially characterized, he is nevertheless one of the heroes of the Bible, the gentle bearded patriarch surrounded by smiling giraffes and lions in so many Vacation Bible School curricula. He was the right man for the job despite a clear fondness for drink and perhaps a bit of a temper. Why? Who knows. God works in mysterious ways, so I’m told—so mysterious that even God questions them later, even makes a new covenant with Noah and with the earth: Never again. And here we are, so I guess that one stuck.
And here we are, on the edge of 2021, nearly two million people dead from COVID-19. It’s hard to believe that the disease is not a flood. But it’s one wave in a great tide of loss: the deaths of despair from poverty and lack of hope; the deaths from climate disasters; the deaths from marginalization and invisibility and inhumanity.
I go out in the world and the waves aren’t there. I walk the baby in the stroller and name the trees and flowers and animals for her; I drive her to Costco and read the coffee labels to her. If it weren’t for the masked and shielded faces around us, I might not think anything had changed at all. But just leaving the house at all has a gravity to it. Gravity: weight. Gravity: seriousness. Gravity: the pull of the earth on all things, towards the grave.
But God promised not to curse the ground or destroy all of the creatures on it. God made this promise before the Biblical plagues and massacres and martyrdoms, before the pandemics and climate disasters of the Anthropocene. And here we are, on the edge of 2021, some of us testing that promise and some of us clinging to it.
How are we helping God keep that promise? If God is holding back destruction, what are we helping God create instead? This is the question to which vocation is the answer. All we have from God, and it is nothing, and it is everything, is the promise of the rainbow after the flood and of the resurrection of Jesus. God will not smite humanity to nothing; God will do better than that: God will triumph over death itself. So the enemies, destruction and death, will ultimately find no purchase.
And yet. The pandemic. The violence. George Floyd and Aidan Ellison. The children of Yemen, the children of Jean Montrevil. Your move, God says to us.
So on this first Sunday of 2021, with the Christmas tree still standing (until Epiphany, properly), I staggered into the front room (we’ve taken to calling it “the lounge”) of our still-new-to-us house, coffee cup in hand, and mumbled, “I guess we should put on church.” God only knows why. The draw of community is that irresistible, I suppose, that even gathering on a computer screen feels like something.
I saw a good handful of the usual suspects there in the Zoom gallery. It was good to see Micah, Matt by his side, recovering from COVID-19; comforting to hear Donna’s and Valerie’s voices leading us in prayer. “It’s hard to know how these times are going to end, or if they’re going to end,” Donna sighed, and I felt it. I’ve lost much of my ability to make plans, the very few social obligations I have (phone calls, Zoom book clubs) regularly slipping my mind. If it weren’t for having to remember doctor’s appointments for a baby, I wouldn’t have to remember much at all, and who knows where I’d be. Even church itself, which has been at 11 a.m. on Sunday the entire time I’ve been attending Judson (over ten years now), had escaped my notice for much of Advent.
But when the baby woke up, I turned the camera on, and I shared that she was turning seven months old, and I saw the community rejoicing with us. I write this post after I shared some new photos of her with friends and family earlier this evening, and my memory lingers on her face with its round, rosy cheeks. That image contrasts with those of Abdo Sayid, a four-year-old Yemeni famine victim. My seven-month-old daughter weighs more than he did at four years. His life was worth as much to his parents, their friends, and their country as my daughter’s is to hers. Why does she get to giggle and play with a full face and belly while he died before he could see five years?
I don’t know, and I’d be less than fully honest if I didn’t note that this unknowing has run me up against the edges of my faith in recent days. Knowing that Donna, one of the wisest people I know, doesn’t know either is the beginning of comfort, which ends with the rainbow, with the bookends of the birth of the baby and the resurrection of the crucified agitator and prophet and Messiah. But what comes between is up to me, and up to us—the Noahs among us, with our bad tempers and fondnesses for wine and weird relatives, the wrong people at the right time.