Several years ago I had a parishioner, Harry, who was going through a horrible time in his life. His marriage had fallen apart, and as a result he had to sell the house they shared, a house he had poured his energy and sweat into. The funding for the small, post-retirement job he had dried up. It wasn’t the money he missed so much as the social contact. He was overwhelmed with all of it. I offered him the use of my very large garage to store his belongings while he figured out what he was going to do next.
Which, it turned out, was go to the Alaskan wilderness for two weeks.
I’m talking wilderness. He was flown into a clearing in the woods and was told they’d pick him up in that same clearing two weeks later. Phone didn’t work, his only transportation was his feet, he carried what shelter and food he could with him. And he was alone.
Well, almost alone. When he returned Harry shared the story of the night he could hear something rustling in the trees. Something big. Something scary. He was pretty sure it was a bear—and not one of our Maine black bears. This would have been a grizzly bear.
He had been advised that if he found himself in that situation, he should make a lot of noise to scare it away before it came too close. So that’s what he did. He told us that he clapped his hands hard and shouted, as loudly as he could, “I am the dominant one! I am the dominant one!”
It cracked me up. I would probably have shouted, “Go away, bear!” But for him, it was important to declare his dominance. I suspect that in that moment, he was shouting at more than just a bear. He was shouting at all the circumstances that felt so out of control.
The bear (or whatever it was) did change direction as a result of his challenge. Harry came back to us alive and well, if a little thinner. But changed. His time in the wilderness changed him. He was forced to face the truth about himself, about his own part in the disintegration of the life he had before, and to let go of those parts that were not his fault. He became a little less afraid of his own vulnerability, his own mortality. To paraphrase the serenity prayer, he figured out both the extent and the limitations of his ability to control things.
Wilderness will do that to you.
We have two wilderness stories in today’s readings. There’s the obvious one, Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. But there’s also the one that we have turned into a sweet little children’s story about a floating zoo.
The story of the animals in the ark is not unique or even original to the people of Israel. Every nation and every religion of that area had some version of the story of the Great Flood. In one culture, the story of the Flood is also the story of Creation, and it’s a bit bloodier and much less suitable for children. The gods in those stories are far less reasonable than Yahweh, the God of Israel. In one version of the story, humankind is created by mistake. In another, humankind is created as military slaves, whose sole purpose is to defeat the god who is causing the storm…or is it to defeat the god who is trying to put an end to the storm…I don’t remember exactly. Either way, in these versions of the Flood story, humankind is not considered particularly valuable in their own right.
Those who study myths and mythical systems will tell you that we all have a tale of a Flood because it’s one of those stories we can all understand and relate to. Whether we have known literal flood, such as those from hurricanes, or if we have instead survived a metaphorical flood, we know what it means to awake every morning hoping and praying that the rain has finally stopped falling.
As I said, most every culture then had a story of a man, a boat, a bunch of animals and heavy rain. But we kept this story in our Scriptures because we saw in it something besides the rain, something beyond that moment when the doors are opened and Life is free to return to the world. Our forebears went on to tell the piece we heard today. The rain has stopped, the waters have receded, Noah and his sons are beginning to put the pieces of their world back together again. And God does something astonishing.
God sets a rainbow in the clouds as part of a promise God makes to humanity. I don’t think I have ever been any place where, if a rainbow appears, people don’t stop in their tracks and look up in complete stillness. Have you ever seen anyone ignore a rainbow? The beauty of a rainbow always inspires awe.
But the brilliance of this story is not that we would simply be reminded that the storm will not always continue, that there will be sunlight after rain. No, our forebears did something even more astonishing.
It never really dawned on me, the significance of God setting God’s bow in the sky. I didn’t have enough experience with archery to understand that the “bow” is not just this lovely phenomenon of refracted light. This was God’s bow, as in bow and arrow. God was putting down the weapons and trying a different approach to conflict. Yes, I know, there will be plenty of violence in subsequent chapters of the Old Testament, which will be attributed to God or God’s command. But in this story, God tells us directly: violence is no longer an option. There has to be another way.
There has to be another way.
We live in a society that has not figured this out yet. It should not be any real surprise that gun violence is so prevalent. Look at the images we see in TV and movies, video games and books—we let violence solve everything. We are being flooded by the consequences. Nineteen years ago, twelve high school students and one teacher were killed in Columbine. Eleven years ago, 32 students and faculty members were killed at Virginia Tech. Five years ago, twenty first graders and six adults died in Sandy Hook. And this past week, 17 students died in Parkland, Florida. Those are just the schools. Those are just the ones that have demanded an acknowledgement from the pulpit. In the past I’ve said I was tired of having the preach the same thing every time. Now I’m tired of being tired.
We’ve been in the wilderness a long time. In my worst moments I despair of us figuring this out in my lifetime; I can see only the cross and tomb, the flood waters and destruction. It may be another generation before we figure out how to hang our own rainbows in the sky, as a promise to no longer choose violence.
The good news is, throughout our faith history, whenever the people of God find themselves in the wilderness, they end up finding—or being found by—God. It can take a long time—the people in Exile in Babylon were advised to build houses and plant gardens because they weren’t going home anytime soon. Sometimes the wilderness is the only place where we are powerless enough and scared enough to let God take control. To acknowledge that ultimately only God is “the dominant one” and allow ourselves to be transformed into the people God needs us to be.