Monday, September 12, 2011

Saving Grace—Episode 2

(based on Genesis 6—a story of creation)

So building pretty much proceeded according to spec: 400 some-odd feet long and... wide and... tall. That was easy. Noah's family tackled what they could, and for the really technical stuff, they hired craftsmen. The challenging part wasn't the building: it was learning to extend grace to those who just couldn't see what Noah saw coming.

You see, the way the story has been handed down to us a good bit of emphasis is placed on how long it took for the rains to come, 120 years. Now I doubt it would have taken that long to finish a boat, even the size of Noah's ark, even with only 4-8 primary builders (Mr and Mrs Noah, the sons and the daughters-in-law). Hammering only one board in place every day would have taken less time than that. Even if it had taken 120 years to build the ship that could withstand the deluge to come, there are plenty of people who dedicate their lives to doing the same physical thing every day. That may be tedious, but it's not necessarily challenging. Noah's challenge was in spending 120 years, multiple generations, demonstrating a way of being in the world that, if it were possible, might delay or even avoid the flood of hubris threatening to drown so many.

Because that's what it has always been—humanity's hubris, it's unchecked pride—that has made it vulnerable to psychological, societal and natural disasters, such as Noah's flood. As will be seen in other stories, it seldom takes long for people to begin to push pass the boundaries of what is sustainable. Few are satisfied with enough: most want more. So what do they do? They start taking more than their fair share, first by scheme, later by force. Soon they become convinced that everyone else is just like they are, so they start looking for ways to limit what others can have for fear that there might not be enough for all or to prove themselves better than all the rest. Eventually they start to kill in the name of their group's right to thrive, even at another's expense. It's a vicious cycle that has played itself out down through history time and time again.

Noah could see the disaster toward which his neighbors' behavior was leading. He could also see his pride would be no different than their own if he were to treat his neighbors with disdain, as if they were only getting what they deserved. So each day Noah got up and extended himself in help to his neighbors however he could, inviting them to join him in creating a community that sought the good of everyone within and around them. When it seemed it wasn't working, Noah persisted.

Day in and day out Noah loved on his neighbors, as hard as it was many times. Because you've got to imagine that, after the boat started to take shape and people found out why Noah was building it, they started to make fun of him. Instead of "Yo' Mama" jokes, they would tell "Yo, Noah" jokes. "Yo, Noah's so poor the ducks throw him bread!" "Yo, Noah's so old he gave the first single-celled organism a hand up out the primordial ooze!" "Yo, Noah's so dumb I saw him spinning around with a plank outstretched calling it 'air conditioning!'"

After a while, that kind of thing usually make's a person want to lash out. It would have been easy for Noah to think, "You just wait. We'll see who has the last laugh." And maybe sometimes he did. But through the years he learned to laugh at himself too. Not the "you'll-get-yours" kind of laugh, but genuine laughter. It was kind of funny all he was risking. He hadn't paid a whole lot of attention to amassing status-related things, so in that sense, he was poor. And compared to a 25, 45, even 75-year-old, he was pretty old. The "dumb" label was a little harder to swallow: he thought his spinning blade idea was ingenious. Still, Noah learned how not to take himself so seriously—even if no one else seemed to get it. Again, not all the time—sure, sometimes the ridicule got the best of him—but more often than not over time he met the challenge of seeing his neighbors as more than the sum of their shortcomings.

And by all the evidence, it worked! Noah's imperfect attempts to image the grace he found in Elohim to his neighbors forestalled the flood for 120 years. That's no small feat.

One day, a neighbor dropped by Noah's house and said, "I've been watching you, Noah, all these many years. The older you get, the more set in your ways you become. Almost always you're as thoughtful, kind, generous, hospitable—just plain gracious, that's the word—as anyone can be to folks who've been jerks to you just moments before. How do you do it? On my best day I would have cursed some of these folks out."

"You sell yourself short, Patrick," knowing how much his neighbor believed what he was saying, "and you over-flatter me. There are plenty of times when I lose control and deal with people in a manner beneath their dignity, but there are also times I do a little better. In that way, I guess I'm like one of those artists who work with natural materials that eventually fall apart, like sand castles, you know (what do you call them? my daughter just used the word yesterday)—ephemeral artists! Instead of sticks and stones I sculpt friendships.

"I once had a rock sculptor tell me that, even if he's spent days stacking rocks for some giant sculpture and one misplaced rock causes the whole thing to fall, he doesn't see it as failure because in the process of stacking he's made intimate discoveries about each rock that encourages him to go back at it again.

"I guess the same is true about my relationships with my neighbors. Although I know they don't get me most of the time, every interaction, good or bad, encourages me that everyone needs a friendship he or she can count on."

-Special thanks to Troy Bronsink, ephemeral artist in residence in SW Atlanta, for the ending of this episode.

1 comment:

Melvin Bray, coordinating storyteller said...

"yo' mama" jokes are a favorite pastime for kids growing up in American inner-cities (at least that was the case in the '80s!). my friends and i use to stay up half the night trying to come up with the best.

i still haven't settled on exactly which "yo, noah" adaptations will become permanent fixtures in episode 2 of the noah saga. as i've searched, some of my favorites have been:
-"yo, noah's so old his SSN is 1!"
-"yo, noah's so old i was afraid if i told him to act his age he'd drop dead!" (brutal)
-"yo, noah's so broke he can't even pay attention!" (classic)

add a comment with your best "yo, noah" joke, and it may make it in the story!