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6At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made 7and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; 9but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. 10He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; 11and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.
This week a friend described how strange it is to be navigating the newfound freedom of being fully vaccinated against COVID-19. She and her husband both have received two shots and their two weeks have passed. “We have to decide what to do, all of a sudden!” Her words held as much lament as delight. “It was easy when we knew we couldn’t do things.”
Her words made me remember again the reflection I had seen on Facebook a week earlier. It was by my friend Zebulun Bevans Treloar, an Episcopalian priest who serves at Cathedral Church of Saint Paul in Des Moines. With his permission, I’m including Zeb’s words in their entirety. I think you’ll quickly see the connection to how we’re abiding in exile right now.
“We are doing a Bible study using the Old Testament readings used at the Easter Vigil. Today we read The Flood (Noah's Ark). I was struck by how much in this story speaks to collective trauma. A major flood took out so much. Noah, his family, and a whole lot of animals were in a pocket of protection in the ark. They were in the ark for a year and ten days, relying completely on God and one another for survival and getting a little stir crazy. They had to send out birds to test whether it was safe to open the hatch or not, and eventually, they were given the sign to open up. They stepped out on dry ground.
“Nothing was certain. Nothing was secure. They figured out how to make things work and they had to figure out when to open back up. Had they opened the hatch too soon, they would have been in trouble. Had they opened the hatch too late, they would have needlessly suffered longer. They had to learn how to test the waters, how to gauge when it was time to act, how to work together for their common survival. Then they entered a foreign landscape that was not the world they left behind.
“It's a little hard to process this trauma because the story starts with God's decision that the world simply could not continue as it was, and death soon followed. What do we do when everything spins out of control and, as others tried to warn us, the natural world strikes out and causes great suffering? Do we have our arks ready? Are we willing to create protective environments or do we try to swim? Do we know when it's time to stay in the boat? Do we know how to test the waters, how to see when it's time to open the hatch?
“There's so much to Noah that I never truly thought about. The whole story has a new meaning in a world sharing a collective trauma.
“I look forward to the day when God paints a bow in the sky, a continual reminder that God is with us through and beyond the trauma, that we can remember it but don't have to relive it. But until then, I'm going to stay in my ark, testing the waters, sending out birds, and waiting for God's signs to act.” (Zebulun Bevans Treloar, 2/28, Facebook post.)
We have been waiting—haven’t we?—for that bow in the sky that says it’s safe to return to worship, that we can take off our masks, and sing, and hug. It’s pretty clear we aren’t there yet. Many of us are not yet vaccinated. COVID variants offer an uncertain threat. The CDC’s new guidance this week says (in essence), there are places that are safe to test the waters, but limits remain. You might say the dove has not returned to us with a freshly picked olive leaf. (Gen. 8.11.) Not yet. Not quite.
I’ve been thinking about how true this is, not just where the pandemic is concerned, but for us as the United Methodist Church. We’ve all seen the news that General Conference 2020, originally rescheduled for this coming September, has been put off again. The clarity for which we’ve hoped and waited—about how we’ll move forward around issues of human sexuality and a possible schism of our denomination—is delayed again. The churning waters that we thought might subside in accordance with the early-2020 Protocol for Separation are newly agitated with this news.
You could say we’re doubly “arked,” by the pandemic and by our denominational disagreements. The strangeness of this time is exacerbated by these coinciding crises. Both complicate when and how we’ll be able to move into the future God is bringing, and what will be left of us when we get there. In the meantime we aren’t sure whether the dove we send out will return with an olive leaf or a thistle. Or maybe we aren’t sending doves at all. Is that a condor we just let loose?
My friend Zeb didn’t write his Facebook post in reference to the chaotic waters of the United Methodist Church. But he could have. Zeb grew up in our denomination but became an Episcopalian during seminary at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. In 2019 he became the first transgender priest ordained in the Diocese of Iowa. The “ark” that we were—and still are—was not hospitable for Zeb’s faithfulness, wisdom, and witness. I’m glad he found a vessel where he could thrive.
But we find ourselves here, in these creaking arks, for a while longer. I hope what we’re sending out is mostly doves, and what comes back is mostly olive branches. We’ll open up, continue, and innovate in the ways that are possible for us. We’ll huddle together, doing do the ministry to which we are called, as best we can, as we long for the day when we can throw open our doors and step out on dry ground.
And then, like my fully vaccinated friend, we’ll realize we aren’t quite sure what to do with ourselves in this newly opened terrain that has come into being, mostly in spite of our absence.