“Rainbow, Rainbow, Don’t be Blue.”
That refrain to the tune of “Sound Off” will be instantly recognized by many persons who joined the Air Force, at least in bygone eras. It was a taunt, sung by senior trainees who had been in the Air Force long enough to be issued green fatigue uniforms, to newer recruits who were still marching around in multi-colored mufti: Rainbows.
I didn’t realize, in 1964, that the scenario was so biblical, involving as it did the image of a rainbow and the concept of promises made.
“Rainbow, Rainbow, don’t be blue,
My recruiter fooled me, too.”
(Sound off, one, two – one, two, three, four …)
The ditty (redacted for family reading) expressed the complaint that Air Force recruiters were less than candid when they described Air Force life: three squares a day, eight-hour work shifts, five day weeks, free international travel, manicured golf courses, and a social life pleasing enough to erase the memories horribilis of high school.
It sounded great to me. What the recruiters left out was none of this was going to happen, if at all, until we had earned a few stripes.
And certainly none of it was going to happen while we were in boot camp. There, the day began at 5 a.m. with drill, jogging, calisthenics, rope climbing, and obstacle courses, with periodic classroom instruction on whom to salute and where to shoot a dude to properly kill him. Eighteen hours after it started, the day ended beneath suffocating wool blankets on lumpy bunks in a sweltering open bay barracks. It occurred to even the most open-minded of us that our recruiter may have been a smidge disingenuous.
Decades later, this psychic connection between rainbows and promises impedes my reflections on God’s contract with Noah.
I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
It seems straight forward enough, but some lesser known theologians have raised questions. W.C. Fields, the red-nosed bastion of comedic self-absorption in 1930s cinema and radio, took to his bed during the 22-month-long illness that concluded with his death. A visitor to his sick room was surprised to find him leafing through the Bible.
“What are you doing?” the friend asked.
Fields squinted over the top of his glasses.
“Looking for loopholes,” he said.
Or so the story goes. As evidence of God’s eternal sense of humor, Fields died on Christmas Day in 1946. Sadly, there is no truth to the legend that his grave bears the inscription, “On the Whole, I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia.” I’m sure Fields would have approved of the idea, because the City of Brotherly Love was the place in which vaudevillians would rather die than perform.
Be that as it may, God’s covenant with Noah does seem to have a loophole or two.
For one thing, the assurance that “waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh” is so specific it creates potential codicils in the fine print. Okay, no water. Fine. But what about a direct asteroid hit that fills the atmosphere with opaque dust that blots out the sun and reduces earth to a lifeless sphere of ice? Or what about cataclysmic shifts in the planet’s tectonic faults that turn the earth’s crust inside out? Did God’s promise include all those eventualities?
Noah didn’t have a lawyer to read over the contract and, after what he had just been through, he was probably in no mood to ask questions. (In the second century, Hippolytus of Rome saw a connection between the ark and Jesus because the ark rocked in four directions on the churning waters, up, down, left, right, making the sign of the cross. Clearly, Noah was too sea-sick to ask questions.)
But regardless of Noah’s silence on the issue, many questions about the covenant occur to skeptics today, including this overarching query: what if humankind acts on its own accord to destroy all flesh? Will God stand by and watch, or will God’s covenant with Noah require God to intervene?
The nuclear doomsday clock, set a few seconds before midnight during the awful days of the Cold War, is back to haunt us as we watch Iran move closer to nuclear weapons capability, and shudder when nuclear powers India and Pakistan exchange hostile words.
And think of this the next time you see a rainbow in the sky: has humankind’s prodigious production of toxic smog elevated earth’s temperature to the point we can no longer halt the melting of the polar ice caps?
According to 97 percent of all scientists, the warming of the earth’s atmosphere due to greenhouse emissions is causing the water level of the oceans to rise perceptibly. The International Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, predicts that low-lying islands, teeming with God’s creatures and human residents, will slowly disappear beneath the briny sea. All over the world, beachfront property will slowly erode and sink, taking with it 20 to 30 percent of the earth’s species. Perhaps in the lifetime of our grandchildren, the retreat of U.S. coastlines will create millions of environmental refugees.
This isn’t futuristic science fiction. It’s happening now. It’s happening a little more each day. We can lament the fact that the world’s greatest polluters, the United States and China, seem incapable of halting their relentless strides toward oblivion, but perhaps it no longer matters. Some wise people think it’s an inconvenient truth that it is already too late.
So what are we to think when we see God’s bow in the sky? Certainly we can trust that God will never again drown us out like unruly cats.
But what are God’s intentions if we persist in water-boarding our own selves to oblivion?
This is a reasonable question in the first week of Lent.
As individuals, we don’t always welcome this painful Lenten reflection on our personal sins and most guarded secrets. All of us have made choices and dug holes – some bigger than others – that have separated us from God and persons we love. Lent is about the pain of bringing those sins into the light of day in a fervent quest for God’s pardon. Lent climaxes with the crucifixion of Jesus, the ultimate expression of God’s sacrificial love for us sinners, and concludes with Jesus’ Resurrection, the ultimate victory over sin and death that God offers to us all.
As a personal journey, Lent’s painful period can lead to a restoration of the divine harmony we experience when we are closest to God, and most of us feel it is an essential pilgrimage for the repentant soul.
But what if the sinner is not singular? What if the sinner is all humankind, and the sin is a collective disregard of what we are doing together to maintain this planet’s inexorable slide into a watery grave? How do we confess collective sins?
In fact, what, precisely, are the sins? Burying recyclable metals and plastics in swollen landfills? Unleashing aerosol into the air? Smoking Coronas in crowded restaurants? Allowing your dog to relieve himself on your neighbor’s sidewalk?
Or are there darker and more cosmic sins, as when government officials yield to oil barons and energy magnates and proceed to boycott or withdraw from international treaties intended to reduce green house emissions to manageable levels? Are the great saboteurs of the Kyoto accords – President George W. Bush of the United States and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada – in most urgent need of God’s pardon and the world’s forgiveness? Can you imagine a time, as the waters rise past your chin on the Tug Hill Plateau, that you would excoriate these two nice chaps for drowning the world without benefit of rainbow?
But assigning blame isn’t going to help much once the glaciers fit comfortably in a cocktail glass. That lesson of any Lenten meditation was rendered poetically by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The other lesson of Lenten meditations is that the path of suffering and repentance leads to redemption and hope.
It’s interesting that the story of the flood, which predates Jesus by several millennia, is so adaptable to the Christian message. The most vivid metaphor is the ark itself, the instrument of God’s love and protection, rocking on the waves, insulating its passengers from a watery grave.
The boat is also the emblem of the ecumenical movement, representing the church as the one vessel that unites all the sects and divisions of far flung Christianity on the same deck. The ship on the sea, also evocative of the fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus stilled the roiling waters, has been stylized as a logo by scores of ecumenical organizations including the World and National Councils of Churches.
As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, these are useful images to keep in mind.
When ancient waters rose to across the globe, God intervened to save the vestiges of creation from destruction. In the beginning, the boat was a symbol of God’s determination to save the righteous and reestablish creation to God’s eternal glory.
And now, when the church is divided and besieged by a sinful world, the good ship Oikumene is a symbol of Christ’s prayer that we “be one.” (John 17:21)
As polar icecaps shrink and humanity’s divisions expand, there seems little individuals can do to save God’s creation from human destruction.
But the ark is more than a poetic evocation of an ancient myth. It is a vivid reminder that we are all in the same boat.
And the Lenten hope is this: no matter what we humans do to rock the boat, the creaking vessel is still in God’s hands.
See earlier blogs on the subject of Noah and the flood: