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Bishop's Monday Message: Stay the course

Posted: May 18 2020 at 09:04 AM

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Hi! Welcome to another episode of “Biblical Tales from the Pandemic”!

I have been receiving notices from my weather app of flooding around northern Illinois because of all the rain we’ve had. That seems ironic given this week’s biblical tale from the pandemic is the story of Noah. I hadn’t been thinking about Noah until I read the introduction to the ReTurn Team’s comprehensive work on how we can—when we can—return to our ministries in a safe and healthy way. I hope that their work will be available to all of you next week. This is kind of an advertisement: hoping you’ll watch for it and make sure you download and read it right away.

But in the introduction, they refer to the story of Noah who “had to patiently read the signs before opening the doors to the ark and allowing the creatures in his care to exit and re-habitate the earth.”

That got me thinking about Noah. He followed instructions very well. God told him to build an ark and, even though it wasn’t raining, he did. Undoubtedly he received a lot of ridicule and mockery when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. But he built his ark at God’s command.

Many of you—hopefully most of you—have followed instructions to shelter in place these last two months. No matter the size of your house, you have to admit it’s not nearly as claustrophobic as being in the ark. I’ve heard that there are people who are bored, sitting around bingeing Netflix, eating snacks all day, and otherwise not doing much. But mostly I find people to be incredibly busy, working hard to adapt to this coronavirus age.

In addition to working at home, parents are trying to homeschool. Most of us are finding ourselves cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and all the other chores even more than usual because we’re home more! 

There’s a Midrash or medieval rabbi’s story or two about Noah and the ark. They tell about how exhausted Noah was from feeding the animals around the clock. Some of you might be able to relate!

But the part of the story I really want to focus on is after it rains 40 days and 40 nights. Now we all know that 40 is symbolic in the Hebrew scriptures for A VERY LONG TIME! Then it says that they were in the ark for 150 days as the waters swelled around them. So just when they thought the rains had stopped, were they then cooped up another 150 days? If 40 is a very long time, then 150 must be like saying it was a gazillion days! 

Finally, Noah sends out a raven out to see if it’s safe to come out but there’s no dry ground yet. Given the subsequent stories about his sons, I wonder if one or two of them had been harping at him: “Come on, Dad, let’s just open the doors and get out of this animal trap!” Surely, he had at least one son who looked out the window at all that swelling water and said, “If we go out of here now, the fall itself would kill us.” (Just to quote one of my favorite movies.) The waters were still well over the tops of the mountains. It wasn’t time to come out yet—as much as they wanted.

Noah waits a week and sends a dove, but it returns. Yet another week and another dove. This time it returns with an olive leaf. Ah-ha! It’s getting close, very close! But still, Noah doesn’t just fling open the doors of the ark so everybody rushes out to life as they had known it! Noah waits yet another week before they disembark.

My point…and I do have one: when you see the recommendations of the ReTurn Team to ministry, you will find it outlined in various phases based on the governor’s phases to restore Illinois. Even Noah didn’t return to earth right away! Even if those phases are overturned, they make a lot of sense and they guide us in returning safely to our ministries, giving us direction in how to prepare for the next phase. 

The ReTurn Team’s guidelines raise lots of questions for you to consider given whatever your context is—where you are, the size of your church, and other things. You need to develop a health team. Think of it like the doves that survey the situation. Hey, you could call them your Dove Team! (And they could eat chocolate while they meet!) If you haven’t already, you need to pull together some people who know your building, work in your various ministries, and include (if you can) someone who has some health science background. Maybe you’re already using your church council in this way, but you need to begin to prepare.

Just like Noah checking things out in phases, so we will need to address difficult questions to match the various phases that our region is in, our level of infection, and even our own comfortableness in being with others (given our ages and health issues). Overall, be clear about what’s at stake: the very health, safety, and lives of those in your church, families, and communities. First, do no harm! 

Besides the ark, the thing that most people remember about Noah is the rainbow at the end. It is a sign of God’s covenant with the people. With all the storms and sunshine that we’ve had here in northern Illinois lately, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve actually seen a rainbow. Rainbows represent for us a sign of beauty and the goodness of God. I urge you to look for rainbows each day: the beauty of the blossoming spring colors when you take a walk outside, the goodness of family and friends who share kind words and deeds even “from afar,” the beauty of God’s grace and love, and the goodness of all the modern ways of being able to connect while social distancing (I’ve even got my mom on zoom!).  

All that to say: know that you are blessed and loved by God and so many others! You’re in my prayers. Be safe, be smart, and most of all, be healthy!

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