Lost at Sea: Retelling the Flood Story in a Pandemic

Row on, row on, another day
May shine with brighter light.
Ply, ply the oars, and pull away,
There’s dawn beyond the night.

–– Traditional sea shanty

 

At the Easter Vigil, we light a fire in the dark and tell our sacred stories. One of them is the saga of the Flood from the Book of Genesis. Tonight, as we stream the Vigil liturgy from our living room for our local parish, this is how it wants to be told. 

When we wonder about things, we tell stories.  One of our oldest stories describes a great flood that sweeps away everything in the world until there is nothing left but an endless sea. Some people say it’s a story about God getting fed up with the world’s violence and greed and wanting to start over. Others say the story is about everything being thrown out of balance by human sin––the harmonies break down, and God’s beautiful creation is swallowed up by chaos.

But tonight, when a new kind of flood is sweeping across the earth, washing away the world we know, maybe the story needs to be about the ark. We’re all in this boat together, hoping and praying we can survive the raging sea until the storms are over and we can anchor in some safe and peaceful harbor.

That’s where we are now, in the middle of the story––cooped up in this ark with a bad case of cabin fever, wondering if the flood is ever going to subside so things can get back to normal. It’s not easy, being stuck in this boat. It’s strange and stressful for us. Meanwhile, the sea gets rougher, the storms wilder.

It’s like that Psalm we say in Holy Week:

Save me, O God! The waters have risen up to my neck.
I am sinking in a deep mire. The waves wash over me.
Do not let the flood swallow me up! (Psalm 69)

That’s how it feels, here in the middle of the story, in the middle of the flood. We have our fears. We have our doubts. We have our losses. And frankly, some of us are getting sick and tired of this stupid ark. Been in the storm so long, Lord! How long? Too long.

But this isn’t where the story ends, with us lost at sea, sinking into oblivion. The One who made us will not forget us. The One who loves us will not forsake us. Already, God is imagining a future for us. Maybe it will be something better.

God never said we won’t be afflicted.
God never said we won’t be disquieted.
God did say we shall not be overcome.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not thee overflow,
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

The ambush of the marvelous

Jacob wrestling

Come, O Thou traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see;
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee.
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

The Sacred Harp

A century ago, Scottish theologian P.T. Forsyth described prayer as a kind of spiritual tempest blowing away all our complacencies. While giving a nod to the contemplative and aesthetic dimensions of spirituality, he was blunt about its capacity to rupture the settled proportions of daily life:

We do need more reverence in our prayer, more beauty in our praise, less dread of tried and consecrated form. But still more do we want the breathless awe, and the stammering tongue, and the solemn wonder, and the passionate gratitude, which are the true note of grace, and the worship of a soul plucked from the burning and snatched by a miracle from the abyss.

Prayer is not for the timid. Better wear a crash helmet, as Annie Dillard advised. But the fierce energies of prayer are not God’s alone. We must bring the strong force of our own desire to the encounter, pressing God to keep the ancient promise of a world made new. Every prayer may inevitably end with “thy will be done,” but it often begins in a place of struggle, if we are honest. “Hear my voice when I complain,” prayed the Psalmist. Even Jesus argued vehemently for an alternative to the cross. We were not made to go quietly. God wants us to put up a good fight. “Prayer is wrestling with God,” wrote Forsyth. “It is a resistance that God loves.”

The Bible never names the stranger who jumps Jacob in the dark and wrestles him till daybreak (Genesis 32), but interpreters have always suspected his divinity. Delmore Schwartz, in his poem “Jacob,” describes the assault as “the ambush of the marvelous, / unknown and monstrous, / at the very heart of surprise.” Jacob couldn’t see his opponent’s face, but all his inner conflicts must have risen up to give him a name:

– It is the ghost of my father Isaac, from whose deathbed I stole the blessing, and he’s come to take the blessing back.

– No. It is the spirit of my brother, with whom I wrestled in my mother’s womb, with whom I must fight in the flesh tomorrow.

– No. It is my own shadow, the unloved child and desperate trickster, here to unmask the pretense of my so-called success.

– No. It is the angel of death come to mock all God’s promises of protection and future.

– No. It is God’s own self, that merciless opponent who will not let me be until I am broken open and made new.

All night long, Jacob fought against this stranger, this Other. The stranger wounded him, dislocating the socket of his thigh, but Jacob would not give up. When dawn came, the stranger tried to flee, but Jacob held on tight.

“Let me go,” said the stranger. “I do not live in the glare of your well-lit thoughts, but only in the shadows of your intuitions.”

“I will not let you go until you bless me.”

“What is your name?” asked the stranger.

“Jacob.”

“It is Jacob no more. Your name shall be Israel – the one who wrestles with God.”

“Then what is your name?” asked Jacob.

“Ah!” said the stranger. Then he gave Jacob the blessing, and vanished.

The sun began to rise as Jacob limped away from the river, forever wounded, but ready at last to meet his future.

I once led a workshop on this story at a church retreat. After digging into the passage for a while, participants were invited to retell it in their own way. One young woman, who was differently abled and emotionally troubled, did exactly what the Bible wants us to do with its narratives. She put herself into the story.

Jacob was having a lot of problems with his family. He needed to get away from them, to get his head together. He felt a great struggle inside himself. “Why can’t I deal with my anger and frustration?” After a while he began to realize that he was wrestling with God.

He wrestled with God all night long, but when dawn came he began to think God must be pretty tired of him by now, that God must be so sick of listening to his problems that he was just going to go away. Jacob felt afraid and alone but he didn’t give up. He held on tight and wouldn’t let go. He begged God to stay and to bless him.

“What is your name,” God asked him.

“Jacob.”

“I don’t think so,” God said. “I think it’s Israel, because you’ve had the guts to face up to your problems.”

Then the sun came up and God was gone. And as Jacob began to walk away from that place, he noticed he was limping. Suddenly he remembered that he had always had this limp, but it didn’t bother him anymore. It was okay. It was just part of who he was.