My mother walked into my grandparents’ house sometime in 1994, and my grandfather Pop’s gruff voice called to her, “C’mere, I want to show you something.” He directed mom to the kitchen cabinets, opened them incredulously, and there, from bottom to top, end to end, were stacks of canned tuna fish. Dozens and dozens of cans. For weeks, it seems, my grandmother Boo had been going to the grocery store, forgetting why she’d made the trip, and at a loss for what else to do, buying tuna fish. It was the first sign that something was wrong.
Over the course of the next eight years, Boo slowly succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease. First, she’d repeat the same stories within the span of a ten-minute conversation. Then, she’d become confused in her surroundings. Eventually, one night she looked across the den at Pop, who had been her love and her life for more than fifty years, and wondered who that strange man was in her house. In 1997, Pop’s heart couldn’t bear to watch Boo slowly erased in front of him, and he died. By the time of Boo’s own death in 2002, she recognized no one. She forgot even herself.
In a bible study in which I participated twenty years ago, the leader said of the Noah story, “Water is the great leveler.” That is true, in more than one sense. As we all learned last August during Hurricane Harvey, water shows no partiality. If affects all socio-economic strata, all ages, all races. But water is also the great leveler in the sense that it, quite literally, levels. The surface of a calm sea is a level plane. The stones in a flowing stream have their edges smoothed. Water, given force or time, overwhelms everything in its path, erases distinctions, levels all.
This truth has been experienced and known throughout human history. Virtually every ancient culture had its own foundational flood myth. Other than our own, the best known is, perhaps, the Babylonian Gilgamesh epic, which predates even the Noah story in Genesis. In Gilgamesh, a man builds a boat to save his family from a global flood. The water comes and washes away everything. The man sends out birds to scout for dry land. And once the family disembarks the boat, they make sacrifices of thanksgiving. (Sound familiar?)
That there are other such stories in other religious cultures shouldn’t make us doubt the veracity of the Noah story, but rather underscores its truth. The flood story is about, at root, the existential fear of being leveled, overwhelmed, drowned, erased. Who among us hasn’t had the occasional crescendoing panic that all we are about in this world will eventually be as forgotten as all those things the water has submerged over time? It is this universal foreboding that inspired every age’s flood story. Water is the great leveler, and it symbolizes for us that we, too, will eventually be washed clean from this earth, that our greatest accomplishments will be smoothed down to nothing, our highest aspirations will drown, and our most cherished legacies will be erased.
Is this bad news on a Sunday morning? I actually don’t think so. The truth is never bad news, when we approach it from the correct perspective. Bad news is telling ourselves a lie, especially a lie that may lead us to live in this world more self-importantly than we merit, to drink our own Kool-Aid so to speak. Bad news is when the lie of our own permanence causes us to valuate ourselves over and above others, subtly assuming that, due to circumstance or merit, we are worth abiding while they can just as well wash away.
That is why the lectionary reminds us of the flood story on this first Sunday in Lent, just as that smudge of ash on our foreheads this past Wednesday reminded us that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Water is the great leveler, and the flood story dredges up in us, as it has for all people everywhere, the reality that we are not permanent and we not the center of all things.
This is a good topic for our Lenten meditation. To have the courage to dwell upon it may lead us to live more of our lives for others than for ourselves. It may also grant us the grace not to cling, even to the things we love, which paradoxically will enable us to love better. And when the time of our death comes, it may empower us to meet death not in fear, or as something to resist, but as a natural part of both individual life and the ever-renewing life of the cosmos.
I believe all of this, but then I think of my grandmother, Boo. In her case, her erasure didn’t take eons. It didn’t even require her own death. As Alzheimer’s Disease flooded her brain with plaque, it was as if we watched her disappear before our own eyes. To do so was deeply sad. At times, the panic would well up in me not for me, but for her, and that was far worse.
Some have heard me say that Boo is the best person I have ever known. That is in no way an exaggeration. She was patient. She was attentive. She was kind. She loved those whom no one else would love. That she faded even while she lived; that my own fragile memory of her will not outlive me; that Boo will, in other words, eventually be erased entirely from this world makes my soul rebel. (Just as I must add at the 11th hour that something deep in my soul rebels against the notion that those seventeen children gunned down mercilessly in Parkland, Florida, have been erased from the world.)
Easter always follows Lent, and knowing our fragility God (and the lectionary) also grants us today the end of the flood story here at the beginning of this season. Though water is the great leveler, and though the truth of our transience is something we best acknowledge and even embrace, the flood story ends not with the deluge, but with the rainbow.
In today’s reading, the flood has ended. In the aftermath of the world’s erasure, Noah and his family have stepped back onto dry ground. And God sees, as if for the first time, the impact that the leveling waters have had on the human survivors. God perceives the anxiety and the panic that the recognition of human transience causes. In response, God establishes a covenant—God makes a promise—to God’s children, a promise punctuated repeatedly by two crucial phrases: Never again and I will remember. Never again, God says, will our destruction be ultimate. Never again will we—and God importantly includes the diversity of animals here along with human beings—be erased the way that water levels all.
And how will God ensure this covenant? How will God keep this promise? Through the gloom of every storm, including those that threaten to drown us entirely, God pierces the clouds with the arc of the rainbow, which stretches, as we know, from here to eternity. The rainbow symbolizes the second covenant refrain of God: I will remember. Though from this life we will all fade to nothingness, in the memory of God we endure. And what endures there is the all of us, in our wholeness, our vitality, and our strength. My grandmother Boo abides in the memory—the heart—of God not as the shadow of herself, but as the fulfillment of God’s purpose and hope for her. She is not less, but more. And that is the promise to each of us and to each of those we love and have loved. God remembers; God does not forget. The mosaic that is our lives on this earth, with our loves, our commitments, our passions, and our relationships lives on in God and no flood can ever sweep it away.
We are but dust, and we endure eternally. This is the flood and the rainbow. This is the paradox of our creation. This is the journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter. If we will travel it, we will live in this world more lightly and more honestly, shedding our pretension to permanence. But we will also face our mortality without fear, knowing that, as sure as the rainbow appears after the storm, God remembers us always and forever, and God’s promises are unbreakable.