Age Ain’t Nothin But a Number

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ICON SET-13I loved when it came time to learn about Noah’s Ark in Sunday School or at VBS because it usually involved animal crackers. It was a rare, adult-approved, opportunity to play with our food and we did so gladly. I got a horse! I got a camel! I got something that could be a tiger or a cow! Better yet was when the animal crackers came covered in white or pink icing. With their generous topcoat of rainbow sprinkles, those were elusive among snack times but every now and then, they’d appear and send us into a church-sanctioned gluten-fueled frenzy. It was days like that when I knew miracles really did exist.

Much like the Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark sounded like an enviable place to be and a truly idyllic way to spend a rainy month. All of the animals seemed to be so well behaved, not to mention so well organized. They showed up two-by-two and formed neat lines to board the boat—at least that’s what all the paintings and illustrations inferred—and even the giraffes whose heads popped out the top of the Ark were smiling so that must’ve meant it was a wonderful place. Giraffes wouldn’t lie.

Noah’s story of being in the Ark was romanticized and infantilized to the point where the mental image of a boat floating peacefully on still waters while cartoon tigers, elephants and of course, giraffes, poked their heads out of the windows made it seem adorable and Disneyfied. They’re smiling, thrilled to be there, and a singular dove hovers above them with a small branch in its beak. The story became so idealized in Sunday School that when placed into real life human context, I found it incredibly jarring.

“After Noah was 500 years old” is how his story begins. Folks in the Old Testament are said to have lived far longer than we do, perhaps because they weren’t eating the processed foods we so enjoy, but the actual number of years isn’t as important to me as the fact that Noah wasn’t young. The Bible says he lived a total of 950 years which means that at 500, he was middle-aged. Not only was he middle aged, but it wasn’t until then that his adventure began.

America has been openly youth-obsessed since Elvis shook his too-sexy hips on The Ed Sullivan Show. As much it’s been talked about and discussed and railed against in countless editorials, nothing’s really changed since then. We want our popstars to be under the age of 20 and our movie stars to look like they haven’t reached 30. A quick Google search of people who “made it” later in life brings up lists with titles such as, “People Who Found Success After 30,” and, “Actors Who Started Acting In Their 20s (Not Everyone In Hollywood Was A Child Star, OK?).” Their 20s? That’s a late start? What’s wrong with us as a culture that we think beginning something new in our twenties is an anomaly?

Clearly I did one of those Google searches and clearly I got really heated over the headlines and the outlets who perpetuated the notion that people who aren’t adolescent are somehow less-likely to be someone with dreams and drive enough to conquer them. However, after stress eating an everything bagel and calming down with a hazelnut latte, I found some examples of people who accomplished big things as middle-aged ancient nobodies.

For instance, Stan Lee—one of the few people who can be credited as being a world-changer in terms of incontrovertibly shifting our culture—didn’t create his first comic title, “The Fantastic Four,” until he was 39 years old. Vera Wang didn’t open a boutique until she was 40. Henry Ford—another of those world changers—was 45 when he created the Model T. Julia Child was 50 when she wrote her first cookbook. Even Susan Boyle, someone the entire world looked past and judged on basis of her not being the image of a pop star primed for the cover of Rolling Stone, was 47 years old when she appeared on Britain’s Got Talent and sang “I Dreamed a Dream.” She then went on to sell upwards of 19 million albums.

So, I don’t want to hear from anyone that they’re too old or too late to do big things. If Noah and Susan Boyle can do it, so can you.

Anyway, Noah was 500 years old, middle-aged, and had three sons. God, seeing how wickedness had spread throughout the world like the flu in subway car, regretted putting humans on the earth. [Genesis 6:6] I don’t love this mostly because it never seemed to line up with the God I knew from the rest of the Bible. Yes there was destruction and much killing throughout the Bible and plenty of that was attributed to God directly destroying certain peoples, but this instance always felt like a disconnect from the God who would do anything for us because we are loved unconditionally. God’s decision to wipe out everything on the earth and start over paints a picture of a petulant, reactive God rather than, as Twila Paris sang, a God who is “in control.” Then again, God is the God of the reboot; the God of the restart. Perhaps most notably, Paul was gifted the opportunity to reboot and start over. [Acts 9: 3] It could be that this is God doing the same. Either way, Noah was pro-God and anti-wickedness, so God decided he’d be the one who was tossed a lifeline. (Boat pun!)

God told Noah to build an ark. Not just that, but God gave him a rather precise floorplan for his would-be cruise ship and told him to get to building because a flood was a-comin’ and anyone or anything not in said boat would wind up waterlogged. Upon completion, he was to move his entire extended family on board and then two of every living creature, a male and a female, would join them inside.

The next verse simply says, “Noah did everything just as God commanded him.” [Genesis 6:22] That’s got to be a bit of an under-explanation. I’m sorry, it has to be. Noah went from a peaceful life in the middle of a desert to feeling like he was told to build a giant boat to keep him and his family safe against an impending flood and he didn’t have a single prayer-question about this? At any moment, there wasn’t any hesitation or doubt about his instructions? Noah just took God at face-value? That’s crazy. If I was Noah, my response would be that of Gideon, telling God to “prove it” before I began gathering wood and life vests, but maybe his mustard seed faith was bigger than mine and he recognized the crazy in this boat thing was the kind of crazy only God could pull off. Crazy God is, so crazy I’ll be.

And I guarantee that’s what the people who lived around Noah thought as well.

Hey neighbor! So, here’s the thing. God told me to build a boat so that’s what I’m going to do. I know, I know, there’s nothing but desert as far as the eye can see, but God said it’s coming so I’m gonna start hauling in lumber. I hope it doesn’t cause too much traffic. I’m just trying to follow orders. This is really all y’all’s fault anyway.

The Bible says Noah was six hundred years old by the time the floodwaters came. That means he spent 100 years building a boat in the middle of a desert. It also means he inevitably spent 100 years enduring the lampoons from the “wicked” people around him. The Bible doesn’t include this human faction of the story—everyone who isn’t Noah or his family are simply lumped into the broader category of “wicked people”—but I imagine there was a fair amount of judgment being projected at Noah since it must’ve been one hell of a spectacle watching the walls of that boat rise higher and higher against the horizon.

Oh, so you’re building that boat for the water that’s nowhere to be seen and you’re going to put animals on it that’re nowhere to be found? Animals from where? And where is all of this water going to come from? We don’t get enough rain to warrant a paddle boat much less that monstrosity. Sounds like you’ve cracked old man.

To put it mildly, Noah’s neighbors were Gaston, and Noah was “crazy old Maurice.”

But Noah kept his focus on the task at hand, built the world’s most famous cruise ship and moved his kids into their cabins. That’s another omitted faction of the story: the reaction of Noah’s children to his news. Clearly they were corralled into helping him build the boat but I can’t imagine upon hearing their dad’s news from God, they followed him blindly. Maybe they did. Maybe I’m too focused on the human condition and I should be more heavenly minded. Still, if it was me, I’d have a lot of questions.

I blame TV for this. When I was a kid, I watched a documentary about an expedition of men who claimed they’d found Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat. I loved the history of it and the possibility of proving this larger than life story was tangibly true. But within the TV special, Noah’s story was dramatized and humanized. This included the laborious task of building the Ark, the rains wiping out everyone who didn’t get an invitation, and an inside look at what Noah and his family might’ve done while they were bored on board. It’s stuck with me for decades and effectively erased the cartoon image of the Ark from my mind. In its place is now a claustrophobic tableau of overly-bearded people who were seasick from rocking back and forth in the water for six months.

Back to the story, those animal duos showed up just as God said they would and again, if the cartoons in Sunday School were to be believed, they did so calmly and in a single file line. Evidently, the animals also bucked their natural instincts to hunt each another as they were awaiting their room assignments.

Once everyone and everything were on board, there was a weeklong calm before the storm and then, the floodwaters came. The Bible doesn’t leave it at that though. It says, “all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened.”

In Coppell, Texas, where I spent my childhood and most of junior high, there was a spillway to one side of a road on which we frequently drove. The road crossed over a fork of the Trinity River and after rushing underneath the bridge, water roared like rapids as it cascaded down the spillway on the other side. From my young vantage point inside our big blue Aerostar van, it looked like the waters were coming from within the road, and I’d peer out the window each time we crossed the bridge, hoping to see the rapids surging outside. Having revisited that drive as an adult, I’ve seen it’s a rather small spillway, more of a spill really, but as a kid, it looked like Niagara Falls. When I read that the springs of the great deep burst forth, that spillway was what I envisioned. Walls of endless water charging from within the earth.

For 40 days and nights, relentless water. The Ark floated along the rising seas while “the wicked”—literally everyone else on earth—were wiped out. Then, after 40 days of nonstop water falling from the sky and coming up from within the deep, the faucets turned off. That was followed by 150 days of floating. When thinking about it like that, the Ark no longer seems so idyllic. Trapped on a boat with your entire extended family and animal stink for six months? Absolutely not.

But the water receded gradually, as water does, and the Ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. After sending out a raven to find land—an unsuccessful exercise because ravens are only interesting in Edgar Allen Poe poems—Noah tried a dove. The first flight was equally fruitless but after the second, the dove brought back an olive leaf. The third time Noah sent out the dove, she didn’t come back. Can you blame her? She’d been trapped inside a boat for half a year. She had cabin fever and wanted to nap outdoors. God then made Noah a promise to never destroy the earth by flooding it again. As a physical representation of that promise, God strung rainbows from the clouds to the earth like Christmas lights.

But Ryan, this whole thing is super impossible. All of the earth’s animals couldn’t fit much less coexist on a boat for that long, not to mention the notion that the entire earth being covered in water all at once doesn’t make scientific sense. This story is impossible to take literally.

Maybe you’re right. But in the sung words of Whitney Houston and Brandy in the seminal television musical classic Cinderella, “Impossible? Things are happening every day.”

God is the God of the everyday impossibilities. What I see in Noah is a man who began as “crazy old Maurice” in a desert and by remaining faithful through the storm of his life, wound up on a mountaintop. I don’t think the point of Noah’s story is to serve as historical documentation or his personal travel log. The point is that at any age, against any sort of opposition, and even if you look crazy, impossible things are happening to normal folks like you and me. It’s about being faithful.

ICON SET-13Among that Google search about people who somehow managed to make something of their life after the archaic age of 30, I found myself reading about Anna Mary Robertson Moses. I didn’t recognize her name but I did recognize her nickname, Grandma Moses. I marveled as I read about this woman who, at 78 years old, began a career as a painter. Not only that, but her work grew to such renown that President Truman gave her an award, a documentary about her life was nominated for an Oscar, and she was on the cover of LIFE magazine for her 100th birthday. When she died, President John F. Kennedy memorialized her. All of these seemingly impossible things happened after a 78-year-old woman decided to try something impossible. But not every impossible thing involves Oscars and magazine covers. Most don’t.

When I first moved to New York City, I worked for a nonprofit organization that connected homeless New Yorkers with the healthcare they needed. Health was viewed as our most basic human right (which it is) so by helping someone rehabilitate their health, they were enabling them to rehabilitate the rest of their life as well. And it wasn’t just lip-service. Apart from the clinics in shelters and the mobile vans sent out to meet homeless New Yorkers on the street, the organization worked to ensure job training, education and housing were made available to the people who came into the clinics. For three years, I spent my time with homeless families and kids, bringing them school supplies and backpacks for the fall, scarves and gloves for the winter, and books to read for spring.

Among the many people who touched my life during my time there, one was Robert. He was in his early forties and came to our organization through one of the homeless outreach programs to HIV+ people. Not only was he HIV+, but he’d contracted the disease due to his being a drug addict. He was also combating a few forms of mental illness, the least of which was schizophrenia. He was a short, thin man with a thick Hispanic accent and he always wore big glasses and an even bigger smile.

When I met Robert, he was on the other side of many of those issues. He was on medication for both his HIV and his schizophrenia, he was living in one of the men’s shelters in The Bronx, and he’d become an active part of a team of homeless or ex-homeless people our organization trained and sponsored to become advocates for other homeless New Yorkers. Not only were they the sounding board for any new ideas on how to reach people, but very often, they were the ones doing the reaching. They canvased the five boroughs trying to extend the same hand to others that had been extended to them.

Robert was liked by everyone in the organization and we celebrated with him when he was finally able to move out of the shelter and into an apartment. When he’d come to the office once a week to pick up supplies, he’d sit next to my desk and talk to me about his life. His struggle with schizophrenia made his speech erratic and zippy—like the metal ball in a pinball machine rocketing from one bumper to the next—and he pinged from subject to subject at a dizzying rate. But after the first couple visits, I knew when Robert came around, not only did I need to put down whatever I was working on because following his train of thought was a fulltime gig, but I knew I was in for some of the best stories I’d ever heard.

There was the time Robert offered a homeless man a sandwich to which that man pulled a gun on him and chased him around Washington Square Park. Another time, he stopped a woman from jumping off a bridge by again, offering her a sandwich. And then there was his roommate drama. Many newly ex-homeless people put into subsidized housing struggled with finding the rhythm of life again—the learned-ability to stay on top of bills and paychecks being an adjustment I’d never considered before—and Robert talked about how he was trying to help his roommates find their rhythm before they wound up back on the street. He also complained about their lack of allowance for his personal space. “I need my space man,” he’d tell me. “I’m schizophrenic so there’s like three different voices talking in my head at once. That means I need three people’s space in the apartment!” He was funny, chatty, sometimes abrasive, most times socially unaware, and always kind.

Robert went from being a middle-aged man living on the street with untreated HIV to having an apartment in The Bronx and working as a fulltime advocate for HIV education among the homeless population in New York City. His life was a series of impossibles but no matter how violent the storm, he didn’t sink. He kept showing up and taking food and water to the people who needed it. He kept trying.

In reading about Noah, I found myself reading about Robert. He may not have been saving his family from a global flood, but he was, one person at a time, saving people from the flood of hopelessness that causes so many to take their own lives. He knew the darkness of feeling suicidal on the streets, he knew the darkness that caused him to keep shooting up even after he’d been diagnosed as HIV+, and he now knew the light of coming out the other side of those things. Through both the stories he told and the outreach I witnessed firsthand, Robert was a safe place for many on the streets and he saved many people’s lives because of it.

He told me, every single time he sat in my office, he’d made a promise to himself that he’d pass along the goodness that’d been passed to him. “It’s what I have to do. It’s what God put me here to do now. I was a screw up and I almost died, but I’m here and I’ve got to help my friends who are still out there.”

The last time I saw Robert was during Pride week in New York. He came into the office wearing a rainbow striped t-shirt, had rainbow flags sticking out of his pockets, and a rainbow headband on his head. I don’t know if he was gay or not, he never told me and it never mattered, but he talked about how excited he was because he loved the parade. “When you don’t have a home, you wake up and already have the best seats for all the parades,” he said. I told him how much I too loved the parades in the city and he said he’d look for me on Sunday. “It’s a deal,” I told him. He was going to the parade to hand out water to any homeless person who was pushed aside by cheerful revelers, something that broke my heart. “I made the promise to myself that I’d help every day so that’s what I’m going to do,” he told me again as he did every week, and on that day, he kept that promise in a rainbow striped t-shirt.

I wish I could say Robert is still doing the impossible but the truth is he died a few weeks before I left the organization. He relapsed that summer and though he tried, he never recovered. However, the number of people he saved from dying in the streets is too many to count. He kept his promise to help others every day he could and did so in the face of an impossible deck stacked against him. It’s possible. No matter the odds or if you’re middle aged or if someone’s made you feel like you can’t do it or if your idea seems crazy, it’s possible. That’s what Noah’s story tells us too.

Noah’s story can be found in the book of Genesis in chapter 6.

So what’s this all about? Read my introduction to the Sunday School for Sinners and Saints project here. 

Illustrations by freepik.com

One thought

  1. Two things: 1) I don’t think age is just a number. In addition to physical maturity and changes, including experiences and time, as well as what should be a mental maturity, time changes a person as it should. Also, there are phases to life, and one who doesn’t learn from life, attempts to stall maturity, will have other problems, some of guilt for not maturing as we all ought. That doesn’t mean not being spontaneous and fun, but as we age, it’s supposed to become less about ourselves and living less selfishly. Perhaps giving back. 2) I’ve heard at church about unconditional love. I’ve pondered whether this is misunderstood. I don’t think love allows us to be anything we decide. And I think love is also correcting, even harsh when we haven’t learned from experience and inner revelation.

    Liked by 1 person

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