September 2, 2018

Counting On God, VI: Forty

Passage: Genesis 7:1–5; Mark 1:9–14

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And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.
He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan;
and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. —Mark 1:12–13


In the Bible and in the rest of human life, across many different cultures, 40 is a number fraught with meaning. It usually signifies a time of testing or trial or difficulty that is almost beyond endurance. It has come to mean the extreme edge of our stamina.

Perhaps this is because human gestation is commonly 40 weeks, which can seem like a long time by the end. Both of my kids waited two more weeks before they decided to gladden the world with their presence at 43 weeks, which seemed like a really, really long time.

The typical work week is 40 hours; when you stumble home exhausted at 5:00 on Friday afternoon, 40 can seem like a big number.

In tennis, Forty-Forty is the highest score they give a number to. After that, it’s just ‘deuce’ and ‘ad’.  That 40–40 Deuce can eventually become a big number. Watching Serena dispatch her sister in an efficient 71 minutes at the U. S. Open Friday evening, I remember hearing about the longest tennis game in tennis history; not a set, not a match, but a single game that was almost as long as Serena’s match against Venus. It was played at one of the qualifying tournaments for Wimbledon in 1975 and went to 37 deuces. That means that for 74 points in a row, the players took turns winning the point.

On the court next to the one where this 37-deuce game was dragging on, those players finished an entire match before this single game was over. That match was double-bagels—6–0, 6–0, but still: a single game that lasts longer than an entire match: the last edge of endurance.

Here are some things you can learn about the number 40 only by doing exhaustive research on Wikipedia. When you spell it out, forty is the only integer whose letters are in alphabetical order. I think that’s pretty remarkable, don’t you? I mean, there are an infinite number of integers, and only one in infinity that’s in alphabetical order.

The only temperature where Celsius and Fahrenheit coincide is -40.

Who speaks Italian? Who knows what quaranta giorni means? Forty days. In English, quaranta giorni morphs into ‘quarantine’, because when a ship arrived in the port of Venice in the fourteenth century, during the time of the Black Death, passengers and crew had to remain aboard for 40 days before they docked to see if there was contagion aboard. Forty days would seem like the last edge of endurance after a long voyage across the Mediterranean.

In the Bible as in life, 40 is a number fraught with significance. During the Great Flood, it rains for 40 days and 40 nights: 40 days and 40 nights in a floating zoo with your in-laws, the last edge of endurance.

Moses spends 40 days hiding in the cleft of a rock so he won’t be incinerated by the blinding, incandescent glory of God. After they make a terrible collective mistake of faithlessness, the Hebrews spend 40 years wandering in the desert before they reach the Promised Land. Forty years is the expected remaining life span of a young adult; God is so mad God wants to kill off a whole perfidious generation.

Elijah spends 40 days in the desert hiding from Jezebel who wants to kill him. Jonah spends 40 days preaching to the Ninevites, which is a job he does not want to do.

In Christendom, Lent is 40 days because Jesus spent 40 days in the desert fasting and wrestling with his demons. Lent, which begins during the dark, slushy days of February and stretches clear to April, can seem like a long time. You’ve heard someone complain “His sermons are longer than Lent.” It can seem like the last edge of endurance.

Michigan fans know all about 40 years of wilderness wanderings: a long spell of futility and disappointment. A record of 1–14 recently against Ohio State. Jim Tressel: 9–1 against Michigan; Urban Meyer, 5–0. I know, it’s only 15 years, but it feels like 40, and it doesn’t look as if this is the year they turn it around.

A couple of things to notice about the symbolism of the number 40 in the Bible.  The first is tough for me to speak and might be tough for you to reckon with: it is often God Godself who foists these lingering trials and tribulations onto and into our lives.

It is God Godself who drowns the world for 40 days and 40 nights. It is God Godself, the Lord of Misrule, who misleads the Hebrews in a meandering expedition across the wilderness for 40 years.  St. Mark tells us that it is the Spirit of God Godself who leads Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days of hunger and unbearable self-scrutiny.

Sometimes it seems as if it is God Godself who is the engineer of our anguish. Someone here has been wrestling with her demons for 40 days and 40 nights; she is empty and famished and anguished inside.

Do you know what is the single most disabling disease globally, according to the World Health Organization? It’s not cancer and it’s not heart disease and it’s not AIDS. It’s depression. So many of my friends are suffering from this terrible disease and this story of Jesus with his demons in the wilderness for 40 days resonates so vibrantly with their own experience. Andrew Solomon famously called depression The Noonday Demon.

As many as 25 percent of us will be caught in its vise at least once in our lives. At first that statistic shocked me, but when I think about my own circle of friends, it seems accurate. There might be one in every pew here this morning. Depression blights careers, shatters families, and costs billions of dollars in lost workdays a year.[1] By some estimates depression costs the economy $210 billion a year in the United States alone. The Noonday Demon.

If you have been in the wilderness with no bread or joy but plenty of demons, and you feel as if you have been pushed past the last edge of endurance, will you remember that this too shall pass? Though unendurably long, it will come to an end. After the storm, the rainbow. After 40 years of wandering, the Promised Land. After 40 days with your demons, the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Jesus begins his world-changing ministry the minute he comes back to town from the desert.

Forty days and forty nights, the far edge of human endurance. Five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton, two years in solitary confinement. Captain McCain says that after one brutal interrogation, his guards threw him into an unfamiliar cell, where he noticed that someone had scratched into the cell wall: ‘“I believe in God the Father Almighty.’ “There, standing witness to God’s presence in a remote, concealed place, recalled to my faith by a stronger, better man, I felt God’s love and care more vividly than I would have felt it had I been safe among a pious congregation in the most magnificent cathedral.

“This is the faith that my commanders affirmed, that my brothers-in-arms encouraged my allegiance to. A filthy, crippled, broken man, all I had left of my dignity was the faith of my fathers. It was enough.”[2]

At elite Episcopal High School in Washington, Johnny McCain’s truculence was legendary and his pugnacity infamous. They called him McNasty and did not hang out with him. At the Naval Academy, he graduated 894th in a class of 899. At the Hanoi Hilton, the other POW’s scoffed when he told them he planned to be President someday. In May, The Washington Post called him the greatest political leader of our time.[3]

Did it rain here this week? On Tuesday, Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula got six inches of rain in 24 hours. It wasn’t 40 days and 40 nights, but it felt like it. It reminded me of something that happened on Labor Day weekend seven years ago, in 2011.

In Connecticut, my favorite place to walk my dog was this beautiful little forest called The Montgomery Pinetum. I’d never heard of a Pinetum before, but I guessed that it’s just a very specific kind of arboretum with lots of pine trees.

There was this splendid white oak tree in that forest that Dudley and I would pay homage to every time we walked by. It was about 90 feet tall; at its base the trunk was about 40 inches in diameter; it would take five of us hand in hand to put our arms around it. Every time we walked by, I would brush my hand against its bark, and, like Harry Truman, whisper “You’re doing a good job.”

In August of 2011, Fairfield County got 24 inches of rain, courtesy of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. We weren’t home at the time. We were in Michigan as usual, and when Dudley and I returned on Labor Day weekend to resume our hikes through the Pinetum, we were devastated to discover that our very own white oak tree was lying horizontal across our path. The earth must have been so saturated, and the winds so strong, that it just gave up and keeled over.

So this nine-story oak tree is now lying horizontal like a corpse, and the unearthed root ball, now vertical like a ghost, soared way above my head, maybe about ten feet high. It was actually more root disk than root ball, a towering tangle of twisted roots and trapped soil. You can imagine what kind of root system would be needed to keep a 90-foot oak tree anchored in the earth.

I took this death personally; it broke my heart. I doffed my cap, Dudley went quiet, and we said a short silent prayer in homage to this ancient, embattled veteran of a hundred meteorological skirmishes. “Rest in peace,” said Dudley.

My arborist friends guess that this specimen must have been at least 150 years old, which means that it had been a seedling during the Civil War and had survived such traumas as The Great New England Hurricane of 1938, with its 180-mile-per-hour wind gusts; and Hurricane Diane of 1955, with its 20 inches of rain. “There is a time to be born, and a time to die,” wrote the wise preacher of Ecclesiastes, “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted.”

But that old fallen oak reminded me not of life’s fragility, but its durability. Life finds a way. That old white oak tree’s root ball, actually a flat disk, towered above my head, and when I looked closely, I discovered that when it had been unearthed, it had taken several huge boulders with it, now suspended tightly in midair among those tangled roots.

Some of those rocks were the size of a beach ball or a medicine ball, weighing 100, 150, pounds. The Connecticut landscape, of course, is strewn everywhere with multiple boulders; Connecticut is not like Illinois with its rich, black, fecund soil. In Connecticut, nothing substantial can grow very far unless it finds a path over, around, above, or through these formidable boulders.

So if you’re going through a trial that has pushed you to the extreme edge of endurance, if you’re experiencing 40 days and 40 nights of deluge, if you find yourself pressed up against several of life’s many boulders, just wrap your roots around them, and keep growing. Those obstacles will become part of your foundation, and fundamental to who you are.

And then, when it is finally time, you’ll take those boulders up with you into thin air.

Or, as Winston Churchill put it, “When you’re going through hell, just keep going.”

[1]Peter D. Kramer, Against Depression (New York: Viking, 2005, quoted by Natalie Angier, “Anatomy of Severe Melancholy,” The New York Times, May 22, 2005.

[2]John McCain, Faith of My Fathers, (New York: Random House, 1999), pp. 254, 257.

[3]Dana Milbank, “John McCain Is the Single Greatest Political Leader of Our Time, The Washington Post, May 11, 2018.