Jonah’s Whale

jonah

 

Jonah, historically, was a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BCE.  His name is given to the Book of Jonah representing the  Judaic teaching of teshuva, the ability to repent and be forgiven by God.

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.  He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’  You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.  A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”  Jesus left them and went away.  Matthew 16: 1-4

There’s only one sign I’m going to give you: the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Briefly, the Biblical story of Jonah tells about a man of faith who was instructed by his God to journey to the city of Nineveh to warn the residents to repent of their sins or face divine wrath.  Jonah instead flees in the opposite direction and gains passage on a ship to Tarshish.  The voyage encounters tumultuous seas threatening ship and crew with destruction.  Jonah, realizing he is the cause of this raging storm at sea, orders the crew to throw him overboard.  He is swallowed by a whale, survives inside the whale’s belly for three days, is then vomited ashore.  Jonah completes God’s mission, the people of Nineveh repent, the disobedient man of faith is forgiven.

I enjoy reading this story about Jonah.  It is a rich example of the Judaic society of that time drawing upon the writings of the Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans expressing a faith system in greater powers than themselves.  It is a fascinating mythology.  But, in contrast to the neighboring cultures, the Hebrews developed a monotheism worshipping one God to whom they attributed power greater than any of the other gods of the time.

Our powerlessness is acutely apparent when we are in the “belly of the beast”.  Those times when I know what is right and sustaining, but choose instead to follow what is convenient and comfortable are days in the belly of the beast.  The times when I know what the Lord of my life commands, but follow instead what pleases my ego are even more days in the belly of the beast.  I relate to Jonah when what I choose to do is in opposition to what God desires for me.  The seven deadly sins (character defects) of greed, anger, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, and pride will in a heartbeat put me in the belly of the beast.

It’s a place I can’t fix, control, explain, or understand.  Sooner or later, life is going to lead us there, you and I.  Graciously, that’s where transformation most easily happens—because only there are we in the hands of God—and not self-managing.  It’s transformation that leads recovering addicts out of the beast of addiction.  Like Jonah, that whale vomits us back up onto the shores of sanity and submission.  I am rebellious by nature, slow to learn lessons, and have spent many days and nights suffering in the belly of my personal giant beasts.

Thankfully, the Hebrews taught me about teshuva.  The story of Jonah affirms the teaching of their wisdom.  Repentance and forgiveness, repentance and forgiveness – the cycle continues into eternity.

BEGGAR & WANDERER

Is my faith walk measured by correctness and certainty? Or is it filled with intense need and desire?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Matthew 5:3

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  Matthew 5: 5

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.  Matthew 5: 6

None of the above verses from the wisdom of the ancient writings say anything about getting it right or being sure about my thoughts concerning God.  As a matter of fact they point to the need to be poor in spirit, to be meek, to hunger for righteousness. I do not have the answers to the mysteries nor will I ever in this lifetime, but there is a way to search for those answers and that searching is in itself the purpose of faith.

Knowing that I just don’t know is sometimes difficult.  It is not an inherent human trait to admit that the object of my searching is an undefinable, indescribable, unspeakable mystery which is the driving force in this earthly life.  Many men and women have taken a stab at descriptions and definitions, but in the end they fall short of certainty.

But, we do know what a God-driven life produces in our lives.  It is love.  Not the warm, fuzzy feelings associated with a friend, family member or spouse, but the gut-wrenching compassion for victims of violence, for the hungry and needy, for the financially stressed, for asylum seekers.   A God-driven life produces peace makers rather than war-mongers, stewards of the earth rather than exploiters, givers rather than takers.

We can know this as truth because the Spirit (conscience) within says this is right and this is love.

“All we have to do is receive God’s gaze and then return what we have received.  We simply complete the divine circuit, ‘love returning love’ as my father St. Francis put it.  This is our spiritual agenda for our whole life.” Richard Rohr

Can’t get any simpler than that.  Look at God’s gaze (the Spirit within – love) and then return it to God and every other creature on earth.  I am a spiritual beggar and wanderer filled with an intense need and desire.  This is all I need to know.35

just a mustard seed

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breathe in, breathe out
focus on the flame
it’s the flame of life

 

as I bring the coolness of the air in through my nostrils to the top of my throat,  I marvel at the freshness of this breath before allowing  it to rest upon my lungs for a moment.   then I exhale the warmness of my expended air back through the mouth.  one breath is spent and the next follows.  this is life

 

My focus is on this flame.  As I exhale through my mouth, the flame flutters.  I have altered the movement of a flame with my breath.  So it is with the flame of life.  One breath, one thought, one action alters the stream of eternity.  I have done this.

Faith as small as a mustard seed can remove the mountain of despair, of anger, of fear, of doubt, of addiction just as that one breath moved the course of the flame of life.  Just a tiny mustard seed of faith can move a mountain.  I can do this.  You also can do this.

Faith in the indwelling Spirit, in the inherent goodness of mankind, in the bountiful mercy of God can extinguish our fires of hatred and fear and doubt.  It can alter our eternity.  Let’s do it.

“Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘ Move from here to there,’ and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you.”  Matthew 17:20

CANDLE

 

 

FORGIVENESS

“On October 2, 2006, a shooting occurred at the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse in the Old Order Amish community of Nickel Mines, a village in Bart Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Gunman Charles Carl Roberts IV took hostages and shot eight out of ten girls, killing five, before committing suicide in the schoolhouse. The emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation in the response of the Amish community was widely discussed in the national media. The West Nickel Mines School was torn down, and a new one-room schoolhouse, the New Hope School, was built at another location.”

Nearly twelve years ago while taking a break from driving, sitting at a Midwest truck-stop, watching TV on my satellite connection, this breaking news story darkened my soul like nothing else in recent memory.  As a young boy I had attended public school with Amish boys and girls, I lived in communities where the clop-clop of Amish buggies passing by was a normal everyday occurrence, my family shopped at the grocery store with Amish families.  Their way of life was fascinating to me.  How could they follow such a simple lifestyle eschewing modern conveniences and still be the happiest people I knew?  I greatly envied their humility and dedication to the community of believers which they chose to follow.

And the Amish community fathers immediately issued a statement of forgiveness.  Did they mourn?  Of course.  Were the parents angry?  Probably.  But they followed the directive set forth by the Scriptures which they revered and followed.  Those simple folks knew something which most of the world has never learned to practice – forgiveness.

Even today as I write this, my eyes well up with tears.  Innocent schoolgirls gunned down execution style by a madman.  On October 2, 2006 I cried like a baby for several hours.  My driving partner could not console me, my prayers would not stop the tears, the God of my understanding had deserted me.  Five killed.  Others injured.  The young boys who had been herded outside stood by helplessly as their schoolmates inside screamed while shot after shot was fired.

Could I have forgiven?  If my little girl was one of those standing in front of the blackboard with her back to the gunman waiting for her turn to be murdered, could I forgive?  Even today, twelve years later,  I don’t know that I could answer that question honestly.  I know what Jesus said, I know what the teachings are, I know what the Amish fathers did, but I am still a man who sometimes feeds on justified anger.

As He neared physical death, from the crucifixion cross, Jesus spoke these words, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Luke 23:34

Oh Lord, if those who have suffered unimaginable horrors can forgive, if Elie Wiesel could forgive the Nazis who decimated his people, if John McCain could forgive his captors who tortured him, then Lord, who am I to withhold forgiveness for an unkind word, an insult, a selfish action?  My grievances are so extremely petty compared to those who were mentally and physically abused by the powers of evil.

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  Matthew 6:12

It’s a tall order.  It’s up to me, isn’t it?  I cannot live the life destined for me by a Savior if my head is filled with grudges and grievances, no matter how great or small.  I cannot be the mended broken vessel useful to Jesus if my eyes do not see beyond the hurts and humiliations which insulted my pride and sense of self-righteousness.

“Show me how to love the unlovable.
Show me how to reach the unreachable.
Show me how to see what your mercy sees.”

FORGIVENESS

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Beggar in the presence of a king

If your life is perfect, if you have no problems, if your faith is strong as an ox, then this post is probably not for you.  On the other hand, if you are like me, a man who questions everything, doubts everything as the disciple Thomas did, reels between ecstasy and bewilderment when considering the things of faith, then we can appreciate the title of Matthew West’s song, BROKEN THINGS.

“If it’s true you use broken things – then here I am Lord, I’m all yours.”

People don’t like broken things – they throw away cracked dishes, broken vacuum cleaners, flickering lamps, worn clothing.  I remember my grandfather who took his shoes to a cobbler to be re-soled rather than buy new shoes.  Thinking he could not afford new shoes, I bought him a pair for Christmas.  Graciously he thanked me but continued wearing those old shoes.  That new pair was still in its box when Grandpa died.

Rather than repairing broken relationships, husbands and wives will find good divorce lawyers.  Fathers and sons remain estranged for many years after a disagreement, not remembering what the argument was about, but too stubborn to reconcile.  For many of us, broken relationships are not worth repairing.

I was the last to admit that I was broken.  My life had spiraled head first into a vast darkness which applauded my efforts to be strong, to be better than others, to stand out from the crowd, to chart my own destiny no matter what the cost.  I swam in that sea of darkness believing it was my strength of character and independence that kept me afloat.  I did it entirely on my own personal will power.  I drove myself to be a self-made man, independent of anyone – especially God.

Some of us are sicker than others.  Thankfully, God knows this; he has a special room in His heart for the sickest of the sick.  Patiently, steadfastly, lovingly He guided me to a place where I could take an honest assessment of me – on my knees.  We talked, we cried, we screamed out in pain and then we entered the wide gate into the Kingdom of grace.

I am still a broken vessel today.  I like it that way because my Lord can use broken things to fix the brokenness which He sees in his human family.  Patch me, glue me, bind me together.  Like that pair of Grandpa’s worn-out shoes, I can always be re-souled.  “I am just a beggar in the presence of a King.”

“Grace is a Kingdom with gates open wide.”

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COURTESY OF lum3n.com

 

Turn your eyes

Turn your eyes upon Jesus.  Look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.   HELEN H. LEMMEL 1922

Follow the link above for the full lyrics.  Tonight ends one of the days when I am tired, I should go to bed and call it a “done” day, but I am resisting because I need reassurance that the sadness which I feel, the disappointment which envelopes me, the fears which intimidate me are not the last thoughts that I will have should tonight bring my final breath in this life.  We septuagenarians consider these things, we don’t take another tomorrow for granted.  Just as my financial affairs are in order, my final life directives are written and my best friends know I love them, it is also important that spiritual concerns are addressed – every night.

Remember our bedtime prayer when we were kids:

Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

If I should die before I wake; I pray the Lord my soul to take.

The day went well; it was productive.  I kept an appointment, exercised, read a few chapters, did the daily chores consisting of sweeping the floors, washing the dishes, and cleaning out the litter boxes.  Nothing of a negative nature happened.  But, tonight I enter the late hours of the day feeling detached and subdued, lonely and unimportant.

“The things of earth” annoy me, challenge me, make me angry.  My primary response is to cocoon into a safer, more comfortable world.  I’m tired.  I want to take my old-fashioned ideals and my sense of decency far away into a land where butterflies flit and hummingbirds hum in carefree abandon, a land where the only chore for the day is sniffing the roses in the garden.  I’m tired.

 

amazing grace

 

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“You are my rock and my fortress – my soul’s sanctuary!  Therefore, for the sake of your reputation, be my leader, my guide, my navigator, my commander.”  PSALM 31:3 VOICE

Many of us, me included, wear our emotions on our sleeves.  I had a great friend in early recovery who could read my eyes and immediately know what was happening within my soul.  It was disconcerting sometimes that a person could look at me and tell me what I was thinking or how I was feeling.  As our friendship deepened, he confided that my eye color was a giveaway.  Dark blue eyes meant trouble and discontent while sky blue eyes indicated a cheerful and peaceful inner being.  I eventually learned to discern the same in his eyes.

In the same way, body language can betray what is happening internally.  Arms crossed in front of me tell others not to approach too closely.  Eye contact indicates whether I am interested in continuing our conversation and fidgeting lets you know that I am uncomfortable with the interaction.  Folded hands and a bowed head extend my respect for your inner essence, “Namaste.”  A beaming smile and genuine bear hug says, “come on in and share my life for awhile.”

But, what else do I wear on my sleeve?  How about my faith?  I lived most of my adult life keeping my faith hidden within.  My church upbringing frowned upon sharing a part of me that could intrude or disagree with another’s beliefs.  Although my church named itself as evangelical, it did not practice evangelism.  Much of that attitude stemmed from cultural issues within my community which was isolated from mainstream America well into the 20th century.  We kept to ourselves because it was a safer way to approach the ridicule of the more popular cultures surrounding us.  We were Germanic people whose forefathers  had immigrated to the British colonies in the early 1700s indenturing themselves to the governor of New York for 7 years in return for land, we spoke a Germanic dialect, and we kept to the old customs.  We were not overly popular during WWII and the years following.

I learned early to keep my faith to myself.  In retrospect, I probably did not have much faith during my active alcoholism because I could not allow an old gray-haired, bearded, eyes-on-fire entity dwelling somewhere in the heavens into my life.  It was far too frightening.   I knew that I was always in His cross-hairs and the fear was overwhelming.  So I drank as much as I could to overcome my fears and inhibitions.  When I was drunk that old man in the sky was powerless over me.

When drinking finally brought me to my knees, I did some praying while I was down there.  The miracle of Alcoholics Anonymous and its concept of a Higher Power pulled me from the insanity which had become my life.  I learned how to hold my head high and I learned to wear my faith on my sleeve for the world to see.  If you want to talk about faith, give me a big smile and a huge bear hug.  We’ll talk.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see

John Newton 1779

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