Of Frederick, Jonah, and Me: Odd Ducks and Big Fish

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           Frederick Denison Maurice
(From a sermon based on Jonah 1:1-17, 3:1-10;
and informed by this commentary)


The Book of Jonah is an odd duck.

Yup, that’s a biblical joke. Not a good one, but a joke nonetheless. You know, Jonah. Swallowed by a whale? Odd duck?

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Yeah, I know. Stick to my day job.

It isn’t really a whale, anyway. It is a big fish. And the ancients got it. They knew that Jonah is a big fish story. You’ve hear them: “You should have seen it, it was THIS big!” Those stories? Big fish. Wild, fantastical.

But not in the way that we most often think. Yes, the being swallowed by a large fish is fantastical. But not as fantastical as the notion that God could love the Assyrians. Love the Ninevites? The ones who are sinning so badly? God? Love them? The ones who will, in 722 BCE destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel. God loving them is fantastical. The mass conversion of pagans who exemplify faith to God in ways that the Israelites do not?

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You keep using that word.

Inconceivable, and fantastical.

The man who gives the book a name, Jonah, is an odd duck himself. His father’s name Amittai means “to be faithful,” which Jonah most certainly is not. He is running away from God because he does not want to go to Nineveh. The place with all the sinners. But we’ve gotta pay close attention to what is going on. Jonah is not a very good prophet, and it is pretty clear here that God can use anyone, no matter how dense or resistant. Jonah hops the first ship out of port, thinking he can outrun God. Silly mortal. God whips up a storm that tosses the poor, unsuspecting occupants of the vessel hither and yon. They call upon gods, cast lots, and finally determine that the source of their calamity is none other than Jonah, sound asleep in the hold of the ship.

Now, we Christians might be thinking, “Wow, that sounds a whole lot like Jesus on the Sea of Galilee in Mark 4. But Jonah ain’t Jesus. Jonah responds to the cries of his co-passengers thusly: “Yeah, God is pissed. It’s my fault. Throw me in the water and all of this will stop.” His blasé explanation is met by a mass conversion, in which all the sailors cry out to God for mercy. They are more faithful than Jonah!

But back to the Book of Jonah being an odd duck. In terms of its place in the canon, Jonah is filed with The Prophets, or the Nevi’im. It contains a psalm-like hymn in chapter 2, but it does not belong in the psalter. Historically, it has been preached as a history. But not that kind of history; not the kind we expect today, with verifiable facts and events. No, a history that contains a particular and rather controversial view about God. Again, this most often comes with prophets, which might be why it is classified as such, but there’s really no prophecy to be found. God orders Jonah to go to Nineveh. He doesn’t go. He’s swallowed by a big fish. He repents and displays faith, kinda, in Jonah 2, and in chapter 3 he is once again ordered to Nineveh, where he delivers his only words of prophecy: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

Call me old fashioned, but I like my prophets a little more long-winded. Jonah is short on the details and heavy on the doomsday.

I mean, I guess we could argue that he is an effective prophet because the people, including the king, repent and the whole of the city is converted. But that clearly is not from anything Jonah does. In chapter 4, he begins arguing with God that there is no way that salvation could go to the Ninevites. I mean, come one! They aren’t even Jewish! 

To put this in football terms: Jonah as a prophet is like an NFL team having to put in the punter at quarterback because he used to play in high school and no one else is available. He’s on the D list.

The message of Jonah is two-fold: God can use anyone and God’s will will be done.

The last time I was in the pulpit I encouraged congregational conversation. My main concern was whether my call is the same as the call of the congregation. Since then, so much has happened. You can read about it here. And even more has happened since I last wrote.

Part of the dissertation project is identifying a person or historical theological movement upon which to base the ministry model that will undergird said project. I had thought I was going to be able to use Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., seeing that our entire cohort is gathered around him, but the seminary stipulates that the movement or person not be more recent than 100 years. No worries; Dr. King is appearing in another chapter of the dissertation paper.

But that meant selecting a figure. I immediately thought of Frederick Denison Maurice, of whom I am a descendant. About a a decade ago, my parents purchased a biography of Maurice (pronounced Morris), and I of course had encountered him in graduate school and seminary studies. Sitting down to read Frederick Denison Maurice: Rebellious Conformist, 1805-1872  has not been the experience I was expecting. In the pages, I am finding myself. And I don’t mean that in some grandiose, abstract way. I am reading about a nearly identical life begun 171 years before my own. An intellectual who parts ways with his father on matters of religion, but remain close nonetheless; a person tortured by mental illness, which presents itself most profoundly after discerning a call to ministry; the death of a close sibling that launches one into a complete and total dedication to Christ. A man who defends the rights of others to have their strongly held religious principles, even if they profoundly clashes with his own.

We both even have two marriages. It is like looking in a mirror.

Maurice is credited with being one of the founders of Christian Socialism, and I am very open about my own identity as a Christian Socialist, something I proclaimed even before I learned of the genealogical link. As I read the biography, I was posting quotes franticly on Facebook ; I dashed into my mother’s en suite; I texted Miriam. I was feeling so profoundly overwhelmed by a sense of connection and call I just needed to name it. To have it affirmed. And affirmed it was, most powerfully by a dear friend and clergy colleague who was my predecessor in this pulpit and knows a thing or two about the difficulties of call; he wrote, in response to my  #Godwhatisgoingon, “Amazingness is happening. Your purpose is unfolding.” Rev. Derrick Weston is a wise cat. You should read his stuff, but, you know, only after finishing this; I have more to say.

The Book of Jonah teaches us that we can’t hide from God. That God is going to execute God’s will no matter what; but how much better will the individual and corporate life be if we all discerned and submitted to God’s call? If we affirmed and supported the call of others? If we stopped worrying about how some other group of people could possibly be in touch with God or related to God? If we realized that stories of salvation are not big fish stories.

They are stories fantastical in their ordinariness. Simple stories that reveal a profoundness. Showing up when you say you will and not leaving when things get uncomfortable. Asking yourself if you have a bit more than you need, especially when you hear the voices of those who do not have enough. Not ignoring those subtle, but present racist thoughts. Or misogynistic behaviors. It is pushing back against your own defensiveness to hear the experience of someone else. It is acknowledging that something doesn’t have to happen to you in order for it to exist. It is actively working with God to break down those things that keep you from loving, even when you don’t necessarily like someone.

I can’t run from God anymore, friends. I have very few major life decisions left to make, really. The big ones are done. I have an amazing wife. I am blessed to have amazing, supportive, diverse friends. I live in a place that has long been a hotbed of (Progressive, Liberal, Dissident, Pietistic; use whatever term you like, it has been here) Christian leadership; and also long a place for those who do not ascribe to traditional religion or conventional methods of spirituality. Yet, all need love. Service. Community. Most of the ministry calls I go on during the week are to persons not associated with the church I pastor. I rarely ask them to come to worship; I only do if it seems appropriate and beneficial. They know who I am. They know for whom I work. And they ask for me to be present. So I am. And I will be until physically, mentally, and/or physically unable.

My call is to Yellow Springs. It is to the people who are here, whether they be Ninevites or Israelites. Believers or non-believers. Because, you see, I’m not playing at trying to be like Jesus. It is not something I am doing on a lark. And I believe so strongly in God and God’s call upon me, it really makes no difference to me if the person who seeks me out believes or not. Jesus tells us in a parable that all we can do it cast seeds. We cannot be concerned with the soil upon which they land. That is God’s work. And the seed is not going to be cast effectively by screaming at people and telling them that they are going to hell. Or demanding that they tithe. Or that they fit into models of community that do not meet them where they are, or address what they need, or reflect the ways that God is working within them. Effective ministry beings and ends with following Christ. Following in the example of Christ. It is showing up and staying, even when it gets difficult.

I’m done apologizing for being me. I acknowledge my shortcomings, generally in very public and profound ways. I understand that I have done damage, even though my intentions have been good. You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have…

I just did a generational earworm. Let’s see how this plays out in the comments 😉

My big fish story? Call me Ishmael, but don’t call me Israel.  I’m done struggling with God. At least right now. Because I know. In the Greek sense of gnosis, I know who I am and what I am to do. I’ve given up a great deal to get to this point and I am not afraid to give up other things. That is all I’ve really been trying to communicate in this messy process. I’ve gotta follow my call where it leads, and I’m monomaniacal about it. In a good way, I hope. I certainly listen to others and I don’t hold myself unaccountable. But if I feel that God is calling me to do something, I am going to do it. My prayer is that this call is always in harmony with what is best for the congregation and the village I aim to serve. When it is not, we’ll talk. We’ll discern. And I might make mistakes. I do not try to use God as an excuse to do ridiculous things. I’m not a schuckster or a shyster. I’m not shaking down Granny so I can get a jet. I’m earnestly and sincerely trying to model the example of Jesus in this community, and to be present in the lives of those who have invited me. Because it is not really me they’re meeting, if I am doing it right.

If we stop running from God that means we are caught by God. And then our lives become big fish stories of their own.

I’m an odd duck, indeed.

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