Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 5

J.M.W. Turner, “Snow Storm – Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth”

The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him.

(Jonah 1:11-16)

I wonder what Jonah expected at the moment of being thrown into the raging waters. He seems at this moment to recognise his responsibility, to know that he is the cause of the storm, so perhaps he expects that, when he is thrown overboard, the storm will end. But what does he expect will happen for him personally? He certainly could not expect what comes next – the part to the story that is so well known that I want to delay it a moment longer before looking at it. He could never have seen that coming, and so I want to pause at this point of uncertainty. I want to freeze on Jonah at the very point when he plunges into the sea: what does he expect at that moment?

He knows, as we saw in yesterday’s passage, that his God is the “God who made the sea and the dry land”. And so no doubt he expects that God has control over the sea as He does over all things. But what does he think will happen when he is thrown at the mercy of this all-powerful God, after having defied and run away from Him? Is Jonah’s only thought one of freeing others from the storm, or does he consider what might happen when he hits the waters and goes under?

Perhaps he doesn’t think that far ahead. One of the effects of anger is that we become unable to think outside the constraints of the thing that has made us angry. The kind of intensified emotion that our brain experiences in times of anger actually shuts off the brain’s ability to contextualise, and so we often find ourselves stuck in a catastrophic present moment, unable to think of elements to the past, the present or the future that might alter or at least ameliorate our responses. Jonah, I suspect, does not think of very much at this moment apart from seeking an end to the storm. He makes it as far as recognising that he needs to face up to God, but there’s no sense that he expects mercy or restoration from God, simply justice: a black and white model of retribution, no doubt the same model that has led him to think that the Assyrians do not deserve forgiveness in the first place.

And so Jonah plummets into the waters, and in a moment the sea is calm. What then? Does he take a breath, relax, and wonder if all might be well? Or does he find himself plunging deeper, moving further out of control even as the waters above the surface become still? Sometimes this is all we can do, to plunge into the abyss, in the hope that we will find God there. Yet this is the very thing that we needed to do in the first place, that we were unwilling to do: to plunge into the chaos of our thinking and instability, with God there to navigate it for us. Instead, we chose anger, resentment, running away. The abyss never left us, even when we tried to silence it or disguise it with rage. Now we have to face it; plunging head-first, we enter the abyss, and find that God has always been there, waiting for us.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 4

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee”

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”

He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)

The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

(Jonah 1:7-12)

The first thing that Jonah admits to is that he is defined by relationship with God – and not just with the god of his people but with the “God who made the sea and the dry land”. Most ancient religions had different gods for the sea and the land. The sea was associated with a chaos that needed to be subdued in order for dry land and human life to exist. Other gods managed the harvest, the storm, war, peace. Jonah’s God is a God of unity, and of everything. He cannot pick and choose which bits of his life he allows God to rule. And he cannot defy God and expect the world to be unaffected.

As anger turns us inward, it can create the illusion that we are worlds unto ourselves. We can try to ignore the impact that our anger has on others, and we can also ignore our responsibilities to others that continue even while we are raging internally. Jonah, a prophet, is called to be God’s messenger. He has refused one opportunity to be that messenger for Nineveh, and here, on the boat, he is failing to be that messenger to the others on the boat. In a book filled with irony, another irony appears here: that the others on the boat show greater reverence for Jonah’s God than he does. Compare this with Paul, who used violent storms at sea as opportunities to share God’s message with his companions on the boat. Compare this even with the fearful disciples who knew that shaking Jesus awake could rescue them from the storm. Jonah’s response is much more the one I must admit that I am inclined towards: an inward-focused denial of my responsibility to others as a person of God.

The turning point for Jonah is to accept responsibility – to recognise that his disobedience to God has not just been a matter between him and God but between him and others, even him and creation. The earth is impacted by our sin, and so are our relationships. And when we rage against God, we make ourselves gods of our own little, internal kingdoms, failing to see the storms that we have made around us and the lives that are threatened by our failure to pay attention.

The answer? Stop ignoring the storm. Enter the storm. Because the God of sea and dry land will be there in the storm, waiting for you to speak to Him.

Advent with the prophet Jonah: Day 2

The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Jonah 1:1-3

The book of Jonah begins with a prophet refusing his divine mission and going the opposite way. Growing up I always understood this to be because he was lazy or contrary or just plain disobedient. Most likely he didn’t want to see his enemies repent and be saved. You see, the detail in God’s message for Jonah that we often miss is that God is choosing to warn Nineveh ahead of time, and He would only do that if He wanted to give them a chance to change their fate. This is precisely what Jonah, an Israelite threatened by the growing Assyrian Empire, doesn’t want the Assyrians to get: a chance to change. Like so many of us, Jonah wants God to be merciful but on his terms not God’s. And like so many of us Jonah doesn’t see that the very thing he resists is the very thing that can save him: God’s mercy to the least deserving.

There’s another irony in what Jonah decides to do. In sending an Israelite prophet to another country, God is showing that He isn’t some local deity with strict parish boundaries but the God of all people. And in resistance to this Jonah tries to run away – to where? Away from God? Away from His mercy?

I am like Jonah because I want God to act on my terms. I am like him because I want a mercy for myself that I do not dispense to others. I am like Jonah because, in refusing to be a bearer of mercy to others, I fail to experience it fully myself. And this is the root of anger.

If indeed anger has a single root. In my experience it feels more like a rhizome, sending out shoots in many, tangled directions until it is nearly impossible to remove. Perhaps it isn’t for me to uproot. Perhaps, like Jonah, I just need to stop and listen, or stop and be: to listen to the word of mercy God has given, and to be a person shaped by that mercy.

Advent is about expectancy – expecting God to act in saving us. But that expectancy has to begin with us reorienting our expectations to align with Him. And so we stop running and we listen to what God has to say.

The Rage of Being Flesh: Advent with the prophet Jonah

Icon of the prophet Jonah from the Menologion of Basil II, 11th century

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”
(Jonah 4:9)

Advent devotionals do not usually start here, with the prophet Jonah angrily beneath his vine, wanting to see Ninevah destroyed and his vine restored. But I’m beginning here this year for two reasons. The first is that I am angry, much of the time, and I know that 2020 has made many people angry, so for Advent to transform us this year we might need to enter it just as we are and watch to see what God does to change us. The second is that, like Jonah, I often miss what God is really doing, and how it saves me and the world, because I am too busy raging over what I want Him to be doing instead. And so I enter this Advent as Jonah, wanting to do what God wants yet torn apart by my own rage and the way it blinds me to the truth of God-with-us.

I am also struck by the ways that anger points to Advent. It may not seem so at first, but we are so often angered by the now and not yet of life, by the glory and the goodness we feel we should be living in – that we feel is our right – and the many ways in which reality does not conform to our expectations, though we see glimmers of it everywhere. In every day there are signs of God-transfiguring glory – vines that burst out of nowhere to give us shade; grace that pulls us out of the whale’s belly and into – what? Everyday obedience. Hot sun that wearies us. And the dull, humiliating necessity of loving our enemies. The anger that simmers or explodes at these daily realities can, if viewed through the prism of Advent, be found to reveal our deepest longings and the agony that comes from them being thwarted each day. At the heart of this is the truth for which God created us and which He is redeeming in the world even now.

Are we right to be angry? No, I for one am not, most of the time. But the things that make me angry, whether righteous or not, can tell me much about how I expect the world to be, and consequently what I expect God to do for me. Some of the reasons for my anger reveal the things that I know are not right in this world and that need to be made right. Others point to that which is not right in me. All this I must bring to God in Advent, so I can speak truthfully to Him in the darkness of waiting and let His Spirit speak to me. I must sit with Jonah and God and let Him ask us both, Are you right to be angry? And then I must stop and listen to what He has to say next.

Will you join me and Jonah this Advent and listen too?

Compline: After Christian Wiman

Man is what he is and he is everything that he is in the decision of faith

Karl Barth
And faith, or belief, is more
direction than assent
to a thought or a fact; it is
movement towards
the thing from which others turn,
and from which you may have turned,
will have turned,
for hole-hearted love is never whole-hearted,

and yet
you correct, in daily
micromovements, to turn
back, again, again, and dwell -
for faith also is dwelling,
an end-of-day settling,
body and soul, weary and fighting,
ending your fighting,
and drooping, falling
into infinite arms.

Ubi Caritas: For World Mental Health Day

What happens, he wonders,
shattered by the mess, by the day,
by the constancy of demands,
by the ever-present lesson of patience,
by the daily failure to learn this patience -

What happens, he asks, when my love is broken?

Nothing happens. The day goes on,
all is reset as night arrives;
all but the weight that pulls at his shoulders,
that sags like his soul has a leak in its middle.
Nothing happens;
night is as long and restless as the one before,
and morning will come with its worries anew.

But this still happens. The glory happens,
though it does not shout or cry.
Day on day, God dwells in this mystery:
that love can wake up
tomorrow
and do
what love has done today.

Matins

O God,
As the sun rises, again,
a little sheepish, over
this hesitant day,
prepare the way
for my often straying feet.
May my yesterdays not repeat
except in the way Your grace has of giving
every new day for new ways of living.

Keep me. Make me new:
I have not loved
as I ought to have loved;
I have not taken the good as gift;
I have not said Yes to all from Your hand.
Whatever day holds - to sit, walk or stand -
may it be You
in every breath - You.

World without end,
and if world should end.
Father, Son, Spirit: Amen.

Chesed

To think
where darkest nights have taken this soul,
and how thin
the membrane between life
and death, how loud
the Accuser has screamed
to pierce the membrane and throw me through;

yet here
I stand, with no reason
beside You and the sheer
leap into faith that saved,
the soft
belly of love into which I fell;

so here
I stand, with my
eldest in my arms while
he reaches the clothesline,
spins like the chuckling
Father who set this orbit to go,
reaches and carries, and calls out Again!

So why not,
when held
in steadfast love; why not
watch
it spin again and shout
the dead Accuser dumb.

Into Silence

Attention is the beginning of devotion.

Mary Oliver
Startled by the beating of my own heart,
the pounding
of my thoughts in between my ears,
I have found
noise to be quieter than silence, have brokered
terms of peace armed
with a flashing screen.
Nothing frightens like
the thought that you may not be enough;
You are enough, are All.
In deep
silence I meet
the noise of fear, and greet
Your warmest, primeval whisper.