Friday, October 18, 2013

Prayers From The Belly Of The Beast

Our OT Lesson this week is the first chapter of the book of Jonah.  Jonah was a prophet who is mentioned for one of his oracles in 2 Kings14 :25.

Nineveh was the flourishing capitol city of the Assyrian Empire.  The Assyrians had a reputation for brutality almost unmatched in the ancient world.  The seem to have been not only masters of brutality and torture, but were extremely vocal in their bragging about the grisly deaths they inflicted on their enemies.  Their statues and carvings often portrayed these.

Now there seem to be at least two ways that a prophet might speak.  One is an oracle.  You didn't have to speak it directly to the one involved.  The prophet Nahum's entire book is an oracle concerning the judgment of God on the city of Nineveh.  But the other way is to speak the word of the Lord directly to the person or persons involved.  When this happens, the one spoken to has an opportunity for repentance and escape from whatever the consequences of the judgment involved were.  Nathan's word to David about Bathsheba is an example of this.

So...when in the opening verse of Jonah God says, "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come up before me," Jonah knows EXACTLY what is going on....after all, he's a prophet....this is what he does.

Jonah is no dummy.  He knows that when God sends a prophet to warn a people that there is a chance that those people will be spared if they repent.  And Jonah does not want Nineveh to repent.  Forgiveness for Nineveh is not on Jonah's 'bucket list;'  in fact it would give him great joy to see them wind up frying in a firestorm of sulfur.  Besides, going to speak to Nineveh is dangerous.  There is no guarantee that this word will be well received.  It would be like being sent by God to speak God's judgment to Berlin during the 3rd Reich, or to the Than Shwe in Burma, or Charles Taylor in Liberia.  One's life would be at risk for speaking...and even worse, in Jonah's eyes, there might be repentance....God might forgive.

It is no wonder that Jonah's next move is to run like a scalded cat in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh.  He heads for Tarshish-a western seaport in Spain at the outer edge of the then known world.  There was no way Jonah was going to let God have the chance to pardon that rotten, stinking mass of humanity if he had anything to do with off he went.  Then, when the storm comes up, and the sailors ask Jonah what to do with him, he would rather commit "suicide by sailor" than go do what God has asked.  So they throw him overboard and he winds up in the belly of this beast of the sea.

We need to be very careful with this story.  If we're not, it disintegrates into a cute story about a big fish that we use for VBS skits about how we should always do what God tells us to.  In fact, for many of us, this is still the lesson we carry-if we carry any lesson at all-away from this story.  When I asked my grown daughter, Kara (a solid lay theologian in her own right), about her thoughts on this story, her interpretation was that she'd always seen it as "God's gonna have you do what Go's gonna have you do as soon as your tantrum is over."  This, unfortunately makes Jonah look like a child sent to his room until he quit tantruming about eating his broccoli and agreed to clean his plate.

This is, in fact, a multilayered story about obedience to God' and about the demands of faith in regard to love of enemy and forgiveness of those who have caused us great pain and harm, who have wounded us most deeply.  And, I would posit, it is also a story about where we wind up when we refuse those possibilities.

The sea, you may remember, was for people of Jonah's day, the place of Chaos.  Demons dwelt there, and monsters.  Is it possible that to refuse the opportunity for forgiveness to our enemies that we are choosing to plunge our self into chaos?  Does our clinging to our rage and our desires for revenge mean that we come to live in the 'belly of the beast' where our own healing cannot take place?

Please do not get me wrong.  By "forgiveness" I do not mean patting people on the head and saying, "there, there, it's've done horrible things that hurt incredible numbers of people...but it doesn't matter."  Forgiveness is the end point of a process that begins with speaking the truth about what has been done to us, or others, and holding people accountable for their actions.  We are only able to truly offer it when we have looked at our own wounds and cried out for justice.  And, finally, like any gift (and forgiveness is a gift), it has to be picked up.  I can offer my forgiveness, but you do not have to receive it.  However, by offering it, I free myself from being chained to you by my rage and revenge.  I free myself to work on healing my wounds and moving on with my life without dragging you behind me like a weight.

Forgiveness is also one of the ways in which we participate in God's work of redeeming this world and hugging it back to God's self.  We join Christ on the cross as he says, "Father forgive them," and participate in Jesus' work as our lives become conduits for the mercy we have been shown in our own lives, about our own sins, to flow out to others through us.

The story of Jonah, when viewed this way, is a very human picture of the struggle to live a life not shackled to the wounds and traumas of the past...fantasizing about revenge, and waiting for God to destroy those who have hurt us.  It may be worth remembering that when scripture says, "vengeance is mine, says the Lord," it's talking about an option that God appears to have traded in on the possibility of redeeming the world through the sacrifice of His own Son.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Suffering And Job's Friends

We've been taking a look at Job for the last couple of weeks.  And in the last day or so I have been gaining a deeper sympathy for Job's friends.  Not for their legalism and their insistence that Job must have done something wrong; but for the fact that they said really stupid things with good intentions.

In the course of pastoral ministry you encounter many people who are struggling and suffering.  Some are members of the congregation; some are connected but not members; others are total strangers that you meet once when they come to the church's door seeking help and are never seen again.  Others are "frequent fliers"-folks who show up for help on a regular basis seeking assistance with food, rent, or whatever else.

Sometimes we do a fantastic job of helping folks.  And at First Baptist Gaithersburg the folks work really hard to make that happen.  But sometimes, either out of fatigue or stupidity or misinterpretation I have been known to open my mouth and stick my foot waaayyyyyy in there.  Right up to the knee cap.  It isn't pretty; and sometimes it damages things and people we care about.  Just like Job's friends.

When this happens I'm reminded of the wisdom of the 12 Step programs where we are told to 'when we are wrong, promptly admit it' and to 'make amends whenever possible except when to do so would cause harm to them (the one we've injured) or others.'  I kind of thing this is what is being pointed at when God instructs Job's three friends to go to Job and have him make a sacrifice on their behalf.  They also leave him a gift.  There is a healing that takes place here relationally between Job and his friends.  Job, by the way, both makes the sacrifice and accepts the gifts.

The transformation at the end of Job is offered not only to Job, but to his friends as well.  Maybe putting ourselves in there place can be transformative to us as well.