Swimming away from God. I thought that would be a cute, catchy way to draw you into the ancient novella or short, short story called by the name of the prophet who is its central and only named character. Jonah, as I mentioned last week, was the Prophet of Discontent. Desperately wanting all stories in which God is involved to have happy endings, Jonah disappoints us; his life and his story have tragic endings. Though Jonah is a fictional character, he must represent many people, past and present, who die in a state of anger and depression because they couldn’t force God to do what they wanted God to do in this world.
One of the three Isaiah prophets gets how absurd it is for God to do what is unintelligible even in the minds of God’s most faithful people, and he puts these words into the mouth of God: “My ways are not your ways,” Isaiah’s God says to the faithful. It was kind of a cop out. God’s people, and all others who make an effort, should be able to understand how and why God is calling the shots if, in fact, God is doing so.
There are plenty of people who believe there is no great mystery to what God does; we observe it and take it at face value. What we see is what it is. Thus, unless they win the lotto, they gradually come to resent God and even to hate God. There are no death bed conversions for these people; they leave this world with hearts filled with antagonism toward God.
When the great preacher, John Claypool, who developed a highly regarded preaching method popular in the late 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s called “Confessional Preaching” lost his preteen daughter, Laura Lu, to leukemia he, naturally, was devastated. Understatement. He like his friend, Carlisle Marney, both liberal Southern Baptist preachers when there were such things, and there were, didn’t play games with what was attributed to God. Marney, writing from the Myers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, sent his letter of sympathy to Claypool at the Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, and in Marney’s pastoral letter of deep concern, he made a statement that started millions when the Claypool story was published. Wrote Marney, “God has a lot of explaining to do one of these days.” I don’t believe that either of the great preachers believed God strikes children with horrid diseases in order to remove them from this world. Even so, given the power and control accorded God by many who regard themselves as people of God, there’s at least a general “why” question in order in such a theological framework.
So, we visited with Jonah last week to look at the issue of malcontentment. Today, we come again to visit with Jonah, but for a different reason. Today, we want to know what it’s like to run from God when God has given us a specific mission or ministry. The reason Jonah is worth this second visit is because he had one of the most creative ways ever conceived of for trying to get away from God. He ran. He boated. Finally, he swam.
So, here’s a part of the conclusion to the story for those of you who want to go ahead and your naps underway. You can’t get away from God. You can’t run away. You can’t swim away. You can’t think yourself away. How can I make such a claim? I appeal to the philosopher or theologian whom the Apostle Paul had in mind when he preached to an exclusively polytheistic crowd, “In God, we live and move and have our being,” or in another acceptable translation of Paul’s sermonic comment, “In God, we live and move and are.”
If this is true, and I think it is, then there’s no means of getting away from God. God is a part of what it is to be human. We can’t have some kind of spiritual surgery and have God removed–though neurotheologians joining with neurologists may one day be able to do this for the confirmed and convinced atheist. Until then, we must live with the reality that we can’t get away from God, no matter how far we run–as Jonah tried. God remains within us no matter where we go. What we can do, however, if we want to be rid of the benefits of God in us or God with us is to drive an inner wedge within us somewhere so that we prevent any of the benefits of the divine presence from happening to us, for us.
The writer of the book of Jonah may not yet have known that God is unable to be geographically limited, that God is omnipresent, in all places at once. On the other hand, not knowing exactly when the book was written, the writer may very well have known how futile it is for humans to try to put geographical distance between themselves and God; thus she or he, that is the writer of the story, may be using the novella as a parable. The writer may not be thinking about geographical distance at all, but rather a journey inward to try to accomplish the same purpose that the fictional prophet of discontent attempted by running and then swimming half way around the world to try to get to a place where God couldn’t find him and, thus, couldn’t speak to him.
Without ever leaving our pews or our easy chairs or our favorite authors who do us the favor of not trying to mess us up with new information, we may attempt numerous inward journeys in our lives to get away from God, God’s instruction, and especially God’s call for us to take on some task that will mess with the comfort level we’ve worked so hard to establish right where we are–with the job we do, within the circle in which we are willing to travel, and with the theological principles we have claimed evidently for a lifetime. Once we struggle to find a place of theological comfort, we don’t want to be challenged, confused, or moved. This attitude works very well for those who love creeds.
The thought that we could get to a place where we’d never need to learn or have to learn anything new is absolutely heretical–and I mean “heretical” in a bad way, not in the way that so many Silversiders long for and adore. Some of the biblical writers insisted that God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever.” Others pictured God, the God taken to see all and know all past, present, and future, as changing God’s own mind–and in one or two cases, even repenting for having made the wrong decision. Be very, very careful, my friends, what you embrace as eternal and unchanging; you may just find yourselves up the creek without a piddle!
The book of Jonah has some literary and theological flourishes for sure. One example is that God doesn’t call us to take on specific tasks in such a way that we simply follow with blind obedience, as if we have no choice at all or as if we have no choice if we want the love that is God is remain with us.
The way call stories really work regardless of how they are recorded is that the need finds us and won’t let us go. God is neither coercing nor haranguing us, neither threatening us nor forcing an ultimatum in our faces. We see a need, and somehow we know that is the task for which we were made. Once that happens, we will not rest terribly well until we say, “OK, I will give my life to that challenge.”
Had Jonah been an historic person, the story wouldn’t have been about God requiring him to go to Nineveh to preach to the arch enemies of his people; it would have been about Jonah going to a world missions conference and hearing a former missionary to Nineveh giving her or his life preaching to a stubborn lot taking pride in keeping their backs toward the God of the Hebrew people who, when the dust was removed, was seen to be the God of all people and for all people. There is was just one of them, one God I mean; not hoards of them. The old missionary at the world missions conference told of a few instances across the many years of serving God among the Assyrians when an isolated Ninevite, against unimaginable odds, embraced the one and only God there was or is.
Jonah didn’t realize how moved he was by that story. He couldn’t get it out of his mind, though, no matter what he did. Back at home and busy with the ministry he loved so well there, at every waking turn and in more than a few dreams, he would hear these words or see them written in the sand, in Hebrew of course: “Ninevites need God too.”
He did everything in the world he could to get that image out of his consciousness. Even his analyst who told him that the power of the Assyrians (of which the Ninevites were a part as residents of the Assyrian capital) was a symbol for his father’s loveless power over him as a child, which he continued to resent and rebuff. He was drawn to it, said his psychiatrist, because first choice for all of us would be to have parents who love us, but if they didn’t for whatever reason we are incapable of rewriting history; we have to let go of the past and get on with the present and the future. Forty sessions of analysis should do the trick.
This promise of help sounded great to Jonah, and he began his therapeutic program. As much as he liked and trusted his mental health professional, the message would not leave him. Before his mind’s hearing and in the seeing of his mind as well, “Ninevites need God too.”
The truth is, his long trip away from his familiar surroundings wasn’t an effort to run from God per se; it was an effort to run what he had known since the old missionary preached that he had to do. What a horrible task to be cut out for, he kept thinking to himself, but there it was.
I’ve told many of you, some of you a couple of times, about attending the combined graduation exercises for the Harvard University Medical and Dental Schools when my friend, Ricky Grisson, was being confirmed as a Medical Doctor. A couple of students and a professor from each school were selected to speak, as opposed to bringing in outside speakers. As we heard from the students, their plans were grand and glorious and so, ostensibly, was their income potential. The exception was a med student who, perhaps, was one of the last to speak, and he wasn’t going anywhere. Coveted Harvard diploma and degree in hand, he was going to go home for lunch after the ceremony, get a bite to eat, and then see patients at the impoverished clinic where he’d been working since he did his first clinicals.
Imagining early on that this was just a starting point and that he wouldn’t be dodging bullets, treating patients dying from AIDS because they were too proud to take the medicines everyone would know were for AIDS patients alone, and sewing up wounded gang members who refused to identify themselves for the rest of his life, the years and the hours at the clinic had changed him. By and by the time for graduation had rolled around, and he knew deep in his heart before the dean asked him what his plans were beyond the ivied walls that except for moving out of Harvard student housing nothing would be changing for him. I don’t know if God were in the picture for that student in any kind of way, but if so he wasn’t planning to run from what had become more than obvious to him. In any case, I doubt seriously that God grabbed him at some point by the lapels of his lab coat and shook him and said, “You’re going to be a doctor all right, but nothing fancy for you. These patients of yours whom most others regard as losers you see as people in need and in pain. This is the healing ministry I require of you.”
No, I don’t think God ever works through anything process that is in any way coercive. Instead, I’d guess that over the years, this young doc had worked with these people and seen their souls. Despite their often rough and tough exteriors, their souls looked the same as every other soul he’d ever uncovered as a physician. He couldn’t get them out of this mind, and he wondered who’d be there for them if he weren’t. In time, that became his calling, and he was too smart to run from it.
Jesus saved himself a run from God and/or the ministry that grasped him by spending forty days in some wilderness at the early part of his ministry. Had he been helping his father, Joseph, in the carpenter shop one day when out of the blue God had said to him, “You’ve figured it out by now haven’t you? You know what you’re here, don’t you? The Spirit of the Lord is upon you, because God has anointed you to bring good news to the poor. God has sent you to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It could have happened that way, but I think things happened differently. I suspect that from a very young age, Jesus had been sensitive to what was going on around him spiritually speaking. We know for example that at his bar mitzvah the rabbis at the great Jerusalem Temple who’d seen hundreds of these ceremonies were astounded with what Jesus grasped before he’d even hit his teen years. Preachers and faith healers were common place in Jesus’ day. It’s not a stretch to imagine that he become preoccupied with making people whole physically, emotionally, spiritually. He didn’t run forward and scream out, “I can do this. The rest of you get lost!” He gradually realized that these people in need, in whose lives he might be able to make some positive difference, were ever present in his consciousness. The calling to try to make others whole grabbed him and wouldn’t let him go.
Francis Thompson was a brilliant English poet–according to Chesterton, the only poet with talent enough to follow in the footsteps of Browning. Thompson was educated at Ushaw College after which he studied medicine at Owens College in Manchester. Studying came easy for him, but his studies never captivated him. Medical degree in hand, he never practiced medicine. Instead, he moved to London to become a writer. Things didn’t go so well for him there. The only work he could get was menial labor. In his sadness he became addicted to opium and often could hold no job at all; the police around London classified him a “street vagrant” for many years.
Somehow he was able to continue to write. He took the risk in 1888 of sending some samples of his work to a poetry journal titled Merrie England edited by Wilfrid and Alice Meynell. They were thrilled with what they read and saw the great promise in his poetic skills. The Meynells arranged for an apartment for Thompson, and they were instrumental in getting his first book published in 1893 carrying the surprising title, Poems.
Poor nutrition, his exposure to the elements to try to work, and his addiction all took their tolls on his health. Despite his poor health, he was able to publish two or three additional volumes of poetry and a couple of noteworthy essays and could keep the bills paid, more or less, when he had to move to Wales and later Storrington to be cared for as an invalid. At his lowest point, Thompson decided that suicide was the answer, but when all the plans were laid he had a vision of a young poet, Thomas Chatterton, who’d taken his own life 100 years earlier. This forced Thompson to take into account how many poems must have gone unwritten as a result so he decided to press on despite his physical and emotional pain.
As his money ran out, a prostitute befriended him. Evidently she did well professionally. He never told his public her name, but she shared her home with Thompson and her income when he needed funds. He called her in one of his poems his “savior.” When she disappeared, Thompson didn’t last long. He died of tuberculosis when he was only 48 years old.
His most famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” (excerpts of which were read earlier in the Gathering) describes Thompson’s poetic and opium influenced sense that God was always out to find him, chasing after him like a hound at the hunt. We have already established, I hope, that God doesn’t chase us down to force us to become what we are unwilling to become. Instead, God is within each of us, and when we wrestle with God about our destinies, we are wrestling with the God who never leaves us, not the God as outside force who chases us down like a dog.
There are three of Jesus’ parables about lost things from the Gospel of Luke. Many of you know one or more of these stories. There’s a lost sheep. There’s a lost coin, and there’s a lost son. In the first two cases, the person who lost something can go out in search for it. A shepherd, though leaving the other sheep vulnerable, searches for the sheep that is lost. The woman who loses one of only ten coins she has to her name can search high and low until she finds the lost coin. But in the third parable in the trilogy, a father’s son leaves him and home, and the father who is a symbol for God in the poignant parable cannot go out in search of his son. His love for the son stays the same, but he knows that he can’t go out in search of a son who has said, “My place is elsewhere in this world.” All the father can do, which is exactly what he does in the parable, is wait for the son to return. There is no guarantee that he will return. None at all.
Good news, though. Indeed the son does wake up one morning in a pig sty rooting around with the hogs for a bite or two of some pea pods thrown out for that day’s nourishment. Suddenly, he has a clear vision of who he was, and who he could have been had he stayed with who and what he’d been raised to be. The vision was now altered, but the going back home part was not. He knew that they only place where life could ever be even half of what it had been was back at home. That vision will not let go of him until he is back in his father’s presence expecting a reprimand, but instead gets the place of honor at a family feast.
The brilliant Thompson surely had a vision of his own wholeness, undergirded by divine love. This is where he longed to be in life, where he saw himself at his best. This is what he knew down deep he was capable of becoming under the right circumstances, circumstances that tragically never came around long enough for Francis Thompson to hold on to; or so he thought.
You might be interested in knowing his poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” is the source for the phrase, “with all deliberate speed.” This was used by the Supreme Court in Brown, case II, which has been referred to as “the remedy phase of the famous decision on school desegregation.”
What human need has gripped you in terms of your ability to help? That is your calling. Will you embrace it or run from it? Will you own it or swim away from it as if swimming away from God Godself? The vision may chase you; God will not. God will love you, whatever you decide.
O Love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee; I give thee back the life I owe, That in thine ocean depths its flow May richer, fuller be.
O light that foll’west all my way, I yield my flick’ring torch to thee; My heart restores its borrowed ray, That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain, That morn shall tearless be.