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Jan 26 2015

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On Jonah and me and running from God.

Hello again, my friends. Some of you, my precious regular readers, have noticed that my blog has been on hiatus for the past few weeks. I have been insanely busy, as have all who work in the Church during the Christmas season, and I have been insanely tired, and I’ve been unwell – but I’d been all those things before and yet felt compelled to write regularly enough. So why stop now?

I came face to face with the underlying reason for my hiatus this week in church, listening to the Sunday readings, and had to admit to myself: What’s been happening in my life is deeper than fatigue and busy schedule. For many reasons, not the least of which is that I had to suspend my discernment of religious life, I’ve been feeling exhausted on some spiritual level. I’ve been grieving, I suppose. I’ve been feeling defeated. I’ve been hiding from myself.

Writing requires that I look inside my heart, connect with the world and with my calling, but in the past few weeks, every time I thought of what I wanted to share with you, something was lacking, and I didn’t have the words. I’ve been running from God.

Cemetery by Ivan Vicencio

“Cemetery” by Ivan Vicencio (cropped)

 

This past Sunday, all the readings had a common sense of urgency to them. In the letter to Corinthians, Paul talks about the world passing away. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus talks of the same and calls his disciples, who drop everything and follow him. And the first reading – the one that really got me thinking – is from the Book of Jonah.

You all know the story of Jonah, I’m sure. It’s a short piece in the Tanakh, a piece of biblical fiction with a set of morals wrapped in a dazzling tapestry of adventurous images. He was an unwilling prophet, Jonah. God tapped him on the shoulder out of the blue and sent him to preach repentance in the city of Nineveh, to the hated Assyrians, the sworn enemies of the Israelites, the epitome of all things sinful and evil. Jonah’s job was to give the Ninevites one last chance, and naturally, he didn’t want to go.

Jonah to TarshishJonah was not alone in his reluctance to prophesize. In the Bible, most prophets demured when they were first called and came up with an array of excuses to get out of the hard, lonely, and dangerous life of a prophet: Jeremiah told God he was too young; Isaiah claimed he was unworthy; Moses tried to beg off on the grounds that no one would listen to him, that he couldn’t name the god who sent him, and that he had a speech impediment. God, of course, never took “no” for an answer, so Jonah didn’t bother begging. Having received his assignment, he promptly took off in the opposite direction – on a ship to Tarshish.

This is the most famous part of the book: the big storm, Jonah gets thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale (which in the Bible is actually a “leviathan”), and delivered in the stomach of the beast right where he needs to be and vomited out onto the shore. Without options, he walks into Nineveh and mutters God’s message: “Repent, or in 40 days you will be destroyed.” To his astonishment and disappointment, Ninevites immediately repent, put on sackcloth, and declare a fast. It is another comedic element of the story that Jonah, the worst of the prophets, is also in a way the most successful one ever described.

In any case, seeing the Assyrians’ reaction, God cancels the fiery punishment a la Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jonah skulks off to a nearby hill to sulk, which prompts the final part of the book: a conversation between him and God. It’s a marvelous moral, one of my favorites. God is one for all, it says, the creator and parent of all people, not just the God of Israel. God is glad to forgive – just waiting to forgive – and it’s never too late. Prejudice is petty and stupid, it says. Even your enemy is God’s child, and you don’t fathom the depth of his spiritual life. A prophet is God’s channel, it says, not God’s favorite pet: you are here to serve.

Jonah in whaleI know and love all these aspects of the Book of Jonah, and its humor of the absurd. But this week, I was taken by something else it talks about: the futility of running from God.

As are the other two Sunday readings, the story of Jonah is permeated by a sense of urgency, both for the prophet and for the Ninevites, and both of them try to ignore it until it’s almost too late. Only in the stomach of a fish – forcibly carried by a non-sentient creature obedient to God toward his mission – does Jonah come to grips with what he is called to do, his path in life, and even then his heart is not in it. And it takes the Assyrians the sight of an enemy preacher in their midst threatening impending doom to take a sober look at their lives. They both do, though, at the last minute. Because you can’t run from God. You can’t hide from yourself. You can’t be something other than what you’re created to be. You can’t deceive your own nature and not drown in the stormy darkness. You can’t avoid your calling and not burn up in the fire of your own despair. That’s what the book is about: You can’t run from God, at least not forever.

questioningI can only imagine that most of us have had some thought like that at one time or another: Am I true to myself? Am I doing what I was born to do? Am I postponing something that I should be doing now? Does my life require some radical change because somehow it’s not…me? Am I robbing the world of a gift I was charged with delivering – am I burying my talent? And if yes, is it because I lack courage, confidence, hope, energy? Is it because I don’t really know what I must do, just know that I must do something different?

I don’t know some of the answers to these questions, but I know a few. On January 1st, the feast of Mary Mother of God, my parish priest suggested in his homily that for our New Year’s resolutions this year we make ourselves more of a blessing to others. Here’s my resolution:

I shall endeavor to simplify my professional life. I will try to say “no” more often, judging my time and ability more realistically. I will write.

I will write.

I have been called by God to write and filled with the Spirit of the word. I will not prioritize other concerns, save love and care for others around me, above this calling.

I will prepare the manuscript of The Way to Jerusalem for publication and begin to look for representation.

I will begin to write my next book. I already know what it will be.

The Book of Jonah is very short and very funny. But there’s enough in it to think about for a lifetime. This week, here’s the thought: I do not want to hide from God. God is my very heart, the reason that I breathe. I do not want to run from God. Why do I keep trying?

 

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