Friday, February 23, 2007

I'd rather be dead! (Part 2)

Part 1 of this story can be found here.

My basic approach to scripture can be found here.

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You would have thought Jonah would get the message that God was serious about his going to Nineveh. But, like most hard-hearted human beings (and I count myself amongst them, I’m sorry to say), Jonah wasn’t willing to give up his privileged position as one of God’s Chosen People to spread the love a little bit.

I strongly suspect that he thought the worth of God’s love would be cheapened if it were freely given even to those godless, pagan Ninevites.

I suspect that feeling is at the heart of the church’s recent controversies over the ordination of women and the full inclusion of GLBT people—the fear that, if God offers Her love to everyone, there won’t be enough to go around, or it won’t mean anything because everyone will have it.

As Christians, we must understand the love of God as something costly. After all, we believe that God poured Herself into human skin in order to redeem us from a Hell of our own making.

At some instinctive level, we recognize that the cost of doing that was unimaginably high for God, and we have some deeply felt need to recognize the price we believe She was willing to pay to span the unbridgeable distance between Creator and created.

We grasp, however imperfectly, the significance of cost---and we live in a world run by markets and “supply and demand.”

Things that are in abundant supply are not costly. Not “special.” Not really desirable.

Bottom line---common things are not worth giving your life for. And our faith demands that we give everything we have and are and will be to the One who made us.

Faith, in its highest and purest form, is dearly bought with heart, soul, mind, and body.

As reflections of God’s love for us, human love and fidelity are also seen (rightly, in my view) as costly and important values. Because we understand that “marriage” (define that how you will) between two people is endangered and cheapened when one of them gives love outside the relationship.

Many of us know this all too well. We’ve experienced the pain of finding that the one we loved wasn’t honest or faithful, and it can be devastating. Given the limits on our all-too-human understanding of love, it is hard to believe that God can love me infinitely and faithfully when She is loving those Ninevites/gays/conservatives/out-group-of-your-choice. She can’t think of me as special or beloved when She’s messing about with “them.”

We want our special status as God’s Beloved---we don’t want to open the circle and allow Her to love others as well, because we know that we cannot love that freely and keep our love pure and holy.

And it’s true. We can’t do that. We aren’t strong enough, patient enough, willing enough---infinite enough---to love the way God can and does.

So we act like Jonah.

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Jonah finally went to Nineveh, but he did it muttering under his breath the entire way.

I know that attitude well---since my 10-year-old son displays it several times a week. It’s the “You can make me do it, but you can’t make me LIKE it!” approach.

God really doesn’t give a damn whether Jonah likes it or not---as long as the work gets done, She’s happy.

And Jonah was right from the get-go. Those cursed Ninevites repent when they hear his call. They actually repentdespite my strong suspicion that Jonah insulted them in every way he could possibly think of, so that they wouldn’t. They turn to the Lord and put on sackcloth and ashes to show their contrition.

Even their KING gets into the act. In fact, the king actually goes them one better. He decrees that even the herd animals will have to fast and wear sackcloth! (What do you want to bet he was a Leo drama queen too?)

And God---because She is just and merciful---relents. Jonah knew God was going to wimp out and let them live, and now She has.

So what does he do?

His response is to beg God to let him die.

Think about that for a minute.

Jonah says, in essence, “I’d rather be dead than have you love the likes of them!”

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Most Christians are aware of the doctrine of Original Sin, but I don’t believe that many of us like it very much. The Orthodox* think that the doctrine of original sin is where the western church began to go so very badly wrong, and, in the main, I would agree with them---mostly because that doctrine has become so tied up with the notion of sex as the ultimate evil. As I understand their arguments, the Orthodox* believe it was Augustine’s formulation of original sin that has turned most western Christians into thinly veiled Gnostics with a deep distaste for the body.

(BTW, please note the capital “O”---despite my heterodoxy on the issue of why God created us, I still claim the small-“o”-orthodox label, since I can say the Nicene Creed without my fingers crossed. Most days.)

But the case of Jonah pushes me to consider that Augustine may have been on to something.

There is something so broken in us…so wounded and full of the need to hate and exclude. We are so desperate for love, yet often so unwilling to see anyone else receive it.

We long, I believe, for the ultimate love and reunion with the One who created us, but our brokenness always seems to get in the way.

Thankfully, God knows this about us and refuses to countenance our childish attempts at exclusion. This is where the vision of God as Father or Mother is so helpful to me, because I see my own little ones jockeying for position with Mom. I’ve learned to counter their petulant question “Which one of us do you love more?!” with a list of the ways each of them is different.

Special.

Beloved.

I suspect God does the same thing with us…if only we would listen.

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Jonah goes to the edge of the city and builds himself a booth to sit and sulk in. The Bible says he went to watch what would happen to the city---hoping beyond hope that God will have an 11th hour epiphany and wipe out those detestable reprobates. That maybe, if Jonah is really lucky, the Ninevites’ piety will be shown to be a sham and they’ll get the Sodom and Gomorrah treatment.

It’s hot in that booth. Dry and dusty and so very, very hot. Somehow, I suspect that the fire of Jonah’s self-righteous anger made it even hotter…

So God, to teach him a lesson, causes a bush to grow up over his head and give Jonah some much-needed shade. For the first time in this story, Jonah takes pleasure in something. The bush is beautiful, and it keeps the hot sun from beating down on his unprotected pate. For a moment, he is allowed to revel in this gift from God. But, quick as lightening, God sends a worm to kill the bush and causes a “sultry wind” to begin blowing, making Jonah miserable and angry enough, once again, to demand that God kill him.

Jonah does not get the last word in this story. In the Biblical account, he does not repent of his own murderous instincts, his jealousy, or his anger. We never hear another word after he admits that he is “angry enough to die.”

God ends the story by saying:

You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?

In other words, “I love them too. Deal with it.”

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I like to think that Jonah eventually came to see the good in the Ninevites. That, as he sat, sulking and suffering in his hot little booth, some kindly Ninevite woman took pity on the grumpy prophet and brought him food and water.

At first, he would have eyed it with disdain. “Food for idols!” he would probably have thought. But after a while his hunger and thirst would have gotten the better of him, and he would have found that the Ninevites had some great food he hadn’t tasted before.

Maybe the food-bearing woman was a widow…and rather attractive at that. And she wanted to hear him tell her about the One True God, and…

Well, you get the drift.

I like to think that Jonah was drawn into relationship with those he most despised, and that he came to bless God for Her mercy and justice for the Ninevites. That he came to be grateful God had not honored his request for death and thankful that She had held his life to be more dear than he had. I like to think Jonah learned to laugh at the arrogance of his demand that God love only those he deemed worthy.

There are parallels here, of course, to the situation currently going on in my church. To me, Jonah represents those who would keep the church “pure” by denying the gifts of women and GLBT people. God keeps sending the word that She loves everyone---but the modern-day Jonahs would rather be dead than include “those people” in their communities of faith.

But I also recognize my own Jonah-like tendency to run from God’s call and to wish a bad end (metaphorically speaking) on those whose views, attitudes, and action are so painful to me. It is very tempting to build the booth and then wait for the lightening bolts to start flying…

I pray that I can incorporate God’s lessons for the ancient prophet into my own life. That I can recognize that my life is not my own, and remember that it is my mission to bring mercy and peace into the world. That, even if I cannot see God in the face of those I consider my enemies, I can be the face of God for them. That I can embody the message of love and grace found in the story of angry, hard-hearted Jonah.

And I pray that it won’t take a thunderstorm, or a mutant fish, to force me to do it.