Wednesday 9 October 2013

Learning to pray - and to love - with Jonah

The first reading of today, from the final part of the short Book of Jonah, reminded me of our lonely little kitten in the garden, and the way four or five of us were gathered around it the other day, including our neighbour Natasha. In parting, Natasha said she loved animals. And then: it's much easier to take care of animals. It's easier than taking care of human beings. And I said, how true. At the most a kitten can scratch you or bite you. But human beings are capable of much more.

In chapter 4 of the Book of Jonah we see God gently teaching a lesson to a Jonah who is "so angry that he could die." God makes a plant grow over Jonah's hut to give him shade, and then he makes it die, and Jonah is furious, once again so angry that he could die. And God: you feel so much for this plant for which you did nothing. Do you wonder that I feel for the thousands of people in Nineveh? Do you have reason to be angry?

The Jonah story is wonderful: short, and to the point. In the first chapter, Jonah runs away, "flees to Tarshish." In the second, he is swallowed by a great fish and learns to pray in the belly of the whale. In the third, he preaches, finally, all the while hoping the people of Nineveh, pagans all, goiim, would not convert. In the fourth, he actually pitches camp outside the city, waiting to see what would happen. And that is where God catches up once again with him.

Eugene H. Peterson: don't flee to Tarshish. Learn instead to pray in the belly of the whale. Learn to face the darkness within. "The religious must learn to live with his or her own darkness, with the interior horror of temptation and fantasy. Salvation affects the whole of the psyche; to try to escape boredom, sexual frustration, restlessness, unsatisfied desire by searching for fresh tasks and fresh ideas is to attempt to seal off these areas from grace." Peterson at 20-21, quoting Rowan Williams, Christian Spirituality (Atlanta: John Know, 1980) 94-95.

And the main point of the Book: a gentle rebuke to Israel's nationalistic exclusivism. A call to universalism: God is the God of all peoples. We don't need this lesson? Perhaps. But don't we all tend to want to work with and for those we like, ignoring those we don't? And is there not the all too human and frequent temptation to think that we are sent to work only for "our own people"?

But I love Jonah. He is utterly human, utterly imperfect, a prophet who actually runs away from God's command, someone who does not want people to listen to God's word, and he can get very angry, and even better, express his anger to God. But he is called nonetheless, and he is sent, and educated gently and not so gently by God. 

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