Wondering about Jonah

“Wondering About Jonah”

Rachel Coleman

Recently I had the privilege of preaching twice during a sermon series on the Book of Jonah. Although it is hard to pick a favorite book of the Bible (the #1 slot usually goes to whichever book I’m studying at any given moment), Jonah would probably show up consistently in my “top five” for the Old Testament. It’s a dramatic story, in which the “word of God for the people of God” isn’t really the words at all, but rather the prophet himself. Jonah’s actions, attitudes, and theology serve as an embodied parable—one with as much gut-punch impact as any of Jesus’ kingdom stories. It’s a suspense-filled story–as Jonah waits to see what Yahweh will do with Nineveh, we the readers wait to see what Yahweh will do with his prophet. And it’s a discomforting story, with its open ending that leaves the key plot thread hanging—what will Jonah do with Yahweh? When we realize that we are Jonah, that open ending presses hard upon us.

You’re probably familiar with the outline of Jonah’s story, but here’s a quick review. The book opens with a call from God to Jonah: “Go to Nineveh.” It ends with a question from God to Jonah: “May I not care about Nineveh?” (4:11, CSB). That ultimate question lingers unanswered, far beyond the prophet’s obstinate silence, to echo in the hearts of every reader. Between the call and the question, we have a series of episodes that we can summarize in terms of the title character: a big flight, a big storm, a big fish, a big second chance, a big stomp through enemy territory, a big pout, and a big silence.

This time as I was doing the deep dive into Jonah’s story in preparation for preaching, I was left wondering about Jonah, this recalcitrant, reluctant prophet. Lots of little questions niggled at my mind, but they mostly resolve into one big question: What made Jonah so different from other 8th-century prophets of Israel like Hosea and Amos?

The Book of Jonah itself demonstrates how Jonah is different from his prophetic contemporaries, but we have to go elsewhere to catch of glimpse of possible reasons for why he was so unlike them. The only other place this Jonah son of Amittai shows up in Scripture is 2 Kings 14:25, where we learn that he is a prophet of Israel, the northern kingdom. He has the ear of King Jeroboam II, who is among the worst of a line of very bad kings. While our prophet’s contemporaries, Hosea and Amos, are delivering scathing indictments of Jeroboam’s corruption and idolatry, Jonah gets a very different assignment. He gets to go to the palace to deliver a message that would have tickled the ears of that power-hungry monarch. Jeroboam’s nationalist and expansionist zeal was going to temporarily intersect with the larger purposes of Yahweh, and the territory under his control would be enlarged for a season. In the early 8th century BC, Israel was about to experience a brief period of economic and military flourishing, made possible by a simultaneous temporary decline in the power of the Assyrian Empire. And Jonah gets to deliver this good news! Speaking truth to power never had it this good!

As the book bearing his name unfolds, Jonah is revealed as someone who has seemingly absorbed Jeroboam’s zeal for “Israel first, last, and only”; he appears to be quite comfortable with the king’s worldview. We begin to suspect that Jonah did not just deliver his message and head home to Gath-Hepher; he must have hung around Samaria long enough to allow “word of the king” to drown out “word of the Lord,” even though that king stood clearly indicted by the divine word (Hosea, Amos). Jonah’s behavior and attitudes reveal the dangerous and seemingly inevitable result when the people of God allow themselves cozy proximity to the ideology of empire and its seductive narratives of power and glory—he ends up behaving like a functional pagan.

There is reason for supposing that Jonah has become intimately attached to Jeroboam’s court, enmeshed in the king’s idolatrous worldview. This possibility shouts at us from the very first lines of the book, where Jonah’s actions and rationale in response to his call reveal that our prophet is thinking like a pagan, not like an Israelite. Ancient Near Eastern polytheism conceived of lots of local gods with localized power—Marduk governs Babylon, Ba’al is the god of the Canaanite coasts and highlands, Osiris controls Egypt—and therefore, in the pagan mind, Yahweh must be the ruler of the little strip of land that makes up Israel and Judah. You only have to worry about the power of a particular deity when you find yourself in the geographical territory ruled by that god. Yahweh’s people, however—and most certainly his prophets!—know better. They know that Yahweh is not only the Creator of the heavens and the earth, he is the King over all nations (see Psalm 2, for instance). But the storyteller emphasizes in an unmistakable way that our prophet has opted for a pagan view. When the divine call is spoken, “Get up and go to Nineveh,” the expected next line is “so Jonah got up and went to Nineveh.” Instead, we are told three times in quick succession that Jonah headed for Tarshish (as far in the opposite direction as he could get); twice we are told that he did it purposely to “flee from the presence of the Lord.” In other words, Jonah seems to think, like a pagan, that if he can just get out of Yahweh’s geographical sphere of influence, the divine call will no longer be operative in his life. That is a far cry from Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there (as Jonah would soon be reminded!). If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea (Tarshish!), even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (vs. 7–10, NIV).

At the same time, we wonder about this flight. Jonah has likely not forgotten the well-received divine message he had delivered to Jeroboam, and if he’s been hanging around Samaria for any length of time, he’s probably as delighted as any other member of the royal court with the news out of Assyria. Things are not going well for the super-power—they are experiencing military losses abroad, famine, popular uprisings, and unrest at home. A solar eclipse and a massive earthquake near Nineveh—a fearful pairing of natural omens—has left the Ninevites rocked with dread. This will prove to be just a temporary blip in a 450-year reign of terror, but in that moment, think about the relief and giddy celebrations of Assyria’s enemies and vassal states. They surely love envisioning Nineveh looking as devastated as modern-day Mosul! So why isn’t Jonah happy to get up and go to “that great city and cry against it”? Shouldn’t he be rubbing his hands gleefully and putting on his running shoes to head east, maybe borrowing some of Jeroboam’s guards to accompany him? The answer lies in what Jonah knows to be true about the main character in this story.

Despite his apparently unchecked slide into the nationalistic militarism and greed that characterized Jeroboam’s circle, Jonah has not completely lost track of Yahweh, the God of Israel. And it is Yahweh who is the main actor in this drama. What happens to Jonah and to Nineveh, happens because of who Yahweh is, and Jonah’s choices are based upon his knowledge of Yahweh’s character. When Jonah hears the Lord say, “Go to Nineveh and cry out against it (or warn it),” what is the sub-text that sends him fleeing to the west instead of running to the east? Jonah knows that packed inside a message of warning is the possibility of grace and mercy. He doesn’t want to warn Nineveh of coming judgment—because between warning and fulfillment there might be space for repentance. And oh, how Israel’s God delights in meeting repentance with mercy! Hear it in Jonah’s own words, as he confesses the very essence of Israelite faith: “That is why I fled to Tarshish—for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2). Despite the creeping corruption of his faith from his proximity to Jeroboam’s court, Jonah still knows this fundamental truth about Yahweh—and he is not taking any chance that the geographical reach of divine grace, mercy, and compassion will extend as far as Nineveh!

And so I continue to wonder. . . . What allowed Jonah to slide into easy fellowship with Jeroboam’s circle? After all, he was a prophet of Yahweh, attuned sufficiently to the voice of the Spirit to hear and obey his initial call. What contributed to making his subsequent prophetic response so different? What might have prevented the corruption of his faith by ideological claims that ran counter to the values and character of the God whose call was upon his life? Being a good Wesleyan, I have to wonder, was it because he was a loner, trying to carry out his prophetic gig all by himself? What if, rather than being a “lone ranger” kind of guy, Jonah had been in a “discipleship band” with other prophets? What if he had had the space for regular, intentional, brutally honest self-examination in the company of trusted fellow prophets? What if Jonah had had a group of friends that prayerfully sent him off to Samaria to deliver the divine word, with their strong exhortation ringing in his ears, “Say what God sent you to say—and then get yourself back here as fast as you can”? What if there had been enough trust and vulnerability among that group of brothers for the others to call Jonah out if he returned from Samaria with hints of the palace clinging to his mind and heart? What if they persistently and compassionately pressed him to stay attuned to the voice of the Spirit and invited him to do the same for them? I wonder. . . .  

And I wonder about us. Just as Jonah’s story was an embodied parable that confronted his fellow Israelites, so it continues to confront God’s people in every time and every context. It is Jonah’s blatant refusal of God’s call that pushes us to examine the self-determined limits of our own obedience. It is Jonah’s experience of a gracious imprisonment inside the big fish that makes us pause and consider which of our darkest valleys have been God’s most gracious protection in disguise. It is Jonah’s self-focused plea from inside the fish, empty of any evidence of true confession and repentance, that forces us to consider the ways we have failed to confront sin in our own lives and to what extent excuses have replaced repentance. Most of all, it is Jonah’s ungracious, reluctant, second-chance obedience and his anger at God’s mercy that calls us to self-examination in the company of the Holy Spirit. And I wonder. . . . How much more effective is such necessary self-examination and how much more likely are we to respond to the Spirit’s correction, if we are willingly exposing ourselves to the process of divine discipline in the company of trusted brothers and sisters?

I’m teaching a group of non-Wesleyan undergrads right now, and a recent discussion led to an opening for introducing them to Wesley’s concept of discipleship bands. I asked one student what she thought the potential impact of the practice might be on local congregations. Here are some of her insights: “Dr. Coleman, thank you for this new insight! I didn’t know this was a thing. I really like it and I think that it would help people be open and honest about the struggles of this world. If our churches would start to have these ‘bands’ and answer these questions, I think we would have a congregation of people truly seeking God. We are to help each other, and I think these questions help us to want to seek repentance before God and have accountability.” Openness, honesty, genuine seeking after God, accountability, repentance—perhaps it is the lack of those very things that led Jonah from an obedient trek to Samaria to a rebellious run to Joppa and finally to a petulant pout on a hillside overlooking Nineveh. What might the lack of those things be producing in our own lives? Could we be on a path that leads to looking more like Jonah than Hosea or Amos? And if we were to submit ourselves to the gracious discipline of discipleship bands, what unexpected growth in holiness might reshape our lives and our churches? I wonder. . . .

The Beautiful Body

Have you ever noticed how once you begin to reflect on a particular topic, perhaps in response to something you’ve read or experienced, suddenly that theme pops up everywhere you turn? The lovely convergence of many disparate threads becomes an emerging tapestry of thought, meditation, and prayer. Sometimes the finished product fairly jumps off the loom; other times, the process is slow and hesitant, with stops to untangle unruly threads or to see what the still inchoate pattern is becoming. 

The multi-thread motif that has been surfacing everywhere for me recently is the body, particularly the role of the body in Christian faith and practice. Various strands of experience and reading have kept “bodies and embodiment” at the forefront of my thinking in recent weeks. The first thread was the long-awaited arrival of summer. Summer! When the temperatures rise and wardrobe changes follow, there’s just no hiding from bodies—more of them are visible! For those of us “of a certain age,” that means having to confront some of the irreversible signs of “maturity” that are much easier to cloak under long sleeves, scarves, chunky sweaters, and jeans. Those physical signals of the march of time provoke reflections not only about the brevity of life but also about what it means to live faithfully and fully in this “second half” season and in this fragile body, especially in a culture that assigns incredibly high value to youth and the illusion of youth. As I was in the midst of untangling these thought threads, a great article from Michelle Van Loon threw some new colors onto the loom. (You can read Michelle’s article here: God Loves Your Perimenopausal Body. Don’t be put off by the title, men—the depth of her reflections are pertinent to both genders!)

A second thread in the emerging tapestry is the vigorous debates happening in many spaces over the nature of Christian worship. Even as churches continue to return to a full range of face-to-face worship opportunities, we are keenly aware that many of the virtual worship and study options that emerged or were beefed up during the pandemic are not going away. This brings a need for deep theological reflection about the embodied nature of Christian faith and worship, and the implications for online services as habitual choice instead of temporary necessity. At the heart of many of the conversations on this topic is the question of the Eucharist. There’s no getting around the fact that the central sacrament of the church involves the presence of bodies—not just the mystical presence of Christ’s own body, but the human bodies that offer and receive and ingest the elements and then go out to be the body of Christ for the world. In the midst of my pondering on these questions, Firebrand Magazine published an edition that offered thoughtful perspectives on “online communion,” one essay from an advocate for the practice, another from a pastor-scholar who opposes it. More food for thought! (You can read the two essays here: “Incarnate Savior, Embodied Sacrament: Or What I Affirm When Rejecting Online Communion” and The Case for Virtual Communion.)

An experience that provided a third thread in this season of reflection on bodies and embodiment was a stunning and unsettling discussion forum in one of the classes I taught during spring semester. I’ve already written in detail about this elsewhere (see The Extirpation of Non-Biblical Thinking in the People Called Methodists), but suffice it to say here that it has attuned my antennae to the disturbing presence of Gnostic-like thinking in the Western church. This thread would probably be a dark red in my thought tapestry, because of the multiplicity of damaging and dangerous implications for theology and discipleship—especially since, as in the case of my students, the assumptions are often embedded so deeply that folks are not even aware of how far their perspectives on the body have slipped from the biblical witness. As I continue to ponder that witness and the church’s urgent need to grapple with it, a great conversation partner has been Dr. Timothy Tennent’s recent book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body (the book is available here: Seedbed).

Finally, at least at this point in the tapestry’s production, there is the thread of Sarah, the matriarch of Israel. A recent week spent in sustained engagement with her story in Genesis 12–23 as part of another writing project left me forcibly impressed with the fact that the embodied nature of redemption did not begin with the Incarnation.  In fact, the story of Abraham and Sarah is all about how God deliberately chose bodies—human bodies, old, dried up human bodies!—as the vehicle through which he would launch the rescue and redemption of humanity.

H’mm. This particular tapestry is turning out to be a slow weave, with a complex pattern. The beautiful body and its role in Christian faith and worship is a topic that will undoubtedly engage my thinking and reflection for a long time to come—and it is a topic that merits robust teaching in the church. Dr. Tennent explains the urgency of correct biblical thinking about the body: “We must listen carefully to what Scripture tells us about the body if we are to counter the confused, idolatrous narratives of our day. Having a theology of the body rooted in the image of God provides a positive vision to counter the destructive idolatry of contemporary culture’s distorted view of the body.” He goes on to articulate the impact of having a biblical understanding of the body: “To put it simply, a theology of the body means that we understand the body as not merely a biological category but supremely as a theological category, designed for God’s revelatory and saving purposes. In short, the body makes the invisible mysteries of God’s nature and redemption manifest and visible as a tangible marker in the world.”[1]

I am looking forward to the additional threads that Spirit and Scripture will add to the loom as this tapestry of “the beautiful body” continues to emerge and take shape. If you’ve been reading and studying in this area, I would love to hear your thoughts and recommended reading lists!

[1] For the Body, 14.

“Relevance or raison d’être?”

During the month of April 2021, a blog to which I sometimes contribute (theperennialgen.com) hosted a series of essays on the topic of “relevance.” The underlying context was “relevance” from the point of view of and in the experience of “women of a certain age.” I found myself walking right up to the topic multiple times, and backing away on every occasion. It wasn’t just the busy-ness of a semester’s “crunch time” that kept me from writing; there was a thick inertia every time the topic came onto my radar. As I’m writing this, it is May 1, and the PerennGen folks are ready to move on to the next topic, but I decided it was time to examine my reluctance to engage with this month’s theme. In the process of that analysis, I discovered two distinct motives underlying my hesitation over the topic of relevance.

The first and most easily identifiable is grief. I have been filled with the nagging dread that, at this stage of life’s journey, relevance is a lost possibility, a thing, like so many other aspects of youth and mid-life, to be grieved but never retrieved. A couple experiences in the past week were painfully revelatory. A few days ago, during a visit to the zoo on a chilly day, I was bundled inside my bright purple hoodie, which has these words printed on the back: “Read the Syllabus!!” (That’s a whole other topic to pursue!) Twice within the space of an hour, two random strangers, both zoo volunteers and both older than I by at least a decade, asked me the same question after reading the words on the hoodie: “Did you use to be a teacher?” The obvious assumption: this white-haired woman (never mind the purple streak in her coif!) was too old to be teaching now. On this same vacation, we’ve been in various coffee shops in a couple different college towns and it is depressingly obvious that the ever-younger baristas look pityingly and with limited tolerance upon the “oldsters” who don’t order at warp speed or pay with their mobile devices! 

I am enjoying many things about this stage of life and I have no desire to be one of those old poseurs, attempting with excruciating awkwardness to dress, speak, and act as if I were still thirty-something (or even forty-something). But in all honesty, these little moments of “age-ism” make relevance seem like an elusive and perhaps illusory target, and that seems like a loss to be grieved.

However, alongside this grief lies a different, deeper source of discomfort with the topic of relevance. Call it a theological or philosophical concern, but I wonder: when I ask if relevance is still possible at this stage of the game, am I asking the wrong question? (I intentionally express this in the first person singular, because it is my own personal musing, not a generalized reflection on any of my fellow travelers who wrote so beautifully on the topic last month.) I was hearing the question, “can I still be relevant at 59?”, as a very self-focused question. “Relevance” seemed to be code for feeling good about my supposed capacity to continue “connecting” with young people and within the confines of the current culture. Don’t get me wrong—as a missionary, I understand contextualization as an essential element of effective communication, but that is not synonymous with the conversation about relevance, at least in my perception. What if I were to refocus the question as something more kingdom-centered? What if ponderings on “relevance” gave way to serious engagement with my raison d’être at this stage of life? The capacity to live a “purpose-driven life” does not disappear when we leave mid-life behind, so staying prayerfully and intentionally in touch with that purpose should continue to shape my choices. My sense of personal purpose has always been best synthesized by Paul’s words to Timothy: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2, NIV). Will I learn new ways to do this effectively? I hope so! I don’t want to drop the ball on effective, obedient disciple-making and teaching, because I am fully convinced that God did not drop his call on my life when I hit the big 5-0, nor will he do so when the looming 6-0 rolls around next year! 

Relevant? I have no idea if that is possible, nor whether it is even a worthy goal to pursue. A gospel-shaped, kingdom-building raison d’être? That is a purpose fully worthy of pursuit, and fruitfulness will far outweigh any incidental (or accidental) relevance that occurs along the way.

“A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Small”

“A Person’s a Person, No Matter How Small”

Dr. Rachel Coleman

March 4, 2021

The subtitle of my blog is “the intermittent musings of Dr. Nana.” As Nana, one of the biggest personal griefs during the pandemic has been the interminable stretches of time without being able to cuddle the grandkids and read bedtime stories to them. Determined not to lose that connection completely, I started recording stories for them, making sure they had a hard copy of the book so they could follow along. We’ve worked our way through Bible stories, nursery rhymes, and children’s poems, then started in on the shelf of books that were the favorites of their mommy and uncle so many years ago. That has brought me to our Dr. Seuss collection, specifically to the delightful Horton Hears a Who![1]

Because our grandson is a full-speed-ahead, high-energy four-year-old (you do the math for his attention span!), I decided to read the book in short installments. And here is where pandemic-induced communicative creativity paid an unexpected dividend. Reading Horton’s story in stages, with a “recap” at the beginning of each new segment, made me pay attention in a way I’d never done when reading to my kids. (Perhaps because underneath each line back then was the desperately whispered prayer, “Please, please, please, let them go to sleep after this one!”) I watched Horton’s character develop as the plot advanced—and I discovered, in his journey with and for “the Whos of Who-ville,” some food for thought, prayer, and action in my own pilgrimage.

First, it struck me how very clueless and unsuspecting Horton was at the beginning of the story. There he was, lounging “in the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool,” at ease and totally unprepared for any world-changing, paradigm-splintering occurrence. And yet, in the midst of his carefree relaxing, there was something about this apparently indolent elephant that made him open to the unexpected. That first faint cry for help did not go ignored; Horton stopped his splashing and turned his attention to the sound. And even though Horton had no intellectual category into which this new voice could fit (“I’ve never heard tell of a small speck of dust that is able to yell”), he was open to the reality of what was happening on that dust speck, despite it falling so far outside his own experience of life. That reality intersected with a fundamental conviction in Horton’s worldview, that “a person’s a person, no matter how small.” We’re not told how Horton arrived at such a gospel-shaped conviction, but it was enough—enough to engender compassion, enough to get him out of the pool, enough to launch Horton on a new path. Now there’s a Holy Spirit head-slap of the first order! Do my gospel-shaped and Scripture-informed convictions about the imago Dei in every human being produce a Horton-like response for the “Whos” of our day?

In installment #2, we see Horton galvanized by his encounter with the tiny, invisible inhabitants of the dust speck. He has been entrusted with a mission of partnership and protection, and he’s resolute in his commitment to that mission: “I can’t put it down. And I won’t!” As Horton learns to listen to the tiny voices arising from that dust speck, he also gives them a voice in his world, in his sphere of influence. He calls them to speak up, gives them a forum for doing so, and advocates for them in the midst of hostile nay-sayers. The tiny font of the Who-words on the pages of the story reflects a long history of frustration; no matter how loudly or how unitedly they shout, “we are here, we are here, we are here, we are here,” their story is not being heard by the “big” folks—the ones with power to change the perilous nature of their daily existence. Horton also proves to be a humble partner, continuously willing to learn more about the Who-experience, open to having his assumptions challenged: “You mean,” Horton gasped, “you have buildings there, too?” And the Holy Spirit sneaks in another jab! Am I offering my voice to the voiceless, whether those voices call from the womb or from prisons or from the barrios and forgotten neighborhoods of our cities? Am I willing to listen humbly, when my ignorance needs challenged and corrected?

By the time we get to that clover field—so daunting in its scope—Horton is invested for the long haul. He’s willing to sacrifice his own comfort and well-being on behalf of his tiny friends, spending every last drop of energy and hope in what seems like a hopeless endeavor. But Horton perseveres, until he finally locates the Who-ville clover on the three millionth try. His jubilant cry is, “My friends!” A relational change has happened—the Whos are no longer a “project” for Horton, but his friends. The development of that relationship has added a new layer of commitment to Horton’s mission, so when the Mayor of Who-ville asks if Horton will stick by them, his answer is ready and sure: “Of course! Of course I will stick. I’ll stick by you small folks through thin and through thick!” Little did he know how thin their security would grow and how thick the hostility against them—and against him, as their friend and advocate.

Through it all, Horton is gracious with those who scoff at his passion and scorn his mission, who deny the very existence of his friends, who seek to bind his activism and silence both his voice and theirs. He doesn’t vilify the kangaroo for not being “woke” or compassionate; he kindly suggests that “the kangaroos’ ears aren’t as strong, quite, as mine.” He doesn’t give up on his opponents’ capacity to change, nor does he allow himself to absorb their hatred and disdain. By not becoming like them, by refusing to play by their rules, Horton retains the capacity to be able to speak truth to them in ways that have the potential to transform both the opponents and the friends, both the oppressed and the oppressor. Such grace!

I don’t know what my grandson has gotten out of our story time episodes with Horton, but Nana has been blown away by this little story! What shall we read next??

[1] I’m aware of the current controversy swirling around the decision made by Theodore Geisel’s estate to pull some of his books from the market. This post is not going to weigh in on that, one way or the other; it is simply a personal reflection on how one of Dr. Seuss’s books continues to speak some hard truths into my life, no matter the flaws that may be present in Geisel’s larger body of work.

Just His Wounds

Dr. Rachel Coleman

One of the greatest gifts of teaching Bible courses to adult students from a wide range of backgrounds is the rich diversity of perspectives they bring to the text and the brilliantly keen insights that can jump off the page or screen as they engage with me, each other, and the course material. Most of my students are either undergraduate Bible majors or seminary students, so, despite their diverse contexts, they usually have a shared starting point in terms of their relationship with Scripture. However, occasionally I have the privilege of spending a few weeks with students in the helping professions as they take—often reluctantly—a Bible elective. Recently I made one of those pedagogical journeys with a group of twenty (mostly nurses and social workers), and it quickly became an intensely pastoral trek alongside people to whom life has handed staggering amounts of raw pain and loss. Several in the group were childhood church-goers who had drifted away from faith but were exploring a return, albeit with a fragile hesitancy. Others had intentionally turned away from both faith and the church, angry at a God they weren’t even sure existed—and if he did, they didn’t think they liked him very much.

One of this latter group was a young woman who had been wounded, deeply and needlessly, by an insensitive shepherd with some really bad theology, during a time when she was navigating a dark valley of grief. We’ll call her Jo. She impressed me from day one on two fronts, demonstrating both a fearless honesty about her journey away from faith and also a willingness to engage fully and thoroughly with the sacred texts of the Christianity that she had rejected. As we launched into the course, scriptural perspectives on suffering and disability, I knew that this was probably going to be the most challenging teaching assignment I’d had in a while. I also suspected that there were going to be some significant “aha!” moments along the way, not just for students but for me as well, as I had the chance to read the familiar texts through Jo’s eyes. I was not disappointed on either count!

Near the end of the course, the students spent a week in the Gospels. Any sustained and serious contemplation of Jesus—his life, deeds, words, death, and resurrection—has the potential to be powerfully transformative for the reader, and this was no exception. The discussion posts and papers revealed that these nurses—so overwhelmed right now by the suffering of others in combination with their own brokenness and pain—had been profoundly impacted by the portrait of Jesus’ own suffering in the Gospels. Jo, in particular, was captivated by the fact that Jesus continued to bear the scars of his suffering even after his resurrection—her latent hostility was, at least temporarily, disarmed by that truth. In my follow-up question to her initial discussion post that week, I sent her to John 20:24–39, the post-resurrection encounter between Thomas and Jesus. “What stands out to you in that story?”

Jo’s answer to that simple question was so profound it took my breath away. She wrote, “I noticed that Thomas wasn’t interested in seeing Jesus do another miracle. He just wanted to see his wounds.” Oh, my! She might not have approached the biblical text with eyes of faith, but she certainly had “eyes to see” in that moment.

“He just wanted to see his wounds.” What if that is exactly the heart-cry of the brokenness around us? The pain-wracked human beings who share our commutes and our workplaces and our communities and our homes—they just want to see his wounds! What might change in their lives if they caught a glimpse of those marks of amazing love? What if, at the key juncture of her life when Jo was suffocating in her grief and loss, that pastor had offered her a glimpse of the wounds of Jesus? How might the trajectory of her journey away from faith been halted and reversed? 

The scars that Jesus has chosen to bear throughout eternity on his resurrected body—they are signs that point to the depth and breadth of his love for us, demonstrations of the fullness of his identification with our human condition, marks of the price he paid to rescue us from our broken sinfulness and our crushing wounds (Isa. 53). As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus is a High Priest who “understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (4:15, NLT). Because of that, we can “come boldly to the throne of our gracious God”—no matter our starting point, no matter our accumulation of pain and anger, no matter how pitifully small our faith—and there “we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most” (4:16).

For now, Jesus stands just on the other side of the veil between the seen and the unseen, between our present pain and our future hope, the victorious Lion who is also who is also the slain Lamb (Rev. 5:5–14). How will we offer glimpses of this glorious paradox to those who are longing just to see his wounds?

Two Years, Two “Words”

Two Years, Two “Words”


Well, it’s been a year! We are poised to turn the calendar to 2021, and I suspect that many of us will rip that December 2020 page off the books with unusual ferocity. The maelstrom of the past twelve months will be wadded up and perhaps stomped on, before being tossed—probably into the trash, rather than the recycle bin, because we are not interested in reusing and repurposing this one! However, if we stand at the turning of the year with our hands willingly offered into the loving grip of the One who wastes nothing, we can look ahead with trembling confidence to something greater than a merely recycled 2020—we can anticipate a restoration of “the years that the locusts have eaten” (Joel 2:25). And what a breathtaking possibility, when we remember that this great promise of restoration anticipated the extravagant outpouring of God’s Spirit on his people (Joel 2:28–29; Acts 2).

In the past couple weeks, I have participated in intentional spiritual examen, a reflective inventory of the past year and attentive listening to the Spirit in preparation for the coming twelve months. A starting point for the “backward look” was consideration of my 2020 “word.” As 2019 was ending and 2020 about to begin, before any of us knew what was on the world’s horizon, the phrase the Spirit was pressing upon me was “dangerous surrender” (borrowed from the title of Kay Warren’s book). Just a few months into 2020, that sounded like a rather grandiose and perhaps unrealistic word for a season of restriction that seemed to be narrowing my horizons on every side, keeping me firmly hedged into a small, safe, no-boat-rocking space. But in this season of enforced immobility (when even my daily prayer walks have been curtailed by persistent ankle pain), surrender was indeed the persistent invitation from the Spirit. What made it “dangerous”? It was dangerous to autonomy—it’s costly to hand over control instead of tightly clinging to it. It was dangerous to expectations—it’s risky to let go of my designs for life and ministry, to allow them to be shaped by the will of Another. It was dangerous to stubborn, even arrogant certainties—it’s scary to exchange those secure little boxes for a humility that is willing to listen more than talk, to be corrected and confronted when necessary, to imagine possibilities of grace far more expansive than I had previously considered. So most of the danger loomed on the landscape of my inner being—but that didn’t make it any less daunting to face. And it was that inner work of surrender that laid the groundwork for the times when “doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with my God” meant making public choices that were unpopular and perhaps risky.

Strangely enough, it is this journey of surrender that has been the necessary motor to propel me towards my 2021 “word.” The more my clenched fists, once clinging so tightly to certainties and securities, have opened and released, the more I have been able to extend empty, upturned hands toward the Lover of my soul. His returning grasp has been like a warm embrace that steadies and welcomes and infuses with courage. My “all to Jesus I surrender” has been met, over and over again, with a whispered affirmation, “Beloved.” That is my 2021 word, and I anticipate with joyful expectancy the exploration of that identity—not just as a cognitive truth to be recognized but as experiential reality to be received, delighted in, savored, and shared.

If you had a 2020 “word,” I’d love to hear your reflections upon how that shaped your experience of the year. And if the Lord has laid on your heart a “word” for 2021, it would be fun to hear that as well!

Inside the (Parentheses)

I seldom find myself too far out of reach of a book. There are books in my car, sometimes in my purse, on my nightstand, beside my “reading chair,” near the dining room table, and lining the walls of my office and the spare room and anywhere else we can fit a bookshelf. These books cover a range of genres and styles—fiction for the evenings when my “thinker” is exhausted (mostly classic detective stories and contemporary mysteries with make-me-laugh characters); theology, ethics, biblical interpretation (ancient, modern, and global, with a current interest in the book of Revelation), biography, and history, for when “the little grey cells” are all working relatively harmoniously and well.

One thing I’ve recently become attentive to in this varied literature is the way in which writers use parentheses. Parentheses are enclosing punctuation marks, visible separators, that set off a thought from the main sentence or paragraph. I notice that what is inside those orthographic marks can serve a variety of purposes for the writer. Sometimes the parenthetical expression offers an authorial commentary or qualifying perspective; other times it provides more detail to particularize a general statement (like my parentheses in the previous paragraph). In the biblical narratives, especially the Gospels, parenthetical remarks, whether punctuated as such or not in a particular translation, often provide the narrator’s comment to the reader or a bit of hermeneutical guidance (think of the Evangelist’s “let the reader understand,” Mark 13:14). In the case of my students’ papers, most of which are in the sadly inelegant APA style, a parenthesis is usually at the end of the sentence and contains (if it’s done correctly) proper bibliographic information for a source that has been cited. And sometimes, as my doctoral supervisor like to point out, parentheses contain extraneous information that ought to have been relegated to a footnote!

Here’s the thing about parentheses. If we lift them off the page and read the printed text without them, most of the time we’ll still have a pretty good idea of what the author is trying to say. Try it with the previous two paragraphs! But a well-crafted parenthetical word can be the very thing that flips the switch and illuminates the surrounding words, allowing us to make better sense of what comes before and after.

I think what has sparked this interest in parentheses is that on more than one occasion in recent days I have heard 2020 described as a parenthesis in the middle of “real life.” The sub-text of this analogy is usually disparaging—as in, 2020 is an excruciatingly long and painfully unnecessary accumulation of information, which we desperately wish to edit down to an easily ignored footnote. We want to grab the first clause of our experiential sentence (i.e., our pre-COVID “normal”) and join it seamlessly to the next clause (a return to that same “normal”), without the distraction, discomfort, and dis-ease contained in the 2020 parentheses. But what if our 2020 experiences—individual and collective—are not extraneous but incredibly valuable for making sense out of both our past and our future? What if how we live “inside the parentheses”—right here, right now—will determine the relationship between the first clause and the next? If we treat this time in the parenthesis as a giant pause button that stokes greater and greater impatience, then the likelihood is that our first clause (old “normal”) and our second clause (new “normal”) will simply be separated by a comma, in a relationship of apposition—each clause basically saying the same thing. But what if we choose to dwell purposefully inside this parentheses, attentive to its interpretive power in relationship to our past and its transformational potential in regards to our future? I wonder, in that case, if we might discover down the road that our first clause and our second clause can stand in glorious contrast to one another? Think of the grand Pauline oppositions: “You were once. . ., but now you are. . . .” (e.g., Eph. 2:1–4, 11–13; Col. 1:21–22).

For those of us in the church, we have just entered Advent. Our season of intentional waiting and examen overlaps in 2020 with the imposed “parentheses” of 2020. My prayer is that we will not live in either of these seasons (Advent, pandemic) like a child opening the daily Advent calendar with a singular goal in mind—let’s get to Christmas!—but with purposeful attentiveness to the voice of the Spirit as we wait. Advent does end at Christmas, and our COVID-created parentheses will also come to an end at some future point that we cannot yet see, and we will celebrate both of those glorious endings with joy and thanksgiving. But may the kind of living and reflecting we do “inside the parentheses” prepare us for participation in God’s “new thing” on the other side of the parenthesis. 

Beyond Labels

Three Christians and a Jew went to breakfast. . . No, it’s not the opening line of a bad joke. It is the description of a rich friendship that began in the swimming pool at the local Senior Citizens Center, with conversations about spiritual things, and that has endured over decades, among four people who cover the gamut of political, ideological, and religious perspectives. These twice-a-month breakfasts are times of spirited dialogue—and maybe the occasional desire to throw the scrambled eggs at another member of the quartet who’s just being stubbornly set in his or her ways! When breakfast is over, the four go home, probably with the same set of convictions they brought to the table—but they go home still friends. What has kept these four together, linked in amicable give-and-take, mutual respect, and deep concern for each other’s well-being, despite their differences? In large part, it is because they relate to each other as persons, not as categories. They are simply George, Jane, John, and Dave (names changed to protect their privacy). They don’t see each other as labels (red/blue, right/left, liberal/conservative, Christian/Jew), but as human beings made in the image of God. They are genuinely interested in each other, willing to listen to each other and to laugh together and at themselves.

Contrast this with an interview I heard this morning. The interviewee consistently labeled the interviewer (“well, you’re this color, I’m that color”), interrupted and talked over the questions, and made sweeping assumptions about the other person’s character and views. On one side of this non-dialogue was an assessment of the other as a category, rather than a person, and, because he represented a category non grata, that assessment resulted in a seething hostility, which in turn gave permission for the rude dismissal of the the interviewer as persona non grata. And although the interviewer was doing an admirable job of maintaining at least a semblance of neutrality as he attempted to give listeners the chance to understand the interviewee’s ideas and ideals, the persistent vitriol took a toll, and by the end of the “interview,” his own biases and depersonalizing categorizations were also peeking through. If time had not run out, I suspect this would have become a full-on label-throwing match. (And no, you probably have never heard of this particular interviewee, no matter what assumptions you may have made as you read this paragraph!)

Let’s be honest now—if we take a hard look at the conversations and interactions we have with friends who don’t think or believe or vote like us (if we still have friends like that!), which example do they resemble? The rich interchange of ideas among passionately diverse friends, who see each other first and foremost as human beings bearing the imago Dei? Or the vituperative launching of words like weapons against a non-person who is simply the face of a despised category? Has our vision become so narrow that we can only spot the categorization affixed like a damning label on our the other person’s forehead, effectively hedging out a big-picture glimpse of his humanity, of her identity as beloved child of God?

Labels are helpful things—in the laundry room or the supermarket. It’s important to know what kind of fibers are in that new sweater before I wash it, and it’s important to know the sodium content of a new cereal before I offer it to my blood-pressure-challenged husband. But those labels tell me nothing about how that sweater will fit, or about how that cereal will taste. I have to explore and experience that for myself. And in the context of human relationships, labeling prevents the exploration and experience of rich dialogue and friendship with people who aren’t mirror images of ourselves. Labeling becomes an easy way out of the challenging conversations, the ones that will force me to think more clearly and accurately about my own convictions and consider with humility and compassion the convictions of others.

Labeling was a significant factor in the controversies recorded in the Gospels. What was the number one complaint against Jesus? He ate with “those people”—tax collectors and sinners. For the religious leaders of the day, these folks were nameless, faceless representatives of a despised category and therefore unworthy of a second glance; for Jesus, they were persons bearing the image of his Father, men and women with whom he was delighted to eat, talk and laugh, with whom he shared extravagant gifts of forgiveness and compassion and, yes, challenge.

I don’t know about you, but I am longing to sit around a table like that! I think the four friends’ breakfast gatherings come pretty close. The question, then, is: what am I going to do about it? What steps can I take in that direction, to leave the labels behind and to look intentionally and gratefully at the beautifully diverse and compelling image of God in the faces of those who are so different from me? Let me know what your next steps are, and I’ll keep you posted on mine!

Embracing Mystery, Cultivating Silence

There are seasons in life when multiple threads from seemingly unconnected sources weave together to form a multi-hued, richly textured tapestry that wraps around a single recurring theme. Over the course of the past six months, that much-pondered theme in my life has been the nature of worship.[1] The interwoven threads have come from sources as diverse as the pandemic and its disruption of traditional worship practices, the Lenten season with its call to lament and repentance, teaching a course on the Psalms, returning to the discipline of fasting, joining with a global community in sustained prayer for renewal and awakening, dipping into the writings of the 17th-century mystics, getting acquainted with the music of artists who are not represented in the small repertoire of songs that cycle on Christian radio, and, of course, watching and listening as Christian communities respond to delays in “getting back to normal” in corporate worship practices.

All those diverse threads have woven together to create a tapestry of worship whose hues are deeper and richer than what has characterized my four decades of “doing church.” Three verbs are the thickest strands in the new fabric of worship that is emerging from the loom of this season—abide, yearn, and listen. More than actions, they are postures taken in the presence of the Holy One. More than the songs and prayers and liturgies of weekly worship services, they are the daily orientation that prepares me to enter properly into those acts with my brothers and sisters in Christ, especially participation in the Lord’s Table. And the necessary incubator of abiding, yearning, and listening is SILENCE. The frenzied flow of my words and thoughts—even my words directed to God—must give way to an expectant, holy silence that allows the great Communicator to speak through his Word and his Spirit.

It’s probably because of this journey into an abiding, yearning, listening silence that I’ve had such a visceral reaction to a phrase heard repeatedly these days, as folks clamor for a return to “normal” in corporate worship. It’s a bit of “Christian-ese” that has always been like fingernails on a chalkboard to me: “I need to get my worship on.” There’s a lot that could be said about that expression (another post for another day!), but in this season it grates and rubs forcefully with its revelation of a fundamentally self-focused understanding of worship. “My worship” suggests that worship is my possession, existing for my benefit; “get it on” implies that I can take it on and off like a piece of clothing. And it is a phrase almost always said in conjunction with a single activity, singing—and, of course, singing whatever style of music is my favorite.

But oh, dear friends, worship is most decidedly not about me—or even about us! It is about God. And what if our clamor for the old sights and sounds and forms of worship might hinder us from discovering, in the silence and the mystery, what God really desires when we gather together? Ecclesiastes 5:1–2 offers a sharp caution: “Watch your step when you enter God’s house. Enter to learn. That’s far better than mindlessly offering a sacrifice, doing more harm than good. Don’t shoot off your mouth, or speak before you think. Don’t be too quick to tell God what you think he wants to hear. God’s in charge, not you—the less you speak, the better” (MSG).  Walter Brueggemann, with his usual incisive and insightful reflections, notes that the writer of Ecclesiastes understands “the awesome transcendence of God, before whom reverence and awe constitute proper conduct. He chides ‘fools’ who run off at the mouth and who imagine, even in worship, that they are the center of attention. ‘Many cases’ and ‘many words,’ that is, much self-expression, leads to the trivialization of worship. Better to listen, to pay attention, to be instructed, because no one is beyond more instruction. Those who in worship have made up their minds too completely may miss out on the gifts yet to be given in the mystery of God.”[2]

What might happen in our lives, in our churches, in our communities, if we came together eager to embrace the mystery of the One who cannot be explained? What if we cultivated, on our own and in our togetherness, a silence of holy expectation, in which any human words spoken or sung were simply responses to the whispers of the Spirit? What if?? I wonder. . .

[1] See these musings from way back in April: https://writepraylove660813036.wordpress.com/2020/04/14/worship-cancelled/

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Gift and Task: A Year of Daily Readings and Reflections (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 202.