Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reluctant Prophet

A sermon for Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, based on Jonah 3:1-5, 10.

If you consider the length of the bible, or the Old Testament, or even just the prophetic books of the Old Testament, Jonah seems insignificant in comparison -- both in the space he takes up, and the gravity of his actions. The book of Jonah takes up a mere two pages in my bible. But Jonah is memorable. After all, he gets swallowed by a giant fish, and lives to tell about it. Who could forget a story like that?

That part of the story, along with the verses in today’s lectionary text, are only part of the narrative, though. So let’s back up, and remember how it all began.

The people of Ninevah, we’re told, are wicked, and God is not pleased about the way they’re living, so God tells Jonah to go to them, and deliver the message that God is against them. Jonah doesn’t want to go. He’s not so keen on the whole prophet gig. In fact, in the whole book, Jonah never calls himself a prophet. He stands out from the other Old Testament prophets in that he never really plays the part of the obedient servant, calling people to repent. He’s reluctant. So reluctant that he runs away.

At this point I should interrupt our narrative to say that, lately, Jonah is my favorite prophet. I would venture a guess that I am not the only one who has had “Jonah” moments in my life.

Many Christians speak of wanting to be “a prophetic voice” in our world, yet the reality of the actual prophetic work God calls Jonah to is less glamorous than the Hollywood film version we might imagine -- the lone voice speaking out against powers and principalities, drawing people together for a just cause.

So, when God calls, Jonah runs. He runs right down to Joppa and hops a ship to Tarshish. Of course, you can’t run from God, not really, a message that is sent very clearly when a dangerous storm threatens the ship and all who are aboard. When he realizes his plan has failed, when the sailors realize Jonah has put them in danger, Jonah tells them to throw him overboard. I dare say at this point he figured he was going to die, so suffice it to say that going to Ninevah was still not on his itinerary.

But God doesn’t let Jonah give up so easily. Instead, she sends a large fish to swallow him up, and leaves him there, in the belly of a fish, for three whole days. Three days! When you’re trapped inside a fish, three days is plenty of time to reflect on your poor life choices. Plenty of time to pray. Plenty of time to repent.

Jonah seems to have learned his lesson, so God tells the fish to vomit him up onto dry land, and calls Jonah a second time: “Get up, go to Ninevah, that great city, and proclaim to it the message I tell you.” This time Jonah gets up, and he goes.

He walks for a full day, about a third of the way across the city, crying out that in forty days God will destroy Ninevah. And here we encounter another unexpected twist: the people begin to fast. Everyone, including the king, dons sackcloth and ashes. They plead with God, and God does not destroy them.

This is where the lectionary text ends, but what happens next is where things really start to get interesting: Jonah gets mad. This, he tells God, is why he didn’t want to go to Ninevah in the first place. He knows God is gracious and merciful, and he knew that she would relent. Jonah would rather die than go on living while the Ninevites’ sins go unpunished. I picture him stomping off to the edge of the city, where he sets up camp, watching and waiting to see what will happen. He did what God asked! Now it’s God’s turn.

God doesn’t destroy Ninevah, nor does God give up on Jonah. She makes a bush grow up next to Jonah to offer him shade, which seems to sooth his frustration a bit. But then God sends a worm to attack, and subsequently kill, the bush, leaving Jonah exposed to the sun and wind. Again Jonah asks to die. He is still angry, fed up, and definitely done with this prophet business.

For a third time God speaks to Jonah: “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 Ninevah, 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?”

They don’t know any better, Jonah. That’s why I sent you to them, God seems to say. We aren’t told how Jonah responds; we can only wonder. I wonder, in Jonah’s shoes, if I would have behaved any better. I doubt it. Maybe they don’t know, God, I might say, but they should. Ignorance is not an excuse. Did they really need me to tell them the obvious news that their behavior is wrong?

Being a prophetic voice sounds important, meaningful, exciting, until you consider what it often means: going alone to those who do and say wicked things, condemning their words and actions, putting yourself in a vulnerable position among people who don’t share your moral values.

I’d be on a ship to Tarshish, too.

But let’s say we want to follow God’s call, despite all of that. What then?

We bring a word of rebuke; we call people to repent and turn toward God. Personally, I would never expect that to work. I’d assume that the groups of people I most associate with Ninevah these days wouldn’t listen to a young woman who claims to know something they don’t about goodness and love and the life God calls us to. So I’d figure, if God said she’s going to destroy them, sooner or later she will. Maybe not on an Old Testament scale, with fire and brimstone, but surely God won’t let things continue as they are. These imagined modern day Ninevites might even destroy themselves before long if they’re not careful. Evil actions have a way of tearing things apart.

Well. I am but an imperfect, impatient, begrudging human, and God is not. God forgives. God is merciful -- to Ninevah, and to Jonah as well, patiently pushing him in the right direction while he repeatedly misses the point. No, God will not condemn anyone if she can help it.

There are times when it is tempting to say, look God, we’re trying so hard to be faithful, and these other people are making it difficult. Can’t you do something about that? And I am afraid God will only tell us to continue to speak as she has called us to speak. I don’t expect to be swallowed by a big fish if I don’t, but I can imagine modern day equivalents. I can imagine the alternative, too: remaining silent in the face of evil, allowing hatred to continue unchecked. God doesn’t call Jonah because Jonah is perfect or has it all figured out; in fact, it’s unclear why exactly God chooses Jonah at all. What’s most clear is that Jonah messes up, and that God uses him anyway.

We cannot control whether others will hear the truths we speak with our lives, as individuals and as a community. We cannot control whether the people of the Ninevahs of our day will heed God’s call to repent, or scoff and continue on as before. I’m enough of a cynic to doubt the outcome of such efforts; I’m enough of a Jonah that sometimes I’d prefer to run away to the beach.

But God has shown that there is enough time for all to repent, and if that is true, then even the most reluctant prophets have reason to keep speaking.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

On Reading

It’s resolution season, and the people of the Bookternet are all about the reading resolutions, setting goals and making plans to “read harder” this year. There are some fantastic challenges to take on, and since books are central to my life and work, it would make sense if I were to tell you about my grandiose reading goals for the year, too.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about how much time I spend thinking about how much I haven’t read. There are so many classic novels I just haven’t had a chance to read yet, and there’s exciting new work coming out by contemporary writers all the time. Even with Kierkegaard, one of my main academic interests, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. For a feminist academic, I’ve read remarkably little feminist & womanist theology and queer theory. And don’t get me started on Karl Barth and everything I simply flat out know I will never get around to reading.

I read constantly. Novels -- both “literary” and “popular,” new and old. Poetry. Essay collections. Memoirs. Magazines. I try to read literary journals, too, though lately they’re mostly gathering dust in a corner. I read so many great online sources, too. And now I get the Sunday Times, the arrival of which is like a mini-Christmas each Sunday. My favorite section? The Book Review, of course.

But I have always read slowly for the most part. With the exception of mysteries and YA novels, even a book I really like will take me a few days to get through -- if not a week or two. I will never, ever get through all the books I want to read, even if I stopped adding to the list today (which I won’t). At the beginning 2014, frustrated by this fact, I set out to read a book a week, with an end goal of 50, figuring I could plan in a couple of reading vacation weeks. I made it to 37, if you leave out a handful of other books I only made it halfway through. Like I said: slow. (If you're curious about what I read, click here. I read a lot of YA novels and it was great.)

As far as goals go, it was fine. I read many wonderful books, and I got to choose most of them myself, having finished up my school reading requirements in mid-January. But I am realizing the whole reading goal thing just doesn’t work for me. It makes me feel anxious about something that has always been a delightful escape for me, guilty because I’m not doing more, not checking off the boxes, not stuffing enough information into my head. I read for more than just information.

This week, I remembered the summer my college friends and I created the Best Ever Book Club, and one professor met with us to discuss Madame Bovary, her recommendation for our ambitious little book group, a classic I was reading for the first time. We asked her what her summer reading goals were. She said she was reading Middlemarch.

“That’s it?” we asked.

“It’s a big-ass book!” was her response.

This was a revelation to me, this kind of commitment to being with one book, spending one whole summer in Middlemarch. (Note: I have never read Middlemarch.) A great book is worth that kind of time.

I remember, too, how one of my favorite English professors used to tell us to read things twice whenever possible -- one for the story, and a second time to begin our analysis. I was crazy enough to try to do this (hence my lack of sleep sophomore year), which I don’t necessarily recommended while you’re still in college, but definitely recommended as a general practice. I know that, first, if I read for analysis right away I miss the whole point of the reading in the first place. And second, if I do plan to analyze, my analysis simply won’t be as good if I’ve only read a text once. (The real reason I haven’t read more Kierkegaard? I was too busy re-reading Works of Love multiple times.)

Reaching further back still, I know how much of my love of language was born from my mother reading aloud to my siblings and I, the same series, again and again. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. That is how we got through long Michigan winters. It’s how I get through winter, still. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard those books, and I don’t regret that I didn’t hear more books -- though of course there were always stacks of library books in my room to read on my own, as well. And I did, hungrily, in bed each night with my Itty Bitty Book Light clipped to the back cover. The Betsy-Tacy books, the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, and others I’ve long since forgotten. I read and re-read and re-read.

In that spirit, instead of setting a numerical reading goal this year, I’m aiming low. Let it be a year of re-reading, of working through massive tomes that have intimidated me, and of getting through the winter with all the good stories I can find, even if they aren’t classics or so-called “literature,” and even if there are a lot of things I “should” read that I am not going to get to this year. I want to read slower, not harder.

So what am I excited to read this year? For starters, I got halfway through Joakim Garff’s 827 page biography of Kierkegaard over a year ago before setting it aside, so I’m going to finally finish it. Also, though I have read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I feel that one could re-read them every single year and never exhaust them. Plus they’re just...the best. So I’ll re-read some of them, or maybe all of them if I feel so inclined. Then I’ll probably re-watch all of the film adaptations again too, for “research.” My favorite mystery novelist, Laurie R. King, has a new Mary Russell novel coming out in February, so you can just plan on not hearing from me for about 24 hours after I pick it up. I've been digging into James Baldwin's essays lately, so I'm sure I'll read more of those. I’m thrilled about the new Toni Morrison novel coming out in April, too.

If don’t read all of these things promptly, I’m not going to beat myself up about it, though. When you think about how much time someone like Morrison puts into crafting a novel, it seems obvious that it’s worth entering the world she’s created and staying a while. It’s worth coming back, again and again.

Saturday, January 3, 2015