The Jonah Complex

I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the story of Jonah. Let’s face it, that’s probably the coolest story anyone ever learned in Sunday School. Sure, David defeated a giant with a rock, but Jonah spent three days in the belly of a whale before it vomited him up safe and sound on dry land. I believe history has seen more unlikely heroes like David than it has unconventional fish bait like Jonah.

But the thing you didn’t realize as a child is how little mention that fish actually gets in the story. There’s just a casual reference at the end of Chapter One about how “the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”

Like, yeah, God did that. No big deal.

And again at the end of Chapter Two: “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”

So long, Fishy. It was fun while it lasted.

When I got a little older, I came to like Jonah’s story for different reasons.

I’ve had my fair share of Isaiah moments. Times when I raised my hand and declared, “Lord, send me!”(Isaiah 6:8)

I’ve even had a few Ezekiel moments where I went “in bitterness and turmoil, but the Lord’s hold on me was strong.” (Ezekiel 3:14).

I’ve had a thousand, little one-verse moments for both my obedience and my rebellion.

Jonah got four chapters. Four chapters of running and hiding and begging and relenting and stewing in bitterness because this was why he ran in the first place.

What has long intrigued me about Jonah is something they never taught me in Sunday School. All I remember from my childhood is the happy, little ending where the city repented. Yay, Jonah! You fulfilled your mission!

But there’s Jonah, at the end of the story, sulking in the hot sun while God chastises him for being without compassion for the people God sent him to save. It ends so abruptly with God expressing his love for the people of Nineveh and Jonah declaring his will to die.

Will Jonah repent or will he not? Tune in next time…

And then God cancelled Season Two.

It’s sort of like that much-debated piece of literature “The Lady and the Tiger.” I guess God thinks you don’t need to know what Jonah did in order to consider what you would do.

The fish may have delivered Jonah to the place God intended for him to be, but Jonah was still running. That’s what blows my mind about this story. The only person who didn’t repent was Jonah. And yet, God used him even in his rebellion.

Jonah was called to Nineveh, and when he ran the other way, God calmed a storm and redeemed an entire boatload of heathen sailors.

Wait, what?

I thought we were talking about Nineveh here. That’s where Jonah was supposed to be. That’s what he was meant to do. No one said anything about any sailors.

But it appears to me that Jonah was in the wrong place at the right time. It seems to me that God redeems our messes more powerfully than we could ever give ourselves credit for.

The last year or two has been really hard for me. I feel like I haven’t been tracking as well as I should. I feel like I’ve been stumbling toward Tarshish rather than charging into Nineveh.

I feel too dark to be a light. Too unworthy to be a vessel. Instead of letting guilt take me by the hand and guide me home, I’ve welcomed it in and let it take up residence.

Sometimes I don’t like the person I’ve become—the one who snores away while the storm rages on.

Yet I find hope in believing that God has elected to use me, in spite of my rebellion. In some cases, as a result of it. I like to think that even when I’m thrown to the waves and left sinking into the darkness, God’s glory will be revealed to those left standing on deck.

Travel via fish’s belly is not the most glamorous route to redemption, but sometimes it’s necessary for wayward souls like mine.

A Series of Small Things

Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.”

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” (Luke 13:18-21)

“It’s a small thing,” Jesus says. “The work I wish to complete through you today is a series of small things. Plant the seed and it will grow. Knead the bread and it will rise.”

I don’t know if this revelation is encouraging or disheartening. While it gives meaning to the series of small things my life has been here of late, it also means I may need to stop striving for the big things.

Fact: I like quantifiable goals. I like finished products. I like finishing products. I can’t do something as simple as read multiple books at a time (and much to the dismay of my characters, I’m not good at writing them that way either), because there is something so satisfactory about finishing one thing before moving on to another. I live for word count—watching the sum of my efforts rise until the small things become monumental.

Let’s face it: the small things don’t feel very monumental. Not when you can’t step back and look at the amassed word count. After all, a thousand words is just a thousand words until you’ve written them forty-two days in a row. And, yeah, deep down I know I’m still writing the same amount of words in a day, but it’s different when you see them add up. A thousand words is just a thousand words. Forty-two thousand words is monumental.

But here’s Jesus, asking me to play the role of editor in my own life (a task I like decidedly less than the actual creative writing process). He hands me a red pen and makes me watch the numbers drop as I kill my darlings. One by one by one.

Yes, this past year has been a most frustrating journey, and I have yet to make sense of it. Oh, I have tried. I kept track of my every move throughout the month of January simply because I wanted to see what I was doing with my life.

What stares me in the face now that February has dawned is just a series of small stuff: a lot of time spent with a toddler, a few blog posts, seven novels read along with half the book of Ezekiel, and too many trips to Chipotle. That is basically the sum of my January, as I see it.

“Does any of this matter?” I wonder. And when God doesn’t answer directly, I ask again. “Does it?”

And God shakes His head because, silly Rebekah, she doesn’t get it at all. “That toddler? He is my child, and you are shaping him. Those blog posts you write? You have seen them turn readers into friends. Those novels that were recommended by your co-worker? They are drawing you closer to her. The time you’ve spent with My prophet Ezekiel? That’s drawing you closer to Me. And your insatiable love of burritos? Yes, even the stranger you ate dinner with that one afternoon crossed paths with you for a reason.”

But these are all small things. Things I cannot count, cannot quantify, and therefore cannot check off the list of All the Things I Hope to Accomplish Today.

Yet God whispers into the chaos of my heart, “Do not disdain the small things.”

And I realize you can’t attach numbers to little acts of love.

“What is the kingdom of God like?” Jesus asked. And I imagine His disciples must have been as confused as I am when He started going on about yeast and mustard seeds. Because this is Jesus—the long-awaited Messiah. Shouldn’t He be saving the world or something?

But He was. And He is. Through a series of small things—a compilation of little acts of love that turn into a collage so big and so brilliant that no art museum could ever contain it—the kingdom of God is advancing.

While we are all focused on big achievements and building a name for ourselves, God is focused on things of His kingdom. Yeast and mustard seeds. The lilies of the field. The birds of the air. The number of hairs on your head.

Small things that are big things in the eyes of the Artist who created it all.

And I am reminded that I serve a God who fed thousands of people by multiplying a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. Someone’s lunch—a small thing—fed the masses.

When I stand with the disciples, wondering where we are going to come up with the kind of cash it takes to feed all these people, I am missing the simplicity of the miracle.

What is the kingdom of God like? It’s a mustard seed. It’s a sprinkle of yeast. It’s a small thing that becomes a big thing once it has time to take root in a person’s heart.

And the problem with wanting to do big things is that I forget.

I forget that I am just a small thing all along. Just a very, very small thing using her infinitely small gifts to make a kingdom-sized imprint on the world.

Father Abraham

Since I was about thirteen years old, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Abraham of the Bible. That was the year my dad moved us out of the church I had grown up in, having been called “like Abraham, not knowing where he was going.” At first, I hated the patriarch if only for being the Biblical justification for the cause of my teenage angst.

But let’s face it, there are so many other reasons to hate Abraham. Who can forget that whole fiasco where he claimed his wife was his sister, thus bringing undeserved curses upon Pharaoh’s house? Coward. And what about when he slept with his servant because he had not produced an heir in the bajillion years he had been on earth? Creep. And if that wasn’t bad enough in its own right, he ended up treating the servant and the son she bore him like dirt. Jerk.

But there are a million reasons to love Abraham, as well. Like the way he steps up to the plate and rescues his idiot nephew from invading armies. And the way he bargains with God for the redemption of Sodom. Even though he lost that wager, it spoke volumes for the compassion in his heart. And of course, there is the famous story of that trek up Mt. Moriah when Abraham obediently prepared for the ultimate sacrifice, thus proving his devotion to the God who selected him to be the father of the Jewish faith.

Abraham has a crazy story of ups and downs, high points and low points, great triumph and great tragedy.

A story like mine.

Let’s be honest, it is hard to judge Abraham for his foolish mistakes when I make them just as often. (So perhaps I will not make a mistake so monumental that it causes war between nations for thousands of years to come, but if Abraham had known in advance the consequences of his actions, you can be certain he would not have taken them.)

Ahem.

So here is Abraham—a story I have returned to a thousand times. Abraham, who was called by God to leave his country, his people, and his father’s house to go to the land God would show him. Abraham, who believed a promise that would take years, decades, even centuries to come to fruition. Abraham, who followed God through the wilderness, trusting it would be the inheritance of the children who had not yet been born to him.

What I’ve realized through Abraham’s journey of lost and found, of victory and setbacks, is this: The people God calls do not find themselves magically at the finish line. More often than not, they find themselves wandering through the wilderness for years at a time.

Even Jesus had his wilderness season. He wandered in the desert for forty days. What was He doing there? It’s hard to tell. Obviously the God of the universe did not have to go on a journey to “find Himself” or His calling. He had the entirety of His human life mapped out already. So why would He take to wandering?

Maybe He just wanted to let us know the wilderness is an essential part of our stories. Maybe He wanted to remind us that He meets us in our deserts like He cannot on our mountaintops because we find Him only when we are not so distracted by the view.

God calls us all, like Abraham, to follow Him. Not knowing where we are going and clinging to a promise that seems tenuous at best, we obey. We stumble, we fall, we get back up and wipe the blood and dirt from our knees. And we continue on this journey of lostness and foundness,  walking through the wilderness hand-in-hand with the Creator.

 

a voice calls us out

Set Apart, Torn Apart

I started reading the book of Esther again. Now, I’m not usually one to jump on the bandwagon that everyone else is riding on, but I’ll make an exception for Esther. As far as my favorite Biblical characters go, she ranks right up there with Uriah the Hittite and the prophet Micaiah (aka So Much Swoon and Mr. Sass), but I digress…

Like everyone else, I admire Esther’s courage. I’m inspired by the fact that when it comes to making a life or death decision, Esther steps out and risks her neck for her people, even though she’s obviously scared out of her mind. But the part of the story that resonates in me more than anything else is when it’s mentioned that, before she ever met the king and became his bride, Esther was relocated to the best place in the harem and assigned seven personal maids.

You might think I’m moved by God’s obvious favor upon her even then. After all, everyone who shares a message about Esther talks about how she was set apart in this manner. But I’m a little more interested in how she might have been torn apart.

Because sometimes being set apart looks a whole lot like being isolated.

Think about it. Hegai moved her to the best place in the harem. We’re not told if this was completely separate from the other women or if it was still in the midst of them, but while I can’t guarantee where it landed her on a geographical scale, I can pretty confidently say where she ended up on the relationship scale. Basically this was a beauty competition and, by displaying this unmerited favor upon her, Hegai singled Esther out as the one to beat.

“Congratulations, dollface, you’re the most hated woman in Susa! Step right up to claim your prize.”

I mean, she still had her seven maids (and, judging from her reputation of winning people over in a heartbeat, they probably liked her), but I can’t help imagining that was the loneliest year of Esther’s life.

And I hate that this is the part of Esther’s story I find myself relating to the most when I would rather have the crown and the bravery and the saving a nation from destruction. But Esther’s story—and my story, too—would not be complete without the fear and the loneliness and the wondering if one life really matters in the grand scope of things.

I can’t imagine Esther was very grateful for her isolation when she was standing in the thick of it. It doesn’t have to be recorded within the pages of her story for me to know that spiteful comments and hurtful words were thrown her way. Girls are vicious, and I imagine Esther was torn apart during those twelve months of beauty treatments.

But God needed to get Esther alone in order to teach her to trust Him alone. This is obvious in later chapters of her story when she turns to Him and humbles herself in prayer, along with her seven maids that she apparently converted along the way (as evidenced by her comment about them praying with her in Esther 4:16). Check that out.  Esther was left with only a few women to trust and she transformed their lives. You go, girl!

I can’t help wondering what Esther’s life would have looked like without that season of isolation. We can know for certain that there are seven women who would not have had their lives transformed by her witness, but we also have to wonder how Esther would have stood in the midst of the masses. Would she still have transformed lives, or would she have conformed to the image these women expected of her?

Was Hegai’s favor a saving factor in Esther’s story? I imagine that it was. But I also imagine that Esther was confused by it. I can’t help but wonder how often she wished he hadn’t singled her out and made her the enemy of every other woman in the harem. Because being set apart hurts. There’s loneliness involved. And it’s even harder when we can’t see the big picture. While Esther knew she was there competing for the crown, I can’t imagine that she ever really believed she would be Xerxes’ choice of queen. She probably hoped, just as every other girl there hoped, but I’m sure her dreams were plagued by doubts.

Sometimes I feel as isolated as Esther. Maybe I’m not the most hated woman in Susa, but I remember feeling like the most ignored girl in Logan County, and sometimes I’ve felt like the most invisible woman in Charlottesville. Whether or not that was actually true, the feelings were very real, and they hurt.

Following Jesus hurts.

And I don’t know why God’s path has to be riddled with pain, but I do know that I serve a Creator who makes beauty from ashes. I follow an Author who turns orphaned peasants into queens. So whenever you’re feeling torn apart, just remember that the God who writes real-life fairy tales has set you apart for such a time as this, and when you come through these trials, dear one, you will stand in the presence of kings.

set apart

Overlooking the Miraculous

Forgive us, O God, our feeble faith.

Those words ring in my head with the same monotonous tone of a congregation of people reciting the Lord’s Prayer. It echoes through the cavernous ceilings and stained glass windows of my mind.

Because my faith is too small, my doubts are too big, and I’m a little too clumsy to walk the straight and narrow.

I was reading the story of the widow at Zarephath. Growing up in Sunday School, it’s a story I heard a hundred times. I’ve seen it play out before my very eyes at more than one VBS. It’s a miracle story. A woman who is prepared to die of starvation encounters a prophet who assures her that she and her son will not go hungry. That God will provide for her during the drought that destroyed her land.

Reading it the other day, I noticed something I had never given much thought to in the past. When the woman’s son dies, and Elijah brings him back to life, the woman declares, “Now I know for sure that you are a man of God, and that the Lord truly speaks through you.”

I’m sorry?

Excuse me, Widow Lady, but did you just figure that out? Did God not prove Himself to you in all that time you survived on the same drop of oil and handful of flour? I mean, come on!

So I stop to consider how this came to be, and I wonder if the widow simply began to see first miracle as ordinary—something to take for granted. Because of course the oil wouldn’t run out. Of course there would always be flour to spare. There always was.

I wonder if the widow started to trust in the miracle more than in the God who made it possible.

And I realize I can’t judge her for her response. Because how many times have I done the same thing? How many times have I overlooked the small miracles in my life, rationalizing them away until I accept them as ordinary?

We are a people of feeble faith, begging for a sign when our very lives are a testimony of God’s faithfulness.

Stop.

Just stop for a second.

Stop and dust your life for God’s fingerprints because, darling, I’m willing to bet they are all over you.

It’s hard to see in the moment. I know it’s so hard to see in the moment what is real and what is fake and what the purpose of everything is. But take a moment to breathe, sweetheart—just breathe—and look at how far God has brought you. Look at how He has led you all along.

You’ve been waiting for a miracle, but, darling, you are one.
Yes, your very life is a bigger miracle than you will ever know.

ordinary miracles

 

A Different Kind of Gospel

A few months ago, I got to thinking about the way we present the Gospel and started wondering if we were going about it the wrong way. Like, maybe we shouldn’t be telling people to accept Jesus “or else they’re going to hell.” Because maybe hell isn’t the issue. Because when I think about the way we promise people the opportunity of eternal life in heaven, I can’t help but wonder… Is that our only reason for following Jesus?

Because if it is, I’m no better than the people who are blowing themselves up in the name of faith, hoping for a shot at paradise. In fact, I’m worse because I’m not really living what I believe. I’m not risking anything for the God I claim to love.

Needless to say I was pretty excited when I stumbled across a book where the author basically poses the same question and starts launching into the sermon Jesus really came to preach.

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17)

If you flip through the rest of the book of Matthew and really pay attention, you’ll get the feeling that all Jesus ever talked about was the kingdom of heaven. And He told us how to grasp it. Right now. In this moment. Not just when we get to the other side of death.

Yet here we are—standing on the street corners with our big, flashy signs yelling, “Free tickets to heaven! Come on, folks, get your little bit of Jesus right here!”

And we wonder why we don’t see fruit in the lives of these new convert. Maybe it’s because all we ever told them was that Jesus wanted to spend eternity with them, but we neglected to mention that He wants to share life with them, too.

I like to think that I follow Jesus for more reasons than the promise of a cushy mansion after I die. I like to think that maybe I follow Him because the kingdom of heaven is near, and I want to experience it now. Today. In this moment.

And yes, the promise of eternal life is a beautiful thing, but sometimes eternity still feels like a long way off, and today… Today I need to walk hand in hand with Jesus, marveling at the wonders of this kingdom life and knowing that these simple moments of my existence are significant to someone other than me.

I think from now on I’ll be preaching a different kind of Gospel.

Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy (Say it One More Time)

Last week I shared a verse with you because I found that it really spoke to me. Judging by some of your responses, I’m not the only one who misplaced that joy God offers in Psalm 16. It’s not the first time I misplaced it. And it won’t be the last.

See, I lost sight of it again—mere days later. I’ve been all go, go, go; busy, busy, busy; just trying to get everything done before Christmas vacation and I’ve lost some of that Joy to the World they sing about this time of year. And again, I didn’t even realize what I was missing.

So wouldn’t you know that I picked up my Bible and opened it up to Acts 2—that familiar passage where the Holy Spirit falls upon the believers, and they start speaking in basically every language known to man, and Peter stands up to say, “These men are not drunk!” (Thanks for clarifying, Pete.)

It’s the sermon where Peter quotes that awesome passage from Joel about how God will pour out His Spirit on all people and their sons and daughters will prophesy. I’ve always loved that scripture. It reminds me of how amazing the transformation that takes place in the hearts of believers is.

But Joel isn’t the only passage Peter quotes in that famous sermon that drew 3,000 people to repentance, and I didn’t need to read the footnote to know the reference for the second chunk of scripture He shared.

“You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.”

Psalm 16. He quoted Psalm 16. And I said, “Okay, God, I get it.” But I didn’t. Not really. Because I’m still having a hard time recovering that joy in the midst of the busyness that has overwhelmed my heart these last few weeks. So I say it again and again: Joy. Unspeakable Joy. Joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart. Because maybe if I say it enough times—maybe if I think it over and over and over again—it will finally be down in my heart to stay.

Choose Joy