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.

The Weight of Worthy

I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear the words, “You are worthy,” until I found them in my inbox on a Thursday afternoon. Just a random Thursday afternoon, in the midst of chaos and confusion and stumbling to figure out how exactly I was going to make it through this valley of death’s shadow.

This wasn’t the first email I had received from this reader. It was, in fact, the second—her response to my response to the email where she said she was so grateful that my words had traveled across the internet to find her.

Apparently, without my knowledge, a guest post I had written three years earlier had been recycled into an e-devotional that made its way into this girl’s inbox. And then, carrying with it the sting of conviction, it found its way into mine. Because of course I had to look it up to figure out what exactly this girl was thanking me for. In a way, I wished I had simply accepted her thanks and let it go, because the post I found when I went digging sang the bittersweet tune of loss.

I had lost the girl who wrote Beyond Waiting. The girl who determined to redefine the purpose of singleness and live the journey of once upon a time was long gone and I did not know how to recover her.

I don’t know why it is easy for me to be honest in the inboxes of strangers—I can’t say what it is about a screen with a cursor blinking against a backdrop of white that feels so safe—but I wrote this girl a most truthful reflection of who I was then versus who I am now. I wrote her of lostness. Of the valley of the shadow. Of how far I had fallen from the pedestal I once fancied myself to stand upon.

And she responded—like an angel in my inbox—to tell me I was worthy.

“God’s grace is sufficient for us,” she quoted, in the joyful exuberance of one who has been redeemed. “Not just some of us, not just sometimes. For every person in everything!”

And then she hit me with this truth-bomb: “I can sense you don’t feel worthy of the message you once wrote. I want you to know that that is not true. God makes us worthy. In his eyes every one of his children is worthy. You are worthy.”

Worthy. Worthy. Worthy.

It’s not a word I would choose to ascribe to myself. Not because I struggled with a low self-esteem or self-loathing, but because it seemed such a lofty title. Though I’ve long said I have the gift of vanity, calling myself worthy seemed a bit too much, even by my standards.

And yet, here the words settled like a cloak upon my shoulders.

Worthy. Worthy. Worthy.

I am undeserving; God chose me anyway. I guess that makes me worthy.

Because if that is all it takes for something to have worth—just for someone to scoop it up and deem it valuable—then I am worthy indeed.

There’s me in the mud, thick in the grime of unrepentance and God still chooses to say, “That one. Yes, that little mess right there has immeasurable worth. More than the sparrows. More than the lilies. I choose that one to wrap in the weight of My love. She’s worthy. Worthy. Worthy. Worthy.”

That thought clung to me so tightly—moved me so deeply—I cried real tears to the tune of “Would You Still Love Me the Same” on my way home from work that night:

“If I showed You my flaws, if I couldn’t be strong, tell me honestly, would You still love me the same?”

“Yes,” God replied. “A thousand times, yes. I choose you again and again. Every minute. Every day. You are worthy. Worthy. Worthy. Worthy.”

Though I don’t always feel it—though I certainly do not understand how such depths of grace could exist—I wrap the weight of that word around me like a blanket, like a shield.

Worthy. Worthy. Worthy.

I am undeserving; God chose me anyway.

I guess that makes me worthy.

The Villain in My Own Story

“Trusting in so much
That’s not worth trusting in
The person she’s now
Meets who she could’ve been.
There are two roads to travel
She chose the wrong one
Now there’s no going back
What’s done is done.”

The first time I read those words in Anne Jackson’s Permission to Speak Freely, they broke a more hopeful heart. A heart that believed in fresh new pages with every sunrise. Today, they still break my heart, but I don’t rage against the truth of them as surely as I did then.

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

God, I don’t even know who I could have been. Can hardly remember who I was. And I am trying so very hard not to think of what I am today—the villain in my own story.

I come before You wielding my anger like knives, my discontent as katanas. But when I stand before You in all my glorious rage, You don’t reach for Your weapons. You make no move to defend Yourself against my deadly advances.

It’s like that scene from The Mask of Zorro when the teacher instructs the pupil to choose his weapon, and Alejandro spins around, sword in hand, to find De La Vega holding a spoon.

A spoon.

Just like Alejandro, my anger morphs into confusion.

I came here to wage war and You are extending a dinner invitation.

And I know what will happen should I choose to sit down. You’ll tell me how You know I chose the wrong path. You’ll tell me how long You’ve been waiting for me to come home. You’ll tell me it’s high time I stop Taylor Swifting my way through life, because the lyrics You’ve written fit me better than Taylor’s ever could.

You’ll tell me redemption is only a heartbeat away, should I choose to accept it.

That’s where this whole plan breaks down—in the accepting. Because I am tired of blindly accepting things. Tired of being the observer in my own story. Tired of being the duty-fulfiller and the girl who simply does what needs to be done.

I sense You smile at that confession. You’ve been waiting so very long for me to stop merely drifting through life. My rebellion is a spark that might make You proud if I would only learn to rebel against the proper things.

I’m a little misguided, a little bit lost. And I am far from ready to release this spark that has led me astray.

Anne Jackson was wrong. It’s not that there is no going back; it’s that it is so very hard to find the willpower to turn around when the desire is still rooted this deep.

I would ask You to rescue me, but that would make me too much of a damsel in distress. I’d rather find my way back on my own.

You can leave the light on, though. Maybe sprinkle the path with bread crumbs, so I can pretend I’m the big, strong girl who can navigate the woods on her own, even though I know You are there, waiting in the shadows, bringing me from lost to found.

But that’s my pride talking. That’s the part of me that wants to go on pretending I am strong enough without You. So if we are going to get this right, you should probably come out of the shadows and take me by the hand so we can walk this path together.

And when I feel like looking back over my shoulder, squeeze my hand a little tighter to remind me that You’re there. Leading me out of the woods. Into the light. Guiding me home.

Let the Redeemed of the Lord Say So

“Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, Whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy,”  –Psalm 107:2

I’ve been saying that I didn’t know the meaning of the word “redemption” until I went to India. When I told this to a certain friend, he asked me what the difference was between redemption here and there. After all, isn’t that what God does for all of us?

I saw his point. And yes, I agree that God’s redemption is the same all around the world, but it’s what we do with that redemption that matters.

I saw redemption in India. The stories of how God had saved them from darkness were something that was talked about all the time. It’s something they lived in constant awareness of. In India, I saw people who lived the command given in Psalm 107:2. The redeemed of the Lord talked of being redeemed. And that made all the difference.

I think most of us (myself included) tend to take that redemption for granted. We don’t talk about it. We don’t live every moment of our lives as if we are a changed people. We have so many distractions that keep us from focusing on the one thing that truly matters.

In India, I was void of that distraction. In India, I talked of redemption all the time. In India, I was free to enter into a spontaneous moment of worship with one of the boys and his guitar. Back here, I strive to clear my mind of the chaos. I try to live in that freedom I experienced at Ashagram because I do believe that it’s possible, and I do believe that it’s right.

So today I choose to live the command God has set before me. Today I choose to speak of redemption. Today I pray that my eyes would tell what my heart has experienced.

I know the meaning of the word “redemption”. Do you?

The Beauty of Redemption

I returned to the United States with India temporarily tattooed on my hand, but permanently ingrained on my heart.

Meeting up with my brothers in Mumbai was definitely a highlight of my trip, but the real miracle happened when our team left the city. After spending a few days amidst the poverty and pain of Mumbai, the lush, green haven called Ashagram washed over me. I sensed immediately what one of the former street boys confirmed only a few hours later: “This is a healing place.”

I know that it’s a healing place for those who were rescued from the darkness of the streets of Mumbai, but I also believe that each one of my team members experienced that healing in one way or another.

The term “beauty from ashes” has never meant so much to me. The hungry street boys I saw in Mumbai… I met them at Ashagram. Their eyes were aglow with the saving power of Jesus’ love. The prostitutes I saw lingering outside the brothels… I met them too. They smiled, they laughed, they praised the God who rescued them from darkness. And as I entered into a beautiful night of worship while a young man named Sunil played his guitar,  I discovered the true meaning of the word redemption. How was it possible that this extravagant worshiper could be the drug addict he claimed he once was?

Just when I was wondering if the hand of God was so clearly seen in my own life, one of the boys slipped me a note that read:

Do you know that you are my very close friend i ever have. Friendship is like love. and love never end. an love not take record of rong. you are love.

Though I wished I could have stayed much longer, I’m content to leave on that note. I figure that if that was the conclusion Santosh came to after my nine-day stay at Ashagram, I did what I went there to do. And I experienced the beauty of redemption in a way I never knew that I could.