Saturday, 31 May 2014

Jonah - a journey to enlightenment

The Book of Jonah is one of the great works of Hebrew literature. But it has been ruined, for me, by a Sunday School Song, a controversy and a misunderstanding.

The song will be familiar to many –

Come listen to my tale
Of Jonah and the whale
Way down in the middle of the ocean
Oh how did he get there?
Whatever did he wear?
Way down in the middle of the ocean
A preacher he should be
At Nineveh you see
Then he had a very foolish notion,
But God forgave his sin
Salvation entered in
Way down in the middle of the ocean, ocean, ocean

For most of us that is the book means to us. It is about someone who runs away and gets eaten by a whale – even though it is in fact a big fish! Unless we see this book as a complete narrative we have no hope of getting its true meaning.

The controversy is all about whether it is a book of factual history or a parable. This goes back centuries. In 409 AD St Augustine wrote – ‘What are we to believe concerning Jonah who is said to have been 3 days in a whale’s belly. The thing is utterly improbably and incredible…that a man swallowed with this clothes on should have existed in the inside of a fish…such questions I have seen discussed by pagans amidst loud laughter and with great scorn.’

For many others it has to be accurate history because it is in the bible. It is also said to be factually accurate because Jesus spoke of the story on more than one occasion. The reality is that we don’t know. It seems highly unlikely that it all happened exactly as it is written. More of that shortly. The fact that Jesus referred to it does help one way or the other as we would then have to believe that there was really a sower or a prodigal son. Stories formed an important part of Jesus’ teaching and his emphasis is more on the truth behind those stories. And that has to be the case here.

My own preference is to see Jonah as a piece of literature which may be based loosely on real events. It is a structured piece of writing that is full of imagery and poetry. I think that it is far more important to see the profound and timeless truths behind the story than to worry about whether every word has to be factually literal.

The misunderstanding is that the story of Jonah is all about God punishing us if we make wrong choices. How often have people felt that they have chosen the wrong career or made the wrong decision. When things go wrong they go through the pain of wondering whether they are a ‘Jonah’.

We need to look at Jonah with a clean slate and see it for what it is – one man’s road to enlightenment. So let’s look at it with fresh eyes.

The book tells us little about the man himself. All we know is that he is the son of Ammittai. There is probably help in the book of 2 Kings where we are told that God spoke through his prophet Jonah, son of Ammittai and from Gath Hepher (2 Kings 14 v 25). So assuming this is the same person, this places him in Galilee during the reign of Jeroboam 11 sometime between about 786 and 746 BCE. So he is in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, a few years before the Assyrians came and virtually wiped out that kingdom. The capital of Assyria was Nineveh.

Nearly everything about the book is counter-intuitive and subversive. It cuts across most of our conventional thinking, a bit like the teachings of Jesus.

(i)                 Firstly he is unlike any other prophet. He is called to take a message of judgment; not to the nation of Israel but to Nineveh. The capital city of the growing threat that was Assyria. Other prophets do what they are told – see Isaiah, Samuel and Jeremiah. Jonah heads in the opposite direction. Rather than going east to Nineveh he heads west to Tarshish which was somewhere in the South West of Spain.  So that makes him one of the first people to head to Marbella in order to get away from things! It was as far away from Nineveh as you could imagine. So right away our expected ideas are challenged. The rest of the story is about his journey to finding true enlightenment or wisdom.
(ii)               Jonah is often thought of as being a coward but his decision seems to make sense to our normal way of thinking. It was a long and hazardous journey that would have taken him days or weeks across hostile terrain. He was being asked to take a message of judgment to a powerful enemy nation that would soon overrun Israel. So he would be placing himself in great personal danger. But he would also be putting himself in great social danger. Why would a prophet of Israel go the heart of a powerful and frightening enemy? So he risked becoming a social outcast.

Most sensible people would have advised him not to go. That is quite consistent with conventional wisdom or common sense.

So he finds himself on a ship heading for Tarshish when – ‘such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up’. This is far more than simply a punishment for running away. It is a direct encounter with God; similar to those of Moses and Elijah. In the bible, the sea is a powerful image for God. So readers of this story would have been able to identify with the crossing of the Red Sea during the Exodus. The psalms are full of references – ‘You rule over the surging sea, when its waves mount up you still them.’ (Ps 89) and ‘The sea is his for he made it.’ (Ps 95). In the story of Job there is the magnificent language of chapter 38 as he is shown things in perspective. Concerning the waves – ‘Thus far shall you come and no further, here shall your proud waves be stopped.’ All of this prepares the way for the story where Jesus calms the storm – ‘Who is this – even the winds and waves obey him.’ (Mark 4).

So Jonah begins to see things in perspective. Conventional wisdom sees the size of the task and the danger. He is shown the power of the sea in order to see where true power and authority lie. Even the great fish – not whale (!) – adds to this imagery. As Jonah is thrown over board he finds himself in the belly of a great fish. In Psalm 104 we read – ‘There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number – living things both large and small, where the ships go to and fro and Leviathan that you formed frolic there…’

So we Jonah learning to see things clearly; to see things in a way that subverts conventional ways of thinking.
Next we come to the part which convinces me that this is predominantly a parable. If I were to find myself in the belly of a fish I would either –

(a)    Die or
(b)   Panic and gasp for breath or
(c)    Be sick

What I would certainly not do is write a psalm. Which is what comes next. This adds to the sense of Jonah’s journey to wisdom. He has seen the power of God and this is reflected in a song of praise. He acknowledges that he has been banished from the sight of God but then says – ‘…you brought my life up from the pit’ (cf Psalm 40, Psalm 103). He is rescued, not so much from the sea and the big fish, but from his wrong way of thinking.

We also see here a common biblical theme of down and up. Joseph is thrown into a pit and is raised up, Jeremiah goes into a cistern, Jesus dies and rises – and likened his story to that of Jonah (see Matthew 12). Time and again, hopeless situations are turned around.

And so to Nineveh. This is certainly subversive. Jonah goes to this massive, scary city filled with terrifying enemies. Guess what happens. They listen to him. The king covers himself in ashes and calls on his nation to repent. What do we know about prophets? No one ever listened or took any notice. Time and time we read of their efforts to get the people of God to change their ways. But the Ninevehns, the Assyrians, the enemy …. Listen! This again cuts across all expectations, just like the Good Samaritan who is the example of a good neighbour.

God listens and has mercy. So we come to the final step on Jonah’s road to wisdom. He has seen the power of God that’s puts things in perspective. Now he sees the heart of God.

Jonah gets a sulk on when God shows mercy to the people of Nineveh. And why not? This undermined him and his authority. Why would any Israelite want a powerful Nineveh? Why not just wipe them out with a thunderbolt or a few storms and floods? This again is counter-intuitive. Why should God show mercy to those we do not like, to those who are socially and culturally different from us, who threaten us? Why should he by good to those who do not deserve it? How dare God show grace to them. It isn't fair. He feels like the Prodigal’s older brother.

God firstly shows his power and authority then he shows his love.

Jonah finally gets to the truth. He finally finds enlightenment under a tree. How very philosophical! He is given a beautiful vine that shades him from the burning heat. Ten is shrivels and is gone and Jonah is sad. God shows him that he is sad because he lost the shade of a tree for which he had done nothing – ‘But Nineveh has 120,000 people who cannot tell their right from their left… should I not be concerned about that great city.’

So here is final piece of the jig saw. No one is outside of the love of God. However different they may be, God cares about them. Jonah finally gets it. He encounters God – both his power and authority but also his love and mercy. That is why we need to see this as a book of wisdom more than simply an eccentric story about a man and a whale. It is about nurturing a different way of thinking. As with the book of Job it is about seeing things as they are. About seeing the power of god and his love for those who, we think, do not deserve it. Most of that time the one we think is least deserving is our self. 

This blog is a summary of a talk I gave at St Lukes, Crosby on 25th May 2014

Monday, 26 May 2014

Concerning floods, Conchita and an angry God

This picture of the Shard being struck by lightening is a great piece of photography. I have to say that I was surprised that no Christian group tried to blame it on the LGBT community. They do seem to be blamed for many things.

The most recent and possible the most bizarre was the claim from church leaders in the Balkans that devastating floods were caused by Conchita winning Eurovision –

I think we need to stop and think for a minute here. So God is so interested in the outcome of Eurovision that he would bring down death and destruction? But this is far from being a quirky Eurovision thing. Blaming gay people for disasters is nothing new.

The trend goes back, at least, to 2005 with the terrible tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. One Megachurch Pastor said - “God caused Hurricane Katrina to wipe out New Orleans because it had a gay pride parade the week before and was filled with sexual sin.” Earlier in 2014 a UKIP Councillor blamed the worst floods in UK living memory on the government’s acceptance of inclusive marriage –

And so we could go on. It is easy to laugh but these views are damaging. They damage the dignity of ordinary LGBT people who just want to get on with their lives like the rest of us. They damage Christianity by portraying a distorted view of God. So it is not something we should just ignore as the ranting of a few cranks.

Firstly we need to focus on the issue itself. Let’s just suspend reality for a minute and assume that God would send bad weather because he was angry with us. Why would God choose this particular issue as one which merits the lightening bolt treatment? I don’t propose to repeat what I have said in other blogs save to say that it is hardly a subject to which the bible gives any great attention. In fact it does not give inclusive marriage any attention at all –

On the other hand the issue of poverty and inequality rolls off the pages. How about this from Jeremiah 22 - “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labour”. For the prophet Amos the unrighteous - ‘trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed.’

The gap between rich and poor, in the UK, is wider than ever –

So why does this not cause severe weather? Or what about climate change? Or bombing of Iraqi children?

Those who blame bad weather on the LGBT community seem to be more interested in their own prejudices than in the truth.

But in fact we do not need to suspend reality. The whole idea of God using weather to express anger is flawed. Let’s go back to the UKIP Councillor and the UK storms.

What he said was this –

“The scriptures make it abundantly clear that a Christian nation that abandons its faith and acts contrary to the Gospel (and in naked breach of a coronation oath) will be beset by natural disasters such as storms, disease, pestilence and war."

It is hard to know where to start. What on earth is a Christian Nation? There is no such thing. Jesus called individuals and groups to follow him. There was no concept of any nation being ‘Christian’ before Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Mr Silvester seems to assume that any comments from the prophets about the nation of Israel can be seamlessly translated to modern western countries. What is very disturbing is that many of those who come out with these comments have a very literal and conservative view of scripture.

I would challenge any statement that the bible makes any thing ‘abundantly clear’. There are interpretations of most passages of scripture except perhaps that God loves us and does not want anyone excluded from that love. Just read the book of Jonah which tells us how much God cares for the inhabitants of a pagan city that was the enemy of Israel.

These attempts to blame God for bad weather – which is the reality of what they are saying – can be laughed and disregarded. 

But they give a distorted image of God that has to be challenged and rejected.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Evangelical Alliance have not just excluded Rev Steve Chalke

A few days ago I tweeted that I was sad about the Evangelical Alliance’s decision to disassociate itself from Rev Steve Chalke and his organisation Oasis. That decision was based on EA’s unhappiness with his vocal support for same sex marriage.

I chose my words very carefully. You have to when you are limited to 140 characters. But I also wanted to make it clear that this was a genuine sadness and not an expression of anger; even though I profoundly disagree with the decision. The sadness is more about what this decision says about the EA leadership and the message to those evangelicals who see things differently.

If there is one thing on which most people agree it is that there is disagreement on the subject of inclusive marriage. I have made my own position clear in an earlier blog and am quite happy to say that I am very strongly in favour. I don’t propose to repeat that argument here –

But there are those who I know and respect, who take a different view. They are neither homophobic nor intolerant of all same sex relationships. They just see marriage differently than I do. In all other areas we can work well together. They affirm God’s bias for the poor. They will come alongside the marginalised and oppose discrimination, including homophobia. I wish that I could persuade them to agree with me but that does not mean that I refuse to have anything to do with them.

In his most recent book the American writer and activist Jim Wallis says –

‘It is time to reclaim the common good and learn how faith might help, instead of hurt, in that important task’. *

Why should a person’s views on a particular issue define the value of everything that they do? And how is that reclaiming the common good?

When Jesus prayed in the Garden before his arrest and execution he prayed that his disciples would be ‘one’. He never prayed that they would be ‘right’. The decision of EA suggests that they see things the other way round. Because they see their view as ‘right’, they exclude those of a different viewpoint. It is not limited to Steve Chalke or Oasis. I would at one time have comfortably called myself an evangelical. But that is now in question. On their website they describe themselves thus –

‘We are the largest and oldest body representing the UK’s two million evangelical Christians.

But they have publicly stated that they no longer represent me or many others who have a different opinion. So I am alienated by them. I am no longer welcome because I agree with Steve Chalke and others.

And that is a reason to be sad.

*Jim Wallis - On God's Side; BrazosPress