Friday, January 30, 2009

Sitcom Jonah: More than a Book about Nothing

The story of Jonah is another of my favorite stories of the Bible. It only occurred to me recently how funny this story is.

In fact, it occurs to me that The Book of Jonah is the great sitcom of the Bible. You’re meant to laugh at Jonah and the events in his story.

The show that comes to mind is Seinfeld. I know it sounds crazy, but I really think this parallel works.

First off, Jonah is like the Seinfeld characters: morally questionable, self centered, and likable in a painful sort of way.

Picture Jonah at home in bed, when he hears God voice: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” I see the look of resistance and terror in his eyes.

I imagine him discussing it with his friend at the local diner. “God wants go to Nineveh. I can’t go to Nineveh...there’s got be a way out of this.”

His friend says, “If you could only go somewhere where God isn’t.”

“Wait a minute,” Jonah says, “maybe you got something there.” He looks deep in thought. “Where would God not want to go...TARSHISH! I’m GOING to Tarshish Jerry!”

His friend mutters, “Yeah...this is going to work...”

So Jonah books passage on a boat. He’s sleeping peacefully below, pleased with himself over his brilliance to get away from God, when a huge storm blows up. All of the sailors are praying to their gods, in a state of panic, until someone finds Jonah below and wakes him up and brings him above deck. “You,” the captain shouts, “Call on your God to come and save us!”

All eyes turn to Jonah. “Yeah. Well, I’d like to help, but you see, there’s a little problem with that plan...”

So they all stand on deck, trying to figure out what to do. They know Jonah is the problem, but aren’t sure how to handle things. Now, I can picture this next scene one of two ways:

“OVERBOARD!” he yells, “throw me overboard!” he says, like it’s a stroke of genius.

--snorts-- “Well, you could always throw me overboard.” Dead silence and glances follows. “I’m all know I’m joking, right???!!!”

So over the side goes Jonah.

Now comes one of the best lines of the Bible. “God provided for a great fish to swallow up Jonah.”

Provided, huh? Jonah’s bobbing up and down in the water, thinking this is about as bad as it gets...and gets swallowed by a whale. (Perhaps that’s how it was first referred to as a fish. Jonah, like George, always gets them confused.)

So Jonah’s sitting in the belly of the whale:
First day: “Not good...this is really not good.”

Second day: (stubbornness kicks in) “I’m making this work God! You’ve not got me yet!!!

Third day...Jonah asks forgiveness, and God has the whale deposit him on dry land.

And the final comedic touch:

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:1)

Nice of God to come to Jonah a second time.

So here comes Jonah into Nineveh. His clothes have deteriorated...partially digested. His skin is bleached from the enzymes of the whale's stomach. He's got some seaweed still matted in his hair. And then he cries out:


Is it any wonder that the people of Nineveh believed in the power of God??? :)

We’re supposed to see the absurdity of the story. Yet like all good comedies, within the craziness of the story there are important life lessons to discover.

Imagine that God calls you tomorrow.... Imagine God calls you not to something that seems plausible, but something that seems absurd and beyond your abilities: like to go to Jerusalem and tell the Jewish and Palestine leaders to stop their violence, repent, and create equal space for each other...despite the fact that you have no credentials or expertise in this area.

What God called Jonah to do was that unbelievable...and must have felt completely unattainable. It was even worse for Jonah, in that the city of Nineveh...the Assyrians... were the great enemy of the Hebrews. Not only would Jonah have reason to fear for his life: deep down inside he did not want the Assyrians to have the opportunity to repent and be spared.

My hunch is that if I received this type of message from God, I would convince myself that I dreamed it...or maybe I’d dismiss it as absurd...or perhaps, like Jonah, I’d run away...or simply convince myself that it just doesn’t make sense. My experiences of 36 years of life in this American culture that values individualism over all else has already convinced me that I’m not significant enough to invoke that scale of change.

Even the incredible hope and optimism of the last week isn’t enough to change the sense that we are like Jonah: unable to change the big picture...and resistant to any attempt to do so.

Now, it might be true: I might never find myself in the position to “change the world.” My deepest held values may be compassion, grace, and community...but my values seem insignificant when compared to people who have authority, power, and wealth. The alternate route is one of security...the road that says I cannot change the world, but I can make a decent living for myself and for my family.

I can tell myself that I still have a good heart, that I still have good ideals, and I could even help a few people here and there...and I’m pretty sure that the casual observer would considered my life “successful.”

But a funny thing happens on this road...just when you think your closing in on happiness; you realize that your true values remain out of reach. The deep longings we have remain unfulfilled because of so much pain and suffering of others...and the realization that we’ve ignored the very essence of our highest calling: to love one another as we love ourself.

We are thrown overboard, and end up in the belly of a whale.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mk 1:15)

Jesus’ initial message mirrors God’s message in Jonah: it’s as “big picture” as you can get. No master plan, no perfect formula, and precious few details. But a real sense that the time is now...that God’s plan is one of compassion, grace, and community, and that we are invited to leave our fears behind in the things that we’ve been told give us “security”...and strive for a world that values justice, truth, forgiveness and love.

My brothers and sisters: this is the road that will feed our souls...and yes, we will change our world.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The end of the Move

FINALLY made it to New Hampshire. The movers made it as well.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Still on the Road

Thought we'd make it home to NH tonight...

After some of the worst driving conditions I've ever experienced, we've stopped in Rutland, VT.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

On the Road

It's the week of our final move from Cleveland to Littleton NH. Trying to stay in front of the storm, but it will likely overtake us tomorrow. In Syracuse NY tonight.

Back to normal posts this weekend.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

One Step Closer....

In case anyone was wondering where the title of my blog comes from, it's the title (and chorus) of a U2 song from the album How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (not Linkin Park's song of the same title).

The Edge answered the question about the lyrics in an interview:

"I think lyrically it's very personal to Bono. The idea for the song lyrically, the one step closer to knowing line, came out of a conversation he was having with Noel Gallagher (of Oasis) about his father's illness, which at that point he'd found out was terminal. They were talking about how weird it was to know that your father's dying, and Bono was saying, I'm not sure he has a faith, whether he knows where he's going, and Noel says "Well, he's one step closer to knowing, isn't he!” and Bono went "Yeah”. It must have just registered, ok, that's a song, and two years later it came back when we were working on that tune and it came together really fast."

I think the song is a great metaphor for our life's journeys and experiences. Read the full lyrics here:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Invocations: Declaring the Secular "Sacred"

My friend Carrie from High School commented the other day on Rick Warren's invocation:

"I wonder why there is any religious invocation at all, really, since we are theoretically a secular nation."

It's a good question.

I want to save the discussion of the purpose and practice of separation of church and state for another day, but need to point out that its primary purpose is to keep religion out of the making, enforcing, or interpreting the laws of the land, or influencing these areas. Posting the ten commandments on the courthouse law is a great example of a violation of church and state. Requiring a president to say "So help me God" would be a violation (which is why it is supposed to be left for the president to say if he/she so chooses...another Justice Roberts blunder from Tuesday). The flip side is to keep the state from outlawing religious beliefs and practices unless they violate the civil rights of others.

It is certain that an invocation can be used in a way that seems to force a religious experience. I suggested in the earlier blog entries that Warren's invocation crossed the line into a forced religious experience when he prayed "the Lord's Prayer."

So Carrie's question remains: why have an invocation at a secular event?

I think the idea behind an invocation is to place the moment in greater context: to invoke a connection between those present and those who worked and sacrificed to make the moment possible, all while pointing to the hopes and dreams for a better future. It is an attempt to connect those gathered to the specialness of the bind us to each other in a way that declares the moment sacred.

I reject the idea that something is either sacred or secular. There are plenty of moments in "secular" settings that are sacred or holy. "Sacred" is not the private property of any religious group or setting. Furthermore, I would also suggest that the separation of church and state was never intended to prohibit declaring sacredness within the secular realm.

"God" is the one usually addressed in an invocation. The word "God" in English, and its counterparts in other languages, is our most common way to talk about the sacred or holy. It is the best language we have (along with, perhaps, "Spirit") to collectively give voice to the incredible variety of understanding concerning the mysteries of life and our connection to each other: past, present & future.

Many assume any mention of God refers to the singular supernatural deity of traditional Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Certainly that is the understanding of God for many people. Even within these faiths, however, many people find this understanding of God lacking or incomplete.

There are almost as many images of God (or the divine) as there are people. Some people see God as a non-theistic presence...some see the divine in nature...some in the mathematics of science...or some even see God in the vast potential of human beings.

(My conversations lead me to believe that many "non-believers" would be open to one or more of these descriptions to describe God or the divine, and that their protests to "having God shoved onto them" refers to the "supernatural, all-powerful, controls everything and judges everyone God.")

In an invocation for the country, one's definition of God is not a question to be debated. "God" in secular invocations represents the presence of the sacred moment...however we individually understand the source...and calls on all those present to come together in the spirit of our common humanity. God is invoked primarily to declare the moment holy.

A final note: I'm not completely naive... :) I do understand that the easiest way to talk of God is to personify...and even the most inclusive of religious leaders cannot help but do so. We simply are limited by our language when we describe the sacred. Watch or read Bishop Robinson's invocation for the "We are One" inaugural event.


Language like "ask God's blessing" and "please, God, keep him safe" certainly points most of us towards God as a "being." The problem is that we simply lack the language to say this any other way. The intent in this case clearly is a declaration of holiness, a charge for us to be up to the task, and an expression of our great hope that our president journeys safely through the unbelievably difficult road that lies ahead. I think Bishop Robinson's invocation powerfully declares the sacredness of the moment without subjecting those listening to a particular religious way.

Whew! That was really hard to put into words! Perhaps someone else can put this more simply (or gently tell me that I've way off base...).

Reflections from the week

I'm still gathering all of my thoughts over the past few days, including a piece on invocations in general.

I'm curious as to what some of your lasting impressions are???

I'll start everyone with perhaps my favorite: Pete Seeger, his grandson, and Bruce Springsteen leading the singalong of "This Land is Your Land" at the Lincoln Memorial: not in protest, but with great hope for the future.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More on Warren

Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today wrote an analysis of Rick Warren's invocation.

"Pastor Rick Warren's invocation uses Jewish, Christian mix."

She wrote that "Controversial evangelical pastor Rick Warren opened Barack Obama's inaugural ceremony Tuesday by touching on the two greatest prayers in Judaism and Christianity and asking God to grace the nation with clarity, responsibility and civility, 'even when we differ.''"

I give Warren credit for using his invocation to point towards unity as Americans. He said, "Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race or religion or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all."

However, I think that Grossman misses how the two prayers were used in the invocation.

Warren said in the beginning of his invocation "The Scripture tells us, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one. And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made.’"

That is touching on the Jewish prayer.

He concluded with these words:

”I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus, Jesus (hay-SOOS), who taught us to pray, Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen."

That's not touching on the Christian prayer. That's praying the Lord's Prayer.

There's nothing wrong with the Lord's Prayer. It's a beautiful, powerful prayer. The occasion of giving the invocation for the Inauguration of the 44th president of the United States of America simply is not the time to use it.

Others seem to reach this same conclusion.

I think Jim Naughton of the Diocese of Washington (quoted in Grossman's article) is right on in saying Warren's speech was "as inclusive as his conscience would allow him to be."

It's a genuine attempt...but it's not inclusive.

Inauguration Day

WHAT A DAY!!! Obama's speech was fantastic! "The time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness." Beautiful words.

I was struck by the following as well: "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and nonbelievers."

I was pleased by these words...a critical uplifting of Americans who claim other paths to God, as well as of those who claim no religion...and a sharp contrast to The Rev. Rick Warren's Jesus centered invocation that was not appropriate for the inclusiveness of the nation. I was shocked when Warren used the Lord's Prayer...

Also in lovely contrast to Warren's invocation was Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction:

"And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other."

I'm so moved by it all, that I'm trying something new: entering the blogging world once more!