My latest for the Longview News Journal.
As a minister, I am asked a lot of questions. They can range from what my stance regarding a particular theological or political issue to where to find something in the Bible, to “if Adam and Eve were the only people on Earth, then where did Cain’s wife come from?”. I do not mind the questions; in fact, I welcome them and encourage others to reflect on their life and faith.
One question I often receive is “what is your favorite book or story in the Bible?” Some ministers are quick with their answer giving a well-rehearsed and crafted answer on why this book or story has had such a dramatic impact on their life or ministry. For me the question is difficult. It is like asking a movie critic which film is their favorite, chances are you are not going to receive a simple or straightforward answer.
The Bible is more than a collection of nice stories, rather it is a book of faith collected and collaborated over centuries to show the movement of God and the response of the people of God. Billions of people have turned to the sacred pages of the Bible to draw out inspiration and guidance for their life and family. Ask a 100 Christians their favorite Bible verse and you more than likely receive 100 different answers. Whether is it is the simplicity of the Gospel of Mark, the humanness of the Disciples, the straightforward nature of the Epistle of James or the centrality of love in 1 John, they all come together for the community of God to find a fuller picture of who God is, what God is asking of us and how we are to respond.
If pressed I will tell people that one of my favorite books of the Bible is Jonah. Most people both inside and outside of the church have heard about the man who was swallowed by a big fish. There is something about Jonah and his struggles that resonates with me. Jonah was called by God to proclaim good news to the Ninevites; the only problem was Jonah did not want them to be spared from God’s wrath. He disliked them so much that he wanted nothing more than to see them suffer. He felt as if they were beneath him and that they did not deserve the blessings from God because they should be reserved for people like him and him alone.
I believe that deep down we are all like Jonah, flawed and selfish.
Jonah’s story is more than a nice tale we tell children about a big fish, rather is an indictment for all people to examine our hearts in light of those we claim to be less than or undesirable. We might not use those terms but we have ways of marking and identifying who is “in” and who is “out.” Ministers across this country proclaim a God that is big enough and gracious enough to welcome even those who have been turned away. However, in practice this might be another story. Sure, we want people to come to a knowledge of the faith but it has to be on our terms and our way of practicing the faith and if it is not, then for some people that is a deal breaker.
The Story of Jonah reminds faithful followers of Christ that no one is outside the reach of God. Jonah was the one who was changed the most not the Ninevites. Jonah saw that God’s grace and mercy is not just for a select few but for all humanity.
Faith communities unfortunately find more and more ways to push out those whose theological understandings are not in sync with their stated beliefs and practices. If we surround ourselves with people who think, look, act, talk and believe like we do then we will have a generic and plain experience of God. I am not saying that faith communities should not have standards or theological statements but in my experience the more rigid the theological stance the more people it excludes.
Jonah was a selfish man who wanted nothing more than to tell the people who did not look, think or talk like him to stay away and get “what was coming to them.”
Who are the Ninevites in our life? Who are those people who we are have given up on, pushed to the side and erased from our memory? Who are we casting aside without question? What are we blindly believing without giving it a second thought? Who are we hurting or forgetting in the process?
I wish there were easy answer but alas there is not. We have to continue to examine our faith, our practices and our stances. It is not wrong to change your position about something regarding your faith. What you believed when you were 7 may not be what you believe when you are 77. We must begin to see the world through new lenses; the church is facing new challenges every day and sometimes the old ways are simply not cutting it.
Jonah was mad that God wanted to save people that he thought were less than desirable or did things that we would claim to be inexcusable. CS Lewis once said “we must forgive the inexcusable in others because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.” Let us hope it does not take a big fish experience to open our hearts and arms to those in our community and world who need a touch of grace and love.