These devotions were written in the fall of 2004. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
1 - 2 - 3 - 4 -- [Devotions Archive]
Last night marked the beginning of the Heart of America Billy Graham Crusade at Arrowhead Stadium. To mark this auspicious event the National Weather Service recorded an inch and a quarter of rain, although the amount seemed to me closer to eight inches.
Having signed up to sing in the Crusade Choir, I sat on my couch all afternoon and glared out at the street, watching the rain continue to splash down. A big part of me wanted not to go to the service. The rest of me desired to skip it. (No, you didn’t misread that.) Still, I had the official choir polo shirt and the music book all ready to go. I had signed up to go. As the rain continued to tumble from the sky, I resigned myself to a good soaking and headed to the church to meet the bus.
Having signed up to preach the Crusade nearly a year ago, Billy Graham could have sat in his North Carolina home and decided not to come. After all, the man is eighty-six years old. He has endured not only a hip replacement but a multiple break of the pelvic bone in the past few months. I’d be inclined to cancel my classes if I broke a nail. Surely this octogenarian would be excused for canceling a revival after the year he’s had.
Both of us made it to Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday night. I muddled through music that I had rehearsed exactly once, five months ago. He seemed to clearly cut short a sermon on John 3 when his body started to wear out on him. All that happened, and people responded.
How many reasons were there for me, the smallest of cogs in the Crusade’s wheel, to bail on what God wanted me to do? I hadn’t attended the recent rehearsals. I had papers to grade. Penny isn’t feeling well. The sky was falling, and Thursday is a good TV night.
How many reasons were there for Billy Graham, the biggest human cog in the wheel, to turn his back on a Crusade in Kansas City? He’d been injured. He’d been bed-ridden. He had capable people to replace him. His home even got struck by the fury of Hurricane Ivan.
Years ago, when God called Billy Graham as an evangelist, the man answered. He said his equivalent of “Here am I, send me.” For over fifty years, this uncomplicated man has preached an uncomplicated gospel all around the world, wherever the Spirit sent him. He could have turned and run from that calling, but Dr. Graham followed God’s lead to the blessing of millions of people in dozens of countries.
The contrast with Jonah is obvious. The message of repentance that God led Jonah to take to Nineveh is very similar to the message of repentance and grace that Billy Graham preaches to thousands at a time. The striking difference is that, when called, Jonah turned and ran from the voice of the Lord.
You and I haven’t been called to be world-renowned evangelists. Still, God has a call for our lives. Our choice is to follow where God leads or to run as far and as fast the other direction as our feet can take us. The blessings of following God could be seen on the field at Arrowhead Thursday night. Our blessings will be seen somewhere else if we’re faithful.
At a recent birthday party, I ran into some old friends whom I hadn’t seen in years. Ralph and Laurel used to play a significant role in our lives, but over time we moved away from each other. One of the reasons that I never made any effort to preserve our relationship had to do with this couple’s most noticeable trait. They have been involved with every get-rich-quick, multi-level marketing scheme that has ever been known to man. Amway? They’ve done it. All-natural cosmetics? They did that as well. One time, Laurel roped me into going to a demonstration of a shiny fabric that you could place in your attic to cut your heating and cooling bills dramatically. They even had a cousin who could get you a good deal on a truckload of pecans.
I’ve known other people like Ralph and Laurel. In fact, if I’m honest, I’ve had a bit of that streak in me. The idea behind this mentality is really simple: you just know that if you could only find the right opportunity, then you’ll hit it big and retire to Arizona in luxury. So the candle sales didn’t pan out for you. That’s not a big worry. You can still hit it big by buying real estate with little or no money down. And if that isn’t the thing for you, then maybe you can sell pet health insurance or designer fragrances or fancy kitchen gear or something else. The problem is not in your stars, you realize. The problem is in your multi-level marketing organization.
The same mind that pursues scheme after scheme also chases after an endless parade of health and diet cure-alls. The Atkins Diet leads to the South Beach Diet, which might give way to Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, or the Maker’s Diet. You lay off the carbs, the fats, the processed foods, the sodium, the MSG, or whatever else is going to kill you this week. Instead, you make sure to consume vinegar or garlic or omega-3 oils or good cholesterol or fiber or who knows what.
Any port in a storm, they say. Some people will seek out any solution to their various problems. That’s what stands out to me as I read this part of Jonah’s story. In the midst of the storm, the crew of the little ship on which Jonah sailed “each cried out to his own god.” Then the captain found Jonah asleep and said, essentially, “Hey buddy, let’s try your god. Maybe he’ll listen!”
The world is full of people who will go to great lengths to try anything yet who will strongly resist trying the only thing that will truly help them. If truth be told, you and I probably fall prey to this tendency from time to time. I’ll try anything to fix a problem other than turning it over to God. Why? Because I know what God may demand of me. Jonah already knew what God wanted of him. That’s why he was running. He would have gone anywhere to avoid Nineveh, but chose the other end of the world, Tarshish.
Any port might seem good in a storm, but even the open sea will be better if that’s where God would pilot us.
On the first day of classes at my school, you can see the wandering herds, the lost people who are drifting between classes, completely flummoxed about where to go. I find it astounding how many of these kids will show up on campus at 7:58 for an 8:00 class, on a campus they scarcely know at all, and expect not only to find the proper room but to get a choice seat to boot. At 8:02 on the opening day of the semester, you’ll see them blundering about, trying to figure out where LIB 307 is.
Sometimes, when I’m in a benevolent mood, I’ll wander out to a crossroads in the hallway near my office and direct traffic. “You need OCB 246? That’s one building thatta way and a floor down. ITC 112? That’s at the far end of campus!” You can pick these people out by the course schedule—usually slightly crumpled—in their hands and the blank expression on their faces. I could stand in the hallway all morning giving directions that way.
As I mentioned, I only do this when I’m in a benevolent mood, which is most first days of class. At times, however, I’m rather like my surlier colleagues who sneer at these wanderers and mull over how nice this school would be if it weren’t for all the students. Sometimes I’ll see that boy in the backwards ball cap, looking down the various hallways with a hopeless gaze, and I’ll avoid eye contact. I could easily help him, but instead I just head back to my office. After all, I can get in a few games of FreeCell before class if I don’t tarry here.
How often are we guilty of just such a sin of omission? Somebody needs a certain piece of information or skill. We have that piece of information or skill, yet we neglect to share it. We look at a needy counterpart, realize we could help the person, and then turn our backs. You know you’ve done it, in one way or another—probably this week.
What was the calling of Israel to the world back in the days of Jonah? Certainly they were to be holy to the Lord, but they were also to bear witness of the Lord to the nations around them. When the lot fell to Jonah, the sailors on his ship assumed that he knew something that could help them understand their predicament, and they were right. “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” they asked him. These were needy people, seeking direction. Yet look at the crummy direction that Jonah gave. Does he lead these sailors to the Lord? Does he preach a little sermon? No, he just tells them to toss him into the drink.
Last night, I attended the closing service of the Billy Graham Crusade, and I watched as several thousand people streamed onto the field. These people simply needed to be told where to go for salvation. Why did it require Billy Graham to get them before their Lord? Partly it’s because, unlike Jonah, Billy Graham has not run from his calling. But on the other hand it’s because many people in Kansas City are just as bad at giving directions as were the people of Israel.
It’s funny how doing the same thing from a different place in life yields a different result. Think about it. Cut people open, and you’ll go to jail. But if you’re a surgeon, you’ll get paid. Lie about things in most jobs, and you’re in trouble. Lie when you’re a politician, and they move you up the ladder. Copy somebody else’s work as a student, and you’ll be accused of plagiarism. Copy somebody else’s work as an artist, and you’re considered a stylist. Notice the parallel patterns in such copied work and you’re a literary scholar. It’s good work if you can get it.
One of the most interesting parallels in the entire Bible to my way of thinking is this reading today. The mob in the boat can be compared with the mob facing Jesus in Jerusalem. Jonah bears some resemblance to Jesus. And don’t take my word for it. Jesus himself made the comparison with Jonah. So today, I’d like to look at the actions and words of these sailors and see what light they shed on the person of Jesus.
The first thing these guys did was not believe Jonah. He told them that he was the cause of their problem, so what did they do? They decided to try to row themselves to shore. Only when that didn’t work did they seem to take matters seriously.
Their second action made a bit more sense. The sailors prayed to God. And what did they pray? Lord, don’t let us die because of this guy. And don’t hold us accountable for shedding his man’s blood. What an intriguing comparison we can find when we look from this passage to the gospels. First of all, we find Caiaphas saying that it’s better one man (Jesus) should die than that the nation should be destroyed. Second, we can find the Jewish leaders and their lackeys flippantly inviting the blood of Jesus to be placed on their heads and that of their children. Interestingly, it seems that these pagan sailors had a better understanding of God’s ways than did the conspirators who led to Jesus’ murder.
Third, these sailors tossed Jonah into the sea. At once, the sea stopped raging. This miraculous bit of weather change compares nicely with the darkness, earthquake, and storm at the death of Jesus. In both cases, the contrast should have spoken quite loudly, yet only in the case of the sailors did the reality sink in. What did they do? They feared the Lord, offered a sacrifice, and made vows. Even though Jonah missed the chance to preach the fear of the Lord to these sailors, God made it a transforming moment for them.
Finally, God did not abandon his prophet to the depths of the sea any more than he abandoned Jesus to the grave. No, God prepared the great fish for Jonah.
While there are parallels between the story of Jonah and the story of Jesus, we shouldn’t be mislead. Jonah is no Jesus. Although sent to call the people of Nineveh to repent, Jonah would not and could not do for those people what Jesus would later do. If anything, the lesson from Jonah’s life teaches us that while man can obey and serve God, man cannot effect his own salvation. That took a greater figure than Jonah ever dreamed of being.
I’ve spent a good portion of my life in and around colleges and universities. Many people have the notion that higher education in this country is a largely secular affair. You’ve probably heard stories of good Christian kids going to college only to have their faith stretched to the breaking point. But I’d argue that higher education often leads to increased religious observance. What single thing generates more prayer in this world than mid-term exams or ill-prepared papers. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, I’d suggest that there are no atheists in calculus.
Of course the usual content of these desperate prayers runs something like this: “Dear God, I know that I’ve really messed up and that I don’t deserve any help at all. BUT . . . if you’ll just get me out of this one, I’ll do anything you want!” Admit it, you’ve prayed that prayer once or twice, and that prayer isn’t only heard around the halls of academe. No, it’s a prayer that you can hear when the police pull cars over, when the boss discovers something we’ve tried to conceal, when the checking account is overspent, and in a dozen other situations.
The problem with that prayer, of course, is that it’s being prayed at the wrong time. It’s a little bit like changing into your exercise clothes while you’re having that heart attack. The thought is appropriate, but the timing isn’t ideal.
Let’s look at our man Jonah. In the second chapter, Jonah raises up a nice prayer, and you have to admire a guy who can pray poetry while the gastric juices of a fish are swishing around him. Yes, Jonah prays, but he seems to do it as his last resort. If you were to jump off of the top of the Empire State Building and pray on the way down, would you really expect God to do much by way of an answer? Similarly, I can’t imagine that most people who have found themselves not at the very top of the food chain expect to get out of the situation.
While I won’t criticize Jonah for praying in the belly of the whale (or fish or whatever it was), I have to wonder where his prayer life had been hiding. He could have prayed rather than heading for the seaport. He could have prayed before booking passage to Tarshish. He could have prayed when the seas got rough or when the sailors started pointing fingers at him. He had plenty of chances to pray, but Jonah waits until the game appears to be up. Here’s a handy rule of thumb: Don’t wait until you’re prey before you pray!
The amazing thing, of course, is that God heard Jonah’s prayer, and God answered that prayer. In reality, God always answers our prayers. He answers those desperate prayers five minutes before mid-terms as well. The problem is, when he gets that fish to spit us out, we find ourselves closer to Nineveh than when we started. We might as well pray “thy will be done” from the beginning. That way we avoid the rush.
One of the things that drives me batty about reading freshman themes written for my Composition classes is the tendency for the students to state the obvious. Even though they’re usually impatient with anything that they don’t find to be novel and fascinating, they fill their papers with the incredibly routine. Let me give you some samples.
|When I first got this assignment, there were many things that I could have written about.|
|According to Webster’s Dictionary, capital punishment is “the penalty of death for the commission of a crime.”|
|There are many important issues that are facing our country at this point in the development of our history.|
|Capital punishment is a subject that a lot of people have really strong opinions about in our culture today.|
Some of those phrases—like “in our culture today”—are dead giveaways. This writer has no clue about what to write in the next sentence. So what does he do? He puts down a series of clichés and repeated sentiments, hoping that perhaps the sort of teachers that we have in our culture today won’t notice. It rarely works for them.
I’ve had students, including ones who wrote the sort of drivel I’ve just shared with you, who accuse me of playing God when I grade papers. “Who gave you the right to sit in judgment over my writing?” they’ll ask. I resist the temptation to be really sarcastic and simply explain that the college gave me that right.
Hopefully I don’t play God when I grade, but grading these papers does make me wonder about how God feels when faced with our prayers. Aren’t our prayers usually just as cliché-ridden, just as obvious, just as redundant as these freshman samples? Look at Jonah’s prayer in today’s reading. “You hurled me into the deep,” he says. Does he think that God didn’t know that? In fact, as you read through these verses, Jonah seems to be specializing in things that God already knows. When he’s not stating the obvious, Jonah tries to cozy up to God: “yet I will look again toward your holy temple.”
Don’t you just want to stick your face down into the water and yell down to Jonah in the belly of the fish? “Hey Jonah, how are you going to look toward the temple when you’re stranded down there in the dark?”
The statement, however, that really gets me is this one: “You brought my life up from the pit.” Why does Jonah say that? After all, God hasn’t done that. For all Jonah knows, he’s stuck here as fish food for the long haul. For all he knows God is listening to this prayer saying, “Oh, did I?”
There’s a story by the African writer Chinua Achebe, in which a much tormented character continues to say, “Nothing puzzles God.” It’s true, you know. Nothing does puzzle God. Nothing is new to God. Nothing surprises him.
It’s hard for us to reconcile God’s complete foreknowledge with man’s free will. Happily we don’t have to reconcile it. We don’t have to tell God something he hasn’t heard before. We just have to continue living our lives, praying prayers that God knows before we pray them, and doing our best to follow him.
There’s a commercial that caused a bit of a stir among the National Parks Service in the past year or two. In the ad, a bunch of tourists are standing at Yellowstone watching Old Faithful spout off like clockwork.
“Why does it erupt so regularly?” one of the tourists asks.
The ranger shrugs the question off. Later, when the park has emptied of visitors, we see him walking up to the geyser’s opening and pouring in Metamucil or some other sort of laxative.
So what’s wrong with that advertisement? Besides being just gross, the thing misrepresents the geyser. Far from erupting every hour on the hour as some people apparently believe, Old Faithful’s eruptions can be anywhere from thirty-five to one hundred twenty minutes apart. The rangers say that they can predict the time until the next eruption based on the length of the previous one, but they can only predict to plus or minus ten minutes. In other words, they can narrow it down from an eight-five-minute window of time to a twenty-minute window. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t impress me.
Now that I’ve shattered that little misconception, let’s look about for something else that might be reliable. Allergy sufferers in Kansas City are waiting around for the first hard freeze, but the meteorologists can’t predict that with any certainty. Sports teams, the stock market, and presidential debates seem to defy predictions. Beyond astronomical matters—the phases of the moon or the time of sunrise—you’re hard pressed to find anything that’s predictable, anything that’s dependable, anything that’s reliable.
Jonah realized this in the belly of that whale. I suppose when you’re sitting in the digestive tract of a large creature, tooling about under the sea, seaweed wrapped around your head, you have plenty of time to think. You have time to realize that you couldn’t depend on a ship or its sailors. You couldn’t depend on the sea drowning you. You couldn’t even count on being digested by the big creature that ate you. So what’s a person left with to believe in? As Jonah sat there, awaiting his fate, he realized what he’d known all along. He could only depend—absolutely and completely—on God.
As Jonah continues his prayer, he utters some more words that God already knew: “When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord.” But he goes on. He rejects worthless idols and claims the grace that God offers. At this moment, while it may have taken him a little too long to recognize it, Jonah remembered what he already knew about God. God is faithful to save. Jonah says it beautifully: “Salvation comes from the Lord.”
Who among us can find ourselves in a more desperate state than did Jonah? Yet what did it take to effect Jonah’s salvation? He simply turned himself to God, placing his trust in the Lord. This leads to a lovely verse: “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”
Like Jonah, we cannot expect God to deliver us from all of our problems—he still had to go to Nineveh after all—but God is faithful to redeem us when we turn to him. If that’s the only lesson we learned from Jonah, it’d be enough.
I used to see a sign hanging in repair shops every now and then. The sign said that repairs cost, let’s say, $50. The price, however, rose to $75 if you had tried to fix it first yourself. I’ve been guilty myself of trying to do things my way only to have to call in an expert not only to fix the initial problem but to clean up the mess that I made trying to set things right.
In the first house that Penny and I owned, we had a bit of a plumbing conundrum. The shower and hallway bathtub were both draining slowly. After pouring enough Drano and Rossite down the pipes to dissolve a small automobile, I decided that some sort of non-chemical warfare would be necessary. I resolved to take my plunger to the clog. As I plunged, however, I slowly became aware that I was accomplishing nothing. You see, the two drains flowed down into a common pipe headed downward. With the clog apparently sitting below the junction, all of my plunging simply sloshed dirty water in the direction of the other drain.
As I continued my attack, I discovered the probable location of the clog. In the basement ceiling I found a metal canister, about the size of a football, that I later discovered was a drum trap. Somehow I decided that removing that trap and then replacing it with a more conventional one would be the path to plumbing perfection. It was when she saw me take a hacksaw to the pipes leading into the drum trap that Penny decided she needed to call in reinforcements. Her brother Bill, a competent plumber, arrived a few minutes later. As he and I took turns sawing through the pipes, we were greeted by a shower of water laced with drain opener. The corrosive nature of this mix burned our skin so that we could only saw for about thirty seconds at a go before rinsing ourselves off.
With Bill’s help, I got that nasty, hair-glutted drum trap cut out and put new pipes in its place. My guess is that, fifteen years later, the thing still drains perfectly well. Had I done it myself to completion, it probably would have drained onto the basement floor.
As I read this next installment in Jonah’s story, I’m struck by God’s words as they come a second time and tell the prophet the exact same thing. I have to imagine that God wanted to say, “Jonah, if you’d have just done the right thing to start out with, you could have avoided the unpleasantness of the past few days.”
Amazingly enough, when we do what God directs us to do, things work out for the best. It’s rather like doing plumbing work. When you do things the right way, following the directions of the experts, it works. It must be frustrating to God to give us clear instructions, knowing that we’ll ignore them and try things our way. In the end, of course, we can always return to God’s ways, but we’ll have to contend with the corrosive effects of our first efforts.
In Jonah’s case, the disobedience has left us with an instructive story. I don’t believe there are any side benefits to our own misguided steps.
I believe I’ve mentioned one of my great adventures in the theater before. Yes, this summer, I got to help out with a children’s production of Charlotte’s Web, the E.B. White classic. One of the two parts I played was John Arable, the father of Fern, the little girl who raises the special pig, Wilbur. John Arable is a nice fellow. He keeps a tidy farm and works hard. He does his best to be a tough character, but when he talks to his little girl, his mind changes as fast as a yellow light turns red.
Early in the play, John intends to kill Wilbur because Wilbur is a runt. With axe in hand, John heads to the barn, but, after a brief conversation with the little girl and a bit of big-eyed pleading, he simply can’t do it. “Oh alright,” he says, breaking down. He allows her to hand-raise the little pig.
Later, when Wilbur gets too big, John prepares to sell him. Once again, he’s ready to make a deal when Fern springs into action. Once again, her plaintive cries cut through whatever tough hide John possesses, and he again says, “Oh, alright!” They then send Wilbur to live with an uncle who lives nearby.
John’s last heart-melt happens at the county fair. Fern wants some money so she can go experience the fun at the midway. For a moment, John tries to be tough. He tries to tell her that she shouldn’t be roaming around the fair by herself. He tries, and he fails. “Oh, alright,” he breaks down, reaching into his pocket to give her money. “The fair only comes around once a year.”
Some people seem especially good at changing their mind. In fact, most of us do it now and again. While we’re probably not as wishy-washy as John Arable, we do turn from various ideas. I used to love baseball, Chevrolets, and action movies, but today, those things don’t hold much charm for me. An idea that seemed great six months ago, might have proven less than wonderful now. It’s only natural to change your mind.
A lot of skeptics like to point at Old Testament passages like this one to suggest that God changes his mind. Did God change his mind toward Nineveh? I’d have to argue that he didn’t. After all, why do you send a prophet warning of impending doom when there’s no way to avoid the doom? That would be a cruel God, but, implied in Jonah’s message, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned,” is the hope that they can do something to avoid their fate. God doesn’t say, “Unless you straighten up,” but we understand that this is how he works. Maybe the Assyrians didn’t know that, but it really doesn’t matter. What did they do? They showed genuine repentance.
A key message in this book is the unwavering dedication of God to a cause. God called Jonah to a cause and wouldn’t let the prophet wriggle out of the job. God demands holiness, and he won’t be dissuaded by human weakness. And most importantly, God loves the world, and he won’t stop loving us just because we’re hard to love.
God doesn’t change his mind. Of that we can rejoice.
I had the strangest dream the other night. In my dream, I was in the army—an officer, I was pleased to find out. My duties ranged widely as things in dreams are apt to, but they centered on a super secret detention center in Iraq. In this underground prison, I was in charge of a number of high security prisoners. With a solid group of soldiers under my command, I got to watch over various members of the Iraqi deck of cards. Curiously, in my dream, these guys wore t-shirts that had their card identification on it. As I’d walk down the hallway past the cells, I could look in on king of hearts, the queen of diamonds, and so forth. But at the end of the corridor, one cell door stood between me and the ace of spades himself: Saddam Hussein.
In my dream, I encountered Saddam a couple of times. Once, I stood at the door and listened in as Saddam conversed with a young army corporal, his personal guard. What did this young man want to talk to Saddam about? Did he ask him if there were any weapons of mass destruction? No. Did he ask him why he so enjoyed firing guns into the air? No. Of all things, this young man was telling Saddam Hussein, the worst despot in the world until his ouster, about the amazing love of Jesus Christ for a lost and sinful world.
“No!” I thought. He can’t witness to Saddam! I fumbled with the door to the cell, desperately trying to get it open. Pulling an enormous ring of keys out of my pocket, I began thrusting them, one after another, into the lock, hoping to find the right one before Saddam accepted Christ. I couldn’t let this maniac reach for the promise of grace! Of course, as often happens in dreams, the keys seemed to multiply. None of them worked. Inside, the corporal continued witnessing. He quoted scriptures as I clawed at the door to no avail. I don’t know how the corporal’s encounter turned out. I woke up before Saddam responded to the appeal. Perhaps it’s just as well.
Okay, I made that dream up, but it seems plausible, doesn’t it. Can we imagine Saddam or Bin Laden, Yasser Arafat or Kim Jong Il turning to Christ? We want the lost to believe, but not all of them, right? Supposedly the serial killer Ted Bundy became a Christian before his execution. Does that make you uncomfortable? I confess it does me.
Apparently Jonah’s reaction to Nineveh’s repentance finds its parallel in our attitudes. We don’t mind our friends and family being saved. We have no problem with complete strangers entering the kingdom. But our enemies? Let’s not be hasty with them.
The simple fact, disturbing as it might seem, is that Jesus Christ died for Saddam Hussein just as surely as he died for me. He died for Hitler just as much as he died for you. I rather doubt that Hussein will or Hitler did turn to Christ, but the offer remained open to them. If the love of God is not sufficient to redeem the tyrants of this world, if it’s not powerful enough to save the killers, if it’s not strong enough to cover Nineveh, then it’s not enough to save you or to save me. I hate to think that way, but I have to believe it’s true.
It happened again. I auditioned for my church’s big Christmas pageant. I set my heart on a certain part. I prepared and honed my chops. I walked into the audition and gave it my best. Unlike past years, I didn’t try out for something that seemed like a stretch. I didn’t sit and wonder if they could actually see me in this role. In fact, they’d seen me in this exact role three years ago. Surely, I reasoned, if I went for something so within my grasp, I’d get it. But it happened again.
Since I began participating in this production in 1997, I’ve set my eye on something each and every year. And each and every year I’ve not gotten what I wanted. In the past, I could understand the disappointment, but this time, it was as if they were telling me that I had regressed since my previous performance. Hey, I thought, I was good enough in 2001, so what’s wrong with me now? Yes, when I saw that cast list, I felt a bit of anger. Oh, and the cruelest slap of all came when I saw my name in parentheses next to the guy who beat me out. They’d let me be his understudy. Understudy? He doesn’t need an understudy! The part lasts all of thirty seconds onstage. Any mildly musical monkey could learn that part in five minutes, yet I have to be an understudy? It’s enough to make you crazy!
I wish I hadn’t looked at that cast list right before
church. Had I seen it at some other time, I could have scurried away and
seethed in peace, but in church I had to make nice and pretend that nothing was
bothering me. In reality, though, didn’t I have a right to be angry?
The answer of course is that I have no right to be angry. Just like Jonah, I have no right to be angry about anything. My life is a dream compared to what I deserve. Although I don’t get to pace the stage as that character, I do get to sing through the entire production this year. I get to go each day to a job that I enjoy. I get to come home each day to the best wife a guy could hope for. I have four kids and one and a half grandkids. My new car gets thirty-four miles to the gallon, and I have excellent job security. Do I have any right to be angry? Certainly not.
Jonah reminds me a good deal of the faithful brother in the parable of the prodigal son. This guy had done all the right stuff and then got mad when his brother received a reward as well. Obedience to God has its rewards, but one of them is not getting to decide which people aren’t worthy of rewards. As Jonah says, God is “slow to anger and abounding in love.” Whenever I start to feel the beginnings of anger about the way things are going, all I really need to do is recall how slow God has been to anger at me, how richly he’s loved me. That’ll quench the anger right away.
In 1918, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. In the aftermath of that triumph, they sold—not traded, but sold—the greatest player in the history of the game, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees. Babe Ruth hit home runs like no one before him had. But he was more than just a slugger. The Babe hit for a high average, .342 for his entire career. What’s more, he started out his career not as an outfielder but as an outstanding pitcher. Before the Yankees decided that they didn’t want Ruth pitching any longer, he won nearly 200 games. They say that winning 300 games is a virtual guarantee to get you into the Hall of Fame. I don’t think that it’s much of a stretch to suggest that Babe Ruth could have easily gained a pass to Cooperstown as either a pitcher or a hitter.
In the years since Ruth made the trip down U.S. Route 1 to New York, the Yankees, who had been a pretty hapless team prior, have been to 39 World Series, winning the championship 26 times. That is, they’ve been the American League representative in nearly half of the World Series since Ruth came to them and have won almost a third of them. That’s remarkable.
In that same span of years, the Boston Red Sox have been to five World Series and have won exactly none! They had never beaten the Yankees in a playoff series until this year. As I drove home tonight, I listened to the seventh and deciding game of the American League Championship, and I heard something remarkable. After Alex Rodriguez, one of the stable of stars that the Yankees have assembled to try to dominate the world this season, struck out with his team already trailing by six runs late in the game, I heard the New York fans booing.
As a guy who spent this summer watching the Kansas City Royals rack up over 100 losses in one of the most futile baseball efforts in recent memory, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Yankees fans, these people whose team has been to six of the last ten World Series and won four of those, were booing. My team has been to two World Series ever, winning one, almost twenty years ago, but I don’t boo them.
This behavior reminds me of Jonah. When God provided a miraculous, fast-growing plant to shade Jonah, the prophet felt as happy as could be. But when God later sent a worm to kill the plant, does Jonah feel grateful for the day of shade he had enjoyed? Does he recognize that he’s no worse off than he was before the plant grew? No. Whining Jonah says, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
How often do we look at the loss of something that we had no right to have ever had and think that our lives are terrible? I know I do it. A few years ago, my school offered to pay for our Internet access. A year later they decided to pay only half of it. Did I feel grateful that they didn’t cut me off altogether? No, I complained about the loss of something I had no reason to expect in the first place. Unlike Jonah, we need to learn to thank God for all good things. Unlike those ungrateful Yankees fans, we need to appreciate the blessing of the Bambino.
Around the first of this year, Penny and I became mildly engrossed with Law and Order. Yes, I know that the series has been on forever now, but we not only don’t get out much, we don’t have much idle time when we’re in. Still, when USA Network and TNT both run the show for three and four hours at a stretch, you can catch up on a lot of episodes pretty quickly.
One of the things you know about Law and Order is that they’ll manage to achieve closure on whatever case they have in hand in precisely one hour—less the time they cut out for ads. If it’s forty minutes past the hour and they arrest the obvious perpetrator, then you know there are going to be some twists and turns. Perhaps the killer will plead not-guilty by reason of being a carrot or we’ll find out that she’s really triplets, each of whom had an equal hand in the crime. You just never know.
Very often, in the L and O universe, the last revelation, the final bit of intriguing information will be dropped at the last possible moment. Somebody will say or do something that resolves all the problems in the case, and then the final credits begin to run. It’s all very dramatic.
What’s troubling, however, is that sometimes they don’t resolve everything. I remember one particularly disturbing episode. A truly vicious but charming guy has been running all over town committing crimes. His lawyer manages to keep him out of enough trouble that the guy can stay free on bail. Eventually, the guy disappears, leaving the police searching for him. Only then do we realize that this guy has been in a relationship with his lawyer for months and that she, convinced that he’s falsely accused, helps to hide him. When they recognize this, the police rush to her apartment. There they find the criminal with a knife in his back and the lawyer with blood all over her.
“It’s clearly self-defense,” the police tell the lawyer. “If he attacked you, what else could you do?”
The shaken lawyer looks up. “Yeah, what else could I do? If he attacked me.”
So what happened to her? Was she charged? Did he attack her? Would she be disbarred? And who’d get the blood off the carpet? Sometimes a story ends with more questions than we can handle.
Jonah ends with a question, oddly enough. For three verses, God throws question after question at Jonah, not pausing for a response. I’d call these rhetorical questions, but God doesn’t use them to advance his argument. They are his argument. How does Jonah reply? We don’t know.
In the end, though, it really doesn’t matter what Jonah thinks. One of the messages of Jonah is clearly that God will do what God will do. Who is Jonah or you or me to question God’s decisions? I have to remember that as I look at the news today. As I fret about the upcoming election or grieve over a friend who died, I realize that my opinion of God’s choices doesn’t matter in the slightest. He’ll do what he wants with me or without me. My only choice is whether to take the pleasant ride to Nineveh or to get swallowed by a whale.
Tune My Heart is primarily an aid to the devotional life of its author, Mark Browning, who holds the copyright for this material. It is provided online in hopes that some will find it edifying. All contents, unless otherwise noted, may be redistributed freely provided that you give credit for its origin and do not charge anything.