A hundred-year old record was broken here this week. A record for cold. The leaves, many of which are still green, froze solid on the trees. A bird, seeking warmth, flew into the house via the chimney. My husband’s search for warm gloves turned up eight meant for the left hand and one for the right. It looked like the right failed match any of the lefts.
We weren’t ready for this.
Many miles away this same cold front is dropping snow on massive wildfires that surround a city. A friend posted photos today of steaming earth where threatening flames roared the day before. She joyfully expressed thankfulness.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand what on earth is going on. While I mourn the death of the last of my pretty little flowers, I rejoice with my friend for answered prayer and preservation of something much bigger.
Today this passage in Genesis showed up where I was not expecting to see it. I appreciate the reminder. While we need to change our exploitive ways and take responsibility for tending the earth and its resources well, ultimately God is the one who created its intricate workings. He is the one who holds it all together. He’s got this.
There are days when I sympathize with Jonah. The story of the prophet who ran from an assignment from God and spent three days inside a special creature God created for the occasion must have made an impression on my little boy too. In one of those moments for quiet reflection in church he felt obliged to rescue the preacher from embarrassing “dead air.” He stood up on the pew and shouted in the most authoritative voice a three-year old could muster, “God said to Jonah. ‘GO TO NINEVEH!!’” Everyone laughed. Perhaps we should have listened.
Sometimes it feels like God gives me a “GO TO NINEVEH!” command and, like Jonah, I suddenly have a desire to check out vacation rentals in Iceland.
Our minds tend to snag on the big fish part of the story. (My little boy did a hilarious impression of a barfing fish when he got to this bit, after Jonah changed his mind and the creature regurgitated him on land.) It is not until the final chapter that we learn the reasons why Jonah zipped over to Joppa to board a ship heading elsewhere.
The Assyrians in Nineveh (an area on the outskirts of a city now known as Mosul in Iraq) had a reputation for being a highly militarized society who humiliated those they conquered. They treated captives with particularly nasty cruelty. It didn’t take a prophet to see them as a serious threat to neighbouring countries. Jonah didn’t run because he didn’t want disaster to befall them. He ran because he was afraid disaster would not befall them.
The Ninevites heard the message and took it seriously. They admitted their wickedness and dramatically demonstrated a desire to change. They repented. God relented. It’s not until the final chapter that we hear a re-cap of Jonah’s earlier discussion with God.
“This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry.
So he complained to the Lord about it: ‘Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish!
I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people.
Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.’”
The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?
(Jonah 4:1-4 NLT)
Yesterday, someone said something to me which provoked thought about Jonah’s story. He said, “Prophecy is not fate. It’s not always set in stone. Prophecy can be an opportunity to align with God and actually change your future.”
Somehow it is easier to believe that those who hatefully oppose our political, cultural, or philosophical positions deserve disaster. God’s mercy messes up the plotline created in our vain imaginations. God tells us to leave revenge to him because, as illustrated in many Bible stories, his favourite form of revenge is transformation, redemption, restoration and renewed relationship.
Jonah resents God’s response. Not only did the Creator change the future of the people of Nineveh by not wiping them out, the action left a dent in Jonah’s pride as an accurate prophet when what he predicted did not happen.
In a culture where a web search for films with revenge themes turns up a list 44 pages long and a list only one page long for films with forgiveness or redemption themes, mercy is obviously not our usual response to offense. When we demonstrate, through acts of every day cyber-revenge like boycotts, cancellation, banishment, and censorship, that the acknowledgement of being right holds more value than the search for God’s truth, we have to admit we are not seeking restorative justice motivated by love.
God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. All of us have rebelled against his ways. After three days and nights of less than stellar accommodation, Jonah confessed and asked for forgiveness for his rebellion and decided to obey God. That act made a way for the people of Nineveh to do the same.
This morning I read Psalm 32. This was King David’s experience after acting in a cruel ungodly way himself.
Oh, what joy for those whose disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Yes, what joy for those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, whose lives are lived in complete honesty! When I refused to confess my sin, my body wasted away, and I groaned all day long. Day and night your hand of discipline was heavy on me. My strength evaporated like water in the summer heat.
Finally, I confessed all my sins to you and stopped trying to hide my guilt. I said to myself, “I will confess my rebellion to the Lord.” And you forgave me! All my guilt is gone.
Therefore, let all the godly pray to you while there is still time, that they may not drown in the floodwaters of judgment. For you are my hiding place; you protect me from trouble. You surround me with songs of victory.
The last question God asked Jonah causes me to examine my own heart. God does not offer the cruel compassion of dealing with sin by justifying evil and leaving us to continue in hurtful ways with their eventual unpleasant consequences. He extends his love and mercy to offer a way out.
Now here is my confession. I didn’t want to write this. I’ve had enough doom and gloom God-is-going-to-get-you-for-that preaching in my life to receive a very distorted picture of God. I lost many years to an image of an angry vengeful deity before I realized Jesus Christ came to show us what the Father was really like. I didn’t want to risk being misunderstood or judged as unloving. I argued with him that the blogs I write about obedience don’t attract much response anyway. When I prayed about an alternate topic nothing came to mind. Blank. For nearly three weeks. Then it dawned on me that I was acting like Jonah and that I didn’t want to extend the same mercy to some people as he extended to me — and still extends to me when he points out my hurtful choices and I respond to a good Father’s correction.
Transformation, redemption, restoration and renewed relationship. That’s your revenge, Lord. Thank you for your great mercy.
“When I trust deeply that today God is truly with me and holds me safe in a divine embrace, guiding every one of my steps I can let go of my anxious need to know how tomorrow will look, or what will happen next month or next year. I can be fully where I am and pay attention to the many signs of God’s love within me and around me.”
– Henri Nouwen
The smoke has cleared and I was feeling well enough to get out of the house and drive to one of my favourite quiet places, little Munroe Lake. This area suffered the ravages of wildfire a few years ago. I enjoy the contrast between old growth on one side of the lake and new growth on the other.
Circumstances in my life require letting go of things I used to be able to do without much planning or thought. Mourning is involved any time we let go of the old to make room for the new, but we can’t get a grasp on the future when our hands are desperately hanging on to strands of the past.
This new terrain is giving me a greater appreciation for stillness. It is reinforcing the importance of something the Lord has been teaching me for many years: trust.
How will things look in the next few months or years? I don’t know, but the words of an old song by Ira Stanphill play in my heart:
Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand But I know who holds tomorrow And I know who holds my hand.
When this season of challenges began, many people found refuge in the promises of Psalm 91 that begins:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. (NASB)
It is still one of my favourite psalms, but may I confess that sometimes I find it difficult to remain in that place near to the heart of God where His thoughts conquer my worries? Psalm 15 describes the characteristics of those who dwell in that place. The Passion version caught my attention.
Lord, who dares to dwell with you? Who presumes the privilege of being close to you, living next to you in your shining place of glory?
Who are those who daily dwell in the life of the Holy Spirit?
They are passionate and wholehearted, always sincere and always speaking the truth— for their hearts are trustworthy.
They refuse to slander or insult others; they’ll never listen to gossip or rumors, nor would they ever harm another with their words.
They will speak out passionately against evil and evil workers while commending the faithful ones who follow after the truth.
They make firm commitments and follow through, even at great cost.
They never crush others with exploitation or abuse and they would never be bought with a bribe against the innocent.
They will never be shaken; they will stand firm forever.
This raises questions for me. Are these traits the result of spending time with the Lord in the secret place or qualifications for entering and staying?
After pondering, I believe the answer is both. Knowing that I can never be good enough through my own efforts and that I am dependent on the righteousness of Christ to be my righteousness, what does God require of me?
God makes the first move. He extends the invitation. His grace empowers us to change. The more time we spend with him, the more we become like him, but transformation requires intent and cooperation.
I adore my grandchildren, but if they thoughtlessly track mud into my clean house I will tell them to go back out and leave their muddy boots on the step. Toddlers receive a gentler reminder and more assistance than teens. It is called respect (and maybe even the fear of Grandma). Learning to honour the things that matter to parents and grandparents and others in authority is something children need to learn in safe, loving relationships.
If we wish to dwell in the presence of the Holy One we need to respect the things that matter to Him. We enter with praise but also with clean hands and a pure heart. I wonder if sometimes the distance we feel from the Lord is because he is reminding us to leave the mud outside and to drop some ideas and attitudes that do not belong in his dwelling place.
The first one I need to leave outside is apathy and a lack of passion for holiness I have picked up from the doom and gloom and hopelessness that is so prevalent on the streets in the world.
The song that comes to mind is Refiner’s Fire. The chorus from Brian Doerkson’s song:
Refiner’s fire My heart’s one desire Is to be holy Set apart for You, Lord I choose to be holy Set apart for You, my Master Ready to do Your will
I made many attempts to read the Bible through consecutively from beginning to end. I had many failures. I realized I always stopped around the same place. I couldn’t get past the story of the young prophet Jeremiah, who some call “the weeping prophet.”
A line from a sci-fi 2009 TV show, Flash Forward, arrested my attention while we were binge watching the series. A supervisor tells the investigator, “I can’t think of a prophet that didn’t suffer… and I can’t think of a prophet that God didn’t love.”
A prophet who doesn’t know he or she is loved is a dangerous person. His or her own neediness or bitterness will taint how they view what they have seen or heard. Some prophets used their gift for self-aggrandizement. Faithful prophets in the Old Testament were routinely misunderstood and rejected. They often carried the burden of knowing what others refused to acknowledge. They lived in at least two places and different time zones, The Way We Are Going Now, and The Ways God Is Planning to Take Us In The Future — depending on our willingness to work with Him. Whether they were told to speak boldly in the palace and in the streets like Jeremiah or quietly ponder and keep the information to themselves like Mary, prophets carried both the burden of the ugliness of sin and its consequences and the beauty of hope of restoration. It’s not a vocation many people aspired to and some, like Jonah, even tried to escape.
Jeremiah knew he was loved from his first God encounter. Jeremiah was also misunderstood, rejected, and thrown into a pit for saying what no one in a position of privilege or power wanted to hear. Jeremiah’s worst suffering came from understanding the suffering that awaited those who rejected the help God offered. He knew the blessings awaiting those who chose to trust God, but he also knew the sorrow awaiting those who honoured their own wisdom above the Creator of the universe. He wrote:
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord And whose trust is the Lord. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, That extends its roots by a stream And will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, And it will not be anxious in a year of drought Nor cease to yield fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8 NASB)
But he also wrote:
Thus says the Lord, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind And makes flesh his strength, And whose heart turns away from the Lord. For he will be like a bush in the desert And will not see when prosperity comes, But will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, A land of salt without inhabitant.” (verses 5 and 6)
In the midst of his lament for the people who treated him as a crazy, depressed, annoying, embarrassing conspiracy theory promoter, he also wrote in Jeremiah 29:
“For thus says the Lord, ‘When seventy years have been completed for Babylon, I will visit you and fulfill My good word to you, to bring you back to this place.
For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope.
Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.’”
I hated reading Jeremiah and Lamentations because I hated the notion that God would allow someone he supposedly loved to suffer. I see now that God took Jeremiah into His confidence about His plans — His conspiracy for good. Jeremiah was loved by God, and it doesn’t get any better than that.
“Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
-Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego on faith that takes risks.
Maybe this hurting world needs to be inspired by recognition of the pleasures of goodness instead of the consequences of sin, and news of works inspired by faith instead of efforts based on despair and resignation.
Maybe it’s time for a shot of goodness right into the heart of darkness.
“With this in mind, we constantly pray that our God will empower you to live worthy of all that he has invited you to experience. And we pray that by his power all the pleasures of goodness and all works inspired by faith would fill you completely.”