All aboard for Tarshish!

26 08 2020

Some days are sloppy. Like yesterday.

I tried to concentrate on some Bible reflection and came to the end of the book of Jonah. He was operating under the “great commission” of his era which promised that Abram’s lineage would be blessed so as to be a blessing to every other nation (Genesis 12:1-4).

But Jonah could not imagine God really wanting to bless the Ninevites — those ruthless, godless barbarians, with their arrogant kings and imperialistic intentions. There was no way Jonah was going to go out of his way to show mercy to people who didn’t deserve or desire it. So he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish.

We don’t know exactly where Tarshish was, but we know precisely what it represented: “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).

Tarshish is any place other than where God calls you to go.

Skip to the end of the Jonah chronicle. Clearly, Jonah’s direction was changed by a great fish, but even after a great revival in Nineveh, the prophet’s heart had not changed.

Even after Nineveh repented, Jonah “re-pouted.” He told God: This is why I fled to Tarshish, “for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness” (Jonah 4:2).

If you are like me, there are some people more deserving of punishment than mercy. Like Jonah, we have a hard time thinking kindly of them.

Do you recall how God responded to Jonah? “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Sure is, said Jonah, “it is right for me to be angry, even to death” (4:9).

To which God replied, “should I not pity Nineveh?”

In other words, God has the right to show mercy to whomever He chooses, whether we like it or not.

Like Jonah, I lack mercy. I sometimes feel it my right to be angry at what some people do and say. I can’t understand how God puts up with their thinking!

Yesterday, while I was pondering this story, I got a video call from my friend who lives in the Middle East with his family. He works with a Christian ministry in a Muslim country. He and the local director had visited the Minister of Culture and Youth to request permission to distribute Christian literature in a refugee camp. My friend was really excited to meet cabinet officers. The press and photographers were on hand to document the occasion for the newspapers. I rejoiced with my friend over their successful day.

Then I said to him: “This is crazy, and a bit convicting. I can walk down my street and give Christian literature to anyone I meet. I can make friends with someone from the Muslim country you live in, and can actually read the Bible with them. And I don’t need approval from a cabinet minister to do so.”

Then last night Aimee and I took a stroll around our neighborhood as we occasionally do. We took two encouragement cards to neighbors going through hard times. Then we walked over to the apartments nearby where people from several nations live. We stopped and talked to some kids. Said hello to a cluster of women wearing burkas. But none of the adults we’ve met before were outdoors. So we returned home, having left behind a few smiles, waves, and our presence.

This reflection doesn’t really have a clear theme. But I understand Jonah’s urge to flee to Tarshish. I identify with the desire to stay on the couch rather than cross over to the other neighborhood.

And I see that God pays attention even on sloppy days.

Abrahamic Peace Plan

29 12 2016

If we peel back centuries of bickering, revenge and blame, we might discover a way forward in the Israel-Palestinian feud. Consider Abraham as an example of how mutual respect could lead toward peaceful co-existence. Here is a concise rendition of Genesis 23:1-20.

Abraham’s wife Sarah has died and he needs a place to bury her. He is dwelling in the land of the Canaanites, land which has been promised to him by God. But he is there as a visitor, for the Canaanites have lived there for decades.

Abraham approaches the sons of Heth and asks that they allow him to bury his wife in a certain cave, stating that he desires to pay a full price for that property. They direct him to the owner of the cave, a man named Ephron.

The interchange between Abraham and Ephron is, I expect, a cultural dance over the purchase price in which Ephron offers to give the land free of charge, while Abraham insists on paying a full price. All this is done in public view. But it is done cordially, without greed or deception. Finally Abraham acquires the property, paying the full price asked by Ephron.

So the cave with its surrounding field were officially and publicly deeded to Abraham as a place for his family to be buried.

By that time, Abraham was a wealthy man (Gen. 24:35) yet he respected those who dwelt on the land which God had promised him. The residents of that land realized that people of different ethnicities could dwell together side by side. Abraham did not seize the land, but humbly asked to purchase property at a fair price.

Today, centuries of animosity have complicated the path to peace. But Abraham may show a way back to a simpler time with a tentative hope.



Why Did Jesus Recruit HIM?

15 09 2011

For those who only want to work with those who are naturally compatible, who want to “get the right people on the bus” (a la Jim Collins in Good to Great), who want a church that is homogenously attractive to people from one basic segment of society and ethnicity, I give you Jesus’ recruiting example.

“As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him” (Mark. 2:14).

At first blush, this may not seem very radical. The guy is from the tribe of Levi, the tribe assigned religious duties etc. But consider the reality. Next verse:

“Now it happened as He was dining at Levi’s house that many tax collectors and sinners also sat together with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many, and they followed Him” (Mark 2:15)

Levi opened a door to an entire network, a social web, based on his occupation. This is a strategy Jesus was very intentional about. In Luke 10 He told 70 of his disciples to go into a village and look for a “person of peace” who would not only provide hospitality but would also open access into a web of relationships. Well, Levi’s network was one diverse group of people! I love the non-chalantness of “Now it happened” — in the course of life, Jesus interacted with “sinners — non-religious types you would least expect to be interested. No wonder these people did not respond to established religion (the version of the self-righteous Pharisees), for they were condemned by the dutiful observers of the religious establishment of the day. See any similarities today?

Jesus had only recruited four disciples by this time — Andrew, Simon Peter, James and John. All four were fishermen-partners who just days before were plying the waters of the sea of Galilee, likely despising tax collectors and the entire social strata in which they lurked. And now Jesus has recruited one of their number to also follow Him. Imagine what their reaction must have been! This is like four Iowa farmers thrown together with a Las Vegas pimp. Levi had contracted with the Romans to collect taxes for them, charging extra and pocketing the difference. Levi was not any tax collector. He was their, local tax man! They knew him, saw him, and likely had to satisfy his greed for years.

Imagine the barriers they had to overcome internally. Their idea of a Messianic fishermen’s club was shattered now. Thanks to Levi’s connections, many shysters were now following Jesus, beginning to outnumber the tradesmen in so few days. I wonder if the founding four, the charter members began to dread those irresistible words He uttered, “Follow Me”? It must have seemed that Jesus was inviting just about anyone to join His band!

Exclusiveness is a huge blind spot in the church. Because we want to worship alongside our kind of folk, we (sometimes) unknowingly drive off those who are different. If they wander in, we can freeze them out over time. But Jesus wanted diversity in His apostolic band, so Matthew Levi got the call.  Aren’t you glad recruit #5 was good with words? Through him the Spirit inspired our first Gospel.

Let’s be very careful who we consider unlikely to be called by Jesus into His troupe of committed followers!