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.



Should black churches try to be multi-ethnic?

3 02 2012

A recent article in UNITY IN CHRIST MAGAZINE contained an article (Feb 2012)entitled, “Is the Preservation of Cultural Expression in Worship A Legitimate Basis for Homogenous Church Ministry?” The leading question posed by author Art Lucero (also the publication’s editor) is: Should Black Churches in ethnically diverse communities be given a pass to become multiethnic congregations simply because they desire to preserve a black cultural expression of worship? If you would like to read the article you can find it here. I felt I wanted to respond to the article, and include my comment below:


As a white male, it is very difficult for me to understand the importance that the American black church has held for blacks throughout US history.  But as I try to understand it, I come to respect the viewpoint of my black brothers and sisters. With apologies for generalizing, blacks must accommodate the dominant American culture most of their lives. To get education, to get a job, etc. they must adapt to the ways white-led institutions operate. In light of this, I can begin to appreciate the fact that many blacks desire to preserve their church as an environment where they do not have to work constantly at adapting to other cultures.

At the same time, I am one who has been exposed to the beauty of multi-ethnic (or as I prefer, intercultural) church. I believe that we have the possibility of reflecting the diversity of the barrier-bashing Kingdom of God won at the cross of Christ. One of the most powerful ways we as believers can witness to the divided world in which we live is by dwelling together in unity within the same local church. For blacks to intentionally choose to fellowship with whites is, given our history in America, one of the most powerful witnesses of the gospel possible today.

I believe there are very few white persons, especially males, who have the credibility to speak into this issue unless we clarify that we are speaking in theory as opposed to experience. The typical white experience in America is so far removed from the typical black experience that we cannot liken our feelings or convictions about multi-ethnic church to those of our black brothers and sisters. We move into a multi-ethnic context from a position of historical strength. Our black brothers and sisters do so from a position of historical weakness. (Please forgive me if I am mis-stating this reality)

When my wife and I moved to a new city five years ago, we sought for a church with a multi-ethnic vision. We were delighted to find such a church that had a black pastor with a primarily black congregation (75% I’d say). It has not always been easy to be there, but we have come to appreciate the grace that God has shown to our congregation as we have persistently worked toward unity and understanding. Everyone works to appreciate the way other people do things, and the kind of self-denial that Jesus calls his followers to is necessary week in and week out. One of the greatest gifts I have received is a couple of African-American guys who I now call friends.

So, not all black churches are “getting a pass” or even wanting one.