The Jonah Experiment and Unexpected U-Turns

The Jonah Experiment and Unexpected U-Turns

Some of life’s rawest moments lie within the slip.  The slip through the bloodied messy passage of the birth canal  as new life emerges underscores the whispered rasp as the last breath fades to release the soul into the cradle of death.

When numbness is raw…

17109860 - prison window. freedom conceptFor anyone who has experienced life come and go, the mystery of joy and pain is never more present than what is experienced in these moments.  When my mother passed away, the numbness which shrouded the first moments of disbelief gave way to pain and lots of questions.  But in America, time spent with reconcilling death is not an expedient option.  Burials are expensive and must be conducted quickly. Unlike the African tradition where time spent in palpable grief is thought to ease the transition. Which was why my grief was quickly swallowed into a whirlwind of urgent activities.  So much to be done, so many arrangements and considerations…so many to inform.  I could not reach out to everyone who needed to know.  My voicemail messages filled up as I filtered them through a sieve of who I had the strength to talk to that day.

Seeking help…

So when a friend offered to help spread the word to a church we had attended as a family for many years, I was grateful to catch a break.  That was one burden lifted – a group that would be informed with a note or  maybe a notation on a bulletin or whatever churches do to inform the members that someone they knew had died.

Except there was one problem.  Although Mom had been a member and served in various capacities for many years, when our family left to attend a church closer to home, she reluctantly joined us.  However she maintained relationship and prayer circles with members of the congregation till the end of her life.  So when our friend returned to inform me that the answer was ‘NO’,  – at first I scrambled to figure out what was being referenced.  My world had become warped by grief and the busyness that surrounds figuring out so much of what accompanies the business of death in America.

When ‘No’ is official policy…

As the mist lifted, I heard the words clearly – NO, the church will not honor your request to provide any information about your Mother’s passing.  You left the church.  They don’t provide that information about people who are no longer members.  It’s their policy.  My heart struggled to keep pace with the information – we were not asking for money, flowers or a card. Simply a notification to those who knew her, that their friend and prayer partner had gone to be with Jesus.  I was stunned, shocked and angry!  Where was the NO when we had attended the church for special occasions and made offerings after we had left?  Where was the NO when the same church made exceptions for high-profile funerals at their facility?

Remembering Jonah…

It would take time to absorb the incredulity of that experience.  Except God has a way of working through the threads of the heart in remarkable ways.  Remember Jonah?  That was the question that pressed urgently into my heart as I prepared for devotional meditation nearly a year after the funeral rites.  I hadn’t planned on studying the story of Jonah that morning, but of course I remembered Jonah.  My remembrance was specifically brought to bear about an incident at the end of the book (Jonah 4: 1-11) during which a reluctant Jonah, having delivered his message of destruction to what he felt sure was a damned city, went outside the city to watch and wait for the judgement which he was sure God was going to rain down on the sinful city of Ninevah.

Pondering fate…

While pondering the gruesome fate he anticipated witnessing, God allowed a vine to grow up so swiftly, that in hours it was large enough to provide shade from the blistering heat.  A grateful Jonah acknowledged this providential blessing presumably for a job well done!  However the next day, an ugly and ferociously hungry worm ate up his plant umbrella and, along with a scorching wind, withered his shade plant to a crisp nearly as quickly as it had grown into being.  And Jonah was angry!  Angry that he was being punished while the sinful city of Ninevah was still very much alive and well due to a last-minute mass repentance by just about everyone.

As I thought about the story, the Holy Spirit spoke to me and said,

‘So, why are you being like Jonah?  I allowed that church to be a blessing to your family and your mom in many ways.  When your son was very ill, a Pastor from that church prayed for you and your family.  If another pastor from the same church determines that you are not eligible for any consideration during this current situation, what is that to you?  Do you have the right to label an entire church and my children whom I love because of the actions of a few?  I raised up a vine for you (which like Jonah, you had no rights to), if I choose to allow it to be taken down – what is that to you?  You didn’t create or pay for my grace.  Nor do you have a right to determine when, how or to whom my grace will be extended next.”

When rebuke is a stern grace…

Sometimes, the stern rebuke of God is a gift.  Self-pity and offense are easily justified, but they mask a trap designed to entrap and deplete life; especially potent when the object of our wrath seems justified. God reminds Jonah of his hypocrisy in appreciating the grace of some shade which he had nothing to do with, but being incensed at the grace that God was willing to give to Ninevah.

Breaking brass and cutting iron…

The Psalmist references in Psalms 107: 15-16 NASB the following:

“Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loving kindness, And his wonders for the sons of men. For he has shattered the gates of brass, And cut the bars of iron asunder.  Fools because of their rebellious ways and because of their iniquities were afflicted.”

I realised that almost a year had passed, and I was nursing a smoldering flame against ‘those people at that church‘.  Yet God’s grace had framed so many gifts of compassion, support and love in many unanticipated and unexpected ways.  Prayer support, comfort, encouragement and financial assistance were gifted to our family by so many and included individuals from that church.   It was absolutely time to allow his grace to shatter the gates of brass and to cut the bars of iron asunder that I had allowed to imprison my heart.  Inexplicably, the story of Jonah resonated in a different way.

You see, offenses in life are guaranteed.  Choosing to be offended is not. It’s not easy to forgive.  But it is better than living behind the brass gates of unforgiveness and the iron bars of bitterness.

image credit 123rf

 

Choose to Bloom – No Matter What!

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The truth is that I would prefer to choose where I was planted rather than where I bloomed.  But life’s not wrapped up with a shiny bow like that!  In fact, many aspects of life are not chosen.  We don’t get to select our parents, our skin color or place of birth.  Things which turn out to be pretty significant in life.

However, we do get to choose our responses.  Free will is one of the greatest blessings or curses depending on how you look at it.  As 2017 has already started emerging on the planet, we stand at a new threshold.  2016 has revealed some of the ugliest underpinnings of the human experience both domestically and abroad.  A New Year presents new opportunities to make new choices.  We can’t always choose where we’re planted, but we can make a decision to bloom anyway.

A prayer for 2017

When life requires bold strokes,

May we meet the threshold with

Courage and Bravery.

When tensions rise and tempers flare,

May the power of Grace + Peace

Put out the flames.

May we rise to unite

When division threatens to undo us

And may we re-find our voice

And blend the hot tremors of our harshest tenors

To speak with each other again.

Lola Audu

A Pardox: Seeing Eyes Blind, Blind Eyes See

6974974_sWhen you flip open your eyelids in the morning and take stock of your environment, you have actually completed an exceptional feat; one which most of us take for granted. The body is a marvelous instrument.  The process by which light is projected into the eye and reflected back through a complex interaction between the brain, nerve impulses and the various chambers of the eye is truly amazing.

It is also unique to each individual.  While all of us may be looking at the same scene, we do not all see things in the same way.  The interpretation which occurs in each of us gives us a peculiar vantage point.  Our communication reflects this reality when we say things like, “I see that differently than you do.”

The ability to see is not limited to the physical realm.  We are in our essence spiritual beings.  We can also see with the eyes of our spirit, an ability which is sometimes referred to as our intuition.  We have all experienced to varying degrees an instinctive reaction to an individual when we first meet them that has nothing to do with our personal interactions.  Mothers know when something is wrong with a child even when the baby cannot speak.

This morning, my meditation was from one of the books which chronicled the exploits of various ancient Israeli kings and the prophets who operated during their reigns.  I was reading about a military assault against Israel by the army from Aram.  As the campaign gained traction, the King of Aram soon became uncomfortably aware that his plans and movements seemed to be closely monitored and communicated with the King of Israel.  Convinced that there was a traitor in his camp, he confronted his leaders.  They told him that Elisha, a prophet literally had ‘eyes on the inside’ and this was the reason why the King of Aram’s plans were continually revealed in advance to the King of Israel.

Elisha was not physically present, yet he could see realities that were unseen.  The King and his army thought they saw. They were convinced that Israel was in a pitiful state and would easily succumb to the vastness of their military might.  In a fascinating twist, the tables are turned in a most improbable way.  As the army of Aram begins to march towards Israel, Elisha’s servant cries out in dismay because his physical eyes see the destruction which is about to be visited on them.

But Elisha asks God to open his servants eyes.  Eyes that seemed to be open, but were actually blind.  When the servants eyes were opened, he was stunned to see that the army coming against Israel was nothing in comparison to the spiritual army that was guarding Israel.  The story ends with the army being struck with blindness and led by Elisha right into the presence of the King they thought they had come to capture!

The experience of both the army and the servant of Elisha are symbolic of situations which we experience.  We are prone to being blinded by arrogance and pride like the soldiers and by fear like Elisha’s servant.  Both types of blindness are rooted in ignorance of who God is and how he operates.  The Bible tells us that the ‘Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’.  When blind eyes are opened, we become aware of how truly helpless our situation is without God and how powerful God is within our midst.  He is truly able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond what we could even think of, see or imagine.

Right seeing operates through different filters.  These are the filters of wisdom, love, compassion and grace.  Right seeing enables us to have the courage and boldness to fulfill God’s purpose for our lives with confidence that He is able to see us through.

In the final scene from the story as the King of Israel finds himself faced with an entire army that has effectively surrendered to him, Elisha helps him to see that the right response is not vengeance, but to bless those who are enemies of Israel with kindness and a meal, sending them home unharmed.

During a time in which our nation is inflamed by the hurt of racism and perceived injustice, and many are viewing  through lenses clouded by hurt and hate, let us pray that we be given the grace to see aright. That we have the courage and boldness to  enact that which brings wholeness and healing rather than division and strife.

To Read the entire story of the Elisha and the army from Aram, click here. (2 Kings 6: 8-22)

 

The Whisperer…

We’ve all had the experience of having a disagreement that developed wings and flew way beyond the boundaries of the subject at hand.  You find yourself wondering how you got from here…to there.  The nature of human relationships makes misunderstanding a part of terrain we have to navigate. Because we’re individuals and have our own unique perspectives, learning how to engage and interact with one another is a lifelong learning process.

I tend to have a naive inclination to think that if I explain myself, eventually the ‘other’ will understand.  While explanation and communication can be helpful and talking things out may help gain perspective, at the root of things, I’ve found that disagreements and discord are more about the heart of the matter than anything else.  Wounded hearts, frazzled emotions, disgruntled thoughts, deflated pride  – these do more to foster animosity amongst us than most of us would care to admit.

iStock_000016661379SmallIn Proverbs 26:20,  we read these words: ‘For lack of wood a fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer quarreling ceases.’ This proverb has always held some fascination for me.  In some translations, the whisperer is termed the ‘gossip’ or tattlebearer.  When building a fire, kindling is required for the fire to continue to burn.  This verse indicates that the fire of a quarrel is influenced by something or perhaps someone called a ‘whisperer’.  Whispering, (the gentle muttering underneath the breath) apparently has the ability to serve as fuel for creating a scorched earth aftermath when it comes to relationships.

I am indebted to Brian Hardin of the Daily Audio Bible for his broadcast on October 29, 2014 for a particularly helpful insight on the nature of discord and how the ‘whisperer’ serves to fuel conflict in interpersonal relationships.  In verse 22 of Proverbs chapter 26, we are informed that: “The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels, they go down into the inner parts of the body.”  This reference would indicate that in some fashion, whispering is able to transcend ordinaary speech and become part of the spiritual reality within the inner recesses of the human soul.

Most of us can relate to the conversation in your head after an argument or disagreement.  You know, the seemingly endless barrage of ‘additional points’ one could have made but didn’t think about in the moment.  But we don’t ask ourselves the question – WHO is continuing the argument after the situation has long receded?  Could it be the ‘whisperer?  The not so silent inner voice which wants to continue to score points, which wants to be right at all cost?

The whispering spirit is a type of temptation.  One which is intimately acquainted with the human condition.  It speaks to us with our own voice, lulling us into the fantasy of absorbing the morsels of poison being fed into our inner parts without questioning the source.  Because it is a type of fuel, disagreements continue unabated until the earth is scorched.  Unfortunately, the terrain in question is the charred remains of human relationships which are sometimes irrevocably changed by the words of the tongue.

So is there a solution?  I think Proverbs 26:20 gives us some vital information.   We all know that fire needs certain conditions in which to burn.  Remove the oxygen or the wood and it eventually goes out.  The same can be said for the ‘whisperer’.  We must recognize that not every voice which speaks to us is speaking for our benefit.  In James 3:6, we are told that the tongue is a flame, a world of evil – potentially a world of evil which has the capacity to set the whole course of a life aflame. This gives one pause to think about how devastating the impact of evil whispered words can be.

We must learn to take authority over the ‘whisperer’ by negating its power to control and ruin our lives and relationships.  The Bible tells us that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty for bringing down strongholds and things which exalt themselves against the knowledge of God. (2 Corinthians 10:4)

We don’t have to simply swallow morsels which assuage our pride; we can make a conscious choice to stop consuming these toxic mental suggestions.  We can make a decision to stop fueling the flame of distortions and judgemental thinking.  When the fuel is removed, the fire eventually dies out.  It will take time and energy and grace to rebuild what has been destroyed, but if we continue to let the fire burn unabated, that process of regeneration cannot commence.

Phantom Fears, Fake Solutions and Real Answers…

iStock_000042975970MediumTurning on the news these days takes a strong constitution.   In large swaths of the country, raging floods have overtaken areas recently shrouded in deep drought and vicious forest fires. Today, hundreds of American children struggle to breath as they battle a strange virus, while on the African continent, the Ebola virus rages out of control without an effective cure or strategy in place to contain its spread.  Meanwhile ISIS and Boko Haram are seizing territory and declaring ‘statehood’ within the borders of sovereign countries in the Middle East and Africa.

From appearances, the world is in a state of convoluted chaos. There are many problems, but seemingly few effective or lasting solutions. Was this state of affairs what Jesus referenced when he said “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me.  Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world”?  John 16:33

What does Jesus see and know about trials, sorrows and how to overcome them that seems so obscure to us?   When Jesus referenced the world, he wasn’t talking about the physical world of nature, rather he was referring to the world systems; the principalities, powers and authorities  that govern the way the physical world behaves and engages with life.  World systems are the organizing mechanics which underly education, government, politics, healthcare, commerce, economics, religion and warfare. They influence thoughts, ideas and perceptions and because of their pervasiveness and powerful imagery, impact every single human being on the planet.

While systems have their place in organization and governance, they are not the answer to predicaments; that is solutions to situations which completely defy the norms and principles of what is thought to be the established order.  It is in the face of predicaments such as pandemics, terrorism and entrenched poverty that we are faced with the limitations of fake solutions;  answers which lack the power and wisdom to change and transform anything for long, if at all.  We are faced with the recognition that our arsenal of weapons to defeat horrific problems which attack without mercy is very limited.  Dread, fear and panic are instinctive responses.

As Christians, our Peace is embodied in a person.  Jesus statement in John 16:33 reminds us that he is the overcoming power.  Not an idea, principle, strategy, dogma or doctrine.   To obtain this peace, we must be connected to him in the only world which is profoundly real, the world of spirit.  The Spirit of Peace invites us to step out of the hypnotizing drama churning throughout the world system and seek respite for our troubled hearts.

Trouble doesn’t just visit the word stage, it’s an intruder which visits all of us personally and persuasively.  Jesus frankly acknowledges the inevitability of trouble and points us to the real solution.  Good cheer strengthens our hearts and calms our spirits so we have the strength to face issues without the additional burden of undue stress, anxiety and fear.  Cheer embodies comfort, encouragement and hope as well as joy and happiness. Ultimately, Jesus points us to the fact that he has overcome all the situations that create trauma to the soul and body here on earth and reminds us that the peace in him and through him, is what we must and can connect to if we hope to live an overcoming life.

In Search of Thorns…

In search of thorns...

In search of thorns…

One thing is certain about thorns, they’re not hard to find!  I love roses and have tended them in my garden for many years.  Although I’ve used all sorts of gloves of varying degrees of thickness, more often than not, the thorns win.  They just seem to  have a way of finding some part of my body which is exposed even when my hands are protected by gloves.

I’ve sometimes wondered why one of the most beautiful flowers on the planet, the rose, would have a stem which could wound so dramatically.  I don’t know the answer, but according to this wiki author, the thorns on the stems of roses are there to protect the rose from being eaten by wild animals attracted by its beauty and scent.  I guess that sounds plausible…

Over the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about the power of love.  It’s awesome potential to transform life is unparalleled.   But our recent class discussion was about the issues that stand in the way of love.  We explored the dimension of the small stuff.

You know… the minor irritations, grudges, resentments and agitations which have a way of stealing the joy of life.  The stuff which we fail to notice when love is in it’s initial bloom, but somehow seems to crop up and grow bigger the longer we’re in relationship with another.

The thing about holding grudges is that we tend to regard it as an innocuous activity.  Our grudge bearing and resentment takes place under the wraps of pretensions, hyprocrisy and passive aggressive behavior patterns.  Within this actively potent fertilizer, these small  negativities grow and flourish.

And not unlike the thorns on the stem of a rose, they become protective measures by which we undergird our hearts from getting hurt.  But the trouble with this solution is this…thorns sometimes wound.  When a small child grasps a rose to smell it, the child does not intend to harm the rose.   Unfortunately, the thorn doesn’t know the difference  between the innocent grasp of a child and a hungry animal.  It will harm indiscriminantly.

This is to some degree what happens when we nurse our resentments and irriations as a means of staving off further hurt.  We may actually end up wounding the hand that was sent to embrace or miss the opportunity for growth which can only occur when we choose to harness the courage to love, regardless of the risk.

photo is courtesy of peasaps photostream on flickr.

*this blog post is from the challenge of excellence blog.  You can read more entries from this series by visiting the blog.

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