After preaching on Jonah one morning, in this series of minor prophets, a parishioner and I sat in my office talking about a different matter. Jonah butted in. “Would it ever seem right,” I found myself asking, “to jump out of a boat into the ocean with the intent to drown oneself?” No, we agreed, and perhaps you do too. “Should we legislate this moral? Should we make a law to prevent, or at least punish, any individuals who were to do so?” (I don’t know that the law exists, but if you jump off a cruise ship there is a good chance you will end up in local custody.) It is hard to imagine a life experience that would take one to the moment in which intentionally jumping out of a boat to drown would appear to be a sane choice… but for Jonah, it was.
The storms had thickened, and the sailors were panicked. The waves were angry, and Jonah knew why. What seems to be impossible to justify only becomes understandable at the end of a troubled journey; but in Jonah’s case, it is only that decision—one which saves the ship and its sailors, and delivers Jonah into God’s hands again—that can lead to purpose, calling, and renewal.
We joked about all the “Jonah laws” we have in our world: laws which legislate against things that no one would really choose unless they were desperate. My mind went to our modern refugees, who cross borders beneath barbed wires not because it is acceptable, but because they must. As poet Warsan Shire writes, “no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark… no one puts their children into a boat unless the water is safer than the land”.
Truth is: we never know what stories our lives will eventually tell, or what choices we will find ourselves entertaining that we never would have imagined. The unpredictability of life may strike us from time to time, but will never grasp us in its reality so much as when we discover ourselves living out some Jonah moment—unexpectedly, unwantedly, yet undeniably.
O reader, brace yourself: but I write this in part because my family and I are living out just such a moment as this. My husband, Marcus, and I are separating. I wince as I write, praying that there might be some understanding; for somehow, at this point in our journey, this is the course that leads to shore.
A thousand questions may swim beneath. As for details, I will ask for privacy for us as we work them out. As for my ministry, I don’t believe—beyond, perhaps, a greater empathy for other’s strange choices—that the ministry I have to offer will be in any way changed. If it is received differently, I humbly understand. I would never wish to hurt the church in any way; my heart floods with love for what has been built here of God’s kingdom.
And Jonah teaches us: when we are cast into the deep, God will find us there, and—if need be—envelop us wholly, like a whale, to keep us safe and carry us back into sweeter waters. May we always live to discover a land flowing with milk and honey; and may we all, when our own surprise plot twist comes, live through it in confidence that—as Habakkuk reminded us this past Sunday—God has a vision yet.
Coveting your understanding,
but with thanksgiving in all circumstances;
your humble servant,