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Jonah is Alive and Well and Living in Ninevah!

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Archives / 1976 / May



Jonah is Alive and Well and Living in Ninevah!

John Lewis Gilmore

John Lewis Gilmore is pastor of the Olivet United Church of Christ in Livingston, New Jersey.



DEAR JONAH: Wind of your sudden departure finally reached me, and I am filled with regret. Your defection may cause second thoughts in those aspiring to be prophets in the same tradition. Everyone closest to you is puzzled that you have given up the ministry and shifted to the secular stream of things. Perhaps I should have noticed that you were fed up with the gruff, glib ways of church members and sensed that the grind of incessant sermon-making had worn you to a frazzle.

Nineveh, I admit, is an uninviting place—people jammed together while jarred apart. Your distaste for it is understandable. As a ministerial post, it seemed a demotion. No wonder you were demoralized. For an older man, who has known better comforts, to start from scratch would naturally be discouraging. I sympathize with your initial revulsion, but I think you were too hasty in turning it down.

Where are you headed? It is a question that others will probably ask you! All your baggage is left. You went with out putting your house in order, itself a clue that you acted impatiently, if not irresponsibly. We wonder whether you mean to return shortly. Do you plan to preach again?

Apparently your despondency was deeper than most imagined. For years you have harbored unseen doubts about your calling without letting them surface until now. Perhaps we should have anticipated this break. Your criticisms of the clergy in general were unrecognized as signs of your mutinous intention.

We hope and pray that in going to sea —if that you have—you may find your self. Prodigal prophets who seem to have lost heart on land often turn to the lure of ocean adventure or the new environment of a distant city. But riding the waves, as you may discover, is strikingly similar to the riled waters of the church. After each rise, the crest collapses and you come to a crumbling letdown.

Was the tension of preaching too much to bear? Did the ice between man and God only grow thicker with your exhortations? What made you defect?



Noah II

Date: While Jonah is waiting for passage on a ship from Joppa.

Dear Jonah: I received your cryptic message from Joppa outlining why you copped out on God. By the time you receive my reply there may be no chance of changing your mind. I write, nevertheless, in the hope that God may decide to capsize your set course. Though I say that firmly, I do not say it fiercely. God, too, sometimes speaks sharply and acts awesomely to goad us when we are slow to respond. Watch for the undercurrents of His relentless love; they carry us where we are most needed.

Bobbing on briny water is going to add enough salt to your wounds, I suppose. By sailing to the farthest port, however, do you think you shall escape the voice of the Almighty? The number of ups and downs in your voyage will vary, of course, but be careful not to tie them to prophetic motions of success and failure. For, when God uses us, the valley we think is failure is disguised good, and the peaks are but the foothills to some thing higher and grander.

I trust this letter doesn't go aground, but cheers and challenges you. I wish to restore a measure of confidence to you. If I had only encouraged you more be fore, you may not have thrown in the towel. In a sense, I have contributed to your falling away, not from the faith, but from the proclamation of it.

I, too, need occasional bracing, buoy ant counsel in the work of the ministry. Most ministers have a bout with "misfit-fever." The task of preaching the gospel is always difficult, whether it is done in golden Jerusalem or in crass, brassy Nineveh. We enter the pastorate, wherever it may be, thinking it to be a bed of roses when it turns out to be a couch of thorns. Results are scarcely visible and often meager even in popular pulpits.

But don't take a human tendency to falter as a confirmation of your choice. Rather, I write out of a heavenly urgency that, despite the disadvantages of the office, compels me to proclaim and stir up the dying embers of your prophetic calling. Christ, the captain of our salvation, did not abandon the corrupt, sinking church of His day. Should we seek to be less optimistic and energetic than Christ?

To minister to Nineveh, one needs Christ's tolerance, patience, love. Self-denial also comes in at the economic angle. Are plush, lush circumstances the conditions for preaching? Tough spots for those on a wise errand will surely yield high returns in heaven.

I ask you to reconsider your decision, therefore, and return.

Vacancies in pulpits—for example, in a church such as the one in Nineveh— are becoming harder to fill with men who know the Lord and His Word. It seems you have tried to bolster your rejection of going to Nineveh by dis missing it as a dead mackerel. When you call denominations "the church in Abyss," you make your withdrawal seemingly guiltless and easy, but hardly justified. Darkness can be dispelled by God through those who share Christ's light in love because they feel they are divinely commissioned. God's call for you in Nineveh is still open, as I hope He will convince you.


Noah II

Date: After the tragedy.

Dear Jonah: News of your having been thrown from the ship, the S.S. Corrigan (the wrong-way ship), under Captain Key-chain, has produced a shock wave in Israel. I pen this brief note in the hope that you have been picked up at sea. It is addressed to you at Tarshish, since you were closest to that port when you were thrown overboard.

We have not given up on seeing you and hearing you—again. Our longings, our prayers, are for your rescue. May God spare you and speed your physical and spiritual recovery.

Our constant vigils rest in God's mercy, good pleasure, and power. We look forward to hearing of the transcendent might of Jehovah to lift you out of the raging ocean. Please send immediate word of your position and condition. May God grant this possibility to be a reality.


Noah II

Date: Following Jonah's strange landing. Dear Jonah: Your weighty, water-stained letter was warmly welcomed. We were the ones down in the mouth when we learned of your disaster. How glad we are for your spectacular return. God has a way of upsetting our plans, and of bringing us to places we would instinctively turn down. Your renewed dedication to the purposes of God in preaching to those you once considered unreachable and unworthy of our efforts brought joy and jubilation here. The church of God, so muddled and miser able, like Nineveh itself, should not be forsaken for softer, less annoying, more lucrative occupations. God's business is still people. The reasons (or excuses?) pumped out of the depths of your resentment are swallowed hopefully never to reap pear. Christ now is at the helm, and be fore you lies Nineveh, U.S.A. But that vast megalopolis is only a cork on the mighty waters of God's sovereign power. May God equip and enable you in the hard days ahead. Call upon His strength in the exercise of your ordinary duties and wait upon this favor in those extra ordinary times. "We shall overcome!" I think the greatest miracle of all was not that a whale swallowed you, but that you swallowed your pride and presumption two beasts joined at the head and so far you have kept them down. That was a double swallowing! Unfortunately, people will forget what you have swallowed. They will probably be hung up on the dimensions of the whale. I grant, however, that a whale's belly is the strangest setting for a theological lesson. But everyone in Nineveh and everyone here will benefit from your harrowing experience.

Your trauma (so near death—so close to God) needs telling. At least, your "big splash," which quieted the bouncing sea, was—I believe—a portent, a preview, of those upon your earnestly delivered sermons. In Nineveh, as on your ocean flight, an instant calmness will come to people when they hear God's word sound forth—as if a kind of antacid tablet were dropped into the churning digestive tract of society. God grant that the troubled souls of Nineveh —upset by sin—will be calmed and cured by your coming. This is our prayer.

You may be strongly tempted to teeter-totter on the decision to preach, a motion reminiscent of the rocking boat you rode for a short time. Begin to preach God's message whether they hear or refuse to hear!


Noah II

Date: After Jonah has launched out to preach in Nineveh.

Dear Jonah: Your latest letter from Nineveh is in hand and in heart. It was good to know that the great city took your message seriously and did not expel you as you had so much feared.

I can see why an open-armed acceptance of the gospel in Nineveh surprised you, but why does it bother you? Prom what you say, it sounds like a genuine awakening. Imagine preaching even to the royal family! God always astonishes us and perplexes the speculation of experts. "Great God of wonders! All Thy ways are worthy of Thyself divine." Thank God for bringing about happy conversions through men who are not consciously plying men's emotions.

The emergence of believers in Nineveh, unfortunately, has met with skepticism among the pure sections of the church. Some still can't accept your re port as accurate.

Your name means "dove," but that doesn't mean that you should brood when a fruitful use of time produces good results in ne'er-do-wells. When will you ever be satisfied?

When you were first angry upon receiving your assignment to Nineveh, crisp were your feelings, although cool were your comments. You hid deep displeasure from us—for a while. Now you broil upon another burner. God's long-suffering, however, outlasts your languishings. That itself is a whale of a sermon.

Consider God's kindness to you in your hasty, haughty flight. He could easily have given you a final, farewell baptism, but He graciously declined. You ran from God to seek a more secure, less aggravating situation, to immerse yourself in a new occupation—you said, "ministry."

Quit muckraking among the people of Nineveh! What value is there in moaning over the lousy preaching in the land? You may be adding new miseries to your life by nipping at God's sheep and shepherds. Rejoice in the newness of men as they encounter Christ, and stop lamenting the slow progress among those who profess the faith. Believers do not usually sprout as quickly as the gourd you mentioned. God has not brought even you to fullness overnight. Remember?

Take heart! God's patience is our pattern.


Noah II

Date: While Jonah is in the suburbs of Nineveh.

Dear Jonah: Laugh at yourself a little. Can you smile at your blunders and God's show of force?

The Lord's sense of humor is mixed with the tragic parts of your story. There is something ludicrous about a lumbering lard-fish nosing you to Nineveh. Or is it more fitting to say that a "little" fish ejected a "bigger" fish to spawn in a foreign port? Blame your sunburn on a tiny worm that gorged it self on your gourd plant; don't curse God. When you are gloomy, you remind me of "Mopey Dick," the story of a runt of a whale who fled from his silver-slim avengers.

In my fumbling way, I am trying to heal your hurts, not to open old wounds.

Why worry over a gourd? You are more concerned about a plant than about the people of Nineveh. Disappointment when men repent reveals a strange, but unnoticed, growth in you. You have become a grotesque gourd that sprouts but turns into a worm. Think more of the shelter of God's people in Nineveh than of your own private shade.

Please don't be peeved at my remarks. They are not a personal attack, but a spiritual evaluation of attitudes. If you become so angry at a lousy gourd (which you did not make), I would hate to overhear what parting words you said to the whale-vessel that funneled you to shore.

Temporality, my brother, is written all over your body—a gourd of a different shape. Eternity is written all over the souls of Nineveh.

Look at that side again. God uses a funny fish to teach you obedience to Him. Now He is using a lowly gourd to teach you your foremost obligation to men.

Don't miss the point this time. Hang in there where it counts!


Noah II

Date: Prior to Jonah's auto biography.

Dear Jonah: Your last note, somewhat faded from the sun, on second reading, shows more depression than detachment. You are, it seems, more angry with yourself than with Nineveh. The difficulty that is reducing your effectiveness is your inability to forgive your self.

What good is it to hang around your neck the albatross of a dropout reputation when you have been delivered from physical and spiritual death? Cut loose from your grisly past, claim God's conquering love, and count your blessings, not your scars, beginning with the spoiled gourd and the ripe city of Nineveh. To settle your mind, rethink your life in the light of God's providence. Look up and give a big grin—God has done enough to make you sing until the next full moon.

Obviously, you need a therapeutic outlet. I suggest you put your story into print. This will force you to concentrate on God instead of on your own failings.

I feel sure many will be helped by reading of the salvaging of a rebellious preacher. It will be a rewarding treatise for disgruntled, depressed preachers who are tempted to leave the ministry for greener pastures.

Tell all; hold back nothing. This may entail your being remembered as a stub born, selfish man.

The details may read like a fairy tale, but think how it will save other ministers, who suppose they will be happy hacking away in the secular world as they try to make a niche for themselves, from headaches and hardships. Centuries from now, some of God's servants will, like you, toy with the notion that God has switched their calling in midcourse. Some who do switch horses in midstream never did fit the saddle, of course, but those who were authentically called to preach are bound to read your record with a stinging conscience. And, by the potency of God's Spirit, these may be rescued from a series of unsatisfying excursions into secular jobs, which are not sought for economic necessity but as escapes from their true mission.

To spare yourself some embarrassment, you may wish to write under a different name. At any rate, in writing be disturbingly honest.


Noah II

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