The Whale and the Worm

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God keeps calling my attention to the book of Jonah. It’s not a very lengthy or in-depth book. It has only four chapters, and it tells a single story of the prophet Jonah and his mission to preach to the people of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. But it is filled with lessons about prayer, obedience, gratitude, repentance, and Grace. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jonah%201&version=NIV And we learn four important things about God: He sends, He saves, He sustains, and He suspends.

  • FIrst: God sends. The book of Jonah reminds me of reading Ernest Hemingway. It is compact, terse, and to the point. The very first verse reads, “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai.” There is no other intro, no back story, no conversation between Jonah and God… Yet there IS a back story: elsewhere in the Bible, Jonah is mentioned as a prophet of God. Jonah wasn’t an unlikely choice to take a prophecy to Nineveh. He wasn’t new to the whole “prophet” gig– he wasn’t a farmer or a fisherman or a young shepherd boy. He was an experienced seer and prophet.
    I mention this because God sends who HE wants to send. He didn’t have to give this message to Jonah. And when Jonah ran away, God didn’t have to chase him down and give him a second chance. There were other prophets who might have delivered the message without any fuss or drama. There were priests, soldiers, merchants, and shepherds who could have done the job (and likely done a better job!) The book of Jonah reminds us that God’s purposes are often multi-faceted. God’s purpose in sending Jonah wasn’t just about the Ninevites– He wanted to work in and around and through Jonah to reveal His character. He also sent the big fish (the Bible never says it was actually a whale), and later a gourd vine and a worm– all to minister to Jonah. They all appear in the story, but only to Jonah, not to any of the others!
    God will send us–or He will send people (or big fish) TO us. He will send people and things to bless us; and to test our patience! But God sends us what is meant for our good and His glory.
  • God saves: Each chapter contains an example of God’s salvation– In chapter one, God not only saves Jonah from drowning by sending the big fish; He also saves everyone else on the ship. An entire crew of hardened seamen are stunned by God’s power and grace. In chapter two, God rescues Jonah from the fish’s belly, and gives him another opportunity to fulfill his mission. In chapter three, God sees and hears the pleas of the Ninevites–He withholds His judgment and showers the city with amazing Grace. In the final chapter, Jonah wants to die (twice!), yet God provides comfort, compassion, and correction in response. At the end of this book, in spite of storms and raging seas, prophecies of doom and destruction, dangerous journeys, scorching sun, and disobedience, rebellion, and evil– NO ONE DIES!
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  • God Sustains: God could have rescued Jonah without the “whale.” He could have calmed the storm. He could have caused Jonah to walk on water. He could have created a path of dry land for Jonah to walk on… But God caused Jonah to be in the belly of the fish for three days– a circumstance that Jesus used to foretell His own death and resurrection. God sustained Jonah even in the midst of his bitterness, anger, depression, and rebellion. He gave Jonah a miraculous rescue– one Jonah could have shared with the Ninevites to illustrate God’s Mercy. I find it curious that the King of Nineveh invites everyone to fast and pray, saying “Who knows..” Jonah KNEW! He was a living example of God’s Grace and Power. He could have shared this wonderful news with the people of Nineveh, yet he chose to share only the message of God’s wrath. Jonah had the biggest “fish story” in history, and he chose to keep it a secret! In spite of this, God sustained Jonah’s life– against Jonah’s own wishes! How has God sustained us in moments of crisis, doubt, and infidelity?
  • God Suspends: What does that mean? Well, in this book, it means several things. God suspends His judgment against the city of Nineveh–in later Bible books, we see that the people of Nineveh and Assyria return to their evil ways. They do not turn completely from their worship of idols and their detestable practices. Within a couple of generations, they experience the total destruction that Jonah predicted. God is Gracious and Merciful; He is also Righteous and Just. Jonah’s mistake was to despise God’s Mercy toward his enemies; the Ninevites’ mistake was to forget God’s Holiness. But God also suspends Jonah’s life– three times Jonah expresses a passive desire to die: he asks to be thrown into the sea (he does not know or expect that God will rescue him); he asks to die after the Ninevites are spared; and he asks to die when the worm destroys the gourd vine. But Jonah’s desire to die goes unfulfilled. God’s purpose is not that Jonah should die, but that Jonah should learn to LIVE and love: love his life; love his God (better); and love his former enemies. Sadly, we never find if Jonah ever learned his lesson. The author of Jonah leaves us “suspended” as well.
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Our God sends “whales” to rescue us from our rebellious wandering, and “worms” to take away those comforts that keep us from seeing our real needs. He saves us, even though we don’t deserve a second (or third or thirtieth) chance. He sustains us, even in times of failure. And He suspends us, withholding His wrath and giving us loving compassion and correction.
Jonah is not a very lovable character– and that is a great comfort to me in times when I am faced with my own failures and missed opportunities. The people of Nineveh were despicable! They deserved justice and judgment. But God loved Jonah; and He loved the people of Nineveh. And He loves us– more than we deserve; more than we can imagine. He loves the unlovable. He loves the despicable. He loves those who cannot love themselves, and those we are convinced we cannot love.

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May we learn a lesson today from the “whale” and the “worm”– we can trust God for Mercy and for Justice. We can trust Him to save and sustain us; to send us and suspend us. And we can rest in His love and care–whether we find ourselves in a raging sea or caught in the scorching heat, or sent on a mission that tests our heart and soul to its limit.

I Don’t Know Why…

I don’t know why…
God didn’t stop the bullet that took the life of a seven-year-old girl in Chicago last weekend;
God allowed for miraculous births in the same weekend in multiple hospitals around the world.

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I don’t know why…
Hundreds of people flocked to my hometown to defy social distancing measures and put others at risk of COVID-19 so they could drink and splash around in the shallows of a small lake. I don’t know why they left garbage and excrement in the lake and in people’s yards and in the high school parking lot.
Thousands of men and women risked their lives to maintain order and serve the public–donning their uniforms and braving the heat and the chaos to serve people who despise them, spit on them, defame them, and vilify them.

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I don’t know why…
God made snakes. And mosquitoes. And moles. And giraffes.

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I don’t know why…
On some days God feels so distant and silent; and other times He seems to be surrounding me and permeating me and holding me tight. I don’t know how His word can sometimes feel stale and sometimes cut right through me. I can’t fathom how God can be everywhere—every-when! That He knew me before all the history books and ancient empires and cities and shipwrecks and wars and all the stories I take for granted were even imagined…that He knows me now– every thought; every cell; every hair, every breath…that He knows me a million years from now. I don’t know why He chose to make me, and preserve my life, and bless me with days and hours, with friends and family, and teachers and tasks, challenges and changes.

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I don’t know why.
I don’t know how.

But praise God, I know WHO.
I know who made me. I know who holds me. I know who has the power to make good come from even the worst circumstances. I know who wins the ultimate victory over death and sin and disease and destruction.

And He walks with me and He talks with me—And He tells me I am His own!

Mayday!

Today is the first of May. This is also known as May Day or Mayday. In many countries, there are traditional celebrations, including dancing around a May Pole, or leaving a small bouquet of fresh spring flowers on someone’s doorstep. It is meant to be a happy occasion, signaling the arrival of spring flowers after a month of showers and growth– the promise of more growth and greenery after a long winter and cool, wet, spring.

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This year, many people have been looking forward to May 1 as a potential “end” to the lockdown/shelter-in-place orders. They are eager for a chance to return to “life as normal,” including spending time in parks and gardens, and celebrating with friends. They long to chat, mingle, and dance with their friends and loved ones in the sunnier, greener weather. Others are just tired of being “cooped up,” and want to get out into the busy marketplaces and public squares. But many leaders (mayors, governors, ministers, presidents, etc.,) are extending the orders to continue social distancing during this pandemic season.

There is another meaning for the phrase “Mayday!” It is an urgent call for help. It comes from the French phrase m’aidez– help me–and is used mostly in radio transmissions from ships in danger. Many people around the world today are, figuratively or metaphorically, calling out “M’aidez!” They are calling on their political leaders, financial institutions, hospitals, emergency workers, and others for help– healing, testing, equipment, food, answers to impossible questions, guidance, and comfort. For many, it feels like drowning in a sea of uncertainty and danger.

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Even in times of uncertainty and danger, we have a Faithful and Loving God. When we cry out, “Mayday! Help!”, He is ready and able to answer our call:

I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill. Selah.

I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.

I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about.

Many times in his life, David had called on the Lord, and found him faithful– to protect him, rescue him, bless him, and forgive him. David danced and celebrated God’s provision for Israel, and he also cried out in anguish and bitterness of soul. And in every situation, God heard David’s “Mayday! M’aidez!”

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  • King David’s descendant, King Hezekiah, also cried out to the Lord. He led the entire nation of Israel in celebrating a magnificent Passover feast and a Festival of Unleavened Bread. He also built up and fortified walls that had been allowed to crumble. He strengthened a weakened nation. In spite of his measures, however, the nation was threatened with invasion and destruction by a powerful Assyrian army. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Chronicles+32&version=ESV But Hezekiah, along with the prophet Isaiah, sent up a “M’aidez!” to God, and He answered in a mighty way: 20 Then Hezekiah the king and Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, prayed because of this and cried to heaven. 21 And the Lord sent an angel, who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned with shame of face to his own land. And when he came into the house of his god, some of his own sons struck him down there with the sword. 22 So the Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all his enemies, and he provided for them on every side. 23 And many brought gifts to the Lord to Jerusalem and precious things to Hezekiah king of Judah, so that he was exalted in the sight of all nations from that time onward.
  • The Apostle Peter called out as he was sinking into the waves. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+14%3A22-32&version=NIV His faith, which made him to want to walk out to Jesus on the water, faltered. Peter knew the danger of open water, he faced such dangers in his fishing boat nearly every day. Without a miracle, he would sink below the wind-churned waves and be unable to make it back to the boat or swim all the way to shore. He cried out, “Lord, save me!” “M’aidez!” And Jesus was there to hold his hand and bring him to safety. Later in life, Peter went forth boldly preaching the Resurrection of Jesus, and spreading the Good News that Jesus Saves! Peter knew from first-hand experience that Jesus not only brought physical salvation from storms, but He offered spiritual salvation, renewal, and hope. In fact, it is in one of Peter’s epistles that we find this verse of hope: “..casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
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This May Day, we may call out to God in desperation, or in celebration, or both. But let’s take every opportunity to call on His Holy Name.

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The Three-and-a-Half Miracles of Inigo Montoya

**Spoiler alert** If you have not seen this movie, or read the book, I will be disclosing large portions of the plot in the paragraphs below.

I love the movie, The Princess Bride. Though it is not a “spiritual” tale, and not meant to be a Christian allegory, I find a lot of Biblical truth in this story. In my last post, I looked at the skeptic, Vizzini, whose exaggerated claims of intellect and trust in his own brilliance lead to his downfall.

Today, I want to look at one of his sidekicks– Inigo Montoya. Inigo is a reluctant mercenary. He works for Vizzini “just to pay the bills.” His only real ambition is to find his father’s killer and demand vengeance. This has been his guiding ambition for over 20 years, and he is committed to killing his father’s murderer in a duel– if only he can find the elusive villain!

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Inigo knows three things– he knows the villain roams free and has never been brought to justice; he carries the scars from his own failed sword fight with the man, so he knows his skill and ruthlessness; and he knows the man has six fingers on his right hand. He doesn’t know the man’s name or rank, where he lives, what he does for a living, if he still lives, if he has a family– he really doesn’t know how or where to look for him, and he has no plan beyond challenging the man to a rematch to avenge his father.

I cannot condone Inigo’s thirst for vengeance https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+12%3A19&version=ESV, nor his half-baked plan to achieve his goal. But Inigo’s great love for his father and his belief in justice make him a likable character. Unlike Vizzini, Inigo seems concerned for the princess’s welfare and fate, and reluctant to be involved in something that could lead to her harm (or even death). Once he meets the “man in black” who comes to rescue the princess, he treats him with honor and admires his courage and skill, even as he is pledged to try to stop him. He allows his foe to catch his breath, prepare for battle, and even shares his sad tale in the hopes that the man in black can help him find his Nemesis.

Inigo isn’t a very good villain; he is too honorable, too ready to help others he meets along the way. But he attracts miracles along his journey, and I’d like to look at three-and-a-half miracles today.

Miracles come in different types. Some are miracles of preservation; some are miracles of healing; some of transformation.

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Inigo’s first “miracle” is actually a series of miracles of preservation. Three times, Inigo is involved in sword battles, and three times he is preserved. At age eleven, he watches as his father is ruthlessly slaughtered by the villainous six-fingered man. Inigo tries to fight for his father’s honor, but is defeated. The six-fingered man leaves him scarred and humiliated, but considers Inigo nothing more than a “brat,” and considers that he has “taught him a lesson,” so he lets him live. It doesn’t seem like a miracle, but Inigo is given a chance to grow up, when he easily could have been killed. He uses this opportunity to become a great swordsman, so he can find his father’s killer and challenge him to a rematch! When Inigo challenges the mysterious man in black, he is formidable in battle, yet he loses. He is winded, scratched, and disarmed by the stranger, and expects to be killed. Yet, again, he is spared– this time out of respect. The stranger renders him unconscious, but does not kill him. Inigo recovers and finally gets the chance for vengeance against his nemesis, Count Rugen. He challenges the Count to a duel. But the Count cheats, and Inigo is gravely wounded before the battle even begins. Miraculously, he finds the strength of body and will to continue the fight. Struggling against the loss of blood, the taunts of his enemy, and his own sense of failure, Inigo continues to fight, gaining strength and momentum, until he wins–bringing justice to his father, and defeating his enemy.

The second miracle is one of guidance. Inigo needs help to reach his goal of finding and confronting Count Rugen. He needs the help of the very man he fought earlier– the mysterious man in black. But the tables have turned. The man in black has been taken captive and tortured. Inigo must find and rescue him. In desperation, he prays for guidance. He enlists God’s help in locating the man who can help him. But his prayer seems to go unanswered. He stumbles around in the woods, lost and defeated. Finally, he leans against an old tree–and in doing so, he triggers the secret door leading to the torture chamber where the man in black lies, left for dead.

The third miracle is one of revival and restoration. The man in black seems to be dead, so Inigo and his friend, Fezzik, take the body to a man named Miracle Max, to be brought back to life. Of course, this is a fairy tale (though a fractured one). We don’t expect to find miracle workers in the middle of a forest. But we often pray for miracles in hospital wards, courtrooms, and rescue shelters. God sends miracles– but he often does so through the skills and willingness of others. In this case, Miracle Max delivers a crushing blow– he does not have the power to bring someone back from the dead. However, the man is black is NOT dead; he is only “mostly” dead. Miracle Max concocts a restorative potion, delivered in a chocolate-coated pill. The man in black makes a halting, but timely, recovery, allowing Inigo to track down the evil Count and bring him to justice. (It also allows the man in black to finish his quest, rescue the Princess and defeat her wicked fiance.)

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After three miracles, Inigo finishes his quest and faces a surprising new problem. His whole life has centered around revenge. Now that he has achieved his goal, he has no future; he has lost his sense of purpose. And this is where the “half” miracle happens. Inigo’s character is noble, even if his obsession with vengeance has been unhealthy. Along the way, he has befriended Fezzik, and rescued a man who was deemed to be an enemy. He has fought bravely and with honor, and has not been corrupted by money, power, or violence. His new friend, the man in black, offers him the chance to start over– as the Dread Pirate Roberts! (Lest this sound truly “dreadful”, it has already been explained that the name and reputation are what brings terror into the hearts of the other pirates..once again, this is a fairy tale, where pirates can be heroes.)

Inigo Montoya is a flawed character– he is a drunkard, a mercenary, living with years of failure and haunted by his thirst for revenge. He is not wicked in the same way as Count Rugen or the evil Prince Humperdink, but he is lost, confused, angry, bitter, and unable to save himself. He is a sympathetic character because he is a lot like many of us. But Inigo’s life is transformed by miracles– mostly unsought–giving him the opportunity to start a new life, make new friends, and explore new opportunities.

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What unsought, and even unacknowledged, miracles have come into your life? How many times has God preserved your life, guided you in unexpected directions, provided healing or renewal to your physical, emotional, or spiritual being, and given you unexpected new opportunities?

God doesn’t always give us an instant or dramatic miracle– even when we pray for one. Sometimes, he allows us to collapse against a tree, or be scarred by our enemies, or spend twenty years chasing a quest only to find ourselves unfulfilled at the end of it.

But God IS in the business of miracles– and unlike Miracle Max, he doesn’t charge a fee. God’s ways are not our ways https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+55%3A8-9&version=ESV , but His ways are always working for our eventual and ultimate good https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A28&version=ESV— if we learn to trust. The big difference between Inigo and his unfortunate employer, Vizzini https://pursuingprayer.blog/2020/02/17/inconceivable/, is that Inigo trusted in something bigger than his own exaggerated intellect. He sought to help others and be helped by them, instead of merely using them.

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May our lives be filled with miracles today– great or small–and may we see them and celebrate their true source!

Of Yeast, Mites, and Mustard Seeds

God is interested in the little things…we praise Him for his glory, majesty, and power–rightly so–but He is also the God of atoms, and quiet moments, and insect wings and snowflakes.

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God celebrates with us in our smallest victories–biting our tongue instead of bragging, shaving a minute off our 5K run, not burning the dinner rolls, remembering to put gas in the car for my spouse.  He also sees our smallest sins–when no one else is looking; when no one else knows our motives or inner struggle– God sees every detail, every motive.

God often uses yeast as a metaphor for sin–just a tiny bit can ruin everything.  One tiny act– a fib, passing along a rumor, snubbing a neighbor at the store, watching “soft” porn on TV, hanging out with the “fun” crowd and taking dangerous risks, gambling “for fun” with money you promise to pay back later, drinking a little too much just a little too often, spending more time with that co-worker who “understands” your marital woes better than anyone…Most of us don’t set out to become addicts, thieves, adulterers, bullies, sexual predators, rage-aholics, embezzlers, or compulsive liars.  But Jesus warns us that big sins start small: “murder” really starts with disdain and anger and hate;  adultery begins with lust; and the love of money (greed) is the root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10).  Selfishness, pride, envy, rebellion– they lurk in little lies and delayed obedience and easy justification we allow in our daily lives.

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But God is not only watching us under a microscope, waiting to catch us in some small act of sin.  In fact, that is not His primary desire in watching us.  God is searching  eagerly for signs of obedience, faith, goodness, love, and kindness.

Jesus used parables about small things– a lost coin, a mustard seed, a pearl, a speck of dust, the eye of a needle, a narrow door/gate, a lily of the field– to illustrate joy, faith, self-control, obedience, trust, and even the kingdom of God.  Small things are important, sometimes even glorious, in God’s eyes.  Even some of Jesus’ miracles started with small, humble, simple things– water, five loaves and two fish, a few quiet words, a few tears.

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Today, I want to pray that I will see God moving– not just in grand gestures and eloquent sermons (though I love to see Him move in those ways, too!)–but in the small moments.  I pray that I will be sensitive, not to the world’s crushing words of hatred and deception, but to the still small voice of encouragement; to the hopeful smile of a stranger; to the rushing wind that lifts dust mites to glory in the sun; to the unshed tears of a widowed friend.  I want to plant the mustard seed of faith and watch how God will grow it.  I want to be that cheerful giver of my last coins in gratitude for the riches of Grace that cost me nothing but cost my Savior everything.

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