The Old Testament book of Jonah has always been a favorite of mine. I have many memories of the Sunday school lessons about Jonah and the whale. In the 60s, to be creative meant the use of a flannel board. In Sunday school, we could pick up a felt (a fabric similar to velvet or velour), cut out the cast of characters, and, one by one, place them on the board: Jonah getting on the boat, the boat crew navigating the ship, blue felt representing the ocean, a whale waiting in the water to swallow the wayward Jonah.
Felt long ago gave way to video, which has now given way to the interactive smart board. But the felt worked for me. Jonah heard from God, ran from God, got thrown off the boat, swallowed by the whale, and spit out three days later.
The moral of the story? Don’t run from God.
There were some very committed Sunday school teachers along the way who loved us, and were patient beyond human capabilities. Through the years, thanks to Facebook, I have been able to reconnect with some of those teachers and thank them for their patience, their kindness, and their love.
We often forget the silent heroes of our life who were there to shape us without knowing how it would all work out. Imagine the step of faith a Sunday school teacher takes when he or she agrees to teach a class of second graders. It occurred to me that some of those teachers might like to know that they made a difference in my life. That I remembered them. And even as I have made contact decades later, they are still encouraging, admitting that they have stayed up-to-date with me through my parents or other former pastors.
The history of Jonah is quite fascinating. He was one of the twelve minor prophets, yet very different than the other eleven. It seems he may have been a one-and-done kind of prophet, sent by God to preach only to the people of Nineveh. Depending on the actual date when the book of Jonah was written, he showed up in a large city--at one time, it was the largest city on the planet. God wanted Jonah to go to that great city of Nineveh and let the people know that if they did not change their ways, He would destroy them. Jonah said,“no way,” and took off on a boat bound for Tarshish.
You know the rest of the story.
There are a few reasons Jonah could not bring himself to go to Nineveh. The primary reason, and the one reason that is clearly stated in the story, is that he did not believe the people in Nineveh deserved a chance to know the forgiveness of God. They were heathens and, as far as Jonah was concerned, God cared only for the Jewish people.
But some authors have suggested a few other reasons Jonah might have hesitated to travel to Nineveh. Could he have been like Moses and uncomfortable with public speaking? Is that why we really don’t hear from him again? Could it be he did not feel qualified to take on such a task in a large city? Could it be his arrogance? Perhaps it was a little bit of all of those things.
Kim and I had been married two years when we took a vacation to the east coast. It was probably our first beach vacation since our honeymoon. I grew up vacationing there, usually in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, not far from where my grandparents lived.
I decided that I would read and reflect on the book of Jonah during that week with Kim. It was 1985, and I had been the Associate Pastor of our church for four years. We were invited to join the staff of a much larger church led by one of my mentors, Ray Cotten. It seemed the right time to make that change, and we pretty much decided to head that way in the fall of that year.
I later learned that my decision to study Jonah while on vacation was far more than just a whim or a choice I made.
Within two months of our time at the beach, my Senior Pastor, a wonderful pastor and leader, informed me that he was moving his family back to the west coast. While he had only been with us two years, his ministry was significant to our church. He arrived in 1985 to a church experiencing some turbulence. He was able to calm the storm and inspire the people of our church to rally around a renewed focus for the future. He inherited me as his Associate Pastor. The previous pastor, who was also a man with significant gifts, had hired me.
I was young and not nearly as smart as I thought I was. I have told both of these men on several occasions how much I look back and appreciate their patience with a guy they may have otherwise sent packing.
When late August arrived, I was once again the interim pastor of our church. Thankfully, Pastor Cotten allowed me to stay in Oklahoma City until a new pastor was in place. We planned to delay our move to Kansas until January. We rented out our townhouse, put most of our belongings in storage, and rented an apartment on a month-to-month basis. It was a four-month delay, but it seemed best for the church.
We occasionally drove to Wichita to look at houses with the excitement any young couple might have with a new venture in mind. But my Jonah moment came in early October. Eight weeks into this interim period, I was asked to consider being the Senior Pastor of our church.
I can’t say that I was completely opposed to the idea. These were amazing people I had come to love very dearly. It seemed clear to me that I was not Senior Pastor material, at least for the long haul, but maybe I could be helpful in the short term.
There were, in my opinion, credentials needed for that assignment that I did not have. If this was to be a three- or four-year journey, perhaps those deficiencies did not matter. Yet, I had some Jonah moments.
Could a music lover be a lead pastor of a church? Could I in any way succeed without any formal education in the field? This was a big city. The opportunity was significant. Why me?
By the end of October of 1985, the congregation had voted on the idea of me becoming the pastor of the church. The vote was overwhelmingly positive, even though there were some really good people who could not get excited about the idea. Even in my youthful immaturity, I understood their concerns. In some way, their concerns were also my concerns.
What church would hire a pastor who had never been a pastor, had no track record as a pastor, no credentials of a pastoral candidate, and frankly, fairly limited life experience? Had I been Jonah, I might have looked for the next ship to Tarshish.
My objection to the idea was somewhat of a Moses moment, too; Moses did not think he was qualified to speak or lead. Neither did I. Honestly, it was not all about whether I was qualified; it was also about whether I was willing.
The journey has been nothing short of miraculous. While I’ve never really doubted God, the experience of the past thirty-three years has been one filled with impossibilities that became reality. God put some amazing people around me, and we determined to never let our church be limited by our limitations. Most of what has happened seemed impossible or unlikely at best. But when God has a plan, your best option is to simply say, “Okay. I’m in. Let’s take the next step and see what happens.”
I’m thankful that a whale was not necessary to move me into God’s preferred plan for my life. It was a close call, but I was certainly not afraid to trust God when it seemed He was moving in a direction that made me uncomfortable.
Living life in the uncomfortable zone has brought many challenges to my life. Living by faith is not easy. Many hours of counseling, a bleeding ulcer that put me flat on my back in a hospital for a week, a battle with depression--these became the joyous reminders that I can only do “all things through Christ who gives me strength” when I bring the best I have to the feet of Jesus and then allow Him to take it from there.
To use a phrase from some famous gospel singers, “I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now.”