About this blog

The purpose of this blog is for Quakers and interested fellow travelers to explore the Bible together as it speaks to our condition as individuals.

This discussion is open to Christians, non-Christians, atheists and Pagans; to those who are often confused or angered by the Bible and to those who see scripture as inerrant; to good Quakers and to not-so-good Quakers--to name just a few points of view.

All comments should be given in humility and tenderness, especially where the original poster's perspective is different from your own.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Jonah and Robert and Me. (Forget the Whale.)

One of my favorite books of the Bible is the book of Jonah.

OK, OK. I'll admit it. It's my favorite in part because it is so very short. Really--even if you read it in King James English, it can't take you more than fifteen minutes. No fooling; go ahead. If you've never read it, or if you haven't read it recently, go read it now.

I'll wait. No problem. (It's the page and a half after Obadiah and before Micah, at least in my NIV.)

Right! See what I mean? If I gave you a quiz on it right now, after only fifteen minutes of work, most of you would pass it. (I say most of you because, hey, I'm an English teacher, and I'm well aware that many of you didn't do the assigned reading. Yes, that means you!)

So, knowing that some of you have an instinctive aversion to doing reading assignments, here's the recap. (Those of you who did do the reading may now take out your notebooks and doodle, if you wish.)

As I say, I like this story, and not just because it's short. I like it because it reminds me of teenagers, who I work with, and because it reminds me of me. More on that in a minute.

The gist of the story is this: Jonah is one of God's prophets. And he gets a, to his mind, horrible assignment, to go warn the people of Nineveh to repent. Nineveh! Ptui! Big, evil city in the heart of a big, evil empire that's been trying to oppress the hell out of Israel time out of mind. Let those suckers fry! Who needs em!

So Jonah, out to prove that a leading from God is not always a sign of being a big or noble guy, decides to run away from God, and he takes ship. Who knows where he thinks he's going to go that God won't find him. Reason is maybe not his strong suit.

Well, and of course a huge storm comes up. He's sleeping--trying to tune out the whole world, maybe, as a technique for running away from God--and the sailors have to wake him up. The ship is sinking, and everyone who isn't bailing water is praying to whatever gods they can to keep them alive. But when Jonah tells them his god isn't just any god, but the god who made the seas they're sailing, they get a bad feeling about this. Jonah has a bad feeling about it, too. Sure enough, with a little fortune telling and a little soul-searching from Jonah, the truth comes out: his God is mad at him, and he's the problem.

He winds up jettisoned, and the storm subsides.

Then there's that thing with the whale. (Yeah, I know. The fish, the really big fish. Whatever. Here's the Spielberg and special effects bit, is the point.)

After three smelly days and some prayers, the fish belches Jonah up onto the sands, back on his way to Nineveh. Jonah takes the hint, and goes to Nineveh to warn them to repent or be destroyed.

And then those evildoers do the most unforgivable thing of all. They repent. Looks like God won't be destroying them after all.

Is Jonah happy? No, indeed. The whole mission wasn't his idea. Those damn Ninevites have just proved his point: God's love is cheap! God is hardly treating him, his very own prophet, any better than he does a whole city of worthless pagans.

So Jonah camps out on the outskirts of Nineveh and has a big old sulk. He's miserable. Here he's been a standup guy his whole life, and he's a Jew and everything, and this whole city of evil heathen idolaters get told to shape up, and they do, and they get off scot-free.

Meanwhile, there he is, one of the Chosen People, and he just spent three days stuck in a stinking whale (fish, whatever) for these guys, and they just repent a little and fast for a few days and that's it?

They didn't even get circumcised, for crying out loud! How exactly is that fair?

So he announces to God that he wishes he were dead: "Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." (The drama, the drama!) And he lies down in the glaring hot sun and tries to guilt God into destroying the city after all.

God, however, is a wiser parent than most of us. He doesn't waste a lot of time with trying to talk Jonah out of his sulk. Instead, as Jonah lies there moping in the hot sun, he sends a little vine to grow over him and shade him from the worst of the sun. And Jonah, he likes that little vine, the way a teenager who has declared that life isn't worth living likes the tunes on his iPod or his black-painted ceiling. He's really fond of that little vine, even while his mind is totally taken up with feeling sorry for himself.

And the next day, God takes away the vine--sends a worm to eat it. (I imagine God would have little difficulty taking away computer or cell phone privileges as a parent, either.)

Jonah is furious! How mean and outrageous of God to take away his only comfort, his beautiful, precious, wonderful vine, with the custom apps and the tunes he'd downloaded from a friend who'd moved away and--well, OK. That part isn't in there. But you get the idea.
But the Lord said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?

As I say, this story reminds me of teenagers. And it reminds me of me.

As a parent of a former teenager, and as a teacher of teenagers, I am reminded of them both in Jonah's sulkiness and in the light treatment of Nineveh; teenagers not only can be annoying at home, they can be provocative in large numbers... and yet grow out of their worst traits, leaving us with little choice but to put their misdeeds behind them. Which is only mostly OK, because, honestly, there's a little bit of Jonah in you and me, too, and when we've been in the belly of the whale (yeah, yeah, fish) we want a little vindication, you know what I mean?

And vindication isn't what we're here for.


Let me explain.

This winter, I have been stuck inside a big, stinking fish. The winter that began with the sudden death of a friend became an exercise, on a more immediate level, in dealing with chronic annoying, wearying, cranky-making pain.

I have a bulging disc in my lumbar spine, and it is causing me no end of aches, pains, and annoyance. Anyone who has ever had disc pain can tell you how nasty it is--and anyone who has ever had permanent pain with a permanent disability can tell you how much more serious that is than a back condition which, however irksome, is in my case at least, gradually improving.

Nonetheless, we all have our special skills and talents, and I have discovered a nearly endless capacity for feeling sorry for myself. I accept donations, too--please feel utterly free to feel sorry for me along with me. I promise not to take offense.

Teenagers, however, have no truck with pity, or at least, not for old people stuff like bad backs. They do try, some of them... but, for most, the reality that our bodies wear out and can feel really crappy is just too distant an abstraction for them to remember it for very long. So, being a teacher with a bad back, hobbling through the hallways on a cane where I used to stride purposefully, cuts me exactly no slack at all when my students are having a bad day, don't feel like doing their homework, or are feeling crabby and self-pitying themselves.

Some of them, in fact, behave just like thankless Ninevites. And I, in response? I react just like sulky Jonah.

Take Robert. Robert is my Nineveh.

Now, all the kids, not just Robert, like to hang out in front of their lockers during our break. And they all, possessed of the boneless flexibility of youth, like to sit slouched against the wall, with their feet and legs thrust straight out in front of them--that is, when they are not clustered in knots of a dozen or more students, each wearing those king-sized backpacks that stick out about a foot behind every one of their hulking seventeen-year-old bodies.

All of this creates a kind of obstacle course that I must hobble through every day between my morning classes. It was sometimes annoying when I was able-bodied; on days now when I have a lot of irritation in my back, it is actually painful. True, each micro-correction of my course, navigating the halls, is a small pain. But dozens of such corrections are wearing.

Most of the kids, of course, pull aside when they see me coming--tuck their feet back, step out of the way slightly (very slightly--they forget about the mammoth backpacks also blocking the path), and go back to their real jobs, of socializing with one another.

Robert, as you may have guessed, is different.

The other day, walking down the hall, there was the usual obstacle course--five or six sets of legs, taking up most of the available floor space. As I neared the cluster of kids, person after person drew back their feet to make room for the old lady to pass.

Not Robert.

So I stopped, doing that teacher glare thing, to communicate, "Don't you have something you're supposed to do for me about now, Young Man?"

He sneered up, with a lip curl that would have done Elvis proud.

"Robert?" I inquired, in Teacher Voice.

"Yeah? Whut?" he responded, in full Indifferent Teenager mode. (Oh, how I hate Indifferent Teenager mode.)

Beaming Stern Teacher Glare (tm) at him for all I was worth, I waited a heartbeat before speaking very deliberately. "Robert," I said, "Move your feet."

Turning those maddeningly dull eyes on me (as only a teenager can) he drawled, "You can get past me."

And it was true. I could--with another of those painful micro-corrections of course. However, some principles I believe are truly universal, or ought to be. "Get out of the way of old ladies with canes if they ask you" is one of those principles, and so I simply repeated--with the unspoken power of the Detention, the In-School Suspension, the Phone Call Home to Your Parents behind me--"Robert: move your feet."

He did, of course.

After the longest delay he could plausibly take without disciplinary consequences. (The Roberts of the world practice that timing, I believe. They are masters of timing, and we can only hope that one day, they learn to use that power for good.)

I passed down the hall. And fumed about it all day. And still possess, if I am honest with you about it, a little hard, cold, angry seed of mean toward Robert over that face down in the hallway.

Teacher friends suggested I write him up--bring down on him the wrath of the Detention, etc. Somehow, that just didn't feel right to me. Partly, it was that my point was made in the hallway: yes, on behalf of old ladies with canes everywhere, I am going to insist on civility toward me. I don't imagine a detention would make much difference in Robert's heart.

But, in truth, that is not what I want for Robert. Oh, no... I want more, much more than a straightforward lesson in manners and consideration.

Here's what I figured out I want for Robert. (Brace yourself. This gets ugly.)

I want him in a wheel chair. I want him in pain, and stuck in a wheel chair. For years. (It's not enough for me that he need a cane; you can see how far from justice my instincts are by my need to escalate this.) I want him to be aging, surrounded by sullen teenagers, and feel pain in his body and bitterness in his heart when they do not move out of his way willingly.

I want him to suffer. Oh, yeah.

Fortunately, God is probably kind enough not to give me what I want, in those moments of petty vindictiveness. Odds are, whatever the evil chemical cocktail is that causes so many teenagers to become malicious horrors around adults--especially adults in positions of authority--does seem to pass away. With or without repentance, Robert is unlikely to remain the little shit he acted with me in the hallway. He already is less provocative and arrogant with his peers, and, well, if the madness of his rudeness does not fall away from him with time, that's something he's going to have to work out with God all on his own.

I'm just his teacher. I get to show him right and wrong. But I don't get to make him change his heart. I don't even get to know his heart to know what went wrong for him, that he acted the way he did.

Jonah? Was not God. Just a prophet. Prophets get to teach. But they don't get to decide what happens next, and they don't get to decide who matters, or what people deserve.

Thank God.

Because don't we all have a little bit of Jonah in us? Wanting, not so much to bring the good news of how to live rightly and be in peace with God, as to get to watch while someone is "taught a lesson" in the most vindictive sense of that phrase. We all think we're special, that we deserve God's love and mercy more than the next guy does. Certainly more than Robert does, right?

We forget all about the gifts and grace that have brought us to the point where we can do whatever good we do in the world. We overestimate our virtues, and turn a blind eye to our faults.

Jonah didn't make the vine that shaded him. I didn't create the husband who cares for me, the teachers, yes, and many students, too, who go out of their way to care for me and make my recuperation easier, nor the strong, essentially healthy body that, it is my comfort to remember, is healing, after all... nor the parents who loved me and taught me what my heart knows by example as well as in words.

I didn't make any of these things, and yet, like Jonah, I am so capable of taking them for granted, as my due, my right, and then striking out at the Roberts around me, as though that were my business. Whatever of goodness I may have in me, I am no more than a co-creator of any of it. And haven't I been Robert, in my time? Aren't there moments that make me blush to remember them in my own life, too?

There are a lot of students in my school, a lot of teenagers in the world, and a lot of crazy humans on the planet, every one of us capable, at times, of being unable to "tell our right hand from our left" when it comes to matters of right and wrong.

In my saner moments, I see that mercy for Nineveh--for both Robert and for me--is devoutly to be wished.

In my less sane moments? It's a good thing that, as in the days of Jonah, God is capable of not taking my sulking too seriously.

Cat Chapin-Bishop is a member of Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting in Leverett, MA, where, despite being a Bad Quaker, she strives to become a better one.  She lives with her husband Peter and two very untidy dogs in an old farmhouse at the edge of a wood; she has been a Quaker since 2001, and a Pagan since 1986... or all her life, depending on how you keep score.


  1. Great post, Cat -- deep and honest.

    I'm a fan of the Jonah tale, too, though I'm partial to the whale (instead of Jonah)... Luci Shaw, the poet, really captured my thinking about that with her poem "Reluctant Prophet"

    Reluctant Prophet

    Both were dwellers
    in deep places (one
    in dark bowels
    of ships and great fish
    and wounded pride.
    The other
    in the silvery belly
    of the seas). Both
    heard God saying
    but the whale
    did as he was told.

  2. "...Both/heard God saying/'Go!'/but the whale/did as he was told." Oh, very nice!

    I am also struck by how much Jonah's prayer from within the whale echoes one of my favorite Psalms (oddly enough, as I am not familiar with very many psalms), 42.

    You hurled me into the deep,
    into the very heart of the seas,
    and the currents swirled about me;
    all your waves and breakers
    swept over me...

    ...yet I will look again
    toward your holy temple.

    So reads Jonah. And the language of the psalm?
    Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls;
    All Your waves and billows have gone over me.

    ...Why are you cast down, O my soul?
    And why are you disquieted within me?
    Hope in God;
    For I shall yet praise Him,
    The help of my countenance and my God.

    I've heard it said that Jonah has within it, deliberately, a comic element, and I think that's true. But it evokes some serious poetry, too, and both the psalm and the image of Jonah in that big ol' carp (or whatever it was) really are helpful when life has been a bumpy road for a while.

    I know that when I'm feeling set upon, I need both humor and poetry to pull me out again!

  3. Melville put a wonderful sermon on Jonah in Chapter 9 of Moby Dick. If you haven’t already read it, you have a treat coming! The theology is thoroughly Quaker, as befits the Nantucket setting.

    You can even find it on line — here.

  4. This Friend speaks to my condition.

    Thank you.


  5. Hi, Cat,

    A great post, with a great deal of humour and insight. Having teenage kids myself, I'm well aware of the "Indifferent Teenager" kind of mood!

    But I just thought I should point out that there is a Nineveh/Robert or whatever right in this commnet stream. Two comments above this there is a poster with a name in Japanese (Chinese?) characters that says "No pains, no gains" followed by a row of dots. There have been a spate of these on my own blog. I was unfortunate enough to click accidentally on the row of dots following the text, and found that it was in fact a disguised link to a Japanese (Chinese?) porn site.

    I'm inclined to have the same reaction to this as you did to your Robert - of wishing the perpetrator to come to a sticky end, but I guess a more biblical response is to realise that God is concerned about the girls who are featured on the porn site who clearly don't know right from left, or indeed right from wrong.

    Anyway, I think the best thing to do would be for one of the Blog administrators to quietly delete the offending post.

  6. Done. (Just because the Roberts and porn spammers of the world are as able to receive God's grace as anyone else doesn't mean we can't set a few limits in the human real, where appropriate!


  7. Hello Cat One of my favorite books in the Hebrew Scripture- it always seems to make me look at something about my journey in life that I would rather not deal with, and what I'm called to do or change. It's satire with real bite and reflection. Thanks for sharing it's weaving in your life. Patrick Ruth

  8. I went to Niniveh, and it sure looks like He changed his mind. Or the Niniveans did. Anyway, it's broken. The carelessness...

  9. Cat, what a delightful posting! It made me laugh this morning, both with you and at myself at how ridiculously petty I can be at times.

    Jonah and Job are my two favorite (painfully so, at times) books in the Hebrew scriptures because I am so like both Jonah and Job. I want to challenge the Divine and God's ways because I trust too frequently to my own understanding and most often have to learn life's lessons the hard way. I'm a smart guy who thinks deeply and a lot about everything. This isn't a bad quality, except when it gets in the way of discerning God's will (something that I always really know if I am honest with myself) and following it while being gracious in times of trial and also towards those that I perceive to be less enlightened than I am.

    Reading Jonah helps me to not take myself too seriously, as God thankfully doesn't when I am pouting. Job helps me to realize that while I can dare to question God, that God's ways are far beyond my limited understanding, yet God always answers my most inane challenges in loving and authoritative ways and continues to bless me in the end. Through the process I am humbled yet also come to know my God in ever deeper ways. I have been accused of being "Doubting Thomas." But God knows my heart and that in reality I am "Thomas Seeker of Truth."

    "Then Job answered the Lord: 'I know that thou canst do all things and that no purpose is beyond thee. But I have spoken of great things which I have not understood, things too wonderful for me to know. I knew of thee then only by report, but now I see thee with my own eyes. therefore I melt away; I repent in dust and ashes. - Job 42:1-6

    "Then he said to Thomas, 'Reach your fingers here; see my hands. Reach your hand here and put it into my side. Be unbelieving no longer, but believe.' Thomas said, 'My Lord and my God!'" John 20:27, 28 (New English Bible)

  10. I enjoy this blog, and all the posts by the contributing authors. I also enjoyed this particular post. However, I have... something to say and please understand I am not trying to be confrontational.

    I think it's important that we be honest about the negative parts of us. And then reexamine them spiritually... or Biblically as you put it.

    But I couldn't help but feel a little disturbed at some of the text I read here- both in the actual post and in comments. Phrases like wishing someone a "sticky end," etc.

    Of course it's only natural to have these initial reactions. But the humorous outlook attached to this emotions, sort of saying them tongue in cheek... that people on here seem to be using... well it makes me uncomfortable. To me, it's not that funny.

    To be Christlike we should do our very, very best to eliminate all judgmental and hateful attitudes from our person. I'm sure you're all good people who do try to do this, and I'm sure the humor was not meant to be taken negatively... just wanted to put my two cents in about it. :)

  11. I love the poem by Luci Shaw. It reflects the difference between alignment with the "mind of God" and the pride of self will that lands us in the dark bowels of separation rather than swimming in the deep and powerful sea of Divine intent.

    I was personal friends with Luci years ago when we both lived near Wheaton, IL. She was a powerful influence on my life and spirituality through both her person and her poetry. Thank-you for reminding me of that blessed time in my life.

  12. My senior production project in 1972 was exactly along the lines of your story, "It Should Happen to a Dog" by Wolfe Mankowitz (Available through French Co.) The plant (modeled after Steve of Led Zepplin) was collapsible, had coconuts with zippers and spring loaded straws, and was bi-pedal. Jonah was played like a Groucho Marx character by a Puertoriccano. We had wind, lightening, and thunder mechanically produced. Yet, the story was haunting in a very Yiddish way. I was impressed with a new student, Ed Harris, but he was so heavily committed to other producers/directors at OU he had to be excused, though I wanted him. The only student bypassed was the young Puerotriccano, who had style, timing, and a great Ashkenazi accent. What a deal, a Mixed-blood Native American/European/Latino producer/director/stagemanager, a Caucasian who had no ear for tone, a wily Puertoriccano, a supernumery/stagehand/tree, producing a Yiddish morality play from just before the advent of Nazism. Same message, it's the plant.

  13. I so identify with the teacher confronting the recalcitrant student. I am currently surrounded with such "students"--a sister whom I refer to as Bee, a cousin who also tends to "Queen Bee"ness, and the director of my former program with whom I have a transference where she is Bee and her underling is my sister-in-law, Bunny. I managed to trigger Jackrabbit's anger who then went running to SueBee, who rather give out honey, is giving out poison to potential employers. How to get them to move their feet when I am forbidden to contact them or others, and they are the ones in power? I tried the superior, no response. There is another higher up, a possibility. Getting a lawyer is a possibility, filing complaints with the licensing board are all possibilities, but I, like the teacher, am reluctant to pull out the big guns if I don't need to.

    Best summary of the Book of Jonah that I have ever heard. Love the Reluctant Prophet as well. BTW, did write the lyrics to a death metal song about Suebee, "Bitch Doctor From Hell"--helped get rid of anger for both situations. My husband doesn't want me to publish this as he is concerned that we could wind up with the police at our door--the whole thing started with a cookie recipe before the holidays. I soon am going back into close contact with Bee and Bunny--need to get this figured out!