When the waves started crashing over the deck of the ferry, I knew something was wrong. I remembered reading somewhere that the Baltic Sea can get unpredictably dangerous in the Fall of the year. So true.
When my grandmother — we called her “Oma” — and I sailed from the protected harbour, the waters looked calm. But once we hit the open water, the winds picked up, and I had to hang on for dear life!
I’m not sure the story of Jonah came to mind at the time, but the similarities are striking, when I reflected on that turbulent time in my life. I had just arrived in Germany for a year-long exchange student program during my seminary education. This was what I felt “called” in my preparation to be a good, Lutheran pastor — spend a year in a Lutheran university, in the very place Martin Luther argued with other reformers about Holy Communion.
But it was the first time I would spend significant amounts of time in a foreign land trying to function in a foreign language, by myself, without family and friends. And within the first couple of weeks after I arrived at the university in Marburg, Germany, I knew this was not going to be easy.
If fact, I remember coming soon to the conclusion that all I wanted, was to escape Marburg — the lonely dormitory room, the solitary walks to the lecture halls, the silent dinner times in the corner of the cafeteria. I’m an introvert, so this was really bad! Because I felt completely disconnected from everything and everyone.
Oma lived in northern Germany. And I think she wanted to help me, so within two weeks of my arrival she invited me to hop on the train and visit her for a couple of days. She wanted to take me on a ferry boat ride from just across the border in Denmark back to the seaside city in which she lived. Part of the deal was to enjoy a schnitzel meal before the boat left that placid harbour. In retrospect, that wasn’t a good idea!
But she tried to make me feel more ‘at home’. Just before we boarded the ferry she had handed me an envelope containing a thousand dollars. “Use this to help you this year in Germany,” she said, looking at me with her sparkling eyes, “in whatever way you see fit.”
I did. The answer was not Marburg. It was Vancouver! Yes! The timing couldn’t have been better. I was less than an hour’s train-ride to Frankfurt — and the paid-for plane ride outa here! Besides, I had a close friend studying in Vancouver at the time — nothing like a girlfriend to distract and motivate a young man desperate for a change in scenery.
I mentioned Jonah, because during my three-week hiatus in Vancouver I read Eugene Peterson’s book, “Under the Unpredictable Plant” (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1992) — which is basically a reflection on the Jonah story:
God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh; but Jonah hesitates and would rather go to Tarshish. On the boat ride to Tarshish he encounters a gale storm threatening the lives of all aboard. He realizes the impending calamity is probably his fault, and sacrifices himself by jumping into the sea, where he spends three days in the belly of a whale. We pick up the story in the first reading today (Jonah 3:1-5,10) after the whale spits Jonah out; God calls him a “second time” to go to Nineveh — and he finally relents, and goes to do God’s will.
When I was in Vancouver I seriously toyed with giving up on my pastoral vocation; I remember thinking that I did not want to return to Marburg, and that I would use this opportunity in Vancouver to inquire about the School of Architecture and City Planning, programs which had intrigued me at the time. The dark, depressive notion of returning to Marburg (a.k.a Nineveh) was the farthest thing from my mind. I would start all over, in Vancouver (a.k.a Tarshish).
There’s something important about Jonah’s experience — Jesus likens his three days in the tomb to Jonah’s three days in the belly of the whale (Matthew 12:40). It’s that time of incubation, of waiting, of not being in charge. It’s the grass under the snow and ice, the seeds of the daffodils hibernating in the frozen ground, waiting until the right time that comes from outside of one’s individual initiative and control.
Those three weeks in Vancouver, the long walks on the beach — by myself, I might add — this was my time in the belly of the whale to discern and reflect on the truth of what I was called to do and be. I thank God for that time ‘in the belly’, where I could ruminate and come into myself as I truly was, and am.
It was during that time when I realized what I needed to do: I was called to return to Marburg, and I felt convinced in my heart that all I was asked to do was finish the year abroad. That’s all I had to do, and not worry about ‘what after?’. That’s where, despite my fear and anxiety about returning to a place where I would have to confront my demons, I knew was my next step.
You may notice how immediately Simon and Andrew leave everything behind and follow Jesus’ call (Mark 1:18). In last week’s Gospel, Philip and Nathanael so quickly respond to the invitation to “come and see” Jesus (John 1:43-47). Abraham went immediately, “as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:4). There is a prevalent understanding to lift up an idealistic, immediate and righteous response of Christians to the call of God. I can see why.
But then there is also Jonah, who resists. There is the great prophet Jeremiah who when God first appears to him and appoints him a prophet, he rejects the call by throwing up excuses: “I do not know how to speak; I am only a boy” (1:6). And it takes two whole chapters in the book of Exodus for God to finally convince Moses to do God’s bidding to confront Pharaoh and free God’s people from slavery in Egypt.
Moses’ excuses run like a litany: “Who am I?” (3:11); then, “What should I say?” (3:13); then, “But suppose they don’t believe me?” (4:1); and, “I am not eloquent; I am slow of speech” (4:10); and finally, “Please send someone else!” (4:13). To each of these successive excuses, God shows incredible patience to nurture Moses into fulfilling his task. This is the same God who is patient with Jeremiah and Jonah.
If I take the bible witness as a whole, it appears some followers of God respond immediately, without question or hesitation, dropping everything and going. And then there are some who resist, who complain, who self-doubt, hesitate and try to deflect the call of God.
In the world of mathematics, integers and fractions, these numbers would cancel themselves out. In other words, what is most important to focus on here, is not our human response to God. Because our responses will vary as many as there are people on this planet Earth. The starting point, is not how we should respond. But the way God is.
God is merciful. If God changes in anything, it is only in the direction of judgement to mercy. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 145:8).
God is persistent with us. God is the hound of heaven. God has a plan — one we can never know completely, because we are not God. For whatever reason, God is acting to fulfill something that is beyond all of us. All we are called to do is to participate somehow in God’s mission on earth. God won’t give up trying to get that message across to us.
God is faithful to us. As God was faithful to all the prophets and disciples in the bible, God will not give up, abandon and discard the “work of His hands” (Psalm 138:8). God is with us, regardless of whether we need a little more convincing over time or not.
With wobbly knees I disembarked from the ferry when we finally landed safely in the German port following our harrowing ride on the angry Baltic Sea. I walked quietly beside Oma back to the car, stomach churning yet grateful to be alive. Even though my heart, at the time, was set on Vancouver, I already knew that God had given me a second chance at life. And deep in my heart, I knew that God would continue, no matter what I did, to be merciful to me, to be patient with me, and never give up on me.