Last night, while the rest of the work was gently sleeping, I found myself counting 17 mosquito bites. I’m no stranger to that kind of thing in Britain, so Aussie Mozzies (…just guessing that’s a term, but – surely…?) are no particular big deal. Nevertheless, last night, sleep would have been preferable. All day I’d been fighting jet lag, and that frustrating twitchy distractedness that comes from arguing with a body that swears it’s the middle of the night, even though your watch reads more like midday here in the Southern Hemisphere. And I’d just about won that battle and drifted off successfully, when at 2am I was called back to life to defend my reckless decision to go barefoot in the warm breeze the other night, while we drank wine on the veranda… Mental note: shoes.
Yes I know. Insect bites that do little more than interrupt your sleep, are not the biggest problem the world faces. After all, my computer tells me North Korea just launched a missile over Japan.
(Hmm. Keep writing…)
So, with that in my mind I was just musing. Where do you begin, when it comes to assessing the troubles of the world in relation to the relative unimportance of our individual life experience? What’s the relationship between those two extremes? Where’s the overlap?
Perhaps it has to do with whale vomit.
I’m referring to the Bible story – literal, metaphorical, whichever you prefer – of Jonah feeling called to go and say something honest and challenging that would put a timely finger on a particular nation’s current path to destruction. But Jonah is already feeling too overwhelmed with his own internal issues to do the job. He’s upfront about it, at least. He’d rather his enemies paid for their deeds, than got saved in the nick of time. Jonah isn’t arguing about whether he’s heard a divine call to go. He has. And it’s not that the message isn’t a powerful one. He just wishes that he didn’t have to deliver good news to people who don’t deserve it. He’s hurting. Why shouldn’t his enemies get hurt too?
As the story continues, that simmering unrest in Jonah’s inner world starts to cause great danger to others. He’s keeping his life’s work repressed under several layers of stubbornness, denial, and self-absorption. And the natural environment hears him loud and clear. The sea he finds himself sailing away on with others, somehow surges with the turbulence hidden within him, and responds with a catastrophic storm that could have them all killed. Eventually Jonah volunteers himself for a probable death at sea, to save others. He knows this is all about him. Why should they suffer. (People should be made to suffer for their own wrong actions. Isn’t that how it works? – he’s probably pointing out…)
Anyway. A few days later, landing on an unlikely shore in a proverbial deluge of whale vomit (and taking his emotional baggage with him, it transpires) he goes, grudgingly to deliver his message after all – dishevelled, disgruntled, and now with the added aroma of half-digested fish. Nice.
So we have the story of a nation in turmoil, a word that’s designed to give them hope and a future, and a messenger whose indignation ends up being on full view. Surely that’s like a beautiful highlighter pen for the watching world: “Okay, so my God sees everything you’ve done to mess up everything. And although I personally think he’s crazy and there’s absolutely no way on earth you deserve this, and, personally I cannot bear to think of you accepting this totally unfair offer of peace, which it pains me to even mention to you – *sigh… here’s how to turn things around. You’re welcome. Seriously, don’t thank me. No really. Don’t. …Yes, that IS the stench of whale vomit…”
I see the storm, and moreover the whale vomit in the story as evocative and intriguing. (By the way I’ve said whale vomit at least three times now because once, in a church-y setting, I was asked to take the phrase back as it ‘wasn’t very pleasant’.) 🙂
I think it embodies something significant – a fluid interaction between Jonah’s own personal anguish and the world around him. Like the weeping, healing water in a blister. Like the nutrient rich, unpleasant fluid of child-birth. I think it stands for toxins being drawn from the depths of Jonah’s heart, out into the visible world to be seen clearly, even by his enemies. Those he wishes would comfort him can see him in all his misery, along with those who he wishes would look away and leave him alone.
In that highly entangled, exposive mass of Jonah’s head and heart – together with all the intricacies of his human experience, most of which hadn’t been the least bit relevant to Nineveh’s fate before now – it takes a sea monster of mythical proportions to swallow him whole. He’s contained for a while in that tortured place to panic, and weep, and pray, and perhaps moreover, to face himself – an inescapable 3D immersive mirror of the senses. (Sidenote: is that a picture of death? Or everyday life?)
Delivering him back on dry land, whale vomit and all, the story twists back into a tale of saving others. But let’s be clear. This is a story of annoyance and frustration, and stubbornness, and sulking. And whale vomit. (NB That’s the guy carrying the good news.)
This story, by the way, is the one Jesus offers to those who ask him for a sign.
Now, give Jonah his due. If he had simply sat and sulked in the first place, ignoring his call, and choosing to give up entirely, he might have been lost to legend through a stress-induced mythical ulcer, or a chronic drinking problem. But apparently that’s not what happened. He ran. He picked up the energy and call, and drove it in a different direction.
It seems to me like this (fictional or actual) man was just exhausted emotionally from praying and wishing his own hard individual life experiences would not be ignored in the big picture.
Jonah’s big resurrection moment comes eventually… in a putrid expulsion of his own marinating juices. (Answered prayer that feels like the opposite?)
But, actually, I wonder if anything less repulsive (anything less impolite to discuss in church!) would have convinced Jonah that his deepest hurts were heard, acknowledged, – even a prominent feature of the plot to save a nation.
Anyway. Like I say. I have a few annoying mosquito bites and a bit of unhelpful jet lag, along with the prospect of potential apocalyptic global disaster. Those extremes are the stuff of comedy and also of serious desperation, but I am forced to claim that both narratives belong to the story. My story. Yours. Ours. In an inside-out way, I think the micro and the macro have something divine to say to each other, from all across the spectrum, from individual to collective, from minor to major, from the aesthetic to the sewage works.