The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.
~Jonah 1: 1-3
We went to another funeral, today. Mrs P's aunt passed away on Friday. She had been sick in a nursing home for a long time, and her daughter said her passing was easy. The family gathered as they always do, in Charles Mac's funeral parlor to view the body and hear the stories and pray for the family.
After the service, we visited Mrs P's brother. I was the only boy in my family, so he is the closest thing to a big brother that I've ever had. Like me, he was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago. I was lucky. Brother was not. Neck surgery got most of my cancer. His was in his colon and liver and was inoperable. Radiation and a couple doses of chemo killed what was left of mine. Eighteen rounds of chemo left him weak and sick with tumors that were still "progressing," as the doctors say. Brother is done with the poison. He has chosen to have no more chemo. He is waiting for God to call him home.
And I am alive and running. It makes no sense. God rarely does. Cancer never does. My little brain can't understand either God or cancer, not really. Both seem to operate under rules that I can't grasp and can't control. This one is taken; that one remains. This one lives in misery; that one thrives in comfort and prosperity. This one barely survives the treatment; that one doesn't survive the disease. These are the big questions, folks. Why does terrible stuff happen? Why do innocent people suffer and wicked people succeed? Why doesn't God take care of all this?
A few years ago, I was depressed beyond all measure. I wasn't seeing a therapist. I wasn't taking any meds. I hadn't even been diagnosed. I was in the grip of a fatal disease, and didn't know it. A friend once asked me if I was ever afraid that the depression would win. One night, it almost did. I became convinced that my wife, my family, my friends, everyone would be better off if I was dead. I went to the medicine chest and poured every pill I could find into one bottle and swallowed them all. I choked down a glass of water, and went out into the moonlight to die in our backyard. I prayed. "God, I know you can't forgive me, not for this. But please understand. Eternity in Hell will be better than one more minute of this life." I wanted to die. I didn't care what the consequences were. I started to feel the buzz of the chemicals working in me. I knew it wouldn't be long now. I watched the stars move across the sky and the fireflies as they played among the honeysuckles. It was a beautiful summer night. At some point, I stumbled into the house and passed out across the bed in our guest room. In the morning, I woke up to see my beautiful wife standing at the foot of the bed, sunbeams breaking across her face. "Did you take all these pills?"
"Did you try to kill yourself?"
"ALL these pills?"
"My God. You should be dead already."
She was right. I took more than enough pills to kill me. But I didn't die. I got help. I found doctors, priests, friends, and counselors who ministered to me and guided me out of the dark. And I realized something. I had not lived through a suicide attempt. I had died and been brought back to life. I looked God in the eye and said, "Here. This life is too much for me to bear. Please take it back." And God said to me, "No. Life is not yours to give or take. You will live and die as I will, not as you choose."
My life is not mine. It belongs to God.
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. He said:
“In my distress I called to the LORD,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers swept over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.
But you, LORD my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
“When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, LORD,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.
“Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the LORD.’”
And the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
At his darkest hour, Jonah realized that his life belonged to God. He could not run from God. He could not run from life. And he could not run from the work God called him to do. He had ministry to perform and God was going to insist that he do it. Imagine what it must have been like to stand on the shore, watching that great fish swim back out to see, and know that you had been impossibly, irrationally saved from certain death. Jonah watched that fish, then he went do work, serving his God the best way he knew how. He had learned the same lesson I learned that sunny summer morning. His life was not his own. It belonged to God.
Last year, God sent a fish to save me again. On my sick bed, I cried, "God, where are you? Why are you letting this happen to me? To the people I love?" I didn't realize it then, but God sent a great fish named "Medicine" that spouted radiation and chemotherapy and compassion to rescue me from the storm of cancer and deliver me to dry land.
Today I knelt at my big brother's bedside. We prayed together. I have been cast up on the shore. He is adrift, unsure if there is a monster coming to save him, or to take him to the bottom. Neither of us knows why. But we both know something even more important. We both know that God has work for us to do. There is still ministry to be done. The Lord may not send us to preach to Nineveh, but he will send people to hear the word as only we can speak it. They will visit his bedside and his living room. They will come to the theatre or to this blog. God has work for us both to do, and we have no choice but to do it. No matter how inconvenient or how much it hurts. Our lives are not ours to give away. They belong to God. And they begin and end for reasons we can never know or understand.
Living or dying. Sick or healed. It doesn't matter how we live our lives. What matters is why. For as long as I have know him, Brother has lived his life to do God's work in a sin-sick world. Cancer can't change that. He could barely walk this morning, but he gathered himself, crawled into the car, and went to church. The Spirit that lives in him is stronger than any disease. He is a living witness to the saving power of Jesus. And he doesn't have to say a word. His cancer hurts. He doesn't want to suffer. But more than that, he wants to be God's servant every second that he has left on this earth. That is why Brother lives. That is his ministry to me and our family and everyone who knows him. He expects the cancer to kill him. But he knows that it will never kill the love of Christ that lives in him. He is still alive, because God still has work for him to do.
God's work isn't always easy. Sometimes it seems unfair. Sometimes, it doesn't even make senst to the person who does it.
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
But the LORD replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the LORD God provided a leafy plant[a] and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
~Jonah 3:10 - 4:10
None of us knows what work God has in store for us. We don't know who needs us, or where God will send us, but there is one thing we can know for certain... if we are alive, then God has a need that only we can fill. If we are still breathing in this world, then there is work to be done that no one else can do. We are God's ministers on Earth, whether we choose to serve, or to run away, like Jonah tried to do. Like I tried to do on a ship made of pills. We each have a vocation. We each have a ministry.We have more than just life. We have purpose.
"Why do we suffer and die?"
It's a big question. But there is one bigger.
"Why do we live?"
Brother thinks he lives because God isn't ready to take him yet. The Lord needs him here for a little while longer. He is God's minister until God says his time is over.
And so am I.
And so are you
May we all be as faithful servants as my big brother, until God decides our work is finished.
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