Becoming Jonah — Running From Our Stories

Jonah 1:2-3

“I talked to Dad on the phone today.”

Silence. Then, “You’re talking to Dad?”

“Yes. I’ve been calling him almost every week,” she said, her voice calm and assured.

“Does he talk to you? What do you talk about?” I could not hide my amazement and confusion. I couldn’t believe that out of the six of us, she was the one calling him.

“Yeah, he talks. I ask him about things. He’ll answer. Sometimes I’m on the phone with him for forty-five minutes.”

I didn’t quite believe this. “But what does he say? He’s never talked to us before.”

“I don’t know. We just talk about whatever’s going on.”

I was silent for a moment, then asked, “Why are you doing this, Laurie?”

“I just think he needs someone to care about him.” She said it simply, without judgment.

That was a new thought. I wasn’t sure about it. Why Laurie?

Dad was the very reason she had run away from home.

The children, the victims, are not the only ones who flee. My father ran away too. When he was employed, he was a traveling salesman and dressed in a suit every morning, drank instant coffee, and left the house. He’d drive all day, sometimes all week, around New England, paying for his own gas and own time, stopping to drink coffee in small cafés and Friendly’s ice cream shops, an unheard-of luxury in our family’s nonexistent economy. He dreamed of a final good-bye, sailing alone around the world for the rest of his life.

When my mother and father divorced, finally, when we were all out of the house, he fled to Florida and stayed there, living on a twenty-eight-foot, derelict sailboat, thousands of miles from his family. He came back home just once, for two nights, for a family reunion, but only because my brother drove two thousand miles down to Florida to get him, then drove him all the way back to Florida the next day.

We’ve all run, fugitives from our own stories, our pasts. But sometimes we are running from a future as well, a future we cannot imagine, one we don’t want a part in creating.

I know of someone who did this. You may know him too. He was living whatever a normal life looked like twenty-eight hundred years ago, a man with a job to keep, bills to pay, parents to please. And then — “the word of the Lord  came to” him, and we know it’s going to mean trouble.

It did, indeed. The world was a mess, of course, but it was a manageable mess, it seemed to Jonah. His own life was hardly a party, but it was his  life, and he knew where to go when things got hard. He had his buddies; he had his haunts and hangouts. He knew where to worship, too, because he was not just a regular guy. He was a prophet, and he had work to do, words of God to speak. But now he was being asked to step outside of the life he knew and managed.

“Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me,” God said (Jonah 1:2). God rang his bell, which He has every right to do.

We know what comes next. We’ve all heard this story since childhood; even those of us who weren’t raised in Sunday school may have somehow heard this fantastical tale of a man who ran away from God and got swallowed by a whale, and three days later got vomited out. (Did I spoil the ending for anyone? So sorry!)

That’s what kids remember — Jonah, the upchucked prophet. But for us here and now, Jonah’s story echoes into our own. He’d been called to a great, wicked city located in a neighboring country.

They were enemies with Jonah and his countrymen, by reason of birth and by reason of their own violence and cruelty. They’d done his people wrong, maybe even done Jonah himself wrong. He had reason to hate them. And now he had to go and preach to them.

Preaching against them wasn’t the problem. The problem was, he was ordered to warn them of their coming fate — they’d be destroyed if they didn’t repent.

Destruction?  Total destruction? Why should they be warned?  Jonah must have thought. Why give the chance to repent?  How many times had Israel herself been destroyed, and judgment not been withheld?

Oh, the bitter taste of this, to be forced to preach “Repent!” to enemies deserving only of death! To be compelled to offer mercy to those who had not been merciful! What kind of God was this, who did not honor boundaries and simple, decent justice?

He could not bear it. So he ran. He’s one of us.

Yes, to the ship bound the other way. And don’t we do this? We never run toward what must be done. Instead, we run precisely the other way. It’s logical; it makes complete sense — until we remember God. Until we remember who He is and that this is His world, not ours.

And we realize the absurdity of trying to outrun the only One.

Yet we do it again and again.

This book almost didn’t happen. After believing I was called to write it (no, not a voice from heaven, but almost), I ran from it. I ignored it for almost two years, busying myself with everything else.

To turn around and marinate for two years in a life and memories I’ve spent my energies escaping — why would I do that? Why would any of us make that turn back?

But I know why. I met Vonnie while speaking at a seminar. She came up to me after the last session, a woman about my age with a clear, open face and long hair. She came to greet me with a friend, who was clearly there to support her. What would she ask or tell me that she needed such support?

“My son. He just wrote me and told me he’s become an atheist. I don’t know exactly why, but I realized I hadn’t told him my story.”

I smiled encouragingly to her, understanding how we hide things from our children.

“He doesn’t know what happened to me and how God rescued me. I realized I need to write my story down. Do you have any suggestions on how I can do that?”

Oh, good, I thought. This is easy.  I knew just the book to recommend.

I named the book, and she wrote it down.

Her friend nudged her shoulder. “Tell her. Tell her about it.”

I was tired — I’d spoken multiple times in the last two days, but there was something compelling about this woman. I motioned to the chairs behind us and moved to sit down. “I would love to hear.”

She began, and I listened, appalled, as her story unwound. I didn’t want to believe what she was telling me. I didn’t want to believe what her parents had done to her. I wanted to think she was disturbed, one of those people who conjure up fantastic stories of abuse, a victim junkie who cannot form an identity or sense of worth without the pity and attention of others. But as she spoke, I knew her words were true. I saw it on her face and on her friend’s face.

When she was done, I let silence settle around us for a moment. Then I said, “You’re right. You must  write down your story, Vonnie. Not just for your son. But for yourself. It is your heritage, as ugly and horrific as it is.” I paraphrased one of my favorite quotes from Patricia Hampl, a reminder that we are entrusted with our pasts, and we must make something out of “the burden of our witnessing.”

She nodded. She knew, and now I know too. I have believed in this all my life, the power of language to bring us to truth and to freedom. Don’t we all believe that “the truth will set us free”?

I have spent much of my professional life teaching others to do this, and I have done it myself. I spent eight years writing a difficult memoir of my own life, past and present. Like other memoir instructors, I tell my students to face their dragons, their witches in the well, and to enter the dark woods. I tell them this because I want them to write about things that matter rather than things that are trivial and merely entertaining.

But there are deeper reasons as well. When we run from our stories, we are running from our very selves, and we run great risks.

Our memories form the very underpinning of our identities, even “the texture of our souls,” as Dr. Dan Allender and Don Hudson wrote. “Forgetting is a wager we all make on a daily basis and it exacts a terrible price. The price of forgetting is a life of repetition, an insincere way of relating, a loss of self.” This is a large enough price — to not know who we are. But the true cost is even greater than this. In the same essay Allender rightly suggests that every hurt and disaster is also a chance for redemption. When we ignore and try to suppress the past, “we lose another moment to experience God’s mysterious redemption in our lives.”

Is it naive to think redemption is possible, even in the hardest stories? Is this fairy-tale wish fulfillment, believing that every “once upon a time” finishes with “happily every after”? Even in my own small story, I have had large doubts — uncertainties that have kept me safely distant.

There are such logical reasons to run — and to doubt. We’re running from our stories, from the pages written behind us, and from an outcome we can’t foresee and may not really want. Can our parents really change? Can we? How can love be wrung from a stone — or even harder, how can forgiveness be wrung from a stone and handed to someone who does not deserve it?

Maybe the running stops here, and there is enough courage to move forward out of your old story and into a new one. Like Jonah. He ran, and then the story gets better — which is to say, worse. The wailing wind and storm on the sea, the plunging ship, the white waves on the pitching deck, until Jonah was found, the fugitive.

He had been cowering in the hold for hours, waiting for God to notice his invisibility. But when the crew found him, he gained courage to finally act. People would die if he did not act and act rightly immediately!

He did. He confessed. It was his fault. He was running away from God. And he urged the sailors to throw him into the sea, so that they all might be saved. Yes, he might die, but if they didn’t give him over to the wrath of God, they would all die.

We stop somewhere. Picking up this book might be the first step for some, the first time to slow down long enough to consider — maybe it’s time.

No one can run forever.

I stopped too. Here I am. So began the return of my father to my life. Or rather, my return to his life. And the real travel I had put off for so long — the walk down the road of forgiveness — began.

I did not want this particular expedition in my life. I am busy. I’m a writer, an editor, a speaker, a mother of six. I work in commercial fishing. I had no room or time for a man who had caused nothing but harm in my life. But I know now that had I not listened and attended to this pull toward obedience, I would have missed the most staggering displays of God’s character and heart.

This is waiting for you as well.

 * * *

Your Turn

Are you running? From people who have hurt you? From a painful family relationship that exploded? From your past? Are you ready to stop and face your own story? Join the conversation on our blog. We would love to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily

Leslie Leyland Fields

Leslie Leyland Fields is an award-winning author of eight books, a contributing editor for Christianity Today,a national speaker, a popular radio guest, and a sometimes commercial fisherwoman, working with her husband and 6 children in commercial fishing on Kodiak Island, Alaska where she has lived for 36 years.

Dr. Jill Hubbard

Dr. Jill Hubbard is a clinical psychologist and regular co-host on Christian radio's nationally-syndicated New Life Live program. Dr. Jill has gained a reputation for her gentle and insightful style of connecting with radio callers. She is also in private practice where she sees clients who struggle with depression, addictions, eating disorders, and relational and personal growth issues. Dr. Jill lives with her family in southern California.

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