Leaving is never easy — well, you can go into the sadness about all the people and things you’ll miss, or hide until it’s time to go so you don’t have to deal with any of it, or you can get on with all the pieces of leave taking. If, like me, this is your time to plow through the work of change, take rests, because change takes a lot of emotional and spiritual energy.
Life is full of changes, coming and going events. As I prepare to leave Creston to retire to Japan, I think of all the other leave takings people are going through. Sometimes you prepare a bit, not knowing when a stage of life, or life itself, will end.
The story of Jonah the “refuse-nik” coincided with my thoughts about leaving this past week. God had trouble getting Jonah to go deliver his message of repentance to the people of Nineveh, because of their evil ways. Jonah doesn’t want to go to an evil place, and really wants God to deliver on his promise of destruction. Jonah tries to escape God’s directive to him by heading the opposite direction in a boat. Storms threaten to capsize the boat until the sailors begin to suspect Jonah of being the cause. Jonah tells them the sea will calm if they throw him overboard, and lo and behold, God provides a great fish to swallow Jonah up when they do.
Jonah prays inside the fish and vows to make things good with God — God’s will, not Jonah’s, to be primary in his life. Hence, Jonah is thrown up on dry land and heads off to Nineveh to deliver his short sermon, “You have forty more days, and you will be destroyed!”
Jonah goes to sit in a place where he can comfortably watch the destruction of the city, but no hellfire or devastation occurs. The people of Nineveh repent and try to live lives of communal support and care for one another, so God is compassionate. Well Jonah is ticked and then becomes irrationally angry about everything, even when the plant that shaded him in his comfy bleacher seat is felled by a bug.
Like Jonah, there are endless things we can observe that don’t go our way, especially if our imagination says that somehow everything should work the way we want it.
We are part of the wonderful mixture that is creation, which means that our will is not the only operative force in why things go the way they do.
Why we go the way we do entails God and everything around us. How we respond to the way life goes has a lot to do with our understanding of being attached to a rudder that guides us through anything — even when we can’t see it. Any goodbye or mission or arrival you are part of will be stabilized by the knowledge that the holy, the sacred, the “godness” in life make you part of a greater good in the world. Jonah could have gotten interested in where and when the transformation would take place, but he got hooked by the attraction of destruction. So easy to do!
How will I learn Japanese? How will I explore a city of 13.4 million after living in Creston? How do you volunteer when you can’t talk? This could be destruction! And then again… I could trust that the unknown is just that, the unknown (not necessarily destruction), the yet to be found, touched, seen and known. Our comprehension of the godness is a very gentle unfolding, often much slower than our walk through whatever maze of trials and joy come to us. I pray for us all that we reserve our judgment on the present. Rather than try to sit above in a grandstand to watch the gladiators, might part of our meditation be to gently look back and sift through the sands of time to find the way compassion and hope have entered our life?
Even though he was dramatically saved from the belly of a whale, Jonah still thought he knew how the compassion in this world should be doled out or not. Jonah may have needed a few more dramatic home-leaving episodes before he would realize that attitude of gratitude is just a more graceful way to go. I will try to take a lesson as I go. Home-leaving is a Buddhist euphemism for leaving the secular world and entering the monastic — sometimes a great attention is required.
My thanks to all I have met for your friendship and care. May it be well with you in all your coming and goings.
Recommended reading: Deepening Community by Paul Born, and words from Ruth Ozeki’s book, A Tale for the Time Being.
Rev. Shelley Stickel-Miles is an ordained minister who works alongside all the delightful ministers at Trinity United Church in Creston.