Saturday, May 20, 2017

Updating the Jonah Story

The Book of Jonah is a very short book in the Hebrew Bible, only 4 chapters. The four chapters contain a story of moving from death to life in the life of Jonah and the city of Ninavah. Jesus updates the story under the title of “The Sign of Jonah.”

More important, John’s Gospel begins with “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” I take that to mean the Word through words continues to dwell in the flesh of our unique daily stories.

I have a story.

As a hospital chaplain many years ago I had the privilege of seeing the story of Jonah and Jesus relived with a patient. A man after open-heart surgery is non compliant with the recovery procedures. He is staying in bed not wanting to move. His wife is feeding him instead of him feeding himself. He is headed in the direction of becoming a cardiac cripple.

The nurses on the cardiac step down unit sent me a referral to visit. The visit begins in a relaxed manner. We are getting acquainted. He is open and friendly. Then he begins complaining about various things including the food. Not eating is not like him. He has always been an eater. Now his appetite is gone. Hunger has vanished. Discovering himself to be complaining he says, "I don't know why I am complaining to you." I say, "You can complain about anything you want." I gave him permission as wide as the barn door and he runs with it.. "Why is there so much pain in the world anyway?" "You must have had a lot of pain?" says I, going with his lead. "I didn't know there was so much pain. When I woke up from the surgery I was one ball of pain. And the only word that came to my mind was Jonah." Now there is an interesting remark. I have only heard a story like his one time in all my years as a chaplain.   Every story has some unique aspect.

I am on the track of an Aha! He has given me the clue word to explore. “What do you know about Jonah?” He gives me a Sunday School answer with fish, swallowed, etc.  I ask if I can tell him something about Jonah. Permission granted. “Jonah is the symbol of coming back to life. Jesus uses the expression, ‘Sign of Jonah’. It has reference to death and resurrection.”  His eyes are wide open now and he is attentive. He has been to the burning bush. Only this time the call to new life came in the words "a ball of pain" and the word "Jonah." We have a few more words in our conversation and I conclude with a blessing.

Later in the day I pass the nursing station and they want to know what we talked about. I said, "Jonah." They were not interested in following up on that. They tell me that after I left he decided to get up and start walking. He started feeding himself. A friend of his wife told me the next day the wife was appreciative of my stopping by. Since he had a Church with several Pastors I did not stop in again. I had been the called one alongside for the Word to do the work of healing and reconciling.  My work was to move on the other territories equally renewed by the Word and the metaphorical dynamics of the Holy Spirit.

Marlin Whtimer,
Retired Chaplain
Founder of the Befrienders in 1966 and the art of story metaphor listening.

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