A man after open heart surgery is not following instructions. 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. I get a referral to visit. We get along very well in that first and initial visit. He is open and friendly. He complains about various things including the food. Not eating is not like him. He has always been an good eater. But his appetite is gone. Hunger has vanished. Discovering he is complaining he says, "I don't know why I am complaining to you." I say, "You can complain about anything you want." Now that is giving a person permission 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 it once in this context. Every story is unique.
What do you know about Jonah? He gives me a Sunday School answer. Fish, swallowed, etc. Then I ask if I can tell him something about Jonah. 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. This time the call to new life and mission included "a ball of pain" and the word "Jonah."
I leave the room shortly afterwards. Later in the day I pass the nursing station and they want to know what we talked about. I said, "Jonah." They are not interested. They are interested in the fact that afterwards he decided to get up and start walking. He started feeding himself. A friend of his wife who knows me said the next day the wife was appreciative of my stopping by. Since he had a Church and a Pastor I did not stop in again
The patient needed an interpreter, a translator, for connecting Scripture with his life experience of ball of pain and the word Jonah. He was not aware of having received the word of hope already. Like Jonah he didn’t like the assignment. But going with the assignment he discovered a way out.
Seventeen years later a Lutheran Pastor tells me about an Alban Institute Conference where Roy Oswald has said that Mutual of Omaha is paying heart patients $3500 to participate in the Dean Ornish Heart Program. The Dean Ornish approach is low fat, exercise, support group, and stress management with meditation. At the time I was part of heart rehab phase 3 for my high blood pressure. I asked the nurse if anyone in Phase 3 was doing the Dean Ornish Approach. She said one person. I said, "introduce me." Guess what? It was "Jonah!" He had no remembrance of my being present 17 years before. That is not unusual. But he knew I knew what no one else knew. He was trying the Dean Ornish program on his own. It was hard. We negotiated to organize a support group with meditation. And we did. He said he brought up the Dean Ornish approach to his doctor who said, "That is what they do in the lab, this is the real world." I said on the spot, "The real world is also a lab!"
The real world is the lab from bringing Scripture stories, the stories of others, and our own stories together.