Jonah the Backward Prophet and the Friday Strike

I spent an afternoon in a primary school on Thursday with Year 3’s. They were having an RE day investigating the story of the prophet Jonah.

Then next day I saw children from all over the country following the lead of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg who decided to go on school strike at the parliament to get politicians to act on climate change.

My contribution to the school visit was the story of Jonah the Backward Prophet. This was not my story but a lovely script by Jerome Berryman, the creator of Godly Play. The story is told with beautiful wooden objects: the city of Nineva, a boat, a whale, and of course, Jonah. God tells Jonah to go to Nineva and tell the people they must change and become good. Jonah gets on a ship going in the opposite direction as far from Ninevah as you can go. God sends a storm and the sailors ask Jonah for help but Jonah does not help them. The sailors ask Jonah to pray to his God to save them but he is silent. Jonah does all the things a prophet is not supposed to do. He is a backward prophet. Eventually, Jonah tells the sailors to throw him into the sea and the storm will stop. They throw him in and the storm stops. Finally, after three nights in the belly of a big fish Jonah prays to God to save him. The whale vomits him up (the children like that bit) on the beach and he does go to Ninevah and tell them what God wanted him to say. It’s not the end of the story though. The people become good but Jonah is not happy. He wants God the punish the people for being bad even though they have become good! He sulks. When we wondered together about what was important in this story and what Jonah might do next the children of course were spot on. Jonah realised that he needed to listen to God even if it wasn’t what he wanted to do or what he wanted God to do!

The story of Jonah is the human story, our story. First we don’t want to listen to God, let alone follow what he might ask us to do. We are good at finding all sorts of ways to be far away from God. But, if we do decide to listen and follow we still want life our way, not God’s way. It must be so very trying for God. This can be likened to the way world leaders are responding to the burning issue of climate change. We are rapidly reaching the point where the damage we are doing to the planet is irreversible.

“Nelson Mandela once said: “Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future. Those who abuse them tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation.” Human planetary abuse is, in a very real sense, child neglect.”

Thank goodness our children are taking matters into their own hands and becoming forward prophets about climate change!

“We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.”

There is a crack in every thing God has made
Ralph Waldo Emerson

This morning I stood in awe at the most amazing sunrise revealed behind the leafless skeletal branches of the trees opposite the White House. Here was a moment of breathtaking beauty. But the scene also revealed another image. The black trees cut through the distant blood-red glow, breaking the light into fragments. This reminded me of a well-known other image about the cracks that let the light in. This is an enduring image we can find in Hemingway and in a lyric from the influential singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.

In 1929 Hemingway published a novel set during World War I titled “A Farewell to Arms”, and he discussed the universality of human pain and resilience, that we are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.

Cohen picks up this motif in a lyric: Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
The words of Hemingway and Cohen have also been merged to yield the idea that breakage typically causes cracks, and light symbolically represents spiritual strength and insight.

This morning I felt keenly this image of brokenness and my brokenness. A bishop once described those in ministry, particularly the parish priest, as like a cracked, fractured pot, but still a vessel where we try to hold everyone in our hands and on our hearts to God. There will always be failure, there will always be brokenness but it is the cracks that let the light in.

Last week’s edition of Church Times ran a feature on courses and daily reflections for Lent. The titles include subjects such as learning to pray from those who talked to Jesus, hope and redemption, adversity to maturity, daring to see God now, and the beauty of the cross. The season of Lent reminds us more than any other season of the church year that we are broken as Jesus was broken but the cross, like my sunrise trees splintering the sky, is indeed the crack that let the light and as the poet, Emerson puts it: there is a crack in everything God has made.