One Album, Three Seasons! (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany)

Disclosure of Material Connection: One time when we were in college, hanging out outside Caribou Coffee, I put my hand on Steve’s forehead and started to fake push his head against the brick wall. But I didn’t let go soon enough, so caused him “actual pain,” the same safe words I had to employ another time when I was roughhousing with his friends in the chapel backstage area, and they broke my glasses. I don’t mean to suggest these two events are connected–just that, well… Steve and I go way back.

Disclosure of Material Connection, cont’d: Even at barely 20 he was a ridiculously gifted guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Some of my favorite college memories are Steve Thorngate concerts. Steve may remember most the time Abram Jones and His Loud, Loud Band opened for Steve and His Chair-Sitting Whispercore Corps, but the Steve concert experience I most remember is one he played at (now razed and rebuilt?) Pierce Chapel in Wheaton College. He and his band were loudly rocking an epic rendition of “If I Find You“, and Steve was, as the kids would say, absolutely crushing the major 7 intervals in the melody, as he scraped his pick–top string to bottom string–across an Fmaj7 with the top two strings open, walking the shape up two frets over the same melody, then sitting on an A minor while the melody resolved. Emo Abram was–and still is–in awe of that song. And I believe I may have witnessed its best performance that night.

Disclosure of Material Connection, still cont’d: In recent years Steve has brought his musical genius to bear in the church. There’s a lot of it here. Last year he released an album (digitally and now in CD form) called After the Longest Night: Songs for Advent, Christmas, & Epiphany.

One night as part of my kids’ bedtime routine, I played and sang them Steve’s song “The Thick Darkness Where God Dwells.” I introduced the song by saying, “This song is by my friend Steve.” At that point they’d heard After the Longest Night a few times. Two lines in to the song, I was interrupted by a resounding chorus of, “You KNOW HIM???” and, “Wait, is he famous?”

Steve has foregone the fame that was certain to be his, in service instead to the church. Last Advent I had to try hard not to quote Steve’s lyrics in every sermon. Listening to this album–and dialoguing with him about it over email–profoundly shaped my preaching last Advent, as well as stretched my understanding of light, darkness, and just where God resides.

Here are some highlights of this album:

  • A wide variety of musical arrangements
  • Many-part harmonies
  • FIVE Thorngates for the price of one
  • The melodies are immediately memorable, which bodes well for congregational singing, if you want to try some of these in that setting
  • Speaking of leading these songs with a congregation, Steve has you covered: the album comes with a PDF songbook
  • “The Thick Darkness Where God Dwells” was an early favorite track. For one, I love seeing a song based on such a moving Bible verse. For another, it’s a fresh exploration of themes of light and darkness… more than just light=good=God, dark=bad=devil, but a meaty exploration of what God-in-the-darkness looks like
  • I mean, just check out these lyrics:

    Winter days are so short. 
    In the nighttime keep watch for the Lord, 
    Who reverses our vision 
    With new order that we can’t see. 
    Yet we cry, “Jesus, come! 
    Here’s who needs to be saved; here’s who from!” 
    Learn to trust in the darkness, 
    Where our God of mystery dwells. 

  • Advent, Christmas, Epiphany: they are all here
  • One of the songs is called “The Night is Long (But Not for Long),” which I think beautifully captures the “already-but-not-yet” aspects of waiting

This is Steve’s first full-length album in 14 years, and I hope we’ll get to hear another one in less time. There’s more to say in praise of this musical offering, but I’ll stop there so you can go listen for yourself.

Appeal to Christians Regarding President-Elect Trump



Head over to to see “Appeal to Christians Regarding President-Elect Donald Trump.” I’m honored to be joined by more than 30 Christian faith leaders who have signed the letter. The appeal culminates in this five-point commitment and call to action:

1. We will pray for President-elect Trump, elected officials, our nation, our churches, and each other.

2. Rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the prophets, we will tell the truth about the world around us, and we will speak up for those who have been marginalized and taken advantage of.

3. We will actively resist the temptation to overlook or normalize values, speech, and behavior that are in conflict with what Scripture calls us to.

4. In the name of Jesus, we call President-elect Trump to repentance for dishonoring the image of God in others.

5. We will fix our eyes on Jesus and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, redouble our efforts to honor the image of God in all people and to love all our neighbors as ourselves.

Read the whole thing here, add your name if you are so inclined (you’ll see a link), and share freely.

John the Baptist: Are You Ready?



Are you ready?

John the Baptist arrives on the scene today, the second Sunday of Advent. Here’s how Luke describes it:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God exalts the humbled, humbles the exalted, brings light into darkness, and reverses the fortunes of the rich and poor alike, of those who are ahead and those who feel left behind. What a wonderful promise that we would see the salvation of God in this way!

Even as God himself lowers mountains and straightens crooked paths and makes rough ways smooth, we can look inward to our own hearts and ask, “What crooked ways are here? What mountains have I tried to build so I can climb them and exalt myself above others? Where are my own rough ways?”

Are we ready?

Christmas in the Middle of Something



And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

—Luke 2:8-15

Where were you the first time you remember hearing about Jesus? Or if you can’t remember a “first time,” what are some early memories you have of encounters with the God who came to earth? And just as important: how and where and in whom have you seen Jesus these last few weeks, days, and even hours?

The shepherds were just minding their own business, really. They were “keeping watch over their flocks at night.” That phrasing has become virtually poetic to us now, so tied is it to this beautiful story. It’s merely a preamble to the glory of the angels and of the Lord, a glory improbably made manifest in a “baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

But this is also just like saying, “They were at work when God’s glory found them.” Or, “They were standing at the sink washing dishes when the Lord’s invitation came.” Or, “They were fixing a chain on a bicycle when Christ came to them.” Or, “They were practicing their caregiving role when they caught a sudden glimpse of God’s great love.”

No matter how well saturated we are with Scripture, no matter how solid our Christology, no matter how long we’ve been following Jesus, we simply do not know all the times and places where Christ is going to meet us. Chances are he will come to us while we’re in the middle of something else.

Encounters with the living God can be intense. But just as Luke is keen to point out Mary’s obedience to a seemingly bizarre call, he is eager to show us the willingness of the shepherds to drop their staffs (and leave their sheep momentarily unattended? or bring them along?) to “go… and see this thing that has happened,” which God told them about.

Christ has come to earth! He came in the form of a servant, taking on human likeness. Christ will come again! He will come in a glory that will surpass even that of the “great company of the heavenly host.” Christ comes to us! He comes and visits us each day in myriad ways, big and small, obvious and subtle, extraordinary and mundane.

Like these shepherds who were surely caught off guard by the interruption, may we have the willingness to see Christ whenever and however he comes to us. And may we hasten to the places where he is today, running to his feet, bowing down, and worshiping him.


The above is adapted from an Advent reflection I wrote as part of a devotional our church’s Deacons prepared for our congregation this Advent.

Advent: At Least It’s Not Lent!

If branding and marketing tag lines had been a thing when Advent found its way into the church calendar, the church of the late sixth century could have used: “Advent: At Least It’s Not Lent!”

It’s true—December just feels more exciting than February-March, and the four Sundays of Advent seem to get to the point more efficiently than what can seem like the 40-day slog of Lent. Besides, who’s ever heard of fasting from sweets in the weeks leading up to Christmas?

But both Advent and Lent share an important—if at times challenging—characteristic: they offer us church folk a chance to carve out deliberate spaces to look inward to our own spiritual state and outward to the person and work of Jesus.


advent wreath


We remind ourselves in Advent that we live in a waiting room of sorts. We have the fortunate lot in life to not have to wait for the coming of Jesus to earth—we know it happened and we still have the eyewitness accounts! But, ah… that second coming. No one knows when it will be. Even Jesus-on-earth said he didn’t know the hour.

So we wait. And wait. And wait. Each Advent that comes and goes is a poignant reminder that the kingdom is (still!) not yet fully present among us.

But that’s no reason to give up hope and stop waiting. On the contrary, we wait all the more eagerly. Luke 12 says:

Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. …You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

To our waiting we add watching and making ready.

The master has not yet returned, and our lamps too often dim when we forget to tend to them in the rush of other commitments. This Advent, may we keep our lamps brightly lit, persistent in our waiting, watching, and making ready for the coming of our King.


The above is adapted from an Advent reflection I wrote as part of a devotional our church’s Deacons prepared for our congregation this Advent.

The Rain for Roots CD Winners Are…



The forthcoming Rain for Roots Advent album is phenomenal. Read more about it here.

Today I’m posting with the results of the giveaway contest my review post included. I’m pleased to congratulate the two winners, Ruth Ohlman and Elisabeth Kvernen! Nice one!

(I will be in touch with both of you via email to make sure the CD gets sent to the right place.)

In case you’re curious… I didn’t count duplicate comments, but did count one entry for a comment and one additional entry for a comment that said a person shared on Facebook or Twitter. There were 59 entries total. I used a random number generator to pick.




Thanks to all who commented! There were a lot of really meaningful reflections on Advent that folks shared, and I only wish I could more fully engaged with each of them, but I read them all and loved it. Rain for Roots has some pretty great fans.

And thanks again to the good folks at Rain for Roots for sponsoring the giveaway and–more importantly–for writing, recording, producing, and releasing this fabulous record for a season of waiting.

Rain for Roots’s Waiting Songs for Advent (and CD Giveaway)


Cover Art by A. Micah Smith
Cover Art by A. Micah Smith


Rain for Root’s Waiting Songs releases November 10. You can pre-order it here now with a 20% off discount using code WotW.

Also, Rain for Roots is performing an online/streaming concert to celebrate the album’s release, about which you can learn more here.

Finally, there are a few more days left to enter to win a physical copy of the CD, courtesy of Rain for Roots. I’ll randomly select two winners from comments made at this link. For one entry, simply answer the question, “What is Advent to you?” For a second entry, share a link to that post on Facebook or Twitter, and come back to the comments to tell me you did. I’ll announce the two winners Thursday.

Almost, Not Yet, Already: Rain for Roots’s New Advent Album (and a Chance to Get the CD Free)


Cover Art by A. Micah Smith
Cover Art by A. Micah Smith


There are notoriously few tools for parents to use in engaging Advent with their kids. Rain for Roots this year offers a new and creative resource, Waiting Songs. The album is a joy to listen to, even as it draws out the difficulty of waiting, and helps the listeners to enter into the sometimes awkward liminal space of Advent.

The band explains the genesis of the album:



Here’s a brief, track-by-track overview.

1. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

The album begins with a beautiful, stripped down version of my favorite Advent hymn. I’ve always taken this song to be the quintessential articulation of both Advents (so far!) of Christ. What better place to begin a season of waiting (“until the Son of God appear”) than with this classic prayer-hymn?


2. Come Light Our Hearts

The full band is in on track 2: guitars, piano, lots of great harmonies, bass, banjo, drums…. Sandra McCracken affirms,

For you, O Lord, our souls in stillness wait

Truly our hope is in you

It’s a compelling and reassuring waltz, giving language to those who wait.




3. Isaiah 11

Next is a twangy, string-bending, rollicking country-ish number. “A little child will lead them,” sing some wonderful mothers! Partway through there is a child reading from Isaiah 11:10, using Eugene Peterson’s Message. The song goes from, “A good, good king will lead them” to, “A good, good king will lead us.”


4. Every Valley (It’s Hard to Wait)

Have you ever wondered how to explain Advent to a child? This gentle bluesy, soulful song does a great job:

When you write a letter to a friend

And you don’t know when

You’ll hear back again

It’s hard to wait

It’s hard to wait

So hard to wait

When the one you love leaves on a plane

And you’ll know that she’ll

Come back some day

It’s hard to wait

It’s hard to wait

So hard to wait


There is gonna to be a day

Every low valley he will raise

There is gonna to be a day

Hills and mountains gonna be made plain

There is gonna be a day

Winding roads gonna be made straight

Comfort, comfort, comfort, comfort!

I noticed it was getting awfully dusty in my room as that song played.


5. The Weight of the World

I’m not a lover of the kind of the stylized vocals that carry this track, but the song itself is—like all the others—a good one: memorable, meaningful, and singable.


6. Mary Consoles Eve

First of all, I just saw this “Mary Consoles Eve” image last Advent for the first time ever.


“Virgin Mary Consoles Eve,” Sister Grace Remington,


And now there’s a song that accompanies it perfectly:

Almost, not yet, already

Almost, not yet, already


Eve, it’s Mary

Now I’m a mother, too

The child I carry

A promise coming true

This baby comes to save us from our sin

A servant King, his kingdom without end

This whole album is so catchy and well-written–even more so than their previous album on the Kingdom of God, if that were possible!–and this is perhaps the song that will stick with listeners the most.


7. Zechariah

“Zechariah” is pretty funny, because not only is the story of Zechariah’s speechlessness kind of funny (in retrospect! probably wasn’t for him), but this song gives kids and parents a chance to talk and sing in a babbling, tongue-tied manner.


8. Magnificat

“Magnificat” is another catchy—if somewhat somber—tune. This track stands out less to me than some of the others, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be hitting fast-forward when it comes to track 8 on the album. Flo Paris Oakes’s vocals and Kenny Hutson’s guitar and mandolin work call to mind Lead Me On-era Amy Grant… which is, now that I think about it, the album I am going to listen to while I work on my sermon this morning.


9. Great Rejoicing

Yet more beautiful lyrics:

The troubles of this world

Will wither up and die

That river of tears made by the lonely

Someday will be dry

There’s gonna be a great rejoicing

Also, while playing this song with my wife and three-year-old in the room, I asked my wife, “Do you like this music?” To which my three-year-old replied, “I DO like this music!” The pedal steel and Skye Peterson’s lead vocals partway through the song are icing on the cake.


Don't you want to hang out with these awesome people? Next best thing: put this album on repeat
Don’t you want to hang out with these awesome people? Next best thing: put this album on repeat


10. Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

Waiting Songs ends much as it began: with a beautiful, stripped down version of a classic Advent hymn. (Side note to worship leaders: yes, there are Advent hymns in the hymnal! And you should sing the few of them that exist as many times as you can in the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.)

Rain for Roots’s addition to the hymn will stay with you for days, even after your first time hearing it:

We are waiting

We are waiting

We are waiting for You.

McCracken’s “Hallelujah, what a Savior!” background vocals float above the “We are waiting,” bringing the album to a satisfying close. Advent purists ought to be able to overlook the use of “the H-word” during Advent here. Or does “Hallelujah” sung on top of “We are waiting for you” deliberately point to Christ’s third Advent, when he comes again in glory?


Final Thoughts and Where to Get It (or Win It)


I really love this record, not just for myself, but for my kids, and for any other kids and families that have the privilege of hearing it! Also, I’m totally going to teach some of these songs to our congregation during our intergenerational Sunday school hour this Advent. They’re excellent.

I was a big fan of Rain for Roots’s previous album, too–it is still on regular rotation in our house, especially on road trips. But Waiting Songs even tops The Kingdom of Heaven is Like This. It’s a remarkable record.

The album releases November 10. You can (and should) pre-order it here. AND… three more cool things for you before you go:

  1. Rain for Roots is performing an online/streaming concert to celebrate the album’s release. Find out more here.
  2. If you use the discount code WotW you can get 20% off the album when you pre-order (in various formats) here. That code is good through November 9, the day before the album releases. (EDIT: Should have clarified–the code is applicable just to the digital download option.)
  3. Want to have a chance to win a physical copy of the CD, courtesy of Rain for Roots? I’ll randomly select two winners from the comments below. For one entry, simply answer the question, “What is Advent to you?” Or, you know, just say, “Yo.” For a second entry, share a link to this post on Facebook or Twitter, and come back here to the comments to tell me you did. I’ll announce the two winners in a week.



Thanks so much for the good folks at Rain for Roots for the pre-release stream of the album so I could review it.

Alleluia! To Us a Child Is Born!

"Virgin Mary Consoles Eve," Sister Grace Remington,
“Virgin Mary Consoles Eve,” Sister Grace Remington, via


Behold, the dwelling of God is with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them, and be their God.
Revelation 21:3

During Advent our congregation read the book of Jonah, that sometimes-ignorant, sometimes-faithful, always-stubborn prophet who called the wayward city of Nineveh to turn away from their past and accept God’s second chance.

We’re complex people like Jonah. Sometimes we’re even like the people of Nineveh, we don’t know our left from our right, or up from down.

Whether we’ve created our own difficult reality by our actions, or whether others have put us in a tight spot, we all know what it is to live and walk in darkness.

So we look for light. We pray earnestly for second chances. We ask for God’s mercy to come even to lowly folks such as ourselves. We yearn to see God’s justice executed on those who actively work against it.

We grasp about for light, and we long to behold Jesus.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

But it’s easy to get confused about Jesus. Not because Jesus is confusing or because God is unknowable. But because we’re an easily confused people.

Having seen so many paintings of a crucified Jesus, young Asher Lev asked his mother whether this was the Messiah.


Marc Chagall, "White Crucifixion," 1938
Marc Chagall, “White Crucifixion,” 1938


“No,” she says, “He was not the Messiah. The Messiah has not yet come, Asher. Look how much suffering there is in the world. Would there be so much suffering if the Messiah had really come?”

A trenchant critique, to be sure.

Time and again we look for Jesus to come in glory, in power, to right wrongs on a different timetable than God seems to have in mind… but time and again Jesus insists on coming in humility, in squalor, in seemingly insignificant interactions, even showing up in the midst of a fight. He doesn’t eliminate suffering; he gets born right into it, and takes part it in it himself.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

Still, some days we’d rather skip past his first coming and go straight to the ending, his second coming when he makes everything right.

We keep wanting him to show up in full majesty, draping white robes behind him, as he smites the naysayers and draws his people out of a dark world and unto himself.

But year after year he keeps being born in a stable, to an unwed mother, next to unbathed animals, with astrologers as front-pew worshipers.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

One poet sums it up nicely in four lines:

They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes, and lift them high:
Thou cam’st a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.

Rather than eliminate suffering in his first coming, Jesus participates in it. He takes on vulnerable, imperfect human flesh. He becomes one of the so-called least of these. A child. A poor child.

He doesn’t vanquish the darkness all at once… he’s born into it, and lets loose every now and then with a ray of light, a glimmer of hope. Indeed, for those who have eyes to see it, there is great light coming from the most unlikely birthing story you’ve ever heard.

Jesus was born into this world as it is, not yet as it should be. This is good news for our confused and dark souls. Even our hearts can become a home in which the Christ-child can dwell. Even we can bear Jesus as Mary did and bring him to all the world. Christ has come, a “little baby thing” to dwell with us, as we are, to be our God, to make us his own.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

The Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh, Bishop Dorsey McConnell, is a favorite preacher and writer of mine. He says it well for all of us:

But the Christ Child has a life of His Own, and He will be born even in as dark a stable as that of my own heart. …I suppose I will just have to let Him have His way….And I know He will have His way with you as well. Whatever you’re afraid of in your own life or soul, just remember: He’s been born in darker places. Give Him so much as a square inch of your shadows, and He will fill you with His light.

Alleluia! To us a child is born!
Come, let us adore him! Alleluia!

What Jonah, Honest Toddler, McNulty, and Choose Your Own Adventure Novels Have in Common

Honest ToddlerI have Honest Toddler to thank for helping me keep my wits about me as the father of three young kids. Here’s a recent Facebook status of this all-too familiar personality:

Good Morning! Wow it’s like it has been forever. …. Anyway for breakfast I’ll have 6 plain pancakes … on the red plate. Not the red one with the green trim or the brick colored one, RED. Yes, the one that shattered yesterday. I’m sure you’ll figure something out. God help you if I see a crack. Also, I would like my pancake intact but in bite-sized pieces. Don’t break my pancakes but please cut them. I want them undamaged but in small pieces so I can eat. Do you see what I’m saying? Perfect but altered. It’s not hard. Follow your heart but keep in mind that if you get it wrong I’ll make today hard. Ok I’ll be in the family room sitting in your lap while you also cook in the kitchen. Love you. (so hungry)

Toddlers can somehow seamlessly embody two (or more) mutually exclusive desires at the same time.

I want to wear that shirt, but I don’t want it covering my top half.

I want milk on my cereal, but I don’t want my Cheerios to be wet!


 Nuanced Characters


I have a hard time knowing what to do when someone I’m responsible for wants me to do their top button, but at the same time leave it unbuttoned.

McNultyBut when it comes to literature, film, music, and narrative TV, I love highly nuanced and complex characters.

I appreciate people like Elsa, Jimmy McNulty, Robert Duvall in The Apostle, any character by Flannery O’Connor.

Good literature, good film, and good TV all blur the line between “good guys” and “bad guys,” because those categories aren’t so clear in real life.

Jonah’s a fascinating character in that regard. We’re not really sure what to make of him. Is he a good prophet, a bad prophet, or some of both, depending on the day? His portrayal is not an even one, or an easy one to detect. He’s a bundle of contradictions and love and judgmentalism and frustration and eagerness and obedience…. He runs away from Nineveh, but then goes flying towards it, preaching repentance as he walks into the city. And then with his message successful, he flees the city again, to watch it from afar.


Jonah: Loves God’s Compassion (for him),
Hates It (for others)


Jonah / Michelangelo / Sistine Chapel
Jonah / Michelangelo / Sistine Chapel

God’s compassion is what Jonah loves most about God… when it comes to Jonah. It was God’s predisposition toward second chances, after all, that has kept Jonah alive throughout this book.

Jonah shows in Jonah 4 that he knew one of Israel’s creeds quite well: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” And he rightly takes the shade-giving vine as God’s provision for him.

But if God’s provision and compassion toward Jonah is what keeps Jonah coming back to God, the Lord’s mercy toward despised others is what keeps Jonah running away from God.

Three times in this chapter Jonah tells God he’d rather die than watch his repentant enemies receive God’s clemency.

It almost makes you think about Peter’s three-fold denial of knowing Jesus. Jonah tries to deny God the opportunity to forgive whomever he wants to forgive.


Even the Animals


Jonah is angry enough to die. But God is concerned enough to save a clueless city…. even the animals!

Like in Jonah 4:11. Another translation follows the word order of the Hebrew a little more closely than the NIV, and punctuates the book’s ending with a mention of the animals!

“Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!”

A Heathen Animal of Nineveh, Pre-Repentance
A Heathen Animal of Nineveh, Pre-Repentance

Animals—there they are again! Putting on their sackcloth and mooing their repentance to the Lord.

Jonah loved the whale that saved him, but the worm that ate his shade—this animal he hated.

A vine that came up overnight, that Jonah had nothing to do with—he latched onto and cried when it withered. But a city full of hopeless people… well, he wanted them to wither like that vine… to go down into the depths and be consumed by worms.

But God loves all that he has made—evildoing humans, whales, worms, withered vines, and cursing sailors. Not one being is outside the scope of God’s loving care.


Good Theology, Bad Heart


Jonah gets a lot of things right. He’s right, I think, to be so angry at the perpetrators of injustice and oppression. He’s like every other God-inspired prophet who railed against those who tipped the scales to keep others down.

And he’s right about who God is, in verse 2 of the final chapter of the book: “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

But not everything in Jonah’s head has made its way down into his heart. His theology at the beginning of this chapter sounds right, but he wants to apply the attributes of God just to himself.

It’s as if Jonah turns God’s words against him. He recites a well known formula, an articulation of who God is, but in a mocking tone of voice. In conflict resolution terminology, that’s called invalidating.

He’s like the prodigal son, who can’t stand watching lavish grace poured out on people who should have long ago forfeited the opportunity by their behavior. He’s the good guy, they’re the bad guys–why would God show them favor?

Which leads to an important question: Whom is God for? For whom exactly does God intend his salvation?


Whom is Christmas For?


And we might seasonally appropriate that question: Whom is Advent for? Whom is Christmas for?

Whose Light?
Whose Light?

It would be easy in a season of preparation, to tend so much to our own hearts and lives, that we think only of how we receive Jesus for ourselves. We can spend so much time tending the vine, that we forget about the city we live in.

And we may be tempted to keep God’s compassion to ourselves and begrudge him when he shows mercy to those who have wronged us (and then turned to God). Well, we just wanted to see them get what was coming to them!

A Jewish commenter on this passage says, “It is not unusual for people to be so intent on the punishment of others that they lose their own way and are disappointed when people change their ways for the better.”

Jesus came into the world, offering light and life to anyone who would turn away from the darkness and turn toward him. And there are some really scummy people included in this invitation. How do we feel about that? What do we think of God’s way too liberal compassion? (I mean, he should pace himself more, right?)

Will we hide it under a bushel? Is God’s grace a proprietary character trait, only meant for the people of God? Jonah tried to hide under a vine, a divinely created shelter that he wanted only for himself.

But God sent a little worm to eat that thing up, in an effort to shake Jonah out of his self-focused slumber.


Choose Your Own Adventure


I like these stories with nuanced characters, ones whose interior lives are complex. I think this sort of storytelling is truer to the human condition.

And I resonate with Jonah. He gets it some of the time; other times, not so much. He really has a hard time just letting God be God.

One other thing that good storytellers do, besides writing full and complex characters, is to write compelling endings.

You can probably recall endings to novels that left you with goosebumps, because the last few lines of the story actually described a new beginning:


So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.


After all, tomorrow is another day.


Where the Wild Things AreMax stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye and sailed back over a year and in and out of weeks and through a day and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him—and it was still hot.

These stories show characters with the hope of boats going on, even if into the past… they show the hope of a new day, the hope of a still-hot dinner, waiting in his room.

The narrator of Jonah is writing a new beginning into the end of the story.

But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?

This is no tidy conclusion. It’s a question. It’s a rhetorical question, and we know the answer, just like Jonah knew the “right answer” in verse 2. But even as a rhetorical question, it invites—even demands—our response.

We have no idea how Jonah ends for Jonah. We don’t know if he’ll continue in his anger, or if he’s changed for the better.

Choose Your Own AdventureBut it really doesn’t matter… because it’s not just Jonah’s new day that the author concerned about… it’s ours. This is not The Great Gatsby or Gone with the Wind or Where the Wild Things Are. Jonah reads much more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where you, the reader, decide how the story ends for you.

The conclusion to Jonah requires our participation.

God has compassion on evil agents of empire when they come clean. The compassion that was always ours is now theirs—we have decide if we’re okay with sharing.

We are left with having to answer God’s question ourselves. The main character of the book of Jonah has always been God, with Jonah the most prominent supporting actor. But now we become the supporting cast, as we hear God ask:


“Should I not be concerned about that great city?”


Should I not be concerned about people who are killing each other, enslaving the innocent, beating the helpless, oppressing the poor, and destroying the environment?


Did I not come to earth to set despised evildoers free, too, should they accept my love?


Do you have any right to be angry at my gratuitous acts of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection for the life of the world?


Is this not the way, God asks, of my breaking in on earth, that I should have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and compassion on whomever I please?


This doesn’t mean there won’t still be justice, but do you have any right to be angry, God asks, when I decide to save the ones who should be smitten down?


The book of Jonah all boils down to that burning question: What will your response be, O reader, to the ways and work of God? Can you only accept it on your own terms, and keep God’s grace close to home? Or can you see Jesus as coming to earth for everyone, a gift of love for anyone who would believe?

Jonah ends here—but for us, the revelation of God’s concern for oppressors is not a period, but an ellipsis….


When Jesus comes, will we receive him largely for ourselves? Or can we receive him on his own terms, and open our hearts to his compassion so that we overflow with love toward even the most corrupt parts of God’s creation?


The skilled storyteller invites us now to take up the pen…

…to write—and to live—our response.