Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Ichthus Conference

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

There are few jobs more demanding than general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

I’ve known six general secretaries, and one thing they all have in common is a lack of free time. They rise early, work late and accumulate frequent flier miles like secretaries of state. They lead a diverse membership of nearly 40 communions ranging from Coptic Orthodox Christians to the United Church of Christ. On occasion, general secretaries find it difficult to please everyone. In my experience, there were times when even the most ebullient of them sank exhausted into their swivel chairs at the end of the day.

One of the general secretaries was Bob Edgar. A former member of Congress, member of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, finance director of Senator Paul Simon’s presidential campaign, and a senate candidate himself, Bob was no stranger to hyperactivity. But the job is wearing, and it showed. But once a year Bob would return from the road with a lighter step and easier smile and it was rumored he had discovered some secret font of rejuvenation. 

And perhaps he had. If you looked closely at his calendar each summer, two weeks were blocked out for what appeared to be a dreary and demanding ecumenical conclave: The Ichthus Conference. Ichthus, the Greek word for fish, dates back to the first century when Christians identified themselves to one another by drawing an arc. If the other person responded by drawing a connecting arc, forming a simple fish, they knew they were safe. But in modern terms, ichthus invokes images of ponderous clerics engaged in endless discourse about the various styles of baptism, Eucharist, ministry and trilateral dialogues.

But Bob also used the symbol as a special Christian code. For him, the Ichthus Conference was a two week fishing trip with his brothers, and it did wonders for his mental health. Today, Bob is president and CEO of Common Cause, and I notice he is still attending ichthus conferences once a year.

All the foregoing reflection is inspired, of course, by the appearance of Jonah in today’s Common Language Lectionary. All of us know Jonah had his own ichthus conference. It wasn’t relaxing and recreational, but it was uncommonly motivating.

Most of us were introduced to Jonah in our earliest Sunday school years. Maybe some of us sang the delightful ditty to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down:”

Jonah was swallowed by a whale
By a whale,
By a whale,
Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
Swallowed whole!

Jonah prayed to God above
God above,
God above,
Jonah prayed to God above
And was forgiven!

As we grew older we learned something about the species of the creature that hosted Jonah. The subject comes up in the 1955 play Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, a fictionalized version of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925. I love the dialogue in the 1960 film version between Spencer Tracy, playing Henry Drummond the agnostic lawyer, and Frederick March, playing Matthew Harrison Brady the fundamentalist politician and perennial presidential candidate:

DRUMMOND: Tell me. Do you feel that every word that's written in this book should be taken literally?

BRADY: Everything in the Bible should be accepted, exactly as it is given there.

DRUMMOND. (Leafing through the Bible.) Now take this place where the whale swallows Jonah. Do you figure that actually happened?

BRADY. The Bible does not say "a whale," it says "a big fish."

DRUMMOND. (Finds the place in the Bible, shows it to Brady.) Matter of fact, it says "a great fish." What's your feeling about that?

BRADY. I believe in a God who can make a whale and who can make a man and make both do what He pleases!

The point is made – it’s a great fish, not a whale – but the dialogue continues:

DRUMMOND. I recollect a story about Joshua, making the sun stand still. That's a pretty neat trick. Think Houdini could do that?

BRADY. I do not question or scoff at the miracles of the Lord.

DRUMMOND. Have you ever pondered just what would naturally happen to the earth if the sun stood still?

BRADY. You can testify to that if I get you on the stand.

DRUMMOND. If they say that the sun stood still, they must've had a notion that the sun moves around the earth. Think that's the way of things? Or don't you believe the earth moves around the sun?

BRADY. I have faith in the Bible!

DRUMMOND. You don't have much faith in the solar system.

BRADY. (Doggedly.) The sun stopped.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to this week’s lectionary selection, which actually appears quite late in Jonah – after the cameo appearance of the great fish.

I’m not sure why the best part of the story is left out. If this passage were a movie review, we’d call it a spoiler: It skips the build-up, buries the climax, drowns the denouement, but reveals how everything turns out. Jonah says yes to God, warns Nineveh that God is about to strike them all dead, the Ninevicans repent, God changes God’s mind, and everything is swell. Whoa! Slow down!

One of the best things about Jonah is that it’s a story of struggle, resistance, denial, fearful confrontation, near death, surrender and success – as dramatic as the parting of the Red Sea and Daniel in the Lion’s Den. It’s a story we can relate to.

Perhaps you read the cover story in last week’s New York Times Magazine about Judith Clark, entitled “Young, Cold Heart.” [See]

Clark, Tom Robbins reported, was one of “a band of militant zealots armed with automatic weapons who tried to rob a Brink’s truck in a shopping mall in Nanuet in Rockland County, N.Y.” The unarmed Clark was a get-away driver in a crime that led to the deaths of two armored car guards and two police officers.

Writer Robbins, who knew Clark in high school, makes no excuses for her participation in a crime that cost four lives. He describes her callous disregard for the charges and her refusal to participate in her own defense. A relative of one of the victims describes “her smiling face as she was led out of the police station in Nyack.” In 1983, an Orange County judge sentenced her to a minimum of 75 years in prison.

Clark remained uncooperative and unrepentant during her first years in prison, once pulling a two-year stint in solitary confinement in Bedford Hills prison.

Robbins writes that it was Clark’s young daughter who helped her break through the cold wall of indifference. Gilda Zwerman, a sociologist, said to her, “I understand how you did this to yourself. What I don’t understand is how you did this to your daughter.” Robbins reports, “Clark tried to look defiant, but her lip twitched, and she began to quietly weep.”

The breakthrough began a slow process of re-engagement with the world, and today her rehabilitation is regarded by many observers as nothing short of remarkable.

The prison warden and other officials recommended to New York Governor David Paterson that her 75-year sentence be commuted, but he declined – reportedly because he feared he would be “tarred and feathered” by victims’ rights advocates.

Clark may well remain in prison for the rest of her life, but she claims she feels deep remorse for her role in the 1981 robbery. She remains a model prisoner and appears content with her punishment.

“Not long ago,” Robbins wrote, “Clark spoke at a Bedford Hills event. Her theme was the Book of Jonah. Like Jonah, she told the audience, she had spent years in self-destructive behavior and had been cast overboard into a stormed-tossed sea for her actions. Like Jonah, she found rescue in the belly of the whale, in her case behind bars. ‘In prison,’ she said, ‘I learned who I was.’”

The story of Jonah is the story of everyone who has heard God’s voice and ignored it.

The story of Jonah is shared by all who run away from moral obligations and threaten those around them with their cowardly irresponsibility.

The story of Jonah is the story of all who had to be picked up and cast aside by those whose only livelihood was threatened by their presence.

And the story of Jonah is the story of everyone who needed to be forced -- dragged kicking and screaming – to carry out God’s commands.

In so many ways, the story of Jonah is our story, too.

The good news is that once Jonah learned who he was, a servant of God, he was redeemed. God still wanted him to risk his life by going to Nineveh with the news that God was about to destroy the city. But once Jonah freed himself of his shackles to fear and trusted God, everything began to change. The people of Nineveh repented. God decided not to destroy them. And justice and righteousness were restored.

Was Jonah really swallowed by a great fish? 

Matthew Harrison Brady has no doubt of it. Henry Drummond scoffs.

But surely an intelligent lawyer like Mr. Drummond knows. Beneath the fish story is a far greater truth:

When God calls us to a task, the hardest thing on earth may be to say yes.

But the consequences of shutting God out of our lives are even harder. Taking that path may well remind us how lonely it could be to sleep with  fishes.

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