Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Rest of the Story

I have been reading through some of the minor prophets in my daily devotions. Most of the time, in churches, we hear sermon series on major books of the Bible. There are so many overlooked books in the Bible that I thought I should spend some more time in them.

So, I went through Joel, Amos, and Obadiah, and came to Jonah. If you are anything like me and grew up in church, you most likely heard the story of Jonah in Sunday School. I can't tell you how disappointed I was, years after my childhood Sunday School days when I found out that the Jonah story that I had been fed in Sunday School was only part of the story. Somehow or another, someone thought that it was a good idea to sterilize this story in order to make it more palatable and child-friendly.

Jonah is told by God to go and preach to the great city of Nineveh because they have grown increasingly wicked. Instead of following God's command, Jonah goes the complete opposite direction. He gets on a boat to Tarshish and God sends a storm. While Jonah is sleeping below deck, on the deck, the crew freaks out because they are afraid that they are going to die. They all cry out to their gods, throw their stuff overboard, and the captain finally wakes Jonah to see what the story is.

Through the casting of lots, they determine that Jonah is to blame for this storm and he tells them to cast him over the side of the ship. The storm ceases after he's over and God provides a "big fish" to swallow Jonah up. 72 hours later, after some much needed time to ponder, the fish throws Jonah up and he decides that it's time to obey God. He preaches to the city of Nineveh, they repent, and that's pretty much where the Sunday School story always ended (fortunately, Veggie Tales got it right a few years ago when they made their movie). You think that Jonah learned his lesson, you think that everything is resolved, and you think that everyone lives happily ever after. But that's not the case.

Yes, Jonah reluctantly preaches to Nineveh and they repent, but then Jonah gets mad at God for sparing the city of Nineveh. Even though Jonah has been a recipient of God's grace, compassion, and forgiveness, he isn't happy to see that a city as wicked as Nineveh should be. He goes into his "woe is me" mode and asks that God take his life. While he's moping around, he finds a place to settle down and God makes a plant grow over him that covers and protects him from the sun.

Once Jonah is used to the protection, God provides a worm to eat the plant, it dies, and Jonah goes back to being miserable again. The book ends with God having the last word. He tells him that although Jonah had nothing to do with the plant, he cared for it, how much more should God care of a great city with so many people in it? For people who are big on resolution, the book of Jonah doesn't give much. Other than God having the last word, we never know whether or not Jonah "got it" and understood what God was trying to tell him. We never know whether his heart is changed towards the Ninevites.

Recently, my wife and I had a rare opportunity to go to dinner and a movie together. Both being Disney fans, we went to see the latest Disney-Pixar release "Up" in 3D. I am constantly fascinated with film as art, how it speaks a message that the writer or director clearly wants conveyed. I am even more fascinated by this when the message is spoken with limited dialogue and instead uses visuals. The first few minutes of "Up" seems to be dialogue free, like Disney-Pixar's last release "Wall-E," but a story is clearly conveyed. Not wanting to spoil the story for anyone wishing to see the movie, let me just say that there were some fairly grown-up themes conveyed in the story, themes that I would struggle trying to explain to my 2 1/2 year old, but which should probably be shared with an older elementary aged child.

What's the relationship between Jonah and Disney? We have two extremes here: one that whitewashes a serious message so as to reveal it at a later stage of life and one that fully depicts that serious message in order for it to be engaged. Which one is right? Can Sunday School children not handle the whole story of Jonah? Should young children have to handle the themes presented in a movie like "Up"?

Every child will respond differently to different messages. Every child will be ready to hear certain messages at different steps along their developmental progression. To me, there should be a balance between the two extremes that seem to be illustrated here. Obviously, if I don't think that my children should see a movie like "Up" because they can't handle some of the themes, I won't let them see it. But I am sure that there are plenty of parents who, because of the track record that Disney-Pixar has had, would trustingly bring their children to see the movie and perhaps be surprised that the ride home held questions that they did not anticipate. At the same time, while I feel that whitewashing Bible stories can be inapproriate, if parents don't feel that their children are getting the whole story in Sunday School, why not have them fill them in on the "rest of the story" once they get home?

Parenting is a huge commitment, more of a commitment than I think some people are really ready to make, even though they have children. My wife and I have looked at each other on several occasions with tears or frustration and said, "It's just a stage of life" as we have parented our boys. We are certainly not experts. But, while we don't know everything, we know that we are in for a wild ride as we parent children in the 21st century. We know that our children will be constantly bombarded with values that are contrary to what we believe. We know that, whether we like it or not, parenting isn't for cowards and we have a resonsibility to ourselves, our children, and our God to make the commitment of parenting them. It won't be easy, it won't always be fun, but I think that it will be rewarding in the end.

Just like I finally found out the "rest of the story" about Jonah, I hope that more people who bring kids into this world will see the "rest of the story" when it comes to parenting. Yes, I can think that I can have someone else do all my "dirty work" for me when it comes to parenting, but the only way that I can know what they're thinking, feeling, learning, and believing is to make the investment in their lives, no matter what has to be put on hold.

Wow! That's a huge commitment that I know I will falter on more than once, but I can only hope that I extend enough grace to my children for them to want to extend some back to me as well!

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