“Living a Visionary Life”
Grow a Soul Sermon #1 “Someone’s Calling: Pick Up!”
sermon by Rev. Bob Janis-Dillon
First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County
September 15, 2013
This is the week-end of Yom Kippur in the Jewish tradition, probably the most important holiday in the Jewish year. It is a time of life and death. In Jewish services on Yom Kippur, which can last for several hours, prayers are said honoring those who have died. And the tradition holds that on Yom Kippur God seals up the Book of Life, deciding who will live and who will not in the year ahead.
Whether or not this legend is true, it is an arresting image: a book that contains all the deeds of our life. Whatever we do, each moment of the day, it is written in this book. At the end of our life, the book is closed up, and it is complete. It makes you think about our lives, doesn’t it? What would we want written in the book of our lives?
Jews are asked on Yom Kippur to pay special attention to the ways that we have fallen short of what we would want our lives to be, and what G-d would want our life to be. If we have not lived up to the life we want to live, if we have harmed our neighbor, now is the time to make amends. Though people will pray in the synagogues, it is stressed that praying to G-d is not enough: if you have wronged another human being, you need to try and make it right out in the world, by apologizing, making amends and doing what good you can with the life you have.
Jonah is almost always read during this time. And I want to share this story with you here today, because it’s such a perfect way to begin our examination of what it means to live a visionary life. It’s a tale of hope and despair, wisdom and pathos, ups and downs and being swallowed by a whale. It’s a story of how we gt where we’re going – and how sometimes we need more than that.
Now, you may think of Jonah as just a story, as something that happened – maybe happened – thousands of years ago; you may believe in God or you may not; but you’ll see this is a really story about being human.
Jonah is a fascinating guy. He’s a great character: headstrong, crafty, willful, compassionate at times, a jerk at times, deeply emotional. The story begins with a command: God says, “go to to Nineveh, this great big city, and you tell them how wicked they are.” And Jonah says: no, thanks! And he gets on a boat going the other way. You can almost picture him, running away in the dead of night, “saying get me a ticket to anywhere, please.”
What would you do if God told you to do something? Of course, for most of us, it’s not that easy. God has never given me a direct command, that I know of. And having a vision for your life: sometimes it’s that clear, not always. My father – when he was fifteen years old he went on a trip to Holland, and he knew, he wanted to spend the rest of his life learning about other cultures. Never wavered. He went to college, law school, Ph.D, became an international law professor. He didn’t know he’d be an international law professor when he was fifteen, but he knew the basics: he wanted to travel, he wanted to learn about other places. He had a direction for his life, and he followed it all the way.
Not me. You want to know how little I knew about the direction of my life? When I went to college I majored in Philosophy. Talk about telling the universe, “just what the heck am I doing?” And in my twenties I had every job under the sun. Even ministry wasn’t this clear revelation, but came with doubts and uncertainties. My path has never been that clear.
Although: I remember playing my brother Phil in Ping Pong, two days after I had met Abbey, and telling him, “you know what bro, I think she’s the one.” And you know what? She was.
But if you’re listening to me talk about living a visionary life and you’re thinking, “man, I don’t have the first idea what to do with my life”, well, you’re in good company. Hey, you may be like Jonah, running as far as you can in the opposite direction. Ever meet somebody who ran as far as possible away from what might be considered their calling? Like somebody who was born to be a teacher, just born to be a teacher, and so what do they do – work in corporate america for 30 years. It takes them until their 40s, 50s, 60s, and then all of a sudden they have a change of heart, and or maybe a crisis, and then they’re a teacher. And they are just thriving. And this person’s saying, who knew? Who knew this was me? And all his friends are like, “Duh.” We did! It’s obvious to everybody but the teacher himself. They saw it all the time.
And if you’re running in the opposite direction of your calling, don’t worry – you’re going to hear about it. God sent a storm to Jonah. But if you’re not doing what you’re called to do – it’s going to be rocky, right? It’s not going to go smooth. It may look smooth, but…but, inside your heart, you know. Our friend Emerson, Unitarian prophet, said that when you’re not following your calling it’s like swimming against the flow of a river. You can do it…for a while…but it’s hard. It’s exhausting. It leaves you ill-prepared for the flotsam and jetsam that might come your way. And then as soon as you’re following your calling…whoosh. Going with the river. Becomes easy. Doesn’t mean you’re stuck. You can go this way, or that way, stop on this bank, rest there. But you’re going with the river. It’s plain sailing.
Jonah’s going against the tide, and he knows it. And here’s what’s really interesting: things change when he notices he’s hurting other people. He tells his shipmates, look why don’t you throw me overboard. That’s a gutsy thing to say.
And you know, if you’re not living the life you want to live, that’s one thing; but if the fact you’re not living you’re life is harming other people that’s another. If you come home every night and your complaining about how awful your job is, and all that bitterness and bile is seeping it’s way into your family, well, you may not want to jump overboard – but if it’s happening every night, and it’s affecting those around you, your friends start to sigh when you’re around… – you got to do something, right? Got to do something.
So the sailors – very reluctantly – throw Jonah into the ocean, which solves their problem. And then Jonah is swallowed by a big fish. Now, we may have heard the story before, so we know what happens. But for Jonah, it’s terrifying. Here’s this giant whale coming out of the ocean to eat him. It’s definitely the worst thing that ever happened to him. Right? “dumped at the prom, had an appendectomy, swallowed by a big fish…” Not even close.
And yet – it’s the beginning of Jonah following his calling. How many times have you heard somebody say, about some awful event, “looking back now, that was the best thing that ever happened to me?” Like: I got fired, and it was awful, but now years later I have this great job and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I dropped out of school, may not have been the best decision at the time but it made me who I am today. Even divorce, about the toughest thing you can ever go through – years later you might be grateful for it. Because it set you on a better path.
Jonah gets to that place of gratitude pretty early. He starts thanking God as soon as he’s in the whale. I gotta admit, I wouldn’t get there that fast – I’d be asking how I’d get out. But life’s always better when you’re grateful. Gratitude doesn’t improve the conditions of your life – it just makes everything that already is more meaningful. Which is saying a lot.
So then the whale spits up Jonah, he prophesies to the city of Nineveh, telling them to change their ways. And they do change their ways. And so God forgives them. Jonah does what he’s supposed to be doing, and everyone lives happily ever after, the end.
BUT NO. That’s what makes this such a brilliant book. It’s radically different from our notions of success and failure, of obedience and faith. What happens is this: Jonah gets mad! He says to God, “I came all the way over here, for this?” I told them they were going to fry, and then nothing happened, what gives, Lord? He even says – this is in the text – “I knew you were a merciful God, and this is what makes me so angry! Might as well kill me now, Lord!” (I’m paraphrasing – but not much.)
Now, we could easily dismiss Jonah as a fundamentalist fanatic. You can picture him with his “The End is Near” signs, and then when the end doesn’t come, he throws a fit. But there’s another way of looking at Jonah that makes him a little more like you or me.
Have you ever been mad at the world, because you did everything right, and still it didn’t go your way? See, Jonah is mad because he didn’t get results. He did everything God asked for, followed directions, and things didn’t turn out how he had planned them too. He didn’t deserve to fail. And yet, from his perspective, he failed utterly.
Jonah does exactly what God says, and…nothing. It’s like he might well not have bothered. The city of Nineveh is still there, business as usual. No apocalypse. It may seem perverse to want an apocalypse – and it is perverse to want an apocalypse – but sometimes we get so tied into results we don’t even see the larger picture. It’s just about us.
So God says to Jonah, “is it right for you to be angry?” Kind of a mean question, since God was the one causing all this, but there you go. Actually, what God says in Hebrew is “Yatab charah.” “Yatab” means “good” or “pleasing” and “charah” means angry. So God in effect is asking – is that anger doing you any good? How’s that anger thing working for you?
Now you may be angry at the universe – or indeed, angry at God. And that anger may even be justified. Who am I to say? People face some terribly unfair things in this life. Life is not fair. So it’s fair enough to be angry.
But at some point someone has to ask: is that anger working for you? Is it doing you any good? And if not, why not let it go?
I’ve seen people get so angry about their lot in life that they make anger their main preoccupation. It’s the main thing they do in life, be angry. That anger may be justified. It may be perfectly understandable. But if it’s not doing you any good…well, that’s your call. Ball’s in your court.
Lemme just finish with the end of the book of Jonah, which is so beautiful, so deeply, wisely funny, so full of pathos.
Jonah gets os angry he goes and sits down, in a huff, under a bush. Now the author of the book explains that God made this bush grow so that Jonah could sit in the shade. So Jonah sits under the bush, angry.
Then the next day – this is how G-d gets the reputation of being not very nice – then the next day God brings a little worm, a parasite to the bush, and the bush dies. Falls to the ground. Now Jonah is so angry he’s apoplectic. It’s hot out, the sun’s beating down on him, and Jonah says, “it’s better for me to die than to live.” And I can understand Jonah’s point of view. I mean, he loved that bush. It was the one thing he had going for him in that miserable time in his life. And God went and knocked it down. Fair enough.
So God asks, “is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And Jonah says, “yes, it’s right.” And God closes the book of Jonah with a question. He says, “Here you are Jonah, concerned about this bush, which you didn’t plant, and you didn’t grow, that just sprung up, and now it’s gone. And shouldn’t I be concerned about this city, with 20,000 lonely, confused, people ,and also many animals?”
And that’s how it ends. With a question. Shouldn’t I, say God, be concerned about the people and the animals.? Now we can, and do, call G-d to account for not being concerned enough, in our opinion. We wonder why people die young, why entire communities in places like Haiti and Syria have it so hard. We question G-d on that. We may even be right, I don’t know. But the book of Jonah asks, how’s that anger thing working for you? Sure, you can get angry. You can even be justified in getting angry. Is that useful to you? Maybe not.
I mean, if a man has that much love for a plant…and we fall in love so easily, and so deeply, with the members of our family, our pets, whatever, a deep, and a true love…if there’s that much love – how much love must there be in the universe? It’s staggering.
There’s a wonderful little movie, “About Schmidt”. It’s about a guy who has nothing going for him. He retired, his wife is died. He doesn’t have much going on in his life, so he tries to see if he can help out at his old job. They shoo him away. Then he finds out his marriage wasn’t everything he thought it was. So even his memories are taken away from him, the solace that he had a wonderful marriage is snatched away. His daughter is marrying someone he doesn’t like at all. He’s grumpy through it all – and Schmidt is played by Jack Nicholson, who plays grumpy better than anyone. So while all this is happening he’s corresponding with a young boy in Africa. You know those things where you give a few dollars a month, sponsor a child. And while he sends his money to this poor child in Africa, he also recounts his life. It’s a bit hilarious and a bit sad, because he’s telling this young boy in a starvation-ravaged country about the malaise of American life, the challenges of aging, the intricacies of the memories of a marriage. Stuff this boy surely can’t make head or tails of.
At the very end of the movie, when Jack Nicholson has been through all these depressing things, he gets a letter. But it’s not from the little boy, Ndugu. It’s from a Sister at the orphanage, who says “thank you for all you’re done for Ndugu.” She explains the money helped with his medical care. She further explains that Ndugu can’t read, but he appreciated all the letter Schmidt sent him.
And then she encloses a picture. It’s one of those crayon pictures, with two people holding hands, one little, one big. Presumably it’s Ndugu and Schmidt.
Schmidt sees this and breaks into tears. Not because he’s successful. I mean, think about it: Ndugu didn’t even read his letters – couldn’t read them. All that text, all that beautiful writing, wasted. And yet, these are tears of joy as well as sadness, because Schmidt gets it. He’s been through his Jonah period, he’s been angry enough already. Now, he’s going to start from another place: a place of love. And the picture, this simple crayon etching from a five year old, is enough for Schmidt to know that there is love in the world, and he is a part of that love.
Having a vision for your life doesn’t mean your life will be perfect. Far from it. It doesn’t even mean you’ll be successful. But if you ground your life in that staggering love that surrounds us in the world – then your life will be very, very meaningful indeed.