Breathing Underwater

This week, our Lenten focus is the Gift of Difficult People, or as Yaconelli entitled his chapter “Idiots.” Our symbol to go along with this week is one of the great symbols of grace (to deal with said idiots): the dove.


About two months ago, as we were planning out the chapters, the symbols and the weeks of Lent, for some reason, when thinking about difficult people and which scriptures would work, the story of Nicodemus came to mind. Many people like to make Nicodemus into this heroic Pharisee who bucks the trend and comes to follow Jesus. Call me cynical, but I just don’t see him in that kind of positive light. A few clues give this away: First, he comes to Jesus in the middle of the night—not exactly a heroic kind of move to hide in the dark; second, Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’ opening pleasantries is to basically tell him that he is blind to the presence of the kingdom of God. Finally, there is an exchange where Jesus seems to suggest that Nicodemus may be a teacher of Israel, but he doesn’t know the first thing about God. Not exactly heroic material if you ask me, and exactly the kind of person we want to focus on for a week about dealing with difficult people.


What may be even more amazing about this passage though is how the Holy Spirit has been at work in the choosing of this passage. At first, Nicodemus just seemed to fit the bill for talking about “Idiots.” What I have come to find this week, though, is that there is so much richness and depth that are coming together because of this passage that just could not have been planned.


First of all, as you may know, I have been gone for the last two weeks for continuing education and some vacation. I spent the last two weeks in Belize diving in some of the world’s most beautiful waters. For the last several years, my pastor cohort group has been studying Ruach Elohim, the Breath of God. We have done this by embracing the uncontrolled nature of the breath of God in learning improve acting and comedy. We have done this by climbing to the top of Mt. Elbert in Colorado and breathing in the thin air. We have done this in a retreat to Taos focused on breathing meditation, breath in the Taos Pueblo tradition, and using breathing patterns in acting to elicit emotional response. Most recently, we have done this by learning a new way of breathing underwater through being trained and certified for scuba diving.


One of the most profound lessons of the last two weeks for me is how breathing helps us navigate the world around us. When scuba diving, your breath quite literally determines your place in the world. By breathing in a big lungful of air, you rise in the water. To descend in the water, you breath out fully and completely. By breathing slowly, deeply and fully, you are able to control where you are in the water, and even your movement. After 16 dives over the course of the last two weeks, I found myself becoming so proficient at it that I rarely used my body to move through the water, but used my breath to keep myself positioned in currents to move me through the water. It is a remarkable feeling that I would imagine is akin to flying.


It is also something that speaks volumes about this week’s scripture with Nicodemus. When Nicodemus wants to understand the kingdom of God, Jesus’ response is that he must be born anew of Spirit and Water to understand the kingdom of God. Jesus then tells Nicodemus that “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It is the same with everyone born of the Spirit.”


In the first dive two weeks ago, I found myself fighting the water around me, pushing hard and kicking with all my might trying to go where I wanted to go. That first dive lasted for 27 minutes because I used up all my air trying to determine where I was going. By the last dive, I had become so used to letting my air do the work, and letting the water take me where it would that I was down for 68 minutes and still had plenty of air left over.


I think part of Jesus’ teaching to our idiot friend Nicodemus is stopping trying to control everything and have power over everything. Let the Breath of God, the Spirit, lead you where it will and you will find yourself smack dab in the middle of the Kingdom of God. There have been so many times in my own life where I have tried to direct the flow and determine how things had to be done, but these past two weeks have reminded me that we find the presence of God in those places where we breathe deeply and allow the Spirit to blow us in whatever direction it will.


Amazingly, that is kind of how this scripture is working out this week. Not only did it seem to fit well with my own experiences, but it just so happens that we will be celebrating the Baptisms of Matthew and Cayla McNiece on Sunday, and there are few passages so fitting for baptism as this one. Like I said, we couldn’t have planned it better!


So, my encouragement to you this week is breath deeply the Breath of God, and allow the Spirit to guide you on your way. Don’t fight the current, but let the Breath of God carry you where it may.


Fish Vomit

So this week we are talking about Darkness and we are talking about the symbols of the wheel and the fish (if you are unfamiliar with the wheel symbol, you will just have to come to worship on Sunday to find out what I am talking about). When Sarah Kotchian and I were planning this, and were thinking about what Scriptures speak to darkness, the idea of Jonah being stuck in the belly of the fish was somehow where our minds wandered.


Needless to say, it didn’t take much convincing for me to get on board because Jonah is my favorite book of the bible. I love the message in Jonah, and more importantly, I love the way that the message is conveyed. Jonah uses humor and satire to poke fun at us religious folk, who far too often take ourselves too seriously.


Let’s start with a quick discussion on a very important key to understanding Jonah—the fish! Have you ever heard people arguing over whether it is a fish or a whale? The answer is…durm roll please…it wasn’t really either, because Jonah was not actually swallowed by anything in real life. Yep, that is your pastor telling you, this story is not a historical event. And if you think it is, let me tell you about a bridge that I am selling in Brooklyn…


Jonah is not an historical account, plain and simple. Jonah is satire. Jonah makes fun of religious people who spend way too much time arguing over things like whether it was a fish or a whale that ate Jonah. You can tell this by how it is written. You can tell this from the original Hebrew. You can tell this because it is a story about a person being eaten by a fish. Unfortunately, we have made ourselves into the butt of the joke by being the very thing that Jonah makes fun of—religious elites.


What is important to learn from this is that scripture has genres. Some scripture is meant to be read seriously with an eye toward historical accuracy (though their definition of history and ours differ widely). Some is poetry and is meant to be read as figurative. Some is philosophical argument, and is meant to force us to ask big questions. Unfortunately, we often approach scripture as though it were just one thing—serious history. Incidentally, this is exactly why I have big problems with Ken Ham and his creationist museum (If you don’t know about that, Google it).

Jonah is satire. Jonah is humor. Jonah is meant to be read like you would read the Sunday morning comics, or like you would watch Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert. It is supposed to be fun and outlandish, and if you don’t read it that way, you are signing up to be the butt of the joke. You are the over-serious Jonah who is just waiting to be chewed up and spit out!


The story features only a few characters—Jonah, God, a handful of Sailors, a few Ninevites, a worm and a fish. Guess who does God’s bidding on the first try in this story—the non-Hebrew sailors and the non-Hebrew Ninevites. The guy called by God fights every step of the way. This points fun at religious people that think they are better than everyone else, but often miss the point. The conversation about Jonah being thrown overboard is funny stuff. Tarshish is quite literally the exact opposite direction from Ninevah. The man of God is quite literally FISH VOMIT. And if that wasn’t enough, the very last sentence of the book is God making a potty-humor joke that is worthy of an 8th grade boy (hint: people in that culture at that time used their right hand to eat and their left hand to wipe themselves).


All of this teaches us something that is extremely important—FAITH NEEDS HUMOR! If humor plays no role in our life of faith then we are not doing it right. We need to be able to laugh—especially at ourselves! We need to be ready to see that God doesn’t just work through prose and boredom—God engages us through any means necessary—even potty humor! That is why this book doesn’t need to be about historical fact at all. Trying to engage the question of historicity with Jonah is a total waste of time. I mean, the book is literally about prophetic fish vomit! It also teaches us that “Truth” with a capital “T” isn’t about historical fact, it is bigger than that. Truth is about how we find meaning in our lives.


If you want to find meaning in your life; if you want to find Truth; take a lesson from Jonah and have a little more fun with your faith. Embrace the absurd and the hilarious and look for God’s hand when you find yourself the butt of a joke.