The Sign of Jonah by Julie

Original artwork by Lisa Shirk

Original artwork by Lisa Shirk

            When we said we were going to name our second son Jonah, my parents were a bit puzzled. “But he doesn’t really repent,” my father, a pastor, said of the prophet. I agree it’s not the most uplifting story, not as easy to explain as Elijah, the name of our older son.

            In a children’s version we read with our kids, illustrator Peter Spier fleshes the story out in vivid detail while staying true to the frankness and open-endedness of the tale. In it, Jonah receives God’s command and immediately packs his bags and gets on a ship (turn the page)… in the other direction. When the storm hits, the people on the ship are reluctant to throw Jonah overboard as he suggests. But as the storm rages on, the shipmates, as Spier puts it, “realized that they too were fighting against God.” So they have no choice but to throw him into the sea, praying for forgiveness as they do so. The book cover shows Jonah resigned to his fate as he faces the giant fish.

            It’s the honesty of that reluctant spirit, that impulse to run away—from God, from others, from ourselves—that my husband and I identify with. And the story of Jonah expresses that sentiment in such dramatic fashion. If we are supposed co-conspirators with God, living out purposes we ourselves may not understand, then time and again we find ourselves coming up short. In this collaboration between a perfect God and us imperfect beings, it’s a wonder that God bothers with us at all. In the story, Jonah is matter-of-fact, and God is matter-of-fact, and in the end, there is no epiphany. Yet God continues to reach out to Jonah.

            As the self-proclaimed reluctant convert, C. S. Lewis, says, “The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape?... The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men.”

            When I first suggested the name, my husband immediately felt it was right. Which may just go to show you the kind of morose, brooding lot we are. Long before our boys were even born, my husband was fond of borrowing the phrase “I am no better than my ancestors” from the prophet Elijah during his bleakest moment. Some may decry such despair as being the antithesis of faith. But for me, and for my husband too, I think, it is our very reason for faith. When we feel we have run as far away from God as possible, it turns out he has never left us. Sometimes he appears in a raging sea storm or a giant fish. Sometimes through a raven bearing bread or a gentle whisper. It’s to the delinquents, the runners away, the Jonahs (and Elijahs) of the world that God’s unrelenting pursuit is made all the more meaningful.

Unwillingness Unlearned
Three years, thereabouts,
in the belly of a fish.
This is what it takes.

            In my adult life, God seems to speak to me in periods of three years: three years of abundant encounters alternating with three years of famine from his presence. Periods in which life is bursting with symbolism, takes on a narrative arc, is shaped by a clear hand. And, just as mysteriously, its very shadow befalls, an eclipse—stretches of emptiness, when meaning lies beyond my grasp. As far as the pattern has emerged, it seems we are in our fifth cycle now.

            In the three years before our baby Jonah’s birth, it wasn’t just a silent void or lack that I felt, but rather some kind of dark force actively thwarting my path. And during those years, circumstances would align in such a way as to exactly go wrong.

            Life in Beijing, where we were living, often took on a surreal, dystopian sheen to me. Most days, the air was thick with a perpetual haze, and people walked around outside in masks. Purified air was captured under a dome at schools attended by expats or children of wealthy locals, so the kids could still run around “outdoors.” Our first winter in Beijing—the winter that China’s pollution made global headlines—our one-year-old Elijah and I developed what the doctor simply called “temporary asthma.” Some of the expats jokingly referred to our city as Mordor, and truly, there were days when I thought no living thing should be outside.

            We always felt sheepish complaining, though, in comparison to the local Chinese, or even other journalist friends, many of whom had started out as war correspondents in more despondent places. But even our Chinese teacher, a native Beijinger, once noted despairingly, “At least you choose to be here and will get to leave. We have to stay.” It was meant to be encouraging to us, but it also pointed to the unsolvable nature of the problem.

            We lived in one of the city’s diplomatic compounds, where foreigners used to be confined and where my husband’s office had been located since before the Tiananmen Square massacre. At our apartment, we skirted Chinese surveillance by scrawling passwords on slips of paper and passing them to each other in silence. I could never shake the feeling of some other presence hovering about me. At times, I had trouble even getting into the compound, my Asian face betraying me at the gate, where the guards would only permit “foreigners” to get through without an ID. Meanwhile, my husband’s adventures were more of the spy genre: he tried to keep his laptop with him at all times, used burner phones for certain stories, and snuck into villages under cover of night.

            Even aside from such incidents, I had an overall feeling of heaviness and being trapped in a masked existence, like all of our life lay under a dome. God himself was filtered—for locals, through state-sanctioned churches; for expats, through designated international churches, where you show your passport at the door. Our senses were dulled by the constant drone of air purifiers, the oppressive white smog that enveloped whole buildings and highways, and our belabored, humidity-trapped breaths inside masks that kept not just particles but also the stench and taste of pollution at bay. It was enough to drive all of us a little mad. In a sermon one Sunday, our pastor talked about rolling down the window in a taxi on a particularly bad air day and taking in deep breaths of the toxic air, as though accepting that what will be will be.

            I had wanted to come—to experience firsthand a changing world, to be immersed in another culture, to give my son the chance to learn another language. Slowly, though, I could feel my spirit eroding away.

Ash Wednesday, 2015
Chinese new year’s eve:
this city of dust, lit for
days with fire works.

            During my third Lent in Beijing, I took on the discipline of writing a haiku each day—a small act of attention to moments in my life, a wrestling with what each day brought in attempt to give shape to those moments in some tangible way. The haiku, in its brief, compact elegance, seemed like a good remedy for my writer’s block, which, as usual, was more like a life block. The confines of the poem’s structure would serve as a guide, a reminder to wait and see where the writing would lead me. It was less about what I wanted to say and more about the poem—and the Spirit—doing its work in me.

            When we first accepted our foreign assignment, we’d known that at some point during our three-year stint in China we’d want to have a second child, and that that child would probably be born in Beijing, which we felt at peace about. But as time went on, it seemed that at no point did I feel my state of mind (or my weary body, which had been through several rounds of illness) would be able to handle bearing and caring for another baby. And when we finally felt ready, it took nearly a year before I was pregnant. At that point, we were nearing the end of our assignment.

            We initially thought we’d have the baby in Beijing before returning to the US, but then we wondered if it would be an easier transition to have the baby after the move. I didn’t trust myself to make a major life decision at that point. So in my inability to think clearly enough, I resorted to making a pro-con spreadsheet and created a point system to help me weigh the reasons. It was absurd, but I was never so grateful for math.

            If Celtic Christianity speaks of “thin places”—inspiring pockets of this world where the veil between heaven and earth is thin enough to allow glimpses of the divine—then it follows there must also be “thick places”—locales where God is harder to reach, his glory dimmed, at least here, by a dense layer of smoke, haze, and fog. In such a place, all I could do was search the days, collecting words and images, wringing out every last syllable for meaning, offering back up these paltry haikus as meager prayers.

Spring Comes, Even to Mordor
Plum branches bearing
bright pink tufts; weeping willows
strung with new green beads.

            In some ways, the timing of Lent predisposes you to journey from dark to light, starting in mid-winter and ending in spring. Or perhaps that is the intention of the liturgical year, like the parameters of formal poetry, structure shaping meaning, leading us to walk through lighter and darker points of our days and months—and so on through the years and decades, just as those before us, just as those after. At times, it seems we have not moved at all (I am no better than my ancestors!). Other times, we step back to see that this journey spirals, each cycle drawing us nearer to that fierce and brilliant light that blinds and dazzles.

            Shortly after our third Lent and Easter in Beijing, we returned to the DC area to restart our lives. In the span of four weeks, we bought a car, a house, and had a baby.

            It all happened wonderfully out of order, and Jonah was three days old when we moved into our new home. In a bush next to our kitchen window, we found a bird’s nest. For the first time, I watched a mama bird feed her baby chick just a few feet away from me. The entire moment was brimming with so much symbolism and beauty and glory, it felt almost cliché to share. Yet, for all its significance, the perfection of the moment dug into me. Why only here and now? Where was such a vision during those years of darkness and in that lonely place, when I really could’ve used it?

            Over the next few months, we watched flowers that we didn’t plant sprout up—each bloom a gift that we never labored for. Our neighbor tells us about our house’s previous owner, how the autumn before, mulch had been piled up on the front lawn, waiting to be spread on the garden. Instead, it sat there all winter. Gradually, the neighbors realized the owner had passed away. She had lived alone. As winter ended, her flowers started popping up in front of the house. And that spring, we moved in. “It was her last home,” my neighbor reflects, “and now it is Jonah’s first home.”

The Pessimists Redemption
Only a glass once
empty can be called half full.
Grace over matter.

            As it turns out, baby Jonah may just be the most cheerful of all of us, with his open-mouth smiles that spread to his flapping arms and kicking legs. And this past year, even I’ve found myself in a euphoric new-mother-for-the-second-time state, fueled by adrenaline (and caffeine, to be sure) through the sleep-deprived days, weeks, months. Because this time, of course, I know just how quickly it all passes.

            Yet in the back of my mind, each blessing feels weighted. As though God’s presence were filling—accentuating—those very crevices where only a moment ago he’d been absent.

            Now, I am torn between two impulses: Do I, like Joseph, store up the visions and gifts and acts of grace during this period, that I might not starve for meaning in some future time? Or do I treat these moments instead like manna—not meant to be stored away, just received in gratitude to God, with the faith that it will come again or last as long as I need?

            “The way I see it,” my husband had said to me toward the end of my haiku-writing Lenten journey, “God is continually in the act of redeeming all things.”

            Yes, I remember thinking, I can accept that. If we can acknowledge that in the beginning there was nothing, if we can affirm a properly grim view of the world, then grace is not just a consolation; it is a fact. As Frederick Buechner puts it, the gospel is a tragedy before it is comedy. It is “bad news before it is good news... The cross that is a symbol of defeat before it is a symbol of victory speaks also of the absence of God… [who] is often more conspicuous by his absence than by his presence.”

            Yet at the end of every Lent, there is an Easter, even if it happens to be in Beijing, only a week and a half before boarding a flight back to DC, even if it happens to be among a congregation that does not believe in Lent or liturgy, even if in the bottom of your heart, nothing feels celebratory.

            In his collection of journal entries, The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton talks about traveling toward his destiny in the belly of a paradox—how the flight from God actually becomes the very journey to God. He writes, “The sign Jesus promised to the generation that did not understand him was the sign of Jonas the prophet—that is, the sign of his own resurrection. The life of every monk, of every priest, of every Christian is signed with the sign of Jonas, because we all live by the power of Christ’s resurrection.”

            For God loved the Ninevites, and what’s more, God loved Jonah too, even in the farthest possible place, even when there was no understanding.

            I think of all this when I look at my boys—such little beings with such weighty names—and sometimes, it all seems ridiculous. The reading of so much meaning into every word in my life. And yet I know no other way to live.

            For now, our children (or at least the older of the two) simply delight in hearing their names among the Bible stories we read. We don’t know what sort of journey God has in mind for them, but we hope that their names will serve as signposts they can return to along the way. That they’ll be drawn to the drama and wonder of the tales in their childhood, and that they’ll spend a lifetime delving into the deeper mysteries of each story’s themes. And in the midst of the sea storms and deserts of their lives, we hope they’ll be able to make out the voice of God himself, calling their names.