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Month: September 2014

I am Jonah

Photo by Daniel Hochhalter

It’s been almost two decades since I left my home state of Montana and moved out to Portland, Oregon for seminary. When asked where I’m from, I still answer, “I am from Montana, but I live in Portland.” After eighteen years, I still don’t see myself as being from here. I still consider myself an outsider. I just don’t seem to fit in.

I think I’m too rural for the city; I feel claustrophobic here. My horizons are blocked by the neighbor’s fence behind me and the tall apartments in front of me. I always seem to be jostling against people and bumping into things. Even the parking spaces are smaller. It’s hard to ignore the chaos and clamor—the yelling, the car horns, the police sirens (one is screaming past right now). Whenever I get chance to return home to Big Sky country, my body decompresses. My breathing slows. My heart rate goes down. My natural movements become, well, more natural.

And there’s culture shock. I just don’t fit in with Portland culture. If you’ve ever seen the cable TV show Portlandia (I watch it for training, to help me understanding my surroundings!), you know this city has a culture all its own.

Unlike many Portlanders, I am not a hipster. I don’t sport trendy scarves, tattoos or facial hair. Skinny jeans make me look like a sack of organic flour, its lower half caught in an ever-tightening vise. I don’t hike or run marathons. I don’t drink gourmet coffee or designer microbrews; in either case, I wouldn’t know a good batch from a bad one.

I do share Portlanders’ love of books and bookstores, especially our legendary Powell’s City of Books—the world’s biggest independent bookstore of new and used books. But as the city keeps growing, I find I seldom have the stomach to fight the traffic, crowds, and parking fees to get there.

So I hunker down at home and gaze longingly at pictures of spacious vistas—like seascapes along the coast or landscapes of the majestic mountains and plains in Montana.

Naturally, this begs the question: why don’t I just move?

Ah, there’s the rub. For multiple reasons, it seems clear that God wants me here for now. I am called to reflect Jesus and show God’s love to this city; yet for my own selfish reasons, I’d rather flee.

I am Jonah.

Jonah, too, was called to go to a city against his will. God told him to head east to Nineveh, but Jonah headed west to the ocean. God wanted him to call Nineveh to repent, while Jonah wanted it destroyed. God said go, and Jonah went—the other way. He shipped out to sea, and because of his disobedience, God sent a storm that threatened to sink the ship and everyone in it. So the judgment Jonah had desired for Nineveh was now brought down upon his own head.

After being thrown overboard by his shipmates, then swallowed and puked up by a fish, Jonah finally obeys. He goes to Nineveh and calls its residents to repent. But when they do, he is even more contrary than before. In fact, he actually throws a tantrum because things didn’t go his way.

Yep, I am Jonah. Oh, I am not so callous that I want to see my city destroyed. It’s just that I wish God would call someone else to live where I live, and let me move away. It feels like I never fit in here, and I don’t want to step up and try. I just want to take my toys and go home.

But I also don’t want to be a reluctant prophet, trying to pick and choose where I am called to go. I don’t want to insist on reflecting Jesus only where I feel comfortable – and pitch a fit when I end up somewhere else – because the gospel is for everyone, everywhere. Jesus said “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John12:32). Paul said he must “become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Peter said we Christ-followers are “foreigners and exiles”—called to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12).

Those scriptures apply to me too.

But how can I authentically reflect Jesus’s love to this city when a part of me still wants to leave?

It comes down to grace. In grace, Jesus sought me out; so I need to pay it forward. If I truly understood the depth of his love toward me, I think I’d be more than willing to share it wherever I go, even if part of me doesn’t want to be there.

Maybe one day, God will allow me to retreat to a wide-open space where I can breathe. But until then, I—a twenty-first century Jonah—am called to represent Jesus every place I go. Even the places I’d rather not be.

1200px-HawthorneBridge-Pano All scriptures are from the New International Version (NIV) unless otherwise noted.

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Ice bucket justice


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August 2014 was a rough month.

Israel and Hamas exchanged missiles. The ebola death toll in Africa cracked four digits. ISIS slaughtered Iraqi Christians and started beheading journalists. Russia invaded Ukraine and claimed the video footage of their advancing tank columns came from a video game. A St. Louis suburb exploded in race riots, with some elected leaders promising more if the system doesn’t go their way.

And Americans responded by dumping ice water on their heads.14848289439_dfbc1f961f_z

It was difficult not to feel paralyzed by all of the insanity. Instead of dousing my head with ice water, I wanted to bury it in the sand like an ostrich. I was worried about all that was going on, and frustrated by my own smallness. What could I possibly do to affect even one of those headlines?

Should I tweet something—the twenty-first century equivalent of passing out flyers? Post a shocking photo on Facebook and express my sadness? Join a street march? Or perhaps send money?

But send money to whom? We don’t always know.

I understand that people of faith must respond to these crises, must work toward social justice. However, on some of these issues, I am not exactly sure which parties to support, or how. I believe our response should be based on the truth, but sometimes the truth isn’t easy to ascertain. So what can I do to bring good to those around me?

This brings my back to the ALS ice bucket challenge. At first, I dismissed it as pointless and superficial. I mean, what’s the point of over two million people braving a bucket of ice? And what are the odds that ALS will be forgotten again by Halloween?

But then, like a photographer adjusting a camera lens, God adjusted my focus. I saw that in a world of seemingly unsolvable problems, these chilled folks at least did something. What they did was small, but heartfelt. They didn’t do it to assuage their guilt, or to show their moral superiority. They simply turned on video cameras and poured ice water on their heads. That was it.

But together, their individual acts raised over a hundred million dollars (

I felt as if God was saying to me, “I’m in control. I’ll worry about the big stuff. Just do what you can for those around you.”

This is how I as a Christian can advance God’s kingdom on earth: not by measuring other Christians to see if they are doing “enough” by my yardstick, but by doing something myself.

In the middle of all the craziness last month, I was impressed by something that happened in Ferguson, Missouri. As tensions flared white-hot, the police asked local pastors and church leaders to step in and help calm the situation. I have no idea what any of those pastors felt about the events leading up to the riots—perhaps some were just as angry as the protesters. However, each chose to imitate Jesus and bring peace. I deeply respect their simple acts of love that were underreported by a media hungry for explosive violence.

We will never be able to stop every crisis or heal every disease. And if we try, we will quickly feel overwhelmed and burned out – as I did in August. But we can each reflect Jesus to our own little corner, whether by bringing peace into chaos or by dumping ice water on our heads.

We can still accomplish great good—one ice bucket at a time.

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