Prologue of A Chaplain of Pirates: Part Two
Most Christians have a warped picture of atheists. They are godless reprobates who are out to destroy America is a common refrain that I hear. Or, why do you even waste your time with those people? They will never change, they are too arrogant, too bad, too awful.
I find such comments curious for Christians to make. And when they do, I direct them to the story of Jonah.
Sadly, all of us in the church think of Jonah as “that whale story” and if we grew up in the church, we have flannel graph images of this story that are almost comical. But, the story is anything but comical. It’s a dark exporation into the heart of someone who was supposed to be one God’s mouth pieces. And, it’s an awe inspiring story of God’s grace to everyone.
Think about who Jonah is, what he did, and who he represents. He is a Hebrew, one of God’s chosen people to bring the message of God to the whole world. Not only that, he is a prophet, a person who spoke the very words of God. So, you would think, when God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah would have snapped to and done just that.
As we all know, he jumps a ship and says, “Forget you, God.”
Now, if you know your Old Testament, you know that telling God no is not the best of ideas. It’s a big fail and usually means big trouble.
But, if you think about Nineveh, and who they are, maybe you can understand why Jonah completely lost his mind. Nineveh, in his mind, was the worst of the worst. It was the capital of the Assayrian empire who was one of the meanest empires of their day. Shock and Awe had nothing on these guys. Unlike the Romans, who pretty much let you do what you want as long as you were peaceful and gave them money, the Assayrians wanted to see your entire way of being burned to the ground.
So, God wanting to show them mercy fried Jonah’s brain. He didn’t want to do it. And, as know in the story, God sent a big fish, Jonah sort of repented, did his job and then comes chapter four.
In chapter four, we see that Jonah didn’t really repent as much as he let on in chapter two. He sets up a little watch station outside the city walls and waits for God to bring the heat against Nineveh. It doesn’t happen because the Ninevehites do something that no Hebrew back then would have expected. They not only repent, but they repent through dressing in rags and ashes. Everyone does it. The King. The nobles. The common people. And much cattle.
Jonah hates the idea and the Ninevhites. We see this in his reply as he shakes his fist at God telling him, “See? I knew you would do this, you merciful God you. I knew would show mercy to sinners. Now just let me die.”
Seems funny at first, doesn’t it? And it would be, if it weren’t such a terrible reflection of Jonah’s rotten heart. His lack of compassion to his worst enemies. His desire to see their destruction is breathtaking in its rank display of hatred.
When it comes to atheists, Christians have become Jonah.
I see it all the time in Christian media, Christian blogs, and little side comments to me when I talk about my hanging out with atheists. It’s a barely disguised rotten heart towards them. And because of that, some Christians feel justified in spreading lies, willful misrepresentations of atheists positions or bait and switch tactics when it comes to what Atheists actually think. In their hearts, they most likely compare atheists to the Ninevhites.
As I hope to show everyone in this book, Atheists aren’t even close.
That really isn’t the point, as our attitude says more about us than it does the atheists. It shows us our failure to respresent God and His kingdom in the same way Jonah and the Hebrew people did in the Old Testament. We think, as the Hebrews thought, that God is our own little personal house deity who ought to do what we want Him to do and be who we want Him to be. We forget that we are His and not the other way around.
But, what God reminds us gently, as he did with Jonah in chapter 4, is that we are a products of His grace. We have been rescued out of death’s dark abyss and out of the belly of the whale. And, like Jonah, this beautiful gospel of grace has yet to work into our hearts when it comes to people like atheists. We love bashing them. We love proving them wrong in debates.
I get it because my heart used to be in that place. I’m a recovering pharisee of the worst order. Jonah’s heart was my heart. God changed me. He changed me not just challenging me to live the Gospel in front of atheists, but also, showed me the turmoil in my own heart. I began to realize that my own life has been full of doubt and the struggle to deny I doubted that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh.
My story of faith is not really a dramatic one. I didn’t rebel, smoke pot or get a girl pregnant. My story isn’t really that dramatic. I don’t have any “I was on drugs, but Jesus saved me” type of moments. I seriously doubt I would ever be asked to give a testimony at a Christian summer camp. Instead, my road is one long battle with my doubts, my faith, and trying to work on both in the context of the church.
First, everyone should know, I’m a creed confessing, bible reading, Jesus loving fool. I believe that God created the world (over a long period of time using natural processes). I believe humans were created in God’s image that we sinned and feel from our image bearing role. I believe that sin is the source of all human suffering and pain. I also believe that God entered into our pain through the person of Jesus Christ.
I fully believe that Jesus was fully man, or as I have told my sons, he laughed, he cried, he hurt, he farted and he picked his nose.
There, I said it, the farting God.
I believe He offered himself up in our place and took on not just our sins, but our pain and suffering. I believe He rose again on the Third day. I believe He will come again to restore the world and make things right. I don’t believe He is coming to take us away to happy heaven land, but to restore this earth in all of it’s goodness.
I grew up a good German Catholic boy in a small Indiana town.I still have a very soft spot for the Catholic church. It’s where I learned the Nicene Creed and all the basics of my faith that still guide me. I went to mass everyday and loved it. I didn’t have daddy issues (and still don’t). My family loved me and didn’t shove faith down my throats. I was allowed to explore, to create and to love my world. I especially loved the natural world of rocks, bugs, trees, and creeks.
But when my dad had to take a job in St. Louis when I was in sixth grade, it changed my world. I was thrown in a world I didn’t understand at all. My nice quiet, small town bubble had been broken and I was thrust into a world that scared me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved St. Louis and the fact I could go to a Cardinals game anytime I wanted. But, the childhood illusion of safety went out the window.
And along with that, went my childlike faith. Even as I write this, I remember the pain of that experience. I couldn’t really define it at the time, but now I realize I had begun to question God and His goodness.
When doubt enters into the life of a Christian, they react in two different ways. They either embrace it and let the doubt fuel their faith. Or, they ignore it, and throw themselves passionately and wrecklessly into the faith. That usually results in a know-it-all, pedantic, pharisee. That’s the route I went and the worst of sins entered my heart. I threw myself into a nondenominational Charismatic world.
Jesus once told a story that has gotten a bit distorted over the history of the church. See if you recognize it as I tell it. There once was a man who had two sons that hated him and wished he was dead. One hated him by taking money from the father and going nuts. The other hated the father by staying at home and expecting rewards from the father, rather than just loving the father. But somehow, the Father forgives them both and the elder brother resents it.
Recognize the story? It’s the Prodigal son story told as it really was meant to be heard. Everyone has always focused on the screw up younger brother, who takes the money, gets wasted and loves too many chicks. But, such a reading of this parable is only half of the story. Notice, if you ever get a chance to read it, how half of the parable is focused on the older brother, his pride, his arrogance, his refusal to love and forgive his younger brother and even worse, resentment of his father. The father who debased himself by running after a younger brother who had disgraced the father. For further mediations on this, read Tim Keller’s amazing book, The Prodigal God.
In high school, I was that older brother. Even as I write this now, my cheeks are flushed with shame at some of the stunts I pulled to get attention. I used Jesus to get my teachers and peers to think I was something special (I went to a private christian school). I used Jesus to get girls to like me and get a little laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. I used Jesus to condemn sinners, preaching in chapel, badgering my classmates and basically doing everything a modern day pharisee would do. I didn’t listen to any “secular” rock music (except U2, which was always a bit daring for me), I went to Christian music festivals and listened to romantic love songs to Jesus, ala “Faith Plus One”.
The Mandy Moore character in “Saved”? That was me.