Three Jonahs


Friday was just the way God intended it to be for me, but it wasn’t how I intended it. Overall, it left me unsettled. I decided to blog about it anyway. Here goes…

Ministry started like most Fridays. My volunteer brought the sandwiches–it’s a different one every week, twice a week–what a blessing! The snack bags had been assembled the night before by a group of deacons from my church. I was excited because I had given them my monthly prayer newsletter and they had prayed through it as they made sandwiches. I just knew it was going to be a great day! I had bags of snacks, a bag of sandwiches, a bag of socks, and a bag of bottled water. It was heavy and awkward, but I have never wasted food yet in outreach so I figured God must have lost of people available to me today!
When I got down to where I usually meet kids, there was no one. This happens sometimes, so I just sat down to wait. 30 minutes later… still NO ONE. I saw someone walking down a cross street I hadn’t seen in a while, I chased after him to talk and catch up. When I went back, one other person was waiting for me. One…
After about an hour and a half, I was sitting with three people. I soon thought I found the source of the “trouble.” It is rush week, and the police are extra diligent in patrolling and being present during rush week. [Don’t get me wrong… I appreciate and love the police. It is just a fact that most of my clients aren’t comfortable around them so they have an impact on my ministry when they step up patrols.]
Finally, I decided to go ahead and walk the 8 blocks that I look after. I really didn’t want to because my bags were still completely full. I usually have given out about half of the stuff before I start walking with it. As I walked I thought about what I was going to tell the volunteers who made the sandwiches because it looked like I wasn’t going to do much ministry today.
I got about half way through my “route” before I saw anyone else. I ran into “David,” who is about 27 or so, homeless, and using drugs. He and I have been working together a lot lately. He’s interested in change, but he’s not yet convinced he’s able to change or that it’s important enough to change. He was so wound up that he couldn’t listen to my offers of food or socks. His hand was swollen really big. He was in pain. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Maybe I should just give up! Look at my hand! I don’t want to lose my hand or my arm! I went to the ER and they gave me a shot, but they said if I don’t fill these prescriptions I’m going to lose the arm!”
I tried to calm him down. I put sandwiches in his backpack because he couldn’t use the hand to do it himself. And I told him that since he has no ID and no MAP card (Medical Assistance Program), he really had no choice but to go back to the ER tonight. He showed me the script. I decided to call to get a price for him at the lowest cost pharmacy in town for generics. It was $27. I asked if he had that or could get that. He looked at me like I was crazy. Then he confessed that the only way he could get it was illegal. I asked when he last paid for drugs… he said three days ago. He had been living off “freebie” gifts from friends since then.
All the while this was going on, I was feeling two tugs. First, I needed to solve the problem of the giving away the huge supply of sandwiches, snacks, and water I was lugging. I needed to do ministry and pass those out. That was my plan, after all! But where were the kids and the people? Second, I was feeling a tug from God to get David his medicine.
Now you need to understand something about me and my ministry. I have strong boundaries. I have been blessed with mentors and tutors who have made sure I establish strong boundaries to keep me safe, sane, and well grounded. I see about 70 people a week and I need boundaries. The need that I see is practically infinite and I have to know that I can’t fix it all. I do the ministry that I’m equipped to do, and I have boundaries. I almost never give out money… who from the 70 would I choose? I don’t take kids places in my car… I could spend 100% of my time providing much needed transportation but that’s not what God has called me to do. I don’t go out and buy everything that I come to know that people need… that would quickly exhaust all the ministry resources and my personal resource. I have a family to care for after all. I hope that doesn’t sound hard hearted. And I hope it doesn’t discourage you from helping others one person at a time. One individual connecting to another is a wonderful thing. Generous people have a positive impact every day on the lives of the youth I minister to. Strangers can do things for one kid that I cannot simply because I have 70 kids instead.
So while I was feeling the desire to move on down the street, and while I was feeling the tug to help David with his $27 in prescriptions, and while I was feeling the instinct to respect my boundaries, I got very frustrated. I quickly decided to move on down the street. I told David I would talk with him more when I got finished with ministry that I came to do. He understood and I went on.
Still I met almost nobody. So soon I was at the end of my route and my work was undone. I was feeling undone. By now, God’s tugs had turned into whispers. I was figuring out that I had done the WRONG thing. Today, I was intended and expected to help David… I just knew it. And yet I had walked away from him. So I went to where I thought I could find him. And I motioned for him to come with me.
As we walked to my truck, I began to lecture him on how I don’t usually do this and how this was really special. I found thoughts of “conditionalality” forming in my head. I was thinking, what can I ask from David in exchange for doing this thing. But the Lord silenced me.
As we drove, I asked God what to say. I told David, “It seems to me that God is going to a lot of trouble to get your attention. All the stuff you’ve been going through and now this. What do you think?” David replied, “I believe in God. You know that. And I love God. You know that, too. I’m not as bad as the other kids who don’t want anything to do with God.” The word “submission” came to me as he spoke.
“David, I know you believe in God. And you have told me you love God, so I believe that. But… David… I don’t think you are submitting to God as Lord of your life. Are you?” This silenced David. He came back with a series of excuses and statements. I reinforced, “David, I don’t think God is going to leave you alone until you submit to his will for your life. He’s going to keep trying to get your attention.”
At the pharmacy, I sat down to tell David more. I apologized for some of what I said walking to the car and told him I was wrong. “This medicine today is a gift from God. God is buying it for you. I’m not. I wanted to make some deal with you and try to make you do something in exchange for it, but God just wants you to have the medicine. I’m not paying for this with ministry money. It’s coming out of my family’s grocery money. But God is giving you the medicine. I’m pretty sure God is even going to pay me back the $27 that the medicine is costing my family.”
David just looked at me. Then he said “Thank you, God. Thank you, Terry. You think the money will come back to you? Is that how you find that God works?” I truthfully told him, “Yes. Now that I’ve submitted to God’s authority in my life, I almost always find he works that way.”
Then I had a flash. While we continued to wait, I would tell David the story of Jonah. It’s a good story of submission and I was sure he could identify. Maybe he could take some hope from it. So I began…
“There was this guy named Jonah. He had a life and was doing his own thing. One day, God told him to go do something that seemed hard, scary, and dangerous. He told him to go to a really bad and tough kingdom to the East and tell them they were living wrong. God was going to destroy them if they didn’t stop. Jonah said, “No so much. You don’t need me!” And then, he ran away. He walked as far west as he could go. Then he got on a boat to sail as far west as he could go. He was going to huge extremes and putting himself at great risk because he didn’t want to do what God had told him to do. He believed in God. He even talked to God. But he didn’t trust God and he didn’t submit to God’s authority in his life.
“Now in the middle of the ocean, God stirred up some trouble for Jonah. The waves rose. The winds threatened. And Jonah knew the score. He knew it was God trying to get his attention. The sailors asked, ‘What did you do?’ And Jonah just gave up hope and said, ‘It’s my fault! Throw me overboard and God will leave you alone.’ They did and the storm stopped. But Johan was eaten by a while, a big fish really… ” David piped up, “I know this story. It seems far fetched.” I said, “Really? There are fish bigger than men in the ocean. That’s a fact. There are fish big enough to swallow men. That’s a fact. Do you really doubt that God would go to such lengths to get a man’s attention? Look at your own life? Do you really doubt it?” David stared at me.
I continued, “At this point, Jonah said, ‘OK… I’ll do it but I won’t like it.’ He pouted but submitted. He wasn’t perfect but he did what he had to do that was right in the eyes of the Lord. He went to that scary place and walked for three days proclaiming, ‘You people are living wrongly, and God’s going to destroy you!’ It seemed that God really wanted to get the attention of this place, just like he’s trying to get your attention. He sent me. He sent all the horrible luck you’ve been having. He sent this throbbing hand. When are you going to say, ‘OK… enough! I will submit and do the hard scary things that I know are right in your eyes?’ David had no answer.
I finished the story, “Well… Jonah was more powerful than he thought. The people stopped doing all the bad things and God decided not to destroy them. Jonah had that much power when he submitted to God. So can you. I know you think it’s too hard to stop using this drug. But it isn’t too hard… it’s just hard. I know you think it’s too hard to face your legal problems. Bit it isn’t too hard… not for you and Jesus together. And I know you think it’s too hard to get your life back together… to have a job again, to have a girlfriend again, to have an apartment again, to have guitars and play music again… But it will be easy once you submit to God’s authority in your life!”
The medicine was ready. Luke picked it up and God paid the $27 for it. I gave him no conditions and delivered the funds with an open hand. I was feeling pretty good about the two Jonah’s today… David was clearly in the middle of the storm… a modern day Jonah. God was telling him to get his life together but he was running the other way. And by telling him about Johan afresh, I hoped he would finally submit. BUT THERE WAS A THIRD JONAH today! I was Jonah, too!
I had to sit down to absorb it. I had my ministry plan and God nudged me to abandon it and take care of David. I sent David one way and literally went the other way! And ministry went badly one footstep after another. I grew frustrated and confused! Finally I turned around, and God put things into motion. When I wanted to lecture David and put conditions on this gift, God told me, “No.” And when I listened, he inspired me with the words that I hope can burn and churn in David’s heart to help bring David’s attention to God. God’s attention is already on David. I explained to David what I had just learned in this epiphany. I hoped it would help him see what submission looks like.
He and I rode back speaking more in terms of thankfulness and relief. I told him I was going to go back to ministry on the street, even though it was late, because now I knew that I would meet people and give out all the volunteers’ sandwiches. I explained that when you do what is right by God even when you don’t want to or when you have other choices that you’d prefer, that is submission. Before we rejoined everyone, we prayed together on the street for healing, for protection, and for submission. Sure enough, I sat on the steps with David and the people came. I gave out every single sandwich and was surrounded by great folks who told me their stories and listened to mine.
It was and continues to be unsettling to know that I can so easily be Jonah. I just thank God that He is present and cares enough to whisper and guide us when we start heading off in the wrong direction. I pray that David will heed God’s will in his life. He has a long journey ahead on the road to recovery. And I’m pretty sure he has his own city to minister to and save once he gets there. But he has to turn around first and stop going his own way. I pray that this will be today. Amen.
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