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Friday, May 27, 2016

I'd like to Guess about Jonah

At Church we are doing a series on Jonah.  And so my mind has wandered, straight to the text, of course, and I have begun to think I can be just a bit inside Jonah's head.  With smug arrogance, I often (too often, I admit) have told my kids I can read minds.  And here I am, centuries after Jonah lived, and thinking I can somehow get inside his mind.  So, pardon my over-confidence here, but I'm just going to take a stab at what was going on with him.

I'm going to use some sanctified imagination, and go out on a limb and fill in the gaps with my musings.

I imagine that Jonah was raised by godly, somewhat rigid, well-meaning, devout, circumspect, righteous people.  He was probably a first-born: cautious, wanting to please, high-achieving, with keen insight and greater burdens of responsibility.  He took his upbringing well, I suppose, as we can guess because he went on to invest himself in full-time kingdom work as no less than a prophet.  I'll bet he was an inspiring leader.  He probably gave himself fully, seriously, and courageously to his work as God's appointed spokesperson.

When the book of Jonah opens, however, he isn't in his most stellar moments of life.  The biblical record has left us with more questions than answers, and gives us little of the details of who Jonah really was.  And isn't that just like God, to make it really not about the glorification of super-hero kingdom ministers, and more about the glory of His name and the spread of His good news to the farthest reaches of creation?  Because, I'm sure Jonah would have liked to go down in history as a faithful guy, who executed his spiritual obligations with grace, obedience and joy.  But we jump in on the story after what I imagine would have been his dark night of the soul.

I say this because as the book opens, he isn't interested in doing God's bidding anymore.  I wonder if some deep tragedy or disappointment with God had struck - perhaps a loss, a rejection, a failure.  I don't know what it might have been.  But whatever it was - and I think there was something - he seems to be confronted with what he had held to be true for most of his life.  Perhaps he was stuck in some linear thinking that if he just did everything he was supposed to do, God would fend for him and make his life peachy good and downright comfortable.  Maybe I'm being a little harsh.  But he strikes me as one who struggles with self-righteous legalism.  I think he thought pretty good of himself until his life started to fall to pieces.

I wonder if he had some reckoning with God and when God sends him on the next mission, he just throws in the towel and says, "No way.  And I'm not shy about saying it.  I'm so through with this - and I'm putting feet to my words - I'm heading the other way."  And without hesitation he sets off on the opposite path than what God told him to.

Now, usually we stop there and talk about how bad it was to do this.  Disobeying God is not recommended and we see where God has His way and still gets Jonah to do what He wants, not what 'he' wants.

But I'm tired of sticking with that storyline - plus, it doesn't take us inside Jonah's mind - or God's for that matter.  And who can know the mind of God?

Jonah is so sick of living life as God dictates and he's so mad or heartbroken or disappointed or despairing - of some conflagration of all these - that he is suicidal.

You read that right.  You thought that wasn't til chapter 4.  Think again.

Because right there in chapter 1, we have Jonah willing to have his life ended, rather than to repent.  He is on a ship with godless men - and God is still having His way with the weather and all - and Jonah is napping and basically like, 'I don't care.'

But the men gripped with fear won't allow Jonah the luxury of a nap below deck.  Prayers are demanded and Jonah is still not on great talking-terms with the God he is running from.  He would rather drown than bend his will to the God of the wind and waves.  Jonah's heartbroken despair, rage, and eventual disenchantment with life led him to this point - the point of not even caring about the living of life: a total rejection of the sovereign rule of God in his life.

I'm thinking many of us can relate to this.  I understand the shock to the core, the devastation, the realization that God does what pleases Him, and though it is the best, it doesn't often feel like that.  As hard a rap as Jonah gets from us moralistic relatives of his, I soften a little when I wonder what kind of painful emotional upheaval he might have faced that brought him to such a deeply tragic place of wanting to cast his fate to the deathly waves on what seemed to be the end of his earthly journey.

Let's cut him some slack, shall we?  Probably most of you learned your Jonah lesson well in Sunday school and would never dream of defying the orders of the Most High.  And, I truly hope that is the case.  But chances are, if Jonah wrestled with God in this way, there might be others of us with that honest, fighting spirit who find an awkward dissonance when faced with inner turmoil and just wonder if life is worth the living anymore.

Oh dear Jonah.  I think I get you.

But the main character in the story of Jonah isn't Jonah, but God and all that God does - how He acts, and shows up in the oddest of ways.

And while we think Jonah was wrong to disobey God, isn't it just like God to unfold a purpose even in the wrestling-poor-choices that are made, even in rebellion?

Because you see, Jonah was still a missionary of sorts.  And while not on speaking terms with God, God seems to work around that and use Jonah to bring His presence to the ship-crew who knew Him not.

After hurling Jonah to the sea, they made sacrifices to the One True God and made vows to Him.  Sounds an awful lot like conversion to me - worship and commitment and acknowledgement of Who God is.  And these were people outside the fold.  Though they had feared for their lives, and early on regretted having such a nuisance of a passenger, I'll bet that was a voyage they never forgot.  It was their day of salvation.

So, while Jonah flailed about in angst, rage and sullenness towards God, God still had the upper-hand (of course) and used Jonah to introduce the ship-crew to Him.  Seems in running from God, He just landed Jonah with an extra preaching mission which he unknowingly served, and probably didn't know the results of, while taking what he thought were his last gulps of air this side of glory.

Sometimes I wonder if honesty with God about our disappointment with Him borders on rebellion. Perhaps it does.  But apparently God can handle it, and continues to use His servants, even in their despair and flight from Him.

And that, in a nutshell, gives me hope.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Sheldon Crutchfield, Through a Daughter's Eyes

Once upon a time there was a girl and she loved her father very much.  That girl was me, and I'd like to tell you about the man I called, 'Dad.'

But, what can I tell you about my Dad?  You know him - have heard so much already.  But you can tell something about a person by what moves him - to tears, to anger, to action and where he finds joy.

You know about Dad and his work - the stuff he did 'out there' (and sometimes it was way out there).  But let me peel back the curtains a bit for you now - a behind-the-scenes peek into what it was like to be his daughter.  To many of you he was 'Sheldon the missionary' or, as I like to say, 'Sheldon, the pillar of Hong Kong' or 'Sheldon, Mr. Beautiful' (as he often introduced himself this way)!  To me, he was simply my Dad.  As a kid, I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the stuff he did outside our home.  It can be tempting to over-focus on ministry to the neglect of family; thinking the grand importance of gospel-work is greater.  Dad always made us a top priority.  He drove us to school each day - to our lessons and activities and took time to be with us in the ordinary things.  He made each of our children feel that they mattered specially and specifically to him.  He generously gave his resources - often beyond his means - to those in need in far-off places - and then would go on and give even more to us, his family - spending his last few dollars on a milkshake.  He was extravagant with us and with anyone he saw in need.  Sometimes I'd be concerned for his needs and he'd say, "The Lord will take care of us.  He always has."

So, what moved Dad to tears?  Only a handful of times did I observe Dad weep.

  • He wept hard when learning of his brother's death, and when he lost each of his parents.  He did not shield his tears, but wept like Jesus did on hearing of Lazarus.
  • When I had hard times during my teenage years, he would weep over me, and pray asking God to forgive him for not being a better Dad.  He would pray for me, but not to preach at me.  His prayers were honest, humble and at times, desperate.  My heart was like ice during these times, but his tears spoke to me and melted my resistance, though I didn't let on.
  • Once, on July 4th we watched a T.V. special and during the singing of 'America' I saw him with tears streaming down his face. 'You okay, Dad?' I asked. 'It's so beautiful, it makes me weep.'
  • When Caleb was born, he was with us, and he wept tears of joy at the birth of his first grandchild.
  • When my sister lost a baby in early pregnancy, Dad wept hard.  He wept.  His heart carried our sorrows.  His tears for his hurting children were an outward expression of his deep love for us.

But there were also things that made Dad angry:

Our life had many crazy events - one of which was when neighbours clobbered me on the head with a brick.  Dad expressed such anger and outrage that Mom had to hold him back from going over and doing damage!  (It wouldn't look so good for the missionary to do in the neighbours).  At the time, I only saw his fury - but later it dawned on me that this outburst came from a place of fatherly protection.  His anger in this situation was a reflection of his heart that deeply loved me and couldn't stand the thought of harm coming to me.

But I also saw Dad express anger when he observed injustice and oppression.  These stoked his anger.  And in ministry, he had ample opportunity to witness this kind of abuse.

It seems that Dad understood social justice long before it was a 'thing.'

Injustice bothered Dad so much that he spent the better part of his life driven to action for those who lived under oppression.  Yes, this was his ministry, but even more, it was his life's passion.  And in daring greatly for the cause of God's kingdom, he instructed me in what God is like.  The God Dad showed me is not one who merely cares for us with passive sentiment, but One Who takes action - Whose care translates into presence and help.  Often Dad would whistle the tune:
                         'O God our help in ages past, 
                         our hope for years to come.  
                         Our shelter from the stormy blast 
                          and our eternal home.'
Dad lived taking refuge in God, his help, and sought to bring the message of this eternal refuge to those who had not understood this.

Dad took so many trips that in recent years we would try to gently encourage him to consider the idea of retirement. "What would I do?" he would say.  "You would lead a quieter, simpler life and travel less and spend time with the grandkids."  "That might get old quickly," he said.  We couldn't argue with that.  Compared to gallivanting about the bush in the Philippines, or hiking in remote regions of Vietnam, the idea of staying put did seem somewhat anticlimactic.  He was honest about the life he wanted to live.  Some people say, "Shop 'til you drop." But Dad lived the opposite - he lived to give, and he gave to the very end.

I have mentioned weeping, anger, and action.  But not for joy.  Most people would have described Dad with words such as jovial, funny, lighthearted, quick-witted.  One friend, on hearing the sad news of Dad's homegoing commented: "The laughter in heaven just got a lot louder."  On the surface, we could say Dad was funny and jolly (when asked to play-act as Santa for poverty-stricken kids, he gladly did so and fit the bill perfectly!).  But he also had a much deeper joy.  Dad used humour to put people at ease, to make them think and to build bridges.  I was amazed how he could even use his corny jokes to draw students to be curious about the Bible.  A friend was recently reflecting on his ministry and how he so naturally used humour.  She said that often it is a foreign concept to many: the idea of a God Who laughs, Who is delightful, joyful - a happy God.  This is far from the rigid, religious ideas of what God is like to many people.

He would be embarrassed that I say all these nice things about him.  He'd be embarrassed because he didn't view himself highly.  I have never known a more humble man.  Dad admired and was proud of his family heritage: there's even a book that chronicles his lineage.  Many were high academics and great entrepreneurs and had talents in music and verse - or even public office: one cousin became U.S. Ambassador to China.  I know that while God uses and calls many to serve Him in business and academics, that His calling on Dad's life, uniquely used Dad in his gifting to the bearing of eternal fruit.

I can say, with confidence, that self-giving characterized his life, knowing it isn't to his own glory, but to God's.  And here's why: I only knew Dad for the 39 years of my life.  His earlier years weren't so great.  When he would talk about his life post high-school, I got the impression that he shrunk back from doing much of anything.  He had been a poor student (which was always a great encouragement to me), and was directionless in life, until he met my Mom.  He thought of all the great people in his family and just felt he couldn't measure up.  But in my estimation, though he never climbed corporate ladders or dwelt in halls of academia, his life's work in investing in eternal things, was no less remarkable, and possibly more so.  Later in life, he recognized, in great humility, that only by God's grace had he become such a willing servant in God's kingdom.

Dad often talked with pride of his own father who had been president of the Florida Citrus Commission - and there were pictures of him with various U.S. presidents.  I like to think of my Dad being welcomed by the King of Kings, as having served in His vineyard, as a cultivator of spiritual life and fruit.

So, how does one become such a willing and fruitful servant?  How did Dad become the treasure that he was?  I'm not sure I can adequately answer that.  So let me direct you to something that came to mind as I was thinking about Dad.  He loved to point out these verses in John 15:

"I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.  You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit - fruit that will last - and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.  This is my command: Love each other."

These verses talk about being a servant, and being a friend.

In Dad's life of service I know he faced many challenges - often feeling weak and much in need of God's sustaining help.  Knowing his own weakness, he lived in full dependence on the Lord Who loved him so much.

The greater identity, however, I believe is that of friend.  Dad's servant's heart flowed from a soul deeply rooted in the love he found in Christ and the desire to worship Him with his whole life.  Dad found joy in a very personal friendship with the God He served.  I think one reason 'Jesus loves me' was Dad's favourite song was because of its profound simplicity - but especially because he could relate so well to the words, "Little ones to Him belong; They are weak, but He is strong."  He drew strength from knowing how much he was loved by God, and he taught me to do the same.  I know he felt so unworthy of God's love.  But he took refuge, joy and hope in it.  Worship - being with God's people, meditating on God's word, expressing love to God in prayer - this drew him close to God, and was never a chore for him.  It was something he was eager to do.  He always looked forward to meeting with God's people, and often I saw him tear up during worship or when he would share thoughts at the Lord's table.  God's love came through and reached me through my Dad.  Often he would pray, with deep gratitude and tears, thanking God for loving him and saving him.

Dad's greatest joy was introducing people to his best friend - the Lord Jesus.  He knew that there is no greater way to live than as a child, dependent and perfectly loved by the God Who made us.  His life is a testimony to what the love of God can do.

Often Dad referred to the prophet Isaiah, chapter 58, when he saw oppression - he knew it was incompatible with the life of faith.  He had no respect for lip-service Christianity.
Let me close by quoting one of his final facebook posts, as I think it speaks for the life he lived:

"It seems to me that the emphasis in fasting for most people is something passive, such as not eating or going without some other activity for a time.  Isaiah 58 makes it clear that God considers fasting to be much more active than passive.

'Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself?...
Is it to...spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
'Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness,...to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house;...
Then shall your light break forth..., and your healing shall spring up speedily;...
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, 'Here I am.'
If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickeness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday...
and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail."

Isaiah 58 (portions) (ESV)

At the last memorial service we held for Dad in Hong Kong we closed with a song that Dad introduced to his home fellowship in recent months.  It communicates a message, and a call that Dad lived and longed to see fulfilled.  As we grieve his homegoing, the question remains: who will step up to the plate and fulfill God's mission on earth?  Who will dedicate themselves to living for what matters in eternity - the Word of God and the souls of people?  What investment are you making in eternity - in what will outlast the days you live in this earthly vessel?  How are you bringing God's love to a hurting world?  Dad has gone on to his eternal reward, but we are left facing a task that remains still, quite unfinished.

Facing a task unfinished that drives us to our knees,
A need that, undiminished, rebukes our slothful ease,
We who rejoice to know Thee, renew before Thy throne
The solemn pledge we owe Thee, to go and make Thee known.

Where other lords beside Thee hold their unhindered sway,
Where forces that defied Thee defy Thee still today,
With none to heed their crying for life, and love, and light,
Unnumbered souls are dying, and pass into the night.

We bear the torch that, flaming, fell from the hands of those
Who gave their lives proclaiming that Jesus died and rose.
Ours is the same commission, the same glad message ours;
Fired by the same ambition, to Thee we yield our powers.

O Father who sustained the, O Spirit who inspired,
Saviour, whose love constrained them to toil with zeal untired,
From cowardice defend us, from lethargy awake!
Forth on Thine errands send us, to labour for Thy sake."

- Frank Houghton