Between the early years of sunday school and my adult life, I've heard the bible story of Jonah a few dozen times. After several of those occasions, I found myself wondering how a man could survive inside the belly of a fish for three days. Beyond that, I admit, the story of Jonah never challenged the way I looked at life. This week, though, that all changed.
For those unfamiliar with this story, in it, God gives Jonah a special assignment. He tells him to go tell the Ninevites if they don't change their ways they are doomed. To Jonah's way of thinking, the Ninevites were a violent and Godless bunch of people, and didn't deserve a warning. They deserved the doom God was threatening. So he balked at the undertaking and boarded a ship headed away from Nineveh.
As it would turn out, God liked people to carry out their assignments. So he unleashed a storm that threatened the lives of everyone sharing the boat with Jonah in hopes he might rethink his disobedience. When his fellow sailors determined Jonah was at the root of their unrest, they challenged him. Jonah confessed to them he had probably annoyed God and that they were just collateral damage of his anger. Jonah told them their best bet was to throw him overboard, advice they eventually took.
You may know the next part of this story. Jonah gets swallowed by a large fish. If there's something that brings about contrition quicker than hanging out in the belly of a sea creature, I don't know what it is. So Jonah apologized to God and committed to carrying out the original assignment, although still filled with resentment that God was offering the Ninevites an opportunity to land in His good graces. In spite of his internal protest, though, Jonah delivered God's message to Nineveh.
Then a beautiful thing happened. The people of Nineveh received the message and turned from their evil ways toward God. Jonah failed to see the beauty, however, and he protested to God. He told God he knew all along he was merciful. That's why he hesitated to deliver God's message in the first place. Inside he felt there was a real risk these people would respond by seeking God's forgiveness and God would be foolish enough to grant it.
God then tries to help Jonah understand that if he showed mercy on him, a disobedient man who knew better, shouldn't he be more than willing to show mercy on the people of Nineveh - people who didn't know their right from their left.
Maybe you're like me. You've heard this story and it stirred up cartoon-like whale images, but little more. I understand that. But this week a dear friend got me to thinking about this story in a way I never had before - and frankly in a way that made me look at me more than the story - and I want to share that with you.
Last weekend I came across a Florida news article someone had posted on Facebook about a friend of mine, Patina Ripkey. She'd written a letter to Julie Schenecker, a mother imprisoned for for murdering her two teenage children. The horrific nature of Ms. Scheneker's crime brought national attention to this story back in January of 2011 (Florida Mother Accused of Killing Mouthy Kids). People had a hard time understanding how a mother, seemingly out of the blue, could put bullets in her teenagers' heads. Many of those same people had an even harder time understanding how anyone could offer a woman like that God's forgiveness, but that's exactly what my friend Patina did through her letter.
I admit, I wondered about that myself. Of all the people she could have picked to write a letter to, why this woman. Last week I called Patina and asked her that.
She told me one morning, several months after Ms. Scheneker's arrest, she was reading the story of Jonah as part of her regular morning bible reading. When she was done, she wondered to herself how Jonah could want to deny anyone God's forgiveness.
"I told God, there's nobody I can think of I don't want you to forgive," she said.
Soon after she shared that with God, Patina began to think constantly about Ms. Schenecker.
"Suddenly, I couldn't get her off my mind. That's when it hit me. She killed her children in a neighborhood very close to where I live. As a mother myself, I was horrified by what she did. I was as angry as everyone else. God was reminding me of that. He was making it clear that Ms. Schenecker was someone I'd have a hard time asking him to forgive."
Patina told me she apologized to God and then sat down and wrote a letter to Ms. Schenecker. In it, she told her that God is a forgiving God, and that if she wanted to be forgiven, she would be. A few months later, Ms. Schenecker responded to Patina's letter. In her letter she told Patina about growing up in a Baptist church, that her mother had recently sent her a bible, and then shared this with her:
"I have received Christ into my life/rededicated my life. I am more at peace than I've been in many, many years. My heart is still broken and I've lost all that is dear to me."
No one will have a hard time understanding the mixed reaction Patina has received in the aftermath of writing her letter, and to Ms. Schenecker's subsequent response. Her church family and many Christian friends have supported her reaching out. Many others, though, have not. One of the comments I read online to a story about Patina's letter said this:
"hold on, I'm going to be ill..."
From a human perspective, I get that comment. I confess, it challenges me to think I might one day share heaven with a woman who killed her children. That's the danger of human perspective, though. It's built entirely on the comparison of our actions against those of our friends and family and even complete strangers like Ms. Schenecker. A person like me, who carries around his own share of evil, can foolishly see my own sainthood in disguise when hearing about a woman who kills her children.
In writing her letter my friend Patina ignored human perspective. She followed God's lead and not her own. Many folks question that. Why follow God's lead when he's the one guy who could have put a stop to this tragedy, but chose not to? There's no good answer to that question. Not one.
Here's one thing you have to consider when you question God's absence in this tragedy, though. God also sat by and watched his own son's murder. He didn't intervene on his behalf any more than he stepped in to save the lives of the Schenecker children. To begin to understand why God doesn't show up to rescue our children from evil, we have to ask why he didn't save his own. The answer to that is quite simple, and maybe a bit ironic given this discussion: forgiveness.
That's why we'll always have a hard time out-forgiving God. He was so committed to seeing our imperfections overcome by forgiveness that he allowed his own son to die for them. And it's hard to believe, I know, but that death covered the whole spectrum of sins. There is no degree of difficulty to God's forgiveness. No matter how hard we try to look at it through the eyes of Jonah and insist child killers are undeserving of warning letters from anyone, God just doesn't see it that way. You ask him to forgive you, he'll tell you it's already been done.
That's a tough thing for us to accept from a human perspective. It sounds too simple, especially when it comes to dead children. If it makes us feel any better, I believe we underestimate how hard it is for a murderer's heart to turn to God and ask forgiveness. I think we also forget how tuned in God is to our hearts. A mere I'm sorry might fool the human perspective, it means nothing to God. While we pour through the finest details of an apology looking for scientific evidence of sincerity, God feels it in an instant from a million hearts away.
So has God forgiven Ms. Schenecker? Ultimately, that's a question only God can answer. But I know God didn't sacrifice his son to narrow the forgiveness line; he did it to open the line to all. The bigger point for us to consider, though, is God's forgiveness required an incredible sacrifice. Through it, we know God understands how hard it is for us to find forgiveness in our own hearts. My friend Patina certainly had to search for it, but she was ultimately reminded of the lengths God went to to forgive her. And the question of whether she should write Ms. Schenecker a letter became not much of a question at all. It became an assignment from God.
I'm proud of my friend for carrying out the assignment. For sharing the power of forgiveness with me and so many others. I'm grateful she made the story of Jonah more than another fish tale.