This twelve frame storyboard tells a lot. It is small, drawn on a diminutive scrap of paper torn from something else and it is about the size of a recipe card. I know the drawing. It was mine, I drew it when I was five in Miss Warren’s Sunday school class. It came back to me when we sifted through my Mom’s personal effects after she died, trying to figure out what to throw away and what to keep. My mom had preserved this small drawing tucked away in the back of a drawer for more than fifty years.
I keep it framed above my desk to remind me of some important lessons, and to remember that in the human endeavour, some things are a constant, cradle to grave.
There is that odd dance with God. What is depicted in the drawing are the sequences from the ancient story of Jonah. If you went to Sunday school you know it. It is an old story and it lasted through the ages because it is true in a sense which is larger than life. We all have been Jonah at one time or another.
Jonah was a prophet and he had a call from God to go to Ninevah, the powerful Assyrian city, and tell them that God’s wrath was going to catch up with them. They must repent. Nobody wants this kind of dirty job, and Jonah runs away. You might know the rest of the story. He is beset by a terrible storm at sea, and swallowed by a whale. After three days he is delivered onto dry land when the whale vomits him up, and he is a changed man.
Well, until next time I guess.
That would be my end of the story. As a universal, the story is repeated throughout life, the tendency to drift away from God and do things our own way. There has been much postulation and conjecture about our ability as human beings to partake of the divine, but it would seem that a large part of us remains carnal despite our best intentions. Paul in his epistles referred to this tendency as the “old Adam” haunting his actions.
What I was taught in Church, the born again theology, was that God would just seize you and turn you into a saint, and that would be that. But I rarely witnessed this work itself out just like that in real life. No matter who was involved, the story really entailed a lot of twists and turns with every human being. Just as the honeymoon wears off, so it is with God. We forget and must be reminded, wooed, drawn back. Taught some hard lessons here and there.
There was a lay monk in fifth century Britain named Pelagius who advocated free will and asceticism. He came to Rome and was shocked at the moral debauchery. His response was a strict moralism which emphasized that you could break away from the herd, and go your own way, become your own moral man. He believed that you could become a saint all on your own if you just tried hard enough.
He was famously challenged by Saint Augustine of Hippo, in one of the showdowns of faith that happened through the ages. It was called the Pelagian controversy. Augustine believed that man is stained by ‘original sin’ (the sin of Adam) and therefore needs the grace of God, and a few course-corrects from God along the way to keep on track. Becoming a saint is something initiated and enabled by God.
Saint Augustine (it would seem) won that battle. But the remaining war is one he recognized that goes on in every human life, especially those who strive in matters of faith. Human beings keep on inventing new ways to ‘get it right’ - more methods, and more techniques twelve principles here, and three steps there. Neat and tidy. I stare at the world in disbelief every time I hear about the next thing, be it the ‘Prayer of Jabez’, the ‘Purpose Driven Life’, et cetera. Every few years there is another craze set upon us, the one that is supposed to be definitive and fix us for good. John Calvin called it when he said that the human heart is an idol factory.
And then I look up at this little drawing and ruminate on my own journey of faith. I have had to reckon with a few things, and one of them is what Saint Paul pointed out, that Jesus Christ alone is the author and finisher of our faith. Fleming Rutledge, one of my favourite authors, has said pointedly that Christianity is not a religion. It is a bold statement. What she means, is that Christianity alone, does not rely on technique. Our reliance on Jesus as the root of our faith, removes once and for all the creep of intention that threatens to drown out the role of God and make the journey one of our own, a product of the will and of human endeavour.
I look up at the drawing. It reminds me once again, we are all Pelagian. We have that tendency.
Maybe it is time for a doxology. A doxology is a spontaneous burst of praise that arises from an epiphany about the wonders of God. Of most wonder to me, is the ongoing remedy that God is bigger and stronger than our best intentions.
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”