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How I Came to My 'Jonah Moment'

Aug 1, 2008
As a young man, I was drawn to Manhattan because of its magnetic energy, its endless promise and its aura of mystery. To me, Manhattan was an imaginary city of glittering majesty, the city described by Fitzgerald as a place that has all the "...wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world." I came to this city somewhat na´ve to the ways of the world, but soon enough, I too was striving to climb to the highest floor of the best office with the best view.

The dream, if you can call it that, turned out to be little more than the commonplace pursuit of success, recognition and power. Little did I realize how ill equipped I was for this particular kind of race. One day, though, I awoke from this revelry to find myself in a crisis that threatened the very foundations of the life I had attempted to create.

While the world barely noticed my plight, I was indeed in a struggle for survival. Worse, I was blindsided by this rising storm. After all, the times had been good and my goals had seemed attainable. Or so I thought. But then came the day of reckoning when the fantasy, built on a foundation of thin air, began to crumble of its own dead weight and I was left stripped of my steadfast belief in self-reliance and worldly achievement. Ironically, though, as this part of me was dying in a sea of troubles, something new was emerging within. I call this crisis and time of trouble my "Jonah Moment."

Jonah, in the Old Testament story, receives a call from God to go to Nineveh to proclaim God's judgment on that wayward city. Rather than acknowledge God by responding to his call, Jonah flees in the opposite direction, only to discover that his attempted escape has been in vain. Instead, he heads directly into a fierce storm which threatens to destroy him and everyone on board his ship. It appears that Jonah is finished.

Jonah's story of crisis and despair, however, does not end in his death. At his moment of greatest danger, when all seems to be lost, Jonah prays to the Lord and the Lord answers. Jonah's original decision to disregard God leads directly to the crisis that threatens his life. And it is when everything seems to be lost that Jonah turns to God for salvation and he receives it. The fact is that Jonah, the rebel, has died only to be reborn as a servant of the Lord. And then, for a second time, God instructs Jonah to go to Nineveh to save that city from certain destruction. This time he goes.

The biblical pattern of tacit or explicit rebellion followed by physical and spiritual crisis is a universal pattern that works itself out in thousands of ways in thousands of places, often leading to supplication, mercy and mission. In my own case, it would take years for this pattern to reveal itself to me. And it would take even more time to understand that God is always reaching out to all men and women who may be attempting to avoid his call by fleeing to places of their own desires. By pursuing my own path and seeking my own way, I too was avoiding the call. And in the turmoil of my own crisis I too cried out to God because by then all of my own self created gods had abandoned me. They proved to be utterly worthless. But discovering what was truly valuable would not come immediately. I had been stripped of my old pretensions. But I could still not bring myself to believe that God had actually bothered to intervene by answering my prayer.

Eventually, the free fall stopped and the pressure let up. I surveyed the wreckage and was amazed to find that little real harm had been done. My story moved from crisis management to second chances. Still, my mind remained clouded even though I had experienced a miracle of God. The fact is that I was not ready to bring God into my naturalistic way of thinking, and so, I ascribed natural causes to my survival story. Later though, when I was becoming familiar with the Bible and the amazing way it reflects everyday experience, I began to realize that a deeper reality lay behind my story of survival. The verse that crystallized how the natural and the supernatural intersected in my own life comes from one of David's psalms: "Call upon me in your day of trouble. I will deliver you and you will honor me" (Psalm 50:15). I had called out to God and I had been delivered against all odds. But what about the honor part? How would I respond to that? The answer came in an unexpected way in an unexpected place.

The day was Ash Wednesday, February 13, 1991. My family and I were on an island in the Caribbean which was not a well traveled place because the U.S. Navy had reserved large sections of the island for practice bombing runs. The bombs no longer were falling and the house we were renting was situated near the top of a hill. It was in that house on that day that I unexpectedly came across a two year lectionary hidden in the back of the Book of Common Prayer. When I discovered this lectionary, it was if I heard a voice telling me that this was the map I needed for the way ahead. So on that day many years ago, I quietly committed myself to following this biblical road map everyday of the year no matter where I was or what I was doing.

Thus began my response to God's call. I would honor God by coming to know his Word by setting aside time every morning of every day. This journey would be slow and it would require perseverance. But if I was going to truly honor God through my life, I would have to be equipped with a deeper understanding of God's Word. And through an everyday encounter with the Old and New Testaments, I began to understand what it meant to walk on God's ancient pathway.

In February of every year the light begins to change. Without much warning, the steel gray of deep winter gives way to intimations of a softer season ahead. Daylight lingers longer into the afternoon and the light reflecting off distant skyscrapers takes on warmer tones. And when the sky is clear, the sunsets paint the western horizon in orange and reds suggestive that it is time to prepare to head out once again. This is the time when I yearn to return to the hills and mountains of the country beyond the shores of this water bound city. While I still trace a solitary path between the walls of the narrow glass and concrete canyons, I am no longer striving to climb to the highest floor of the best office building, for I have set my heart on an even better place.

Herman Melville called us "Manhattoes," people of the island city who still have the capacity to wonder at the mystery of the world beyond. To Melville, they are "water-gazers...posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand[ing] thousands upon thousands...fixed in ocean reveries." I am one of them now, though my mind and imagination take me beyond the rivers and oceans to the trails leading into the mountains and all the wonders of God's universe. So to all water-gazers, star-gazers and trail-thinkers, here's to your reverie. And here's to your quest to find and walk on the ancient and good paths. I hope we meet there and can walk along together one day.
About the Author
Eric Kampmann received an undergraduate degree from Brown University and a graduate degree in English at Stony Brook. Eric is the author of two other books: Tree of Life (2003) and The Book Publisher's Handbook (2007). For information on his newest book, Trail Thoughts, visit: Trail Thoughts.
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