Several weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, our area was blasted by a mercifully short but severe thunderstorm. In the wake of 90-mile-per hour winds, fortunately most houses were intact. But the power was out and hundreds of decades-old trees were battered, uprooted, or otherwise destroyed. Yards were buried in branches, streets were blocked, and power lines were left sagging under the weight of fallen trees.
When the worst had passed, my husband and I went outside and were shocked to see the bulk of our 50-year-old maple tree littering the front yard. Every branch of what had been a large shade tree was lying on the ground, shredded from the wind. We knew the tree was damaged irreparably, and our first reaction was grief at the loss of a beautiful tree and its shade. Then came our second reaction. Trevor looked at the litter piled seven feet high, turned to me, and said, “It’s going to take a long time to clean this up.”
Neighbors emerged from their houses to survey the damage and check on one another. Seeing the immediate need to clear the streets, people began working together to move branches and tree trunks so cars could get through on the main roads. They checked for damage on the houses of people who weren’t home. Then, after a break for lunch, they started clearing yards, moving all the branches to the curb—starting with ours. It was astounding: The cleanup job whose prospect had overwhelmed Trevor and me was done in about an hour. I was so thankful for our generous neighbors and the camaraderie we enjoyed when working together.
What a great neighborhood, I thought. We’re so blessed.
A few days later, we hired a crew to remove the remaining trunk and stump of the maple tree, along with another tree—also damaged beyond recovery—that had sheltered our house from the sun and from the traffic in the street. Our front yard was nearly bare, and it was shocking. Suddenly, instead of looking out our front door and seeing trees, we looked out and saw our neighbors. This was upsetting.
We soon left on a two-week vacation, while neighbors continued their cleanup, cutting down trunks and removing stumps. When we returned home, we were sad to see so many old trees missing, like reliable friends who had felt unappreciated and moved away without warning. The neighborhood looked dramatically different.
My sadness turned to irritation when I went to our backyard and saw that two large pine trees were missing from our neighbor’s yard, directly behind our house. The trees had provided privacy we had taken for granted, and with them gone, we had a new view—so did our neighbors. I found myself looking at a house I had never seen before; I hadn’t even known it was there. “I don’t even know who lives there,” I complained to Trevor. “And I didn’t want to know they were there.”
I was immediately ashamed. In my voice, I had heard an echo of Jonah.
Jonah is usually hailed as a hero in children’s Sunday school stories, but his spectacular story is more like a cautionary tale. In fact, his story is not really about Jonah after all.
After reluctantly warning Nineveh of its impending destruction if the city did not repent of its ways and follow God, Jonah was irritated when the people of Nineveh actually took his message seriously and obeyed God. Apparently he had been looking forward to the destruction of this wicked city, so he complained to God about his merciful and compassionate nature, then sat down at a distance to watch what would happen—presumably still hoping to see some fireworks. Jonah had no personal stake in the future of Nineveh; he was an arm’s-length one-man audience hoping to see a violent end to people he knew deserved it.
Apparently the sun was hot, and God provided a leafy plant to grow over Jonah for his comfort while he waited and watched Nineveh. Jonah was grateful for the shade and in a day’s time grew pretty attached to that plant. The next day, when God caused a worm to eat the plant’s stem so Jonah’s shade withered away, he complained bitterly, pitied himself, and wished for death. That’s when God explained his object lesson.
“You feel sorry about the plant,” God said, “though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:10-11).
Jonah had totally missed the point. He had delivered God’s message not so the way would be clear for destruction, but so the people would actually have a chance to respond. God cared deeply about the people in Nineveh; he loved them as fiercely and tenderly as he loved Jonah. And Jonah should have loved them too. Instead, he was so focused on his own comfort, he completely missed the joy of seeing people turn toward God and find life.
I’ve been there, Jonah. I sometimes become so focused on my own comfort, I miss the point as well. I miss what God is doing around me and how he wants to use me and complain when his work interferes with my pursuit of happiness. I enjoy the trees and miss the people.
God has put me in this world not to indulge myself, not to live for my own comfort and pleasure. But I am constantly tempted to do so, tempted to ignore the people around me and the ways I can love them. The call to love my neighbor doesn’t get any more obvious than literally loving the people in my neighborhood.
I’m glad God responded to Jonah graciously but correctively. He taught us all a lesson. And I believe he responds that way to me as well. He understands this temptation, and he knows I am “only dust” (Psalm 103:14), easily distracted by my own reflection. He also loves me too much to allow me to live selfishly without challenging me with conviction. Thank God he is, in Jonah’s words, “a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love (Jonah 4:2).” May that truth fuel my interactions with the neighbors I can now see more clearly than ever before.
© 2012 Amy Simpson.