Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Toddlers of the Bible: Peter, Jonah, and Sampson


You know those preschooler puzzle toys where there's a plastic box with shaped holes cut in it? And you have all these plastic shapes to fit into the holes? Have you ever watched a kid playing with one of those? Their tiny toddler muscles strain to force the circle block into the flower hole, or their little brains struggle to figure out the right way to turn the star in order to line up all its points. I love watching kids that age play. They are thinking and working so hard, and learning so much, and yet when they return to the same toy the next day, they've forgotten half of what they achieved the day before. I can't help but laugh as they get frustrated and try to beat the pieces into place, or get bored and wander away to another toy. But the best moment is when they finally get everything in the right place and grin, proud of their accomplishment.

I think that's how God is with us sometimes, watching and laughing and letting us figure it out. No matter how hard we shove, the square block is not going to fit into the round hole. And the triangle won't fit in the triangle hole unless you have it turned at the right angle. Sometimes He gets frustrated, thinking to Himself, "We just did this. How can she still not figure out the right work/personal life balance? Why is he still trying to get that promotion instead of going back to grad school? Why won't she just break up with him already? How has he not figured out that he needs to attend church regularly?" And sometimes He gently reaches out and helps us turn the block around, or subtly taps a finger on the right hole for the shape in our hands. And sometimes, when we are getting frustrated or bored or overwhelmed with this confusing shape game, sometimes He is the one who hands us the light-up fire truck, or the singing dinosaur, or the plastic groceries, because sometimes we need a break from trying to fit all those shapes together.


God gave Jonah a specific task: go to Nineveh and tell them to repent of their wickedness. Jonah refused, and proceeded to run as far away from Nineveh as he knew how to get. Then God sent a storm, and Jonah offered to die in order to save the lives of everyone else on the boat, and then he was swallowed by a fish. Then he prayed, and God rescued him, and then he went to Nineveh and preached half of God's message, and then the people figured out the other half anyway. And then Jonah got mad at God for doing the thing that He said He would do.

God is God. You can't run far enough in any direction to escape His will. You can even half-ass the things He asks you to do, but guess what? God is more powerful than you. If you think He can't make shit happen in spite of your rebellion, you're forgetting the whole toddler thing above. It doesn't matter how hard that two-year-old tries to shove that star-shaped block into the trapezoid-shaped hole. It's not going in.


There's this to say about Jonah: he listened to God enough to know what God wanted him to do, even if he then did the exact opposite. And he did eventually do part of what God asked him for.

You can't really say as much about Sampson.

Sampson was supposed to follow a specific set of vows, and was supposed to rescue his people from the Philistines. He broke every single one of his vows in very quick succession, and although he killed lots of Philistines, he only ever did so to correct wrongs that they had committed against him. He wasn't a champion for his people, only for his own ego.

His story ends with all the Philistine leaders dying by Sampson's hands. But don't get too excited: first he broke his final vow, and then they tortured and humiliated him, and then he asked God to allow him to get revenge, and then he killed himself along with all of them.

So, God's will was done. Yay?


Oh, Peter. He tried so hard to be a good disciple, but he kept getting sidetracked with his own ideas. Protip: God's ideas are pretty much always better than yours. (Occasionally He decides to kill everyone, and Moses has to talk Him out of it, but by and large you can just assume that He knows what He's doing.)

After all the time spent with Jesus, Peter still didn't really get this. When Jesus tells Peter that Peter will deny Him three times before dawn, Peter argues back. Then Jesus told them all (for like the eight millionth time) that He was going to be betrayed and die, and then He gets arrested, and then Peter cuts off a guy's ear. (I like to think that a better translation of Jesus' words at that point is, "Dude. Seriously? We just talked about this. This is happening. Chill.") You'll never guess what happens next. Peter denies Jesus three times just before dawn.

But he tried. He tried so hard. And let's not forget that it was Peter upon whom Jesus built His church, and Peter who preached the Pentecost sermon. He could barely take a step without tripping over one foot and shoving the other one in his mouth, but when he did take a step, it was with seven-league boots. His incompetence, pride, and general stupidity were no match for the Holy Spirit moving within him.


It took me a long time to be reconciled to my parents' divorce. Actually, let me rephrase that: it's taking me a long time to be reconciled to my parents' divorce. First, i had to be reconciled to the fact that they were never supposed to be together, that they should never have gotten married. Then i wondered what that implied for me: should i never have been born? Was i God's afterthought?

Here's what Sampson and Jonah and Peter have taught me: God's will is going to happen, whether or not we participate, even if we rebel, even if we make mistakes. God always intended for me to be here. He may not have intended for me to arrive under these exact circumstances. but He wasn't about to let my parents' mistake get in the way of what He wanted, and what He wanted was me.

I can't help but think of the background characters in these stories. I think of the Ninevites that Jonah was supposed to redeem. They were hell-bound and didn't even know it, and Jonah did everything he could to keep them headed in that direction. I think of the Israelites who Sampson was supposed to be rescuing from their oppressors. He ignored his people to chase tail, and forgot about anyone who didn't stroke either his ego or his penis. And i think of the other eleven Apostles, of the multitude of Jesus' other followers, of the new Christian converts trying to spread the good news and build churches and figure out this whole religion thing (can we eat bacon? do we have to be circumcised? is it okay to gossip?), and relying on Peter to guide them through all of these heavy questions, not to mention the persecutions and martyrs.

We never get to find out what they were thinking and feeling about all of this nonsense, but i think i have some idea of what it's like to be caught up in the wake of someone else's mess. It sucks to feel like you're a secondary character in someone else's story, like you're just there for set dressing or for a plot twist. But none of us are secondary characters. In each of these stories, all those background people are the whole point.

God sent Jonah to Nineveh for the sake of the Ninevites. God raised up Sampson as a judge for the sake of the Israelites. Jesus called Peter for the sake of the new Christians. All of these people are our secondary characters, our sidekicks, our plot twists. God wants great things for us, and sometimes He uses other people to work His will in our lives.

For those of us who are Peter, take heart: your ability to fuck up does not outweigh God's ability to get shit done.

For those of us who are Jonah or Sampson, take heed: your attempts to rebel will not succeed, and may destroy you.

For those of us simply caught in another's destructive wake, take comfort: God does not hold anyone else's mistakes against you. His will for you is going to happen, no matter what bad decisions are made by the people who are supposed to be rescuing you.

The circle block is only ever going to fit into the circle hole.

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