Jonah Project Week 6

Jonah 1:6 

The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.” 

What hour of the day is your least productive time? At 3 p.m., if you happen to drop in on my life, you’d notice that a coastal fog has descended upon my brain and I’m faced with an important life decision: nap or coffee. I love afternoon naps. Occasionally, I nod off in the middle of the afternoon. After a fifteen minute nap, I awake refreshed and alert, better focused for the rest of the day. I’ll admit though, there is always that little voice in the back of my mind nagging me for being lazy, challenging me to get back to work and make something useful with my life. 

I empathize with Jonah, deep in his sleep. I love to sleep and resist attempts to break into my slumber. Insomnia is a real danger to human health. Sleep is a gift from God, necessary for our well-being.

With that truth affirmed, let’s be clear about Jonah. He is running from God. Jonah is not sleeping because he is tired. He sleeps to escape. This is no afternoon cat nap. The prophet has fallen down into a deep sleep, like a person plunging head first down the cellar steps into the darkness of sleep, seeking some way out of his life calling and responsibility. A terrible storm rages all around him. The wooden bones of this cargo vessel groan and splinter. Towering waves crash over this cargo ship, cascading down into the hold where Jonah snores. Like Rip Van Winkle, he’s missing the big show. As commercial sailors do everything in their power to save the ship, including Jonah’s life, Jonah does everything in his power to avoid reality. 

Enter the captain of the ship. In the midst of the chaos on deck, the captain has enough clarity of mind to realize someone is missing. All hands are not on deck. This captain is a good leader. He’s not a Jewish man. He’s not a religious man. He’s a working man of the sea. He’s an excellent leader, giving us, centuries later, a few great principles of wise leadership. 

Know your people. This captain knows who is present and who is absent. He knows his crew and his paying customers. The only way to truly know a person is to go to them and get to know them. With the ship pitching and yawing in the life-threatening storm making any movement on board difficult, this captain takes time to go below deck on a scavenger hunt called “Where’s Jonah?” He find his missing man among the bilge water, deep in sleep. He takes the time to get to know his people.

Motivate your people. A second leadership principle in our verse is that wise leaders motivate their people to rise up and live life fully. This captain rouses Jonah with an urgent question: “How can you sleep?” Behind this question, of course, is the urgent need for life-saving help. The captain’s telling Jonah with this question, “This ship is breaking apart and we all may die. All hands are needed on deck or we will perish.” As it turns out, he’s come the the source of the problem. Jonah is at the heart of the storm. But he is not easy to awaken. 

There are many ways to motivate people. This captain doesn’t mess around. He gets in Jonah’s face with a pair of commands. “Get up! Call out!” He challenges Jonah to face reality. Wake up, stand up, and get into action. The action this captain asks of Jonah is to put his faith into action. He understands the spiritual roots of life and work. Call on God! Our first work in life is prayer, the labor of loving God.

Benedictine spirituality believes prayer is work and work is prayer. The Benedictine Latin motto, ora et labora, pray and work, invites us into a life of prayerful work and the divine labor of prayer. The real work of life is prayer. Begin the day by calling on God for help to awaken and enter fully into the day. Finish the day by calling on God with gratitude for the many gifts of the day.

A third wise leadership principle comes from this captain: love your people. Wise leaders love their people. The captain cares for the lives of everyone aboard his ship, including Jonah, the runaway prophet. He’s concerned that not one soul under his care will perish. He wants his people to survive and thrive. He also knows that most of life is out of our control. This captain understands the spiritual roots of our life on earth: unless God takes notice of us, we will perish. 

In William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus written in 1875, we hear a bold declaration of self-mastery which strengthened Nelson Mandela during those long 27 years of imprisonment in South Africa: “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.” Wise leaders help people learn self-mastery, to take responsibility for their lives and the lives of those around them. But wise leaders also love their people by bringing them before God who alone can truly master our fate. God alone is the true Captain of the human soul, coming to us, calling us to wake up from our slumber, get up, and rekindle our spiritual fire. Call on your God! Here lies the deepest way to love your people. Bring them under the care of the great Captain of the soul. 

As an alternative to Henley’s poetic vision, I offer Jessie Adams’ poem from 1906: 

I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift;
If hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use,
I’ll seek the seas at His behest, and brave another cruise.
It is the wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,
Until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years;
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be;
Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea.
If ever I forget Thy love and how that love was shown,
Lift high the blood red flag above; it bears Thy Name alone.
Great Pilot of my onward way, Thou wilt not let me drift;
I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.
Christ in the Storm on the Sea, by Rembrandt, 1633