Your next chapter: turning the page
Turning the page to a new chapter sounds easy enough. A flip of the wrist, a snap of the fingers, a swipe of the page. But, human fingers, especially those that are worn or trembling, often can't muster the energy or find the will to make even such an elementary move. At times the brightest prospects of a new chapter can't break the grip that the hurt and pain and disappointment of the last one exerts on us. So, lay aside the winks and nods, huddle talk, and greeting card sentiment that make turning the page to a new chapter such child's play. Take off your shoes, servant! Turning the page to a new chapter is sacred ground.
What happened to Jonah is a good example! Jonah's assignment from God wasn't going too well. Unlike Abram, God showed Jonah exactly where he wanted him to go. We can speculate all day about why Jonah responded to God's call the way he did. But, that's all it would be, guesswork. Evidenly Jonah either (1) didn't reallly want to go to Nineveh, or (2) wasn't all that interested in serving God. Whatever? So, Jonah ran away from Nineveh and the presence of the Lord. And we all know the story. I heard it for the first time in Beginnner's, way back at West Greenville Baptist Church. Jonah was thrown out of the boat and swallowed by a fish. He ended up in a glob of fish vomit on dry land.
Then God spoke to Jonah about a next chapter. The first one hadn't gone all that well, or all that whale, if you won't mind the pun. He said, "Arise, go to Nineveh..." (Jonah 2:2), the exact same words God had spoken to him before the fish. Now, however, "Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord." (3:3). There's no mention of reluctance or fear or haunting memories of fish innards or the sensation of being regurgitated up on the beach. In fact, the text leads me to believe something momumental has occured in the belly of the fish and that this new learning about next chapters over-rode any second thoughts in Jonah.
So, what was this learning, the lesson that propelled Jonah to fulfill what God had called him to do? Well, here's a thought. Remember the conversation Jonah had with God while in the belly of the fish? Evidently it was a prayer and listening session, or at least, while he was praying he (1) remembered some things he had previously been taught, or (2) he heard something fresh and new. In either case, what he discovered there freed him to turn the page to the chapter God had written for him. Perhaps it is the key for all of us when we're reluctant to do the same. Here it is: "Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs" (Jonah 2:8). Evidently there were things Jonah idolozed, maybe worshiped, that were more important to him that turning the page to the next chapter.
Maybe Jonah was afraid. Or, his last experiences serving God might have been so painful that he could not see past them. Or, Jonah could have worshiped the past. Or, he could have loved the life he had to give up---people, possessions, situations, work---to accept his assignment to Nineveh. It could have been as simple as Jonah cherishing the pity party he was enjoying. Or, any number of personal preferences or prejudices that he'd rather cling to than the promise of God's grace in the next chapter. Turning the page to the next chapter means putting all that past stuff in it's place behind us. And, it's a hard thing to admit, but sometimes we just don't want to do that. Ouch.
Turning the page to the next chapter he has for us involves, "...forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God's heavenly call in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:13-14). It is anticipating the new thing God wants to do in our lives and the grace that is promised when we let go of our idols.
Right now I'm cheering as I remember case after case of pastor's I know and love who have let go of their past hurtful church experiences to thrive in next chapters. Somewhere in the process of their grief and pain God refreshed and renewed them, reminded them that their gifts and calling were irrevocable, and that the fires of their life, mission, and passion were still kingdom valuables. And, they eventually turned that page, moved into the next chapter, and are serving him faithfully and joyfully even now. Last week one friend called to discuss retirement. His next chapter has been a thrilling testimony to God's faithfulness and his willingness to turn the page. What joy!
Turning the page isn't as simple as it sounds. It isn't impossible either.
Nothing is impossible with God (Matthew 19:26).