This Rock On My Desk: Nineveh and Tarshish

The choice we must keep making.

There is a round rock that sits on my desk between my screen and the keyboard. Honestly, it’s a little strange because it could easily be mistaken for a small potato. But it’s a rock. A good friend brought it back from a service trip to Iraq. He was part of a team taking food and supplies into Mosul during the Iraqi push to liberate the region.

For me, that rock has a consecrated duty. It sits on my desk to remind me of a question, a decision that is made over and over. My friend picked up this rock near the ancient city of Nineveh. Don’t worry; no ancient sites were robbed. In all reality, my rock is probably some construction rubble picked up by the side of the road. It’s not worth any more than a rock in my own backyard, but knowing its origin makes it an important reminder for me.

Nineveh, you might remember, was the divinely ordered destination of Jonah, though Jonah showed little interest in actually going. Jonah’s reasons for abandoning his call were plenty. Nineveh was a ruthless and violent civilization. They had poured bloodshed and conquest into Jonah’s homeland. It’s not hard to imagine the possibility of Ninevites having killed members of Jonah’s own extended family. Who hadn’t suffered from the Ninevites and who would want to serve these people? It’s like being called into the company of drug lords. Jonah wanted no part of it. Nineveh may have been a big city, but it was a dark and boding place. Worse, it was next door. Nineveh was the town around the corner, close enough to have lost any curiosity or appeal.

Jonah knew plenty about Nineveh, what had captured his interest was Tarshish. Tarshish was the opposite direction by an extreme, some 2,500 miles away. Tarshish might have been the most distant point Jonah could have imagined. I think that distance gave it just enough mystery and allure to feel like another world, another life, another future.

When we dream of how God will use us, it’s usually Tarshish that comes to mind. The adventure, the travel, the sites and sounds, the draw of something new, something better. Solomon’s fleet was said to have brought back from Tarshish gold, silver, ivory, monkeys, and peacocks. Shangri-la, Atlantis, El Dorado, The West. What is unknown—possible—is always far more enticing than the noisy neighbor’s house around the corner. The sounds that drifted in from Nineveh were crass, but the distant whisper of Tarshish was hope—a dream.

And so Jonah chose the ideal over the real, the daydream over the actual day. Jonah chose to chase a dream and abandoned his real call. Eugene Peterson writes in Under the Unpredictable Plant:

“It is necessary from time to time that someone stand up and attempt to get the attention of the pastors lined up at the travel agency in Joppa to purchase a ticket to Tarshish. At this moment, I am that one standing up. If I succeed in getting anyone’s attention, what I want to say is that the pastoral vocation is not a glamorous vocation and that Tarshish is a lie. Pastoral work consists of modest, daily, assigned work. It is like cleaning out the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading manure, pulling weeds. This is not, any of it, bad work in itself, but if we expected to ride a glistening black stallion in daily parades and then return to the barn where a lackey grooms our steed for us, we will be severely disappointed and end up being horribly resentful.”

This Nineveh rock sets on my desk to remind me of Jonah’s choice. It sits on my desk to remind me of a similar choice, one which always lays before me. Which way should I go? Every so often I pick up that rock and toss it between my hands, feeling the weight of it. It’s real. This choice, so often tossed between the same hands carries its own weight. Stay or go? As a pastor, in writing, in being a father and a husband. It makes no difference there is always the choice of what is real, what is in front of me and the dream, the ideal.

This rock reminds me to choose Nineveh. I choose what is in front of me. I won’t sacrifice it for a mirage or the song of sirens. Strap me to the mast. I’m going to Nineveh.

With my eyes turned away from the glistening reflections of Tarshish, as my eyes adjust back to the shadows of Nineveh, the neighborhood, something happens. I begin to see things I had missed. Nineveh looks different than I had imagined, different than I had assumed. I begin to see God at work. God is at work in Nineveh, how small of me to wish for Tarshish. How blind to presume adventure can’t be had just as easily here. How shallow to think Tarshish any better. For where God calls, there is my hope and my identity.

“What we have to remember is that our eyes are not all we have for seeing with, maybe not even the best we have. Our eyes tell us that the mountains are green in summer and in autumn the colors of flame. They tell us that the nose of the little girl is freckled, that her hair usually needs combing, that when she is asleep, her cheek is flushed and moist. They tell us that the photographs of Abraham Lincoln taken a few days before his death show a man who at the age of fifty-six looked as old as time. Our eyes tell us that the small country church down the road needs a new coat of paint and that the stout lady who plays the pump organ there looks a little like W.C. Field and that its pews are rarely more than about a quarter filled on any given Sunday.

But all these things are only facts because facts are all the eyes can see. Eyes cannot see truth. The truth about the mountains is their great beauty. The truth about the child is that she is so precious that, without a moment’s hesitation, we would give our lives to save her life — if that should somehow ever become necessary. The truth about Abraham Lincoln is a humanness so rich and deep that it is hard to stand in his memorial in Washington without tears coming to our eyes. The truth about the shabby little church is that, for reasons known only to God, it is full of holiness. It is not with the eyes of the head that we see truths like that but with the eyes of the heart.”

Frederick Blechner, The Eyes of the Heart, Shouts and Whispersmei

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