Waiting on Jonah
“So full of artless jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt.”
The words, spoken in a bold, mellifluous voice, echoed off the concrete ceiling overhead. Beneath the freeway overpass, two men stood side by side, staring into the rain. A long silence passed between them. The older man sighed and added, “Though my sins were not so secret.”
“Is that a quote from something?” Gabe, the younger man asked as he ran a hand through his wet hair. Fat raindrops splattered on the old asphalt road in front of them.
An afternoon thunderstorm had ambushed Gabe’s bike ride, forcing him to seek shelter under a bridge and wait it out. Moments later, as he stood next to his soaked bicycle and backpack, he’d heard rustling in the rafters above him. The first thing he’d been able to make out in the shadows was an old man’s shoulder-length hair and full beard, both white as snow. He’d grabbed the handlebar of his bike, prepared to flee into the storm. But as he watched the aged hermit make his way slowly and noisily down the embankment to the road he sensed he wasn’t in any danger. Without uttering a word the gray-haired man had walked over to Gabe and they stood shoulder to shoulder looking out into the rain. It was a full two minutes before either man said anything.
Gabe looked over at the older man who said his name was Jonah. “Were you an actor?”
“Worse. I was an English professor.” Jonah winked at the young traveler.
Gabe smiled. He was debating whether to take the bait Jonah had set in front of him. What not-so-secret sins was he talking about? The elderly drifter had certainly piqued his curiosity. But Gabe happened to be wrestling with his own sins at the moment, hence the 20-mile bike ride that afternoon to clear his head. With any luck, the rain would let up shortly and he could be on his way, once again alone with his thoughts. But for now, the deluge was coming down strong and steady, filling the gaps in their conversation with a comforting white noise.
“What do you do with your guilt?” Jonah asked.
Gabe’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What guilt?”
“You don’t feel guilty about anything?”
Gabe shrugged. “I suppose.”
“So what do you do with it?”
The younger man fell silent for a long moment, trying to figure out how to answer the odd question. He didn’t mind making small-talk with strangers, but this was getting personal.
“I just deal with it.”
He felt a twinge of resentment about being put on the spot. And yet, at the same, he felt a connection with the old man. He sensed Jonah was a kindred spirit. Gabe had never really thought about the nature of guilt before, though he knew it’s weight all too well. There were times in his life when he’d felt that rising pressure in his chest telling him things needed to be set right. And he knew the frustration of being trapped behind a black wall of regret, unable to travel into the past and right a wrong.
“I push it down. I forget about it.” Gabe’s eyes scanned the grey sky as if the words he was searching for were written up there somewhere. “I put my guilt in a dark room in the back of my mind. Then I shut the door. And I lock it. And I move on with life.”
Jonah thought that over. “Does everything fit in your dark room?”
Gabe shifted his weight and put his hands in his pockets. “I suppose when it comes to the little things I try to make them right when I can.”
“And the big things?”
Gabe paused a moment. “That’s what the room is for.”
He knew it probably wasn’t the best way to handle things but it worked for him. And he didn’t know what else to do. Some bells just can’t be un-rung.
Gabe glanced over at Jonah and asked, “How about you?”
The older man tugged on his white beard thoughtfully. “I used to get up and pace around my room hoping the guilt would fall off, or that I could leave it behind. But, of course, whenever I turned around it was still there like an ugly shadow.”
Gabe slowly nodded in agreement. “So what did you do?”
“I left the room.”
“And now what? You live out here?”
Jonah stood tall and squared his shoulders as if proudly addressing an auditorium of young students. “Slave! I have set my life upon a cast and I will stand the hazard of the die.”
“Sorry about that. Hazard of the profession.”
Gabe smiled. “How’s that working out for you?”
“The gratuitous literary quotes?”
Jonah swept his hand through the air as if swatting away the thought. “Ah, it didn’t do any good. My ugly shadow followed me out here.”
Gabe could picture his own ugly shadow of guilt following close on his heel when he pushed his bike faster and faster through the winding, hilly backroads. “That’s the problem, isn’t it? Wherever you go, there you are.”
A crack of lightning split the sky and thunder rolled overhead. Then the rain picked up. Gabe wouldn’t be back on the road anytime soon. The men fell into a comfortable silence as they gazed into the rain. Jonah’s mind was circling over distant memories. How many times had he crashed and burned only to reinvent himself in another town? How many lives had he damaged along the way? Sure, he’d done some pretty amazing things in his time. Even kind and generous things. But he only had a few good years left in him if he was lucky. And try as he might to avoid it—and God knows he had tried!—a suffocating question had continually been surfacing over the past few years. Despite his uncanny ability to see life through rose-colored glasses, despite the warm and cozy blanket of denial in which he’d wrapped himself, a pointed question kept poking through; would his ultimate legacy as a man be nothing more than a trail of broken things? Would he be remembered for anything more than the broken hearts, broken promises, and broken relationships he’d left behind?
“No guilt is forgotten so long as the conscience still knows of it.” Now it was Gabe’s turn to share a quote.
“Who said that?”
“I honestly can’t remember. I read it somewhere.”
“Well, whoever said it was one smart sonofabitch.”
The men shared a laugh.
“You know what I did?” Jonah wondered aloud.
The aged professor took so long to respond Gabe thought he’d fallen asleep standing up. Then Jonah began speaking slowly, almost to himself. “I built an island. And on that island, I built a prison. And then I sat down in that prison and closed the door behind me.”
“Because the universe will have her justice.”
“Justice for what?”
“For building and abandoning kingdoms, and families, and careers. For often considering lovers more important than wives, friends more important than relatives.” Jonah shrugged matter-of-factly. “Each time I paid, of course. Mostly in tears, sometimes in alimony. But eventually I was free and I moved on; another fresh start, a new kingdom, another family. A new Jonah.”
Gabe sensed the moment called for silence. He listened to the distant thunder as the elderly professor collected his thoughts.
“What gives my guilt so much damn weight is that I did it all with good intentions.” Jonah opened his mouth to say something further but lost the words. He thought for a moment and added, “When a bad fellow does bad things he’s just following his nature. I’m a good fellow who did bad things. That’s worse.”
Gabe wasn’t sure what to say. A tear slowly tracked down Jonah’s weathered cheek and melted into his silver beard as he continued. “But the universe requires justice. I don’t deserve to finish out my last few years in happiness and comfort.”
“So you swam out to your island and built your prison?”
“It wasn’t a conscious decision. But, yes. That’s what I did.”
“So what do you do there in your prison cell?”
“I sit and think. I atone for my sins.”
Gabe turned to the old man and cocked his head. “That’s not atoning.”
The aged hermit stared at the younger man, his brow furrowed. Gabe continued, “Sentencing yourself to a prison of your own making is not justice. You’re not atoning, you’re hiding.”
Jonah’s face tensed into a mask of sullen anger. His eyes darted back and forth and he looked like he might strike Gabe. “Screw you!” Jonah turned on his heel and shuffled away as fast as his arthritic joints would let him.
“Does anyone that you hurt know you’re punishing yourself on their behalf?”
Jonah stopped. He tried to think of a good comeback to wound the meddlesome traveler, but his mind was paralyzed by emotion. Instead what came out was his honest fear. “It’s too late.”
“You’d be surprised how much healing power can be found in a man’s words.”
Jonah scoffed. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
Gabe shrugged. “Maybe start with God?”
Jonah let out a sharp tisk. “You sound like my son.”
“You sound like my dad.”
Jonah sighed. His shoulders slumped as he ambled back to Gabe. They stood quietly for a moment, shoulder to shoulder, facing the grey rain.
“I walked away from God a long time ago.” Jonah was looking down at the ground beneath his feet. “He wasn’t for me.”
Gabe reached his hand out into the rain and let the water run off his fingertips. “I used to think that if I confessed all my sins to God he would hate me and strike me down. Because that’s what I would do if I were him. But then I realized I wouldn’t be telling him anything he doesn’t already know. I’m not sure why he hasn’t struck me down already.”
Jonah took a step toward the rain and looked up into the sky. His tattered, mismatched sneakers were getting soaked but he didn’t seem to notice. He spoke haltingly as if recalling a distant memory. “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
“Is that from the Bible?”
Jonah nodded. He had no idea how that verse had come mind. But with it, an unexpected question came with such force that it stunned him. What if God was a forgiving, loving Father? The idea was so foreign to Jonah that he didn’t know what to do with it.
Gabe smiled. “Man, that’s a book I haven’t cracked open in a long time.”
Jonah didn’t hear him. His mind was reeling with an unexpected revelation. The idea of God that he held in his old age was the very concept that he had forged as a young child; that of a cold, cruel, mythological figure. His understanding of everything else in life had naturally grown and matured over the years, but not God. He had decided who God was decades ago and then he never gave it a second thought. Until now.
Jonah had grown up under the thumb of a tough, emotionally distant father; a blue-collar dad with no idea how to relate to a creative son with literary dreams. His father forced him to attend a cold, hard church that taught him about a cold, hard god who threatened the torments of hell if he was not appeased by gifts and proper behavior. Jonah knew God wasn’t for him and at his first opportunity, he walked away and never looked back. And now, sitting under a bridge in the rain with a stranger, he couldn’t get the questions out of his mind. What if God didn’t resemble the jealous overlord those priests had taught him about? What if God was nothing like his own father? What if God was nothing like the absentee father he himself had become?
Oblivious to Jonah’s inner turmoil, Gabe shared another quote. “’Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’. Jesus said that. I’ve always liked that one.”
Jonah was weary. He was burdened and he needed rest. And all he could think was what if? Ignoring Gabe, the elderly professor silently stepped out into the pouring rain. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, letting the wetness wash over his face and mingle with his tears. His spirit stirred with what he thought might be a prayer and in that moment he knew. The cool rain felt cleansing as it soaked his hair and dirty clothes. Jonah thought of the path the raindrops took; spilling down from the heavens like an overabundance of forgiveness being poured out on the earth, ultimately drenching an undeserving, lonely old man in his prison cell and washing him clean.
Gabe’s voice floated to him through the rain. “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean from all your filthiness…”
An exquisite quote for the moment. Jonah smiled in the rain. He liked this Gabe fellow. He sensed that Gabe’s quote was incomplete and immediately the rest of the words came. “…I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
Jonah couldn’t tell if the words had risen up from the mists of his memory or if they were spoken aloud by Gabe. He turned to thank his new friend for sharing the moment with him. That’s when he saw that Gabe and his bicycle and his backpack had vanished so completely it was as if they had never existed.