I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Jonah. Called by God to be a prophet, Jonah wasn’t exactly eager—in fact, he “ran away from the Lord” only to find himself in the belly of a whale. After surviving his close call at sea, “the word of the Lord came to Jonah” a second time to ask him to speak to the people of Ninevah. After preaching a single line, for a single day (“Forty days more and Ninevah shall be destroyed”), this reluctant prophet converted every single Ninevite, “from the greatest to the least.”
Thanks to a homily offered by my friend and former colleague, Fr. Nate Wills, CSC, I’m beginning to see the reluctant prophets among many teachers, school leaders, parents and students this winter—and the grace and beauty in their witness.
This week’s readings in the Catholic Church also featured a group far more decisive than Jonah. Two pairs of fishermen—Simon, Andrew, James, and John—were going about their business, casting and mending their nets on the shore. When they heard Jesus’ simple call to join him—“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men”—they immediately “abandoned their nets and followed.” James and John were so eager, in fact, that they bailed on their dad, Zebedee, who was left in their boat.
Here we have two radically different responses to a call from God. Jonah is full of anxiety and fear, and initially he resists and flees overseas to hide. Simon, Andrew, James, and John hear a single invitation, and they drop everything and go: no questions asked.
They all have one thing in common, though: Each said “yes.”
We tend to lionize those like Simon and his friends, who plunge headfirst into difficult situations without hesitation. We emulate their conviction and confidence, and we admire the heroic zeal of their immediate embrace of Christ’s call. We can also look down on those who need time to think about it, or are hesitant or fearful to commit to something in the face of the unknown. Even when, like Jonah or, later in the Gospel, Thomas the Doubter, they still say “yes,” their reluctance can make us suspicious, and perhaps think less of them.
I have to admit I am often more like Jonah than Simon. I’m a “Let me think about it” guy, and I find myself wrestling with anxiety and doubt much more than I find myself running headlong into anything. I suspect most of us are in the middle. After all, few people have the capacity to drop their nets on the spot and offer a clear-eyed, full-hearted “yes” to a new idea or strange situation.
Yet God has graced them all, the hesitant and hasty alike. That grace is available to all of us who find the courage to say “yes” with them, regardless of how we say it. Jonah shows up for a day, converts a city, and saves it from destruction. The apostles give up their livelihoods without hesitation, and three years later they find themselves launching a 2,000-year project to convert the entire world.
These readings and Fr. Nate’s homily, which recognized them all as graced affirmations of God’s presence in our lives, spoke to me as I reflected on the challenge of returning to school during a global pandemic. The reluctant prophet and the first apostles brought to mind the countless teachers, leaders, parents, and students who have simply shown up for school this year. Their daily presence—whether it comes with the zeal of the first apostles or the anxiety of a refugee prophet—is a daily affirmation of our shared mission to ensure that all of our children flourish.
What these teachers and parents have in common, with each other and with Jonah, Simon, Andrew, James, and John, is that they have all shown up.
Many of these folks have shown up despite feeling like Jonah. While escaping the belly of a fish may seem liberating, Jonah’s freedom does not necessarily relieve him of the concerns that drove him into the sea. After ten months of remote learning in quarantine, many may feel trapped in the belly of a fish they are eager to escape, while many others feel tossed by a sea of real concerns and anxieties. I think of students we serve who have older or chronically ill family members living with them. Or teachers whose health conditions make them feel vulnerable. Parents who are conflicted about wanting to get back to work, but are worried about their children, and the feelings of guilt they experience. Some have shared concerns about whether their students are learning as much at home as they do at school. And still others have described growing accustomed to remote learning, which they feel has been good enough given the circumstances. Even the belly of a whale can become comfortable and familiar over time.
What these teachers and parents have in common, with each other and with Jonah, Simon, Andrew, James, and John, is that they have all shown up. As Jonah and the disciples suggest: Each “yes” opens the door to Providence and makes space for God’s grace.
Every teacher’s vocation to the classroom and every parent’s commitment to their child’s education is a “yes” to God’s call to ensure our children flourish, a lived expression of the belief that we are made for each other. All are rooted in their own unique circumstance, which lead some to whisper “yes” with anxiety and reluctance while others shout “Aye!” with full-throated confidence. Most of us, however, will be in between, and we might even vacillate between the two depending on the day. Let’s pray for the grace to recall that in this world God has created, the doubting Thomas is an apostle just like Peter. Jonah’s “yes” and Simon’s “yes” and the “yes” of each parent, student, teacher, and school leader can all lead to the same result: the full flourishing of the people in their care.
Christian Dallavis is Assistant Superintendent of Partnership Schools.