Carl Dennis, (born in St. Louis September 17, 1939) in his poetry collection entitled Practical Gods captures well the faith, doubts and concern for meaning in our age. He was awarded The Pulitzer Price for Poetry for this collection. He often places meaningful questions to us in the midst of his poems. I wonder if we notice. I wonder if we slow down in our reading to take seriously his questions. I wonder! His poetry, which spans over many collections, has been described as “poetry written in comparatively long lines with a conversational rhythm.” In the poem below Dennis visits the somewhat famous story from the Hebrew bible of Jonah and his call to go to Nineveh. Jonah was reluctant and tried to go in a very different direction, but eventually once there he preaches judgement and then becomes somewhat made with God who forgives and restores the people of Nineveh! Dennis revisits this story and enjoys the plot line of long ago and gives it a plot line of today. Granted the book Practical Gods was published in 2001!
You’ll never be much of a prophet if, when the call comes
To preach to Nineveh, you flee on the ship for Tarshish
That Jonah fled on, afraid like him of the people’s outrage
Were they to hear the edict that in thirty days
Their city in all its glory will be overthrown.
The sea storm that harried Jonah won’t harry you.
No big fish will be waiting to swallow you whole
And keep you down in the dark till your mood
Shifts from fear to thankfulness and you want to serve.
No. You’ll land safe at Tarshish and learn the language
And get a job in a countinghouse by the harbor
And marry and raise a family you can be proud of
In a neighborhood not too rowdy for comfort.
If you’re going to be a prophet, you must listen the first time.
Setting off at sunrise, you can’t be disheartened
If you arrive at Nineveh long past midnight,
On foot, your donkey having run off with your baggage.
You’ll have to settle for a room in the cheapest hotel
And toss all night on the lice-ridden mattress
That Jonah is spared. In the space of three sentences
He jumps from his donkey, speaks out, and is heeded, while you,
Preaching next day in the rain on a noisy corner,
Are likely to be ignored, outshouted by old-clothes dealers
And fishwives, mocked by schoolboys for your accent.
And then it’s a week in jail for disturbing the peace.
There you’ll have time, as you sit in a dungeon
Darker than a whale’s belly, to ask if the trip
Is a big mistake, the heavenly voice mere mood,
The mission a fancy. Jonah’s biggest complaint
Is that God, when the people repent and ask forgiveness,
Is glad to forgive them and cancels the doomsday
Specified in the prophecy, leaving his prophet
To look like a fool. So God takes time to explain
How it’s wrong to want a city like this one to burn,
How a prophet’s supposed to redeem the future,
Not predict it. But you’ll be left with the question
Why your city’s been spared when nobody’s different,
Nobody in the soup kitchen you open,
Though one or two of the hungriest
May be grateful enough for the soup to listen
When you talk about turning their lives around.
It will be hard to believe these are the saving remnant
Kin to the ten just men that would have sufficed
To save Gomorrah if Abraham could have found them.
You’ll have to tell them frankly you can’t explain
Why Nineveh is still standing though you hope to learn
At the feet of a prophet who for all you know
May be turning his donkey toward Nineveh even now. by Carl Dennis.
I never think of myself as a “prophet”
I suppose none of us do.
Anyway, I am not always good
at listening first time,
I suppose none of us are.
Help me to rejoice
in your abundant forgiveness
which is not determined by our merit,
but always by your mercy.
Remind me that my words and actions
are to redeem the future, not predict it.
I suppose that is the task of us all.
Remind me, though my name is not Jonah,
and my destination is not Nineveh
that my joy should be complete when God
gives life and joy to all.
I suppose that should be true for all of us.
Thank you, O Holy God, for your mercy
which is not measured by merit,
and your forgiveness which is never found wanting. Amen.