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Finding Common Ground in a Big Fish

Image: Tim Peacock

Twenty miles south of Beirut is a sandy beach called Jiyeh. It’s a rare interlude in Lebanon’s rocky coastline, and if you were out in the Mediterranean, crying for deliverance as currents swirled about you, waves and breakers sweeping over you, this is where you’d want God to command a fish to vomit you onto dry land.

And this is, in fact, the spot where ancient legend says that the Hebrew prophet Jonah was delivered safely to shore.

Jonah has long been honored here. Mosaics found in the ruins of a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church show the prophet who tried to run away from his mission to Nineveh getting turned around by a large fish. And today there is a Muslim mosque on the site with a shrine to Jonah.

The Hebrew story of the reluctant prophet is beloved not only by Christians but also by those who hold the Qur’an to be the final revelation of God. And chiseled on the shrine is the verse that he prayed from the belly of the fish, which Muhammad urged Muslims to recite when in trouble.

“The most common prayer of Muslims during times of crisis is the prayer of Jonah,” Emad Botros, professor of Old Testament at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, told CT. “We share a heritage with Muslims. And what is better to share than stories?”

Botros is one of a few scholars turning to Jonah as a site of common interest connecting Christians and Muslims. He has written a book, Jonah: Bible Commentaries from Muslim Contexts, the second volume in a series on reading the Bible in the context of Islam. He thinks the story of the prophet—along with other shared stories—can help start a conversation across the faiths.

“The prophets of old were the heroes of Muhammad,” Botros said. “Knowing his reflections helps us communicate our biblical stories more effectively.” The Qur’an’s account of Jonah—which Muslims believe was divinely revealed through the archangel Gabriel—is different from the version in the Hebrew Bible. In the Muslim version, the city he’s going to is…

This article was originally published in the December print edition of Christianity Today. Please click here to read the full text.

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Bishop Thomas: Almost a Jonah

In typical Coptic Orthodox clerical fashion with his flowing black gown and long white beard, you would never know Bishop Thomas was almost a Jonah.

The Jonah of old is characterized for his rebellion against God. He was commanded to preach to the people of Nineveh, went instead on a boat to Tarshish in the opposite direction, and met up along the way with a famous whale.

A point often missed in the story applies equally well to the case of Bishop Thomas: Jonah was a man of God already, at the point of his calling. He was a prophet with a well established ministry in Israel.

Bishop Thomas, meanwhile, was a missionary monk serving in Kenya. He had already dedicated his life to God, when, at the age of thirty, God interrupted.

The interruption came through Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, now deceased. He identified Thomas for the position of bishop of Qusia in Upper Egypt, giving him one day to prepare for his ordination.

Thomas actually said no to the pope – an almost unheard of boldness in clerical circles. Yet his spiritual father encouraged him to wait and pray before making any final decision.

At the cathedral in Cairo Thomas knelt alone before the altar of God and cried the tears of resistance. He begged God to take this burden from him. The word ‘bishop’ implied title, respect and responsibility of men. Thomas preferred his quiet, unknown service among the Africans.

It was then God revealed to Thomas exactly where he was kneeling.

In the Coptic language, ‘anafora’ means ‘offering’ – that placed in sacrifice upon the altar. Thomas pictured himself no longer weeping beside the altar, but surrendered upon it.

God showed him a bishop was not a hand to rule over people, but a hand to come beneath them to lift them up. With this his heart rested and he accepted the mission – to own the work of a bishop, and not the title.

Moving to Qusia his vision – in particular the word ‘anafora’ – remained with him. He purchased empty land along the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway over two hundred miles from his parish. Here he oversaw a reclamation project he named Anafora, an offering of spiritual retreat for all who were in need.

Anafora became a retreat center open to all Christian denominations, local and foreign. It also provided employment for the people of Qusia suffering from a difficult job market. These he formed into a team able to administer the center independently in democratic manner. He teaches them even to positively say ‘no’ to the bishop, as he once did in error to the pope.

Anafora is being developed additionally into an education and training center for personal capacity building. Its focus is on women’s development, but also on men, to allow their wives to develop. Furthermore, Bishop Thomas is creating a life-size Biblical panorama to aid in scriptural education, as well as a school of mission to train in service for fields abroad. Currently France is asking for trained Arabic speakers, in cooperation with the University of Lyon.

Jonah, though he repented, remained a bitter servant even after seeing the harvest of his preaching in Nineveh. In contrast, Bishop Thomas did not succumb to rebellion but embraced the call of God. He remains full of joy in the life God has given him, a servant to all he comes across.

A whale can chasten, but not transform. Only God can change a heart.

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