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    Jonah, the Whale, and Coming Out

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    A few weeks ago, I had a revelation—the shocking similarities between the Bible story of Jonah and coming out. It knocked me right upside the head. I’m sure some of it had to do with National Coming Out Day right around the corner. I was in Wichita, Kansas, of all places, conducting a big choir and orchestra festival for the Plymouth Fine Arts Series. The festival is hosted by the Plymouth Congregational Church. Growing up Southern Baptist, I knew little about other denominations and was taught they were almost all on a slippery slope right down to the devil! Turns out the Congregationalists are pretty cool.

    I am what the evangelicals call “un-churched,” but along with the big concert, I agreed to direct the choir at the Sunday morning worship service. I was stuck in the choir loft with no chance of escaping between the singin’ and the preachin’. I was especially dreading the sermon when I saw the front cover of the bulletin (that’s church-speak for program). It featured a full-color rendering of Jonah being spit out by a whale. I couldn’t wait to see the pastor’s take on this story (sarcasm). I also couldn’t help noticing that, in the painting by Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), Jonah is super-hot. He was obviously able to continue his workout routine while inside. Muscle daddy prophet. I digress.

    There I was on the front row of the choir facing the congregation. I could not nap or text or browse Facebook. Then the very dignified Senior Pastor, Dr. Donald P. Olsen, stepped forward in formal, imposing black clerical robes. He began with a deep voice that commanded the room. Within moments, his dry wit spilled out all over the lectern. Imagine my relief when, a few moments later, he said, “We know Jonah’s story is pure fiction, myth, legend, that was probably told in times of uncertainty, decision, and soul searching. The story never happened. But it’s truer than true. Because it happens every day—in every kind of situation.”

    Pieter Lastman (1583–1633) Jonah and the Whale, Oil on oak (1621)

    He said exactly what I had always thought about Jonah’s tall tail [sic] and other Bible stories. Disney used that same story with Geppetto and Pinocchio. The only differences were that it was a giant dogfish instead of a whale and Geppetto was having a lovely dinner in the fish’s nasty stomach instead of working out. Dr. Olsen added a little critique on the bulletin cover painting. “Instead of depicting him as dazed, confused, and all slimed up with fish bile, the artist has Jonah rolling out of the fish’s mouth with strategically-placed, clean, dry clothes, without a trace of whatever was in the ginormous fish’s stomach, offering up for the viewer, a bit of cheesecake on his exit.”

    Dr. Olsen went on to describe Jonah as someone who had “a choice between a comfortable—and a meaningful life.” I perked up some more, thinking about my own LGBTQIA+ community. We have choices—not just coming out, but what we will do once we have come out. Hold that thought. Jonah’s choice was between Tarshish—the easy option, preaching to the choir as it were—and Nineveh, the more difficult path and more difficult message to deliver.

    Dr. Olsen described Jonah’s (and our) dilemma. Jonah could take the easy way and “sail for Tarshish. It’s in the South of Spain, on the coast of the beautiful Mediterranean. There are beaches there and cabana boys who will bring you a margarita or a Corona with a slice of lime. You could get all tanned and relaxed and happy—but maybe empty too, maybe a little lost.”

    Or Jonah could take the more difficult path to Nineveh where the folks were obviously high drama and dysfunctional, but also in need of someone to shake them up by telling them the truth as uncomfortable as that might be.

    My thoughts immediately wandered to members of our own community. Here we are with National Coming Out Day around the corner. I thought about how we encourage folks to come out. It’s not the easy road; it’s no Tarshish. There is danger of getting swallowed up by some awful whales on the way. Most certainly, when people take the courageous step of coming out, they are often swallowed up and then spit out by all manner of people—church, family, friends.

    It then hit me that, while the choices Jonah had could be applied to coming out, they had as much or more to do with after coming out.

    After we’ve done the hard job of coming out, Jonah’s choices are still ours. My heart aches to see large swaths of our LGBTQIA+ community choose only the easy, party life, ignoring the reality of the larger picture. The law of thirds says that in any organization or movement, a third of the people are fully engaged in the fight, a third go along when it’s convenient, and you can expect a third of the folks to literally do nothing to advance the cause or be involved.

    This will not work. We’ve seen what happens. We’ve seen people being elected or elevated to positions of power who would love to see us disappear—even if that means death. And somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of our chosen family does not choose to engage or help or, God forbid, fight the good fight.

    I am encouraging you to use this National Coming Out Day, October 11, to assess where you are. I might even be so bold as to say, “Don’t encourage others to come out until you have fully embraced your own place in our movement.”

    What have you done to make a difference for yourself and others in our community? If all you do is chase the fun part of being queer and out, we all lose. What could you be doing to further the cause of justice and equality for your queer family? It’s not enough just to be counted in our numbers. We need everyone engaged in our fight. Our rights are slipping away before our eyes.

    Of course, all of us are not born to be crusaders, politicians, use a bull horn (thank you, Harvey Milk) or sing in a gay choir. But every single one of us can:

    1. Stay informed.
    2. Speak out.
    3. Volunteer.
    4. Donate.
    5. Vote.

    Dr. Olson assured us that, “We all deserve the Mediterranean trip with the margarita. But sometimes, we are called to practice truth in the face of falsehoods.” How about this idea for Coming Out Day? Figure out how much of your time you spend on fun. Spend an equal amount of time on making a difference. If you are going to take a cruise to Tarshish, also plan to do something to make a change in Nineveh. Calculate how much money you spend on vacations, parties, the things that make you feel extra. Spend or donate an equal amount supporting queer organizations, issues, even politicians. Spending anywhere close to 50% of our disposable income on basic, human rights would be a game changer for our community and world.

    The folks in Nineveh needed to hear from Jonah. Had he not been swallowed by a whale, who then spit him out, who would have delivered the message? If not you, then who? Before ever risking whale swallowing and spitting, we can simply choose to share the truth with those who need to hear it. This comes to coming out. Are you out to family, friends, work colleagues? It may be uncomfortable, but all those people (residents of Nineveh) must hear from you. Only when all of us are willing to stand and be counted, will we truly make progress. It depends on you.

    Unlike Jonah, I think we can have it all—the fun of Tarshish and the important, life-changing work of Nineveh. Let’s let our fabulous frivolity give us fuel for the meaningful work of LGBTQIA+ activism and change. And if we can, let’s skip the whale in between.

    I want to thank Dr. Olson for his amazing sermon and for his permission to quote it for this article. I know he did not write it for National Coming Out Day, but it gave me lots of fodder for thought from a completely unexpected source. I might even go back to church sooner than later. I can’t wait to hear how they spin a loving God killing off an entire planet except Noah and the animals. I’m still upset that unicorns missed the boat!

    Finally, let’s celebrate National Coming Out Day. It’s a day of joy and courage and many of us wouldn’t be here without it!

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Conductor Laureate of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    TLC: Tears, Laughs and Conversation
    Published on October 5, 2023