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Several years ago, a case of tendonitis put my right hand in a brace. I was unable to play piano in any more than the most rudimentary way.

Looking back, I now realize that my creative energy needed some outlet. At the time, I just found myself thinking, "Paint." So, I got some brushes, some canvases, and tons of paint, and went to work.

I've only painted four paintings, none of them small. In high school, the art teacher, cool though she was, gave us 8 1/2 by 11 sheets to work on, and often reminded us to conserve paint. Ah, school! Those days were over, however, and I loved lavishing huge amounts of paint on huge rectangles, to very pleasing effect.

In researching a study of the book of Jonah, I ran across a drawing that our church's first pastor, Stewart McBirnie, had done back in the 50s. It was his sketch of the city-name Nineveh, in Assyrian cuneiform.

The rectangular border, we think, signifies the walls of a city, and thus signifies that the word in question is a city name. The shape inside distinctly resembles a fish. The name "Nineveh" is in fact related, in its original language, to the word "fish."

All this is interesting, because, as you recall, when the reluctant prophet Jonah was called to go to this city but sailed in the opposite direction, he ended up getting swallowed by a great fish.

What I'd never realized before — what the cuneiform and its meaning make clear — is that God is a great punster. (Jonah is the Archie Bunker of the Old Testament, and, like Norman Lear, the writer of the book underlines Jonah's tragic, bitter misoxeny by giving him and his adventures a comical zing, right through to the book's final line, which begs for punctuation by Anton Figg.) Having Jonah, in the act of fleeing his destiny in Nineveh, fall into the mouth of a giant fish is like having Archie Bunker, in the act of fleeing his destiny as a missionary in Rio — what could be worse torture to him than having to save 12 million black spics? — fall into a yacht piloted by Simon le Bon.

The cuneiform design itself struck me, as well as McBirnie's cross-hatched rendering of it. So, I got a 12-square-foot masonry board, and roughly 3.75 pounds of paint, and set to work reinterpreting it. A couple of months later, I had a gleaming, watery work of art, which I lent to the inhabitants of the Rock House, our church's home for interns.

They displayed it prominently — upside-down. On the art preservation spectrum that goes from, say, cosmopolitan Byzantium to ransacking Nineveh, they fell somewhere around Philistia. The painting fell some, too. Eventually, when I had room for it over my couch, I got it back.

Behold. It is good.


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B A R R Y L A N D .