From Within the Belly

This is the blog post where you find out how much of a dork I am.

Sunday’s guest speaker, Dave Caswell, told of his dismay when he discovered that the second chapter of Jonah was poetry. He is, evidently, not a fan of poetry.

But that’s okay. I’m a big enough fan for the both of us.

I can’t pinpoint when I started liking poetry, but I know I began to embrace that enjoyment in the sixth grade. I’d like to give a special shout out here to my sixth grade English teacher, Mrs. Reece, for letting me select the Shel Silverstein poems for our poetry unit. It allowed me to really embrace poetry and to realize I was good at it. By “good at it,” I mean that when I write poetry, which is seldom, it’s sort of mediocre, but I can analyze a poem to death, break it down and separate its parts.

Dave mentioned a poem he really understood in high school that he didn’t entirely remember. He mentioned a part of a line and the name “Prufrock.” I looked for this specific line, and I can’t seem to find it, but there is a lot of talk about eating and drinking in the poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. (I’m going to keep looking for that specific line, though, because now I’m curious.) I stopped Dave before he left church to tell him I knew of Prufrock, and I ended up telling him about 90% of what I know about Eliot (not much), telling him who my favorite Romantic is (Percy Bysshe Shelley) and how excited I was to get his complete works for Christmas this past year (thrilled).

Finding out there was a poem in the middle of this largely unfamiliar scripture made me happy and eager to read it and then write about it. And hopefully I can make it interesting for those who may read this who don’t like poetry.

Since this scripture is all the more a piece of literature, I’m going to use my favorite translation, the New Revised Standard Version, for all direct quotes. (For fellow English nerds, the NRSV is my favorite overall translation because of its tone and diction. It’s easy to read, but it’s also a pleasant read.)

In the last verse of chapter one, we’re told in the most casual way that a large fish ate Jonah, and he survived in the belly of that fish for three days and three nights.

Then chapter two says, “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me, weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’ Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:1-10).

There’s a lot in Jonah’s prayer, and each part attaches seamlessly to the next. So instead of going through every bit of it, I’m going to hit the parts that stick out to me.

Jonah thought this was it for him. Jonah didn’t think he was going to survive the belly of the fish. (Who would?) The images of waves and depths and floods show the physical turmoil of Jonah. He also says he felt his life “ebbing away,” which references both the sea and the life leaving him.

Jonah feels separated from God. Being cast “into the deep” and “at the roots of the mountains” are visuals of being low and isolated. Jonah even goes so far as to say that he was driven from God’s sight. He says he was in “the belly of Sheol,” which means he was in the underworld. There isn’t much of a feeling of closeness to God until the end when Jonah remembers God and resolves to worship God despite all of this.

Jonah’s reverence for God has been renewed. Every image from the sea to the mountains to the earth closing around Jonah points to God as a large force that is in control. Jonah finally realizes that it is not where he’s running but who he’s running from that matters here.

Ultimately, it takes Jonah almost dying and feeling like he certainly will to be afraid of not losing his life so much as losing God. He’s afraid he won’t be able to see the temple, which is a symbol here for God since in Jewish tradition that’s where God is. And as Jonah thought he was dying, he thought of God and how loving and loyal God had been to him. It starts off as a pining sort of remembrance and turns into a beautiful, steadfast tribute.

There’s a song by Disciple called “My Hell,” and the chorus goes, “This was my Hell, living without You here. / Even Heaven is Hell if somehow You were not there.” It’s the idea that even the loveliest place is terrible if God’s not there, and I think Jonah would agree. And maybe Jonah realized in the belly of that big fish that the opposite is true too: How bad can a place be if God is right there with you? If you’ll notice, there’s not one mention of Nineveh or its people in the second chapter of Jonah, and I personally believe that’s because the fear of going to Nineveh with God beside him paled in comparison to being anywhere without Him.

On Sunday, Dave said, “Everything we’re involved with as human beings should point us to God.” Through his running, Jonah’s compass to God broke. It no longer mattered who God was or where Jonah was going so long as it wasn’t where God wanted him to be. It was in the fish, facing death that Jonah’s compass to God was reoriented and fixed.

Last week, I sort of asked if you could relate to Jonah the Runner. This week I ask if you can relate to Jonah the Broken.

I’ve felt distant from God before through the fault of no one but my own. It’s the worst feeling. I felt like my prayers disappeared in the air around me, never reaching God’s ear. I felt scummy and hopeless. I felt like a failure, and my self-worth was non-existent.

How did it get better, you ask? It’s pretty simple. I kept choosing to turn to God. I could’ve stopped. That would’ve been easy, but it wouldn’t get me where I wanted to be. I went through the motions with all the heart I had, not just for the sake of going through the motions, but trusting that God hadn’t given up on me and determined not to give up on Him. I prayed and worshipped and went to church and read my Bible because I had to reorient my compass to point me to God.

I get the feeling that Jonah could relate to that. If you can too, I encourage you to go to God. Run to God instead of from Him. He’s always pursuing us, but we also need to pursue Him, to choose Him, to make our love for Him greater than anything else in our lives. That might take some work on our part, but that’s okay. To quote the song “Hard to Please” by State Champs, “It only matters if it’s worth it.” So is it worth it? And just think, it could be worse. At least you aren’t being eaten by a big fish.

By Carrie Prevette

With Honesty and Thanksgiving

My favorite person to hear pray is a lady by the name of Nancy Mullins.

She attends a church that I used to go to, and she is one of the kindest people you’ll ever meet. Whenever she would pray for me, I would just sit and listen to her. Nothing but loving words and genuine feelings came out. I felt comforted. I felt so much love. And it felt like God was standing or sitting right there with us, hanging on to her every word. She wasn’t worried about impressing me or God. She didn’t sound like a thesaurus or a grand guest speaker in a packed arena. She sounded like someone who cared about me and who knew how to get in touch with God.

Honestly, that’s all I care about when someone prays for me. If you want to sound eloquent and poetic, that’s cool. Go for it. The English major in me will love it. But your prayer, regardless of how it sounds, has to be honest and genuine. It won’t move me if it’s not, and most importantly, it won’t move God if it’s not.

I find it odd how people have an issue with being honest with God. I don’t really understand the hesitation. Do you think you’re going to tell God something He doesn’t know and shock Him? Do you think you’re going to ruin the way He sees you? Do you think you’re going to hurt His feelings? Let me tell you something that God has shown me recently: if God didn’t want you to be honest about it, you wouldn’t be going through it. When you talk to God, you’re just telling Him things He already knows. He’s glad to hear it though. It’s like when you know your friend is going through a hard time and then they open up to you about it. You’re not surprised at what you’re hearing, but you’re glad they’re telling you about it. They’re confiding in you, they’re showing they value you, and they’re acknowledging that they know you care about them. That’s exactly how it is when we pray honestly to God.

And if you’re concerned with your honesty causing God to love you less, you’re wrong. God and I both love you, but you’re just wrong. There is nothing, not anything, not a single thing in this universe that you could do to make God love you less. Sometimes that’s hard to remember or even accept, but it’s the truth.

We have some outdoor cats at my house, and one of them is a little odd and very spastic. The other cats like human contact; he does not. He doesn’t really hang around much. (He could live a double life for all we know. He could be an agent like Perry the Platypus.) But when he’s around, he cracks me up, so I love this cat. Plus, I tend to have a special place in my heart for weird beings and things.

Some of you may think I’m making this up, and some of you will fully believe what I’m about to tell you, but I looked at this cat one day and said, “My love is like the love of Jesus. It’s there whether you want it or not.”

And it’s true that the love of God is there whether we want it or not. Whether we feel we deserve it or not and whether we accept it or not.

So why is it so hard for us to communicate with God? Because that’s exactly what prayer is – communication between us and God.

I will be the very first person to admit that I don’t pray as much as I should. It’s a terrible truth, but a truth nonetheless. I guess at the end of the day, as I lay in bed and feel happy as sleep comes to greet me (For those of you who don’t know, I love to sleep, and I’m very good at it.), praying just feels like a chore. A little superfluous almost. God knows what’s happening in my life and I’m tired, so why tell Him when I could just go to sleep already? And I’ll chat with God whenever I need something, but it seems like I hardly ever pray just to be talking to Him.

That sounds lame, and it is. How ridiculous is that? The Creator wants to talk to me and listen to me, and I won’t give Him the time of day (or night, obviously). I have the chance to converse with, vent to, hear from, and receive advice from the One who loves me most, more than anyone or anything else in this world loves me, and I repeatedly refuse it.

It’s just that simple – talking to God. People have this remarkable ability to take the simplest notions and concepts and turn them into something more complicated. God wants to hear from you. It doesn’t matter how big or small the subject is. It doesn’t matter how fancily you speak. It doesn’t matter if you think it or say it aloud. God just wants you to come to Him.

Imagine if you were in a room full of people, including your very best friend. You go up to them and say hi. They respond with a hello and ask if you could get them some punch. You gladly go get it and bring it to them. They mumble a quick thank you then walk off. You see them interact with awful people. You see them talk to people you know only want to hurt them and their heart. You see them talking to other friends of theirs and yours. But they don’t talk to you for the rest of the night and just leave like you were never there.

I don’t know about you, but if that happened to me, I would cry. Really. I would be so depressed and wonder why they didn’t like me anymore and try to remember what I could’ve possibly done to make them hate me. I would be a mess.

But that scenario isn’t dissimilar to what we put God through when we don’t pray, especially for extended periods of time. While He doesn’t have a meltdown like I would, it doesn’t exactly put a smile on His face.

Often when we do pray, it’s purely us asking God for things. That isn’t always bad. If you have problems, God wants you to turn to Him. He encourages it. 1 Peter 5:7 (NLT) says, “Give all your worries and cares to God, for He cares about you.” But if the biggest problem you have is that you’re not driving your dream car, you might want to change your tune and your prayer a little bit.

Colossians 4:2 (NLT) says, “Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart.” When you pray, is your heart one of “God, give me this,” or “God, I know You’ve done so much for me already, but please let me ask for one more favor”? It makes a world of difference in your prayers and in your life.

And prayers of nothing but thanksgiving should also be a part of our prayer lives. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before or not, but one thing I love about the book of Psalms is it covers such a range of emotions and actions. The psalmists weren’t afraid to ask God where He was or why things weren’t going their way. But there are also psalms that just magnify and glorify God and psalms of praise. If there can be entire psalms dedicated to praising and thanking God, some coming from a man after God’s own heart, surely we can send up a few prayers of the same nature. It’s not all about us; it’s about God, and only asking Him to give us things without thanking Him for them seems a bit skewed.

I’ll close by expanding on some advice that a nice lady at an antiques store gave me a couple of years ago. Two friends of mine and I walked into this little shop in Maggie Valley, and we were just browsing. While we were in there, we chatted with the lady who was working there. She was very sweet, and I think it made her happy to see such young girls interested in such old things. As we were leaving, she said, “Bye, girls! Remember to say your prayers at night.”

It was a refreshing reminder. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received, especially from a stranger. I would like to encourage you to not only say your prayers at night, but to say your prayers anywhere and anytime you feel compelled to. When you wake up, while you’re driving to work (just please don’t pray with your eyes closed), on your break, during halftime of the basketball game. It’ll make a world of difference, and you may not even really know why. Maybe just the act of communicating with God does a soul good.

By Carrie Prevette

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