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

Presence and Absence

I’m ordinarily very sorry when I post the blog late, but I’m not this time.

The bank I work at decided to open late Tuesday due to snow, so I was going to use my time wisely and work on the blog. The only problem was that I had writer’s block. It was bad. It’s the worst case I’ve had since college. I tried three or four different ways to start the post, and trust me, they were all terrible. I’m sorry I almost put you guys through that.

The bank opened late again Wednesday, but not as late, and I sort of slept in. Plus, I had no clue what I could write about that I hadn’t already said in a previous post. (Please note that I’m not sure that I’m not restating something in this blog, but it’s what God wants me to say, and I hope it’s a refreshing take on it.)

I didn’t have time on Thursday, and even if I did, I still didn’t know what to write about. The bank opened at its normal time, and right after work, I drove to Carrboro, accompanied by my sister, to see Aaron Carter. If Alan can move worship band practice to go see Garth Brooks then surely I can postpone the blog to see Aaron Carter, right?

Because let me tell you, about 15 years ago, my world revolved around Aaron Carter. Posters, magazines, every single CD he put out. If he was on TV, I was right there watching him. One day in the third grade, my sister got me out of school early to take me to a concert of his. It was my first concert, and I actually got to meet him. (I was speechless, which hardly ever happens.) Aaron was the only guy on the planet in my eyes. And yeah, many musicians and artists have come into my life since then, some of whom I’ve obsessed over, but Aaron was the first to captivate me and my heart in such a fashion. So regardless of how old I get or how hot of a mess he is, he’ll always have a place in my heart.

So I got home and in bed later than I usually do. I woke up on Friday morning after about six hours of sleep and was brushing my teeth when the theme of this post hit me.

I’m not sorry this is late because not only did I get to see the guy I once considered the love of my life (and am still in love with, I’ve found out), but I also have a much better blog post to share with you all because of it.

I finished a book called The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. It was a good read. It doesn’t have a spot in my top five books or anything, but I’m not mad that it cost me time of my life that I’ll never get back. As you can tell from the fact that I read it, it’s not an actual guide to hunting and fishing. Anyway, at one point in the book, the speaker says that something was less defined by her presence than it was another woman’s absence.

I thought about how sad that was, how awful that feeling is. Then I thought about what Alan talked about on Sunday.

Alan talked about how God works with what we have to offer Him, and he said that the first step to a greater life is accepting Christ as your savior.

I knew when I read that line in the book that I could use it in this post, but I didn’t know that the entire post would go back to that one part or how close of a fit it was to what Alan said Sunday.

On Friday morning, as I was spitting out a mouthful of Colgate and reflecting on the night before, God showed me how it really should be all about presence instead of absence.

First, the focus of our lives and our relationships with God should be the presence of God, not the absence of what we’ve given up for Him. We are new creatures in Christ, which means we have to change from the creatures we were. If we’re going to pick up our crosses, we’ll have to lay some things down. In some sense, it doesn’t matter what you’ve put down. All that really matters is that you’ve now embraced God instead.

I’m not saying your testimony or the details of it are irrelevant because both are extremely important. What I’m saying is you shouldn’t focus on what you’ve given up. You shouldn’t let that define you. And you shouldn’t long after it. Drugs, promiscuity, gambling, a certain lifestyle, whatever it was that held you hostage before – regardless of how much you may think you miss it – does not compare to what God’s done for you and how much He loves you.

The first way is close to the second, which is to value the presence of the person you are now instead of frowning at the absence of who you were. If you legitimately think you’re worse off now in terms of where you are with God, it’s time to reevaluate some things and talk to God.

And there are people who are not so much frowning at the absence of who they were as they are focusing on who they were because they’re so ashamed that person ever existed. If that’s you, I just want to remind you that God’s forgiven you, and He wants you to forgive yourself. That person’s not you anymore, and that is something to rejoice over. Focus on who you are and wrap yourself up in God’s abundant love and grace.

Lastly, focus on the presence of what you have and not the absence of what you don’t have. It sounds a little silly when it’s put like that, but we let what we don’t have get us down or hold us back. The Bible is filled with people who told God they couldn’t do something because they lacked something. Seriously, if you read your Bible for a little while, it won’t take you too long to run into one of those people. And honestly, God didn’t care about what they didn’t have.

God chose you for what you have to offer, not to point out what you don’t have. He’s not interested in what you lack because He knows He’s bigger than any insufficiency you could ever have or possibly think of.

“Carrie, I don’t have much.”

That’s okay. It doesn’t take much with God. He loves you so much and is so excited about what the two of you can do together that He has taken every step you cannot take and will do everything you cannot do.

Don’t let the absences in your life define you. Look at who and what are present in your life. It’s another step to making your life even greater.

By Carrie Prevette

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