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"When You Find Yourself in the Belly of a Whale" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on June 30, 2019 by Kathy Miller

When You Find Yourself in the Belly of a Whale

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day. Amen.

Jonah 1:1-4, 7-17

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so.

Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has come upon you.” Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.

But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

 

The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

––––––––


When You find Yourself in the Belly of a Whale

The story of Jonah and the whale, or Jonah and the fish, as the text has it, is one of the few Bible stories that most people have at least heard of. It is a popular one in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School curriculums because it has such an exciting plot-line and lends it self so well to skits and flannelboards. Yet, in the 3-year rotation of Sunday scripture readings that we follow in worship, the story of Jonah only appears twice, and both times the passages chosen are from the end of the story, conveniently omitting the part where Jonah is swallowed up. One can only assume that this so a sermon can be preached without ever having to mention the rather absurd and unbelievable detail. After all, what exactly is one supposed to do with that particular plot line? Mainline Christianity has a hard enough time gaining traction in our culture—start preaching about fish swallowing people and any intelligent person is going to write off the Bible as the stuff of fairytales for the likes of children.

But when we relegate Jonah’s story to children, we miss two key opportunities. The first is the chance to remind ourselves the the Bible is composed primarily of stories, not factual recountings of historical events. They are, I believe, stories that are True (with a capital ’T’) insofar as they convey important truths about who we are, who God is, and what it looks like to be in relationship with God, but they convey these truths by telling stories. As Krista Tippet puts it in her book, Speaking of Faith, religion and the Bible are more art than history or science.[1]

Given the loud cultural voices of those who claim otherwise, it can be easy to forget this truth about the nature of the biblical text, especially when so many of the stories it tells are rooted in historical contexts that we can verify through archeology and other ancient texts. But, despite the claims otherwise, the purpose of even these more historical Biblical stories was never to record history for the sake of posterity, it was to make sense of history—the writers (and those who edited them and compiled the texts later) were less concerned with the historical accuracy of what was written than with making sure they conveyed how they experienced what had happened, and what they believed to be true about what it is to be human, who God is, and how God related to them. Bible stories are, the NPR show puts it, “The Rest of the Story”—a record of how people made sense of the events and experiences of their lives.

We do the same thing today. If we don’t believe in God, we might look back on a fortuitous choice that we made and attribute it to a flash of insight, gut instinct, or luck. If we do believe in God, we might look back on an experience and say “God was working through that event” or “it was a miracle.” Telling stories and interpreting events, whether to ourselves, to others, or for the sake of future generations, is how we make sense of our lives. It’s the process by which we create meaning.

The story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish reminds us that we do the Bible,  and ourselves, a disservice when we insist on taking the Bible literally. Instead, when we read the Bible, or any sacred text, we need to ask why someone chose to tell this particular story in this particular way, and why generations of other people continued to tell and share this story. What does it tell us about what it means to be human, about who God is, or what being in relationship with God looks like?

But, of course, there are many unbelievable Bible passages we could chose to use to remind us of this particular truth. So what truth about the human experience or God does the story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish convey? Because surely the storyteller and/or their editor could have come up with a more plausible means by which to convey Jonah to Nineveh and convince him to do God’s bidding. Had they done so, however, we would have lost an engaging narrative that speaks to the times in each of our lives, whether as a result of our own choices or as a byproduct of life, we find ourselves, so to speak, in the belly of a whale.

These are the moments, days, years, when it feels as though life has swallowed us whole— when we find ourselves in a dark place, uncertain if we will ever find a way out. It may be a season of grief or depression, when the dark is clawing and insistent, or it might be a period of apathetic stasis—a time when nothing is really wrong, but nothing is really right either, when the dark is both comfortable and seductive—telling us we should stay where we are because there is no clear direction in which to move. It could be that it is a season of frantic energy—one in which the stress and to-do lists are all-consuming and it feels as though we are alone in the dark with no sense of whether or not progress is being made. Or perhaps it is a time when, like Jonah, we have been running away from something that needs to be done—a conversation that needs to be had, a decision that needs to be made, a medical diagnosis that needs to be faced, a life choice that needs to be lived into.

We all have these times—periods when we find ourselves alone, whether literally or emotionally, stuck, and in the dark as to how to extricate ourselves. The story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale reminds us that these moments are part of the universal human experience. And while knowing that won’t immunize us from experiencing these times, it might help us to recognize them for what they are and to remember that, eventually, we too will be spit out onto dry land.

The poem on the back of your bulletins is one of my favorites because it encapsulates both the mundane and existential nature of these times:

Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.

Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires

with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.

Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.

Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way

for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review

each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments

of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.

Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound

of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.

Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,

where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all

the things you did and could have done. Remember

treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes

pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.[2]

 

Remember treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.

The challenge, I have found, when you find yourself in the belly of a whale, is to be present to the experience—to, as often as  you listen for the sound of gears and moving water or distract yourself with thoughts of the beach and the writing of reports, also be thankful that you are there, swallowed up with all hope.

The poet Rilke describes this challenge when he urges us “to have patience with everything unresolved … to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers,” Rilke urges, “which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday, far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”[3]

The temptation is, always, to look for the escape hatch—to listen for the sound of rescue, to destroy the evidence that others, too, have had to reside in this place, to wish ourselves onto the beach. But when we find ourselves in the belly of a whale—when we have been swallowed whole and cannot see a way out—it helps to take our cue from Jonah and the poets: to pray and to remember that we have been swallowed with all hope—rescued from the black depths—and that, even now, we are being carried to some place new. Amen.

 



[1] Krista Tippet, Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How To Talk About It (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 41-53.

[2] Dan Albergotti, “Things to Do in the Belly of a Whale.” Found on https://www.writersalmanac.org/index.html%3Fp=5931.html; accessed 2019-06-25.

[3] Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet/The Possibility of Being (New York: MJF Books, 2000), 35.

 
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