I was raised on the importance of Sunday school. Nary a week would pass without my sisters and me getting our Sunday best on (tights, slips, leather Mary Janes, homemade dresses), hopping in our station wagon or minivan, and heading to church.
I was taught by flannel board lessons and word find sheets hot off the mimeograph machine. Puppets sang to me, exhorting me not to be “grouchy like a rooster” and reminding me that Jesus loves me “for the Bible tells me so.”
Of all that went with going to church—the sermons and the songs and the sacraments and the sense of belonging—my favorite part was the stories. The Bible has witches and giants. There are heroes and villains. There are gruesome tales of battles, beheadings, and bad behavior. There are redemptive stories of angels and infants and everlasting love.
We would open up our Bibles—the ones with the white cover with Jesus holding a lamb and sporting a 1970’s windswept hairdo—and we would sneak a read at Judges or one of the Kings. We’d read about daggers being plunged into fleshy, fat bellies or queens tumbling out of their windows to be ran over and eaten by dogs. With wide eyes, we’d read of a woman hammering a tent peg into the skull of a runaway enemy king or laugh at the thought of a talking donkey.
Among my all-time favorites was the story of a man named Jonah. He had to be one of the most relatable men in the Bible, and yet he found himself in one of the most extraordinary situations.
Jonah was called to preach to the pagan people of Nineveh but he just didn’t want to go. So he jumped in a boat and tried to go the opposite direction. Out in the middle of the sea, a storm blew up and threatened to drown Jonah and the rest of the crew. Jonah realized that his disobedience was the reason for the storm, so he begged the crew to throw him overboard. As soon as he was in the water, the sea became calm.
At this point, God could’ve said, “Serves you right, Jonah.” But instead God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah and save him. It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized what that fish was. I had always assumed being swallowed by the fish was his punishment. The cartoon-drawing of the story always showed Jonah inside the fish with a lantern, looking bored or maybe penitent, kind of like Pinocchio inside of Monstro the Whale, just riding it out.
But now I see the fish as Jonah’s salvation. When you read the prayer Jonah composes inside the fish, you see a description of someone falling to the depths of the sea with death as the only logical outcome. Then Jonah remembers God and cries out for help. Who know what kind of help Jonah would’ve chosen but what he got was the relative safety of a fish’s belly.
For three days (the longest three days ever!) Jonah prayed and lived and prayed some more inside that fish. Finally, God made the fish spit him out and Jonah went on to Nineveh. When he preached to the pagan people about their imminent destruction, they actually listened and changed their ways. Rather than being pleased with their transformation, Jonah fussed at God.
Jonah said, “See God…this is why I didn’t want to go to Nineveh in the first place. I knew you would forgive those people. Now I wish I could just die.” You can just see his pouty face and arms folded across his chest.
God had had it up it here with Jonah’s whining. He sat him down in the time-out chair and said, “Listen. I’m fed up with you. Stop complaining about everything.” I wonder if God was thinking what other kind animal belly He could stuff Jonah in for another three days.
Sometimes God sends what looks to me like a punishment as my rescue. Sometimes He gives me what I ask for and I’m still unhappy with the outcome. Sometimes I fold my arms and frown, sure that God has made a mistake.
The Book of Jonah ends with God’s scolding. We don’t see if Jonah fixes his attitude or sulks himself to an early grave. For me, I want another chapter. I want to trust God and learn from my mistakes. And I’d rather get to that point without spending any time inside a giant, man-swallowing fish. We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way!