“Askesis and Whale Belly”
Grown-up Bible Stories: Part 2
Psalm 91:14-16; Jonah, excerpts
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
April 22, 2018
If we were to put one picture on the children’s Sunday School flannel graph board of our imagination–one picture to tell the story of Jonah—we would have to put the whale. It is the most iconic and lasting image we have of his rollicking story.
The big fish was one of the biggest hits at last summer’s Vacation Bible School. Jonah was the day’s scripture and we needed a whale to help tell it. I know what you’re thinking and I was thinking it too: a tall, plastic, clothes hamper with one of those mermaid blankets shimmied up around it: instant whale.
That’s what happened. And the kids went crazy. “Me! Me!” they would shout as they raised their hands to be the next one to have the hamper swoop down on top of them. “No, me!” another one would cry. “Get me! Get me!” It was the best thing ever for them: being swallowed by the whale.
As we grow older we read Jonah’s story pretty differently than we did when we were nine. We are old enough to know we don’t want to raise our hands; we don’t want to say “Get me!”, we don’t want to be got.
This short, 4-chapter book is squeezed in the middle of the prophets section of the Bible but it is a parable; a parable of one of God’s servants who is going down. That’s what happens to him. His faith is going down the tubes. So is his obedience and trust. So is, almost, his very life. The text highlights this descent by telling us Jonah is going down directionally too: he went down to Joppa, down to a boat, down in the boat’s hold, down into the sea. His choices look like they are going to bury him.
As he goes down and down, into the depths of the sea, Jonah is suddenly caught and held. His life has been spared but it is the last place he wants to be: first, of course, because it is the gut of a big fish. But it is also the last place he wants to be because he is the butt of a terrible joke. See, in Jonah’s time, every major city had a symbol that represented it, a mascot if you will. And the symbol for Ninevah, that city he would, and did, do anything to get away from? You guessed it: Ninevah’s symbol was a fish. Jonah has been engulfed in what he least wants and held there. He cannot escape and in that holding cell, Jonah finds his askesis*.
Askesis is a Greek term that may be best described as a training and workout for our souls. This soul workout can be as simple as a room with a door and the tenacity to quiet ourselves long enough and with enough regularity that we will sit there and be honest with God, and listen for God. For most of us, though, we don’t get our askesis, our training of our souls in this voluntary way. No, like Jonah it is thrust upon us when we find ourselves in the last place we want to be, engulfed in what we least want, and held there.
You can list the askesis triggers as well as I can: divorce can do it, or a dreaded diagnosis. Grief can get you to askesis, or disappointment. None of us would choose to be in belly training and it is some of the hardest work you will ever do but know this: in the askesis of the belly is where you become who you are.
No one gets a pain free life. Jonah shows us that your soul can be shaped—shaped, not twisted—by that pain. Let’s consider three belly training tips from his time in the whale. First, and most obviously, when Jonah has just about gone under, he chose to pray. This may seem like a given but this is the first time we’ve seen Jonah pray.
When he got the call from God, there was not even a moment when he stopped to pray about what he should do. He was too busy buying his ticket to Tarshish, headed in the opposite direction, to pray. When the ship was caught in the terrible storm, every sailor on it was praying. Not Jonah.
But when his soul begins its workout, he prays. His prayer from the belly of the whale is the center of the book’s chapters and it is long enough to take up a quarter of his story. Prayer becomes the centerpiece of his training and at least a quarter of his time. That sounds like a good ratio to start with when we are in training.
Second, when Jonah prays, it is not extemporaneous. It is not his own words. You can go line by line: “out of my distress” (Psalms 18 and 120), all your waves and billows pass over me (Psalm 42), the waters close in over me (Psalm 69), my soul fainted within me” (Psalm 142). You can go line by line in Jonah’s prayer and not a single word was original to him.
There is nothing wrong with extemporaneous prayers, everything right about them. But the message here for our own soul workout is that Jonah knew the scriptures. He had those psalms in his bones so that when everything else had been washed away, he had those words.
For our own workouts to come, we need to get some of those words into our bones. So study them, even just a short passage each day, listen to a Bible reading podcast, put passages on post it notes on your fridge or in your car. Do whatever you can to fill yourself with these words from God so that when you are in soul training, you can have those words within you.
And last, we would expect his prayer to be a lament. We would expect him to choose psalms like, “How long o Lord?” and “my weeping lasts until morning” but he doesn’t. His prayer is a prayer of praise. In his pain, Jonah has learned to see this belly training as a cocoon, not a coffin. He is focused on what can be transformed out of this, rather than what will be lost.
Have you ever wondered what happens on the Saturday in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? Sometimes it is called Silent Saturday because we know so little about those in-between hours. Though we know very little, Jesus did describe what that time would be. He described it as he was going to pull a Jonah. It is in chapter 12 of Matthew’s gospel when some religious leaders want Jesus to show them a sign and he tells them this: “no sign will be given…except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was for three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.”
The sign we have of Jesus—his signal that he is God’s own—is that he will go to the belly, he will take on the soul’s most rigorous workout. We miss what is happening on that day when we call it Silent Saturday. But it is also known by another name: Holy Saturday, as well it should be. It is possibly the most mysterious and holy day of the year for, during that day, confinement becomes conviction and the coffin shows that it was a cocoon all along. On Saturday, in the silence of that deepest place, somehow death becomes resurrection.
The whale is way more than any flannelgraph can express. We have grown up so much we don’t want to get caught in its belly. The descent is too painful and the sea is too scary. But perhaps we will know askesis has done its work on us when we grow up enough to want to get caught again; to let the three days in the belly do its work on us, to allow ourselves to be soul trained.
We love the whale. But his stomach is never going to be our first choice, and usually, it will be our last choice. But take heart, for Jesus has been there before you. Even Jonah’s prayer foreshadows his presence in that place. Jonah ends it with this final conviction: “yeshuata leyahweh” which means “The Lord delivers.” Yeshuata: delivers/saves. Yeshuata, Yeshua, Jesus. From the deepest place we can ever sink, Jesus is there. His name echoes in those dank chambers.
May we grow in our training so that our descent is an opportunity for askesis, an opportunity to get caught by God. For falling can become catching and the coffin can become a cocoon. Maybe then we will raise our hands and say, “Get ME” GET ME! GET me. get me.” Amen.
*Seeing the belly of the whale as a time of askesis comes from Eugene Peterson’s marvelous book Under the Unpredictable Plant.