The Belly of the Fish

Lately my three-year-old has been enjoying hearing stories from the Jesus Storybook Bible at bedtime, which is all kinds of precious. He has favorites as you may imagine, like Noah’s Ark, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and Jesus Feeds the 5,000 (or as Gabe calls it, “the hungry people story”). And he also approves of Jonah’s story (it’s got an animal in it, in case you missed the preschooler motif here). So tonight at bedtime, which I rushed through an hour and a half early because it was a napless but play-filled day, my little boy asked for the Jonah story. And as has become thematic in my life since becoming a parent, God spoke to me through my child (and the writing of Sally Lloyd Jones).

God had a message for the people of Nineveh, that he would continue to love and pursue them despite their evildoing. And as it usually goes with God, he elected to accomplish his purposes through his people — he wanted a human messenger to deliver his message. The messenger of his choosing was Jonah. Well Jonah wanted nothing to do with God’s message. His heart was full of judgement towards the people of Nineveh and he believed they deserved whatever they got. God was calling him to a place that he did not care to go and so he ran. The Bible details that Jonah boarded a boat headed to Tarshish, but I love how Jones puts it in the Jesus Storybook Bible: “Not-Nineveh.” Isn’t that just how it is in our hearts? It sure is in mine. It doesn’t matter much what the alternative destination is; the point is it’s anywhere but where God is leading. You want me to go where, God? You want me to do what?! Oh heck no, I am NOT going THERE! I am NOT doing THAT! You’ve got the wrong girl. That’s not the boat for me. I’ll hop onto half a dozen other boats as long as they are going to NOT-NINEVEH.

upload_263-HMS-Cavalier-Hi-Res-RobertRadfordPhoto credit: Robert Radford, via Google Images

Jones also says that Jonah thought his plan to go to Not-Nineveh was a good plan, but that in reality it was actually a silly plan. “Silly” of course, is a great word choice for a child audience, and at first blush it seems innocuous enough. But a quick gander at reveals that synonyms for silly include childish, foolish, pointless, ignorant, unwise, and stupid, amongst others. Ouch. Somehow the realization that I have been silly, foolish, unwise, and the like is really driven home but Gabe’s giggles about silliness in general — not much more humbling than feeling indirectly mocked by your three-year-old.

So what does God do in response to Jonah’s assumed reasonable-but-actually-foolhardy plan? He sends a storm.

Now I did not grow up attending church and thus I did not first hear the story of Jonah in conjunction with a cute whale craft; no, I initially heard it as an adult, preached from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. And I remember my flinch reaction to God’s sending of a terrible storm after Jonah: this was vindictive, this was cruel! But my view on this has softened over the years, and now I see the heart of God not so much in the noun here (the storm), but the verb (the sending). God went after Jonah. Not like a bounty hunter, but like a father. My sweet husband preached a sermon recently that blessed me with the reminder that God relentlessly pursues his people. ‘Tis the message of the entire canon of Scripture. Though Jonah basically gave God the middle finger, God came after him; came after his physical person but more importantly his heart. Was God’s method severe? Absolutely. Was it necessary though to get Jonah’s attention? Yes.

How do I know that? The Bible doesn’t explicitly say this, after all. It doesn’t say “a violent storm was the only way Jonah was going to grapple with God and his own prejudices, heart, and questions” but I know it to be true regardless. And the reason is because I am not unlike Jonah.

schlanger_jonah_prison_090913_820px Photo credit: Alma Sheppard-Matsuo, via Google Images

I too have been fleeing from the Lord. Running away from my own Nineveh. It hasn’t been particularly conscious, although that’s debatable at best — the truth is that claiming I was unaware makes me feel better about it, less complicit in my actions. I can look back and see the glimmers of truth, directional signs towards Nineveh. Some I can see that I bypassed knowingly and of others I was honestly ignorant. But it’s easy to miss signs if you have big blind spots. And so the storm came and consequently the fish.

For the past three years, I have been living in the belly of a huge fish. The Jesus Storybook Bible talks about how the fish’s belly was dark, half-digested food stinking the place up. The illustration shows Jonah hunkered down under the fish’s rib bones, a harsh cathedral in which he must confront Truth, uncomfortable as it may be. Gabe always points to the rib bones and says, “What’s that, Mama?”every time we read about Jonah. And I realize tonight that it’s really God speaking through my sweet babe. What is this, Halley? This dark place where I have brought you? Do you see it? Do you recognize it for what it is? Are you going to grapple with Truth while you’re living in the belly of the fish? 

DSCN3958Photo credit: Jesus Storybook Bible

Although my marriage to Simon started in a season in which he was employed as a pastor, it happened to be in the same church I called home in high school. It was my home church and my first church. I had chosen it as a consumer, as a sixteen-year-old with a group of my peers. I had picked it; it didn’t “pick me;” there was no notion for me of being at a “pastorate” (full disclosure I didn’t know what that word meant until, umm, like a month ago. FYI it’s the church or office a pastor is called to serve within). And as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t doing ministry; that was Simon’s thing. It wasn’t even on my radar. I didn’t understand (despite being told) that it needed to be. I brushed off the notion that ministry would humble me or require much of me. It wasn’t my dream after all.

But to a greater extent that I previously understood, God has been busy weaving my life and story right into the fabric of my husband’s. And his life into mine as well. Our Maker has been blending our desires and dreams and callings. Shepherding people in the context of church ministry + birth work, lactation support, and a still-hazy general advocacy for womankind. And we’re sorting things out together. Our living room bookshelf holds books about theology and books about the female reproductive system. And Harry Potter. It’s awesome.

32Photo credit: MN Textiles, via Google Images 

Lately the sorting out is intense. We are asking things we’ve asked before with our lips but not with our souls. So IS God calling us to church ministry or not? Have we been listening well? Is this the right journey and how can we know? Are we dictating the terms we will accept from God? Does He have something else in mind for us, and will we say yes? Do we truly have our hands open before the Lord? We feel humbled and we feel scared (if that gives you any clue as to how we are answering these questions) but we also feel a deeper sense of peace. God has graciously reminded us of what we each desired in the beginning, apart from “everything that hinders” (Hebrews 12:1): just loving people well. And I feel like lifting my hands in awe, and running them along the fish ribs that comprise my sanctuary, and whispering, worn out but emboldened, I think I’m ready now. And by “ready” I mean finally being aware that I’m not and I won’t be. I’ve been saying “I’m ready” for years now — beating my fists into the fish’s sides and demanding my release from this unjust prison! Today though, somehow, I feel “ready” to sit. I’m scared I will sit forever and at the same time I dread the fish’s gag reflex. I don’t know what will happen in the next chapter and I feel woefully unequipped.

My husband has a heart that longs to serve others in tangible ways. It seems easy for Simon to remember others and do small things to bless them, like asking friends insightful questions, and thinking to buy flowers for his mother-in-law, and grabbing my favorite chocolate from Costco. Simon is a loving shepherd who longs to walk with others. I don’t remember how it started but our son has taken to saying “pastors should be tender.” That is the heart of my husband, made more tender daily by his children that teach him the word’s true meaning. He is a teacher and he preaches passionately with this goofy smile on his face. It sure seems like he’s called to be a pastor. For a long time we held that calling with pride, evidence that we still had (and still do have) a great deal to learn. Today I type these words with trembling, having had lots of time in the belly of the fish to smell my self-centeredness, and having being made aware of my true size, I look up to the Father with reverence. God? What would you have us do? We are so small. 

new-slider-no-text-optPhoto credit: Blue Sky Career Consulting, via Google Images 

I didn’t get it. I still don’t. But I know that I don’t, which seems significantly different. My heart is humbled. I do feel silly. For YEARS I have been asking God essentially, “What are you going to offer me?” instead of “What can I offer you ?” The enemy of our souls has been trying to shame me, whispering lies to me: Geez, some pastor’s wife. You just figured this out? You are so unfit for ministry. You are not holy enough to give up the comforts of this world for the sake of God’s people. You are not mature enough. You do not rely on Christ enough. You will never make it. Everyone will laugh at you!

But my God is faithful even when I am faithless (2 Timothy 2:13). He will fight for me even when I am silent (Exodus 14:14). And there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). And it’s true I don’t know much about being a pastor’s wife (at least in a conventional sense; I know a lot about being the wife of a pastor who is “without call”). But I was a follower of Jesus before I was a pastor’s wife and I was just a girl loving a boy before I was a pastor’s wife too. Fit for ministry? No, I’m not. But no one in the Bible was really “fit” for ministry either, not Moses, not David, not Paul. Praise be to God who loves and pursues and utilizes “misfits” for his kingdom and his glory! Worldly comforts? Oh gosh, I love those (and to add to the trouble, I don’t like change). Convenience, security, status, satisfaction; I’ll take one of each. Holy, mature, perfectly reliant on Christ? Nope, not those things either. And some probably will laugh at me (last night I was Googling differences between Protestant denominations because I sure as heck don’t know). It would seem the devil’s proclamations might be right about me after all. But here’s the thing: none of that holds weight because my identity is in Christ. I am free. And a perfect resume is not required. Willingness is the only thing required.

ws_Summer_Leaves_1280x800Photo credit:, via Google Images

And if I’m like Jonah and I am unwilling? Jesus will (and thankfully DID) send a storm, and a fish, and long time to ponder truth in a church of bones. I would like to think that if/when God chooses to send me, send us, again to Nineveh, I will go with a cheerful heart and a humble spirit. But if I remain like Jonah and comply technically but with an unchanged heart (and at a minimum I will have days, weeks, or seasons), I know God will come to me and ask, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). You see, Jonah was ticked that God chose to be compassionate instead of vengeful, and he left the city of Nineveh in disgust. If I similarly retreat away from my Nineveh to pout about how God did not act as I thought best, I know God will send a plant to guard me from the elements, and in time a worm, wind, and sun to expose me to those same elements for my growth and my good. Though I may fume about the dead plant, God will remind me of the same thing he reminded Jonah. I am not the one who makes plants grow. They are gifts and it is appropriate that they are seasonal. Their demise points us to things that are higher; things that are more deserving of my deep concern (like the welfare of others!).

The book of Jonah ends here; we can only guess at how Jonah responded after this point. I can only guess at how my own story will continue as well. I just know God’s relentless pursuit will continue. Send a storm to find me, swallow me up by a fish, take away my shady plant. He will find a way. He will forever seek his Beloved. “He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn or the coming of rains in early spring” (Hosea 6:3).


Photo credit: Tumblr blog “Spiritual Inspiration,” via Google Images 


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