… the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD his God. (Jonah 1:17 -- 2:1) We are making our way through the story of Jonah and thinking about what it means to be human before God. This past week we reviewed the most famous part of the Jonah story, his three day and three night stay inside a big fish. Its an iconic image of course, an image that Jesus used to describe how he would identify himself with our human predicament (see Matthew 12:39-40). And that is because Jonah in the fish is a vivid picture of human helplessness. It is the place where grace is all that can be hoped for; it is also the place where grace is actually found. Inside the belly of a big fish, everything is stripped down to bare essence; inside the belly of a big fish all you can do is ask for help.
Ask for help -- sometimes that is all there is left to do. Ask for help. Ask God for help. We call it prayer, but you know how simple and basic it really is: “call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me” (Psalm 50:15); or, “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray.” (James 5:13)
If we are looking for a defining image of what it means to be human in the story of Jonah, then we have found the center. It is right there, Jonah in the fish asking for help. We could in fact make it into an axiom: being a real human person before God is knowing how much you really do need help, and asking for it.
I say it all the time: prayer is not an extraordinary thing -- it is common and normal. Sometimes we get locked up because we think we need to make prayer original or creative -- that is putting too much pressure on what prayer is. Of course, prayer needs to be personal, but it need not be original.
What Jonah does is simply pray the words of the psalms, sometimes word for word, other times idea for idea. Jonah prays out of his prayer book, assembling and choosing, being spontaneous and heartfelt to be sure, but not completely original. We never really are. We pray with the words and ideas we are given which, hopefully, are sourced in the Biblically-revealed tradition. Take note of Jonah’s prayer and then see how his words are sourced in the psalms:
I call on the LORD in my distress, and he answers me. (Ps. 120:1) You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. (Ps. 88:6) In my alarm I said, “I am cut off from your sight!” Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help. (Ps. 31:22) Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. (Ps. 69:1) So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed. (Ps. 143:4) I hate those who cling to worthless idols; as for me, I trust in the LORD. (Ps. 31:6) I will sacrifice a thank offering to you and call on the name of the LORD. I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people (Ps. 116:17-18)
What Jonah does, then, is to take the whole tradition of prayer, all that has been said to God in the context of Israel’s struggle to integrate faith with real life, and re-prays it in his personal moment of need. He does not try to be original -- how can he be? He is simply one more example of being human, being a person who must ask for help.
I talk about prayer a lot, I know. But I do so because prayer is one of the most under-utilized graces and privileges we have as persons before God. And if you don’t know how, take up the psalms and let them be your words, even as Jonah did. Maybe this will be your first prayer in a while: “help!”
This Sunday we continue our series Jonah: On Being Human. Hope to see you there.