Tunes in the wasteland
There is no set of circumstances in which it is impossible to remain faithful to God.
That would seem to be one of the headline lessons, and challenges, of the book of Daniel, who, as a young man, was forcibly exiled to Babylon with great numbers of the people of God. Jerusalem was destroyed and the people torn from the Land of Promise, marched to an alien, pagan culture in a distant land. There they were faced with the stark choice of either abandoning the distinctive life of their faith and becoming Babylonians or of navigating the risks and costs of remaining faithful to God in a world that neither understood them nor sympathised with them.
The book of Daniel brings a stirringly relevant message to the Church in our own day. It reminds us that the experience of the Church, and the experience of believers, will be one of trial and difficulty, attacked by seductive powers and malignant forces. In a hugely complex and deeply threatening set of circumstances, Daniel stood firm in the evil day of his generation and experienced God’s rich blessing. Daniel reminds us that there is no set of circumstances in which it is impossible to remain faithful to God.
I have a confession to make. When I face deeply challenging and disturbing situations, my first thought is often how I might act to change those situations so that the challenge may go away, the dilemma might resolve and the pain made easier. By contrast, Daniel’s first thought was how to remain faithful to God amidst those painful and threatening circumstances.
Let me recount a story against myself and in testimony to the Lord’s sense of humour as He taught me this lesson. When a student in St Andrews in the late 1970’s, and prior to the kind of privacy concerns that would now make it impossible, the University would provide the Christian Union with the contact details of all new first year students – that we might write to them over the summer and issue a welcome to the University. Come the beginning of term, we would visit them, offering a friendly face to youngsters, many of whom had left home for the first time, and seek to provide them with any support they needed. In addition we would encourage them to attend whatever evangelistic events we had planned for Pre-sessional (now called Freshers Week).
I duly started visiting the six new students to whom I had written over the summer. One of them was staying in the all-male St Salvator’s Hall, a place I always enjoyed visiting because of its magnificent rooms. My intention was to ask if he was settling-in, find out if he needed to know anything about university life and then invite him to an evangelistic rally to be addressed by the late Captain Stephen Anderson.
I knocked his door. Silence.
I knocked again. Silence.
I knocked a third time.
Swearing could be heard emanating from within.
The door swung open and a bleary eyed, dishevelled-looking character peered at me accusingly.
It was approximately 2pm on a Saturday afternoon.
I explained that I was the author of the letter, written to him over the summer, issuing a welcome to St Andrews. On hearing this, his demeanour softened and I was invited into a darkened and stale-smelling room. He and his roommate were in the process of emerging from an alcohol induced torpor. They were hung over. I felt slightly apprehensive. This was not the relaxed and pleasant visit I had anticipated.
To add to my uneasiness, they were both very well-spoken products of renowned English Public schools (unkindly known as ‘yahs’), whose accents contrasted sharply with my common Glasgow brogue. It had already taken me two years of student life to learn to speak English in a way comprehensible beyond the confines of the east end of Glasgow.
I was invited to take a seat and, as I did so, I asked how they were settling-in. They delighted to tell me that they were doing fine, having obviously discovered the party-scene rather quickly. Conversation then took an unexpected detour and I was treated to a diatribe against the weirdoes belonging to the Christian Union who had invited them, a couple of days previously, to a tea party in the hall.
I moved uncomfortably in my seat.
They then described how they had gone along to this event ‘for a laugh’ and began to share cameo descriptions of some of ‘these ridiculous Christians’ they had met. I recognised all the people they caricatured. They were among my Christian friends.
I shifted even more uncomfortably in my seat.
You will know that there are times in conversation when we have a window of opportunity to say something that needs to be said, and perhaps redeem a situation.
In this instance, the window had long closed.
As the anti-Christian diatribe continued, and intensified, I found myself desperate to escape. I wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. This was too uncomfortable and difficult. I realised I should have spoken-up sooner and spared all of us the inevitable embarrassment when my Christian associations were exposed.
In the end, following a pause in the endless exchange of jokes at the expense of Christians, I blurted out, ‘Actually, I belong to the Christian Union.’
Never was a silence so deafening.
I wished them well and left. At speed.
I realised later, as I reflected on what had happened, that I was more concerned with escaping the discomfort of the situation than remaining faithful to the Lord. My priority had been flight, not faithfulness.
Yet that was not Daniel’s way. There is no set of circumstances too difficult to remain faithful to the Lord.
Daniel is a giant in the faith. Unlike many other heroes of the faith in the Scriptures, there is not a word of criticism levelled against him. Imperfect sinner though he was, his steady faithfulness through his long life stands as a huge encouragement to us. He lived in days of dramatic spiritual decline among the people of God; such was their apostasy that exile was visited upon them in Divine judgement. He was humiliated by being given a pagan name and he endured association with the pagan astrologers of Babylon - described by King Nebuchadnezzar as ‘chief of the magicians’ (Daniel 4:9). The words of the Psalmist express the pain of all this:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)
Here is the great question: How can we, whose citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20) sing the Lord’s song as strangers and exiles in the here and now?
The answer is not in the manipulation of our circumstances but in principles of grace, faith, scripture, obedience, fellowship and hope; all of which we find exemplified in the Book of Daniel. Such was the quality of his walk with God that however much Nebuchadnezzar tried to characterise him alongside the pagan magicians, the distinctiveness and quality of his life of faith shone through.
I recently learned about the remarkable witness of the Anglican Church, St George’s in Baghdad. The believers live in constant danger and under immense pressure, yet their faithfulness is astonishing. The vicar, Andrew White, writing 2011:
‘Last year alone, ninety-three members of my congregation were killed. The threat is particularly great for those who convert to Christianity. I baptised thirteen adults secretly last year. Eleven of them were dead within a week. I always warn those who want to be baptised as converts how dangerous it is, but they say they still want to follow Jesus. As I stand in front of the church each week, I see the families of those who are no longer with us. I have often tried to think of ways to protect my people, but I cannot. When they are with me, to some extent they have the benefit of my bodyguard, but there is no way to provide complete protection. Bombs can always hit us from below and rockets from above.’
We live in challenging days for the Church of Jesus Christ in the West, although we do not face the level of persecution our brothers and sisters face in places like Baghdad. Like them, and like Daniel, we can learn to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. There are no circumstances where those tunes cannot be raised with fluency and harmony.