When Faith Becomes Public

When Faith Becomes Public

One of our great modern American fallacies is that our faith is a private matter.  While it’s true that our faith is deeply personal and stems from the core of our being, it is most often expressed in community and lived out corporately.  In fact, the concept of “privacy” as we know it, even the “right to privacy,” is a relatively new concept rising from Western culture, primarily North America, in the last century.  The right to religious freedom does not mean our faith is private.  The right of free speech does not mean our faith has no place in the public square.  In talking with a lawyer friend a few years ago, I learned that courts sometimes equate one’s religious practice with other “hobbies” like community theater or playing softball.  The risk of insisting that faith is a private affair is that it becomes secondary to our culture, our American-ism, our common life.

Daniel and his three Judean cohorts, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were products of their own culture.  They had no expectation of privacy or freedom of religion.  They were subject to the king.  They had adopted their new Babylonian names.  And so, their expression of faith in God by remaining upright in the public square when others bowed was a calculated demonstration much like Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus or Malala speaking out for the rights of girls to attend school.  By refusing to offer prayers to the statue of the king, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were making a public statement about who and what rules their lives, about the limited power of a human king, about the faith of a people who were being consumed by the prevailing culture.

Daniel, too, never had the expectation of privacy while praying to God.  He knew the law, and he probably knew it was schemed in order to put him and his “god” in their place.  Yet, Daniel chose to pray aloud … for others to overhear.  This reminds me of the story I heard from a Chinese pastor about the way he coped during the Cultural Revolution.  When communism came to China, the educated and religious leaders were banned.  Some were imprisoned; others sent to workhouses.

Rev. Qigui Shui while visiting Baytown, TX, February 2001

Rev. Qigui Shui while visiting Baytown, TX, February 2001

The Rev. Qigui Shui, a Christian pastor and a musician/composer, worked as a delivery man. After a long day of bicycling packages around the city, he would play Chinese national songs on his piano in his small apartment.  He knew they could be heard by his neighbors and those passing by, but, even so, he worked the melodies of traditional Christian hymns into his arrangements.  Those who knew the hymns could quietly and privately hum along; it was a sign of strength and a message to keep on singing.

There is a time when our faith may need to “go underground” as it did for Rev. Shui.   And there is a time when we no longer work the hymn tunes surreptitiously into national anthems, but sing them out for all to hear.  Daniel and the other three men knew when to blend in and when to stand up and be counted.  It’s not that they knew that God would save them, but that they knew God was worth the risk.

We live in a culture that is calling us to worship … our country, our prosperity, our celebrities, our economics, our olympic teams, our fashion, our stock portfolios, our technology, etc. etc. etc.  If we keep our faith private, we risk it being trivialized as no more important than our preference in sports teams.  If we witness an expression to God outside of our sanctuaries and in our workplaces, in our families, in our communities … No, I don’t mean wearing a Christian t-shirt, listening to Christian music, “liking” a Christian Facebook meme, or even fighting for prayer in school.  I mean doing something real, something risky, something counter-cultural, something as scandalous as Jesus.

What?  What, then, do we do to publicly witness our faith in a radical Christ?  Let’s talk about that.

I have some ideas … but it starts by loving God more than anything else (or at least striving to).  It starts by knowing Jesus as a cultural renegade.  It starts by having a deep compassion for all people and being willing to put our own security, preferences, and comfort on the line for them.  It starts with love.

Rev. Shui told us a number of stories during our visit that stuck with me.  Another was about his trip to the grocer.  He stood in line for a very long time to get his allotted one kilo of flour.  When he got to the front of the line, the grocer had given him twice as much as he had asked for (or that he was allotted).  He tried to hand it back, but the grocer, in a very hushed voice said, “no, keep it, you are pastor, you know who needs it.”  And he did.  Even when we try to keep it all a secret, the love of Christ shouts out to be noticed.

Trading Idols

Idolatry of GodIn keeping with recent chapters, one of the central themes of Daniel is the worship of idols. However, there is a significant difference this week. Prior to this, we heard about the Israelites reverting to idol worship. This week, the Judeans in exile in Babylon are being told, in no uncertain terms, that they MUST worship various idols, yet they refuse. I want to focus on the story of Shadrach, Mechach, and Abednego. King Nebuchadnezzar decreed that everyone must bow down and worship the statue he had constructed, but the Judeans refused, even though they knew the consequences. As expected, the king became furious, and resolved to punish them as severely as he could, heating the furnace to seven times normal before having them tossed in. Yet they were not harmed. Indeed, a fourth figure was seen in the furnace with them, a figure which had “the appearance of a god.”

Seeing how his intended victims were protected, the king has a revelation. He declares that the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is all powerful and must be worshipped. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t stop there. The king declares that anyone who doesn’t worship God, or who blasphemes against God, should be torn limb from limb, and his house destroyed.

I would submit that King Nebuchadnezzar is still worshipping idols. That it is possible to use the image and power of God as an idol. I think this is illustrated later in the chapter, when the king loses his mind for a time, as punishment for his pride. While the king was giving lip service to God, he was showing his power and authority in forcing people to worship. I don’t believe that’s the sort of worship that God desires.

One of my favorite theological writers is Peter Rollins. In his several books (How (Not) To Speak of God, The Fidelity of Betrayal, and, most recently, The Idolatry of God but also others) Rollins is on a trajectory of deconstructing the traditional perception of God, calling it idol worship, just as King Nebuchadnezzar was worshipping the idol represented by God’s ability to save Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I would highly recommend any of Mr. Rollins’ books. I’ll admit that there were parts of The Idolatry of God that seemed a bit of a stretch to me, but I still find much of value in his work. I’d recommend starting with How (Not) To Speak of God, if you want to explore his work. You can also see some posts I’ve written about some of his books on my personal blog. Unfortunately, I never stuck with it to complete writing about any of the books, but there’s at least a start. 😉

Like Rollins, I feel that, today, many of us fall into the same trap as King Nebuchadnezzar. We turn God, or our idea of what God is supposed to be and do, into an idol, as contradictory as that may sound. We use God as some sort of cosmic “blankie,” protecting us from all they scary stuff in the world. As an alternative, I want to go back to Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They believed that God could and would save them, but there’s a critical difference between their view of God, and that view that sees God as a supernatural suit of armor. In Daniel 3:16-18 we read

16Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. 17If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. 18But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

Even though they believe that God can save them, they don’t elevate that belief to the level of an idol. They are even willing to acknowledge that God might not be able to save them, not just be unwilling to do so. Yet they are still strong in their faith in God. They are even willing to treat the omnipotence of God as a potential idol not to be worshipped! I know, that’s hard to wrap your mind around. (Rollins’ books are full of that sort of iconoclast thinking, which is why I like them so much.)

Assignment … Chapter 18 (Daniel in Exile)

assignment_icon This week we’ll be reading the story of Daniel.  That’s Chapter 18: Daniel in Exile.  For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Daniel 1-36Jeremiah 29-31. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning.  In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here.  Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory