(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on Feb. 23, 2014)
Today I would like to give you the Sparknotes version, the Reader’s Digest version of my spiritual journey from birth to age 30.
Ready? Born. Rapidly conclude that if I do anything anyone thinks is wrong, the utter destruction of the world will happen. (Therefore live in anxiety.) Ask Jesus to forgive my sins at age 6. (Therefore don’t think about God very often afterward.) In high school, learn that Jesus wants me to live every moment in obedience to him. (Therefore back to anxiety.) Separate from “worldly” things in college and condescendingly pray for those other “worldly” people.
Ignore, hide, and keep secret my own “issues”. (Therefore increase anxiety living this double life.) Try to manage my “issues” with more rules. Epiphany of honesty and confession. Freedom from rules as I pursue experiencing God. (Therefore peace and joy for the first time.)
Marry, have children, grow up. Busyness, lack of structure and rules, and lack of experience with God leads to crisis. Go to Tilikum to try and figure out what went wrong.
Near the end of this message, I want to read to you some of what came out of that experience at Tilikum. But first I want to draw attention to a few things about this outline of my first 30 years of life.
First, notice the pattern that so many people throughout history have noticed: notice how many times the thing which really helps you at one point in life, ends up being something that doesn’t work or that hurts you later in life. The freedom of forgiveness removed my anxiety, but led to me kind of putting God on a shelf. Later, trying to live a pure and holy life led to judging others and hating my own double life. Still later, the freedom from rules as I experienced the actual presence of God led to a time where I felt I had no structure or stamina to draw from.
This tells me that the spiritual life is not a simplistic a + b = c equation.
Second, please do not feel any need to conform your own experience to mine. Because of the non-simplistic equation thing, I don’t think there is one supreme “stages of spiritual formation” to which we all conform. Rather, each of us goes through our own spiritual formation based on our own personality and the experiences we have and a whole host of other factors.
Third, notice how whole Christian movements get summed up by a couple of key experiences in my life. I was genetically predisposed to be the perfect candidate for a revivalist message of salvation from sins. I came out of the womb with a high sense of guilt and worry that I would not do the right thing. Asking Jesus to forgive my sins at age 6 fits very well with a Revivalist faith, with the Baptist faith I was born into.
Then my experience in an evangelical church in high school, one which emphasized obeying God always and living a pure life…my experience there and then reflects the good and the bad of the holiness arm of Christianity. I love the desire to do right, to live as God intends…and I hate the way it can lead to judging others and hating myself.
Then my experience among Quakers of the freedom from ritual for ritual’s sake, the life-changing power of a mystical encounter with God. I love the power and intimacy and freedom of the Quaker/Mystical/Charismatic branch, but it isn’t perfect. I often find I go back and forth between only seeking the experiences I like, like some kind of experience junkie, and this kind of floaty, non-disciplined dullness where life is simply happening to me and I’m not doing anything.
Whole denominations and movements exist around one narrow part of life with God.
There are more experiences of God, of course, than just what is on the screen, more aspects of God than just what I experienced in the first 30 years of my life. There is God who liberates from oppression. God who is found in silence and solitude. God who is found with the poor and marginalized.
And of course it’s all/both/and/so much more! We say all the time that God is far larger than our comprehension, yet we act way too often as if this experience or this understanding or this verse or this practice is the key to everything.
Our person today from the great cloud of witnesses is Daniel, the Daniel in the bible. As I’ve looked at his life again this week, I’ve been reminded that one of the reasons I admire Daniel is his life demonstrates several of these kinds of experience with God.
I admire Daniel, because he succeeds in exceedingly difficult circumstances; he succeeds in obedience to God, he succeeds in humility, he succeeds in government, he succeeds in intense (even bizarre) mystical experiences with God.
Open your bibles with me to the book of Daniel, and let’s take a look at his life. [READ 1:1-2]
This is not just a simple time orientation, like “Gregg was born in the last year of the Johnson Administration.” It’s reminding us that Daniel’s story, Daniel’s life of obedience, comes after the failure and judgment of the nation that once was God’s chosen people; ones who were promised they would live forever in the promised land with one of David’s descendants always on the throne. Everything the Jewish people believed, all of their laws and way of life, everything Daniel was taught, could very easily have been interpreted as being completely ruined and discredited.
No more Davidic King. No more promised land. No temple where God lives. It’s all captured and pillaged and stolen away to Babylon. One could easily discard all of the Jewish way of life and think, “That simply didn’t work…” Many did. But Daniel, it appears, is one who believed the message of the prophets. Israel and Judah didn’t come to an end because God was weak or ineffective; it all came to an end because Israel and Judah lived injustice and evil and disobedience.
The Babylonian king decides to take the best and the brightest of those he has conquered and train them for his own good use. [READ 1:3-5]
Daniel and three of his friends were among those chosen, and almost immediately they face a moral and ethical dilemma. Eating from the richness of the king’s table is seen as a reward of the good life, a key part of making these new trainees strong. But for Daniel and his observant Jewish friends, to do so would violate the dietary laws that were part of their faith.
Why not just compromise?
The old way of life had failed. This is a great perq, this is a chance to not struggle as a refugee in a foreign country, to become one of the leaders under the new regime. Why follow what we could easily call a legalistic way of life, eating only certain foods, when it could cause tension with the new masters? But that’s exactly what Daniel chooses to do. [READ 1:11-14]
Evidently Daniel is a bold, devout, and disciplined person. He will take risks to be obedient to everything he has been taught about what it means to live for God.
The faithfulness and discipline of Daniel and his three friends all proves successful. Hugely successful. In anything the king questioned them about, “he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.” [1:20]. If the story ended here, we could only draw one conclusion: be faithful and follow the letter of the law, because that is the way for things to go well for you.
But the story doesn’t end there.
The king has a bad dream that troubles him, and he wants his smart people to tell him what it means. But King Nebuchadnezzar is cranky or something, and he won’t even tell anyone what the dream is. He says if you’re really so smart, you’ll tell me the dream without me telling you, and then I’ll know that whatever the interpretation is, it must come from the gods too. Of course all the smart people freak out and say it’s impossible, and so Nebuchadnezzar does what kings do best, orders all the smart people to be killed, which includes Daniel and his friends.
So now the conclusion from chapter 1 doesn’t fit. Daniel and his friends have continued to be faithful, but now instead of it working out that they are favored and ten times smarter than everyone else, they are scheduled to be killed because a king is crazy. Obedience and faithfulness don’t matter this time.
Fortunately, Daniel has more to his life with God than just following rules and laws.
He gathers his friends, and asks them all to pray, to ask God for mercy. He seeks God. And Daniel receives the gift of a profound, mystical experience with God. [READ 2:19a] He knows what it is like to encounter God. He knows his place…that it is not his skill that is saving his life, but God. He thanks and praises God, celebrating what he has done.
I don’t have time today to go into detail about this dream or the many others that are described in the book of Daniel. Daniel has a connection with God that is unique, one intimate enough to receive some bizarre images that God sometimes helps him interpret, and sometimes just leaves in all their bizarreness. Without going into detail about that, Daniel is the kind of person who is both disciplined and obedient and also charismatic and mystical, and also able to live in the real world of Babylonian politics and succeed in really difficult situations.
While Daniel moves to a high position of power and his three friends do as well, all four of them seem to keep their bold faithfulness. They are obedient and refuse to compromise even the smallest thing, refusing to worship an idol to save their lives. Daniel also refuses to hide unpleasant truth from Nebuchadnezzar when one of his dreams is God’s warning against the King’s pride.
When kings and empires change, and Daniel is an old man, he’s still showing the same character. He boldly interprets a later King’s vision, giving credit to God and at the same time telling Belshazzar his kingdom will be taken from him. Daniel proves his worth to the conquering king, to Darius. When others are jealous of his position, his integrity is so high they can’t find anything against him except his disciplined religious faith. Daniel is willing to be thrown into a den of lions instead of giving up his three times a day habit of praying to God. His discipline never goes away, even when the mystical encounters are so strong and the pressure to compromise is so high.
It seems to me that his impeccable character–his humility, his skill, his wisdom, his boldness–all of it comes because he experiences God in multiple ways.
He is obedient and disciplined about food and prayer. He intentionally seeks God for help. He’s willing to let God speak in ways he doesn’t always understand, through dreams. And all of this takes place after a time when he could have just given up, when as a young man he watched his nation be destroyed and was taken as a political prisoner to a faraway land where they spoke a different language.
I want that kind of brave, courageous, humble, obedient, disciplined character. How about you?
My word for today is for us to live in to what we know is true.
God is experienced in more than one way. God acts differently at different times. Different personalities encounter God in different ways. When we think we’ve got it narrowed down to the one thing that works, we probably are missing something that is important.
I grew up so worried about doing the right thing. I got so beaten up by preachers who played on that guilt. I found such freedom in being open and honest and less rigid in my life with God. But it led me to a sort of crisis before I turned 30. Listen to what I journaled out at Tilikum in that time of crisis:
“It’s just time to grow up and realize that if I am going to be the husband, father, and minister that I want to be (one who is dependent upon you and doing what you want me to do) there are some things I just must force myself to do, whether I enjoy them or not. I long for consistency in my life. Consistency which demonstrates not perfection, but a deep commitment to be who you want me to be, a commitment to put you first in my life.”
Reading that, I can see that I was trying to bring it all together, trying to be like Daniel, trying to not throw the disciplined baby out with the legalistic bathwater. But instead I swung way, way back to the rigidity of the laws of my youth.
Here’s the checklist I came up with for myself, complete with places to give myself grades and be held accountable. It was a rigid standard, and I was a fearless grader: usually either an A or an F, as I remember. And it crushed the life out of me again.
I share this because I know it isn’t easy.
Sometimes we kill ourselves with duty. Other times we resist discipline and pattern so much that we wander into doing things we can’t believe we let ourselves do.
Yet at our best, I think we are like Daniel. We do regular things we know will put us in the right place to hear from God. We restrain ourselves from things we know will hurt us. We seek encounters with God, and when we hear and understand, we boldly obey…and when we don’t understand, we thank God anyway.
We don’t get crushed when things go wrong, because we aren’t under any mistaken belief that if I am obedient to God, everything will go right for me. We see a bigger picture, one where there is more to life than what we can see and taste and touch, and that faithfulness to the God of the universe is more lasting and valuable than people’s acclaim or power or even just saving our own skin.
To all of you free spirit Quakers, seeking God everywhere and anywhere, not wanting to be hemmed in by expectations and boxes…remember you are grafted into the body of Christ, connected forever to people you may or may not like. Remember that the book of Hebrews reminds us not to give up the habit of meeting together; remember sometimes discipline is needed.
And to all of you disciplined, quiet time observing, bible studious people…remember our God, who is concerned with justice for the oppressed; remember Jesus who said we do good things to him when we do them to the least of these.
And to all of you who have experienced the joy and freedom of forgiveness and new life after repentance…remember our God who still says, “Be holy, as I am holy.”
And for all of us who, like the disciples, cry out in exasperation “who then can be saved?”…remember Jesus gently saying “All things are possible with God” and “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”