Daniel awoke with a start in the middle of the night. He was bathed in total darkness, but all around him, he could hear the air alive with the sounds of the most vicious, violent creatures he had ever seen. He could smell the stench of blood on their breath. He could hear them moving around, feel their breath on the nape of his neck.
There in the dark, surrounded by death, Daniel smiled.
It had been several years of struggle and difficulty for Daniel, where the smiles often seemed hard to come by. He had been born in the Promised Land to the people of promise, worshippers of Yahweh, the Israelites in the land of Judah. But in the third year of the reign of their King Jehoiakim, everything turned upside down for the people of promise. The king of Babylon besieged the capital Jerusalem, and defeated it. As a part of that defeat, he brought back with him to Babylon many of the best and brightest young Israelites. Part of the program of empire building for the Babylonians was to retrain these promising young men in the Babylonian way. Of course, this was social warfare, waged on two fronts: one, it deprived these defeated nations of their potential leaders, who might challenge their authority. And two, it gave the Babylonians a strong and committed force of new and moldable minds, raised in the capital to be the next generation of Babylonian leaders.
Daniel was one of these moldable minds. He and several of his friends were placed in this assimilation-minded, brain-washing program of Young Babylonians, placed in the lap of luxury along with the best and brightest from all of these different defeated nations. But Daniel was not as moldable as they expected. You see, Daniel had already been molded by the power of God, to which he owed allegiance and covenant love. So, when he was told to live the Babylonian way, practice the Babylonian faith, give allegiance to the Babylonian culture, he balked. He and his friends continued to worship Yahweh, and practice their faith in God.
It had been a challenging and uneven way to go. Their overlords were less than happy that they wouldn’t get with the program. Wouldn’t follow the rules. Some of them ended up in the fiery furnace for their insubordination. Daniel was berated both by his overlords and his peers. And yet, Daniel and his friends remained strong to their conviction and faith in God. It is funny how charismatic someone can be when they know who they are and who they worship and how they want to live. When that inner strength gives them the ability to smile in the dark. For Daniel, this inner strength led to a clarity that eventually won over many of his superiors. He was able to tap into the power of God and interpret the dreams of the king. His religious practices led to stronger body as well as soul, and it impressed the Babylonians. Eventually, Daniel made his way up the social ladder, showing with that inner strength what it meant to follow the ways of God.
But, of course, as soon as Daniel rose to the top, there were those ready to knock him down. Peers and supervisors who hated him for this inner strength and faith. Angry that he wasn’t playing by the rules. Far too often, culture demands that we play by its rules, and those who follow those rules like sheep just want to keep everyone else bleating on their same level. So, these sheep devised a plan to take Daniel down. They knew that he prayed regularly to his God, often in plain sight of anyone who would walk by. So, they tricked the king into creating an edict that said that anyone who did not bow down and worship him…the king and only the king…would be thrown into a den of lions. The king, too naïve or stupid to know that he was being manipulated, loved every minute of the hero worship, and signed the edict. The tattle-tales went right to the king, as soon as they caught Daniel in the act. Stuck by the rule that he had created, the king threw him in, afraid as that rock thudded into place, that he would never see the man in one piece again.
Sometimes, those with inner strength and faith die a heroic and tragic death. Prophets’ lives are taken. Heroes die too young. We grieve their loss more deeply, because we recognize the brightness of the star that has been snuffed out.
But sometimes, despite all the odds, despite the sheep who demand that we play by the rules, those stars live to shine another day. That he would live another day, dream another dream, pray another prayer, walk in faith a little longer. And they become examples for others that they, too, could live and dream and pray and walk in the ways of Yahweh. They, too, could smile in the dark.
In the darkness of that den of lions, Daniel knew what God he worshipped. It was the God of promise and power and protection, and he knew that God would be with him, live or die. So, throughout the darkness of the night, lions walking and breathing and growling in the dark, he prayed. In and out of sleep, he prayed for God to be with him…and of course, God was with him, saved him from certain death. And as the rope dropped to his feet the next morning, Daniel couldn’t help but smile.
Joseph awoke with a start in the middle of the night. It all flooded back to him. The questions. The fear. The resentment. The anger. The embarrassment. But something was different this time. Along with all of those emotions came a new sense of peace. An angel’s whisper of comfort and clarity, and an invitation to trust.
There in the dark, surrounded by his doubts, Joseph smiled.
It had been a difficult several weeks for him. His fiancé Mary had come to him with some disturbing news. She was pregnant with no clear reason why. The story she told seemed more than a little fantastic. But there was something about the way that she told it. It wasn’t the flimsy excuse of a cheater who got caught. It felt completely unbelievable…yet he completely believed. Most days, at least. But even on the days he believed, there was still the problem of the cultural expectations. And the behind-his-back name-calling. And the embarrassment. And the financial implications for him and his family…who would want to do business with a cuckold and a fool who brought shame into their small town? Joseph knew it wasn’t quite fair, but he also knew that far too often, culture demands that we play by its rules, and those who follow those rules like sheep just want to keep everyone else bleating on their same level.
Over these last weeks, Joseph wasn’t sure what to do or how to do it. By the time that he had fallen asleep that night, he had more or less decided that he would quietly divorce her. Not loudly and ceremonially, in a way that would bring shame and likely death to her and members of her family. But quietly, rocking the boat as little as possible.
But then came the dream. And the assurances of the angel. And the clarity that he sought. And the inner conviction that so few of us have in this life. That inner faith that God will be present, regardless of what the culture around us tells us. That inner conviction that regardless of our doubts and our questions, our challenges and our difficulties, the abuse heaped upon us by a culture of sheep, we can stay true.
And that inner strength brought Joseph to a place where he could take Mary as his wife, confidently and lovingly. He could care for her and her child, and raise him as his own. He could leave his home for the insecurity of a town in the hills. And he could watch with hope and pride that night, when the skies lit up with a host of angels. And as he heard the quiet cry mingle with the sounds of livestock, once again, Joseph smiled in the dark.
Jennifer awoke with a start in the middle of the night. Could she really do it? In just a little over 12 hours, she faced the biggest decision of her young life. That sudden realization gripped her with fear and anxiety. Until she heard the grandfather clock in the hallway, long a comfort for her, reminding her of the constancy of God.
As it chimed the hour, it was as if God whispered “peace be still” in the dark, and Jennifer smiled.
Jennifer’s decision had been several weeks in the making. This was the middle of her final year on the school’s football team. She had long been a soccer standout, but one day the football coach watched her kick across the field, and he knew he had his kicker. She dealt with a little grief from the boys at first, but the fact that she could boom it into the end zone every time quickly shut them up. She began to make deep friendships with the boys on the team. Soon, she was elected as president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at her small school, and she got to know most of the athletes in school.
What changed her the most were the relationships with the Latino and Black athletes. For the first time in her life, this blue-eyed blond looked into the eyes of people who were different from her and began to hear their stories. Began to feel their pain. She remembered one football practice when the star running back, a young Black man, was clearly agitated. He had forgotten his ID at home, and had to go home to get it. She didn’t understand…she had left her license had home plenty of times. “You know you’ll be late and coach will make you do pushups,” Jennifer had said. “You don’t understand,” he replied, “it’s just different for me.” Eventually, she came to understand why. They called her small town a “sundown town.” For generations, the assumption was that people of color could come into town, as long as they left by sundown. While the racism was not as overt anymore, it was still there. And this young man—and those who looked like him—knew he simply couldn’t be caught driving without his ID.
After this, and many other similar incidents, Jennifer had a gnawing idea. She knew what she had to do. She would do it the final game, as soon as they began the national anthem. It scared her a bit, but she couldn’t shake that look of terror in the eyes of her friends. Before she went through with it, though, she went to talk to her grandpa and uncle. They had both served overseas, and she wanted to tell them why she wanted to do it. Her grandpa understood immediately, but her uncle wasn’t sure. He told her he was worried about her safety if she did it, but about an hour into the conversation, grandpa turned to him and asked “are you more worried about her, or what the boys at Hardees are going to say? Don’t think of it like a protest. Think of it like a prayer…a prayer for those who we fought to protect in the first place.” See, her grandpa knew that far too often, culture demands that we play by its rules, and those who follow those rules like sheep just want to keep everyone else bleating on their same level. Before they left, they both gave their blessing, and shared a prayer with her. As she walked out the door, they were impressed by her conviction and inner strength.
By the time that Jennifer suited up that night, she was a ball of nerves. When she came out of the empty girls’ locker room, she looked at her friends in the face, and knew that she was doing the right thing. By the time warm-ups and pregame was over, she was ready. And when the anthem began on the tinny speaker over the press box, Jennifer knelt to pray. Barely a few people even noticed…but in a town that size, she knew it didn’t matter. By the end of the third quarter, everyone three towns away would know. But in the end, she didn’t care. But she wasn’t kneeling in prayer because she wanted attention, but because she had this inner faith, this inner conviction that her friends were important in the eyes of her God. As she closed her eyes shut, hands folded like Ms. Mary had taught her in Sunday school, Jennifer smiled in the dark.