Even Here in Babylon
We weren’t looking for any trouble, you know. The three of us went down to the capital to take in the sights, catch up on the news, and attend the Mandatory Loyalty Conference. Crazy, right?
Whack-o megalomaniac king–someone had been playing on his ego for a while, telling him how great he was, telling him that he might as well be the Almighty Himself.
Anyways, this guy gets his head filled with grand visions, so he puts up posters of himself on every street corner, names all the streets after himself, and hires a poet to write a song called, “A Sweet Halelu to Almighty Nebu.”
Course you couldn’t get away from it–every street was his, every poster was his, and the only song anybody was allowed to play, sing, or dance to–well, you know it–it was pretty disgusting.
Me and the boys got fed up with it after a couple of days, and were getting ready to head back home. We try to get away from the conference and we’re told that nobody can leave until after the closing ceremony.
That afternoon the Army Corps of Engineers rolls out with this giant statue of King Nebuchadnezzar and when the national orchestra starts playing “A Sweet Alelu” everybody is supposed to bow down to the ground and start singing, “Alelu from my loving heart...”
So we are out there on the plaza like everybody else when they strike up the band. At first it just seems funny, you know–all these people singing and bowing and crying crocodile tears for the statue of the king. Then out come these jack-booted thugs and start whipping on people that aren’t singing loud enough or crying hard enough.
Right next to where we are standing, this girl is sitting on the ground feeding her baby and this jerk on a horse comes up and cracks her over the head with a stick and screams at her to sing the song.
She’s bleeding and the baby is wailing and the guy jumps off his horse and grabs her around the neck and punches her and she drops the baby and old Meshach here loses his composure and hauls back with his goat-sized fist and punches the soldier in the face.
Breaks his nose, splits his lips open and the guy falls back against his horse, which responds by kicking the man in the shinbone.
It took about three seconds for us to be surrounded by a posse of these royal guard creeps, who have swords drawn and would like to use them.
A captain rides up and gets the story from the soldier who is still bleeding a lot and the three of us are marched off at swordpoint to the grandstand. The girl with the baby, I was happy to see, made off in the crowd.
Pretty soon this captain is telling the great king himself that the three of us won’t bow and sing, and you can see that the king is pretty mad about it. They consult and the captain tells us our options:
“When the orchestra strikes up another chorus of “Sweet Alelu”, you can bow your sorry asses to the king’s statue or you can kiss them goodbye in the furnace of the royal ironworks.”
Meshach speaks for us in his especially elegant and articulate way. He looks up calmly at the captain and says, “Bull-shit, captain. Not going to bow to a statue.”
The king is so mad that he throws down his cup of wine and grabs the captain’s sword. He has obviously been drinking a lot that morning, and almost falls over. The attendant catches him and helps him back to his big chair. The captain takes his sword, and puts the point of it up to Meshach’s throat.
“Your life is over,” the captain says. “Why have you done this?”
Shadrach holds up his hand to the captain. He says, “Look here, Captain.” He points at the king who was tipping back a new cup of wine with a dark scowl on his face. “That is the king.” Then Shadrach points at the nice big statue, standing there at the top of the plaza. “And that--that is a nice big statue.”
Then Shadrach says, “But the statue isn’t the king, and the king isn’t Almighty God, and we can’t stand here and make-believe anything different.
“The only real God is the one who made the earth and the sky, and neither the man in the chair or the statue on the pedestal made the earth or the sky or the pigeon that’s standing on the statue’s head.”
Shadrach smiles at the captain. “You know that what I am saying is true, don’t you?”
Well, I don’t know what that army captain knew about the Almighty, but he didn’t smile back at Shadrach. Instead he orders for the three of us to be hog-tied and carried over to the foundry. At this point it became pretty obvious that we had come to the end of our line, and that we wouldn’t be going back home like we had hoped.
They put about fifty yards of rope on each of us and sling us over poles, which some burly dudes pick up. The Royal Carriers hoist the king’s chair, and bring him along, too. He’s looking pretty smug about this time.
The foundry is right near the palace. It’s where they make all the hardware for the army–swords and shields and chariots. It’s the military-industrial complex. We get there and the king is shouting at the slaves to crank up the fire.
They add a lot of coal to the firebox and four guys start pumping on these giant bellows. You can feel the heat from a hundred feet away, and a column of sparks is blasting up out of the chimney.
The king is relishing the moment and gets off his chair and wobbles over to where the three of us are hanging upside down on these poles. He stands there and says to us, says,
(drunkenly) “You fools are dying for your useless insubordination! Now you will see who has power in the world. It is I, King Nebuchadnezzar! It is I alone!”
I can’t stand it any more. Hanging there upside down from a pole with all this rope around my chest made it hard to talk, but I had to speak my peace. “Not true!” I croaked up at the king. “We serve the real God, the one who made the earth and sky!”
There I was, upside down and getting ready to be burned like a sack of coal—a man with nothing to lose. “You are just another crazy dictator in love with yourself!
“If God wants to save us from your furnace, he can still do it! You aren’t God, and you don’t have the final word even right here at your own palace!”
Then Shadrach pipes in. He says, “And even if God doesn’t save us from the furnace, great king, that doesn’t change anything. We still know that he is the ruler of the world, and we still won’t worship you or your statue!”
The king isn’t enjoying this anymore. He raises his jeweled scepter and shouts like a madman. “Prepare to die! I am the great king! I am the Almighty God!”
I half expect the real God to show up and set the record straight. But without further ceremony, they carry us over to the entrance of the furnace. The bellows are blowing and the sparks are flying and the whole thing is white-hot.
They take me first. The last thing I see is the blue sky with a cloud that looks like an ocean wave. I think it’s beautiful, and I say to the real God, I say, “Thank you for the clouds, Creator God,” and they throw me into the flames.
Now there’s a lot that I don’t understand about this world. I don’t know why things work the way they do. I don’t know why someone like King Nebuchadnezzar is allowed to have a big army and march them around making life miserable for people.
I don’t know why God allowed Jerusalem to get torn down like a dead tree. So many people died for nothing. They slaughtered our people like sheep and God kept quiet. I don’t understand that.
I don’t know how one world can have such beauty in it and be so terrible at the same time. But I guess we have to be okay with not understanding. God doesn’t explain everything.
Anyways, when I landed in the furnace, it felt like jumping into the Jordan River when I was a kid back in Jabesh-gilead--cool and easy.
I don’t know what’s going on, but I look up and there’s Shadrach flying towards me and I get out of his way. My ropes are gone and I watch Shadrach kind of float through the air. His pole and ropes burst into flames and disappear, and he touches down as gently as a duck feather on a pond.
He looks up at me standing there and we both laugh and then Meshach comes sailing in and the same thing happens to him. We don’t really understand what’s going on, of course, but Shadrach says, “It’s the work of the Lord.”
Next thing we see is this woman standing there, if you can call her a woman at all. She looks to me like she could have come straight out of that cloud that I saw before they threw me in. She speaks to us and her voice is like cool water, full of strength and sympathy.
The three of us must have looked scared witless, and she says, “Don’t be afraid, my friends.” She says, “The God whom you serve–the Maker of the earth and sky–has sent me to be with you. No harm will come to you today.”
The three of us drop to our knees in front of her. I start crying but she comes over and takes my arm and pulls me up. I can hardly look into her face, but she kisses my teary cheek as tender as a mother kisses her sleeping child.
Aside from the brightness of the burning coal and the air from the bellows, you would think we were standing in a field of flowers tending sheep on a spring morning. The lady is telling us to trust in God; that we have not been forgotten. She tells us other things, too, but I can’t say what it was. I only know that it made me happy to hear her voice.
After a few minutes she says, “I have to leave you now.” She touches each one of us on the forehead and speaks our names. “Abednego,” she says as she touches me. Her fingertips are warm and gentle.
Then there’s all this yelling and we realize again where we are. The bellows have stopped and someone is ordering us to come out. Meshach goes out first and I follow him.
Everybody looks at us like we are lions ready to leap at their throats. We almost don’t care about what is going to happen next. What happened in the furnace makes everything else look like a dream.
The king is standing there shaking like crazy and he seems to have sobered up considerably. There are a lot of people running around and shouting.
The king says that nobody can worship any god except for the god of the Hebrews. Shadrach tells him that it’s not just the god of the Hebrews, it is Creator God Almighty, Maker of the earth and sky.
The king apologizes and gives us some fancy clothes and big horses. It’s all we can do to get ourselves out of there. We take the horses and ride away from the palace. The king has soldiers escort us, but when we get to the river we tell them to leave us alone and they do.
We ride to Kish, eager to get away from the city, to get home and tell our story to our own people, which is what I am doing right now.
I don’t know exactly what to make of the things that happened to us there today, but I can tell you that I am not afraid any more. Even if it is hard to believe, I can tell you that we are not forgotten. We are remembered, even here in Babylon.
* * *
I like the story of Shadrach and Meshech and Abednego. And my favorite part is when these guys say to that old king that God is probably going to save them from the fire, and that even if God doesn’t save them from the fire, that nothing is going to change their position about bowing down to any statues or playing along with the dominant culture.
Frankly, they aren’t too sure about what God is going to do or not do. They have let go of certitude, but they have not let go of faith.
And that is the challenge for me, too. I find a lot less certainty in my life, and yet I am working to disentangle it from my faith so that I can let go of one without letting go of the other.
I am ready to say that I don’t have all of the answers, but that in the meantime I want to live a life of commitment and devotion to God, to the revelation of God in Christ.
In my experience, this is a long process. A critical part of it has been coming to acknowledge the limitations of my understanding.
I admit, like Shadrach, that what I think and believe about God, and how I hope God to work in the world, may not prove to be correct.
I am gradually acknowledging that where I stand is practically no place at all in the elegant lacework of the universe.
I am seeing that my field of vision is mostly filled with the smoke of my own campfires and the dust that rises from the padding feet of the human procession.
I am growing less inclined than ever to explain why things work the way they do, less inclined to contain and force-reconcile the disparity and contradictions of the-world-as-I-see-it.
From where I stand, every view is filled with mystery, every contemplation is filled with wonder.
What am I to make of disease and death and prayer? What of faith and religion and the holy books? What of history and evolution and their respective implications?
There is enough goodness and beauty in the world to spend every moment in awe and joy and wonder. There is enough misery and stupidity in the world to spend every moment in grief and despair.
How do we live in such a world?
Most of us wake up in the morning and we put our feet to the floor and we stand up. I usually take the dog for a run and read the newspaper over breakfast and then ride a bicycle to work. If it is the weekend, I make a list of things to be done and then start with something on the list. I like it best if it is a short list that just says: “go backpacking.”
This afternoon I plan to read a book and take a nap. Tonight we plan to make pizza and watch a movie. Brandon and I will probably sleep on the roof because we like the night sky.
I seem to accept these routines as the framework for my life. Years go by, and my hair is turning grey and my children are mostly grown up. This is my human experience.
All of this, and I am aware of a million facts. I know of beautiful places that I could go to—waterfalls and winding forest trails, hidden caves and wide open mountaintops.
I also know about hunger and loneliness. I know about Ebola in Liberia and of war in Iraq and Syria and Ukraine.
I know that there are people in Burma who will labor all this day long for one dollar, the amount that I earn tapping a keyboard to write an e-mail, the amount I spent on the mushrooms for tonight’s pizza.
There are slaves in India who won’t be paid at all for their work, except for two bowls of rice and a piece of dirt to sleep on.
And there are many people who live like I do. We drive trucks or we work in schools or in fields of corn or textile factories. We rest in the shade of a tree or on a genuine leather sofa.
We love our children more than anything. We build our houses out of grass or sticks or bricks or whatever we could salvage from the landfill.
We hope for the best, but we suffer some personal tragedies. People who we love get lost or they die. People who we love, maybe including ourselves, make terrible choices and suffer for them the rest of our lives.
We go to church or temple or mosque and we sing to God or we just sing to each other and we look up at the night sky and wonder about how all of this came to be.
This is our human experience. It varies a lot in the details, but not much in the averages.
But sometimes, sometimes, when we are walking down a trail in the forest or driving across Kansas or watching our sheep on the hillside, we wonder. We wonder where we came from and where we are going.
We wonder this: Have we forever existed in the mind of God? Are we known and loved by Almighty God, Creator of the earth and sky?
Does the transcendent God know the one thousand languages that we speak and wonder in? Are even our wordless tears, our anguish and hope and hopelessness, intelligible beyond the edges of our space-time bubble?
We don’t know these things. We believe or we don’t believe or we believe part of the time or we just think in terms of probabilities and try to remain non-committal. But our lives are partly shaped by what we believe.
It might or might not change the direction that our feet move in—we might still work in the factory or watch our sheep all day regardless of ultimate ontological realities.
We might love our children and build our homes and drive tractors whether we believe that God is engaged with us or not.
But for many of us, we want to believe something that makes sense of the world-as-we-see-it. We want to live in a universe that answers for the impulses of our hearts and conscience.
We want to put our feet onto a floor that has something underneath it. So we wonder if it is too much to ask, if is it being too presumptuous, to hope and pray for light in the shadow of our human experience?
I hope not. I hope that I can hope and pray. I hope that my eyes and heart can recognize light when they see it, and use it to navigate a daunting world. I hope that I can hold onto faith even when I have let go of certitude.
I hope that I can understand enough to know when to weep and when to wonder, when to delight in the simple beauty of a sparrow, and when to suffer the pain of a stranger who I see in a photograph on the internet.
Where does this kind of faith leave me? It leaves me accountable for my heart and conscience. It leaves me in gratitude for small light and opportunity.
It leaves me conflicted with the terrible suffering of my neighbors. It leaves me in awe of the world and its Maker.
My ignorance does not leave me paralyzed with fear or indecision. I am not triumphant, not self-assured, but I am determined, nonetheless, to live as though it matters how I live, to nourish and be nourished by goodness and compassion.
I cannot say what the world will look like a hundred or ten thousand years from now. I cannot say that goodness and compassion will be victorious over evil and greed.
I can’t say whether we will burn to ash or be saved from the fiery furnace like Abednego. But I am less compelled by certainty about the future than by a desire to be faithful and responsive to God and to the opportunities that are jammed into this very day—this day.
I will try to see it for the gift that I believe it to be. I will try to hear the voice of God, which I believe we can sometimes hear when we are quiet—try to see the opportunity to say or do something significant for someone else.
The significant words that we can say usually turn out to be something simple, such as, “You are greatly loved,” or such as, “Thank you for being yourself.”
The significant thing that we can do usually turns out to be something simple like listening to a story or like giving a small gift of food or water or care.
So, is this what it comes to? In search of ultimate meaning, ultimate, transcendent, universal cosmological truth, can we say nothing more profound than, “Love your neighbor?” Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandment. And this is my commandment: that you love each other.”
The pinnacle of truth seems to have ended up being the smallest and humblest endeavor, the least complicated instruction ever.
And maybe that is as it should be, because all of us on earth can participate in the implementation of ultimate truth—not just the Protestants or not just the Americans and Western Europeans.
We don’t need doctorates in philosophy or theology or astronomy to send a gift to the neighbors.
We don’t need to read or write great books of wisdom to sit down and listen to a lonely stranger. We don’t need a lot of money to share our wealth. We don’t need great political power in order to make life better for a child.
Maybe we will do spectacular things, too. Maybe we will become prophets and confront evil in the world. Maybe we will give all that we own to the poor.
Maybe we will get our doctorates in philosophy and astronomy and write best-selling books. But maybe, too, we will spend our days watching sheep on a hillside or separating plastic bottles at the recycling plant on Ajo and Alvernon Way.
Maybe we will just love our children and take care of our elders and pitch in when the village needs a new footbridge. This is our human experience. It is short and full of opportunity and full of suffering and full of hope.
I cannot say much about what is beyond the moments of our lives. I cannot do much about what is beyond the moments of our lives.
What I can aspire to is to pay attention, to see these moments of opportunity as small exquisite gifts, as clear water falling into our thirsty desert lands. I can believe the angel, that we are not forgotten, that we are remembered, even here in Babylon.
Dear God, please give us the presence of heart and the presence of mind to walk these few days, eyes open to the bright sun and the flickering shade, seeing an opportunity and having the courage to take it up in faith and hope, to take up moments of beauty and of suffering and of silence, each of them in time. Amen.