Daniel 6:10 Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. 11 Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help. 12 So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree: “Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or man except to you, O king, would be thrown into the lions’ den?” The king answered, “The decree stands—in accordance with the laws of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed.” 13 Then they said to the king, “Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day.”
You could say, “But I have the right of way,” as loudly and firmly as you like, but those could be your last words, like other famous last words, such as, “Let’s stay on the water a little bit more to see if the fish really do bite like crazy when a storm’s rolling in.” Being correct would be cold comfort if you insist on your right of way and collide with those three quarters of a ton of big old bull buffalo that just stepped into the road running through Yellowstone National Park, or if you get too close and he decides to collide with you. He doesn’t know the traffic laws. Nor does he understand how insurance works; he just knows that someone in the herd must be the first to step into the road, so that those noisy metal beasts with the rolling rubber feet will come to a stop, and allow the rest of his herd to cross.
Then out of those shiny metal beasts come those two-legged creatures with flashing cameras, cell phones and video cameras. He turns his shaggy head both directions and casts a baleful, defiant eye at the cars and the tourists, as though he’s thinking, “Yeah, make my day and come a little closer.” But he’s already had plenty of fights with other threats to his herd, like wolves and grizzly bears, and he has the scars to show it. He stands his ground in the middle of the road while out of the meadows and the woods come dozens of cows, calves and some younger bulls, some of them his sons, some of them potential rivals. One of them may one day replace him as the leader, father and protector of the herd. They are crossing the road looking for water or better pasture, and his risky behavior—just stepping onto the road first– makes crossing the road less risky for them. When the last of the cows and the littlest of the calves have crossed the road, then off he slowly ambles after his herd. “Did you see that?” ask the moms and dads and littlest children. “Yeah,” say some of the other kids, barely looking up from texting their friends or playing games on their I-Phones. Such a bold buffalo crossing is a daily occurrence somewhere in Yellowstone National Park.
In today’s Bible passage, God’s people faced a dangerous crossing, and an old bull has stepped out into traffic to take the risk and give them cover. Fifty years into Israel’s Exile, Babylon is under new management: an alliance of Medes and Persians has conquered Babylon and now rules the land to which the Jews were taken. But spiritually, things are no different. They’re at it again, trying to make gods out of mortal men. Whenever that happens, Daniel and his Jewish friends know the drill: love and respect all mortals equally and indiscriminately, from the king to the lowliest commoner; but worship and trust only God absolutely, whatever the cost, and God will vindicate himself and you, whether in life or death. But in previous instances of resistance to idolatry and blasphemy, they went about their faithfulness and worship without much fuss or publicity, until their enemies caught them at it. Otherwise, they didn’t go out to provoke a public confrontation over their faith.
But in this instance, the old bull, Daniel, steps out into the road, so to speak. For that’s what he is, after fifty years in Babylon, an old bull with leadership responsibilities for his nation and his people. Since Daniel was already a boy when the Exile started, I’d put him at about 60 years plus, which seems younger to me every year.
To stop the traffic, so to speak, Daniel opens the window of his prayer room so that people can see him praying three times a day, illegally, to a god other than the king. Did you know that prayer could be an act of nonviolent direct action and protest? It is whenever idolatry rules the land.
Now, what if Daniel had not provoked this showdown with his public prayers? What if he had said to himself, “Its up to me not to offend anyone and provoke a conflict, so I’ll keep doing my prayers in private, only more so?”
Remember, the jealous, manipulative and unscrupulous people who are out gunning for Daniel and his title, who have manipulated the king into signing this idolatrous decree, that all prayers and worship are to go only to himself for thirty days, show all the characteristics of predators and bullies. Like all bullies and predators, they prefer their victims cheap and easy. What if their first victims, to be fed to the lions, were not Daniel but the young, the weak, the elderly, young parents, children, those wavering in their faith, who may have renounced their faith at the first smell of lion breath, while Daniel continued to live in privilege and security, protected by his proximity to the king? What good then to himself would have been his long life and his leadership among God’s people? How could he even live with himself if others went first into the lions’ den because of him? More than five hundred years before the cross of Calvary, we see in Daniel a foreshadowing of Jesus, who said, “I lay down my life willingly; it is not taken from me.”
I am reminded here of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. They were leading a coordinated campaign of sit-ins and pray-ins, marches and other peaceful efforts to overturn their legalized, segregated, second-class citizenship. But the police chief, Bull Connor, engineered enough court injunctions to make every conceivable Constitutional avenue of free speech and free assembly illegal.
Dr. King and other leaders of the campaign met secretly in a hotel room to discuss their options. There was much debate and hand-wringing over the possibility that, if they went ahead with a march that had already been declared, many young people would not finish high school without a criminal record. And any who had already been arrested before could be put away for years if they get arrested again. Do they call it off, or do they go ahead at that terrible price?
Finally, Dr. King said, “I’m going to my room to pray.” Once in prayer, a strange peace and a sense of purpose settled over him. He emerged a little later a changed man, literally. He had traded in his dapper suit and tie for denim jeans and a casual shirt. “These are my goin’-to-jail clothes,” said Dr. King. He led the next planned street march, and was promptly arrested. Again. And while he was writing his Letter From a Birmingham Jail in solitary confinement, or even because he was in solitary confinement, thousands of Birmingham’s black citizens, and many white friends, young and old and all ages in between, found renewed courage to continue the marches, even in the face of police dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs.
Which brings me to a point I wish to make about leadership. I feel proud and privileged around the kind of leadership our members exhibit in the commissions of this church, in ministries to the wider community, leadership in inter-Mennonite agencies like the local relief sale and Ten Thousand Villages, leadership in the conference (like with Gebremichael Heramo) and even in the wider denomination (like with Kim Friesen).
Both Dr. King and the prophet Daniel show us that the first task of leadership is to be and to do that which we would encourage in others. Our most effective tool of leadership is our example, by going where we would lead, even when there are risks. Especially when there are risks. Leadership like what Daniel and Dr. King exhibited, is first about living the truth, then telling the truth, and then taking the heat for doing both.
But to lead in that way requires courage. And that is what I wish to focus on most this morning: courage. Courage is not the absence of fear; it is the mastery of fear. Christian faith is all about courage, more than it is about certainty or figuring everything out. Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, defined Christian faith as “the courage to accept that we are accepted.” Accepting that we are accepted takes courage in a world that is always telling us, “You’re worth less than him or her or them; you’re too much of this, too little of that.” That’s why leadership requires much time in prayer and attention to the spiritual life, the reason why I have a spiritual director. So that we lead and live out of the assurance of our acceptance with God, and not out of any fear of others.
Courage is not anything we can master once and for all, and then hang up on the shelf like a trophy. Every stage of our lives requires that we find and show anew the courage to face the challenges, risks and responsibilities that come with that stage, before we can move on to the next one. Daniel, at the age of 60 or more, acted more boldly and provocatively than he did in his previous run-ins with imperial injustice and idolatry. But this is a different life stage, when he has public responsibilities toward his country and his people. So he acts in a way that is public and provocative.
Which makes me wonder: Do we have this whole life cycle thing backwards? Don’t we usually think that youth is the major time for bold, risky behavior, while the later years of life are for conserving and consolidating all that we have gained, by being careful, conventional and constrained? But in the life of Daniel, we see the opposite: just when we might expect him to say, “I’ve taken my risks, I’ve rallied to the cause so many times already, I’m tired—let someone else take the lead and the heat this time,” the elder has stepped forth to risk life and limb for the young, the weak and the impressionable. Its as though the general has come out of the trenches to draw enemy fire, so that the younger troops can live to fight another day. After all, this particular attack was about Daniel.
Or consider the case of the retirement age grandmothers and great-grandmothers who lately have been showing up at military recruitment centers around the country, saying, “Send me to Iraq or Afghanistan; I’ll go in the place of those dear young people who should be home with their parents or their children, or their spouses, who should be starting their marriages, their families, their college educations or their careers; I’ve lived my life—let them live theirs.” I can’t help thinking that maybe they should induct them and send them. Not with weapons or in uniform, but just to bring the gifts of their love, their experiences and their wisdom to the common struggle to be human. After all, President Carter’s mother, Lillian Carter, joined the Peace Corps and served in India for two years, at the age of 68.
There are so many mission and service teams, here and abroad, staffed by people who are eager, driven, energetic, well-intentioned, quite sure of themselves… and usually young. Some of them crash and burn, frustrated by the inevitable gap between their aspirations and their aggravations, the aggravations of facing overwhelming needs with underwhelming resources, and sometimes the aggravations and tribulations of getting along with other workers who are equally as eager, driven, motivated, well-intentioned, sure of themselves…. and young. Sometimes they can use a grandfatherly or grandmotherly figure who can tell them, “Slow down; you’ve got time; you’ll get the hang of it; you don’t have to know it all now, nor to do it all now; don’t take yourself so seriously; you’re not indispensable; take a nap; take care of yourself; and trust God.” That’s one reason why we have a mentoring program in this church.
Whatever our age or stage in life, then, the kingdom of God has a place, a task and a challenge for us, all of which require courage. The very last task, the one which may require of us the most courage, will be to let it all go as we die, and to confide the fruits of our labors, our loves and our leadership to the gracious hands of God. Before then, we may retire from our careers. But we can never retire our courage.
As for the young, when I read wisdom literature in the Bible, I see that the young are doubly and triply enjoined to watch their steps and to apply themselves to learning wisdom, prudence and the fear of God. Says the first chapter of Proverbs: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.” As an elder King Solomon said to the youth of his day, in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them.'”
In other words, youth is not just for experimenting, pushing the envelope and testing our limits. Yes, youth, do that service assignment, or do that semester of study and service abroad, yes, even try and see if whitewater kayaking or rock climbing are for you. Its easier now than it will be in sixty years. But youth is also for laying the groundwork and foundation for wisdom in later ages and stages of life. So, as Proverbs chapter 2 says, “Turn your ear to wisdom and apply your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.” Like Daniel did, in his youth.
That also requires courage, especially when everyone around us is saying, “Revolt and rebel! Boundaries are just for breaking!” Especially in the commercial youth culture of today. But if we start early, facing the challenges, risks and responsibilities of youth with courage and a heart seeking wisdom, we’ll have more resources and strength with which to face the challenges of all the ages and stages that follow. The courage with which Daniel stepped onto the road for the sake of his people and his God did not suddenly come in the mail one day with his first social security check. It had been growing and developing through all the previous stages of his life, in the life-long pursuit of wisdom.
So, again, Christian life begins, continues and ends with courage. Christian faith is a stance of courage, “the courage to accept that we are accepted” by God. Every age and stage of life requires courage, the courage to to avoid worthless risks, and the courage to take necessary risks, like Daniel did, and the wisdom to know the difference between them. For that, it pays to start early, and keep it up, all through life, to the very end. Like Daniel did.