Dare to be a Daniel, Dare to stand alone, Dare to have a purpose firm, Dare to make it known.
I congratulate those of you who are graduating this year. You have worked hard to get to this point – now where will your dreams take you next? What resources can help you in following your dreams?
One such resource is the story of Daniel told in chapter one of that book. The story begins far from home, in Babylon, in exile. Think of exile being a new student in a strange high school or a first-year university student far from home. Or a graduate ready now to engage the workaday world. The world can sometimes be a tough place for youthful dreams.
Our age worships at the gods of power – prestige – and possessions. Our gods aren’t Marduk and Nabu. Our are Mars/power – Bacchus/pleasure – Aphrodite/sex.
As the story goes, King Nebuchadnezzar has his chief of staff, Ashpenaz, bring him a few talented, good looking Jewish boys to be educated and trained for service at court. See? Nebuchadnezzar is not such a bad king after all. From among the slaves Nebuchadnezzar generously offers a few Jewish boys upward mobility. This is a good government sponsored student aid program. He will enable these Jewish boys to make good – on the Empire’s terms.
The story says that these boys are without spot or blemish – they scored a perfect 4.0 GPA. They were full of learning and understanding, destined to be leaders – just the sort of people pursued by the big corporations and law schools. They are to be cared for, pampered, given the best education the Empire has to offer – Babylon’s version of an executive MBA program.
Sounds great doesn’t it. Life in exile doesn’t mean your life and opportunities are over. The Empire beckons – there are lots of good openings if you’re alert and willing to play by the Empire’s rules.
Daniel and his friends are even put on a special executive diet. They’re not going to eat the common food you get at the Food Court in Place Riel Centre. No, they are insiders now – they get to eat at Boffins with the other elites — they’ll be given royal rations of the best food and wine. They’ll know which fork to use with a lobster – executive food.
Notice that the word conformity is never used. Nothing is ever said about conformity when the Empire is conforming you to its appetites and manners. Capitulation begins when young people are told they’re the best and the brightest, privileged, worthy of special treatment. Nothing is coercive. It doesn’t need to be. All that’s needed, in the path to conformity, is our natural desire to fit in.
So it’s quite a surprise when Daniel resolves not to defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine. In Babylon no one makes a fuss over food. Diet is no big deal. We’re not fanatics here. But Daniel quietly rejects the Empire’s beef for Jewish vegetables. Daniel rejects the royal program for upward mobility, and this is the point at which God enters the story. ‘God allowed Daniel to receive favour and compassion from the palace master.’
Result? ‘At the end of ten days it was observed that they appeared better and fatter than all the young men who had been eating the royal rations.’
Daniel and his friend’s amazing act of courage – their free, risky, youthful resistance is a gift of God. Again, now, God enters the story and gives the four young men ‘knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom … and insight into all visions and dreams.’ Nebuchadnezzar finds these young men ‘ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.’
Daniel had no guarantee that his risky resistance would be so rewarded. Neither do we! Surprise! By the end of the story we discover that God loves rebels. God is with the whistle-blowers, the trouble-makers, the young rebels. You notice that God only shows up twice in the story: First, to support Daniel’s act of dietary resistance. God loves people whose life goals are more interesting than merely fitting in. Second, to give Daniel visions and dreams. God is with the dreamers.
On this Graduation Sunday I want to remind you why we invest some of our best energies in worship – in SS – in mentorship programs. Because we want our children, our youth, ourselves, to be like Daniel and his three friends. When the Empire beckons with all its allurements we need to know when to resist and when to participate.
Being Christian is much like learning a language. We learn certain words, grammar and syntax that enable us to say certain things and not say others. So the first task of the church is formation rather than education — not to bring out, but to bring to. The task of Christian educators is not to develop an individual’s potential (though that may be a by-product) but rather to induct us into the faith community, to give us the skills, insights, words, stories and rituals that we need to live this faith in a world that neither knows nor follows the One who is truth. Skills like: resistance, peace-making, truth-telling, forgiveness, and love.
Being Christian takes time, skill and the wise guidance of a mentor. Discipleship implies discipline — forming one’s life in congruence with the desires and directives of the Master.
For Daniel and his friends non-conformity meant broccoli and water. For the new graduate going on to high school (talk about living in exile) it may mean be-friending the kid who others bully or ignore. For graduates going out into the everyday work world, it may mean treating your customers/clients like people rather than economic units or consumers. It may mean making a choice about where and who you want to work with – sometimes that means less pay and benefits but much more satisfaction.
And sometimes it means staying right where you are planted – but living out your faith, taking risks for justice and integrity and equality.
Wherever you go, remember who you are, a beloved child of God.
[this blog was inspired by Walter Brueggemann’s, Finally Comes the Poet.]