Reading the book of Daniel

I have to admit to being a bit surprised by how much I’ve appreciated looking at the first part of the book of Daniel. As much as I love the Bible, I associate the stories of Daniel with Sunday school stories that tended towards primarily encouraging us to be good moral people. Such a simplistic understanding of the stories (and the Bible) doesn’t fit with the complexity of real life today.

Yet the conversations we’ve had in our studies and the commentaries we’ve been using have been encouraging. Both commentaries (Wendy L. Widder’s The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel and John Goldingay’s Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone) have challenged us. I’ve been convicted about how much culture (and empire) can form us. I’ve also been comforted by how God continues to be present in our lives.

First, some words of conviction. Goldingay, in speaking of Daniel 3 and the actions of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego notes that

“Their unwillingness to live by other people’s conventions and expectations raised questions about those conventions and expectations. It’s one of the ways in which Jewish people have fulfilled their vocation to draw the rest of the world away from its usual assumptions about religion and life.” John Goldingay, Daniel & The Twelve Prophets for Everyone, 20.

Widder, in talking about how Daniel 3 might apply to our lives today, highlights how idols are not always as obvious as the one that appeared in that chapter. Bowing down to the idols of today can happen in very subtle ways:

“Sometimes when I sit down to write, facing my computer screen with outstretched hands, I wonder if I am bowing before the god of prestige. When I lie prostrate on the couch during primetime, it occurs to me that the god of entertainment and leisure might have taken up residence in my living room. In the glow of the refrigerator as I partake of unnecessary and even unhealthful calories, I realize I might be fellowshipping with the god of gluttony. . . Perhaps the most pervasive idol is human autonomy – the right to do what we want, how we want, when we want, with whomever we want. If something makes us happy, we are entitled to it. If something makes us unhappy, we are entitled to get rid of it. Human autonomy is the god of gods, and we worship it fervently.” Wendy L. Widder, The Story of God Bible Commentary: Daniel, 81.

While I found the story to be convicting, I also found it encouraging. Surprisingly enough, the encouragement is not because on account of how, in the book of Daniel, it appears that God always shows up and rescues those who follow God. In fact, the rest of the Bible (and even the situation of the Israelites in Daniel who have been carried off to a foreign land) indicates that God does not always rescue people. Instead, God is present with those who follow God.

We, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are invited to follow God, not simply because “the God we serve is able to deliver us” but “even if God does not.” (Daniel 3:17-18). As much as I sometimes want a God who will simply and always intervene in my life to deliver me, I know that this doesn’t reflect reality. Deep down, I’d also rather follow a God who does not simply follow my whims but instead is present in the midst of the complexity and suffering in life.

Judges: God uses the weak and unexpected

We’ve been looking at the book of Judges in our studies at Campus Edge. The book of Judges is strange and violent, and it’s not always clear how these ancient stories apply to our lives today. Yet, the book of Judges is clear in telling us that God raises up judges from the weak and imperfect and uses them to save the people of God. The judges do impossible things: Samson killed hundreds with the jawbone of a lion. Barak took on 900 iron chariots and Jael killed the army commander with a tent peg, Gideon took down an entire army with 300 men blowing trumpets, smashing jars, and yelling at the top of their lungs.

Knowing our own weaknesses, we are encouraged by how God uses those imperfect people, people like Samson, Gideon, Barak and Jael. After all, if God can use these people, then God can use us despite our own weaknesses and incompetency.

The challenge, though, is that we often move from gratitude that God can use to us to focusing on all that we have done: we tend to become the hero of our own stories. While Judges proclaims loudly that God uses the unexpected people, it’s helpful to remember that most of the time that unexpected person isn’t me.

Difficult conversations in Academia

Academia is not immune to difficult conversations, as a recent article in Inside Higher Ed illustrates. In the article, Stephen J. Aguilar notes that:

“Misunderstandings in academe are common and often innocuous, yet they can create conflict. Perhaps someone misheard something you said, and now they are angry with you. Perhaps they heard your words correctly but comprehended them in a manner that did not align with your intent. Or perhaps they interpreted your silence in a way that was inconsistent with the message you wanted to send.

The rest of the article provides wisdom on navigating misunderstandings and conflict. Not surprisingly, it is similar to much of the advice given by the authors of Difficult Conversations.

Why don’t we talk about racism?

As part of our study at Campus Edge on difficult conversations, we talked about racism. It was an important topic as part of recognizing how God cares about justice and because not caring about racism takes away from our witness to who God is. During our discussion, one of the questions that came up is why we tend not to talk about racism in Christian circles. Part of the challenge is that many of us avoid difficult conversations in general, so that means we avoid most conversations that bring too closely into focus our identity, our feelings, and whether we are good enough.

Yet, part of the challenge is that it’s hard to believe that good church folk might be racist. Our actions, such as giving to the poor and advocating for justice, show that we strive to live out our love for God and our neighbor; why would anyone accuse us of racism? As Carolyn B. Helsel notes:

If we are generally good people who feed and clothe the homeless and give our money to the poor, it can feel as if we are being unjustly accused of racism when the rest of our behavior shows our moral intentions. Unfortunately, great harm comes to others not simply by our intentions, but by our inattentions. . . Separating intention from inattention means that if we say something that inadvertently hurts someone else, we do not need to get defensive. Instead, we can say, “I’m so sorry. I did not realize what that would sound like or feel like for you.”

Despite our best intentions, we are still sinners. Social science has shown that we tend to like people who are familiar to us and whom we understand, which means we tend to avoid people of different cultures (and even avoid making space for others’ differences). As Christena Cleveland puts it: “our interactions with people who are different from us or who violate our expectations are laden with uncertainty and are cognitively taxing.” Furthermore, when we’re feeling insecure, it’s easy to put others down; in other words, we do our best to disassociate with people who might be considered ‘losers.’ For more on this, I recommend Christena Cleveland’s book Disunity in Christ.

I confess that we at Campus Edge haven’t done a great job of acknowledging racism. Campus Edge’s vision focuses on creating community and integrating faith and intellect; we especially want to be there for people who are struggling with faith. It’s not immediately obvious how the question of racism fits in; yet, that might be because we’ve been ignoring how racism (or other -isms) make a community less welcoming and less supportive. Furthermore, when people use the Bible to support racism or even use one’s good intentions or faith to be indifferent to another person’s troubles and/or unique gifts, how can one not struggle with faith?

We’re working on this at Campus Edge. Pray that we might do a better job of caring about those around us who have been struggling in ways that we haven’t seen or acknowledged. I pray, too, that more people would have the courage to have about difficult conversations, especially connected to racism, justice, sexuality, and spirituality.

Millennial Burnout

A recent article on millennial burnout points to the challenges that millennials face in growing up in a culture that has valued being busy over one’s well-being. The author, Anne Helen Petersen, notes the following:

Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

How do you talk about faith?

Despite Christians being called to share the gospel many of us feel inadequate to the task. It doesn’t help that most people have had strange and awkward experiences when it came to sharing faith.

This Saturday and Monday, as part of our study on having difficult conversations, we’ll be focusing on what it might look like to share one’s faith. The unhelpful reality is that “Christians have historically considered sharing one’s faith to be the exclusive practice of evangelism and have often bypassed normal conversational decorum to leap to the action of telling the gospel.” (Mary Schaller and John Crilly, The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations29). As with all difficult conversations, it rarely goes well when we enter the conversation convinced that we have all the answers and when we have limited desire to listen to the other person (and make space for their feelings or how any conversation related to faith might touch on their or our identity).

While it’s fairly easy to see how spiritual conversations can go wrong, it’s less easy to figure out how we might start good conversations about spirituality. How can be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove in this matter (cf. Matthew 10:6)? Perhaps the question is better framed as how one might live out one’s faith (and share it) in a way that is authentic (innocent) and creative (wise). Robert Kaita, in discussing how he has been able to share his faith with his colleagues, challenges us to think of how we might creatively share our faith:

The relevant question becomes not how good we are at striking up conversations at the water cooler. . . . If “generic” ideas on how to share your faith are not for you, God has given you the ability to figure out creative alternatives. As He does not make mistakes, He expects you to meet this challenge based on the kind of person He has created you to be. . . Are you serving the body of Christ in a lockstep fashion that you would never tolerate professionally, or are you exercising your God-given creativity?

Kaita ended up working with his church to provide a class for high school students as part of their Vacation Bible School program. He “started each day with a Bible study on Genesis on the theme that God has “created us to be creative.” [He] then took the students to a different place on campus each day. [They] went to the art gallery, the geology museum, and some engineering laboratories where some Christian friends were teaching.” Such a program led to good conversations with the students who participated, as well as with his local church and the university community.

I’m hopeful that we will be able to encourage and challenge each other to be creative about living out and sharing the good news with others.

Difficult conversations

Conversations that matter are often difficult. Stone, Patton, and Heen do a good job of explaining what makes a conversation difficult:

“Anytime we feel vulnerable or our self-esteem is implicated, when the issues at stake are important and the outcome uncertain, when we care deeply about what is being discussed or about the people with whom we are discussing it, there is potential for us to experience the conversation as difficult.” Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations, xv.

By God’s grace, however, we can learn to have those difficult conversations through learning from the wisdom of others (like the authors of this book).

So maybe it is about economics?

In our studies on the parables of Jesus, I’ve been struck by how often the parables talk about money and economics. Perhaps, though, as Jesus’ teachings tended to make people upset, it’s not that surprising: nothing quite gets people as upset as challenging them about money, power, and their self-importance.

The parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) challenges readers both about economics and their self-importance.

The traditional understanding of this parable is that of grace: like the day’s wage that each person is paid at the end of the day, all those who believe are given salvation (irrelevant of how long they have been doing kingdom work). Salvation by grace alone (not by works) is one of the often repeated themes in Paul’s letters, so while there is something wonderful about being reminded about God’s extensive grace, there’s not much surprising in this message. Nor does it fully explain the ending of the parable – the part where the landowner basically tells the ‘early’ workers to get over themselves and highlights the generosity of the landowner in making sure all those who’d worked received enough for their daily needs.

It helps to look at the context. This parable is probably being told to the disciples. The text surrounding the passage doesn’t give the best picture of the disciples: they rebuke the people bringing their children to Jesus, they ask what they’ll earn because they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus, and then two of them ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom (and the others get upset at their audacity). The parable then rebukes the self-importance and entitlement of the disciples, something that many of us ‘older’ Christians also tend to have. The challenge to the hearers of this parable is thus:

“Why do we find it so difficult to rejoice over the good that enters other people’s lives, and why do we spend our time calculating how we have been cheated? . . . Even while we speak of justice, none of us is satisfied with average. We always think we deserve a little more.” Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, 378.

As the text surrounding this parable talks a lot about money and our desire to get what we deserve, it is also important to wonder what the strange economics in the parable might have to say to us today. Amy-Jill Levine does a great job of pointing out how the justice portrayed in this parable is a justice that is not related only to saving grace but also to every day life:

“The workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair’; the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right.’ . . an economic lesson: the point is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough. . . . If the householder can afford it, he should continue to put others on the payroll, pay them a living wage (even if they cannot put in a full day’s work), and so allow them to feed their families while keeping their dignity intact. The point is practical, it is edgy, and it a greater challenge to the church then and today than the entirely unsurprising idea that God’s concern is that we enter, not when.”  Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 213, 218

Why talk about difficult topics?

The studies in the second half of the spring semester focused on difficult topics in Christianity and the Bible. As many people avoid these conversations because of potential conflict, it’s not always obvious why we should talk about these things. Yet, studying these difficult topics can help us love God and those around us. Reading the Bible carefully, as well as listening to those around us, makes us aware that knowing and understanding the Bible isn’t easy. How could God command the Israelites to destroy all the Canaanites when they went into the promised land, an act that people today would consider genocide? Why would a caring, all-powerful God allow people to be attracted to people of the same-sex if it’s sin to act on those feelings? What about gender dysphoria? Hell?

These are hard questions that many struggle with. Not talking about them doesn’t make the struggles go away; in fact, it often makes it worse and may even cause people to question faith. Looking for answers to these difficult questions allows us to use our God-given intellect to know God better. At the same time, sometimes the answers are unclear, as witnessed by how differently Christians address these questions. The Bible also seems to suggest (in the book of Job) that as mere humans, it is not our place to understand all things. So sometimes the questions do not need to be answered so much as they need space to be voiced. When address the problem of suffering, Mike Wagenman, a campus minister at University of Western Ontario, notes that sometimes it’s not about answers so much as providing a “listening ear and open heart” in the middle of the pain and the struggles.