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“We’re in the lion’s den”

By Dorothy Nickel Friesen

Read Daniel 6

I discovered that if you go to church over 70 years, as I have, there are some Biblical stories that get repeated over and over.  One of them is Daniel in the lion’s den.

To tell the truth, I haven’t read that story for years. Yet, recently, one of my pastors preached a virtual sermon from Daniel 6 as I sat on my couch sipping coffee.  Then, I started to recall how this story had formed and informed my faith over these decades.

First, when I was young, I had a Bible that had pictures in it.  There were the early pictures of a beautiful garden with a snake scaring a woman (was she white?).  Creation, it was portrayed, was ruined. Then there was the equally scary picture of a father with a knife in his hand and a young boy tied up about to be killed.  I remember, distinctly, that my father was reading a Bible story book to me on the over-stuffed rocking chair after supper and he couldn’t continue reading out loud because he was crying.  The Bible had really hard stories in it.  And, of course, there was the picture of a young man in a lion’s den and then there was the picture of a young man (are there no women in the Bible?) sitting under a tree playing a harp and singing.  I had a cousin named David so I knew his parents must have liked the Psalms!  And on and on, picture after picture, story after story, where God’s story was now permanently printed in my child’s brain.  I knew it was important and that the story meant something.  Jesus, a tall man with long brown hair, held sheep and was kind but died on a cross and then stood all in white in front of a stone grave.  Everything turned out powerfully and wonderfully.  This Bible story was full of hard things, but God was more powerful, more important, and more present to the word—and to me.

Second, years later (1979), I was writing my master’s thesis focusing on teaching the Bible as literature to high school literature students.  I used the short stories of Jonah, Esther, Ruth, and Daniel as my subjects and analyzed various translations for their reading ability.  There was that Daniel book again.  I analyzed the stories and determined the text in the Revised Standard Version more readable than the King James Version regarding sentence length, number of syllables, lower reading grade level.  Now my faith, as an adult, mother, graduate student, and professional teacher, was forced to be shaped by scholarship and made available to those outside of formal church structures.  Could I convince quizzical sophomores that the Bible was literature and not just a church book?

Third, I resigned a beloved teaching career and entered seminary and became a Mennonite pastoral intern with a wise senior pastor. One of my earliest sermons, “On closing the mouths of lions” (1983), was on Daniel 6.  Here my faith was challenged by young men who refused to register for the selective service and, after, were jailed or fined.  How could Daniel’s story again creep into my faith story so easily?  I saw the power of the government meet the power of Christians in a contemporary setting.  This text was no picture book scary portrayal.  Living out one’s faith had real consequences.

I have been shaped by the Biblical story for years.  That recent sermon focused on the witness of Daniel (a prophet but also a government official to King Darius) and Daniel’s survival in the lion’s den.  However, the part of the story I did not remember (or maybe never read to the end of the chapter) was the death in the lion’s den of Daniel’s accusers, plus their wives and children—obvious Innocent casualties.  Even though the King claimed God’s name, he punished more than just the ones who tricked him to use his power.  When the “King” claims God’s name but rules ruthlessly, then our faith needs to cry out and protect the vulnerable, the oppressed, the women and children.

Faith formation happens from innocent picture-Bible days through 70-plus years of church attendance.  Meeting with others in prayer, discussion, singing, Zoom-worship, virtual VBS, and telling the Bible stories for today’s world, is truly sacred time.  May you find occasions to let the Bible text fill your mind, tickle your imagination, and form a Jesus-witness to a watching world.

Dorothy Nickel Friesen, a retired Mennonite pastor and denomination minister, is President of SPRINGS FORTH! Faith Formation, Inc., a multi-age, online curriculum.  She lives in North Newton, KS.