“Walking into the Lions’ Den” – The Rev. Eva Cameron

I had no idea that when I selected this topic to preach on, last fall, I’d be stepping into the middle of a media controversy regarding a recently launched TV show. Never having been all that trendy, I’m not entirely sure what to do with this sudden rush of trendiness!

But, since the moment is here, and who knows, it may never come again, I’ve decided I will say something about the show. I’ve haven’t watched this show, called “The Book of Daniel” _and I’m not likely to, because I rarely watch TV. But in reading about it, I understand that the premise is an Episcopalian Priest who is married, and who is an authentic human being. A character named Jesus serves as a device for him to voice his inner fears, doubts and concerns. He has a gay son, and an adopted Chinese son, and an alcoholic wife. Given this basic setting, we can imagine that life will revolve, soap opera-like on this clan of humans set into this TV-world. Incidentally, in case you are as much of a TV fan as I am, this priest’s name is Daniel—and so the “Daniel and the Lions’ Den” theme abounds in the editorials and TV reviewer pages these days. I saw one in the Courier last week.

I am glad that some TV producers are working on a show that wrestles with some of the issues of the interface of society and religion in a creative and open way. I may not believe everything that they support on this show. Not having seen it, it is hard to say. But I am glad that the ball’s been tossed in the air once again. There are many conversations we in the United States need to have with one another. I hope that we can use this opportunity to try and understand each other better, rather than to draw circles that cast each other out.

Many of us grew up on the story of Daniel and the Lions’ Den. And if a quick search of websites is any indication, the nation’s Christian youth are still being encouraged to make paper lions, sit in darkened rooms pretending they are about to be eaten by lions, and learning that praying can save you even from the very teeth of a hungry lion that quickly will eat up someone else moments later.

I think this story is told to us when we are so young, because the imagery is vivid enough that even a small child can comprehend it on some level. Not to mention, making a lion of a paper plate and yarn is awfully cute!
The sad thing is, we seldom go back to it, and revisit that vivid imagery for what it might teach us today. In today’s sermon, I plan on focusing on 3 major points, or perhaps better named a Lions’ Den—a personal lions’ den, the lions’ den of being a UU, and the lions’ den of evangelism.

First of all, I’d like to say that if this story happened, we aren’t exactly certain when, since there isn’t a record of a King by that name in that time of history. But that’s just all the better, because it will help you realize that I want you to play “Once upon a time” with this story, and not actually think about it within its historic context. I hope you will use it as a metaphor that has been used by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people, to help them understand their faith.

When I think of this story as an adult, a couple of images or moments in the story really stick with me. The first is Daniel praying, as he always has, at a moment when he knows he’s going to be in trouble for doing so. This is a moment that is full of complex adult emotions—betrayal, hope, pride in one’s ways over politics, and calmness, as he does what he always does.

The second moment that captures my heart is the moment when Darius must face Daniel, and tell him that he screwed up. He is genuinely contrite, and even though Daniel is about to be fed to the lions, the story doesn’t have him shouting, screaming, or otherwise wishing ill upon someone who has been a trusted friend for a long time. This is a remarkable moment of forgiveness.

The next moment for me, is the moment that Daniel walks into the Lions’ Den. It’s kind of hard to picture, this den of lions. Is the hole off to the side or up above, where he is actually thrown in? Different artists have portrayed this different ways. But in my mind, if he is sitting there all night, he probably walked into a cave. A dark place, not really knowing what was there, or how many lions were there. The story doesn’t tell us how he was feeling for any of this, but I can imagine the terror . . .and at the same time the sense of calm pride that he displayed before when he chose to pray at the usually appointed time in front of his open window. This moment extends into a whole night, as he has to stay calm and quiet while the lions prowl about, not knowing. . . .

We all often have moments of not-knowing. Moments of terror, as something happens to us that we can’t really choose. But we can choose how we will act in the moment. For me, one of those moments was getting cancer as a single mom. I had to tell my kids, and live, figure out how to live each day. The technical details were tough, but the emotional and spiritual details were tougher. This was a den of lions for me, and as I went through that dark ‘night’ of cancer diagnosis and treatments, what I found was that it was those practices that kept me close to God and goodness prior to my getting cancer that I fell back upon with great vigor.

One of the important messages of Daniel’s story for me is that he doesn’t just pray when he is in that tight, scary spot. He prays regularly, three times a day. His actions in the lions’ den are nothing more than a continuation of skills and connection that he had already created and sustained.

So, maybe when you were in Sunday School you learned that praying will help you from getting eaten by lions. And later you realized that that was all silliness, and that perhaps running was a better option. But I want you to go back and re-think this. Yes, physical danger is often best handled by a physical response.

Have you heard the story of the man who was a devote believer in God? Well, one day there was a flood and his neighbors came by and warned him that he needed to leave, and they were willing to drive him. He said, “No thanks. I’ll just pray for God to save me.” And the flood waters rose and soon enough they were up washing about his porch, and someone came by in a boat. The called out to him, “Hey, the flood is rising. Come with us, we’ll save you.” And he replied, “No thanks. My God will save me.” The waters kept rising, and rising and the man is up on the roof of his house with water all around. A helicopter comes by, and they shout out, “Climb up the ladder, we will save you.” And again he said, “No thanks. My God will save me.” Next we see him walking into the Pearly Gates, and when he sees God, he says to him, “God, I have been a faithful believer. How come you didn’t save me?” And God says, “Well, I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter!”

But this story is trying to teach us about spiritual danger or crisis. It tells us that we will best be able to be calm and centered, and hopefully save ourselves, if we maintain a practice in everyday life.

Now, I’m not going to ask you to all go home and pray three times a day. But, maybe, really I am. What I want you to do, is go home and figure out what you do do or can do that help you feel connected to the goodness of the universe, call it love, call it justice, call it god. It might be prayer, it might be opening, loving-kindness meditations, it might be working at the Soup Kitchen, it might be going for a walk in the woods. I want you to think about your spiritual discipline. I want you to write a note to yourself and stick it up on the mirror you look at in the morning—write something like “YOU are worth it!” on it. It’s something to remember, that you want to really keep up this practice.

I want you to begin to foster so close a relationship with your spiritual discipline that you might be willing to be put into a den of lions rather than give it up. And I think, really, we put ourselves in dens of lions all the time, when we neglect those really important, really vital, really deep and connective things we do in our lives. Call them prayer, or call them something else, but when we get so busy that we forget to reflect, be thankful, ask for forgiveness, humbly ourselves, notice the abundance of love and grace around us, then the world really IS a VERY scary place. It is a den of lions.

I also think of this story when I was thinking about a calm pride in one’s religion that instills courage. When I think of Daniel, I think of someone who knew that he was right with the world. He was a just person, which was why his compatriots couldn’t find any dirt on him. And so he knew God in that sense of understanding that a right relationship with god involves a right relationship with our fellow men.

I am hoping to instill this sense of calm pride and courage about our own religion in you. I think that this is one of the things that Unitarian Universalists struggle with the most. They have a strong sense of apology about their faith, because it’s not as well known—or thought of as a social club instead of an institution for spiritual growth and transformation. But my experience of this place is that it can and does transform lives, people’s spirits do grow and change and develop over years of trying to deepen and broaden themselves. But it can only be that place of transformation if we open ourselves up to the experience.

If your thinking about your faith is fragmented, fractured, broken-up, that is a common place to be as a UU. BUT that’s just your thinking. You can continue to develop and knit together your rational thoughts and learnings from the World’s Religions all your life. But I want you to develop your confidence in your foundation. Your understanding—I mean what you are standing on, that holds you up—your understanding. Be aware that it is there. Work to make daily connection. Whenever you find things are bugging you, holding you back, causing you fear or depression, this means you need to re-connect. Stay with your discipline, or alter your discipline until it works.

You must be fluid, stay in flow. Your true and authentic essence is from love, from being inclusive, from something bigger than you, from what I call God. I invite you to walk into the Lion’s Den and co-create your life.

One interesting thing to note is that the story of Daniel takes place in a kingdom where Daniel’s religion is a minority too. We often feel misunderstood as a religion, and certainly Daniel did too.

So where did Daniel find the courage to be so calm and proud (not in a stuffy way), but it a sense of surety? I think it was his spiritual discipline that helped him out.

Talking with people who don’t understand our religion can feel like walking into a lions’ den. It takes a real act of courage, and a sense that God (or justice or love, or a higher power, or whatever you want to call a sense of ultimate reality and meaning) is really on your side. Does this sound a bit ‘un-UU’ to say that God (by whatever name) is on our side? Perhaps, at first, if you don’t think about it too hard. But I think that it’s quite easy to say this, to feel this way, depending on how you define “God.” If the two opposing gods, housed in the hearts of the two people in the conversation differ in their understanding of just what you need to believe to be in the right, then I agree this is a poor way of thinking and rather un-UU. It leads to more exclusion. BUT, if one of the gods in the heart of one of the people in the conversation is a God of love and justice for all people, for the whole universe, then this god is big enough to even love that smaller, lesser God of hatred, and someone is better than someone else’s judgmentalism.

It’s like the famous poem, Outwitted, by Edwin Markham.
He drew a circle that shut me out:
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

If we can understand what this poem is trying to tell us, and get over worrying about talking with others about our faith_IF we can understand that ours is a religion not of exclusion, but of inclusion_we can breathe deeply and dare to walk into the den of lions. We often then feel shy: don’t know quite what to say. We worry they’ll say we are wrong, damned to hell perhaps, or worse yet they will ask us a bunch of questions we don’t know the answer to. But remember, many people are seeking and searching. Many people are in pain. Many people are hoping for love in their lives and haven’t been able to find it. There are probably people right here in this room who have considered suicide. We have something to say to them. Our religion tells us to shout out for the whole world to hear, “You matter. God loves you. We love you. We need you.” Imagine how many people out there in the Cedar Valley might have considered suicide? Ignoring their suffering, all these searchers and people in despair, we don’t have to walk into that den of lions of our own fear. But, let’s just imagine it for a moment.

When you are talking to people and they say ‘I can’t stand religion,’ you can say, ‘I can’t stand it either. Instead I seek God’s love’, or perhaps say, ‘I seek love.’ Or whatever works for you. I think the people who say they don’t believe in religion, and I’ve met a bunch of them in my day, mean something else. What they really mean is, they don’t believe in having to say a creed to belong to something. Or they mean they don’t believe in a God who loves some and hates others, often with little way to comprehend the reasoning behind this teaching. Sometimes they mean they don’t like being told what to do, what to believe. We understand that. We are all people who don’t believe in a religion like that! And so it’s quite alright to say that you don’t believe in religion, as a way to continue the conversation . . .as a way of letting them know that you have discovered something a bit different—and it has made a difference in your life. But do get around to telling them about your discovery, our community of inclusive love—and don’t just leave them hanging there, angry at God, angry at religion. Our religion is more like a roadmap than a house, like a journey instead of a destination. It’s a unique way of doing things, of creating an understanding, a foundation for your life. To me, sharing about our religion is true evangelism; it is the true sharing of some really good news.

We humans spend too much time trying to get people to do or think like us. And UUs are no exception. We preach diversity of belief, but often it is the ‘like-mindedness of the congregation’ that people will offer up as a benefit of coming here. And that’s fine. There is comfort in being with people like you.

But when you are talking with others, people outside our faith, the conversation doesn’t need to be about mutual agreement, about having the same beliefs. In fact, one of the interesting things about being UU is that you often meet people who think differently than you do. And they may be just truly surprised to find you think the way you do. But that’s okay. Maybe next week, they’ll find out that Auntie Bess was kicked out of her church for saying her gay son is a good person. And they’ll know where to send Auntie Bess.

In parting, I hope you will remember these three Lions’ Dens—a personal lions’ den, the lions’ den of being a UU, and the lions’ den of evangelism, and look them squarely in the eye for what they are. And choose to be someone who can walk into a lions’ den, begin to find your way to connection.

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