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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How Hard Should We Work to Avoid Conformity? (with an Example from Youth Sports)

Let me summarize Daniel 1 for you.  Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Chaldeans of Babylon, has punished his rebellious client-state Judah by successfully besieging it for the first of what will become three times.  He takes some of the precious implements in the temple and a small group of highborn youths to hold as hostages against Judah's political elite (probably) and to work on assimilating Judah into his empire by Chaldeanizing the Jewish youths and employing them in his civil service.  Four of these youths are Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.  These four are under great pressure to assimilate to Babylonian culture in language, learning, and worship.  They are even renamed after Babylonian gods.  Even their diet consists of the same stuff that the king himself eats.

These four youths are willing to put up with most of this and excel at becoming thoroughly Chaldean.  But they remember that underneath at all they are still Israelis and worshipers of Yahweh.  The sticking point for them is the food, which was certainly not kosher and was probably (with the wine) offered to a false god before they were given their share.  For them to eat that food was to leave their fidelity to the only God and his commands and participate in the worship of false gods.  So Daniel has a plan.
[Daniel] asked the overseer of the court officials for permission not to defile himself.  Then God made the overseer of the court officials sympathetic to Daniel.  But he said to Daniel, "I fear my master the king.  He is the one who has decided your food and drink.  What would happen if he saw that you looked malnourished in comparison to the other young men your age?  If that happened, you would endanger my life with the king!" (vv. 8-10).
Well, so much for that, right?  Daniel tried his best, but no cigar; pass the bacon.  But wait, there's more!
Daniel then spoke to the warden whom the overseer of the court officials had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah: "Please test your servants for ten days by providing us with some vegetables to eat and water to drink.  Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who are eating the royal delicacies; deal with us in light of what you see."  So the warden agreed to their proposal and tested them for ten days (vv. 11-14).
Well, as it turns out, God performs a miracle and the four Jewish youths actually look fatter and better fed and healthier than their counterparts.  And not only that, but when their education is completed, Nebuchadnezzar quizzes them and finds that they are not only at the top of their class but far more learned and insightful than all of his advisors who have already been in his service for some time.

There are a number of lessons from this passage, but what struck me today were the lengths that Daniel was willing to go to stay pure and honor God.  The overseer won't help?  Let's go to the warden.  Don't want to go to the trouble or risk being caught slaughtering animals for kosher meat for us or sneaking wine that hasn't been poured out as a libation?  No problem; just give us the veggies and water you would give us anyway and withhold the rest.  Concerned about our physical appearance?  That's all right; we'll just do this on a trial basis.  In addition to showing what a quick study he is in politics, the "art of the possible," Daniel shows that he and his buddies will work hard, explore every option, and inconvenience themselves considerably (for example, they ate this diet for three years) to resist conforming to their world if that would make them unfaithful to their God.

I wonder if I've ever gone to lengths that great to avoid conforming to worldly patterns that would result in my sin or unfaithfulness.  There have probably been lots of times that I've just conformed automatically, maybe other times that I've resisted conformity if it was convenient.  But how much have I really put out to remain faithful when the current is toward faithlessness?  I know for sure that like the recipients of the Epistle to the Hebrews I haven't resisted sin to the point of my blood being shed, but I also haven't resisted sin as much as they did when it resulted in their abuse, imprisonment, and the confiscation of their homes and property.

Here's a real-life situation the saints in my church are grappling with now.  I live in a sports-obsessed town in a sports-obsessed area.  I enjoy this because I really like sports, and I love that my kids get all kinds of opportunities to play in well-run leagues on nice fields with (for the most part) great, loving coaches.  But the youth sports programs are becoming more demanding all the time.  I discovered this when I found that a wrestling program for 1st- and 2nd-graders involved practice five nights a week plus a meet on Saturday for several months.  This year my 3rd-grade son's coach-pitch baseball league unexpectedly expanded its season by a month and slightly intensified its demands each week, and so many kids had signed up requiring so many teams to be formed that the league's games were scheduled seven days a week because of a shortage of field space.  I can't count the number of times that a kid of any age did not attend a church event and whole families were absent from Sunday worship even for weeks at a time not out of lack of interest but because of the demands of whatever team they happen to be on at the moment.

I've talked about this with fellow clergy, with parents in my church, and with unchurched parents of my son's teammates.  A lot of people believe that this is way too much.  Even a number of the coaches, including members of my church, believe that it's gone over the top.  But parents believe that they are powerless to stop it.  They believe that especially as their children get older, if they pull them out of a practice or a game to prevent their overprogramming and/or to prioritize church, then their children will get benched or kicked off the team and/or won't fulfill their potential and/or won't get a scholarship and/or won't be happy.  The coaches believe that if they don't coach then someone else who won't care as much for the development and welfare of the kids will (and they're probably right).  So they keep going with the flow.

What would Daniel do if his son or daughter played a sport in my town that would take him and his child away from opportunities to worship the Lord and grow in their faith with other believers?  How might he tactfully identify and tilt levers of influence and broker compromises with people in charge that allow him to make no compromise for his convicted obedience to God?  How hard would he be willing to work at it, and how many options would he explore to make it happen?  Are we willing to do those things?  Are you willing in your town, school, or company?  And if we've exhausted all avenues to make it work and we are forced either to conform or to suffer (as Daniel and his three friends each had to do at one point), which would we choose?

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I've always loved Daniel and his friends, definitely some of my Biblical heroes. But I never really thought about how God blessed them and took care of them in the non-conformity of their commitment to Him.
    This is a really encouraging post, because so often I think we feel like we miss out on things by not going with the flow of the world, but really when we conform when we shouldn't we are missing out on God and the amazing things He can do and how He provides.
    It's definitely challenging in this way too. I had a super sports fanatic friend who was really challenged to help with a nursing home ministry which took place during Sunday afternoon football. He did, and just knowing what a sacrifice that was too him was a great witness to me. He really felt blessed in helping with this ministry too. But it is so esy to fear that the things of God don't make up for what we might "miss" in this world...
    Good thoughts, good thoughts...