I want to be more like Nebuchadnezzar

I’m almost at the end of the Old Testament, which means that I’ve been wallowing in the prophets for a few months. And I do mean wallowing.

It’s been tough to read the many and detailed promises of destruction for faithless Israel and its arrogant neighbors. There have been some lovely moments, and some rather awful moments, but on balance, it isn’t exactly uplifting reading. Not that all Bible reading needs to be uplifting, but day after day after day of gloom and doom wears on a person.

Of course, this endeavor has brought its surprises, one of which was the portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar. We meet this King of Babylon most personally in the book of Daniel, after he had conquered all the lands near Babylon, including Judah. From Judah, he absconded with treasures of the Temple, as well as people, including Daniel. He educated Daniel and other Israelite men, as well as many men from the other countries he’d conquered. But none of that is why I want to be more like him.

It’s because Nebuchadnezzar was teachable.

When he had a troubling dream and Daniel was able to tell him what he had dreamed and then interpret it for him, Nebuchadnezzar said, “Truly, your God is the God of gods, the Lord over kings, a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this secret” (Dan. 2:47, NLT).

Until that time, all he might have known about this god was that he was the god of one of those tiny countries he’d just crushed. But he immediately recognized that there was something different about Daniel’s God.

Contrast this with Ramses II, who may have been grossed out and irritated by the stunts Moses’s God pulled, but he was never impressed, never figured out or learned that this God might have more power than him.

I loved that bit about me being gold

I admit that my multisyllabic friend may have taken the wrong lesson from that dream and interpretation. Daniel told him that, in the dream about a statue with a head of gold, chest of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, feet of clay, he was the head of gold. To his credit, he didn’t freak out upon hearing that his kingdom would end. But the next we hear, he’s built a huge golden statue of himself to which he ordered people to bow and worship. Which leads to the exciting story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to bow to it, being ratted out, and being thrown into the furnace — and surviving. Nebuchadnezzar praises their God and orders that anyone saying anything against their God be torn limb from limb, because “There is no other god who can rescue like this!” (Dan. 3:29).

Not that I’m recommending the tearing from limb to limb part, but Nebuchadnezzar recognized God when God acted in front of him.

Contrast this with me. I don’t always manage to do that. At least not right away. There have been many times when I’ve asked for help with a specific problem and a solution arrived, sometimes in show-offy short order … and it still took me awhile to remember, “Hey, I prayed about exactly that!” And to recognize that God acted right in front of me. And to be grateful. Wendy Van Eyck of I Love Devotionals has a great post on just this, Sometimes the best miracles look like nothing.

Listening the first time around is way better

Daniel 4 is taken from a proclamation of Nebuchadnezzar himself, writing in his own words about how Daniel’s interpretation of a doozy of a dream came to be.

Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a huge and life-giving tree that gets cut down, although the stump and roots remain, bound with bands of iron and bronze. He was that tree, and the dream was a warning: “Stop sinning and do what is right. Break from your wicked past by being merciful to the poor” (4:27). Otherwise, he will be cut off from human society and spend seven periods of time as an animal, living in the open, eating grass like a cow.

Although the king doesn’t freak out and jail or banish Daniel (I infer this because the Bible does love a good jail rescue story and we don’t have one here; also because Daniel serves future Babylonian kings), he doesn’t learn right away. One year later, while he’s standing on the roof of his palace, having a self-satisfied “everything here is mine” moment, a voice from heaven announces that the prophecy was now beginning and would not end “until you learn that the Most High rules over the kingdoms of the world and gives them to anyone he chooses” (4:32). Indeed, Nebuchadnezzar’s sanity left him and he lived in the wilderness until “his hair was as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails were like birds’ claws” (4:33).

Eventually, Nebuchadnezzar receives his sanity back, as well as his kingdom. “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and glorify and honor the King of heaven. All his acts are just and true, and he is able to humble those who are proud” (4:37). He accepts the humbling, and puts the glory where it belongs, with God.

Contrast this with the people of Israel — God’s own special treasure. It was hard to choose sample passages of God condemning his people, because there are so many.

These people are stubborn rebels who refuse to pay any attention to the Lord’s instructions. They tell the prophets, “Shut up! We don’t want any more of your reports.” They say, “Don’t tell us the truth. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. We have heard more than enough about your ‘Holy One of Israel.’ We are tired of listening to what he has to say.”
This is the reply of the Holy One of Israel: “Because you despise what I tell you and trust instead in oppression and lies, calamity will come upon you suddenly. It will be like a bulging wall that bursts and falls. In an instant it will collapse and come crashing down. You will be smashed like a piece of pottery–shattered so completely that there won’t be a piece left that is big enough to carry coals from a fireplace or a little water from the well.” (Isaiah 30:10-14)

“Your ancestors would not listen to [my call to justice and mercy]. They turned stubbornly away and put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing. They made their hearts as hard as stone, so they could not hear the law or the messages that the Lord Almighty had sent them by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. That is why the Lord Almighty was so angry with them. Since they refused to listen when I called to them, I would not listen when they called to me.” (Zechariah 7:11-13)


I am having a humbling season. And I do not want to harden my heart or plug my ears or fail to recognize when God is acting right in front of me. I have asked God for help, and he has given it — repeatedly. Has given it even when I ask for guidance and I don’t want to listen his answer, when what Anne Lamott calls my princess self has a hissy fit, stomping her foot, pouting, and saying, “But I don’t want to.”

That never goes well for me.

But God keeps giving me chances to be obedient. So I am trying. I’m saying yes to things I wanted to say no to, and no to things I already said yes to. I’m moving forward in trust. Learning. Listening. Looking around for God’s guidance. Taking more of my cues from Nebuchadnezzar than from God’s people.

an unexpected overcoming

On Monday, I saw a friend in the parking lot at Meijer and in the course of chatting, I started crying. There in the parking lot, with all the people doing their errands streaming past me, I couldn’t pretend I was handling it all anymore.

Now, nobody I love is dying (although people I love have cancer). My husband is still employed. I’ve even got work for which I’ll get paid. Eventually. I won’t even say the thing I was going to say, something about not missing the E.R., but that would be tempting fate, so I won’t.

But in every area of my life that is important to me — kids, marriage, writing, finances, church work — I’m overwhelmed by failure and fear. And fear of failure. Things that I thought would be manageable, became huge, looming problems that won’t untangle themselves quickly or easily. Things I thought were positive have taken their pound of flesh instead, but not surgically, more like the flesh-eating bacteria kind of thing where the wound must remain open for a long time. Issues I thought we were past…. You get the idea.

My throat on fire barely registered, because at least it was understandable.

I’ve been waking in the middle of the night, heart pounding and unable to fall back asleep, which certainly doesn’t help me deal with any of this more rationally. I’ve spent my days trying to convince myself, “These symptoms of stress are helping me. Body, thank you for preparing me to deal with these challenges,” after hearing this great TED talk on how to make stress my friend. But that never helped for long.

And I’ve prayed. Oh, how I’ve prayed. Mostly that most basic of prayers: Help. No specifics. Just, Help. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t have the imagination to see how this will get any better. Help.

On top of that I’m in the thick of the prophets in my Bible reading. All that doom and gloom and punishment and exile and “you brought this on yourselves.” Even though most books are tempered by a little bit of “on that day when the Lord thinks you’ve had enough punishment and he restores you, everything will be perfect and amazing,” it’s not exactly the most uplifting reading I could be doing.

Yesterday morning, I read this from Hezekiah 3:16-17 (NLT):

“Cheer up, Zion! Don’t be afraid! For the Lord your God has arrived to live among you. He is a mighty savior. He will rejoice over you with great gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will exult over you by singing a happy song.”

Did I sigh with relief? Did I hand over all my fears to God? Nope.

I liked the bit about rejoicing and exulting over us. How great is it that we can made God so happy that he can’t help singing?

But God’s love calming all my fears? All my fears? Even those ones that have nothing to do with my behavior but with other peoples’? How does that work? I may have even added a tweenish, “I don’t think so.” And a curmudgeonly, “Hmph.”

That same day, I had a kid home sick, which I responded to the night before (when I saw the writing on the wall) by yelling at her. Classy.

This school year has my head spinning, trying to keep track of two kids in two different schools with entirely different academic calendars. In the 7 weeks I’ve had one or both kids in school, I’ve only had one 5-day stretch with both of them gone. Truth time: I love it when my kids go back to school. After a summer of togetherness and putting aside my plans so their plans can happen, I relish the fall. We always do better when we have a little time apart. But this year, I’m still scrambling, still trying to find purchase and focus.

Instead of resenting her, I embraced the kid at home. After all, we have the same symptoms, so I knew exactly how she felt.

(My selfish “somebody give me a medal for that” side wants me to add that I managed to make breakfast and lunches and pick up kids from school and sit and cheer at a soccer game and do the dishes and give some lectures about my expectations regarding making up missing work on that same “first day of illness” that she sat on the couch and had a bath.)

I was warm and sympathetic. I scrubbed the tub for her.

Then the other child came home from school and practice. We had a good dinner all together, and then that child buckled down and got the missing work completed.

And I was flooded with love for my children. My husband was gone for bedtime, so I got to pray with both of them. By the end, I was overwhelmed with love and tenderness. To the point of tears. I’m still a little weepy about it.

This is not normal for me. I love them, yes, but I’m rarely swamped by it. They are, after all, 12 and 14. And I’m not a super-gushy mother.

Right before I went to bed, I remembered: “With his love, he will calm all your fears.”

Not one single issue was solved. But doggone it if love didn’t calm my fears. God wins again. And despite my skepticism, too.

All I’ve got to say to that is, Thank you.


Wonderful: Holy Laughter

I don’t always appreciate puns, but I love this book title: Between Heaven and Mirth. Appropriately, given the title, it’s about Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I requested this book after seeing the author on the Colbert Report. It’s wonderful: full of jokes, but also discussion of why Christians have often thought they needed to be dour, and analysis of Scripture to restore what would’ve been funny to the people at the time.

It also reminds me of one of the best prayers I’ve been part of. When we lived in New York City, we belonged to All Angel’s Episcopal Church and were part of a great small group that met once a week for talk, Bible study and prayer. This night, we’d broken up into smaller groups for prayer. I was with two friends in a little hallway by the washing machine. One friend was praising God for His sweetness, which was lovely, but when she went on, “for your sweetness, your gooeyness, your frothy goodness,” we cracked up. Our friend was trying to give up sugar and, momentarily related all goodness to desserts. We couldn’t stop giggling and ended up thanking God for laughter and calling it a night. That prayer makes me happy every time I think of it.

Several years ago, on a tough Sunday of children’s church, unstoppable laughter during prayer was exactly what I needed. It was the first Sunday for a new three-year-old. A sweet little girl who didn’t care at all about what we were doing. She just wanted to do her own thing and explore the room and talk constantly about what she was experiencing. Which would have been fine, except that I also had to deal with 9-year-olds in the same group, and try to tell the story and keep order. I also believe no teenagers were in church that Sunday, so I didn’t have a helper. By the end of the service, I was frazzled. And then, during our intercessory prayer time, that same little girl burped. It was such an adorable little noise that I laughed. And, of course, the kids laughed. It was a cleansing laugh. I thanked God for it at the time, and I still do.

More recently (and before I read Between Heaven and Mirth), I went against type in my portrayal of the prophets in the David and Saul book. The usual image of an Old Testament prophet is of an angry man yelling at people to repent. My prophets are lighthearted and quick to laugh, not out of frivolity, but out of security.

David has escaped out his back window in the middle of the night and run away from King Saul, straight to the prophet Samuel. Saul figures out where David is and sends soldiers to capture him, but things take a surprising turn:

Samuel and Caleb strode towards the well, gathering other men along the way. There were fourteen of them by the time they reached Ramah’s outskirts. As the soldiers got closer, all the prophets did was stand arm-in-arm in a circle and sing. David couldn’t tell what they were singing, but snatches of melody made their way back to him and raised the hair on his forearms.

The army commander gave the signal, and the soldiers spread out in formation and unsheathed their weapons. The bronze and iron glinted like lightning in the sunshine, but the prophets didn’t acknowledge the soldiers in any way. When Saul’s men were mere steps away, the prophets broke apart and formed a line, but it was like no defensive line David knew of. Some of them stood with their arms raised to the heavens, others fell on the ground, pounding the earth with their fists, and still others whirled in wild circles, the hems of their robes flashing above their knees.

David watched, slack-jawed, as, one by one, the soldiers dropped their weapons and joined the men of God in their worship. Tears fell unchecked as he watched these rough soldiers be overcome by the Spirit of the Lord.

And then he laughed – not because the soldiers were making fools of themselves, but out of utter security in the Lord’s protection.

Anyone got any funny church stories to share?