Forsythias blazed on an unseasonable spring afternoon in Maine as I walked carefully into an unfamiliar sanctuary for a denominational meeting. I carried a secret, and I wasn’t quite sure whether its label read “hope” or “joy” or “utter disaster.” Unexpected feelings led to previously unthinkable thoughts, thoughts I had pushed down for so long I didn’t know I had them anymore. In that spring, walls fell and doors opened and dams burst and switches flipped and …
… and I felt very uncertain about God’s opinion on the matter.
The doors and windows of the church had been opened on this glorious day. The breeze of the Spirit wafted around me.
I sat in the back.
Worship came first and in it an anthem I did not know, claiming that God would deliver me no matter what trials I might face, just like Moses or Daniel or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
Trust and never doubt,
Jesus will surely bring you out,
He never failed me yet. (Robert Ray, “He Never Failed Me Yet”)
Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego, those fine young men, had never done anything wrong, never had an impure thought, never eaten an unclean animal. They were vegans, even. They refused to bow down and worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s giant (phallic) statue. They didn’t bow down and cross their fingers, or bow down and pray, “YHWH, you know we love you, but goodness gracious, we want to live to serve you, so even though we don’t really mean it, we are going to bow down and just pretend, okay?”
They refused, and the King’s other attendants, the jealous Chaldeans, made sure the King heard about it. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego stood firm and were bound and tossed into the super-heated furnace.
That’s how I felt, like a person tossed into a super-heated furnace, but it wasn’t my new feelings that fueled the fire. It was my fear of what might happen next. The flames surrounding me were “fear” and “what my dead mother would think if she were still alive” and “omigosh, have I really misunderstood myself and my identity so completely, are you kidding me?”
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego took a pretty quick trip to the furnace. It was so hot the men putting them in it burned to death.
My stay was longer, months and months of “yes, that’s who I am” and “no, no, I can’t blow up the life I have or the lives around me” and “really, it’s who I am” and “okay, but even so, Lord, is this what you really want for me?” Shouldn’t I just bow down in front of the giant statue of heteronormativity, even if I’m praying at the same time, “Lord, thank you for showing me who I really am, but my goodness, this feels unbelievably complicated, so I’ll just pretend I am who I thought I was even though you and I know the truth.”
And then I would remember that line, “Jesus will surely bring you out.” Really, Lord? Can that be possible? It seemed like an easy joke, too easy.
I kept waiting for the flames to burn me up and kill me.
But they didn’t. Just like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, I was not alone.
Who was in the furnace with them? Who was the fourth man whose presence shocked King Nebuchadnezzar? Our contemporary artwork pictures a Jesus-like figure (long robe, dark beard) in the midst of the flames with our heroes. The painter Simeon Solomon portrayed them in the embrace of an angel with super-hero wings, asbestos wings, wings that hold the fire back entirely. They are not being burned; not even close. They are protected from the flames stoked by the king’s men, flames called “my way or the highway” and “fit in, why don’t you?” and “real men don’t eat vegetables.”
The fourth man protects them, and they walk out of the furnace.
They don’t even smell like fire.
When I started to tell people about my new identity, my fuller understanding of myself, it didn’t feel much like coming out of the closet. I hadn’t been consciously in it long enough to call it a closet. Telling the truth felt more like coming out of the furnace.
The fire hadn’t done anything to them: their hair wasn’t singed; their garments looked the same as before; they didn’t even smell like fire! (Daniel 3:27b, Common English Bible)
You see, I looked exactly the same, a short, plump mother of three with a big dog and an old cat and a huge heating oil bill and hair that wanted to be grey no matter how hard I tried to convince it otherwise. I went into the furnace, and Jesus surely brought me out. Protected by the asbestos wings of Love and Grace, I came out ready to testify that God did not fail me in the time of trial. I came out safe from the flames of other people’s presumed expectations, safe from the flames of my own.
I didn’t even smell like fire.