Looking back, I'm very proud of those who stuck with the church through the tedious process of rebuilding. Together we were reminded that life is like a pilgrimage, or like a refining process that passes us all through the fire. The question is what will we be like when we come out on the other side?
Now fire in the natural, physical sense can accomplish one of two functions: it can destroy, or it can refine as in the process by which impurities are burned out of gold ore. Tough times can shape a person into a cynic or a saint, into a person who is full of bitterness or fortified with the kind of grace that transcends.
Many today have become cynics. To these unhappy folks, life is gloomy and the worst is sure to happen every time and all the time. To them, God is silent, distant, or non-existent. There are others, even some Christians for whom life is a perpetual joy-ride. All is sunshine and God is ready-at-hand with a quick fix-it solution for every problem. That would certainly be nice.
But for the rest of us who, I suspect, make up the majority, life is simply puzzling. We scrape elbows every day with other people who, like us, are imperfect. Occasionally, tragic circumstances or suffering leave us reeling. We believe that God is real -- we just have a hard time knowing how to handle the doubts, confusion and the testing of both faith and flesh.
During my own time of testing I found comfort and insight in the story of three men: Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. These Hebrews went through the most famous "fiery trial" of all time. Reading it this time, I gained an understanding I'd never had before.
At the time of Daniel the prophet, we find God's people in Babylonian captivity sometime between the year 597 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and 538 when Cyrus the Persian liberated the Hebrews.
Imagine the scene: We are standing on the plains of Dura, outside the palace of the mighty Nebuchadnezzar. Three Hebrew men -- Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego -- have risen to positions of prominence. On this day, they are summoned to stand on a platform overlooking the crowds of commoners, among the king's royal officials. A golden figure, perhaps that of Nebuchadnezzar himself, is carried out by the artisans. The figure is set on a raised altar. The three Hebrew men are facing a moment of truth.
The chief musician lifts his hand, then brings it down to the sound of music -- "All kinds of music," the Bible says -- from lyres, horns, pipes, cymbals and the like. At this signal, all the multitudes across this great plain fall to their faces. Likewise, all the toadies of the king's court fall down, trying to show who could grovel the most.
Then one of these toadies looks up. To his shock -- and perhaps to his delight -- he sees that Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego are still standing.
Quickly, the three are dragged before Nebuchadnezzar and charges levelled. The Bible says that the king's face was distorted with rage. He threatens to burn them alive in a furnace. Undoubtedly, the men were beginning to feel a little hot around the collar; I would have.