But If Not

by Michael Usey; Daniel 3

The Evolve word for this Sunday is No.  Maybe it’s not the brightest choice when we’re asking everyone to fill out your talent and interest survey for 2021 (and please do so, by the way).  We are considering Daniel 3, the story of Shadrach, Meshack, and Abednego, yet another fantastic text not found in the Common Lectionary–honestly, what were those lectionary framers smoking in the late 70s? Let’s talk about the biblical text first and last, and sandwiched in between I want to consider some of the psychology of saying no. I can remember a wag in my growing up youth group calling this story, My Shack, Your Shack, and To-Bed-We-Go, proving there is no holy story that a baptist youth can’t make into a silly sexual reference. But many of you may be more familiar with this passage from the Veggie Tales version of Rack, Shack, & Benny, in which the king (who is a either a giant cucumber or huge pickle) tries to get everyone to worship a giant chocolate bunny.  As you might suspect the real story was more visceral.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, was a real horror. The ingenuities of his torture chamber made those of Vlad the Impaler look like parlor games. When King Zedekiah of Israel rebelled against him, for instance, he had his eyes put out-which anybody could have thought of-but the master touch was that just before this was done, he had Zedekiah’s sons killed before him in some appropriately loathsome way, so that in his blindness he’d have that last sight to live with for the rest of his days.

Enter the famous trio of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were all three of them employees of the Babylonian civil service, but as Jews they believed there was one God only, and his name was Yahweh. Therefore when Nebuchadnezzar had a ninety-foot idol made out of 24-karat gold and commanded everybody to grovel at its feet or else, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego tried to get themselves registered as conscientious objectors. Nebuchadnezzar lost no time in ordering them to be thrown into a flaming, fiery furnace prepared especially for the occasion.

He ordered the furnace to be heated to seven times its normal temperature, had the three trussed up in their long black overcoats, galoshes, and derby hats, and then took his seat in the front row center. The fire was so hot that the men who tossed them in were burned to a crisp in the process. This wasn’t supposed to be part of the act, and neither was what happened next. First of all, Nebuchadnezzar could see that there were four men in the furnace, instead of three, and that the fourth was an angel. Second, they were all obviously fireproof.

Nebuchadnezzar was so undone that he called to them to come out, and when they emerged with not even their earlocks singed, he pardoned them on the spot and remarked that Yahweh was clearly a God you didn’t fool around with. He then went a step further by issuing a new command to the effect that from that day forward, anybody caught treating Yahweh with anything but the highest respect was to be torn limb from limb and have his house burned down, in that order. Yahweh was presumably pleased by this sudden conversion of Nebuchadnezzar’s, but God may have had the sense that there were still a few rough edges to take care of before the job was complete.

This week I read the words of Dr. William Barber (president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign)—from a sermon he delivered at Howard University. He has preached our church at College Park, and we know him from the Moral Monday movement here in NC. His text was from Daniel 3, where Nabuchadnezzar, “a narcissistic manic,” insists that everyone bow down to him.  And Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, three young Hebrew men, were asked to bow.  As Barber put it, they were asked to “forget their heritage, forget their legacy, forget their journey, forget their God, forget their rights, and bow down.”  And they wouldn’t.  “They could not accept the religion of the king, the religion of greed, the religion of racism, the religion of hate.  They could not go through the motions of bowing to the statue while still maintaining their belief in God.  They knew that are times you must stand your ground and say no because bowing down is not an option.”

Barber goes on “Right now, we need this word in our political reality.  This is a political text.  It is a text about the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressors, between the high and might and the least of these.  We need to hear it again because we’re living in a time with people, a political system, and personalities who are absorbed with themselves. We live in a moment when millions desperately need a government and a society with a heart.  Millions of Americans need health care and living wages and protection from xenophobia, homophobia, systemic racism, religious bigotry, immigration resentment, and climate destruction. This moment we’re in is about whether a government of the people and by the people will, in fact, serve the people. I hope the change comes.  I hope hearts are changed. Even if things don’t change, this text says we must stand our ground because bowing down is not an option.”  Saying no is the best option.

Saying no in our everyday lives isn’t easy.  There comes a moment when you say “Don’t call me,” and you finally mean it; when you return the charming gift because you forced yourself to acknowledge its invisible strings; when you turn down the friend’s request for a helping hand, the colleague’s plea for immediate advice, even the teenage son’s expectation that dinner will appear before him—all because you have goals of your own from which you refuse to be deflected. Whether trivial or tormenting, each of these moments is an exercise in that poorly understood power, namely, the power of No.

There’s a lot of talk, and a lot to be said, for the power of Yes. Yes supports risk-taking, courage, and an open-hearted approach to life whose grace cannot be minimized. But No—a metal grate that slams shut the window between one’s self and the influence of others—is rarely celebrated. It’s a hidden power because it is both easily misunderstood and difficult to engage. It’s likely that we are unaware of the surge of strength we draw from No because, in part, it is easily confused with negativity. Either can involve a turning away, a shake of the head, or a firm refusal. But they are distinctly different psychological states.

Negativity is a chronic attitude, a pair of emotional glasses through which some people get a cloudy view of the world. Negativity expresses itself in a whining perfectionism, a petulant discontent, or risk-averse naysaying. It’s an energy sapper. Negative people may douse the enthusiasm of others, but rarely inspire them to action. Negativity certainly ensures that you will not be pleased. You will also not be powerful.

Whereas negativity is an ongoing attitude, No is a moment of clear choice. It announces, however indirectly, something affirmative about you. “I will not sign”—because that is not my truth. “I will not join your committee, help with your kids, review your project”—because I am committed to some important project of my own. “Count me out”—because I’m not comfortable with, not in agreement with, not on the bandwagon. “No, thank you”—because you might feel hurt if I turn down your invitation, but my needs take priority.

The No that is an affirmation of self implicitly acknowledges personal responsibility. It says that while each of us interacts with others, and loves, respects, and values those relationships, we do not and cannot allow ourselves always to be influenced by them. The strength we draw from saying No is that it underscores this hard truth of maturity: The buck stops here with me.

No is both the tool and the barrier by which we establish and maintain the distinct perimeter of the self. No says, “This is who I am; this is what I value; this is what I will and will not do; this is how I will choose to act.” We love others, give to others, cooperate with others, and please others, but we are, always and at the core, distinct and separate selves. We need No to carve and support that space.

No recognizes that we are the agents of our own limits. For most of us, this self-in-charge-and-wholly responsible is a powerful, lonely, and adult awareness. We approach it two steps forward and one giant retreat—giving in to some we love, to a bully, to our own urges for another drink or an unnecessary purchase. The closer we get to manning the barricade of self-set limits, the stronger we are. That strength requires the power of No

No has two faces: the one we turn toward ourselves and the one that creates boundaries between ourselves and others. The struggle to strengthen our internal No, the one we address to our own self-destructive impulses, is the struggle with which we are most familiar. That No controls our vent of rage on the road and our urge for the cigarette. We call that No “self-discipline.”

The No we direct toward ourselves comes from an internal self-governor whose job is to contain our urges and manage our priorities within an iron fist of reason. All our lives we may work on refining that self-governor, tweaking it, building it, shoring it up. The huge rewards of our governor’s developing ability to say No—not too rigidly, but often enough and wisely, too—the rewards are productivity and peace of mind. The power of No is in that payoff.

The No we are able to say to others also evolves through life, beginning with the primitive Nos of our childhood. Anyone who has ever tried to put a 2-year-old into a car seat has real-life evidence. As the 2-year-old begins to differentiate himself—his will, his wishes—from those of Mom, he hurls one loud, endless cry: NOOOOOOOO. No, I won’t put on those socks, won’t eat those peas, won’t leave the park! That primordial, powerful No is the original assertion of the self against the other. For the rest of our days we are challenged to find the proper, effective way to draw that line.

How much No is too much, especially for a Christian? Who turns down a needy friend to tend one’s own garden? Where is the line between self actualized and selfish? Who refuses to lend support to the modest effort of a group of friends? What is the boundary between important principles and stubborn oppositionalism?

As a general guideline, five situations benefit from our increasing strength to say No.  First, when it keeps you true to your principles and values. It’s a beautiful thing—emotionally, spiritually, and even professionally—to be generous, to be supportive. But, as sociologists  Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman point out in their classic studies of organizations, integrity is as essential as benevolence in establishing interpersonal trust. It is a requirement for effectiveness.

Jack, for example, has always cherished his role as the go-to guy for his buddies. “Jack has your back” has been his proud mantra since high school. So when a close, married friend began an affair, Jack maintained a discreet silence. However, when that close friend asked Jack for the loan of his vacation home as a convenient site for the clandestine relationship, Jack wrestled with his conscience. He wanted to continue to be seen as a great guy, but he found himself uncomfortable being part of a deception, however secondhand. In the end, he said just that, as he turned his friend down. Jack’s No dinged the friendship a bit and violated an unspoken male code, at least among Jack’s peers. Still, if being liked by others is often a by-product of saying Yes, liking yourself sometimes comes only from saying no.

Saying no is good, secondly when it protects you from cheerful exploitation by others. It’s remarkable how much some people will ask of you, even demand from you, things for which you yourself wouldn’t dream of asking. Protect yourself best from the many who feel entitled to ask by being strong enough to say a firm, clear, calm No.

Take a classic school and office scenario: A happy, popular, slacker colleague asks again to borrow his worker bee teammate’s careful notes. Mr. Worker Bee resents being used, but can’t think of a good reason to refuse. So he acquiesces. Gets asked again. Resents more. Can’t think of a good reason to say No, so he gives in. And so the cycle goes. Finally, paying attention to his own feeling of being taken advantage of—instead of focusing on finding a reason acceptable to the cheerful exploiter—Worker Bee turns Mr. Popular down. Scraping up his backbone, Mr. Worker Bee simply says, “No, I’m not comfortable with that.”  His No earns him a chilly reception in the company cafeteria for a week or two. It isn’t a pleasant time, but it passes. In its wake, Mr. Worker Bee will find a new safety. No is a necessary life shield against the charming users who sniff out softies. So nice people can say No.

A third healthy no situation: when it keeps you focused on your own goals. When her boss criticized her for the second time as a “Chatty Cathy” whose work was late because she wasted too much time talking, Amy felt hurt and unfairly evaluated. Was it her fault that people loved to stop by her cubicle? How was she supposed to turn away Marsha, whose aging mother presented so many problems, or Jim, who wanted her thoughts on the best way to proceed with their clients? Her colleagues needed her support; cutting them short would hurt their feelings and her relationships. Amy clearly needs the power of No. Why? Because, loving and being interested in them as she is, Amy is losing sight of her own responsibilities, her own agenda. No is a necessary tool to keep your goals in mind. Frankly, meeting your own goals is what you are being paid for and what will pay off. We all need No to do our job instead of someone else’s.

Fourthly, saying no can protect you from abuse by others. Sadly, our most important relationships often invite our ugliest communications. In part that’s because the people closest to us arouse our strongest emotions, and in part it’s because they are the people we fear losing the most. Fear can sap the strength we need to say No, just when we need that power most. Consider a mean adult daughter named Isabelle as a case in point. Isabelle would insist that she loves her mother, but she also finds her irritating, offering the grandchildren too many snacks, giving Isabelle useless, anxiety-driven advice about health, bad weather, or spending. When Isabelle gets irritated, she snaps. She’s rude (“Shut up!”), insulting (“Trying to make my kids fat like you, Mom?”), or just downright mean (derisive and contemptuous dismissal). Her frequent assaults hurt her mom deeply, and Mom complains bitterly and often to other family members about Isabelle’s treatment. Despite the support of her family, Mom never draws a line with Isabelle herself. She has yet to pull herself up and say, “Do not speak to me like that.” She feels unable to because, quite simply, “This is my daughter. If I tell her she’s not allowed to speak a certain way, she is quite capable of not speaking to me at all. I just can’t risk it.” Stripped of the power of No, we leave ourselves vulnerable to verbal assault.

Lastly, saying no can give you the strength to change course. The invitations are in the mail, but the impending marriage is a mistake. The job looks good to the rest of the world, but it’s making you sick in the morning. Your family has sacrificed to pay the tuition, but law school feels like a poor fit. When you find yourself going down the wrong road, No is the power necessary to turn yourself around.

Back to the story from Daniel—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo said no and refused to bow.  So Nebuchadnezzer had them thrown into a fiery furnace—as a warning to anyone else who might defy him.  And then he hung around to see them burn.  Here’s where it gets interesting: suddenly there were not just three people in the fire; a fourth figure was there as well.  And Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego survived. Whenever we take a stand and choose not to bow, it moves God.  God doesn’t keep them from being thrown into the fiery furnace.  God decides instead to go in with them.  God was the fourth one in the fire.  God didn’t save them by keeping them out of the fire.  God saved them in the fire.

So it might look like our narcissistic Nebuchadnezzar and all of his nastiness is going to nullify us.  But say no and stand, and the Lord will make a way somehow.  God can bring power out of pain, mercy out of meanness, love out of hate.  God can bring joy out of sorrow, good out of evil, hope out of despair.  God can bring deliverance out of depression, and life out of death. We’re in some fiery times right now.  But bowing down is not an option. As William Barber said, If Harriet Tubman didn’t bow, if Medgar Evers didn’t bow, if Frederick Douglas didn’t bow, if Rosa Parks didn’t bow, bowing down is not an option.

These young men were given a choice: they could bow to a pagan idol, or they could say no and be thrown into a fiery furnace. They courageously chose to face the furnace rather than disobey God’s commandments. I love the way the KJV puts their answer to the king: Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace, and God will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known unto you, O king, that we will not serve your gods, nor worship the golden image which you have set up. (3:17-18) “But if not.” What a poignant phrase. I’m probably too old to get ink, but if I did get a tat, it would say this verse, But if not.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were resolved to obey God, whether or not God chose to save them. They knew God wasn’t obligated to help them.  They said no and stood.

In the summer of 1940, more than 350,000 soldiers—most of them British—were trapped at Dunkirk. The German forces were on their way, and they had the capacity to wipe out the British Expeditionary Force. When it seemed certain that the Allied forces at Dunkirk were about to be massacred, a British naval officer cabled just three words back to London: “But if not.”

“But if not.” These words were instantly recognizable to the people who were accustomed to hearing the scriptures read in church. They knew the story told in the book of Daniel. The message in those three little words was clear: The situation was desperate. The allied forces were trapped. It would take a miracle to save them, but they were determined not to give in. One simple three word phrase communicated all that.

For some reason, the Axis powers hesitated. They backed off, briefly, and what’s known as the Miracle of Dunkirk took place. British families and fishermen heard about the poignant telegraphed cry for help, and they answered. They answered with merchant marine boats, with pleasure cruisers, and even with small fishing boats. By a miracle, they evacuated more than 338,000 soldiers and took them to safety.

We serve one who was born in the time of another narcissistic maniac named Caesar.  They hung him high, they stretched him wide, but that brown-skinned Palestinian Jew, that revolutionary, didn’t bow, and neither can we.  One day, we’ll be able to bow—when we stand before the Lord, when the lion lays down with the lamb, when the rough places are made smooth, the crooked places are made straight, the mountains are made low, and the glory of the Lord is revealed.  We can bow then to the one true God. But until then, we stand and say no.  NO no no no no; say it with me: no, no, no, no, no!  When there’s nothing left to do, stand and say no.  Watch the Lord see you through.  And after you’ve done all you can, stand and say no.  Because bowing down is not an option.