+ IN A COMMUNION OF LIONS +
The guards kicked open his door, and as soon they entered, they drew swords and spears. They uprooted him from his position of prayer. Daniel saw hands on his arms, felt arms at his back, and was reminded of when he was a boy — when guards that sounded like these guards, when hands that felt like these hands — took him.
“Daniel!” Shouted his mother. “Daniel!”
There was no trial, no explanation; much like the time guards came for him as a boy.
“Daniel! Daniel!” His mother continued to shout until Daniel was too far removed from her to hear her. The greater the distance grew, the more fervent her shouts, as if she was trying to dig as deep into the earth of his heart as possible and plant the truth before she ran out of time — before he was taken from her forever.
He was jarred back into the present by the taunts of his accusers. They berated him, calling him a traitor and a blasphemer. Daniel heard more laughter as they neared the pit. He’d heard of this place — from time to time, he heard the screams. As he was thrown in, he noted the insults of his accusers, and the panicked shouts of Darius, the king — his friend whose own decree had ensured this punishment —
“Daniel!” Shouted his friend. “Daniel!”
The stone sealed the entrance, and Daniel’d run out of time.
And then, he was alone.
Or, to be more precise, he was with the lions.
Void of light. Of sound. Daniel crossed his arms, felt his forearms and face. “I am here,” he reminded himself. “I am here in the dark, in a pit whose walls are made of rock. I cannot see my hand in front of my face. I smell rotted corpses. My heart beats, I take in air. And I am not alone.”
He couldn’t discern their shapes in the dark, but he could feel the presence of the lions. “They are here with me,” thought Daniel. “Lord, your lions are with me.”
Daniel focused on his breathing.
Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale.
Hearing his breath reminded him of his father, who taught him to pray.
“Here,” he said, kneeling — his father’s eyes now lining up with his. “When you pray, kneel.”
“Because kneeling helps us remember.”
“Remember what, Father?”
“It helps us remember we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent miraculous signs and wonders — great and terrible — upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.”
His father held Daniel’s hand. “Pray with me, son.”
His measures of breath reminded Daniel of the One who gave him breath. “My breaths are traced out like hills to you. My breaths are curved like clay pots to you. My breaths twist in the air as dust to you. My breaths have shape and substance to you.”
Did He who gave him breath also put him here, in the darkness, alone but not alone? Immense, yet intimate. His name, on the edge of his lips — His name, forever unknowable.
He drew a deep intake of breath and remembered stars.
He exhaled and remembered sunlight.
Daniel knelt. Slow. One knee, then the other. He kept his head bowed, kept his hands on his knees. As he settled, he heard the first lion. To his right. Daniel heard it take one step.
“Breathe,” he told himself. “Pray.”
You are near to me as the lion is near to me.
Another, to his left, stepped. Daniel grew even more still.
You are present with me as the lion is present with me.
“Breathe,” he told himself. “Pray.”
A third lion, from the center, approached. It came closest to Daniel, close enough to hear its breath sing through its nostrils. It stopped a foot or so from him. Daniel could feel its breath on his forehead, and he lifted his head to meet the lion’s gaze.
I know your breath as I know the lion’s breath.
“Breathe,” Daniel told himself. “Pray.”
The lion stood still. Daniel looked into the eyes of the lion.
And there, Daniel saw God.
+ TWO +
“My name is Daniel; a name given me by my parents. When I was a boy, I was taken — my friends and I. The king’s ancestor enslaved my people and led us from our homeland. When we arrived in this land, the ones who captured me — the ones who captured you — gave me another name.
This ancestor — Nebuchadnezzar — he believed himself to be mighty and invincible. So mighty, in fact, he demanded that everyone worship him as a God. The people of this land are accustomed to gods they can see — gods of flesh and wood and stone.
But I know of a God beyond image or substance.
And it was this God who gave Nebuchadnezzar a dream — a dream whose meaning he couldn’t discern. In his confusion, he grew frightened and angry. Nebuchadnezzar assembled the wise men of his kingdom and commanded them not merely to interpret the dream, but to first discern the dream without it being told to them, and then to interpret it.
My friends and I had been trained under the eye of the Nebuchadnezzar’s officials. We were counted in that group of “wise men,” though we were not native to the land. I heard the request, and thought it a fearful, mad plea. Perhaps this was the first time he felt small — the first time he felt something beyond himself.
When none of the native wise men could discern neither the dream nor its meaning, Nebuchadnezzar demanded we all be executed. I spoke to my friends — Hananiah, renamed Shadrach — Mishael, renamed Meshach — Azariah, renamed Abednego — and I told them to pray for God’s mercy.”
Daniel paused. He remembered his friends, and their time in the furnace. He’d wept as they were cast into the furnace, and he’d prayed all throughout the ordeal. Afterward, he saw them — their hair was not singed, nor did their clothes smell like smoke.
“How?” Daniel asked his friends, “how do you stand amidst fire, but do not burn?”
His three friends smiled. “An angel,” said Hananiah. “An angel appeared and stood with us.”
“What happened next?” Asked Daniel.
Hananiah bowed his head, then lifted his eyes to meet Daniel’s. “The angel spoke our names.”
+ THREE +
“The night before the execution,” Daniel continued, “the mystery of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was revealed to me. I can’t say I heard a voice, but at once I saw the statue. I saw layers of gold, silver, iron and clay. I saw a stone cut by unknown hands. The stone demolished the statue, and then became a mountain.”
“I praised God for His revelation — He who gives wisdom, over and over again. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.”
Daniel felt the lion on his left inch closer. Daniel smiled.
“Is that you, Hananiah? Are you here with me?”
Daniel’s eyes shifted left. “When I saw you after your hours in the fire, you spoke of the angel. You said you saw flame reflected in its eyes, but because you knew you were with an angel, you were not afraid. You felt awe, Hananiah. You felt near to God.”
The lion to Daniel’s left purred. He heard its intake of breath and its exhale.
“I remember you, Hananiah — surrounded by fire, but not burning. I remember praying for you that morning. I remember your name on my lips — the name your parents gave you when they held you, when they bathed you and circumcised you. In the morning, I prayed for you.”
“Yes, now you are here with me. You, and the lion — and the God of our Fathers. He is the God of the Parted Sea and the Fire that burns but does not consume.”
+ FOUR +
Daniel turned his gaze toward the lion in the center. “And you, Mishael,” said Daniel. “Mishael, my friend — shall I tell you what I prayed for this afternoon? Before I was taken?”
“I prayed for my neighbor. I prayed for the king’s guard. I prayed for Darius, our king. I prayed for our people because I believe we’re lost. Our Lord detailed the laws we were to keep because we were once slaves to Pharaoh. In His mercy, He took us from Egypt. We were fearful and made a graven image; a calf. Time and time again, manna after quail after water from a rock, the God of our Fathers told us what was necessary for obedience and health.
In response, we chose to pursue our own power and might.
We chose the way of Babel.
We waged war and worshiped false idols. We shed blood and ignored the voice of He who seeks to redeem and make us whole. God allowed us to pursue our ignorance to the fullest measure, and now we are exiled. Now we are far from home.
I prayed for us, Mishael, in the midst of our exile. I prayed God would not turn his gaze from us and make us strangers forever. I prayed He would remember us.”
Daniel sat still, taking in the sight of the lion.
“There’re dreams I’ve not told anyone about yet — dreams I think he’s given me, but I don’t know how to express them. I knew the dream of the statue was not my dream. But these new dreams — I don’t know how to speak out loud and share them with anyone.”
Daniel tilted his head, still looking at the lion. “I wonder if he does the same to you.”
+ FIVE +
“Once he gave a man a dream where water covered the earth. God was to destroy all life, save the life he spared on a boat the man was to build. Why that man, and why the destruction? Could not have God withered any violent hands? Could he not have crooked any tongues that spoke evil? Could he not have dimmed, instead of destroy?
He gave dreams to yet another man, or a young man. The LORD gave him visions of suns, moons, and grain. Yet when this young man told his brothers of his dreams, his brothers lashed out against him. They fought over the young man’s cherished coat, and sold their brother into slavery. He was carried to Egypt. There, he spent time in prison; hearing dreams, caring for the imprisoned.
His dreams showed life, yet they also showed death. They showed both prosperity and famine, and both, in time, came to pass. I'm sure the dreams frightened him. I hope they frightened him as my dreams frighten me.
There was once a boy, who heard the voice of God when there was no voice, when our priests were evil and sought their own good as opposed to the good of others. The boy served under the care of the spiritually dead priest, yet God spoke to the boy. Time and time again, the boy assumed it was the priest. At last, the priest told the boy to speak to God.
‘Speak, LORD. Your servant is listening.’
What was it like, to be the boy who heard the voice of God, and what was it to be the mentor, the one who knew this boy was hearing the voice of someone he once knew so intimately, yet knew no longer?
I do not want us to lose the sound of God’s voice. I want to hear it constantly in my ears. I want it to fill my body. That’s what I prayed for this afternoon — that we would be remembered and brought close as children of God.”
+ SIX +
"There was someone who was led through a covenant. He was told to turn his head upward and count the stars. That was to be his offspring." Daniel paused. "You've seen stars, have you not, lion?" The lion blinked, turned its head for a moment, then returned to Daniel. "Yes, you must have seen stars when you lived free."
Daniel continued. "Later, when he had but one son, he was told to slaughter it. He was told to take it up the mountain and kill it, as sacrifice. As affection."
Daniel paused, and thought. “I do not know the mind and currents of God, but I know he is the God who has overseen my friends though they were in the fire. He is the God who is with us now.”
Daniel examined the paw of the lion. There were shards of bone and rock jammed in the paw. Daniel reached toward the paw of the lion, and it growled. Daniel stopped. The lion showed its teeth to Daniel, which were rotted, and the gums were charcoal black. Daniel could smell the infections and sores in the mouth of the animal. The lion’s mouth reminded Daniel of the coals used to bake bread, as a child.
Daniel remembered his home, and he remembered his family. He recalled the shared meals as a family, where he and his brother laughed together. His father was someone who loved them well, and his mother’s smile would shine.
Daniel leaned back from reaching for the paw. ”My mother sang,” Daniel told the lion. “She sang when my father laughed, and in time, my father sang with her.”
“You and I are surrounded by violence, but in this moment, I remember singing. I pray we might yet know a more peaceful existence. I pray God brings us out of violence and teaches us to sing.”
“I miss the sound of my mother’s song.”
+ SEVEN +
Daniel looked at the lion to his right, and noticed a scar across the lion's side. Perhaps suffered in an attack. "You are beautiful, Azariah.” The lion yawned and looked away from Daniel. "I know who made you. He is the one who made me as well.”
The lion bowed its head and pressed in close to Daniel. Daniel could see the rib cage of the lion expand and contract. Daniel could feel the lion tremble as it breathed.
“When was the last time I trembled, father? When was I last trembling?”
His mind floated back in time. “Yes. There was a prayer, one day. I was young. I’d heard the story of Passover for the first time, and my father spoke about the the blood spread across the top of the doorway, and I thought about the slain lamb, and then I began to shake.
I think about the lamb, and I tremble.”
Daniel came back to the lion. ”You're made of grace, Azariah, and you’ve been made with grace. But your captors,” said Daniel, “they’ve trained you to become a manifestation of their wrath. They take the worst parts of themselves and pour them into you. Then, they forget the violence was borne from them. They permit themselves to ignore they haven't dealt with the most violent parts of themselves.”
The lion licked its lips. Daniel noticed the crooked teeth of the lion.
“Nebuchadnezzar had a second dream. Of a tree, once blossoming with fruit, stripped of its branches and cut down to the stump. I told him he was the tree — that though he was, for the moment, adorned with riches, very soon he’d be stripped of everything and sent out into the wilderness.
Soon thereafter, he was stripped of everything, and he became a wild animal, eating the grass of the forest. For seven years, the animal nature in my king — that ravenous, craven part of himself — reigned. My king was wild, but after seven years, God restored him.
Nebuchadnezzar knew the violence in men’s hearts like few others ever do.”
Daniel kept his eyes on Azariah. And Daniel prayed once more.
“Lord, I believe you have me here for a reason. I believe you give me visions and words for a reason, even if they terrify me. I imagine more dreams will rise, and I will love and tremble again.
When I look close, I see how this lion trembles. What would make such a powerful creation tremble? This lion shakes, and I don't know why, father.
Creation suffers. We suffer here, both because of us are not supposed to be here. Both of us belong elsewhere. But we are here. Both you and I are here because men are too often afraid to face themselves. We are exiles, together. We are made well, made for a purpose beyond our knowing.
I pray you help us sleep.
I pray you help us sleep and dream of you.
We are not where we are supposed to be, but we are where we're meant to be.
If the lion dreams, Father, I pray the lion dreams of you.”