Thursday, April 24, 2008

Burning

As I have worked to prepare Daniel Kellogg’s The Fiery Furnace, which has its world premiere tomorrow evening here in San Diego, I have struggled to find common ground with my character. The piece tells the story of the fiery furnace from the third chapter of the Book of Daniel, in which three young Jewish men, in order to remain true to their faith, defy Nebuchadnezzar by refusing to bow down to a golden idol of the Babylonian King. Nebuchadnezzar punishes them by throwing them into the fiery furnace, where they are witnessed walking with “the son of God” and from which they emerge completely unharmed. My role in the piece is Shadrach, one of the young men who is cast into the furnace.

As I wrote in while singing Bach in Chicago, my relationship with my faith has been a constantly evolving one, and I have come to question it over the years, like I assume most people do. While I have always believed in a God, I question more and more the validity of the Bible being the word of God. I mostly take issue with how much focus there can be at times on the proscriptive and seemingly hateful passages in the Bible that seem to me to skew its larger message of faith, hope, and love. It seems to me that perhaps some human error seeped into it over the years. I’ve also come to question the idea of man’s unworthiness in the Bible – why shouldn’t we be worthy of God’s love? We are theoretically all God’s children, are we not? All parents’ love should be unconditional, and certainly God would be the one being capable of such greatness.

Daniel’s setting of this story begins with Shadrach leading a prayer of penitence, assuming responsibility for the sack of Judah and pleading for God’s mercy. He acknowledges that the wayward ways of the Jews were the cause of their current plight as they brought the wrath of God upon them.

As I set to learning this music, I had trouble reconciling myself to embracing this idea of a wrathful God – my emotional walls were instantly up, and I felt myself detaching from the piece. I wondered how I was going to find a way to commit to Shadrach and his logic. I judged Shadrach for being so misguided in believing that he and his people were only worthy of such incredible misfortune. I don’t believe that a performer can do proper justice to their character if they are judging them in anyway. Performing anything demands the utmost empathy and compassion.

This morning, after having struggled with this for weeks, I suddenly realized that Shadrach was not misguided at all, but actually wise and inspiring. Shadrach and his companions share my belief that God’s love for us is unconditional. He acknowledges what he feels are the mistakes of his people, and his wisdom is in seeing that the only way to move on is to learn from those mistakes with a humble heart. He does not in fact believe that he and his people are unworthy of God’s love, but are worthy of not only God’s love but God’s protection and mercy, as well. That he can maintain such faith that he is willing to risk his life by walking through fire after having endured the hardships of watching his homeland be conquered and then being held captive in a foreign land is inspiring. I would think that a lesser person would question the very existence of God after suffering hardships such as those.

We struggle with our faith in many things, not just God, and I found myself wondering this morning, if I maintained such faith in not only the good in the world, but also in myself during the times that are tough, what miracles could I accomplish? Every step would be a positive step forward, and I would never feel as if I had taken any steps back. I marveled that I was able to extrapolate a lesson from this Old Testament story. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what I believe when it comes to the Bible – lessons that apply to so many different aspects of our lives can be gleaned from its parables and stories, regardless.

4 comments:

Jeanette said...

You have an awesome perspective. I myself have been struggling with my faith and have come up with pretty much the same conclusions as you.

Tim said...

On another note, when I was in preschool Sunday School, the teacher asked who could identify Daniel's three friends who were cast into the fiery furnace. I answered: Shadrach, Meshach and A Billy Goat.

My mother still laughs at that. . .
Tim

Chandler Branch said...

Thanks so much for posting this. I appreciate the honesty and depth of thought with which you approached the role of Shadrach.

...And I'll not miss the opportunity to mention that you sang the part fabulously! Bravo!

JFC said...

He does not in fact believe that he and his people are unworthy of God’s love, but are worthy of not only God’s love but God’s protection and mercy, as well.

Perhaps the more astounding conclusion would be that the Holy Scriptures are, indeed, accurate, and that our self-interest and our thoughtlessness of the centrality of God in all things does show how unworthy we really are, and yet God condescends to love us and show incredible mercy to us despite our unworthiness. In fact, in prophecy concerning the ending of that Babylonian captivity, He instructs the prophet to "comfort my people" and to "speak tenderly to Jerusalem." And as that prophet's words moved five more centuries into the future, they forespoke of One who would be the ultimate One speaking comfort as He graciously agreed with His Father to personally bear our unworthiness, and so "it pleased YHWH to crush Him" and thus approve the trade. He received our unworthiness, and we received His worthiness, and thus "are accepted in the Beloved."

Astounding love. How can it be?