November 22, 2015

Help to Overcome

I actively played the drums for about ten years of my life.  For nearly all of those ten years I had private lessons.  Most recently my teacher was the percussion instructor at Truman State University, Dr. Michael Bump.  Dr. Bump was a great teacher.  I learned the basics of a variety of different instruments and had the chance to play some pretty challenging pieces on several of them.  Getting lessons in a college setting, though, the focus tended to mostly be on more classical works than more popular drum set techniques.  I had plenty of opportunities to play the drum set in other venues.

Anyway, when it comes to classical percussion fare, one of the most famous snare drum parts ever written is from a piece called Bolero by Maurice Ravel.  It’s a beautiful piece of music which when played at the proper tempo—60 beats per minute—takes about 20 minutes to play.  What makes the Bolero snare drum part so famous…infamous, really…is not its complexity.  As far as technique goes it is exceedingly simple.  It’s a repeating pattern of eighth notes and triplets.  It sounds like this: dum da-da-da dum da-da-da dum-dum, dum da-da-da dum da-da-da da-da-da da-da-da.  Easy.  In fact, put your hands up on the back of the pew in front of you and let’s tap this out together.  Congratulations, you all now know the entire Bolero snare drum part and given how easy and repetitive it is, you’ll probably be tapping it out for the rest of the week.  You’re welcome.  So you can actually get a real sense of what this sounds like, though, I want to play a little clip of an orchestra performing it.  Check this out.

Pretty isn’t it?  Did you catch the couple of close ups on the snare drum player’s sticks?  It sure seems like that should be a really easy part, right?  But it’s not.  It’s one of the most difficult classical snare drum pieces out there.  Why?  Because in order to play it well you have to have an incredibly precise sense of time and tempo.  Think about it: you’re playing the same two bars over and over and over again for nearly twenty minutes.  It’s fun at first and you’re pretty focused in, but at about the five minute mark your arms are tired, your hands are tired, your legs are tired, your feet are tired, and your mind is starting to wander.  By the ten minute mark you’ve pretty well lost all sense of time and you’re just in autopilot, hardly even hearing the music anymore.  By the 15-minute mark you’re looking for new ways to entertain yourself.  Those things are all totally normal on the part of a percussionist.  But, they will also guarantee that you don’t play the piece as well as it could be played.  It might be pretty good, but it won’t be great.  It won’t change anybody’s life as a great classical piece of music can when performed well.  If you are going to perform Bolero as it was designed, it will require you to be incredibly, almost supernaturally, consistent.

So why start here this morning?  Because for the past six weeks we have been talking about being game changers.  This morning we are in the final part of our series, Game Changer: How to Impact Your World.  If you’ve missed any part of this series you can go to the church’s website and find either the audio or the transcript or both to catch up or share something that really struck you as important with a friend.  The whole idea for the series is that there are times in all of our lives when things around us are not going like they should and somehow we know that making a change in them for the better is up to us.  This could be on as broad a scale as the whole world or as small a scale as our own families, but wherever the situation happens to be, we are the ones God has placed there to see the game change for the better.

So far we have laid out a process for becoming game changers.  We start by developing convictions and standing firm on these.  From there we develop the practice of consistent prayer in our lives.  Once we have these two pieces going, God is going to give us opportunities to get into the game with Him.  These might start really small and seemingly insignificant, but if we can be faithful in these small places, God will gradually give us the opportunity to be faithful in much bigger places.

With the process in place, a couple of weeks ago we made a turn to talk about some of the things we need to know in order to be effective game changers over the long haul.  The first thing we need to know is that changing the game does not depend on us.  It depends on God.  To think otherwise is to give in to pride.  Pride always leads to.  God, on the other hand, honors humility.  Then last week we talked about the fact that sometimes in our role as game changers we find ourselves in a place where there is sin going on around us and we need to address it.  We need to call sin what it is so that the people involved know the source of the mess they have on their hands.  But we don’t simply need to call sin what it is—that would make us judgmental.  We need to call sin what it is and go on to point to what God has to say about it remembering all the while that what God has to say about sin is: “I forgive you; now let’s set about making things right together.”

Okay, but back to our earlier question: what does any of this have to do with Ravel’s Bolero?  Everything and here’s why.  If we are going to be game changers over the long haul it is going to demand of us a faithful consistency the likes of which is required to perform the snare drum part of Bolero as it should be played.  And think for a minute about why.  The five stories we’ve examined from the lives of Daniel and his friends are incredible to be sure, but they are all snapshots snatched from much larger stories.  When Daniel interpreted the handwriting on the wall for King Belshazzar on the night the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians he was perhaps close to 80 years old.  Some of the folks in here this morning are 80 and beyond.  While there are certainly a handful of days in your lives to which you can point as being especially significant, what has consumed the vast majority of your time thus far on earth?  The mundane.  The boring.  The every day.  The small things.  All our lives are composed of a series of normal situations punctuated by occasional bursts of extraordinary.  And what do you think determines how we will respond in the extraordinary?   Our performance in the ordinary.  Or to think about that another way: these big, significant situations in our lives are like a recital for a musician.  Everything else in life is practice for those times.  How we perform in the big moments is determined entirely by how we practice in the small.  If we are going to be game changers in any situations in our lives it will be our faithfulness in the everyday that will see it happen.

If this sounds boring the truth is that it can be.  I remember when I was in junior high a neighbor down the street hired me to do some yard work while he was out of town.  In particular he wanted some weed grass raked out of his yard.  The only way to do it was to get a garden rank and with lots of pressure and persistence, slowly pull it all out starting from one side and steadily working to the other.  I brought to the job the added pressure of being a perfectionist.  I started with gusto but by the several hour mark I was only about a third of the way across the small yard and my spirits were decidedly more mellow than they were when I started.  The temptation to give up and take the easy way out was powerful.  But boy was the money I earned when he got back a sweet pleasure.  Indeed, the sweetest pleasures in life always come as a result of consistency and faithfulness over the long haul.  Consider the couples who have been married for 50 years or more—we have several in this room.  Do you think that journey was all lollipops and roses?  Or how about folks who have retired after working for the same company for 25 or 30 years.  The sweetness of retired life can be exquisite (or some I’m told), but that doesn’t mean the journey getting there was all sunshine and moonbeams.  Yet without faithfulness over the long haul these things would be impossible to attain.

Indeed, they would be possible to obtain not simply because of the time and consistency required to achieve them, but because we have numerous other forces working against our efforts to get there.  To start with we have internal obstacles to overcome.  You’ve got things going on inside of you and I’ve got things going on inside of me that work against us being game changers.  Sometimes these internal challenges can be pretty significant.  And yet, if the only challenges we had to face in becoming game changers were internal—our own sinful desires that throw us off course, our penchant for becoming bored in a hyper-stimulating culture, our desire for the next and newest thing in a consumeristic culture, and so on and so forth—we would still have a tall wall to scale to get there, but it wouldn’t seem that bad.  After all, people overcome their own limitations all the time.  Runners push themselves to faster and faster race times.  A hundred years ago the idea of someone running a mile in under 4 minutes seemed like a pipe dream.  But then Roger Bannister took the field and the pipe dream became a reality.  In 1954 his time was 3:59:04.  The current record, though, is 3:34:13.  This will no doubt be broken.  People overcome other things that would normally be considered limitations as well.  We watched the biopic about Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, the other night.  Hawking was told in 1963 that he would be dead by 1965.   He finished his doctoral dissertation that year.  His third child was born fourteen years later.

We can overcome our own limitations.  Unfortunately, those aren’t the only ones we face.  If our goal is to change the game in the direction of the advancement of God’s kingdom, we also have an entire cultural system working against us.  And the challenges presented here can make what few hold ups we might have on our own seem like a walk in the park.  Here we find voices rooting hard for us to fail, to give up, to turn around and head back in the other direction.  They rig the course against us and then laugh when we fall into their traps.  The bottom line here is this: even though being game changers takes being faithfully consistent on our part the forces both inside and outside of us working against us are more than we can overcome.  We can’t overcome the obstacles that lie before us.  So what do we do?

The answer to this question comes when we take one more look at the story of Daniel.  Near the end of his life, Daniel was once again given the opportunity to be a game changer.  And once again he faced obstacles that he could not overcome by himself.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Daniel 6.  Let’s take a look at what happened together and then we’ll talk about what it means for our efforts to practice faithful consistency as game changers.

Start reading with me right at the beginning of the chapter.  “It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom 120 satraps, to be throughout the whole kingdom; and over them three presidents, of whom Daniel was one, to whom these satraps should give account, so that the king might suffer no loss.  Then this Daniel became distinguished above all the other presidents and satraps, because an excellent spirit was in him.  And the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom.”  This is all happening early in the reign of King Darius of the Persian Empire.  He had conquered the Babylonians and now was going about setting up some administrative structures to help with the governing of his newly expanded kingdom.  He was essentially creating a system of managers with a chain of command of which he was the top.  As it turns out, Daniel once again showed himself to be of incredible value to his employers and was going to once again be honored for it.

But not everybody was happy about this.  The rest of the managers were jealous of Daniel and started looking for some way to trip him up, to knock him down a peg or three.  The problem was: Daniel didn’t give them anything to work with.  Somebody else may have had some dirt they could have exploited, but not Daniel.  He was squeaky clean.  The only way they could figure to trap him was if they somehow made his faithful devotion to God against the law.  And just let that sit on you for a minute.  The only way they could find to get to Daniel was to somehow make faithfulness to God illegal.  He didn’t have any other junk to exploit.  May the same be said of each of us, right?

In any event, this is exactly what they did.  They were absolutely committed to shutting down his game changing activities and they were ready and willing to throw whatever obstacles they could conceive of in his path.  In other words, Daniel was striving for this faithful consistency we’ve been talking about, but he had not merely internal, but powerful external forces working hard against him.  Look down to v. 8 to see how this went: “Then these presidents and satraps came by agreement to the king and said to him, ‘O King Darius, live forever!  All the presidents of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an injunction, that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions.”  As far as manipulative flattery goes, this was pretty naked.  This would be the point at which a wise parent would ask, “Okay, what do you really want?”  And yet, when such flattery offers up things we really do want to hear, our garbage detection meters don’t pick up on it, and we fall for it just as King Darius did.  He thought that being worshiped as a god would be pretty good—he was the head of the greatest and most powerful empire on earth after all—so he signed the law.  Anybody caught praying to anyone other than him for the next month would be thrown into the den of lions.

Now the schemers knew they only needed to wait.  They went straight for Daniel’s house where they knew, as was his custom, he would be praying beside his window three times a day.  They weren’t disappointed.  Verse 10: “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed [you heard that, right?], he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem.  He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.”  So Daniel was fully aware of the situation and yet remained faithfully consistent to the game changer process anyway.  It’s almost like he knew something they didn’t.

Well, not unexpectedly, when the group of conspirators caught Daniel in the act of breaking this unjust and unrighteous law they went straight to the king and ratted him out.  The king finally realized what these folks were trying to do by flattering him into signing the law in the first place and was dismayed about it because he really liked Daniel.  But, because of how their governmental system worked, he was bound by this particular law and so off to the lion’s den Daniel went, albeit with wishes from the king for his God to deliver him.  What everybody expected to happen was for Daniel to be immediately killed and eaten by these lions which were probably kept half-starved most of the time.  What actually happened was another Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace situation.  The king ran out the next morning to see if Daniel’s God did indeed come through and sure enough, Daniel answered back that God had sent an angel to shut the lions’ mouths to protect him.  The king reacted by praising Daniel’s God as Nebuchadnezzar had many times before him.  Then he turned to the conspirators and commanded that the ringleaders of the group be thrown into the lions’ den along with their whole families.  God didn’t shut the lions’ mouths for them.

The final punchline for the story lets us know that Daniel continued to prosper throughout the reign of Darius and on into the reign of Cyrus who is the man God ultimately used to send the people of Israel back to their land.  But just before this is the final part of King Darius’ decree about the glorious nature of Daniel’s God.  What this does for us is points us to the thing Daniel knew that led to his consistent faithfulness even in the face of overwhelming obstacles.  What he knew is what we too need to know if we are going to follow suit and become long-term game changers in our own lives.  Check this out at v. 27: “He delivers and rescues; he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, he who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.”

You see what Darius learned, what Daniel knew, and what we need to make one of the foundation points of our lives is: God is greater than those who oppose us.  It doesn’t matter how much power they seem to have, His is greater.  It makes no difference how big the obstacles they set in our path seem to be, He is bigger.  It profits them little to waste their strongest strength in opposing us because He is stronger.  They may have the smartest people in the world devising the most cunning plans ever conceived, but He is smarter still.  They may have the power of nations behind them, but He is more powerful.  God is greater than those who oppose us.  They may be powerful politicians or actors on the national stage, or they may be friends or family members who really don’t want to see you reflecting the character of Christ because of what it will mean for the particular way of life they have decided to live for themselves, but whatever they may bring to the table to put a stop to your game changing efforts, God is greater than those who oppose you.

Daniel knew this and so even knowing that a law had been signed making such actions illegal, he still got down on his knees three times a day as was his custom, and prayed.  He remained faithfully consistent to the game changer process because he knew in his heart of hearts that God is greater than those who opposed him.  In our own lives, as we strive for a similar consistency to the game changer process, we will be greatly aided along the way if we can keep this truth at the forefront of our minds.  God is greater than those who oppose us.  That opposition may come internally.  It may be a nagging sin issue we can’t seem to break.  It may be a habit that has been ingrained in steel but which is keeping us from giving ourselves wholly to the game changer process.  It may be a lingering fear that leaves us paralyzed when we find ourselves in certain situations.  It could be anything.  Nevertheless, God is greater than those who oppose us.  The opposition may come externally.  We may be threatened at work with disciplinary action even to the point of being fired.  We may be threatened with relational turmoil.  If we don’t leave the game changer path we’ll lose this or that relationship.  Yet we persist because God is greater than those who oppose us.   No matter what stands in our way, God is greater than those who oppose us.  When we commit ourselves to seeing the game change around us and stay faithfully consistent to the process we cannot fail because God is greater than those who oppose us.

Consistency from start to finish in Bolero brings the reward of a grand musical accomplishment.  Wise musicians know it’s worth pursuing that goal in spite of the obstacles standing in the way because the final reward is greater than the roadblocks.  My good friend and college roommate is pursuing a doctorate in French horn performance.  This past week he took part in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony which is incredibly difficult for the horn.  Yet with no doubt hours of practice to prepare for it he persisted and the reward was a stellar performance he was rightly crowing about on Facebook.  I’ve been a part of performances like that; performances of difficult pieces that went just right.  I can tell you: it’s an incredible feeling.  You feel proud (not prideful!) because you have added something good to the world.  But here’s the thing: that’s just a piece of music.  Consistency from start to finish in the life of God brings and even greater reward: the reward of eternal life.  That’s something worth standing for no matter the obstacles in our path.  We can do so because God is greater than those who oppose us.  I know that in your life right now there is a situation that needs to change.  There is a game heading in the wrong direction and the burden of setting things right is resting on your shoulders.  You can be a game changer.  You can develop convictions and stand on them.  You can commit to consistently seeking the Lord in prayer.  You can stand when God calls you.  You can stay humble by constantly remember who God is and who you are in light of that.  You can speak with courage into situations where sin is unconstrained.  You can change the game.  You can do this because God is greater than those who oppose you.

There’s actually one more reason you can do this and this one is a biggie.  You can do this because Jesus has already paved the way for you.  It used to be that changing the game really was something only a few could do when they were explicitly called by God to do so.  Everybody ran around playing by whatever the rules happened to be.  God had called us to more and given us some guidelines to help us get there, but we couldn’t do it.  The result was that we remained stubbornly separated from Him and the life He has for us to live.  This wasn’t going to work.  God loves us way too much to have left us like that.  So He took action.  He put on human flesh and came to earth Himself as a human infant who would grow fully as one of us in order to change the game from the inside out.  Jesus, the second person of the trinity, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, was born—as we are entering into a season designed specifically to remember and celebrate—grew, and lived a perfect life so that we might learn the secret to being permanent game changers: faith.  He then gave up His life to unleash into us the power to do it.  He let His body be broken almost beyond recognition and His blood be spilled to the last drop in order to pay the debt of sin we owed to God but could never repay on our own and live to tell about it.  When He did, and when He rose again on the third day the power of sin and the chains of death that had long kept us locked in a losing game were broken forever.  Then He sent us His Spirit to fill us with the power we needed to be game changers, to point all the world to Him as the source of life and hope and peace and joy and love.

I want to wrap up this whole series by remembering and celebrating this game changing gift together by observing the Lord’s Supper.  The bread represents Jesus’ broken body and the juice His spilled blood, given to create a new covenant with God intended to make us whole once again.  This gift is for all those who would receive it.  And if you have indeed received, this small meal is for you.  Please join with us.  If you have not, on the other hand, or you are dealing with some obstacles that will yet be overcome with God’s help, then I would ask you to sit out this morning.  Let the tray pass with a prayer of thanks that God is so committed to you that He will yet see you restored if you so desire it.  Finally then, as the deacons come to serve you, eat and drink as you receive the elements and your hearts are prepared.  When we have all had an opportunity to eat and rejoice together, I’ll close us with prayer and we’ll be out of here.  As we come to the table together now, though, prepare your hearts to receive that you might be game changers even as your Lord is.  Let’s pray.