October 25, 2015

Staying Plugged In

The other day I listened to an interview of Bart Campolo.  Some of you may know the name Tony Campolo.  Tony is a popular preacher, teacher, and speaker.  He was the featured speaker at the BGAV Annual Meeting a few years ago.  Bart is his son and while for several years he appeared to be following in his dad’s footsteps in becoming a preacher and traveling speaker, a few years ago he accepted a job as the Humanist Chaplin at UCLA.  He left the Christian faith behind entirely and became a professing atheist, if you will.  The interview was really about allowing its almost entirely Christian audience to hear the story of how this formerly confessed Jesus follower came to the conclusion that God doesn’t actually exist at all.

Listening to the interview was for me both interesting and saddening.  Over and over again in response to the interviewer’s questions he would throw out red herrings (side arguments designed to distract people from the real issue) that seemed to me to be attempts at avoiding answering the questions because either he didn’t want to or else he simply didn’t know the answer.  The picture I gradually formed of Bart was of a young man who got really involved in a church youth group (not his dad’s church, by the way) when he was young and through a mix of emotions and relationships “accepted the Gospel” and patterned his life after the people who had become his closest friends.  He learned to speak their language and could parrot out their belief statements as if he was fully convinced of their truthfulness.  By all external accounts he was a committed follower of Jesus.  He even went to seminary and got involved in pastoral ministry.  This of course was no doubt to the delight of his father whose son was following in the family business—there’s a part of every dad that wants that.  But, in spite of all this, the Gospel never penetrated to the inner-workings of his heart.  Externally he did and said all the right things, but his heart and mind never really got wrapped around it.  He was mostly just following a group of people, not a person.

What really stood out the most for me throughout the interview, though, was what he identified as perhaps his biggest reason for finally being honest with himself and the people in his life and walking away from the faith: apparently unanswered prayer.  At least twice during the interview he talked specifically about God’s apparent apathy for amputees.  He related how troubling it was for him that people experienced miraculous healings from cancer, but no amputee had ever regrown a lost limb.  He said that he would even return to God if he prayed for an amputee and watched as the leg or arm miraculously grew back.

Now, I think there’s a lot to be desired as far as his theology of prayer goes, but what his story does emphasize for us is how important the concept and practice of prayer is in the lives of people who have even a middling interest in spiritual matters.  Prayer, the idea that we can somehow commune with the divine has been a critical concept in every religion all throughout human history.  This is especially true for Jesus followers considering that in the Scriptures we are commanded to pray over and over and over again.  We’re told specifically that if we believe in God we can ask for whatever we desire and we’ll get it.  So why not, as I once heard about some parents telling their daughter, pray for 7-Up to come out of the drinking fountain at school instead of water?  If we have enough faith it’ll happen!

Now, we all know that kind of thing is ridiculous, right?  But what other kinds of things should we and shouldn’t we believe about prayer?  I mean, we all believe we’re supposed to be praying.  A variety of surveys on the prayer habits of Americans have found that as many as 90% of us confess to praying “regularly” whatever exactly that means.  When someone unexpectedly recovers from some injury or illness or does so much quicker than doctors predicted we’ll express that prayer really works; that it’s really powerful.  But somewhere in the back of our minds we wonder a bit about the times when it doesn’t happen.  Was the prayer not as powerful then?  Quick survey: by a show of hands who has prayed really earnestly for something and didn’t get it?  We’ve all done that.  We’ve all wondered whether our prayers do any real good.  Sometimes we wonder why we bother bothering God at all.

Well, as it turns out, one of the reasons why we bother—or at least why we should bother—is that prayer is the first active step we take toward being game changers in our world.  This morning we are in the second part of our church-wide teaching series, Game Changer: How to Impact Your World.  The whole idea for this series is that there are times and places in our lives when things around us are not going like they should.  This could be on a culture-wide level like we talked about last week, but it could also be something happening on a much smaller scale—even just in your own family.  Either way, things are not as they should be, something’s got to change, and there’s nobody but you who’s going to do it.  If the game is going to change, it’s going to be up to you to be the game changer.

Last week and with the help of the beginning of Daniel’s story we talked about where the process of being a game changer starts.  It starts when we develop convictions and live out of those convictions regardless of the consequences we face for it.  Now, that sounds really fancy, but it’s actually pretty simple in concept.  Developing convictions simply means we figure out what we believe and what we’re willing to do about it.

For Daniel and his friends this took the form of refusing to eat the food the king provided for them.  Of course from the New Testament we recognize that the food wasn’t the point.  Rather, the point was that they were setting themselves apart from the rest of their community by refusing to fully take part in the excesses and temptations of Babylon’s high culture.  In this, the food was merely a symbol of the more important conviction, namely, that God is Lord and there is no other.  For us this could take the form of refusing to engage in certain forms of media (not watching certain shows or movies or engaging with social media only in particular ways or times); it could be refusing to make certain kinds of commitments (sports will only take up so much of our lives and will not prevent us from actively engaging with our community of faith); it could be refusing to be a party in certain kinds of conversations (whenever the gossiping starts, our involvement in the conversation stops); it could be a lot of different things depending on the specific situation.  Whatever it is, though, we put our feet down and refuse to move because to move would be to go against what we know in our hearts (which are deeply informed by the Scriptures) to be true and right and good.  Such uncompromising conviction will force the current of culture to go around us and, if we hold the line, will eventually cause the game to start to change.

But, and as I said last week, putting our feet down is only the beginning of this process.  Once we put our feet down…then what?  It’s like the dog chasing the car down the road: what happens when he catches it?  What do we do next?  Do we make a big scene?  Do we keep our heads down and hope that our example does most of the work for us?  Do we work our hardest to get other people to plant themselves alongside us?  What?

Well, I’ll tell you what we are going to do next.  We are going to look once again at Daniel’s story to see how he handled the first real challenge that came his way once he had planted his own feet.  From this we are going to glean some wisdom on what we should do first when seeking to be game changers in our situations.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Daniel 2.  Daniel and his friends had made it through King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace service training course and had in fact graduated at the top of their class.  They had entered the king’s service and life was probably pretty good for them.  People knew they were different from the average court advisor, but they tended to excel at everything they did so they pretty much accepted it as their thing.  But then something happened that threatened to blow it all to pieces.  The king had a dream.

Check this out with me right at the beginning of the chapter.  “In the second year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchadnezzar had dreams; his spirit was troubled, and his sleep left him.”  Have you ever had a dream that really left you ill at ease?  I’m not just talking about a nightmare, but a dream that just didn’t sit right with you.  It struck you as really significant for some reason, but you had no idea what that reason was.  You couldn’t get it out of your head.  You thought about it all day and at night when your processor wasn’t running as hard it was the only thing on your mind.  You were losing sleep over it.  The king had that kind of dream and he wanted desperately to know what it meant.

Keep reading with me: “Then the king commanded that the magicians, the enchanters, the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans be summoned to tell the king his dreams.  So they came in and stood before the king.  And the king said to them, I had a dream, and my spirit is troubled to know the dream.  Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic, ‘O king, live forever!  Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation.’”

Here’s where things get interesting, though.  You see, Nebuchadnezzar was a smart guy.  Whether or not he really bought into the religious traditions of Babylon—he probably did to at least some degree—he knew that these guys were essentially well-paid yes men.  They were there to give him the answers he wanted regardless of what the question was.  He knew this and so he didn’t really trust them to accurately tell him what the dream meant.  If he told them what the dream was they were just going to make something up that flowered him with flattery.  Under normal circumstances that might have been okay, but this was bothering him enough he didn’t just want insincere praise, he wanted the truth.  As a result, he turned up the pressure on them.

Check this out starting back at v. 5: “The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, ‘The word from me is firm: if you do not make known to me the dream and its interpretation, you shall be torn limb from limb, and your houses shall be laid in ruins.  But if you show the dream and its interpretation, you shall receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor.  Therefore show me the dream and its interpretation.’”

The whole group figures the king is just being figurative or else is resorting to hyperbole in order to express just how much this whole dream thing is bothering him.  Plus, they know that their whole craft is a big smoke-and-mirrors act.  They’re all clever snake oil salesmen.  So they try and hold their own line—after all, he needs them; he couldn’t possibly really be planning to kill them all.  Look at v. 7: “They answered a second time and said, ‘Let the king tell his servants the dream, and we will show its interpretation.’”

Unfortunately for them, though, the king meant what he said: “The king answered and said, ‘I know with certainty that you are trying to gain time, because you see that the word from me is firm—if you do not make the dream known to me, there is but one sentence for you.  You have agreed to speak lying and corrupt words before me till the times change.  Therefore tell me the dream, and I shall know that you can show me its interpretation.’”  The only thing left for them is to beg and rather angrily point out the obvious: “The Chaldeans answered the king and said, ‘There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand, for no great and powerful king has asked such a thing of any magician or enchanter or Chaldean.  The thing that the king asks is difficult, and no one can show it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh.’”  In other words, “Come on, your Majesty.  Nobody can do this.  If you want us to make stuff up, we’ll make stuff up, but don’t ask us to do something that nobody can do.”  But the king refuses to back down and in his anger over their boldness he demands that all of the wise men in the kingdom be wiped out right then.  All of them including Daniel and his friends.

Well, once he discovers just how dicey their situation is (most notably by the arrival of the captain of the guards to take them all off to be killed), Daniel springs into action.  He gets all the facts, goes to the king, and asks for a little more time.  That wasn’t the action I was talking about.  The real action comes when he goes back home and lets his friends know what’s going on.  Verse 17: “Then Daniel went to his house and made the matter known to Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, his companions, and told them to seek mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that Daniel and his companions might not be destroyed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.”  In other words, Daniel asked the king for more time, but really only as a stall tactic because outside of praying he didn’t have any other plans.

A preacher I listen to every now and then named Erwin McMannus will occasionally relate a story that happened to him shortly after he became a Christian in college.  A friend of his had become a Christian out of a pretty rough background, but because of a variety of things going on in her life, she was on the verge of walking away from the faith and back into the situation of her past.  Unless God revealed Himself to her in some powerful sort of way, she was done.  Erwin asked her what she wanted God to do.  She replied that she wanted Him to make it snow.  Depending on where you live that doesn’t seem like such a huge request, right?  Well, the campus was in Southern California.  They don’t so much see snow there…ever.  And yet, Erwin boldly responded, “Tomorrow morning God is going to make it snow!”  When he tells the story he jokes that he was still too new a Christian to know that you’re not supposed to say things like that because that’s not how God works.  Still, even as the words were coming out of his mouth he knew that he had way over-promised this poor girl.  He’d guaranteed her something that he had no power to make happen and when he let her down she was going to go back into a life that likely wouldn’t leave her living very long.  All he knew to do was exactly what Daniel did here.  He went back to his room and prayed like he had never before prayed in his life.

But even as I say that as any of us would express it can you hear the assumption built into those words?  All they could do was to go back to their rooms and pray like never before.  They wanted to be game changers, but there wasn’t anything they could do but pray…as if prayer is something that we do when nothing else works.  Think about what other assumptions lie behind this idea.  If seeking God’s help is the last resort then we believe one of two things.  Either there are options to solve our problem more powerful than God, we’ve used up all of these unsuccessfully and now we have to resort to Him, or the outcome depends more on what we can do than what God can do.  Come on now: is there anything in the whole of Scripture that would lead us to believe this is true?  No way!  This is Pagan Thinking 101.

Yet it’s exactly what we all do, isn’t it?  We do it without even thinking.  We say things like, “Well, all we have left to do now is pray,” or “I guess we’ll just have to commit this one to prayer,” or “We can only pray now.”  Only pray my left foot!  The truth is that if we’re not praying we’re not doing anything really worthwhile.  Think about this with me for a minute.  If God can create the universe and everything in by speaking it all into existence then solving whatever problems or challenges we are facing seems like it should be no big deal for Him, yes?  The very fact that we’re in a mess or facing trouble suggests that our own power is not sufficient to get ourselves out of whatever it is, right?  Otherwise we would have already done it.  When we commit some situation to prayer what we are essentially doing is inviting God to become involved in it.  Well, if God is involved in something, with all the power at His disposal, don’t you think the likelihood that a solution is going to be found is a lot higher than if we’re trying to go it alone?  And I get not wanting to swing a sledge when a much smaller peen will get the job done, but because He is also perfectly wise, God always uses just the right amount of power for the job; no more, no less.  Furthermore, if we really believe that God is sovereign over His creation, that His plans are going to come to pass no matter what, then wouldn’t it make sense to get Him involved as early as possible so that we don’t waste a bunch of time chasing fantasies instead of getting down to what will actually work?  That’s exactly what prayer does.  Our prayers connect us with God’s plan.  They put us in a place where we are able to hear from Him in whatever manner He chooses to speak to us, so that we can participate in what He is doing in His world.  God has a plan for His world.  It is a plan that will be for the lasting good of all of His people and to at least the temporary good for anyone who’s currently not.  Our prayers connect us with that plan.  Our prayers connect us with God’s plan.  If we start anywhere else we are going to be wasting our time.  Now, this doesn’t mean that prayer is “all” we do, but it should be the place we start.  Otherwise we are heading off into the mountains with no map, no compass, no trail, and not even the sun to give us direction.  And listen: if we’re going to be game changers, we’ve got to know where we’re going.  Our prayers connect us to God’s plan, and once we’ve planted our feet, that’s where we start.

Daniel knew this and so after getting the king to give him just a bit more time before having him torn limb from limb he and Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah fall on their faces and pray.  And you can guess what happened: God gave them the answer to the king’s query.  Daniel saved the day.  He once again changed the game and had a huge impact on his world.  Nebuchadnezzar’s response way over in v. 47 was this: “‘Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have bene able to reveal this mystery.’  Then the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon.”  What more, from his new position Daniel was able to put Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in place as high officials in the region such that it was no longer pagans governing over the affairs of the Empire, but people who were faithful to God.  In other words, the whole current changed.  And how?  Not because of anything obviously spectacular they did, but rather because they stood with uncompromising conviction and they prayed.  Their prayers connected them with God’s plan and their firm stance allowed them to take part in them.

Listen: just like Daniel experienced, our prayers connect us with God’s plan.  Remember the promise Erwin made that it would snow in Southern California?  He was too dumb a Christian to know that you aren’t supposed to promise things like that and that God doesn’t work that way.  But he did know he was in way over his head.  So he prayed.  Not because it was the “only” thing he could do, but because it was the first thing he knew to do.  He had a firm conviction that the God to whom he had fairly recently committed his life was a miracle-working, prayer-answering God who didn’t want to see people leave Him and wasn’t about to let something as trivial an unusual weather pattern get in the way of His relationship with His daughter.  And so he prayed.  He prayed all night.  He fell asleep praying.  He woke up with prayer marks on his forehead the next morning.  And when he looked outside…the ground was covered with snow.  God didn’t want this girl to walk away from Him and Erwin’s prayers connected him with God’s plan.  Our prayers connect us with God’s plan.

Now, this doesn’t mean God’s always going to do everything we ask and if we try to set Him up in a testing situation we are probably going to be the ones who fail.  God’s not a vending machine.  But He is good.  He does love His children.  He even loves folks who wouldn’t count themselves as His children.  He loves giving good gifts to people who ask for them.  He loves when we come to Him with our hearts and all that are on them regardless of how petty or silly or small or not-Christian-like they may be.  He loves it because He has a plan for us and if we’re coming to Him we’re going to be in a place to learn about it and experience it in all its glory.  Our prayers connect us with God’s plan.  If you want to see the game change, it’s His plans that are going to make it happen.  Our prayers connect us with God’s plan.  So start praying and change the game.