(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on April 24, 2016)
Somehow, it has been 30 years since I graduated from high school. I’ve been working with a couple others to plan our reunion next September.
This means, of course, that I’ve been thinking about high school more than I usually do. I remember I changed my schedule my junior year and couldn’t find a way to fill a hole in my schedule, so I ended up in beginning speech. Without any real desire to do so, I might add.
But Edge–the teacher, Diane Edgington–was a persuasive dynamo in polyester. Before I quite realized what was happening, not only was I enjoying the class, but I was entered in some speech tournament at Willamette University over a weekend. It was really fun, with great people, and I was hooked.
There are all these different events, these different kinds of speeches with various rules and emphases. At one point Edge got me to try the one called “Radio Commentary”. In this one, the key was perfect pronunciation, a strong and memorable point, an interesting voice (the judges didn’t even look at you), and most of all hitting the time limit as exactly as possible, like it would be on a real radio job.
So I half heartedly wrote this piece, she edited it (kind of dramatically changing the point I might add), and we got it to roughly the right time frame, but always pushing the envelope a bit, bordering on too long. So she said, “You should practice this thing with your stop watch every single night. Out loud. Get your lips used to saying these words and cadences, so that you can say them clearly and quickly and don’t stop practicing each night until you hit the time right.”
Well that just sounded so demanding and hard.
I drop in this class randomly because of my schedule, we discover I’m kinda good at this, and all of a sudden you’re just ruling my life and giving me all these things I have to do. Who do you think you are? Who made Edge all in charge of MY life?
I practiced a couple of times, when I felt like it…certainly not every night. She was not going to tell ME what to do with my time! You will be shocked, just shocked to hear that I didn’t do well at the next meet. I went over time in like two of the preliminary rounds and didn’t even make the finals.
Contrast this with how I approached baseball.
My neighbor Todd was two years ahead of me, and I started grilling him before practice started my freshman year, trying to figure out how to get a leg up by doing the things the coach wanted. Todd told me about moving my feet even while playing catch, when warming up before practice. Move my feet, catch the ball on the right side of the body so I’m already moving to the throwing motion. Point my left shoulder at my partner, and follow through.
I practiced this with him every day for a week before practice started. I remember senior Dave pulling me aside at the end of practice. We always ended each practice with 25 killers, these back and forth exercises that, well, killed. Dave said, “Hey, don’t just go through the motions on those. This is what helps you. Keep low, keep your form right, don’t just stand up, move over, and go down again. Stay down all the way through.”
I practiced doing it right at home each night. I remember senior Scott noticing that my freshman arm wasn’t very strong. “I was like that too,” he said, though he certainly threw rockets by his senior year. “So I laid in bed at night, tossing the ball in the air, and practiced quickly getting the ball from my left hand to my right. I tried to make up for my weak arm by speeding up getting to the throw.” So I practiced that every night, too.
They all made a tremendous difference!
Duh. The difference between baseball and speech was I cared more about one than the other. And that led me to be more self-motivated, more intentional. At first…this definitely changed pretty rapidly…at first I saw Edge, my speech coach, as putting all these things on me. But with baseball, I was asking other people how to get better and following their advice to do it.
You’re already connecting the dots, aren’t you?
We’re in this series where we are looking at people in the bible who illustrate practices that help prepare the soil of our spiritual lives. Sometimes we look at God, we look at spirituality, and our attitude is pretty close to me with my speech teacher: why does God try to run my life? Why all these things to do that take up my time? Why all this legalistic practice that takes the life and fun out of it?
But when we can shift our perspective…when we can look around at others, the ones whose lives seem to show a better way of living, a way we would like to model our own after…when we can choose to look around at others and how they practice their faith, maybe that prompts us to try it with more energy, discipline, and joy!
Today’s example is Daniel, and the message is not incredibly complicated.
One of the ways we feed the spiritual soil of our lives is to have intentional, daily times of prayer in God’s presence. Daniel’s character and accomplishments, as a Jewish man in exile in a foreign country, over and over prove him to be someone worth imitating. My hope is to encourage us to see his example like I saw my upperclassmen baseball players, rather than seeing God’s call to regular times in prayer like I saw my speech teacher.
For those who might not be familiar, the wikipedia version of Daniel’s life goes like this: Babylon conquers Judah, and takes prisoners away into exile to live in Babylon. Daniel is a child, but he’s part of the royal family, so he’s taken away as one of the exiles. He and his young friends are placed in a training program for leadership in the new kingdom, but Daniel sticks to his Jewish kosher diet under pressure, and he and his Jewish friends end up top of the class.
He earns more and more responsibility because of his integrity and leadership; he interprets dreams and prophesies for the king. Kings and empires conquer each other and change, but all through Daniel’s long life, his integrity and gifts raise him to positions of leadership.
We’ll look today at the famous lion’s den story. Turn with me to Daniel chapter 6.
It pleased Darius to appoint 120 satraps to rule throughout the kingdom, with three administrators over them, one of whom was Daniel. The satraps were made accountable to them so that the king might not suffer loss. Now Daniel so distinguished himself among the administrators and the satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom. At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent. Finally these men said, ‘We will never find any basis for charges against this man Daniel unless it has something to do with the law of his God.’ (Daniel 6:1-5, TNIV)
Two things to notice here.
Daniel’s got skills. Lots of them. Leadership, administration…he’s on at least his third king by this point, and he keeps being the cream that rises to the top of all the other rulers.
Because of this, everyone else is out to get him. And they can’t dig up any dirt on him at all. “He was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.” The only opening they can see is through his faith, through his obedience to the law of his God.
So these administrators and satraps went as a group to the king and said:’May King Darius live forever! The royal administrators, prefects, satraps, advisers and governors have all agreed that the king should issue an edict and enforce the decree that anyone who prays to any god or human being during the next thirty days, except to you, Your Majesty, shall be thrown into the lions’ den. Now, Your Majesty, issue the decree and put it in writing so that it cannot be altered–in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed. ‘ So King Darius put the decree in writing. (Daniel 6:6-9, TNIV)
Darius appears to be a good hearted, arrogant bumpkin. He can’t see the very transparent attempt at backstabbing by these rulers, because he’s so moved by the idea of everybody treating him like he’s a god; like a big deal for a month. Decree issued!
Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. (Daniel 6:10, TNIV)
Score more points for Daniel here.
Apparently he has a personal practice that not even the rest of the Jews made a habit at this point in history. He regularly spent time in prayer, multiple times each day. While we see some of the Psalms talking about praying in the morning and evening, it appears that didn’t translate to a regular practice for most Jews, not until the Pharisees came along much later.
I think what we see here is the heart, the engine, the practice that has helped Daniel be so gifted and so faithful for decades. He knows he needs God’s guidance. He knows he needs time with God to live as a trustworthy person of integrity. So he does it! Day after day. And the decree doesn’t change a thing.
I’m guessing that Daniel knew exactly who prompted this decree and what its true purpose was. He probably knew perfectly well that the leaders underneath him were trying to get him out of the way and take his position of power. But keeping the position was not worth compromising what got him there in the first place. So he opens the window, and prays. He’s bold, faithful, courageous.
Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. Then these men went as a group and found Daniel praying and asking God for help. So they went to the king and spoke to him about his royal decree:’Did you not publish a decree that during the next thirty days anyone who prays to any god or human being except to you, Your Majesty, would be thrown into the lions’ den? ‘
The king answered,’ The decree stands–in accordance with the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be repealed. ‘
Then they said to the king,’ Daniel, who is one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, Your Majesty, or to the decree you put in writing. He still prays three times a day. ‘ When the king heard this, he was greatly distressed; he was determined to rescue Daniel and made every effort until sundown to save him.
Then the men went as a group to King Darius and said to him,’ Remember, Your Majesty, that according to the law of the Medes and Persians no decree or edict that the king issues can be changed. (Daniel 6:11-15, TNIV)
I love how they make really sure that everybody understands that a decree cannot be changed! Did you pick up on that once or three times?
The king is clearly surprised. He didn’t see this coming, and he’s distressed because it’s also just as clear he likes Daniel a lot. But foiled again! Those decrees just can’t be changed, I hear!
So the king gave the order, and they brought Daniel and threw him into the lions ‘den. The king said to Daniel,’ May your God, whom you serve continually, rescue you! ‘
A stone was brought and placed over the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet ring and with the rings of his nobles, so that Daniel’s situation might not be changed. Then the king returned to his palace and spent the night without eating and without any entertainment being brought to him. And he could not sleep. (Daniel 6:16-18)
Darius is finally getting smart. He really wants God to rescue Daniel, and he’s gonna make sure everything is legit if it does happen. He seals it with the nobles’ rings and his own: they will know he hasn’t intervened if Daniel lives, he will know they can’t kill Daniel if the lions leave him alone.
The rest of the story is classic Disney happy ending. God closes the mouths of the lions, Daniel is saved, the king wipes out the bad guys, and he issues a NEW decree, this time telling everyone to honor and worship Daniel’s God, not Darius himself.
Reading this as an adult, rather than having it as a kids’ story like when I was growing up, draws me to different things.
I’m not as much moved by the miraculous part about the lions as I am by a man with such integrity that king after king, empire after empire grows to respect and honor him. I want to be the kind of person in whom no corruption can be found. So taking my cue from baseball long ago, what can I learn from Daniel, what can I learn from others about how to act so that God can make me this kind of person of integrity?
As I said, it’s a pretty simple message. Regular times of prayer, regular times in God’s presence seem to be a key to Daniel’s success. He just did it, no matter what the cost, because he saw that it helped him know God’s mind and heart (shown by how he interpreted dreams), because he saw how it helped him live boldly and with integrity, whether he was a vulnerable child in exile, or a powerful ruler in the kingdom.
Past generations of Christians regularly talked about a practice of daily prayer. In the last couple of decades, I think we’ve not been as consistent with that message, because we don’t want it to dissolve into legalistic ritual. I think that fear comes because we haven’t carefully looked at our motivation for why do the practice of regular, intentional prayer.
Like last week with Mary Magdalene who just kept going wherever Jesus was, regular and intentional prayer is a practical way to just keep showing up in God’s presence. And, like the speech coach versus baseball friends analogy, how I’m approaching the healthy spiritual practices is key.
I don’t practice regular and intentional prayer out of duty, with a sense of resentment to how God is bossing me around; I practice regular and intentional prayer because people like Daniel, along with countless others I’ve seen in my life, show me that this is one excellent way to allow myself to be transformed and strengthened by God.
I’d like us to work together on a way to close the service today.
Would some of you be willing to share what you’ve learned, what you practice in the way of regular, intentional prayer? Sometimes it helps us to hear others’ examples of practical ways to do this intentionally. For instance, I heard someone say they use the “trigger” of waiting in a line somewhere as a time to pray, rather than as a time to get frustrated.
Would some of you share things you practice so we could learn? Or perhaps you have things that have helped you have the right attitude about the discipline of prayer that makes it life giving, instead of a legalistic ritual.
What can you share with us as we close?