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External Measures Never Replace Internal Commitment

Greetings from Indonesia! The past few days my youngest son, Luke, and I have been traveling with a group through parts of Jogjakarta and Salatiga, Indonesia. We’ve been amazed, as we’ve met people who are serving others and having an incredible impact in this richly diverse nation with over 17,500 islands. Over 252 million people in 786 people groups call Indonesia “home,” making this island country the fourth most populated nation in the world. Indonesia is also the world’s largest Muslim nation with 208 million people—86% of the population—claiming Islam as their religion.

I not only found this out through some presentations we attended, but also from personal experience at 4:21am the past three mornings. I’ve had a difficult time sleeping due to jet lag (Indonesia is thirteen hours ahead of Indianapolis time), and as I laid awake, the Muslim “Call to Prayer” would begin—loudly. Once one mosque began the prayer call, other mosques all throughout our area of the city chimed in. If you’ve never heard the cacophony of Imams chanting through their loud speakers, it’s an unfamiliar sound of eerie repetition to many of us Westerners. An Imam will chant “Alahu ahkbar—Allah is great,” and once the chanting begins, others join in with a dissonant chorus droning on for several minutes.

Although this chanting is fairly uniform in mosques around the world, each nation, province, and locale will have its own slight deviations. When I learned of some of these divergences in the area of our visits, I thought of how common our human nature is regardless of how uncommon our religious beliefs might be.

For example, in our particular area, Imams, Muslim clerics, tend to get into a bit of competition over who has the best vocal chords, and they try to prove the superiority of their mosque based on the power and dominance of their calls to prayer. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve come across Christian preachers who tend to have a rather high opinion of their voices, too.

I also asked one of our guides why I would hear the Call to Prayer at 4:21 am each morning, but then I would hear it repeated about twenty minutes later. Our guide said, “Snooze button.” Literally. The Imams in this area give the first round of chants as a wake-up call, giving people an extra twenty minutes of sleep, before the real Call to Prayer comes. Maybe we should try that for Christians in America. We’ll call you twenty minutes before you need to get up on Sunday mornings, and then we’ll call you right at the time you actually need to rise in order to make it to church on time.

With as much public attention given to prayer over here, I wondered how many people actually pray. Who gets up at 4:21 in the morning to pray every single day? If we set a loud speaker at the top of our church campus, and I shouted into a microphone, “Jesus Christ is great! So, now it’s time to get up and pray everyone!” would more people around our church building pray? Actually, I think we’d be fined for breaking some noise ordinance in our community, and we would tick off a lot of neighbors. Our guide told us that just because there is so much attention given to prayer in Islamic culture, most Muslims ignore the Call to Prayer, roll over, and go back to sleep.

Sound familiar? We can shout through loud speakers. We can do what I’ve seen here and have prayer rooms set up at shopping malls, airports, and even gas stations next to the bathrooms. But external measures never replace internal commitment. I can be the alarm clock for my kids to wake up and get ready for school every day, or I can teach them how to set an alarm clock. My job is not to make them get out of bed but to teach them to be responsible. If I keep making them do it, they’ll let me, and they’ll never learn to make themselves do it. And so it is with prayer. I can try to make people pray by waking them up each morning and building prayer rooms next to bathrooms at gas stations. But ultimately people will only pray if they make themselves pray. They have to want it, be devoted to it, and see that through it they are connecting to their heavenly Father who loves them. The internal commitment is what makes the external practice come alive.

My prayer for you is not that I can make you pray but that you will want to pray whether I shout at you through a wake-up call or not.