The two-gallon tin can lay in a crumpled heap on the counter at the front of the classroom. Mr. Johnson had just demonstrated the amazing reality of atmospheric pressure.
Sealing the can except for one small tube attached to an air pump, he explained that when he flipped the switch, air would gradually be sucked out of the can. At some point, the pressure of the air outside the can would become greater than the air pressure inside the can, and something would happen.
We watched. Nothing happened. Then, as if by magic, the can collapsed in on itself. I have forgotten most of what I learned in Mr. Johnson's chemistry class, but I will never forget what happens when pressure gets out of balance. Things cave in.
We live under pressure all the time. Right now, over the area of your body, you are surrounded by about 1,000 kilograms of air. That's like having a small car press down on you. The key is you also have air inside of you that counterbalances the air pressing in on you. If that air got sucked out of you, like in Mr. Johnson's experiment, well, it wouldn't be a pretty picture.
The Book of Daniel in the Bible tells the story of people living under pressure. The nation of Babylon led by King Nebuchadnezzar has become the military and cultural steamroller of the ancient world. No kingdom can stand in its path.
Nebuchadnezzar systematically strips each conquered land of its best and brightest and sends them to Babylon to serve and help expand his empire. After he conquers Jerusalem in 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar orders that young men from Israel's nobility are to serve in his palace, provided they have no physical defects, are handsome and really smart. The pressure is on.
Four young men of Israel make the cut, and more pressure is applied. They must be reshaped into good Babylonians. So Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah are given new Babylonian names: Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. They are required to eat Babylonian cuisine which requires disobeying the food laws given by God through Moses. They are pressured to push God to the side.
Name changes and a new menu may not seem like a big deal. Apparently all the smart, handsome, outwardly perfect young men from the other conquered nations were going along with the program. But Daniel and his three friends understood that strategic pressure was being applied to rely on Nebuchadnezzar as their source of life instead of God.
The pressure to conform usually works that way. It's the little things that shift the pressure balance. We make small compromises with the current culture in order to make life work: pad an expense account, fudge an IRS form, lie about an email to a high school flame, cheat on one test. Everyone else does it. What can it hurt?
Little by little, the pressure to conform to the way the world works exceeds our internal reliance on God. Then, one day, as if by magic, the pressure is too much and our world caves in.
Some people think the solution is to live a pressure free life. Build a big 401(k) or win the lottery, and then take it easy. Lounge in a Jacuzzi, eat a lot of ice cream and go on as many cruises as possible.
Several years ago, some researchers at U.C. Berkeley did an experiment, creating a completely stress-free environment for an amoeba in a Petri dish. It was the equivalent of life on a cruise for the amoeba. Just one problem. The amoeba died.
Apparently, amoebas (and humans) require a certain amount of pressure and stress to live and thrive. The solution is not to remove all pressure. It's to make sure that the force pressing outward is strong enough to counter the pressure squeezing in from all sides.
Daniel and his friends understood that as long as they kept God at the center of their lives they would be safe and secure, no matter how much pressure was brought to bear.
When faced with a horrific death in a blazing furnace or being ripped apart by ravenous lions, they exhibited amazing peace and confidence in God's ability give them strength to handle the pressure.
Pressure is part of life. It surrounds us like air. God even uses it to press us into the awareness that we need his help. All we need to do is ask. Or you can go it alone and hope for the best. Just remember Mr. Johnson's tin can.
Rod Suess is senior pastor at Vinewood Community Church in Lodi.