The Down-side of Playing It by the Numbers

November 11, 2013

I have had my diagnosis of lung cancer for just one week now, though I was strongly suspicious for a week or two prior to that: enough time to start getting my head and heart around the possibilities. In those weeks, my cough and an antibiotic were making it hard for me to sleep, so there were so many hours and such a big world-wide-web to awaken my curiosity. Bad idea. I saw just one number (the average 5-year survival rate for lung cancer) and made a decision right then and there:

I’m not going to do this by the numbers. I am not going to get bogged down in this statistic or that probability. Call it denial if you want, but I choose to keep my eyesight clearly focused on the One who actually knows what is going to happen and who is going to take very good care of me along the way. I choose to take one day at a time and make the very best decisions I can toward my health and healing, without compromise or fear of any odds that might be out there. Why use my precious energy going in that direction, when I am promised (and have experienced already) the energizing love of God by keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing?

So many Scriptures come to mind, one sent this morning by a long-time friend:

My child, pay attention to what I say;
listen closely to my words.
Do not let them out of your sight,
Keep them within your heart,
for they are life to those who find them
and health to a person’s entire body.
                                    (Proverbs 4:20-22)

It is nourishing not only to the soul but also to the body to be steeped in God’s Word, the means by which we know God’s power to redeem and heal, Jesus’ love with which we are carried, and the ability of the Holy Spirit to do what is humanly impossible. Jesus only got exasperated with his disciples when they could not grasp how imminent and available was God’s help. (And so many examples during Israel’s exodus, too.)

One of the lessons from Mark 6:35-44 illustrates my point here (not about exasperation but about God’s power):

Jesus and the twelve have rowed across the Lake to a quiet place for a meal and some rest, only to find the crowds had gotten there first. He sees how thirsty they are for the Kingdom of God, so he preaches once again almost all day. By five o’clock everybody is tired and hungry, and the disciples, going by the numbers, are distressed that too many needy people out there in the boonies might cause a riot. Jesus says, “No, no, let’s see what we have available right here in our midst.” The disciples find a little boy with a lunch big enough for himself—five loaves and two little fish—but a very low number indeed to feed a crowd. The disciples say, “No way, Jesus, this isn’t going to be enough.” But the Lord says [I imagine], “This is plenty! Go and organize the folks into eating groups, and I will get the food ready.” And then Jesus thanks his heavenly Father for what he has been given and asks the disciples to feed the people with it. The distribution begins, and there is  an abundance of food for everybody—thousands of people—with leftovers, too!

There’s only one number in that story that is important:  One. The One and Only, Jesus the Lord, is able to do the very thing that is needed. There are no “odds” to consider, except the certainty that God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Too many churches I have been a part of or have observed in the last twenty-five years have played it by the numbers. The most common number is the pledge amount that is revealed after Stewardship Sunday and the annual pledge drive for “tithes and offerings.” That number produces all kinds of doubts about what can be accomplished in the next year. A pledge-based budget closes off people’s ministry vision and reduces the question to “What does this amount of money allow us to do?” instead of “What has God called us to do in ministry to our community?”

The declining membership statistics of the PC(USA) represent another set of numbers wreaking havoc in the spiritual life of our denomination. At the last Assembly, it was reported that if the trend continues, the PC(USA) would see its demise in 2041, I think. Okay, this is not a good number. Fear of this eventuality is having a bad effect on denominational loyalists. Particularly in those presbyteries dismissing congregations to other Reformed bodies, numbers are being crunched to “guide” the process. In my earlier post, “Tell Me This Isn’t About the Money,” I gave one example of a situation in which it seems to me the terms of dismissal are computed to guarantee the survivability of the presbytery, not the flourishing of ministry. The scenario is developing toward a cash-rich but member-poor Church that can survive in perpetuity using the funds extracted from dismissing churches.

It is not money—playing it by the numbers—that is going to guarantee future denominational wellbeing, it is going to be faith in Jesus Christ, obedience to his Word, trust in the power of God, and submission to the Kingdom of God that will. When can we get the conversation back on track and stop working this solely by the numbers? Faith in the One who gives life and health according to God’s Word will bear fruit we can’t even imagine.

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.   (Romans 8:31-34)


8 Responses to “The Down-side of Playing It by the Numbers”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    Dear Mary,

    First, thank you for this underpinning that being realistic and proactive is part of your organizational skills and faithfulness to God; also for revealing that denial is not in your DNA.

    May I add a couple of passages:

    “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” [Proverbs 3:5-6 NRSV]

    “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” [Romans 5:1-5]

    “Boasting IN [emphasis mine] our sufferings” certainly draws us to keep the focus on God as individuals and as congregations of Christ’s Church. And your analysis of church today is right on.

    And I think we’d all do well to take up NT Wright’s “The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential” [2013, 200 pp]. “[He] points out that the Psalms have served as the central prayer and hymnbook for the church since its beginning–until now…[He] calls us to return to the Psalms as a steady, vital component of healthy Christian living.”

    Rev Mary, your faithfulness to God and concern for Christ’s Church shine through your posts and exhort us to “Listen up and act accordingly.”

    Praying on in Hope for you and for the Church,

  2. houstonhodges Says:

    Great note, Mary. Breaking through the crust, forging ahead.

  3. Pam Powell Says:

    Great Word,Mary. Evidence of a great heart.

  4. Leslie Day-Ebert Says:

    Wonderful message, Mary! Speaking of the numbers, my dad was 80 when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. They declined to do surgery due to his age so he was on the radiation/chemo two-step. My mother said at the time that only 25% of people survive what he had. My response was, “Somebody has to make up that 25%!” Love your attitude. The One is the only number we need to consider.

  5. L. Lee Says:

    Thank you for your testimony that “We walk by Faith and not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7
    What has your focus…has you. God’s Spirit Is working in you
    and His healing power is present. Praying daily that His loving arms will be around you as you testify to His faithfulness.
    God can bring you through the wilderness and storm.

    It is the message the PCUSA needs to hear and we all need to hear and believe.

  6. Jodie Says:

    I had a health crisis I looked up on the Internet once. Never again.

  7. Derek Simmons Says:

    “I choose to keep my eyesight clearly focused on the One who actually knows what is going to happen and who is going to take very good care of me along the way. I choose to take one day at a time and make the very best decisions I can toward my health and healing, without compromise or fear of any odds that might be out there.”

    Mary: you have made the perfect choice and by sharing it, likely helped others to make that choice.
    May God continue to bless you and others through you.
    Derek Simmons

  8. I always enjoy your columns. Recently I discovered I had breast cancer, had surgery and 7 wks. of radiation. All through it I felt the peace of God and had very little side effects. I pray that you will have His peace now and in the future.
    Margaret Bierschwale

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