Tag Archives: Christian living

Learning to Count

2-plus-2

2 + 2 = ??

You know the answer to that math puzzle, don’t you? And yet you hesitate because you fear there is some bloggish mystery about the equation that will result in a case of the chagrins if you blurt a wrong answer. You’re still holding back, aren’t you? Even though you are alone, in front of your computer or tablet and there is NO ONE watching. You are afraid; you are very afraid. Hey! It’ll be OK…give it a whirl…

So, 2 + 2 = ??

2 + 2 = 4 (Tada!)

You knew the answer all along because you mastered basic math skills back when you were a wee lass or lad. Simple operations, like addition, came right after the primary math skill: counting.

Crawling, walking, talking, household pet aggravation, accurate aim in toileting (at least for boys), reading, writing, arithmetic…these are some of the skills people aspire to acquire as they grow up. These are also some of the skills that we hope our progeny develop as they grow up. And the last one, in particular, is a skill Christians need to master as we grow up.

We want kids to learn to count; God wants His kids to learn to count too. Why is that? Because Christianity is not all “get”; there is a great deal of “give.” Now, let me quickly add (Ha! Get it? Add?) that this is not a “give” to earn or buy but a “give” that is a response to the lavish love of God.

How do we know this is true? Why, the Bible. Jesus, in cautioning a burgeoning yet perhaps uninformed enthusiasm in Luke 14: 25-33, tries to make sure that His followers “get it”–that is, that they “get” that counting is a key element in Christ following.

In that Luke passage, Jesus cautions the crowds to beware that family connections might become casualties if those in the crowd choose Him. He cautions the crowds that their very lives might be forfeit if they choose to follow Him. Count, He says! For the sake of it all, count!

Jesus points to construction contractors who count to make sure they have the resources in place to finish their projects. In similar fashion, Jesus says, governmental leaders, intent on warfare, do their “battle damage estimates” before firing the first shot.

This counting is not, I believe, a call to hesitation–a discipleship “speed bump” if you will–it is rather a call to “eyes wide open” discipleship. Knowing that following Jesus has some associated risk makes for more determined disciples. This is not a “Wow, that’s going to cost way too much so I’m going to back off,” message. This is a “Wow, this is important enough to mean something,” message.

A hundred years ago Eleanor Porter wrote a book about how a cheerful girl changed the outlook of an entire town with her indefatigable optimism. In 1960, Walt Disney (ever the marketer of good feelings) made the novel into a film starring a teenaged Haley Mills. The book and movie: Pollyanna. By sheer force of cheer, Pollyanna rescues a town, a church, and her family from a distasteful tendency toward the dour. The film paved the way for a label that came to mean a disingenuous cheerfulness: Pollyannaism.

That label, unfortunately, describes many in the believing community. It is talked about as a matter of faith: “just believe” and, to be sure, there is the highly commended, scriptural faith essential. And…if we have to lean…we should undoubtedly lean in the faith direction.

But there is also this call to count…and I think it’s a call often ignored in the Christian community. Again, not the counting to avoid, but the counting to proceed with determination down the path Jesus has marked for us.

Friends may indeed abandon; family may wince and walk away; treasure may be given over; reputations may be tattered; lives may be surrendered. All of them happily ceded as a result of this very basic math skill: counting.

I believe Jesus wants His followers to have eyes wide open. If our eyes are not wide open, they cannot see the cost of the following. But neither can they see the joy of the following. This is a joy in the same “joy family” as Jesus’ “joy set before Him” in Hebrews 12:2. This joy came as a result of enduring the excruciating challenge of the cross and finding joy on the other side of a hard obedience. Our joy can come in a similar way; it can come on the other side of “eyes wide open” discipleship as we count the cost of following Him.

This joy is not mere relief that the endurance test has passed; it is the incomprehensible delight at the things that God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Corinthians 2:9). Eyes wide open indeed.

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


Of Decreasing & Increasing

I wonder if it was hard for John the Baptist (JTB) to watch Jesus’ star rise while his own began to fade.  The Bible accounts seem to indicate that John exhibited unusual graciousness as the crowds began to sway in their allegiance.  “He must become greater; I must become less,” John (the Apostle) records (Chapter 3, verse 30).

Certainly JTB had moments of questioning whether his cousin was the One.  But as time passes, and John finds himself in Herod’s jail, with few prospects of escaping alive, John seems to rest in the transition between him and Jesus.  And, even before his dungeon sojourn, utters perhaps the most succinct statement of discipleship ever.  The old King James put it this way:  “He must increase, but I must decrease.”  Eugene Peterson’s, The Message, “This is His assigned moment to move into the center, while I slip off to the sidelines.”

Translation variations aside, the point seems clear:  there is this moment of recognition when we should grasp that, for the Kingdom to be best served, the world must see more of Jesus and less of us.

I recognize some irony in making this assertion through a blog…a communication medium that seems oriented around “more of me.”  But, hang in there.  Because I am frankly befuddled by this challenge.  It is very hard for me to turn people’s attention toward Jesus without, somehow, drawing some of that attention to myself.  And…I suspect I am not alone in this. 

Doubt it?  Take a closer look at the contemporary (particularly Evangelical) church scene with its conferences featuring the Christian celebrities (another oxymoron candidate?) of the day.  And its concerts…have you noticed the Christian bands named after their leaders or their T-Shirts on sale after the concert?  The shirts usually don’t say, “Jesus, the way and the truth and the life!”  They usually say, somehow, “Look at MY BAND!”

It is, needless to say, very hard to get the focus off of self and on to Jesus.  He must become more; I must become less.  Then there is the tendency many of us have to take this to the other, self-deprecating extreme.  When complimented after a song or a message or a writing or a conference:  “Aw, shucks, Ma’am; just give all the glory to Jesus!”  [I can confess to having given a sincere compliment about someone’s ministry effort, receiving the aforementioned response and thinking, “It wasn’t the Hallelujah Chorus; it was just well done.”]  Sigh.  I know that I very often struggle to walk the line between the glorification of Jesus (He must become more) and the proper placement of self (I must become less).

It’s a conundrum.  Phillip Brooks, a preaching master of the last Century, said that preaching was “communicating truth through personality.”  If that is the case, isn’t much (maybe all) of the Christian experience “singing or serving or leading or picking up the kids for the children’s program through personality?”  And if that is so, how can we do this thing?  He must become greater; I must become less.  And what does that actually mean in the day-to-day of the Christian life?  What does pointing people to Jesus through (my) personality mean?  Where is that line?  And how do we walk it in this Christian life? 

Buy my book and I’ll let you know…just kidding…I don’t have a book.

But I think it might be somewhere in here:  If people need to see more of Jesus and less of me, then I have to see more of Jesus and less of me.  I have to overcome my preoccupation (and really, fascination) with myself.  I can be preoccupied in a self-glorying direction (I am, after all, exceedingly wonderful).  I can also be preoccupied in a self-degrading direction (I am, after all, perfectly terrible).  Maybe it’s in the adjustment with my preoccupations that there is hope.

If I can turn my attention, ever so deliberately, away from me and toward Jesus, then perhaps I will direct others’ attention there as well.  What would my prayers look like if I was less focused on me?  What would my conversations sound like if I was less focused on me?  What would my writing sound like if it was less focused on me?  How better would my songs refer people to the Savior if I was less focused on me?

I know; we hunger for prescription.  “Practical Bible teaching with relevance for your daily life!”  If I provided a prescription, it would undoubtedly sound simplistic, even though perhaps it’s just simple:  More, more about Jesus; less, less about me.   “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Lao-Tzu) “unless you trip over the dog and fall when you get up” (Howard).

Multitudinous tomes offer advice on spiritual disciplines–ways to develop habits of mind and heart to enable Christians to focus more on Jesus and less on self.  Many of those volumes are helpful; some are trite (tripe?).  But what if it’s very much simpler than that?

Perhaps just this:  train myself to ask this one very basic question before every ministry, nay, life endeavor:  Where is Jesus in this?  If He’s there (as in, the focus of the effort…I am not denying divine omnipresence), then I should look at and lean into Him.  If He’s not there, I should move along until I find Him.  Then, when people follow my gaze, they will see me looking at Jesus.  And they will be too.

 


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