We humans are always trying to measure and weigh and count things. It's not a bad idea sometimes. When my daughters were little, they decided to bake a cake without any help from me. They did not want to be tied down to a recipe book with its exacting ingredients and measurements. Their cake might have been edible if they had measured the ingredients carefully...and remembered to put in a couple essential items. It was supposed to be a birthday cake for their mother, but when it proved impossible to chew, they re-designated it as a memorial cake for a cat we'd lost a couple years earlier and left it along the fence row, atop of the poor critter's grave. Measurements sometimes matter.
The Bible starts us right out with some measurements and statistics: six days for God to make everything, zero clothes for Adam and Eve that time they had an important meeting with God, a lifespan of 969 years for Methuselah, and an ark 300 cubits long for Noah. There is even a book of the Bible entitled, "Numbers." I guess it's the Christian thing to do to count and measure everything.
Methodists especially seem good at counting everything. I had our interns count the rooms in our church building (49) and then had them count the closets (52 if you count the one closet that's inside another closet.) I asked them to count all the items in the church building, (as part of my campaign to convince the board of trustees that they didn't have to micro-manage every physical item the church owned,) but I felt sorry for them and left them off the hook after they got to 20,000.
Of course, we are trying to count how many people show up on Sunday morning, particularly now that we have made changes in our routine schedule. Now that we have gone to three services a Sunday instead of two, we find that the count is slightly up from a year ago. But is it really? Now that I am leading three services, I get counted 3 times instead of 2. And at least 2 people each Sunday have attended both the early service and the middle one. We've counted them twice. And we count the children in the nursery and the nursery workers. But we stopped counting ushers if they stay out in the hallway and don't come into the worship service. Ah, so confusing!!! If my sermon makes you nauseated and you have to leave half way through the worship service, are you counted as a full person or do we only have 103 and ½ that day?
When I was in high school, the East Jordan E.U.B. Church promoted Sunday School attendance by allowing you to join the Loyal Sunday School Army if you got enough points. You got five points for each Sunday you showed up on time and three points if you showed up late. You had to average 4 points a Sunday for 5 years to get inducted into that army. The Old Testament book of Numbers lives on.
I'm watching the Ken Burns PBS series on Viet Nam. The narrator points out that Viet Nam was so different from other wars that we have fought that military and political leaders in Washington had no metric to tell whether we were winning or losing. And so they came up with the notion that if we killed more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers than they killed from our side...we would consider that a winning week. But it was hard to tell who was a Viet Cong soldier and who wasn't. As the war went on, and public pressure increased on political leaders to prove that American efforts were successful there, the military began to count civilian deaths, even women and children, as enemy soldiers. It turns out that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.
Measurements and counts can help. But they can also deceive. So, for all the obsession we have about numbers, especially politicians and religious leaders, it is good to know that truth cannot really be quantified. Numbers can hint at important things, but they cannot tell the whole story. For that, we need stories, and imagination, and insatiable curiosity, and more learning...and more living...and more grace to accept what comes our way. --Mike