Transitions: Provisioning…

Life is full of transitions: we have commented on the phenomenon over the past few months. We go to school. We graduate. We may marry and have children. Perhaps we will feel the call of God upon our lives. We may discover that he leads us off to Addis Ababa, or some ger in Ulaanbaatar. Maybe then he leads us on again. (Maybe eventually he leads us to retire!) If you are like me, you may sometimes wonder what you have gotten yourself into. But this is the normal cycle of things.

The great transitions of life are like this. We get a glimpse of the horizon before us, and set out. But there are bangs and bumps along the way. When the broad horizon becomes practical detail, we discover that things are not as smooth as we had hoped. Will we have what it takes?

Of course, not.

So how do Christian people “provision” for the great transitions of life? How do we find what it takes? Jesus offers a pair of illustrations in Luke 14.

If you set out to build a tower, Jesus advises, you do well to “count the cost.” See if you have what it takes to complete the project. “If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish” (v.29, The Message).

Or if you set out sometime to battle, you do well to count your troops. See if you have what it takes to win. “Can you imagine a king going into battle… without first deciding whether it is possible?” (v.31).

Yet Jesus’ advice, we might say, is somewhat “tongue in cheek.” (He talked about a lot of important things in this way.) The illustrations are not about counting our pennies or numbering our troops, exactly – as if by numbering things we will be made adequate for them. Money will not build the tower that Jesus proposes. Troops will not win the battle that he commands. Our very best efforts – “whether plans or people” (v.34) – are not yet sufficient for the tasks that Jesus gives. This is a tower that will cost us everything. The battle will consume us completely.

Jesus uses an interesting word for “counting” the cost – translated elsewhere “calculate” (CEB), “estimate” (CJB), “reckon” (DRA), or “compute” (NET). 1 The word is psephizesthai – derived from psephos, meaning “pebble.” 2 Pebbles were used for tallying things in the ancient world, in a business-like sort of way. It is the word from which we derive the English metaphor “bean counter.” (Beans were sometimes used for counting, too.)

Counting beans comes naturally to modern western people: it is part of our cultural makeup. We count years, days, and minutes. We count pennies, kilometers, returns on investment, temperatures, calories, page views, and more. We count things because we can, I suppose, and because we think that counting matters. (This is part of our culture, too.) If we have counted beans enough, we feel confident. If we find that our beans are few, we cower or demur.

This is true in the world of missions, too. Emmanuel Katongole of the University of Notre Dame comments insightfully: “…the ‘technology’ of mission dominates mission conversations and conferences: thus the preoccupation with maps, numbers, models, trends, frontiers, indicators of success, etc. – all reflecting a modernist worldview of the West.” 3 We measure what we can: we measure what’s available. Yet we mustn’t presume direct lines between what’s available and what’s important.

Imagine such an approach on the shores of the Red Sea, in the great transition from Egypt to the Promised Land. What if Moses had called bean counters to calculate the task that lay before them? “Let’s see,” they might have surmised. “The Red Sea has a surface area of 438,000 km2, approximately, and an approximate volume of 233,000 km3. If our buckets have a capacity of 10 liters, and we are approximately 3 million souls, and each of us could empty, let’s say, 10 buckets per minute – why, we could empty this entire sea in under 1,500 years, easily (working day and night.)” 4

But the bean counters would have had it wrong. The transition out of Egypt could not happen by bucketfuls – no matter how many you may gather. Transitions like these must wait for God’s wind to blow.

Jesus poses the illustrations in Luke 14 – not so much to set us “counting pebbles” – but to underscore the simple, preposterous impossibility of the task before us. He invites us to discipleship – and then to join him in making disciples of every nation, everywhere. It is a task that must cost us everything. But if we count our pebbles before departure, we will surely stay at home.

Where the wind of God blows, the people of God march. And should they meet impossible odds – a sea too far, a tower too tall, an army too large – they will learn simply to trust. They will simply obey. And when they do, they will discover their God sufficient.

This is the way that great transitions work. Not so much by counting beans. They work by the provision of God.

1 From the Common English Bible (CEB), Complete Jewish Bible (CJB), Douay-Rheims American Edition (DRA), and New English Translation (NET), respectively.
2 See
3 “Mission and the Ephesian Moment of World Christianity: Pilgrimages of Pain and Hope and the Economics of Eating Together,” Mission Studies 29/2:183-200 (2012), p.186.
4 See I have estimated 2.33e+17 liters total, 2.33e+16 buckets required, 7.76e+9 buckets required per individual, yielding 1477.68 years to accomplish at 10 buckets per minute per individual. But I freely overestimate their capacity.

Other posts in this Transitions series:
Transitions: RememberingTransitions: Remembering Our Story…Transitions: Horizoning…Transitions: Horizoning our Story…Transitions: Provisioning…Transitions: Resting…Transitions: Now What?

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