I gave this devotion last week in San Diego at the "Here We Still Stand" conference to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
Five hundred miles north of us, near the San Francisco bay, sits a man named Curtis Roberts. I doubt he’s ever read a word of Luther or visited the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He doesn’t know anything about “Here We Still Stand.” It’s likely that 1517 is just as insignificant to him as 1603 or 1825. He’s not in a beautiful, ocean-side hotel with soft beds and good coffee. Curtis is in a group that far outnumbers those of us gathered here, for he is one of over 4000 inmates at San Quentin State Prison.
Yet it is for Curtis that we are here.
He was raised in a dysfunctional home, full of violence and sexual abuse. Once he tried to reconnect with his father, who told him that he had a new family and had no use for Curtis. His efforts to reconnect with his mother were equally dismal. So Curtis took to the streets. And the streets took to him. And he found there what countless others find there: gods that go by the name of heroine and cocaine and meth, who promise much and deliver nothing but a baptism of regret in the dry fonts of dark alleys. These gods don’t come free so Curtis paid his tithes through petty theft. He was caught, incarcerated, released. Then he did it again. He was caught, incarcerated, released. Then one day he did it again, grabbing two 20$ bills from a liquor store cash register to go offer them on the narcotic altar. And yet again he was caught. But this was his third strike. He was sentenced to 50 years or life. So now Curtis’s life is sitting in a cell, 500 miles north of where we sit. And he counts.
He counts the years of his life. He counts the years he’s been serving his sentence. He counts the years since he was raped. Most of all, though, he counts the years of how long it’s been since he’s seen his daughter. When he was incarcerated, his wife promised that she’d bring their daughter to see him at least once a year. He’s yet to see her face. For about a year, he had correspondence with her, then it abruptly stopped. That was ten years ago. And still he counts. He counts his mistakes, his stupid decisions, his diaries he wrote for his daughter. And he counts, yet again, the years it will be till his release, when he will be “only” 82 years old.
ONWARD CHRISTIAN COUNTERS, MARCHING AS TO DEFEAT
It is for Curtis that we are here. For the man who counts. It is for all the 2.2 million men and women who are behind bars in the U.S., all of whom are counting. It is for the millions of others who are on the streets, in prisons of their own, behind the walls of addiction and abuse and sexual exploitation and meaningless violence. And, we are here for people in even more sinister situations—in the American suburbs, in the land flowing with silk and money, where they (where we) have drugged ourselves into a state of such deep spiritual oblivion that a cracked iPhone screen is the freaking end of the world. We are here for them all, and that all includes us.
We’re counting, using our fingers and toes and the scars on our hearts to keep track.
All of us who count, for whom numbers have taken on the status of demigods in our minds. It doesn’t matter if we are like Curtis, counting our days in San Quentin; like Sally, counting how many days since she last fell of the wagon; like Thomas, counting how many failed relationships he’s had; like Abraham, counting how many righteous folks God needs to find in Sodom to spare it; or like Peter, counting how many times he is obligated to forgive his brother who’s been a raging jerk to him. We’re counting, using our fingers and toes and the scars on our hearts to keep track. One, two, three, four, forty, four thousand, onward Christian counters, marching as to defeat.
Numbers are seductive little sirens whose songs are beautiful and whose kisses are fatal. They woo us in by promising us a firmer grip on the steering wheel of our lives. Thanks to numbers, we can calculate the extent of our financial security as we tally up stocks, bonds, 401ks, and loose change between the couch cushions, so that we might fear, love, and trust in what we’ve tucked away for a rainy day. Thanks to numbers, we can count calorie intake, measure steps on our Fitbits, and step onto the scale to add up how much closer we are to—or far we are from—conforming to some stupid image of a plastic model on a vain magazine. Thanks to numbers, we can count how many worshipers are in the pews and how much money is in the offering plate, so hopefully we can stand up and pray, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other churches….”
We’re by nature counters. So long as we can add, subtract, multiply and divide something, anything, we have some measure of control and comparison.
A few years ago, when I was driving a truck in the oil and gas fields of the Texas panhandle, I worked the night shift with a guy named Chuck. We’d haul in a load of waste water from a gas well, back our tanker up to a pit, and let the water empty into it. Then we’d step into a ramshackle little building that smelled like twenty years of cigarette smoke and a thousand cups of bad, half-burned coffee. We’d grab a chair, kick back, and wait, whiling away the minutes. Chuck happened to be going through a really nasty divorce at the time. And since he had a captive audience of me and the other truck drivers, stuck in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go, he’d let loose with numbers.
The number of guys he suspected his soon-to-be-ex was running around with; the number of dollars she’d spent on clothes (“she was too fat to wear”—he’d always add); the number of dinners she hadn’t made him, the number of fights they’d had over the kids; the number of credit cards she’d maxed out; the number of beers she drank when he was at work (he had counted the bottles in the trash every morning). Chuck was a man of numbers, a counting, tallying up kind of guy. As we sat there in that stinky old ramshackle outbuilding, the night black around us, smoke clouding the air, and Chuck adding up all the way his wife had failed him, I can still remember thinking, “If it weren’t for these numbers, Chuck, you’d have nothing to live for.”
Here we stand on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to remember the gift of not counting.
I realized that about Chuck because I heard in his outpouring of words my own silent outpouring of anger, self-pity, and hopelessness that resulted from the string of stupid, selfish decisions that sent me from the seminary classroom to a job in the oil field. If Chuck could count, so could I. And so could you, right? Let me count up my mistakes. Let me count up the knives sticking out of my back. Let me count up the prayers God hasn’t answered. Let me count up how many more friends I have than him her. Let me count up how many pills I take to keep this smile on my face. Let me count up something, anything, so I can use that number to locate where I stand in life, where I stand in relation to others, where I stand in relation to God.
THE GIFT OF NOT COUNTING
Here we stand on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation to remember the gift of not counting. We’re actually not here to celebrate five hundred. We’re here to celebrate zero. We’re here to gather around the God of subtraction. The God who turns his pencil over and uses the eraser on our lives. Because he can’t work with something, anything. He has to work with nothing, with ex nihilo, with zero, because anything more than that is just too much. So he erases us down. He puts crosses on our backs, scars on our hearts, and wounds all over our egos in order to shrink us down more and more, less and less, taking us closer and closer to the big fat zero. To nothing. Until all our number are gone. Until we’ve run out of numbers to add up and show that we may have fallen short of the glory of God, but we haven’t fallen as far as that guy. Until we’ve run out of numbers to measure how much higher—or how much lower—in holiness we are than others. Until we can’t find a single number to add up how good we are or how bad we are; how stupid or how smart we are; how many times we’ve got drunk or how many times we’ve stayed sober. Until all our numbers have been ground into powder at the foot of one cross, so that all we have left is zero. Until all we are is nothing.
And in that numberless state, in the holy zero, God dives in to do his work on us. He does what he’s been doing not only for the last 500 years, but since the dawn of time: he creates out of nothing. A world from zilch. A promised baby from the womb of a 90-year-old. A rescuer from the pits of an Egyptian dungeon. A redeemer from the deserts of Sinai. A word-made-flesh inside the womb of a virgin. Not only something from nothing, but everything from nothing. God only knows how to work with zero. But when he works, all the numbers in the world can’t add up how astonishing it is.
For all the Curtises of the world, who sit in their own San Quentins; for all the Chucks of the world, who count up the ways their life has gone wrong; for all the Peters, who keep track of how many times they’ve forgiven their brother; for all of us, for whom numbers are an unmighty, crumbling fortress—God shows us a better way. Death to numbers by death in him. Death to ecclesiastical pissing contests over who can out-orthodox everyone else. Death to ourselves and life in the one who, ever since the cross, can’t seem to add up our transgressions since Jesus subtracted them all away.
THE BOY WHO LOVED NUMBERS
Let me close by telling you a story about a boy who loved numbers. This boy counted everything. Socks in his drawer, peas on his plate, cars on the highway. He loved numbers. He loved to count. One day he asked his father, ''Daddy, can God count?''
His father said, ''Yes, son, God can count.''
The son asked, ''What does he count?''
The father replied, ''He counts the hairs on our heads.''
''Every hair?'' the son asked.
''Yes, every hair,'' the father answered.
The son asked, ''What else does God count?''
The father said, ''When we get sad, or hurt, and we cry, God counts our tears.''
''Every tear?'' the son asked.
''Yes, every tear,'' the father answered.
The son thought a minute. Then he asked, ''Is there anything God doesn't count?''
The father said, ''Yes, there is one thing God does not count.''
The son asked, ''What does he not count?''
The father took his son's hand and led him down the hall. He pointed to the family's crucifix that hung on the wall. The father said to his son, ''On the day Jesus died, God stopped counting our sins. He added them all up and gave them to Jesus. He will never count them again.''
''Every sin?'' the son asked.
''Yes," the father answered, "every single one."