Life-changing math

by Carol Seiler, Mayor – 

In this time of “changes,” it seems appropriate to remind ourselves that while some changes add stress to life, The Salvation Army is in the business of celebrating changes that are radical, complex and eternal. Holistic ministry and spiritual renewal are intentions of the use of material and human resources. Put another way, we don’t make decisions so that we can frantically hold onto the status quo, we want to see salvation and redemption!

Many years ago, I was introduced to some life-changing math that gave me hope and tools to combat seemingly insurmountable social issues. I think it’s worth sharing again, especially in the face of current issue outrages. As a realist who knows very bad things happen, I am an idealist that believes Christians are fundamental to God’s intent to change the context and the result of the evil of the world. The Army is a vital instrument in accomplishing God’s intention of redeeming his creation.

There are two key reasons for this idealism. One is because of two words in Ephesians 2:4 “but God…” which has a way of capturing all the arguments and excuses for people not wanting spiritual wholeness and a new life, and putting them aside in a recognition of who’s really in charge. That’s something to develop another day.

The second reason for idealism is the one for this column—math—life-changing fractions that involve changing the possibility of failure or success by changing numerators and denominators. George Albee, a community psychologist, presented a model in the 1980s that put social issues into the math equation.

If the overwhelming nature of social evils and generational and organic handicaps are parts of the numerator (top part of the fraction), and the supports, skills, purpose and self-esteem are part of the denominator (bottom part of the fraction), we can see by math that if the numerator is greater than the denominator, the result is a big number. Twelve over two equals six. One hundred twenty over two equals 60, and so on.

But if we change the fraction, and the denominator is strengthened, the number gets smaller. So 12 over four equals three, and 12 over 24 equals one half. The difference between 3 and 1/2 is huge. If the number is three, the numerator (negative things) wins. If the number is 1/2, the denominator (assets and strengths) wins. The risk of failure and being unredeemable is changed. Lives are changed. Communities are changed.

The obvious lesson for our corps and programs is that deliberately investing energy in building the denominator will decrease the probability of evil winning. Put another way, investing in individuals by increasing their skills, their social and spiritual supports, their sense of purpose and esteem by God will increase the probability that lives will be reconciled.

Although there is some resistance to putting numbers to spiritual work, and the math analogy is not absolute for the mysteries of the spirit in God’s hands, it can change the way we spend our time and energy. It can change the way we look at what seems to be an impossible situation. We are given tools that fit with a picture of the body of Christ walking together and supporting each other in life.

The other life-changing impact is that rather than a “throw in the towel” mentality about the decay and disasters of our society, as Christians we can continue to offer hope in concrete ways. We can see through the eyes of God the redemptive value of lives that others throw away. Other times I have written on “program strategies” that build on assets, that view the strengths not just the needs. This has been a social service theme for many years and it’s one worth reinforcing.

Why bring it up again? A concern that exposure to the horrors of much that happens in this world causes some Christians to retreat from the overwhelming moral decay. Don’t do that! If we get to that point we may need to spend some time in our own healing. Other elements of life-changing math could be as simple as “where two or more are gathered,” there is God. Find ways to build into the denominator and change the life equation. Did this social psychologist know these could be powerful tools for the Christian community? I doubt it, but I claim the impact.

And take a moment to read Ephesians 2, if you need hope again. “And you he made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience….But God, who is rich in mercy…even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… for by grace you have been saved.”

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