In Case Some Clarification Would Help

I would like to bring you in on an underscored necessity of my life as a follower of Christ. About six years ago I wrote a sermon entitled Achieve New Balance and have been blessed to present it for several different churches. I won’t repeat the whole sermon here, but the primary thrust of it comes in the form of a visual illustration. It is so much more difficult to describe a sermon than it is to preach one, but I’ll try, because the truth of it continues to show itself crucial. And I’ve come to realize that there may be some who misunderstand what balance is.

Imagine or perform this task: Take an umbrella and hold it horizontally. Place a finger or the edge of your hand under the middle of it, and try to balance it. It’s difficult. Imagine that at one end are the interests of Christ, and at the other end are the interests of the world or self, and this is what you’re tring to balance. Good luck! The two ends moving in opposite directions with your finger as the pivot are hard to control. Even if you do get the two sides to behave and stay horizontal, a slight movement will upset the arrangement and it starts to topple again.

The problem is that we forget a mighty-but-quiet truth that John (the Baptizer) taught anyone who happened to be listening. John 3:30 — “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Go back to that umbrella that you were trying to balance. Pick it up and hold it horizontally again. Imagine again that the issues and interests of Christ are at the handle end and the issues of self interest are at the opposite tip end. Now, physically apply John’s declaration to it. Raise (increase) the handle end up, while lowering (decreasing) the tip end. The umbrella remains increasingly unstable UNTIL the instrument is completely vertical. Place your finger under the tip end, and you can hold the umbrella in balance like that all day long! A pictoral of a Christian’s life in balance would look like this umbrella — the character of Christ taking full precedence above the values of this world and interests of self.

Now, take your eyes away from Christ at the top and watch the bottom end of the umbrella where your own stuff is. What happens? The umbrella keeps moving but you can’t see the movement until the fall is too far to stop. Only when the eyes remain on the top can the finger holding the bottom react to the movement and keep the device in balance. But the bottom must move with the top, staying underneath, submitted, or the thing comes crashing down.

The way we are built, we cannot look two places at one time (and similarly the heart cannot love/serve two masters). While the umbrella is horizontal, we can only occupy ourselves with the interests of Christ or with the interests of the world; it can’t be both. And even if balance could be achieved in this position, the visual message it gives is that Christ and self/world are on the same level of importance — not a pleasing statement to a God who wants no competitors! When the umbrella goes vertical, our attention to Christ at the top takes care of the entire outfit. Balance is achieved when we watch the promises of Christ rather than the insecurities of self.

That’s what balance is. It’s about the top and Who occupies it. It’s not about right or left. It’s not remotely related to political correctness. I like the fact that my particular denomination has been referred to as occupying the “extreme center.” (Not that it’s always true, but it sure sounds good.) Nothing is more extreme than balance, and balance can only be known if Christ is at the center of one’s vision, trust, aspiration, passion, ethics, action.

This is balance, not some tippy equalibrium that is obliterated by movement…but an upright, eye-locking dance that thrives in movement. It is kinetic and cathartic, holy and devastating, astringently disallowing the greasy grip of religion any hold that would choke away the Spirit’s breath. He must increase, but I must decrease. Anything else is not balance for a Christian. And anything not balanced is a faith too off-center and scary for me.

No, it’s not a perfect illustration, but that’s good, because then it might be an idol. And too many of those already hound gentle souls who are just trying to follow.

Thank you for reading. Allow me to clarify further if I’ve raised additional questions.

Published in: on July 21, 2008 at 12:11 am  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent illustration!

    I have read many Christian based articles on “balance” over the past few years. The point that most seem to ignore, or simply not get entirely, is that a Christian balance in one’s life is not about control, it is about letting go to Christ. Your message demostrates this perfectly.

    Response from Steve
    Hi, Jeff. Thank you. I’m glad it communicated.

  2. I am curious about the “extreme center” idea. I had not heard that particular phrase before.

    Response from Steve:
    I’ll try to say more about that. (If someone remembers who coined that phrase before I remember it, please let me know so I can give proper credit.) Some implications of the phrase, as I understand it:

    The polarizing terms of “left” or “right” cause a person or church to define themselves based on what they are not. (Remember that line from South Pacific, “I know who we’re against; but who are we FOR?!” ) It seems to often be a reactionary self-claiming defense against “those others”. And when those terms are used to describe people different from self, they tend to be accusatory.

    The UMC is made up of people from the broad reaches of theological spectrum. Truly, there are persons of deep conservative richness and other persons of joyful liberal progressiveness. Many members carry within them a changing palette of theological colors as they develop and grow spiritually in one direction or the other.

    No matter where on the wheel one stands, Christ at the center is where the attention should be (must be). If your moment in life finds you on the outer reaches of liberalism, fine; but study Christ, not just where your feet are standing. If you inhabit a strong conservative spoke, good; but focus on Christ, not just where your theology feels most comfortable.

    Jesus said the Spirit would go wherever it wills. That would seem to include any position between all-the-way left and all-the-way right. That sounds pretty extreme, to me.

    I think the coining of the phrase “extreme center” is likely to have been partly in response to allegations that the UMC is a middle-of-the-road, compromising group of people who like things not too uncomfortable. The end point is that we do not inhabit our spot in the middle by accident or by entropy, but by serious claim that we exist for exactly Christ, intently focused on the hub of all existence, our Creator, our Savior, our Sanctifying Wind whooshing by, turning us again from the extremities of awayness toward the extreme of the absolute, centralizing, corporately freeing heart of Christ.

    Obviously, we don’t claim to have the only holding in the center. It may be that others have not yet recognized how extreme it is, though. Some may know it and actualize it much better than we.

    There are plenty of Christians who will (and do) see this kind of openness of Methodism as a weakness, a wrongness. May their journey also be real, filled with devotion that pleases the Christ. In another day, we’ll worship together without need of suspicion, all of that and all of this having been peeled away with the rest of our earthly film.

    (There’s more, Jeff, I’m sure, but I need to go, now. Prompt more, if you dare. Thanks for writing.)

  3. Great illustration–funny that we’re both thinking about balance these days. Good thing though; God help us should we stop thinking about it and find the tip of the umbrella suddenly topside!

    Response from Steve:
    He does, Lore, every time, more likely to be smiling during it than we are.

  4. What a funny word, balance is!
    You’ve struck a balance in a way you probably didn’t intend, by posting this wonderfully lengthy explanation to expand on your very brief May 17,2007 post on the same subject. I’ve been waiting for the ‘other half’ – and didn’t know it until I saw this! Your comment then (Balance is not…strict adherence to symmetry) has bothered me because of my professional (and concrete) approach to balance – more like in an accounting sense than anything else. I’m more used to seeing the horizontal (strict) dimension of balance instead of the vertical (kinetic) dimension. I confess, for myself, balance is a process and not a destination I have reached. Energy spent on increasing the self-centered worldy horizontal balance is at the cost of decreasing the Christ-centered vertical.
    Much more in my head on this – how frustrating to allow a mortal language to limit the expression of the Christ in me!

    Response from Steve:
    Cool connection, Michael, and such a great understanding of balance! “…balance is a process and not a destination I have reached” — excellent! I feel the same way.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  5. I mentioned earlier that balance in one’s life with respect to faith requires one to let go to Christ.

    One point that your explanation of extreme center really illustrated is that “letting go” requires action, not only at that moment but continually. Following Christ is an active, not a passive pursuit. The act of “letting go” is the beginning of the journey, not the end.

    Response from Steve:
    Yes! Great synopsis. I like that.

  6. Absolutely COOL!

    Response from Steve:
    I’m glad! Thank you.

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