Silent Bells and Other Tragedies

I mentioned in a recent post my ongoing delight with A. J. Jacobs' book THE KNOW IT ALL, which documents the author's quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica from A-Z. An entry from way back in the "Bs" has kind of been haunting me:

The world's largest bell was built in 1733 in Moscow, and weighed in at more than four hundred thousand pounds. It never rang--it was broken by fire before it could be struck. What a sad little story. All that work, all that plannning, all those expectations--then nothing.

Theology in Aisle 7

My newest CT column has just been posted on Christianity Today's site.

Theology in Aisle 7
Trying to organize a God who transcends.

I love office supply stores. Reams of fresh paper (Aisle 16) and boxes of unsharpened pencils (Aisle 5) still give me back-to-school butterflies, the sense that the future is yet to be written and anything is possible. But I'm most drawn to the bins, sorters, and all manner of organizational aids in Aisle 7. They glisten with shiny plastic promise, reminding me I am just one astute purchase away from transforming the paper-riddled chaos of my life into structured bliss.

Recently I found just the thing, a two-foot black box with an open front divided into eight sections. I used my label maker (Aisle 3) to give each compartment its purpose, happily imagining soccer notices and utility bills lying obediently in their designated places. My husband came home and grinned at the box, envisioning it as next month's addition to the rejected-organizational-aid pile. "That," he told me gently, "is a junk collector."

But it will be organized junk.

I labeled one of the compartments "seminary"; this time the back-to-school butterflies were not merely nostalgic. I've begun chipping away at a master's degree, and on the same day I bought my new organizer I decided on a concentration in Spiritual Theology. I've been longing for more structure, not only in my office but also in my faith.

I've been searching for frameworks, outlines, contexts; ways to more thoroughly understand what I believe. The studies I've chosen emphasize systematic theology. The very word systematic gives me that Aisle 7 rush. I can hardly wait to be organized!

But there are people—wise, godly people—who grin at me like my husband did at my organizer. "Do you think," asked my friend Barbara, who happens to be a theology professor, "that part of you is looking for control?" I stared at her blankly. No, part of me isn't looking for control. All of me is looking for control. I hate chaos and uncertainty. I am deeply bothered by doctrinal divisions within even the small confines of my own church tradition.  And honestly, I really don't like it when God behaves unpredictably, when he seems to be as much about mystery as he is about revelation, and when he refuses to fit into the slots I have labeled for him.

Faith would be much tidier if God could be contained within mutually agreed upon doctrinal positions. Scripture would be much more manageable if it were pure exposition, if there weren't all those sprawling narratives, wistful poems, and cryptic apocalyptic visions. Why didn't God give us his Word in sermon points that spell out catchy acronyms? Why is it all so messy?

Even our most precise expositor, the apostle Paul, holds revelation and mystery in tension. In his letter to the Ephesians, he proclaims, "God has now revealed to us his mysterious plan regarding Christ, a plan to fulfill his own good pleasure" (1:9, NLT). But for all the time Paul spends explaining things, he still has the nerve to celebrate everything he can't understand about God. "Oh, how great are God's riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! For who can know the Lord's thoughts? … All glory to him forever!" (Rom. 11:33-34, 36).

This, I'm beginning to understand, is my challenge: to immerse myself in all that has been revealed about God while celebrating all that is mystery. We have a God who both transcends our messy lives and incarnates himself in them. That reality is hard to organize, but it's the best news there is.

There's a story, often credited to E. Stanley Jones, about a missionary who gets lost in the jungle. He comes upon a village in the middle of the trees, and asks a resident to lead him out. The local agrees, and for an hour he walks ahead of the missionary, clearing a way through the foliage with a machete.

Eventually the missionary asks, "Are you sure we are going the right way? Isn't there a path somewhere?" The villager smiles. "Friend, I am the path."

"I am the way, the truth, and the life," Jesus tells us (John 14:6); "I AM," declares Yahweh (Ex. 3:14). My ideas about God are not the path. My church tradition, helpful as it is in pointing to him, is not the path. I plan to spend the rest of my life learning the best terminology we have for our understanding of what God has done and is doing, but the terms are not the path. Only God is. Only he can lead me through the jungle that is my life and into the boundless adventure of life with him.

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Oh, Mann

I'm reading A. J. Jacob's THE KNOW IT ALL, which is the author's very funny and remarkably informative account of his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica. I've just reached page 194; Jacobs has arrived at "M", and discovered this quote from educational reformer Horace Mann's final speech to his students:

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.

Making Hay

There are several bloggers I enjoy (many of them right here on conversantlife) but there is only one who consistently makes me cry. John blogs over at The Dirty Shame, and he's a writer, the way some people are sangers ... he can really do something with words.

John recently announced that he will be doing less with words on his blog (not quitting, but reducing the number of entries per week) so that he can put more energy into writing a novel. To explain his motivation for, well, getting on with it, author-wise, John shared the following quote:

"An idea that fixed him to one spot was that life was a death dance and that he had quickly passed through the spring and summer of his life and was halfway through the fall. He had to do a better job on the fall because everyone on earth knew what the winter was like."

Why I Love My Husband, Part One

There were two incidents last weekend that reminded why I am especially fond of Mark Arends. Here is the first.

At approximately 11:13pm PST Saturday evening, we were drifting off to sleep (we’re real party animals, all tucked in on a Saturday before midnight) when we heard some strange noises. At first we thought maybe one of the kids was stirring, but we soon realized the sound was coming from outside.

Mark lept to the window (he has catlike reflexes) and began pulling up the blinds so he could survey our backyard. “I think it’s just people in the neighbor’s pool,” he reported. “Hmmm. Wait a minute.”

Mark slid our bedroom window open. (I say “slid” but I really mean “wrestled.” The window sticks in a most annoying way. I keep meaning to get some WD40 or something.) Before I could apprehend what was happening, Mark was pressing his face against the window screen and barking, in the testosterone-amped voice he uses only in special emergencies, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY POOL?”
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The Haberdasher: A Story about the Value of Art

Continuing some of the discussion on the commercial future of creative arts and entertainment ...

My musician buddy Spencer tells a great story about a renowned haberdasher (hat-maker). A woman walked ino the haberdasher's shop and asked if he would make her a hat. He agreed and told her to pick out a swath of ribbon. She selected some striking gold ribbon; in a matter of moments the haberdasher's experienced and gifted hands had transformed the material into a beautiful headcovering.

The woman was delighted--until she asked the haberdasher what his fee would be. When he named the price, the woman gasped. "You want HOW MUCH for a few meters of ribbon?"

Carefully, the hat-maker unravelled his handiwork, transforming the hat back into the raw material he had made it from. He smiled, folded the ribbon neatly, and handed it to the woman. "Madam, the ribbon is free."

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CDs and Books and Massive Anxiety Attacks, Oh My

There is a lot of talk these days about the perilious future of both recorded music and book publishing. As a recording artist and author, I furrow my brow in the general direction of both topics. I was intriguiged by this recent article by music journalist Chet Flippo. He refers to a "massive anxiety attack" that has plagued the music industry for some time and discusses specifically his concerns that commercial uncertainty is breeding an artistic insecurity that is robbing recording artists of their "mojo". (I think one can draw some parallels to what is happening to many authors in the world of book publishing as well.)

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Tags | Music

The Joy of Failure

My newest Christianity Today column has been posted here. It's entitled "Here's to All The Losers" and is an anecdotal look at an experience I had coming to the end of my own resources and discovering that God's strength and provision is better than my own. (Surprise!)

The responses to the article have been interesting. Because I drew a parellel between my own experience (developing laryngitis on a concert tour) and an aspect of the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32 (Jacob could not be blessed until his own strength was overcome) ... some readers have taken my point to be that obstacles/tragedies/difficulties are always from the hand of God. Not so much! For me, the point was that it's better to get to the end of ourselves and need God than to operate in an illusion of self-sufficiency and miss all He has for us -- how we get to the end of ourselves will be wildly different in each situation. I think life on a broken planet will most often get us there free of charge, and I certainly don't take every difficulty I face as a chess move on God's behalf. Quite the contrary. But, whether we're wrestling God, our own natures, life itself or even the devil, the faster we can come to the end of our own strength and into God's, the better (even though the sensation is usually more than a little unpleasant while it's happening.)

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I Am a Soul

I love lurking about on The other day I read Tamb's Faith and Reason blog on Physicalism vs. Substance Dualism ("Is Life After Death Even Possible?"). It seems to me that these days, any argument for the Christian faith must begin with establishing the possibility of some sort of transcendence -- the idea that there are realities we cannot see beneath a microscope, and that there is something about us that will outlive our earthsuits.

I was mulling over such things the other night, and lo and behold, a song arrived. Given that I've only written three songs in the past two years (and that my primary job is supposed to be that of "songwriter"), I was most grateful. So thanks, Tamb!
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Samaritan Spies

Saturday night I had the great privilege of performing in support of the Canadian arm of International Justice Mission. The organization was founded in 1997 in the U.S. by Gary Haugen, an attorney who had worked in the U.S. Department of Justice and as the United Nations’ Investigator in Charge in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. According to IJM, over 27 million human beings (many of them children) are currently illegally enslaved on our planet (either through bonded labor or the sex trade).

IJM Canada's director, Jamie McIntosh, can tell you a thousand heart-breaking stories about children being held against their will and sexually exploited, or about whole families being tricked into bonded labor over trumped up debts. (A man may borrow $20 or $50 to obtain desperately needed food or medicine, the loaner applies 1200% interest and ensures the debt can never be repaid. What the loaner really wants is the unending, back-breaking labor of the man, his wife, his children, and eventually his grandchildren.)

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