Snowflakes in the Machine

When I drive back and forth from my college class, I often listen to an “independent” radio station.  Because their playlist is not determined by money from record companies (or however that works), they can pretty much play whatever they want.  That means that when I listen to them, I get to hear a number of completely weird refreshingly unique songs.  Sometimes when a song is different, it’s uniqueness draws my attention to the lyrics.  Such was the case with this song I heard the other day, by a band called Fleet Foxes.  The song is called “Helplessness Blues,” and the opening lyrics say this:

“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.”

Those lyrics really got me thinking about the nature of our existence.  I was particularly struck by the starkness of the dichotomy introduced by these beginning lines.  A snowflake is beautiful, complex…and useless.  A cog is simple, unoriginal…but useful.

Which would I rather be?  Special, or useful?

After short reflection, I sided with the lyricist:  I would rather be useful.  In many ways, mine is not a romantic personality.  Snowflakes are pretty, yes, but machines get things done.  And I want things to get done.  In fact, what romantic component I do have in my makeup is absolutely enchanted by images of being part of some glorious cause, something bigger than myself.  If I have to be a cog to do that, then I will be the best cog I can be.

It occurred to me, however, that the Bible rejects the dichotomy between “special” and “useful.”  Scripture tells us that we were created to be both.  That’s because the Kingdom of God is not pictured in Scripture as a machine (or a snowstorm); it’s pictured as a body.

Now, throughout my life, my understanding of Paul’s metaphor of the body of Christ has evolved, and each stage of my understanding has been helpful and true in its own way.  That’s what I love about figurative language; its truth breaks free of the confines of materialistic exclusivity to encompass many different interpretations.  In my first interpretation, I viewed the body of Christ as the local church.  That understanding was formed by the nature of Paul’s examples about the hand and the eye and the foot.  After all, if you are talking about body parts as big as hands and feet, then how many body parts can there be in the whole body?  That level of dissection breaks the body into big parts, like limbs and bones and internal organs.  I figured that it broke the body down to about the number of parts that would make up a congregation.  And since it pictured members as hands, feet, and eyes, it stood to reason that as a member of said body, I would be something as big as a hand, foot, or eye.

Later, my understanding of the church as body grew to include all of the congregations in my particular fellowship.  After all, didn’t we work together to provide disaster relief and fund missionaries?  Maybe then, one congregation was the hand, and another the foot, and so forth.

But as I grew, my thinking expanded.  I began to get involved with interdenominational organizations such as Compassion International, or Samaritan’s Purse, or more recently, Amazima.  The organizations and I worked together toward the same goal:  to spread the love of Christ to the world.  It made sense, then, that the body of Christ encompassed more than the congregations in my particular fellowship; it also included all of those individuals and congregations who served served Christ as Lord with all of their hearts.

But wait:  what about the Christians who lived before us, or the ones that will come after us?  Are they parts of different bodies, or are we all one?  I decided that they had to count as parts of the body, too.

By the terms of Paul’s metaphor, my new “super-huge body image” makes sense.  Paul only talks about one body of Christ.  If the body is the local congregation, then Christ has, like, a bazillion bodies.  And if different groups throughout history make up different bodies, then that means the body of Christ keeps dying on us.  Neither of those possibilities really fit my perception of what Paul is saying.  Instead, I now picture the body of Christ as being made up of all the Christians that have ever lived.

Which means…the body of Christ is a giant.  (Or, to think of it in terms of the song’s lyrics, I am part of one big. honkin’. machine.)

So…thus far, I have demonstrated that I tend to overthink metaphors.  (What can I say, people?  I love language.)  Believe it or not, though, my growing perception of the body of Christ has had some practical effects on my thinking.  For one thing, it’s made me more content in the smallness of my life.  My friends, I am not a hand.  I am not a foot.  In the body of Christ, I am more like a part of a cell.  (Maybe the hands and feet are like, all Presbyterians and all Methodists, or something like that.  But I digress.)  It also gives me more peace about my lack of understanding of just what the Sam hill Christ is doing with His body.  When I thought of myself as a hand, I felt more conflicted about my ignorance.  I mean, after all, you would think that a hand would have at least some level of perspective about what the body is doing as a whole.  Instead, my reaction to the church’s actions (including the internal conversations we have)  generally trends more toward wide-eyed confusion than any type of definitive insight.  But if I’m just a little bitty cell part, then my confusion is okay.  It’s even to be expected.

Also, even though I’m just a teeny tiny part of the body of Christ, that doesn’t mean I’m not special.  In a recent guest post for Housewife Theologian, Tim Fall (faithful commenter to this and many other blogs) described God’s intricate understanding of our bodies:

“But God sees deeper than that. He sees the cells that make up my body, and the components of those cells, and the molecules that make up those components, and the atoms that make up those molecules, and the protons and neutrons and electrons and whatever other subatomic particles are in me. Not only does he see them, but he sees them more clearly than we can imagine. There is nowhere that is out of focus to him, nothing hidden away from his sight. He is the creator of the universe and the creator of every single thing in it. (Isaiah 42:5.) Every single thing.”

Science isn’t my strong suit, so I couldn’t tell you how small a body part I could reasonably expect to be, given the number of Christians who have ever lived.  But even if I am a subatomic particle, God sees me and knows me perfectly.  He knows my purpose in the body, even if I am too small to see it.  He made me that part for a reason, and my microscopic actions, as tiny as they are, ultimately serve the whole of Christ’s body, the body that has been growing through history.  

I like that.  I like that I don’t have to choose between being a snowflake or a cog; I like that, as part of Christ’s body, I am both special and useful.  Plus, when I think about it, the smaller the role I play, the more glorious is the larger cause.  Because seriously, how great and effective can the body of Christ be if I am a whole hand?  I don’t do that much in the grand scheme of life.  However, if all of my efforts in this life amount to the work of a subatomic particle, then WOW.  Christ’s body does a lot.  And thus, my romantic hopes of being part of something much bigger than myself are realized even more fully.

I’ll leave you with this:  today, in all your actions and thoughts, I hope that you are the best proton or neutron…or mitochondria…or nucleus…or blood cell…or elbow (hey, I could be wrong) that you can be!  I hope that you don’t lose sight, even for a second, that you are part of a gigantic, glorious body that is marching purposefully toward the goal of reconciling all humanity with God.  I pray that you don’t lose faith, even for a moment, that the Head of your big, beautiful body knows what He is doing, even if you don’t have the slightest clue.  And I pray that your faith keeps you going even if your bodily function is difficult, or unrewarding, or seemingly hampered by external circumstances.

Keep the faith, my fellow electrons!*

*or whatever you are.

Given the choice, would you rather be a snowflake or a cog?

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Phillip on January 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    I think you are right to see the answer as both. Think of Israel. They are both special and unique to God (Exodus 19:5 -a treasured possession), and they are useful as a part of God’s greater purposes (Exodus 19:6, a kingdom of priest; Deut 8-9, a witness to other nations).

    Snowflakes do have a role in the greater operation of the (machinery of) creation, the water cycle. And for those who appreciate the intricasies of all the parts of a machine working together in harmony, e.g., a transmission or a clock, cogs have a beauty about them.

    Reply

    • Nicely put, Dr. Camp. One of my favorite mental exercises is the breakdown of a false dichotomy. It seems like life is almost always more complex than the categories we use to describe it. While I find that complexity maddening and confusing at times, I am really coming more and more to embrace it.

      (Also, I loved the example of the Israelites. Thanks for giving me some OT backup:)).

      Reply

  2. Kim, I hope in this comment I can convey what a tremendous blessing this post is for me today in so many ways. (Your kind reference to my article is just the start; I love what you did with it too, taking it to the realm of our roles in the Body of Christ.)

    I was captivated when you said “A snowflake is beautiful, complex…and useless. A cog is simple, unoriginal…but useful”, but soon found myself feeling slightly uneasy as I contemplated what that meant. You then brought ease to my thoughts as you started talking about the Body of Christ. It hit me that the real problem with thinking about myself as a snowflake or a cog is that neither are how our heavenly Father sees me. He sees me as his child and a part of our Savior’s Body. And I found myself resting more comfortably the deeper I read into your insights.

    You have also blessed me with this post on the Body because I am actually right in the middle of putting together a lesson on the Church. (How can I be in the middle of putting together a lesson on Ecclesiology and be visiting your blog at the same time? Have I mentioned that sometimes I think Distracted is my middle name?) Your thoughts here are a tremendous encouragement to me as I work on understanding the doctrine of the Church, almost as if I heard someone calling out, “Keep going Tim, you’ll get there!”

    I am grateful,
    Tim

    Reply

    • I’m glad you liked it, Tim. Your post helped move my thoughts along to their conclusion, so of course, I had to link to it!

      Like Becky, I’m interested in hearing your lesson!

      Reply

  3. AMEN, Kim. I was actually just thinking of this (how all-encompassing the body of Christ is) this morning. I totally agree that being a part of something this huge and important is very exciting, even if I am so small myself. My main thought, though, came from reading John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I think possibly the worst thing we can do as the body of Christ is to deny the body’s other parts. Those in the Church of Christ need to LOVE the Baptists and the Methodists and the Lutherans, etc. because together we ARE the body of Christ. We all need each other for maximum effectiveness. Also, if the world will recognize us by our love for each other, what message does it send when we don’t even recognize those outside of our own little group as brothers? But, someone might ask, how can we accept those as brothers who don’t have “correct” doctrine? First of all–sorry, this has been bubbling up inside of me for a while and I need to get it out, though I’m sure I’m speaking to the choir here anyway–the thought that all of our own ideas are perfectly correct comes from pure arrogance. We are all human and, therefore, incapable of having perfect ideas. Second, nowhere in the Bible do I see anyone being saved because of correct opinions of doctrine. Christ died to save the entire world, and “whosoever believeth in [him] shall not perish but have eternal life.” We might quibble over what “believing” entails, but I don’t see Jesus making a big case that we have to follow detailed procedures to take part in him. In fact, based on how he spoke to the Pharisees, I think he would make his case for the other side. Those who are spoken of as not being known by God at the end are not those who failed to fulfill all of the traditional church check list items but those who failed to feed the poor and to act in love to those in need. I don’t see how using or not using instruments (for example) plays into this at all. (Certainly we run into a stronger/weaker brother situation if we are dealing with people who already have firm beliefs about this, but to me it seems completely counter to Jesus’ ways to deny brotherhood to somebody or some congregation because of something like this.) And, who are we to judge someone else’s servant anyway? Anyway–okay, rant over–my thought was that different congregations/denominations could be the different body parts. Our group doesn’t have everything exactly right, and neither do the other groups. But, if we are willing to have loving interaction with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, maybe we can function at a better level. Too often I get the vibe that there is some sort of competition between different groups of believers. But, we need to be working together for the glory of God. When God destroyed the tower of Babel, he said something to the effect of “if I let these people keep on working together, nothing will be impossible for them.” Of course we know now that it is through GOD that all things are possible, but imagine all of the believers working together WHILE being directed by God’s will and fueled by His power. That’s pretty amazing. It’s definitely something worth being a cog for. But, to get to that point, we have to get rid of our pride and stop putting so much focus on being personally “right.” The focus needs to be on God and on others. We need to try to see them as God sees us, and love them (at least as much) as we love ourselves. This includes believers in all denominations (there is still a line there that we might not all agree on, but it goes WAY beyond the Churches of Christ only), and if we can actually make our love apparent, that will exponentially amplify our ability to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. I believe it is possible for the Church (in the broadest sense) to have the same level of evangelical power that it did in the 1st Century, continually adding more to our “number” (Acts chapter 2 style). However, you’ll notice that the excitement of that time eventually got swallowed up by different groups getting all worked up about different ideas and trying to exclude each other. If we all have in common that we claim Christ as our one and only Savior, there is no need for any of that. Paul was certainly frustrated by that nonsense. Certainly we should “gently rebuke” each other when our humanness starts to show; that is just the body’s immune system working. But the motivation there should be love. I think of how Priscilla and Aquila helped Apollos to have a better understanding of the truth. In that case, though, it wasn’t that P&A were absolutely correct in everything themselves and Apollos was completely wrong. It was just that a sister and a brother who had a different piece of the truth puzzle needed to share it with another brother. This just shows how much we do need each other. The fact is that we AREN’T just snowflakes. Yes, each person is different and special, but we are not simply created for our own glory as an individual snowflake might be. We ARE more like cogs in a machine–or, better yet, cells in a body–that only function when put together with all of the others. (Sorry again to stand on my soapbox, but this is a really hot subject for me right now. I have all kinds of thoughts growing and rolling around (mixed metaphor?) 🙂 in my head right now on the Body of Christ, the Church, the Kingdom of God, Bearing Fruit… basically what the Church really is and is supposed to be doing. Because of this, Tim, I would be very interested to read your lesson on the Church once you get it finished.)

    Reply

    • ” I think possibly the worst thing we can do as the body of Christ is to deny the body’s other parts.”

      Becky, I definitely think we are on the same thought track. I get so discouraged when I see the body of Christ fighting itself. I love your picture of “gentle rebuke” being akin to our immune system functioning. Genius!:) Too often, though, when we fight ourselves so bitterly, the word “cancer” comes to mind. Cancer is so insidious because it turns the very makeup of a person (certain cells) against the rest. When people die of cancer, they are essentially destroyed by their own body. I’m reminded of Paul’s words, when he warns:

      “The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Gal. 5:14-15)

      I’m interested to see how your thoughts play out!

      Reply

    • bek, your comments on the relative importance of understanding doctrine reminded me of an A.W. Tozer quote: “The best and safest way to deal with these truths [(he was speaking of doctrines like God’s soveeignty)] is to raise our eyes to God and in deepest reverence say, Oh Lord Thou knowest. Those things belong to the deep and mysterious Profound of God’s omniscience. Prying into them may make theologians, but it will never make saints.”

      I don’t think he was saying that we should not try to undertand theology, of course, but that merely becoming theological is not the same as belonging to Jesus and being a part of his Body. So you and Tozer have much in common it seems!

      Tim

      Reply

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