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?