By LeRoy Lawson
The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011
Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World
Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012
The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters
Sean B. Carroll
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016
I had the good fortune to attend the 2016 North American Christian Convention in Anaheim, California. I can’t remember an NACC that was more upbeat, more focused on the theme (“A Better Story”), or better planned and executed. The report is that more than half of the attendees and registrants were from California. It had a California “feel.”
It also presented some of the finest speakers I’ve heard—anywhere. I don’t have room to tell you about all of them. As a follow-up to the conference, though, I read books by three of them, and I understood even more why these Christian leaders were invited.
Christine Caine, Australian, former abuse victim, present minister to other abuse victims, almost defies categorizing. She’s simply a dynamo on stage. Employing every rhetorical flourish and dramatic exaggeration (including preaching briefly while lying flat on her back, a stunt I’ve never seen before), she held us spellbound. But she’s not just about theatrics.
Her most recent book, Unashamed, builds on her personal experience of living with and overcoming the debilitating power of shame—ashamed because she was different (a little Greek girl in a macho Anglo society, a tomboy whose parents wanted her to be a nice feminine girl who would marry a nice responsible man, a sexually abused female afraid of being found out—and shamed). She overcame all odds to become herself. She is now a happily married mother of two daughters, a minister rescuing and empowering nearly defeated women all over the world.
In Unashamed she tells not only her own story but that of several other overcomers. She doesn’t just narrate. She preaches.
I think her book would have been stronger with less preaching. But then, that less preaching would be better is an opinion I’ve often heard of my own preaching!
Giving Ourselves Away
Naomi Zacharias commanded our attention also, but not in the same way. In her interview she charmed us with her wit, intelligence, grace, and obvious commitment to her ministry, one similar to Christine’s, but distinctive. She made me want to know her better.
So I read her The Scent of Water and was rewarded. Daughter of Ravi Zacharias, famed evangelist, she has not relied on his connections. But, with a little encouragement from him at the beginning, she has created a dynamic ministry to provide financial assistance to efforts helping at-risk women and children wherever in the world they are found: in brothels, hospitals, foster homes, refugee camps, prisons, and in post-tsunami Indonesia chaos.
Her story is also one of self-discovery, giving testimony to Jesus’ teaching that it is by giving ourselves away that we find our true identity. (An excerpt from this book begins on p. 34.)
Laughing and Loving
I would like to tell you more about Ms. Zacharias, but I have to save room for Bob Goff, one of the conference’s most refreshing speakers. The man loves to laugh and be the source of laughter in others. He entitled his book Love Does, and he makes his point. Love is about doing, not about saying or studying or debating. Since it’s about doing, loving action trumps denominational loyalty, doctrinal correctness, cautious conformity, or hanging out with the right crowd.
The book is about love, all right, but a key word, oft repeated, is whimsy. This lighthearted, risk-taking, convention-
defying stance toward life is the inevitable expression of one’s love of life—and this man loves life. And his wife, sweet Miriam. And his three children. And adventure. And Jesus, who is both companion and compass in Goff’s romp through life.
On these pages are tales of almost incredible derring-do: how he pestered the law school dean until the man gave in and admitted him—without real credentials; how he walked away from a near-fatal automobile accident to console the very old lady whose car hit his; how he and five other guys sailed from California to Hawaii with Goff—who knew nothing of navigation—as the navigator; about the Goff family’s rubber band battles—with rubber bands that leave real welts; about how he became the Ugandan consul in America. And much more.
In every chapter he applies the lessons of his goofy stunts to the very serious business of experiencing a vital, vitalizing faith in Jesus.
Keeping the Balance
And now to something totally different.
There was a moment when the detailed discussions in Sean Carroll’s The Serengeti Rules almost caused me to quit reading and turn to something lighter.
I had picked up the book to read about wildlife in Africa and elsewhere like, for example, in human society. But Carroll’s quest was to discover how life works at every level. That quest took him to numbers—what keeps numbers (of giraffes, of molecules) in balance, so there’s enough food to go around, enough predators to keep the bottom dwellers from taking over, and the right kinds of bodily cells to keep the wrong ones (E. coli, for example) from multiplying.
“Diseases,” he writes, “are mostly abnormalities of regulation, where too little or too much of something is made.” Specifically, “there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place.” He approves of the suggestion by Charles Elton, the acknowledged father of ecology, that “in general, increases in numbers were held in check by predators, pathogens, parasites, and food supply. Extinction was avoided, he explained, because as a prey became scarce, predators would switch to other quarry, allowing the numbers to recover.”
So survival is a numbers game, whether we’re talking about Africa’s huge mammals or little fish in the ocean or the right numbers of cells in the bloodstream.
Numbers, though, didn’t compel me to keep reading. What did, is prose of a master storyteller who enlivens his data with human-interest stories. He even quotes Pope Francis and Dr. Seuss. He introduces scientists like Walter Cannon and Janet Rowley, who were obsessed with discovering how to improve human life and, for that matter, all manner of life forms. These stories matter to Carroll because of the present battle to keep the fiercest predators of them all, Homo sapiens, from killing the very life forms that make living possible.
The case Carroll makes is that there are underlying rules, logical ones, governing life from the micro- to the macro-level. We all know that big fish eat little fish. The rules are more complex than that, but our instincts are right. But we need the big fish. When we remove the bass that eat the minnows that eat the zooplankton that eat the algae, we disturb the “trophic cascades,” what we usually call the food chain.
Remove a link in the chain and the algae can take over, as they did in a small lake in Wisconsin. The lake only recovered from its sickness when bass were reintroduced to set the chain reaction going again. Predators (in the right number) are as vital to a healthy earth as their prey are.
On these pages we learn how smallpox was eradicated, how politics can get in the way of life-saving efforts to reverse disastrous trends, how “solutions rest on good science, but implementation depends on good management.” And all such efforts must be local. Grand schemes and impressive declarations from Washington won’t cut it. We are all, in the end, ecologists, all responsible for keeping the numbers in balance.
In some ways Carroll, who might be scandalized by the idea, sounds a little like the biblical creation story, the part that says after God created everything and saw that it was good, he turned to the humans and charged us to keep it good.
LeRoy Lawson serves as international consultant with CMF International.