“Words are sacred, and when they are used truthfully or beautifully — best of all — incarnationally, they cause us to consider and even experience our Creator” writes Carolyn Arends in the Foreword to her book Theology in Aisle Seven: The Uncommon Grace of Everyday Spirituality. In this collection of essays previously published as columns in Christianity Today she attempts and, I would add, succeeds at doing just that.
The book’s 25 chapters are divided into six sections. In section one (The Good God) Arends introduces us to the God of the big picture in chapters that discuss things like God’s omnipresence and His righteousness, which turns out to be His love in disguise.
Section two (Life in God) has chapters that deal with faith and the church. Laughter and the arts are two topics she addresses in Part 3 (Common Things that Matter Greatly). Part 4 (Uncommon Virtues) tackles subjects like trust, hospitality, humility, and silence. Part 5 (Into the World) has chapters on vocation and neighborliness. In the final section (Last Things) she discusses our mortality and God’s eventual victory.
Arends has a wonderful way with words. Of course she’s had lots of experience if you count her years of songwriting. However, songwriting doesn’t automatically translate into column writing according to her editor Mark Galli. In the book’s Introduction he says of her literary prowess: “It’s the unusual songwriter who can become an effective magazine columnist …. Over the last few years, as I’ve read and edited column after column, I’ve discovered something Billboard Magazine puts succinctly: Carolyn is ‘one of the most affecting communicators in any genre.’” Readers of the book will be treated to passages like:
“I suspect I have sometimes unconsciously used spiritual disciplines as smoke signals to get God’s attention” – Kindle Location 168.
“The old cliché is true: Laughter is a medicine that reminds us that our sickness will one day be healed and we shall be whole and holy. Until then, laughter is the Elmer’s Glue that attaches us to the goodness that inhabits this world, and to the gladness that hints at the world to come” – KL 567.
“Death unaddressed is the bogeyman in the basement; it keeps us looking over our shoulders and holds us back from entering joyously into the days we are given” – KL 1029.
My favorite aspect of Arends’ writing, however, is the way she brings her life and personal experiences into these essays, transforming what could be lofty platitudes into engaging, humorous, often self-deprecating, and always relatable epiphanies.
She tells of how losing her voice during a singing tour gave her a whole new concert experience and taught her that God could work through weakness. She draws parallels between parenting her children and being parented by God. She paints a picture of the usefulness of a power-washer, but also the damaging potential of its strength (“…he [a neighbour’s teen] felt an ant crawling on his calf. Instinctively, he turned the nozzle toward his leg, obliterating the insect—and unfortunately some layers of muscle and tissue” – KL 499) and likens it to God’s simultaneous power (shown in His zero-tolerance of sin in the Old Testament) and mercy (shown through Jesus in the New Testament).
The chapters are brief (800 words maximum), the stories captivating, but the ideas in this little book are huge. Summer would be a good time to slip this slim volume into your vacation luggage, or download it onto your e-reader for those rainy afternoons at the cottage. With eyes opened, don’t be surprised if you begin to recognize God in the ordinary things, like thunder storms, wasps at picnics, and misty lakeside mornings, that cross your path this summer.