A fool-proof formula for everything?

American magic.

It’s a funny term, particularly when spoken by missionaries who deal with witch doctor types and superstitions regularly. You just don’t expect them to look back across the Pond, smile, shake their heads indulgently, and say, “Yep, that’s American magic.”

You see, magic, at its heart, has to do with manipulation. You get the formula right— eye of newt, tongue of frog, liver of lobster—and out pops a potion-produced prince or hex or whatever.

American magic? It’s the idea that there’s a fool-proof formula for everything. There’s not. And we’re fools if we think so.

The hard truth for sinners like us, and like everybody else, is that we’ll never get life right. Deal with it. Actually, God already has, and we’re not God—which is quite a load off. God absolutely will not allow us to file Christianity in the Self-help Section of life.

But American magic, peddled by folks who may wear business suits but still bear a serious family resemblance to their brothers across the ocean dressing for shaman success in loin cloths, says that if you just work hard enough, long enough, and, with exactly the right formula, you can’t help but “succeed.” Add on to the garage and order your Ferrari!

Want to build a mega-business, a mega-church, a mega-life? Somebody will sell you a formula. If it doesn’t work, you just didn’t cook it right.

Want to live almost forever — or maybe five minutes longer than folks who ignore a good many health rules but in the dastardly unfairness of life chose parents with better genetics than yours? We’ve got non-transfat, non-caffeine, non-taste formulas for that, and we’re busily commissioning food police to help us make food choices that masquerade almost as “moral” choices.

Couple the right number of sets and reps and rounds with the other gerbils on the treadmills, the right vitamins, and an amazingly dreary preoccupation with abs and gluts, and off you go to live long, healthy, thin, annoying lives.

Well, maybe. You see, life is unfair. Even American magic fails. The economy tanks. Merger mania mangles your company. One microbe or cancer cell cancels out a lifetime gym membership, and a life. And you’re surprised to find yourself standing before the Almighty with low cholesterol and great abs but a tad ticked in a postmortem sort of way that, drat it all, you died anyway!

So what to do?

Maybe get some perspective. A life lived joyfully in love is far better than a life just lived lengthily any other way. Moderation in enjoying lots of good gifts at the right time and with the right kind of gratitude to God will bless most of us a a good deal more than world-class low cholesterol.

It ticked Pharisees then and now, but Jesus eschewed magic and lived a life of trust, not manipulation. He lived a life of divinely robust holiness that could never be confused with pious sterility and the cut-rate pseudo-sanctity that’s as shallow as it is stern, and all about lengthy lists of things we don’t do and don’t chew.

Magic doesn’t work. Trust does.

Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at: ckshel@aol.com