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Meeting God in Broken Places: A Review of The Shack

God the Father

When the novel The Shack was published in 2007, everyone was talking about it, particularly its unusual portrayal of the Trinity. Jesus as a Middle Eastern carpenter was hard to dispute, but the Holy Spirit in the personified form of an Asian woman? God the Father represented as a black woman seemed to raise the most objections. None of these struck me as quite the dangerous heresy they were being declared by more conservative folk, and religious fiction isn’t usually the section I target in Barnes and Noble. But the book was gaining popularity and my congregation was reading it. They wanted to know what their pastor thought of the ideas in the book, many of which were new to them, and so I read the book out of obligation.

With the recent movie release, clergy are in a similar position of being asked what we think about The Shack. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like it much. I found the book alternately pedantic and vague, and too blithe in its treatment of grief and guilt. The latter statement might also be made of the film, which moves at Hollywood pace through tragedy, fallout, and recovery. Still, I was moved by its portrayal of a man trapped in loss and shame who meets God and finds the ability to forgive himself.

The characters of the Trinity are compelling and provocative, if we can set aside the need for absolute theological accuracy at every moment – and after all, who has ever represented the Trinity with absolute theological accuracy in any single statement or metaphor? This version of the triune God is personified separately, in a way that brings out their vitality and relationship. That each person of the Godhead appears as a person of color was to me a relief and delight. And although it’s not explored in detail, “Papa” is played by the same woman, Octavia Spencer, who offers the young Mack pie and empathy in his abused childhood. Plenty of commentators have had difficulty with God being portrayed as a black woman. Some of our people may well have questions about the gender and skin color of God, or about God being visually represented at all. But it seems to me to be downright biblical that God appears to Mack in the one form that he might accept as benevolent. Isn’t the whole story of Scripture rife with examples of God appearing to humankind as we are best able to perceive and receive God? Isn’t this the story of Jesus, God made one of us so that we might see divine love personified? Read more

God’s Grace and My Father’s Love

Sometimes the hands of God are right in front of us

My father was a force of nature. He was a big man, both physically and in spirit, and had the kind of laugh that had a way of booming itself across a room, hovering for a while before dissipating. As a little girl I was fascinated by his size, putting my hand up against his and watching in awe as his fingers closed around mine, hiding them away completely. There was such safety in seeing my smallness tucked up and protected in the hugeness of his hands.

Still, he looked impossibly small when I walked into his ICU room many years later, where he lay stricken by a sudden infection that would take his life. He was a big man made tiny and still beneath a nest of tubes, his face obscured by the ventilator that kept his chest rising and falling with mechanic precision. The years between being an awe-struck young girl and a fully grown, ordained woman had not been kind to us, and I found myself standing next to a man that I loved with the whole of my heart, but who felt so very much like a distant stranger, a person to be wary of.

My father was a man who walked between worlds of light and dark. In the light stood his faith, his joy, his playfulness bordering on prankster, his sweeping generosity. Our church loved him deeply and it was a love that was richly returned. Everyone drew close to his light, which seemed to radiate warmth. There was a sense about him that no matter what might go wrong, he would set it right, and over the course of his years in our church leadership he did so again and again. But he was a man in whom shadows made their home as well. His joyful side would fade and he’d quickly become withdrawn and disengaged, choosing to be alone in his office or his bedroom instead of spending time with his family. He was quick to temper and could be casually and laughingly cruel – though usually only to his family and closest of friends. We loved him because we could not possibly do otherwise, but each of us carried with us the wounds of that love.

My father’s illness lasted a month to the day, and he was conscious, even talkative, for most of it. The days mostly blur together, but I remember my anger with clarity. I was absolutely furious, pacing trenches in the halls of the hospital. I railed against God, a madwoman in her clerical collar, shouting at heaven from the parking lot. My Presbyterian theology taught me to expect my prayers to change me, not to change God’s mind, but I had no patience for that. I had no patience for God’s plans, and cared not at all what was going on in God’s mind. Read more

Celebrating Without

For the first time this holiday season I’m celebrating without my father.

They say the first year after the loss of a loved one is the worst.  Holidays especially.  The first year after my father died is coming to an end and the holiday season is upon us.

There were, of course, many holidays and times when I was away from my family, yet, always a phone call away from the traditional greetings of my father. There were the phone calls during college where it never failed that the phone would ring at 7 a.m. just to be sure that my father caught me before the busyness of a college day.

“Dad, you can call anytime during the day, you know. I’m not that busy.”

“Well, I just want to make sure I get to talk to you. I never know where you are or who you’re running around with and what homework needs to get done.”

“Okay, dad. It’s good to hear from you.” Even at 7 a.m. it was good to talk to my dad.

There were the phone calls in Africa, too. My family and I figured out the time change and network problems of living in rural Africa for two years. Nothing stopped me from a phone call with my parents. Not the heat. Not the miles of walking. Not the lack of power. Not the in-and-out network. No. I made sure to have a phone date set each time I hung up the phone with my parents so I had another call to look forward to. And if it meant standing on the root of a baobab tree with village folks passing by wondering about the crazy American. So be it!

The phone calls during seminary and my first call occurred on Sunday afternoon. Holy, Sabbath time. I usually was in the midst of a post-Sunday morning fog and my dad would call. He wanted to know about my sermon and how service went; he was always eager to tell me about his morning and the sermon he heard. He asked me theological questions and wanted to know my thoughts. I heard about his week and who he went out to lunch with, updates on the town and family.  I received the latest movie reviews and which characters he believed best exemplified the Christ figure. He would ask about the congregation.  He wanted to know that I was taking time to myself.  He reveled in hearing about the new restaurants and places I visited.  And of course he always asked about my car.  My dad loved cars and never failed to ask about how my car was driving, whether I needed an oil change or new tires, or if I hit any animals on the road. Holy, Sabbath time.

The phone rings to this day and I still look hoping for a call from my dad.

The shortcut for “dad” is still on my cell phone.

I still hear his voice.

I still feel his love.

And when I need the reminder of his presence I remember his final words to me on the phone almost every phone call: “It was good talking to you. You be good now. And remember I love you.”