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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

Two New Hymns: We Have Often Called You “Father” and Christ According To Your Measure

medium_8329857232Before I began the ordination process, I wanted to be a writer.  I also come from a musical background and am a life-long choral singer.  So when I discovered the art of hymn-writing, it seemed like the perfect intersection of three things I love: words, music, and worshiping God.

I wrote both of these hymn texts as part of my coursework at Yale Divinity School.  “We have often called you Father” was my final project for a course called “Hymnody as a Resource for Preaching and Worship.”  It was inspired by the challenges involved in trying to use more inclusive language in worship, particularly when it comes to describing and addressing God.  Rather than simply writing a hymn that used inclusive language, I wanted to engage the medium of hymn-singing itself (which is often heavily dominated by patriarchal imagery) to help congregations explore the whole question of how we name and picture God.

The second hymn, “Christ, according to your measure”, was written for an assignment in my New Testament course.  In addition to a traditional exegesis paper, we were instructed to come up with a creative response to the passage we had chosen to write about.  This hymn text is based on Ephesians 4:1-16 and is especially appropriate for ordinations, confirmations, celebrations of new ministries, and any other time when the members of a faith community and their many gifts are being celebrated.

Both hymn texts are written in the meter 87.87 Double, which means that each verse consists of eight lines that alternate between eight and seven syllables in length.  Many great hymn tunes use this meter, so the texts could easily be sung to a number of different tunes, in addition to those I’ve suggested.

We Have Often Called You “Father”

Suggested Tune: NETTLETON

I.

We have often called You “Father.”

We have often called You “Lord.”

We have spoken of Your “kingdom,”

and of “mankind’s” rich reward.

We have sung a thousand praises

to the holy Trinity—

Father, Son and Holy Spirit—

to a God we know as “He.”

 

II.

Yes, our theologians tell us

You transcend all gendering,

but we paint a diff’rent picture

with the words we say and sing.

We place human limits on You,

granting You both sex and race,

even though we know Your image

can be seen in every face.

 

III.

If we seek to change our language,

taking out what might offend,

making worship gender neutral,

following the current trend,

then instead of “God the Father,”

we will praise “Creator God.”

And in place of any pronoun

simply say, “God, God, God, God.”

 

IV.

Yet with worship safely altered

to include all humankind,

still we feel the strangest longing

for the language left behind.

Gone the richness of tradition.

Gone the ancient imag’ry.

Gone the words we learned as children,

words that set our spirits free.

 

V.

Some say we should call you “Mother.”

Others like the old way best.

Some are terrified of changing.

Some can never let things rest.

But we know that You are greater

than our words can ever tell.

Teach us how we best can name you.

Teach us how to praise you well.

 

Christ According To Your Measure

Suggested Tune: AUSTRIAN HYMN

I.

Christ, according to your measure

you have given each one grace.

Once, for us to earth descended,

now you fill all time and space.

And to this, your humble body

you have given gifts indeed.

So today we thank and praise you

for the gift of those who lead.

 

II.

Some are prophets, some apostles.

Some are preachers of good news.

Some are pastors, some are teachers.

All are gifted as you choose.

To equip God’s chosen people

for the work of ministry:

Building up your holy body

till we come to unity.

 

III.

Christ, who led us to this calling

make us worthy of the call.

One in faith and one in spirit,

one in God who is in all.

With humility and patience,

help us keep the bond of peace,

bearing with each other’s failings,

so that hope and love increase.

 

IV.

Christ, we are your living body,

knit together, each to each,

growing up into your stature

till maturity we reach.

As we seek a deeper knowledge

of the One whose name we bear,

Give the gifts that are most needed.

Lead us in the work we share.