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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

Choosing Between Two Holy Places

Plastic necklaces and a dove pendant mixed together: a metaphor for mothers in ministry.

Plastic necklaces and a dove pendant mixed together: a metaphor for mothers in ministry.

It’s Saturday morning. I dig through a clump of pink and green plastic princess necklaces as I search for my dove pendant, an image of the Holy Spirit I ritualistically grab to go with the dress I wear to officiate a funeral. I smile because the plastic necklaces are sure signs that someone else has been here today: my feisty two-and-a-half year old. I hear her defiant protest as I finally clasp the dove. “Mama! Come play with me!”

“I can’t sweetheart. Mama’s gotta go to work.”

Today the work I am called away to is a funeral, not altogether surprising work for a pastor. My daughter’s small, protesting voice keeps ringing in my ears and in my heart as her dad tries to distract her with an alluring tea party while I sneak out the door and quickly head to the car.

It is holy work, having the privilege of “marrying and burying,” carrying God’s blessing through the various stages of human existence. Weddings and funerals are a joy of my calling as pastor. But they also tend to fall on Saturdays – days that are typically reserved for my family.

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Epiphany

Three months into my ministry I was still fighting this weekly battle. Saturday nights were torture. Sunday mornings were anxious. Sunday afternoons were naptime. Perhaps it was no coincidence that everything changed on Epiphany.

After lunch on January 6, 2003, I drove my husband, Shon, to the emergency room. It was nothing urgent, but we both knew something was not “right.” Between Christmas and Epiphany, Shon had experienced five episodes of sudden, momentary paralysis on the right side of his body. None of them lasted for more than ten or fifteen seconds. In fact, they were so quick; we wrote them off as a pinched nerve or something from his old high school football injuries. But then he lost control of his right side while driving home from work one day. Thus, on Epiphany, I insisted we find the source of the problem.

We knew it wasn’t a good sign when they took Shon ahead of the kid with the broken arm. After a round of tests and several hours of waiting, an exhausted doctor pulled back the curtain. He did not look up from the chart, but we could tell he was at the end of a very long shift and this was a visit he was not going to enjoy. “There’s something on the left side of your brain,” he said abruptly. Shon and I looked at one another to make sure we heard him correctly. It was definitely more than a pinched nerve.

More detailed diagnostics revealed “the thing” was a lemon-sized tumor sitting on Shon’s left motor cortex. In two days’ time, he underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor. Just six days after we had entered the ER, Shon walked out with his faculties intact, albeit a little lighter in the head. The diagnosis was oligoastrocytoma, a primary brain tumor, grade 2. What followed was a flurry of doctors’ appointments, non-stop tests and frequent seizures.

As we understood it, this was a slow-growing tumor that would likely come back, but not for some years to come. In the two years that followed, we were able to get the seizures under control and our lives settled into a somewhat normal routine. Shon would never be able to go back to work because of the seizures, but found enough to keep him busy at home and at church. He recovered so well that I only had to take a couple of Sundays off immediately after the surgery. Otherwise, I was back to work as usual, kind of.

It felt as if my foundation had been violently shaken but the building was still standing. I was trying to carry on in my ministry as if nothing had changed, and yet everything was different. The change really became apparent when my mom died unexpectedly of breast cancer just a few short months after Shon’s surgery. Suddenly, life took on a whole new sense of urgency. I dreaded Saturday nights, not just because of the sermon writing, but because dwelling so deeply in the Word kicked up so many painful memories and emotions, especially when the lectionary kept giving me barren women. Read more

The Holy Spirit Resides in My Mattress

This tradition continued when I went to seminary and started serving three small rural churches in southern Indiana. I would struggle with a sermon or, even worse, have NO IDEA what I was going to preach on, and so I would go to sleep, and wake up with the entire sermon in my head. All I had to do was sit and write it.

It wasn’t that I hadn’t done the work beforehand. I went to a Presbyterian seminary and was schooled in how to do exegesis. I took Greek, Hebrew, Old Testament and New Testament Exegesis, and basic preaching. I knew how to do the outline, how to make the connections, to check commentaries, to read in other translations, to check the context, to talk with other pastors in my lectionary group, and to journal my own thoughts during the week before I get to that point. I did all of these things … but I believe it is the Holy Spirit residing in my mattress that does the real work.

At first my family didn’t understand how this worked. My immediate family came down to celebrate my first Christmas as a pastor with me. (I am one of 8 children, and everyone came except one sister and her husband … it was a full house!) About mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve I still had not finished my sermon and was busy preparing dinner. My family freaked out, “Tricia, don’t you need to go to your office (in the next room) and write your sermon?” “No,” I’d reply, “I’ll go take a nap in a little while, and it will be fine.” Read more