Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Risky Business of Building Bridges, Part II: Biblical Bridge-Builders

In Part I of this post, I discussed the story of the building the Chesapeake Bay Bridge; I ended by suggesting that it provides an excellent metaphor for the spiritual journey. The preaching series this summer at my church (Good Shepherd UMC in Waldorf, MD) was on Biblical Bridge-Builders.  We looked at eight individuals from Scripture and considered how they "built bridges" in their own time and place.  While none of the individuals we considered built literal bridges like the one spanning the Chesapeake, several of them did have to cross a body of water to get where they needed to go.  (It’s interesting how the spiritual journey is often accompanied by a physical journey of some sort.)   

Each person on this list of Biblical characters faced their own unique challenge to “build a bridge” or “cross over” to a new “place”. All of them faced difficult tasks that required embarking on long and risky journeys to make God’s vision, or dream, a reality.   Just like the Bay Bridge construction described above, the “bridges” these men and women constructed over "troubled waters" weren’t built overnight, but rather took years to complete.  In fact, sometimes the initial bridge architect did not live to see the finished product—Hebrews 11:13.  If one reads the whole story of Moses, for example, one discovers that he was not allowed to “cross over” into the Promised Land.  He only glimpsed it from a distance.  

Nevertheless, the efforts of Moses, and the other heroes and heroines of faith we considered this summer, to “build bridges” clearly had lasting impact in the communities in which they dwelled.  The Table on the next page summarizes the Bridge-Builders we discussed in the preaching series at Good Shepherd, the Scriptures read each week, and a brief summary of their impact.  This is not meant to be a "complete list" of Biblical "bridge-builders" but it does give a sense that "bridge-building" is a theme throughout the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. 

Table.  Overview of this Summer’s Survey of Biblical Bridge-Builders at Good Shepherd UMC
Character
Scripture Reference
Summary
Noah
Genesis 6:11-22
When sin and darkness had corrupted the world, God called Noah and his family to be a bridge from one era to the next for humanity.  The ark was a vessel of redemption, that would protect them from the storm, and eventually transport them to dry land after the floodwaters receded.
Jacob
Genesis 32:11–33:15
God called Jacob to seek reconciliation with his estranged brother Esau. The night before he crossed the Jabbok to meet Esau, Jacob has an encounter with God during which he drops the guise of the Trickster, and “crosses over” to embrace his true identity as Israel, who wrestles with God.
Moses
Exodus 14:1-30
God called Moses to literally part of the waters of the Red Sea so that God’s people could “cross” on dry ground from slavery in Egypt to freedom. Moses went on to lead God’s People on a 40-year journey through the wilderness to the cusp of the Promised Land.
Ruth
Ruth 1:1-18
God called Ruth to leave her country to accompany grieving mother-in-law on a journey to her homeland.  Ruth risked much in leaving Moab, but it also opened a unique opportunity for her, as she met and married Boaz, and became great-grandmother to Israel’s greatest king.
Lydia
Acts 16:11-15, 40
Lydia was a Gentile “God-worshipper” who responded to Paul's preaching by worshipping Jesus. She (and her family) became the first European converts to Christianity, thereby building a bridge between continents and cultures. Her hospitality toward Paul's mission team in Philippi built a bridge that enabled growth of the church in that region.
Boaz
Ruth 2:1-13
Ruth 4:13-22
2 Samuel 12:24
God calls Boaz, a Jew, to step across cultural divides and take Ruth, a Moabite woman, as his wife—her kinsman redeemer. In so doing he builds a bridge over “troubled waters” anchoring the promise of the future—King David and ultimately Jesus—to the Jewish heritage of the past.
Mary Magdalene
Luke 8:1-3
Mary Magdalene is not the woman many have assumed her to be. She was a key supporter of Jesus’ ministry—and among the very first to proclaim: “Christ is risen”!  Her remarkable story encourages us to know our own story as children of God.  
Barnabas
Acts 11:19-30
Acts 13:1-14a
God calls Barnabas to be a bridge between the Hebrews and Hellenists in Jerusalem, and between Gentiles and Jews in Antioch—where Christianity was “born”.  He is also a bridge to a new generation of leaders as he becomes “sponsor” and mentor to the Apostle Paul, and eventually allows Paul to “cross over” and take the lead.

I had the privilege to preach the message on Barnabas, and was thus particularly immersed  in his story in the weeks leading up to the sermon.  I wrote a Call to Worship to use the week that I preached.  Since it was the last week of the series, I made it to summarize the ground we covered over the eight weeks of the series.  In the age of social media, I suppose the individual lines could almost serve as a Tweetable summary of each message.  

Leader: We’ve crossed many bridges together this summer.
People:  We boarded the ark with Noah to become vessels of redemption.
Leader: We crossed the Jabbok with Jacob to seek reconciliation with our brother.
People: We crossed the Red Sea with Moses, in search of freedom from slavery.
Leader: We followed Ruth on a journey to a foreign land with Naomi, where the woman from Moab became a bridge in the lineage of Israel’s greatest King.
People:  We saw Boaz build a bridge to Ruth—becoming her kinsman redeemer.
Leader:  We saw Lydia bridge “continental divides” for the Gospel of Jesus through the simple act of hospitality.
People:  We crossed over to a new understanding of the story of Mary Magdalene.
Leader:  And today we cross bridges with Barnabas, who with Paul, was set apart to carry your Word to the Nations.
All:  God who crosses every bridge keeping us apart, let these stories from your Word inspire us to be bridge-builders in our world.

Many of these messages were based on well-known Biblical stories; I had to guard against the trap of overfamiliarity.  What I mean is,  growing up in church as I have, I've certainly heard most, if not all, of the stories we read this summer before.  (Even those who never set foot in church have probably heard the stories of icons like Noah and Moses.) There can be a temptation, when one perceives that they "already know this story", to approach the Scripture with a closed heart and assume, somewhat arrogantly, that I've pretty much learned all this passage has to teach me.  But I made an intentional effort not do that this summer.  Instead, I tried to encounter these stories with an open heart, and let the Bible "read me" just as much as I read it.  That is to say, the story may be the same as before, but I have changed since the last time I read it, and thus I receive them differently.  For example, I may be struck by a passage I never noticed in all my previous readings.  If I can learn to approach Scripture with that attitude consistently, then the Word of God truly becomes "living and active, and sharper than any double-edged sword"Hebrews 4:12—and "the "old, old stories" of our faith can indeed continue to teach me new things—no matter how many times I've read them before.   

I love to tell the story; 
'tis pleasant to repeat 
what seems, each time I tell it, 
more wonderfully sweet... 
Katherine Hankey, I Love to Tell the Story, verse 3

Like all good stories. these Biblical Stories are meant to help us reflect upon our own stories.  If we approach the Word with an open heart, we can find God— and"find ourselves"—in the pages of Scripture.  

The summer preaching series at Good Shepherd challenged us to consider where God calls us to be "bridge-builders" in today's world.  The questions we wrestled with are certainly not exclusive to our congregation.  They are questions all who follow Jesus need to consider.  Questions like:

       Where are we called to be vessels of redemption bringing hope and healing to our world?
       Where do we need to “cross the Jabbok” and seek to reconcile estranged relationships with our brothers and sisters?  
       Where do we need to work with God to “part the Sea” so that others can be set free from bondage to whatever may be holding them prisoner?  
       Where are we being challenged to leave a familiar place of comfort and venture on a risky journey of faith for the sake of someone we love, and along the way, encounter opportunities to experience God in a new way? 
       Where are we called to risk stepping out in faith to offer hospitality to others, and in so doing, become a "bridge" across cultural, generational, religious, racial, and/or gender “gaps” that currently create division in the Body of Christ? 

Of course, this is just a sampling of the questions that might emerge after hearing the stories of these and other heroes and heroines of our faith—see Hebrews 11 for a nice overview of some of the other stories beyond the eight mentioned in the Table.  The point is not to dictate specific questions we must answer, but rather to be open to whatever it is God has to say to us through them.

If you are looking for easy answers to the tough questions of life, the Bible is not the book you want to consult.  It simply isn't an "answer book" that you can look up chapter and verse to back up your position on a particular issue; it's more like a Library dedicated to chronicling the With-God-Life.  

Contained within the pages of the Bible are a collection of stories about men and women wrestling with what it means to faithfully follow God in their particular circumstances throughout history.  The "heroes" and "heroines" of these stories "wrestled" with the "tough questions" just as much as we do; in fact, Jacob had a literal wrestling match with God at one point to figure out his true identity.  As far as I can tell, these were all ordinary people whom God equipped to do extraordinary things.  They were human like you and me, and they struggled at times to be faithful and obedient just as we do.  And yet, with God’s help, they all accomplished much, and each left enduring impacts on the Jewish and Christian faith.   These examples encourage us to be like Jacob, and to continue to "wrestle" with God for as long as it takes to get answers to our questions.  (Notice, Jacob's "answer" didn't come from a book, it came in the context of an intimate relationship, where it was okay to "wrestle" with tough questions.)

One thing seems clear, our world needs Bridge-Builders now more than ever. There are some treacherous shoals that need “bridges” built over them in today’s world.  Sometimes the “gaps” between us and them seem nearly impossible to bridge.  But with God we believe all things are possible.  Followers of Christ have always been called to break down dividing walls, to build “bridges” over “troubled waters”.  Ultimately, the problems we face in this world require all of us to solve them.  We cannot afford to continue to be so deeply divided and polarized.   While we obviously can’t heal every divide that exists, and we won’t all agree on the answers—nor is that kind of homogeneity required to have unity in the Body of Christ—I pray that through these and other examples from Scripture, we can each discern individually (and together if you belong to a faith community) where God calls us to be Bridge-Builders in our world.   Yes, building a bridge is hard work; no, it’s not without risk who build the bridge; but if we engage in it faithfully, it has the potential to change our church, our community, and, yes, even our world, for the better.  So, what are we waiting for? It’s time to move beyond the “feasibility study”; it’s time pick up our shovel and “break ground”!

When Visiting "the Beach" Meant the Bay

I grew up in Owings, Maryland, which is located about five minutes inland (by car) from the town of Chesapeake Beach.  When I was a kid in the 1970s,  I remember the place as a sleepy, rundown waterfront community town.  (The construction of a new resort and waterpark in recent years have led to a "renaissance" for Chesapeake Beach—and its sister town of North Beach, which has built a short boardwalk.)  I have a vague memory of seeing an old rusty carousel sitting unused when I was very small (mid 1970s maybe), and I heard wispy tales of a former glory day, when it was active.  (Some time after the amusement park in Chesapeake Beach closed for good in 1972, the Chesapeake Carousel was moved to Watkins Park—located in Prince George's County, Maryland—and restored.)

But my parents—and especially my grandparents—actually remember(ed) when Chesapeake Beach was "the Beach".  My grandmother told me stories about what it was like in its heyday, and even when I see photos of what was [see examples below] I can scarcely believe them to be real.  The resort was built around the vision to create a new railroad line between Washington DC and "the Beach", with stops along the way to pick up passengers.  The terminal station was at Chesapeake Beach, where countless visitors exited to explore Chesapeake Beach, and escape the summer heat of Washington DC. (The Chesapeake Beach Railway Museum has been established to keep the memory alive).  There was a grand hotel called the Belvedere, that overlooked the Bay, to accommodate the wealthier visitors to the shore—until it burned down in 1923.  There was an amusement park to entertain the throngs that descended upon the Beach—complete with attractions extending out over the Bay, including a wooden roller coaster called the Great Derby [shown below],  a 400 foot boardwalk, casino, dance pavilion, theaters, dancing bears, steamboat landing [shown below], etc.

My grandmother told stories of "riding the steamboat" from Chesapeake Beach
 to Baltimore to attend business college as a young child. That would have been ~1920.
Passengers walked out a long, narrow dock that extended out from the boardwalk where the
amusements were located, to board the ship.
The Great Derby must have been a wild ride!
Imagine a rickety, wooden coaster extending out over the Chesapeake.
Safety regulations weren't nearly as strict as they are today...
The Chesapeake–Potomac hurricane of 1933 severely damaged the steamboat landing and
the other amusements that extended out over the water.
The resort reopened in the 1940s and lasted until 1972, but was never as grand as before the storm.
You can learn more about when "visiting 'the Beach' meant the Bay"  
here.
(The photo above actually comes from the site referenced above.)

The Risky Business of Building Bridges, Part I: Spanning the Chesapeake

The two spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.  Note the curved structure.
The bridge that spans the Chesapeake Bay  (known simply as the "Bay Bridge") is a Maryland icon, and fairly famous as bridges go around the world.  Marylanders living in 2017 take its existence for granted.  We drive over it routinely whenever we make our way from one shore of the Bay to the other, often when we are headed to and from to the Atlantic Beaches of Maryland (e.g., Ocean City) and/or Delaware.   Sometimes when I have occasion to drive across the 4.3 mile-long stretch of suspended steel spanning the Chesapeake, I think about the fact that at some point there was no road where we were now driving without giving a second thought.  I always find the stories of how bridges came to be fascinating, and such was the case with the story of the Bay Bridge...

Several sites were considered for
a Chesapeake Bay crossing.
The  first discussion of a building a bridge across the Bay began in the 1880s, gaining momentum by throughout the early 20th century. The original plan called for a bridge from Miller Island (east of Edgemere, MD (in Baltimore County) to Tolchester Beach (in Kent County), and was approved in 1927—but the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression quashed that idea.[1]  In 1938, the General Assembly approved construction of the bridge (at its current location) from Sandy Point (in Anne Arundel County) and Stevensville on Kent Island—although World War II delayed construction for over a decade.  In 1949, workers finally broke ground on the first (eastbound) span, and it opened in 1952; traffic quickly clogged the single span; the General Assembly approved construction of the second (westbound) span in 1968, and it opened in 1973. 


  This photo was taken in 1950 as the pylons
for the eastbound span were being built.
Bridge-building requires vision—and then it takes hard work (intention) to make the vision a reality. In the specific case of the  Bay Bridge.  To say it another way, it's one thing to have an idea to build a bridge, it’s quite another to actually construct one where none exists.  The water isn’t as smooth as it looks; laying pylons in the water is hard to do [see photo, left].  Construction is where vision impacts with reality—where the rubber literally hits the road, and the plans sometimes have to be altered.  For example, the now famous curved design of the Bay Bridge [see photo, top of article] came about as a compromise that would allow existing access roads to the bridge to be used while still leaving the prime shipping channels in the Bay open to ship traffic (the curve allows the main spans of the bridge to cross the channel at ~90ยบ angles). 

Bridge-building is also dangerous work.  In the documentary I referenced earlier, one of the men who worked on building the Bay Bridge told stories of maneuvering on steel girders hundreds of feet above the ground.  (Similar perilous tales can be told about the construction of other famous bridges—e.g., San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.) I cringed just watching some of the footage shown in the documentary, and thought, “Man I could never do that”.  The man interviewed said that soon enough, he and his fellow workers got used to the job, and did it almost without thinking.  (My guess is they learned not to look down.)  They were young men at the time who needed work, and they surely felt it was an adventure.  Nevertheless, there is no denying that the bridge-building work they did was quite risky—so far as I know, there was no safety net for the Bay Bridge (like there was for the Golden Gate Bridge).  Four men lost their lives during construction of the Bay Bridge, and there were many more “close calls”.
A bridge also has a huge impact on the area where it is built and the nearby communities.[2] The Bay Bridge, for example, certainly changed Maryland.  Before the bridge, the only way across the Chesapeake was by ferry; there were several ferry routes that crisscrossed the Bay prior to the construction of the Bay Bridge.   Even so, in many ways, Maryland’s eastern and western shores were isolated from each other and existed as “two different worlds”.  Resorts on the western shore of the Bay, such as the town of Chesapeake Beach (close to where I grew up) thrived prior to World War II—see When Visiting "the Beach" Meant the Bay.  The construction of the Bay Bridge (combined with the end of railroad service about a decade earlier and the continuing rise of the automobile) began to change all that.  Especially once the Bay Bridge opened, the ocean became more easily accessible and the resorts on the resorts on the western shore of the Bay declined in quality.

The construction of the Bay Bridge connected the two shores of Maryland, so that people could now live on the eastern shore and commute to work on the western shore—and vice versa.  Goods and services could also flow freely over the bridge.  Fresh produce grown the eastern shore could now more easily reach stores on the western shore.  Conversely, products manufactured in Baltimore and Western Maryland could reach the eastern shore.  The bridge itself was built out of steel manufactured at Bethlehem Steel (in Pennsylvania).  Roads and infrastructure had to be upgraded on both sides of the Bay to accommodate the dramatic increase in traffic crossing the Bay.  Many towns on the eastern shore were changed as the “new highway” (a.k.a., Route 50) bypassed the downtown area.

The story of the building the Chesapeake Bay Bridge provides an excellent metaphor for the spiritual journey.  We "cross that bridge" in Part II of this post.


[1] Interestingly, in addition to these plans for a “Northern Bridge”, there were proposals to build a “Southern Bridge” from Lusby, MD (in Calvert County), to Taylors Island (in Dorchester County). Click here to learn more.  The "Southern Bridge" option actually resurfaced again in the last decade or so, but so far has not been pursued.
[2]While researching this article, I came across a Maryland Public Television documentary produced in 2014, called Spanning the Bay, that documents the history of the Bay Bridge and the impact it has had on the state of Maryland. This was a source for the information on the Bay Bridge in this article, which can be viewed here. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Celebrating and Remembering

The first week of May is always a bit of an emotional roller coaster for our family.  It’s a week to honor both my twin daughters.  We celebrate our daughter Becca May’s life while at the same time we honor Hope Marie’s memory—and try to live in the inevitable uncomfortable tension between those two tasks.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says: For everything there is a season. Paul tells the Romans to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. Most of the time life allows for a separation between those "seasons".  Babies are born healthy and we rejoice over a new life; people die after living a long life and we mourn their loss.  But every now and again, the neat divisions break down, such as they did for me on May 2, 2008.  Suddenly, joy and sorrow exploded into my life simultaneously.  I had identical twin daughters born that day; one was perfectly healthy, the other clearly was not.  She never cried and was surrounded by medical staff who struggled to keep her alive. She was quickly taken from the delivery room to the NICU at Franklin Square, and later that day she was transferred to Johns Hopkins.  

Hope looked perfect on the outside, an identical match to Becca in every way physically, but it soon became clear her body was just a shell.  The medical diagnosis was grim.  As I lived through that long surreal 48 hours, the neat boundaries I thought existed between joy and sorrow came crashing down around me.  It was emotional whiplash.  I struggle to handle one emotion at once—much less the torrent of feelings that came with these events that changed my life.  I remember, more than once, asking God to breathe for my daughter because clearly she was struggling to do it on her own.  She never did breathe on her own, though.  In fact, she barely survived the transfer from one hospital to the other. When we came to Hopkins the day we let her go, machines were the only thing making her lungs move.  We knew what we had to do… We felt what I can only describe as peace in the midst of the pain.

*****     *****      *****      *****     *****

 I have always been thankful that, in our situation, we had a slight separation between the day the girls were born and the day that Hope died—two days later. (Not all who lose a twin are so fortunate.)  The separation is by no means perfect, however.  May 2 is, after all, the day both Becca and Hope were born.  Even May 4 is a bit of a mix, since it happens, is my brother's birthday.  Yes, my daughter died the day my brother was born.  Despite our best efforts, life often refuses to cooperate with our attempts to compartmentalize our emotions. 

We mark the occasion a little differently each year, but we always try hard to focus on celebrating Rebecca on her birthday.  This year for example we surprised her; her mom and I picked her up early from school.  We took her to the American Girl store at Tysons Corner and had lunch, and then she bought a new doll—Gabriella.  I had to take some time off work to do it, but the hug she gave me when she got in the car and realized dad was coming too made it all worthwhile.  It was a true God-moment I could not have planned.  She felt the joy of a happy surprise; and I felt the joy of a daughter's love for her dad.  I know it won’t be that many more years before she won’t be as interested in being with mom and dad on her birthday, so we need to take advantage of these moments together while we can.

May 3 is the day in between the celebration and the remembrance—it almost has a Holy Saturday quality to it for us.  This year I spent it working.  My wife attended a clergy meeting.  The kids went to school.  Brady had a baseball game in the evening.  It was, in many ways,  a “normal” day for our famiy, and the weather was beautiful too.  But we were also well aware of what tomorrow would bring. 

Our family refers to May 4 as Hope Day.  As we do every year on that day, we visited the cemetery where our daughter is buried. A line from Lauren Daigle’s song,  O Lord,  says: “I will stand my ground where Hope can be found.”  While Hope’s earthly remains are buried in a tiny casket on the edge of Miranda Cemetery in Huntingtown, MD, we believe that her spirit soared beyond the limits of her weak mortal shell the moment she passed from life support to life eternal.  Wherever Hope dwells now, she is not confined to a rusting box in the ground.  We do not have to be in a specific geographic location to commune with Hope.  


Nevertheless, there is something significant about occasionally and intentionally making a pilgrimage to a specific plot of ground in Calvert County (right now, a 45-minute drive from where we live).  There, we “stand our ground where Hope can be found” and honor her memory. (I might add that this is where my wife and I will some day be laid to rest, “reunited” with the dust of the earth—and with our daughter’s physical remains.)  My wife and I have done this pilgrimage to Huntingtown every year on May 4, sometimes alone and sometimes with our children.  We stand before the marble monument representing our daughter and take a moment or two as a family to acknowledge that, though Hope’s life was all too short and ended tragically, her story is forever part of our story.  She was real and she mattered deeply to us.  Others may have mostly forgotten her but we most certainly have not.  Our family portrait will always be missing someone. 

*****     *****      *****      *****     *****
The Lent after Hope died I recall that I appreciated the song When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, as I never did before.  I was particularly drawn to the lines that say, "Sorrow and love flowed mingled down.  Did 'ere such love and sorrow meet? Or thorns compose so rich a crown."  I think I appreciated it, because, for about nine months, I felt I had been living it.  

I’ve been living in a place where love and sorrow met for nine years now. You may wonder: Have I reconciled things?  Not really.  I don’t think you ever really reconcile the gap between sorrow and love, rejoicing and suffering.  I think rather you learn live within the tension between those conflicting emotions.  After all, when you think about it, our world is a place where love and sorrow mingle quite frequently.  So we get lots of practice in this earthly life.

When people ask how we got through the loss of a child, the first answer I give is: God.  I unequivocally believe we could not have done it if God were not with us every step of the way.   But, I also believe that God works with us—not for us.   We had a role to play in our healing too.  Specifically, when Hope died, my wife and I had a choice to make.  Would we become better or bitter because of what happened?  I know I have had moments over the past nine years where bitterness got the better of me (my guess is Laurie would tell you likewise), but I hope and pray the overall arc of our lives has pointed toward betterness.  We’ve done our best to focus on living these past nine years.  From early on, we determined to keep on getting up every day and moving forward as best we could—and as much as we might have felt like staying in bed some days.  In a way, our other children made our choice easier.  After all, we had an infant daughter depending on us, not to mention a toddler son.  We often reflect that our children were our salvation in those difficult days immediately after Hope died—and their life energy keeps us moving forward still today.  I often say my daughter Becca carries “the spirit of two” within her.  Watching my children “live life to the full” brings me joy.

As time went on, I have become increasingly comfortable living a both–and existence. I learned to make both the joy of Becca May and the sorrow of Hope Marie part of my story.  The passage of time has helped to scab over the wounds of our painful experience in May 2008, but, to this day, they still can easily be reopened.  We are especially prone to reentering our wounds in the weeks leading up to the girls’ birthday.  It happened to me just the other day at Target, when there just happened to be, not one—but two—sets of healthy identical twin girls in Target shopping with their parents.  One of the sets had to have been close in age to Becca.  What is this God: sarcasm?!  I think seeing twins make me think of what I missed out on—being a father to twins.  I watch them being "normal kids" and want to stop and ask them what their life is like.  

Our celebrations with Becca are fun, and we try hard to make it a joyous occasion but there is inevitably a shadow.  We sometimes feel sad we can't celebrate the same way with Hope.  We are left with only a few photos and other mementos of her brief stay here on earth.  Looking back, we wish we had taken more time and preserved more icons of her existence.  But then again, they won’t bring her back to us.   Yes, we would give anything for more time with Hope, to have a chance to celebrate milestones (e.g., birthdays, Holidays, school and church achievements) with her, the way we do with Becca.  But alas it is not possible.  I offer myself consolation by imagining that the celebrations Hope attends on the other side are pretty darn special too.  I’m confident they know how to celebrate in heaven!  It must be wonderful have a seat at the heavenly banquet.  It must be great to have Jesus "planning your birthday".

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Returning to the Shack: When God Visits Our Beautiful Mess

I saw the movie The Shack and I very much enjoyed it. (I had read the book a few years back as well.)  While we can certainly quibble over the nuances of the theology presented (and such discussion has its place), I also think getting bogged down too much in that kind of discussion might be missing the point. This movie provides plenty of opportunities to have a conversation about God—and to me, that’s a good thing!  In hopes of fostering such a conversation, I share a few things that struck me as I watched the movie and later thought about it.  WARNING: There are some plot spoilers below, so read at your own risk.

Mack arrives at “the Shack” still “stuck” in his Great Sadness, unable to let go of the pain and anger over his daughter Missy’s abduction and death. Mack feels angry at God for letting this tragedy happen; he also feels guilty that he wasn't there to protect his little girl when she needed him most.  His feelings are quite understandable.  Having lost a daughter myself (albeit under quite different circumstances), I felt a certain solidarity with Mack.  My guess is most people are sympathetic with Mack’s point of view.

Early in the movie, we learn that Mack also carries an even deeper pain—a Greater Sadness if you will—around his relationship with his father.  As often happens in our lives, a “current tragedy” can open up the wounds of the past.  His father was an alcoholic and abusive to his family.  Once during a church altar call, young Mack dared to reveal his father’s “sin” to the pastor.   His father, whom we have no reason to think was not a well-respected member of his church—perhaps even a leader—responded by brutally beating his son, all the while quoting scripture to the boy, as if to remind him that he was only getting what his “sinful” actions deserved. 

How could this experience he endured as a child not influence grown-up Mack’s view of God?  Is it possible he thinks on some level that he lost his daughter as a form of punishment?  You have to wonder if, even just a little bit, Mack thinks Missy died because: “I deserved it”.

It’s no wonder then, that when Mack first meets Papa (the God character) he is skeptical at best. When Mack asks why God chose a black woman avatar, Papa replies, “I figured the last thing you needed right now was a father.” Mack becomes caught up in the love of the Trinity, however, and he begins to soften.  I love how The Shack portrays the interplay of the Trinity: Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu (the Spirit character, whose name means “breath” or “wind” or “holy river” in Hindu).  The scene with Mack eating dinner with the three members of the Trinity portrays the "easiness" of the relational flow between these entities—with Mack “in the middle” of the conversation.  It is a beautiful metaphor for the communion with God for which every human being was created.

We were designed to dance with the Trinity, to walk with them, to talk with them, to laugh with them, to be caught up in the triangle of Trinitarian love—but God doesn't force anyone to join the dance.  In one scene, Papa and Sarayu dance together in the house as Mack watches them from outside through a window.  Later, after some tough conversation with Papa, Sarayu gives Mack his car keys; he is free to go.  While he is tempted to leave, in the end he chooses to stay.  Like Mack, we too can choose—and from the very beginning, human beings have chosen—to turn away from God at any time.  We can and do choose to worship other gods, take over the judge's seat from God, and even decide we want no part of God—often because, like Mack, we've misunderstood God's true nature.

Our Communion Liturgy says that, "When we turned away and our love failed [God’s] love remained steadfast". In other words, God never gives up on us. God always finds creative ways to lure us back, calling us home in a variety of ways and through whatever form is most effective to get out attention.

Papa repeatedly tells Mack she is "especially fond of him", but she later tells him she is also “especially fond” of the man who killed his daughter.  Mack struggles with a question we all wrestle with at times: How can a God that loves me also love someone that hurt me so badly?  During his encounter with a mysterious fourth character named Sophia (which is the Greek word for “wisdom[1]”), Mack learns that the key to resolving both his Great Sadnessand his Greater Sadness—lies in learning to “let go” and let God alone be the judge. Toward the end of the movie, Mack asks Papa, "Is there anyone you aren’t especially fond of?"  To which she replies, "No.". The point is, God loves all—period.  God's love is not contingent on anything we do or don't do.  That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do good works, nor that there are not consequences for poor choices (sin), but we should always remember that our works don't earn God’s love.  

Love isn’t just what God does; love is what God is—see 1 John 4:8.  God was love at the beginning; God is love now; God will be love into eternity.  In the end, love—not sin—has the last word. 

In fact, God loved us so much than when it became clear that there were significant roadblocks preventing us from turning to God, God chose to take on human form and come to us that we might have a chance to experience God in a "more familiar" form—see John 3:16.  Christians believe Jesus was fully divine—he was God with us in every way—but he was also fully human.  That means he experienced what it is to be human in every way.  God literally took up residence in a human body and lived a human life.  Jesus was born, he grew up, he had relationships, he experienced the full range of human emotions and the struggles that we experience, and then he died.  Not just because he died, but because he died precisely the way he did—a violent and public execution at the hands of the Romans—Jesus is somehow able to draw the sins of the whole world out of the darkness, expose them, and take them upon his body—see Colossians 2:14-15.  He was crucified and laid to rest—along with the world’s sin.  

Make no mistake, though, those who witness Jesus’ death on that dark Friday afternoon view it as a tragedy.  They do not realize, yet, what will happen on Sunday morning.  They have invested themselves in following Jesus for several years, and pinned their hopes and dreams in his being who he claimed to be.  All that hope and optimism appears lost on Good Friday.  For three days, it seems that even God couldn't overcome the world's darkness.  But then, the “impossible” happens…  God moves as only God can to bring goodness out of tragedy—life out of death.  Three days later, Jesus rises from the dead, showing that nothing—not even death—can separate us from God's love—see Romans 8:38.  

If God overcame the ultimate tragedy—the Ultimate Mess if you will—what does it say about what God can do with our personal tragedies and messes—the sin, the hardships, the suffering that inevitably come into our lives? 

I think of this chorus states it well:

We pour out our miseries.
God just hears a melody
Beautiful the mess we are.
The honest cries of breaking hearts.
Better than a hallelujah, sometimes.
Amy Grant, "Better than a Hallelujah"

Beautiful the mess we are.  In The Shack, there is a scene were Mack and Sarayu discuss this very subject.  The conversation happens in a garden as they do some work together.  When Mack first sees the garden, he thinks it is a mess—although he also notes its wild, untamed beauty.  Mack and Sarayu clear a section “overgrown” with beautiful wildflowers.  Mack didn't really understand why they were doing it at the time.  To him, it seems wasteful to destroy so many beautiful flowers to make space for “something new”.  From his limited perspective, he couldn't see the "big picture" the way the Trinity could. (We the movie watchers get a “view from above” at one point to bring this point home.)  The wild garden was a metaphor for Mack’s life: wild, messy—in process. As Papa had said to him earlier, "When all we see is our pain, we lose sight of God."  He would later lay his beautiful daughter to rest in the space that he and Sarayu had labored to create together, in a coffin Jesus had been exquisitely crafting in his workshop behind closed doors throughout the film. 

The scene where Mack literally takes the coffin and lays Missy to rest resonated deeply with me because I’ve been in a similar situation.  When we buried our daughter Hope on May 2, 2008, I was the one who carried her tiny casket from the hearse and placed it on the altar during her funeral.  While the details of Mack’s and my experiences were quite different, they were both moments that symbolized a father “letting go”, relinquishing their beloved daughter over to the care of the Trinity, releasing them from our arms to God’s.  I know full-well how heart-wrenching that is to do because I’ve done it—but, looking back nearly nine years later now, I also know how necessary it is to our healing and wholeness.

Out of Missy’s “remains” came new life; watered by Mack’s tears, which Sarayu had collected earlier, flowers and a beautiful tree spring up from the “roots” of tragedy.  What a beautiful Lenten image: New life rises from the “ashes” of a “broken” life, reminding us that, “after the last tear falls, there is love.”[2]

Beautiful the mess I am.   Okay, so a movie is great, but what about the man in the mirror?  How does this apply to me? I confess I sometimes find it easier to believe that God loves the world in general than to believe he loves me—Alan—specifically.  I feel so “messed up” some days.  I think: How can God love a mess like me? When that happens, I'm usually pretty self-absorbed and less likely to notice the world around me—much less notice God's Presence in my life. (During the movie, Mack was so self-absorbed in his own pain that he not only failed to see God, but also failed to notice that his older daughter Kate felt her own guilt over Missy’s death that was causing her to be withdrawn and depressed.)  To quote another song, "in the middle of my little mess I forget how big I'm blessed."[3] 

I have to remind myself that God sees beauty in “my little mess”, and that “my mess” is precisely "the stuff" God uses to form me into the person I was created to be.

When we start catching a glimpse of that larger Perspective that God sees all the time, we begin to realize that nothing we do in this life happens apart from God.  Every little mundane and ordinary thing we do in this life is permeated with the Presence of God.  God is in it all: the good, the bad, the ugly.  What we have to do is train our senses to become more continually aware of God’s presence in the wild, messy, in-process—and beautiful—world in which we all live, move, and have our being.




[1] The writer of the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as Wisdom personified.  He is both the source of true wisdom and the Great Sage, who teaches his followers his ways.
[2] Andrew Peterson, “After the Last Tear Falls”.
[3] Francesca Batistelli, “This is the Stuff You Use”.