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”.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Life Editors: Trusting a Friend with the Script of Your Life

My main role at work is serving as Executive Editor of The Earth Observer newsletter, which details the latest news from NASA Earth Science.  That means I spend a lot of time helping authors refine their work into something acceptable for publication in our newsletter. Being Executive Editor doesn’t always give me a huge amount of extra time to pursue my first love—writing—at work. But every now and again I don the writer’s hat, as I did recently when I wrote a feature article for our newsletter.  It's always an interesting role-reversal whenever I write an article.  Whereas I normally am the one offering all the "constructive criticism" to an author, now the tables are turned and I am the recipient of such feedback.

Taking of the Editor's Hat to reveal my true identity.
Image credit: Christine Smith-McFarlane

Behind every good writer is a good editor.  Try as we might, we usually don't produce publication quality content on our first try—and it's hard to edit our own work.  We spend so much time with the material, crafting it just so, that we sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees. We need that person (or persons) we trust to look at our work objectively and tell us where it needs work—and then we as author must be willing to listen.

I know what an editor does because I am one. I know they have my best interest at heart; they want to help me refine my words and make the final product better.  In my head, I know all this.  Nevertheless, when I see “red ink” spilled over something I labored over to create, my heart hurts—it’s hard not to feel rejected, as if a part of me has died…

Front page screen shot of my article.
You can read/download it here.
I usually have to take some time to grieve the loss of what I envisioned writing before I can move on to writing what needs to be written in this instance. Such was the case for the article I just finished writing.  It took me a while to accept my editor’s inputs, but after my “period of mourning", I came to realize my editors were spot-on in their analysis of my work.  As I look with pride on the final article that we published, I’m glad I had their input—and listened to it.

In the end, I realized that the hours of research and interviews and the multitude of words written but not published were not wasted.  They are like “scaffolding” supporting the visible text. My readers can’t see it but I know it’s there “between the lines” of my article.

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A good editor keeps an author accountable to the standards of whatever publication in which they seek to publish.  

I started thinking about the parallels between writing and living.  Our lives are the ultimate creative endeavor.  I believe that as we live out our days, we are each writing a story that is ultimately woven into the fabric of God’s larger Story.  We each have a unique story to tell, but sometimes we struggle to understand it, or if you will, we struggle to edit the “script” of our lives.

So, the question is: Do you have a life editor? That is to say, is there a friend (or friends) whom you trust enough to allow them to read the "script" of your life—and, if necessary, suggest revisions—and who keeps you accountable to the standards of Jesus? [1]

 I have been fortunate to find a few of those soul friends over the years through two men's groups I have been part of over the last two decades.  The first group I joined began meeting very early on Thursday mornings some time in 1996 (I think) at some different locations in the area, and so we adopted the name Early Risers.  If memory serves, my friend Jeff Kline was the one who initially invited me to be part of Early Risers.  (Jeff had been part of a previous men’s group called The Muckers[2] and was now starting his own group.)  Over time, Jeff became a mentor to me and the other members of the group became good spiritual friends too. I remember attending Jeff's wedding to Lesa, and later, hearing about Jeff and Lesa's journey to adopt two children from Guatemala (Maria and Maverik). Jeff has since moved to Arizona but we keep in touch via social media.  (My family had a chance to visit his family when we were on our cross-country trip last summer.) 

I remember early on in Early Risers we told each other our stories.  Jeff went first and set the tone for the level of sharing he wanted us to do.  Looking back, I’d say that was a very brave and vulnerable act on his part.  There are more "private chapters" of our tale we usually don't share publicly with anyone.  Going there is risky—even among friends.  The potential for betrayal of such sensitive information is huge.  But Jeff wanted our group to "go deeper" together, so he took a chance and shared some of those more "private" chapters of his own story with us, hopping we might all follow suit when we shared in the ensuing weeks. I remember when Wally Melnik (another of the Early Risers) got ready to tell his own story a few weeks later, he told us how, after hearing Jeff's story, he thought:  "Oh... We're going to talk about that kind of stuff."

Early Risers became an environment where it was safe to share "that kind of stuff" with one another.  Over time, our group developed a level of trust that just couldn't come about if our interactions with each other were limited to exchanging pleasantries during the coffee hour at church on Sunday.  

Jeff set the tone for our group when he told his story and in so doing, he gave the rest of us permission to "go there" ourselves.  Shame seeks to isolate us and make us feel "on our own" to figure out life and struggle with sin.  It was liberating to hear one another's stories and realize we weren't the "only one" with this or that issue.  With each successive story shared, we became increasingly aware of our common struggles as men and increasingly comfortable in one another's presence.  The walls we naturally put up to protect ourselves began to come down, we took off the masks we typically wear in public, and real fellowship started to happen.  It became tradition for someone to bring bagels to our gatherings.  I think it was me that coined the slogan: "We come for the bagels, but we stay for the accountability." I remember Stephen Shields (another Early Riser for a time) and I used to say it to each other.

With that level of sharing as introduction to Early Risers, we had permission to ask the "harder questions" of one another as follow-up.  As the years went by, trust deepened, and we were indeed able to "suggest revisions" to one another's life scripts—never in a judgmental or controlling way—but out of a desire for the script of that guy's life to more authentically reflect whom God has created them to be.

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Later, when Early Risers grew large enough where we decided we needed to split into two groups. Several of the men in our group agreed to split off and form a new group.  The new group needed leadership; my friend Steve Audi and I took on the leadership role together.  We also needed a name; we dubbed ourselves Godfellas—after the movie Goodfellas—and tried to continue sharing our lives together as we did in Early Risers. At that time, we met at Steve's house in Olney, MD. Steve was married and had children before I did and I learned a great deal from observing him conduct his life with his wife Trish (and his kids Meghan and Michael) that I would later apply to living my own family life, raising a son and daughter.  In fact, when I got married, Steve was one of the best men at my wedding (the other was my brother).  Steve has also has stood by me at other "critical moments" of my life, such when as when we dedicated and baptized our son and daughter--and also when we buried a child. 

After a few years, Ed Warner, who joined Godfellas a few years after we started, took over leadership and, for various reasons, we transitioned to meeting at his house.  The guys in Early Risers all attended the same church but that has long sense stopped being the case; we are now scattered all over Washington DC area. Nevertheless, Godfellas still gets together roughly once a month, choosing a location "central" to all, meeting for breakfast and fellowship on a Saturday morning at someone's home or at a local restaurant. Sometimes I have to drive an hour to get where we meet.  I confess sometimes it’s hard to do in the midst of my busy life; sometimes I just can’t make it that week—but I can’t think of too many times I regret it when I do make the drive from Waldorf to Laurel or Greenbelt, or wherever, to meet.  

These groups have provided a spiritual anchor for me over the years, a place where I’m free to be me, and where I can offer support and encouragement to others.  I am very thankful to God for leading me to Jeff Kline all these years ago.  Recently, we started a Men’s Bible Study at Good Shepherd.  Our first few meetings have led to some very good discussions.  I’d love to see a group like what I’m describing get started closer to home. It would be another generation in the “family tree” of groups that began with The Muckers, and has extended over 20 years to the present.  But of course, I can’t “force” that to happen; I have to see where the Spirit leads…

*****      *****     *****     *****     *****
I would be remiss if I didn't mention another of my trusted life editors—my spouse.  As valuable as the soul friends from my men's groups have been over the years, my wife Laurie probably knows me better than anyone at this point in my life.  I suppose that's how it should be with someone you spend every day and night with; they should be your "best friend".  After 13.5 years of marriage Laurie has become another trusted life-editor for me; she has permission to "go there" with me anytime she wishes—and doesn't hesitate to do so if she feels it is needed.  She sometimes offers counsel on something I might want to consider changing or modifying.  I confess that I don't always respond well at first.  Why?  What makes it so hard to contemplate?  I think it is because, as I described earlier in the context of my writing, I don’t respond all that well to suggested revisions.  I tend to get very attached to the "current version of me" and view suggested refinements to the way I live as rejection of who I am.  "I've invested time and energy in becoming this way, and now you want me to change?!"  But in time, I realize she loves me and has my best interest at heart.  Like the editors I trust with my writing at work, I’ve learned over the years that my wife has a pretty good ability to “read my script”; if she suggests an “edit”, it's probably something I ought to listen to.

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With the season of Lent beginning, we tend to become a bit more reflective, contemplative, and introspective.  We might be more open to thinking about edits we need to make to the script of our lives.  So, the question then becomes:  Do you have that a trusted friend or group of friends you can turn to help you with editing your life?  If you do, then be sure to take advantage of the blessing of a friend (or friends) that you can trust with the plot of your life. If you don't, perhaps this is a time to ask God to help you find that person or persons.

CAUTION: Discernment is required when choosing soul friends.  It's not just anyone that's worthy of such trust; but I can tell you from personal experience that finding a few people with whom you feel safe "going there" is a true gift and blessing.

I firmly believe that God longs to see the "best us" to emerge.  I think God often uses other people in our lives to help that happen—like the life editors/soul friends I've been describing in this article.  When we're at our best, the communities we are part of (whether churches, neighborhoods, schools, jobs, or whatever) will be better because of our presence.  I also believe, however, that becoming our "best selves" doesn't just happen. Forces work against us becoming our “best selves” and pull us away from God.  If we just do what "comes naturally" we will tend to drift away from God.  We must intentionally choose to put forth effort to overcome those forces and actively pursue practices that move us toward God. Lent is a season for "editing our script", for stripping away things that prevent the "best us" from emerging, so we can more easily move toward God and become the person God created us to be.  I pray that this can happen to all of us as we walk the Lenten journey together in the weeks ahead.

[1] I write from the perspective of being a follower of Christ, so this would naturally be the standard to which I seek to adhere. However, I think the concept of life editor could be applied universally to people of all faiths.
[2] The name of the group, as I understood it, came from groups of soldiers who fought together back-to-back in the muddy trenches during World War I—so they literally “had one another’s backs” in battle. Both Jeff and Steve Audi, mentioned later, were part of this group before I knew them.  The group was led by Mark Buckingham, who led Men’s Ministry at Cedar Ridge Community Church (where we all attended when Early Risers started) for a time during the 1990s. 

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