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”.

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