The text for our
reflection is the 9th chapter of the gospel of Mark, verses 2 through 8:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
The transfiguration of Jesus, as this
story is known, is an 'epiphany' story. It is traditionally the
story used on the last Sunday of the epiphany season before the
beginning of Lent. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent, the
season of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday of this week.
means simply "appearance" or "manifestation". The season begins
with the appearance of the star that guided the Magi to Bethlehem, which
is traditionally celebrated on January 6th. And hence the stars
that have been overhead all through the Epiphany Season for us this
And in this story, the shimmering of
Jesus in dazzling white is taken as also an epiphany experience. A
revelation of the divine, confirmed by the voice from the heavens "This
is my son the beloved, listen to him".
Now, while we all may have are own
little epiphany experiences -- those "ah ha!" moments that reveal
something to us -- this kind of transfigurative epiphany experience,
when God is manifested in a way that is so real it is overwhelming and
overpowering, is, I suspect, at best a once-in-a-lifetime experience for
most of us, if at all.
William Paul Young's book,
The Shack, is
such an epiphany story. For those who have not caught on to The
Shack craze, it is a number one best-seller on the New York Times list.
You can still find large stacks of it in the bookstores, COSTCO, Barnes
& Noble and the like.
It's a very religious book with a
fascinating story and a portrayal of God that crosses the lines of
conservative and liberal, traditional and modern. It appeals to
all kinds of people.
I want to sum up the story this morning
for those that haven't read it, and for the sake of those who still
plan to read it I will not divulge all the details or reveal all of
the ending (though I may give some hints along the way).
Parts of the book, I found wonderful.
Powerful. Transformative. Some parts I found trite.
One of the words someone used to describe it was "contrived".
Yeah, maybe. A few parts I found downright irritating -- thinking
to myself "Arrggh, I wish he hadn't said it that way". So please
don't take this as an endorsement in any way for everything in the book,
or all of the theology of the book. But it is, I think, very
The first thing I have to say is this
story is fiction. No different than Lord of the Rings, Harry
Potter and the like. Except that it is more than fiction --
it is a story which presumes to portray the timeless truths about the
nature of God. And it is that portrayal which has created all of
the 'buzz' about it.
The question which must be asked of
this story is "Is it true?". Not "Did it happen?". There's a
difference between those two questions. But is its portrayal of
God true to the character of God? If it is, some people are in for
a big surprise. It is hardly a traditional portrayal of
God, beginning with the fact that God appears as a large, black woman
with a quirky sense of humor and who loves to cook! And if that
doesn't throw you for a loop, well, then, you'll enjoy the book.
So here's the story in a nutshell:
Mackenzie Allen Phillips, or Mack as he
is known, is the son of an abusive, alcoholic father who once tied him
up to a tree, beat him with a belt and Bible verses for 2 days in a
drunken rage. And so Mack, for his own survival's sake, ran away
at the age of 13. And not surprisingly, has a love-hate
relationship with God and religion. After traveling much of the
world, fighting in a war, attending Seminary, he settles down in, of all
places, Oregon. Evidently somewhere near Portland, marries Nan,
who in many ways is his salvation. They raise 5 kids. Mack
was everything to his children that his own father was not. Life
was good. Until it all came abruptly to a halt when Missy, his 5
year-old daughter (the youngest of the five) is kidnapped by a serial
killer while camping in Eastern Oregon. Authorities track the
killer to a shack on a small lake in the Wallowa Mountains, where they
find Missy's blood-stained dress, but the killer and his victim
disappear without a trace.
Now that part of the book is a very
hard read. And thus begins what Mack calls 'the great sadness'.
Through it all, Nan somehow retains her close relationship with God, who
she calls "Papa". But the great sadness only deepens the
separation that Mack feels from God. The story of the the shack
begins then, four years later, when a note appears in Mack's mailbox.
It's been awhile. I've missed you. I'll be at the shack
next weekend if you want to get together. Signed-Papa."
Now you can imagine the turmoil that
this causes for Mack. Is this some kind of cruel joke? Is it
a trap laid by the killer? Does God even write notes? In any
event, Mack cannot not go, if for no other reason than to find
out what happened to Missy. Whether it be the killer or God, he's
got to know. And so he goes.
What happens then at the shack over the
weekend is what the book is all about. When Mack arrives at the
shack in the midst of winter (snow is on the ground), nothing has
changed at the shack. The stain of Missy's blood is still visible
on the floor. Finding no sign of God, no answer to his questions,
no relief his pain, he unleashes four years of pent-up anger at God,
smashing furniture and windows until he is exhausted. And he
concludes that God, in fact, is nowhere to be found and that once again,
as in his childhood, and at the disappearance of his daughter, in his
time of greatest need, God has let him down. Tired and defeated,
he whispers: "I'm done God. I can't do this anymore".
And so Mack leaves the shack, leaves
God behind. With nothing but emptiness.
Now, I don't know if the author is
familiar with the great mystics of our faith or contemporary authors
like Matthew Fox who talk about the need to face the darkness. To
embrace the emptiness. To sink into the nothingness. To get
rid of all the clutter and stuff of our lives and our brain, to let it
all go before we can find God. And so it was for Mack.
Walking away from that shack, walking away from God, his world suddenly
changes. Winter gives way to Spring, the forest comes to life.
The shack becomes a picturesque log cabin with smoke lazily twirling out
of the chimney.
And there are a number of humorous
moments that follow. That turn this tragic tale into a very
enjoyable one that makes you laugh. As Mack meets
Papa (the large black woman -- it takes
you awhile to get used to calling her 'Papa') and a not very attractive
man of Middle-Eastern descent (of course, turns out to be Jesus) and
Sarayu, and Asian woman who shimmers and is hard to look at (presumably
the Holy Spirit). So we have here the Trinity, and as Mack notes,
two women, one man, not one of them white.
"Which of you is God?", he asks, rather
confused. And all 3 reply in unison "I am". Which of course
Bible students will recognize as the name of God that is revealed to
Moses in the story of the burning bush, another epiphany story.
The next two days are filled with deep
theological and philosophical conversation as Mack's stereotypes of God
and religion are shattered one by one. He crosses the lake with
Jesus -- by foot, of course. He plants a garden with Sarayu, he
eats freshly baked scones on the porch sitting in a rocking chair with
God. All the while struggling with the big question 'how could
this wonderful, loving God that he comes to know in such an intimate way
allow his precious little daughter to be killed in such a horrendous
It is, of course, one of the toughest
questions anyone ever has to face: If God is good, why is there so
much evil in this world?
And Mack eventually finds the answer to
that question, but I have to tell you, as one who has known that great
sadness, I did not find his answer satisfying. It's not the answer
I would have given.
But before we get to that, let me share
a few of the insights from the book which I did find most stimulating,
powerful, and satisfying. First of all, there is this whole
Trinity thing that has confounded us (particularly among Disciples of
Christ) for so many years. Disciples, traditionally, have not
liked the concept of the Trinity. It's always been a problem for
us, a doctrine, and we have no doctrine -- no creed but Christ.
So what do we do with this Trinity
thing? Well, Papa says to Mack "that you cannot grasp the wonder
of my nature is rather a good thing. Who wants to worship a God
who can be fully comprehended? Not much mystery in that. We
are not three Gods, and we are not talking about 1 God with three
attitudes". [I have to stop and say I think this is a misprint.
Because traditionally, it's God with three "attributes", not attitudes.
But on the other hand, this particular God is a God with an attitude.
So maybe it's right J].
Papa says: "If I were simply 1 God and only 1 person then you
would find yourself in this creation without something wonderful,
without something essential even, and I would be utterly other than I
Mack, confused, asks "And that would be
without. . . ". Not knowing how to finish his question, Papa fills
in "love and relationship. All love and relationship is possible
for you only because it already exists within me. Within God
myself. I am love".
Now, have you ever heard Trinity
described in terms of love? Those are two things we don't often
put together. But when you read this story and see the way that
Papa, Jesus and Sarayu interact with one another, you make that
connection. It is such wonderful, warm, loving relationship, it's
contagious. You want to have it to -- you want to share it.
The love of these three for each other is the love of God. It's
that relationship of love that exists within God's being that defines
who God is.
One of the many surprises that comes in
the story is when Mack tries to figure out which of these three
ultimately is in charge. You know, there has got to be some chain
of command, right? God, then Jesus, then the Holy Spirit, right?
Sarayu tells him: "We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain
of command. "Hierarchy", she informs him, "destroys true
relationship. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from
power", she says. "Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up
missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you".
Utopian, perhaps. Idealistic,
certainly. But there's some wonderful insights here on the true
meaning of relationship that is worthy of consideration. And I
think it changes a lot of things in the way we interact with one
While I'm on this topic of surprises,
another one is when Jesus says "The people who know me are the ones who
are free to live and love without any agenda". Mack asks:
"Is that what it means to be a Christian?". Jesus replies:
"Who said anything about being a Christian? I'm not a Christian!".
[Now that's going to surprise some people
Jesus goes on to say: "Those who love me come from every system
that exists", and then gives a list of religious, political, and the
like. And he says: "I have no desire to make them Christian.
But I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and
daughters of my Papa. Into brothers and sisters into my beloved".
And I love this broad vision that the
author paints here. But I find it, I have to tell you, a little
disingenuous that those 'beloved of Jesus' are not Christian, especially
since the book ends with the proclamation that Jesus is the Lord of all
creation and one day all knees will bow to him. I think our
interfaith friends would find that a little surprising. It just
doesn't work to say that you don't have to be Christian and then to say
it's all about Jesus. Intellectually, that is dishonest.
Ironically, that aside, for all the
talk about God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit, the author is pretty
anti-religious. And organized religion in general, and the church
in particular is portrayed rather negatively in the book. Jesus
says: "I don't create institutions, that is an occupation for
those who want to play God". Well, for those of us who's
occupation is in the institution, you know, that hurts!
And Jesus goes on to say: "Religion, politics, and economics are
the man-created Trinity of terrors that ravage the earth. What
mental turmoil and anxiety does any human face that is not related to
one of those three?". I have to admit, he's right. He's right.
But on the other hand, without religion and economics, would his book
become a best seller? Just asking
My biggest objection comes precisely at
the critical moment when the author tries to resolve the problem of evil
as manifested in Missy's death. Papa tells Mack that she could
have intervened to save Missy but did not for purposes that Mack could
not yet understand. And tragically, I think this too often has
been the answer we give to the problem of evil when we don't have a
better answer. We don't understand why God does not do more about
it, other than that it has something to do with free will that God gives
to us. And that means accepting the hard consequences of the
terrible choices people make because God chooses not to
Frankly, I have to tell you, for me and
our family, when murder struck us, that is a LOUSY answer.
It is not satisfying at all.
A much better answer, I think, was
given yesterday by John Dominic Crossan (speaking at First United
Methodist Church) in his lecture. The central message of Jesus,
reiterated by Paul, he says, was about the Kingdom -- the realm of God
available to us know which could put an end to injustice, to evil, to
violence in this world. And that realm, the technical term in the
scripture is 'eschaton', Dominic Crossan calls "the divine cleanup of
the world". It is a collaborative effort between us
and God. Instead of us waiting for God to act, God is waiting for
us to act with God. Evil happens not because of God's failure to
intervene, evil happens because of humanity's failure to not be as God
would have us be.
In other words, quoting Archbishop Tutu
(as Crossan did yesterday): "God without us cannot, we without God
It is not the choice of God, it is the
choice we make.
It is a question of living in right
relationship with God, with each other, and with all of the created
order. Then, and only then, will evil, injustice, and violence
finally be defeated.
And that brings me to the last theme of
the book that I want to lift up and praise: Judgment and
forgiveness, and the relationship between them.
This story has to be one of the most
powerful stories of forgiveness since Jesus told the story of the
prodigal son (I kid you not). Mack asks Papa if she doesn't really
enjoy punishing people who disappoint her. Because, you know, as
humans it feels so good to get revenge. Papa replies:
"I am not who you think
I am, MacKenzie. I don't need to punish people for sin. Sin
is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It's not my
purpose to punish it, it's my joy to cure it".
Of course the way that God does that is
through forgiveness. "I don't do humiliation or guilt or
condemnation", she says (another surprise), "they don't produce one
speck of wholeness or righteousness and that is why they were nailed
into Jesus on the cross".
Though Papa says while you can never
forget sin, because of Jesus, she says "there is now no law demanding
that I bring your sins back to mine. They are gone when it comes
to you and me. Forgiveness is an incredible power, a power you
share with us (God, Jesus and Sarayu). Forgiveness is first for
you the forgiver to release you from something that will eat you alive,
that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly.
I want to help you to take on that nature that finds more power in love
and forgiveness than in hate".
Wow. How Mack learns to do that,
and to apply that to all the people in his life, I'll leave to the book.
Suffice it to say, it is transformative in ways that are incredibly
Now, I have to ask: does God
require us to forgive all people of all wrongs?
Well, remember again what Papa says:
"I don't do humiliation or guilt or shame".
So I think it would be wrong to place
any such absolutes on what we have to do. And right now, I can't
imagine anyone who has lost their life savings, has to sell their home
because of some huckster in a fancy suit with complex investment
schemes, that they would be apt to forgive that person any time soon, if
It is not our place to say who must
forgive who. It is only our place to decide when we need to
forgive others as God has forgiven us.
This story of Mack may be fiction, but
his struggle with these issues are our struggles. And so I think
we have something to learn from them.
At some point, everyone who has gone up
the mountain must come down. So did Jesus, and the disciples,
that's what the transition from Epiphany to Lent is all about -- coming
down from the mountain into the real world. And so too does Mack.
Though he is given the option of remaining there in the mountains with
Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu, he wisely chooses to return. What happens
next is another surprise I'll leave to the book. I will note this
testimony from his friend Willy, who is the teller of the tale:
"Mack, well, he's a
human being that continues through a process of change like the rest of
us. And he welcomes it, while I tend to resist it. I have
noticed that he loves larger than most, and is quick to forgive and even
quicker to ask for forgiveness. The transformations in him have
caused quite a ripple through his community of relationships. And
not all of them easy. But I have to tell you that I've never been
around another adult who lives life with such simplicity and joy".
Such a transformation is possible, for
all of us, with God.