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Musings on The Shack

Sermon - 2/22/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Mark 9:2-8

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. 

'Epiphany' 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 year.

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 intriguing.

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 says:

"Mackenzie:  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 way?'.

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 am".

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 another.

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 J].  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! J.  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 J.

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 intervene.

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 will not".

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 powerful.

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 ever.

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.


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