Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meeting God in "The Shack"

Back in 2007, soon after it came out, my wife read The Shack, by William P. Young. For her it was deeply thought-provoking, disturbing, and a wonderful blessing. She talked to me about it and a good bit of what it contained, but was eager for me to read it to see what I thought of it.

Although I had some interest, my attention was elsewhere and I didn't read it. Then over the next year or so, other friends in our church read it and asked me if I had. When they found out I hadn't, told me I really needed to read it.

Meanwhile as interest in the book mushroomed into a phenomenon and I read some review type material about it, I decided I needed to go ahead and read it. I took it along on our trip to Australia back in May, fully intending to read it on the long plane ride, but I just barely started it. Then a week after we got back from our trip, we moved. So life was pretty crazy for several weeks. But recently (finally, my wife would say) I got around to reading the book.

It was a powerful experience. It impacted me greatly and evoked deep emotions in me. I found myself in tears in various spots during the book. Although I would agree with some writers/reviewers that there are some theological points I would quibble with a bit, in the main it is very sound in its theology, particularly with regards to the main issue dealt with (although there are many corollary issues it's also excellent on): The problem of evil and suffering - How can a good God allow such horrendous evil and such devastating human suffering? The Shack not only articulates what I believe to be a very good, biblical theology in this area, it does so in a way that is very effective in fresh ways. First, it does so without the usual jargon, using very clear and understandable language and images. This book also forces you to move beyond some of the notions of God that we all tend to hold, perhaps even unconsciously. But something else - The Shack is not a treatise that mainly uses an intellectual argument, but one that is visceral. You can't read this book without it "messing with you," as one of my colleagues commented. The very notion of a person being called to go to meet God precisely at the very point of his pain pierces you right in the gut.

At least one of the reasons this book is so powerful is that it uses the same method of teaching Jesus himself used so effectively: telling a story - a story that is ultimately about us...and God.

The main message of The Shack is to communicate that God desires to be in relationship with us and is willing to go (and has gone and does go) to unimaginable lengths to reach us, and that the only way for us to be whole is through that relationship.

This certainly doesn't represent all my thoughts and reflections about this book (nor about the issues raised). I will continue to reflect on it and am planning a sermon series in September. An additional book I'm now reading is a theological reflection on The Shack entitled Finding God in the Shack.

I recommend reading The Shack. It will mess with you.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Giant Leaps

I've been doing a lot of reflecting the last few days (and particularly today) regarding the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. 40 years ago today, human beings first set foot on a world other than this earth.

In May 1961 in a speech before Congress, President John F. Kennedy made this startling declaration:
"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

It sounded so outlandish. And I'm sure that as NASA began working on actually achieving this goal, it seemed even more so. Kennedy's next sentence even acknowledges the audacity of this goal:
"No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

On this day almost 40 years later, after which we've experienced unimaginable technological and scientific advancement, it's STILL an impressive achievement. We can't really understand how ridiculous it seemed at the time almost 50 years ago. And yet our country did it, and with technology, computers, systems, etc. that seem almost Mickey Mouse compared to today. But for Kennedy and those intrepid souls at NASA in the 1960's, it wasn't just a dream; it was a vision - a vision that they then worked to see happen.

"One small step for a giant leap for mankind" were the words that Mission Commander Neil Armstrong uttered as he set foot on the moon on this day 40 years ago, the first human - probably the first living being - to do so. But there's a sense in which the giant leap was not Armstrong's, but Kennedy's, who dared to be captured by a vision and then to provide the leadership to inspire a nation to see it realized.

So often in our lives, both as individuals and as congregations, we fail to have vision. Oh, we may dream big dreams, but we do it as fantasies that will never be realized. Our vision is often too small. We have too small a vision of what might be, not because of how great or capable we are, but our failure to see the power of God. And too often when we catch a glimpse of an audacious vision of what God wants to do in us or in our midst, we're so intimidated by it that we're content to allow it to remain a fantasy, rather than articulate it as a vision - as Kennedy did. Max Lucado on his Twitter page today said, "The worship of safety emasculates greatness. No wonder Jesus wages such a war against fear."

Paul says in Ephesians 3:21 (The Message):
"God can do anything, you know - far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams!"

God help us not only to dream great dreams, but be captured by an audacious vision - to "shoot for the moon" and be empowered to reach it, to cause the vision to come to be, as we allow his power to be at work in us.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Making a Home

My wife and I have been talking lately about what it means to “make our home” in Fredericksburg, where we moved last month. It’s been a bit strange in that on the one hand, we’ve been here for about a month or so now, so there’s a sense in which we’ve been “making our home” here for all that time – getting acquainted with the church, both the facility and congregation/staff, finding our way around town, etc. But on the other hand, we’ve only been in the house for a week (we lived in our 5th-wheel trailer for a month!), so we’re only beginning to “make our home” there. So it’s been a bit odd.

Of course, living the life of an itinerant United Methodist pastor, and my wife even living the life of an “Army brat” in her growing up years, home for us has a different meaning than it does for folks who’ve lived in the same community their whole lives (some even in the same house). One of the ways she is making this parsonage (i.e., church-provided home for the pastor) our “home” is filling the tops of the kitchen cabinets with all sorts of knick-knacks, etc. all of which have a special value or meaning from her life and our life together. That helps her to feel like it’s “home.”

I remember our daughter (who’s now almost 24) wrote an essay or paper while in college on this subject, and of course, did so from the perspective of the child of an itinerant pastor. Her main thesis was that for her, who has made her home in different communities, schools, neighborhoods, congregations, and houses, “home” is our family. That’s where the anchor is. She identified home not with place or location, but relationship. It’s also true, however, that as an itinerant parsonage family, we experienced a lot of change in other relationships.

But it occurs to me that these dynamics are true for many of the rest of us, as well, even those who’ve lived in one community their whole lives. The landscape changes, relationships change (old ones fade away, new ones come along, and the others go through changes, as well). For any of us, the only relationship that is constant is our relationship with God. Of course, that one changes, too – but it’s because we (hopefully) grow; God never changes. His faithfulness never wavers.

The Christian life is referred to both in Scripture and other Christian literature not as a place, location, or even set of human relationships in which we settle, but rather a journey – a “walk” in which we travel. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we “follow” – we move, rather than park ourselves. We are pilgrims, not settlers. But our most important relationship – the one we have with God – anchors us so we can move and be open to change; in our relationships and sometimes in our location. As a song about the Christian life says, “The journey is our home.”

My goal is to be so anchored in my relationship with Jesus Christ that I’m able to be open to all the new places and new relationships as I “make my home” in a new place.