Wednesday, December 31

Thoughts on The Shack

So I finally read The Shack. I've had it for a while, but just never got around to reading it.

Many critics, writing teachers, and others of that ilk have written about the importance of the first line. I mention this because I was nearly as irritated with the first line of the Foreword of The Shack as I was with what's-his-name's purpose-driven stuff (I didn't get past the first chapter of the book that started a dynasty of sorts). The first line of the Foreword reads: "Who wouldn't be skeptical when a man claims to have spent an entire weekend with God, in a shack no less?" Well, me. Maybe some of that old Navigator training really did rub off on me or maybe it's because I've been thinking about taking a spiritual retreat. My thinking was "Good for you! Good for you for making the time to spend an entire weekend being in the presence of God."

But I knew the line is meant to be a set-up for the rest of the story cleverly titled The Shack, which led me to think that the protagonist wouldn't be going to the shack with Thomas Merton-like intentions of a spiritual retreat.

So I read the book and, overall, I liked it. Parts of it dragged as Young (and perhaps his collaborators) worked very hard to hammer home a point. I came away from the book with some thoughts that were interesting to me, though they may be of no value to you.

1. The garden.
I loved the image of Sarayu and Mack working in the garden that was his soul. Given the portrait of his life, the number of weeds and roots and such were not surprising. It did give me pause to think about how messy and chaotic the garden of my soul might look.

2. Ten Commandments.
Some years ago Pastor Colin Smith at Arlington Heights Free Church, now named something else, spoke on the Ten Commandments. He said that the "Thou shalt not" of each commandment was not an injunction on behavior; it's not God shaking his finger at us and telling us what NOT to do. Instead, because of the work of Jesus Christ, "Thou shalt not" tells us that these are things will shall not do if we live freely and fully in Him.

3. I knew I was right about "ought" or I'm free to be one with God.
I was intrigued by the comments about independence and dependence. I've long experienced a great deal of resistance to the word "ought." I caution my students in their use of the word "ought" when they talk about what they believe "ought" to be the case for books, behavior, etc. It is a very judgmental word and quickly establishes there are only certain behaviors, words, etc. that are "appropriate," which means allowable. The language is not only judgmental, but restrictive. But I was also intrigued by the comments about expectations and responsibilities. The notion of expectations is also judgmental. One of the reasons so many of us are so miserable is because of expectations we think others have of us or because of expectations we foist on others, often without letting them know we have such expectations of them. Thus they are bound to disappoint us in some way.

I was in the office on Tue, 12/30. I talked to a few folks about their Christmas holiday and was rather surprised that nearly everyone expressed relief that Christmas was behind them, that they didn't have to spend any more time with family. Some weird, messed-up composite of expectations and responsibilities along with guilt and a few other ingredients, no doubt, is responsible for that. Their comments had nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with familial expectations and responsibilities, which are often inextricably linked.

At one point, Papa (God) reminds Mack there is no need for ritual. That's a man-made thing; we are comfortable with ritual for many reasons. But too often ritual becomes it's own means to an end and suddenly we have to complete a particular ritual for something to happen or so something won't happen.

4. Just say "no" to institutions and "yes" to relationships.
And that leads to the next point. We've created a lot of institutions; a lot of religious institutions that have become so focused on the being of the institution that the reason for the institution has been overlooked or forgotten. This isn't a recent phenomenon; I think this behavior has been going on since the Fall. We create institutions or organizations stained with restrictions the moment we form an exclusive club, the moment we try to exercise power over someone else.

We're not very good at pure relationships, though. Those ideas of "ought" along with expectations and responsibilities insist on creeping in. We find it hard to enjoy relationships for the moments we are able to share without cluttering them with institutional and prescriptive restrictions. Still if we practice just being "in the moment" as goofy as that might sound, we are likely to be a lot more content with our relationships. It was Jim Elliott who said, "Wherever you are, be all there." Focused on the moment, on the task, on the person. We're so much better living in the past or in the future than we are living in the present and yet, we all squander too many moments not being all there in any given moment.

5. I don't see what God sees.
Towards the end of The Shack, Sarayu enables Mack to see the world very differently. It is the authors' idea of what God sees: not just what is, but what can be and will be. So when I look at a person who irritates me for reasons I think are perfectly justifiable, I do not see any of what God sees or how God sees it. I cannot and will not because I am not God, but just thinking about seeing others the way God might see others could help change not only my vision, but my attitude, my perspective, and my own sense of "ought" and its companion "expectations."

As I read those passages in the book, I thought briefly about passages in Ezekiel and in Revelation, of the dimensions that God must be able to see, and wondered again about the selfishness of humanity that we have always been so cavalier about our treatment of the Earth, so presumptuous about our "rights" to whatever we might think we have the "right" to at any given time. No matter how clearly I will try to see anything, I will never on this Earth and in this life see what God sees.

6. God is very fond of me. . . and everyone else. Really.
I liked that this phrase, this concept, was repeated over and over again. We get confused about that word "love" and theologians have to explain again about the differences between eros, koinonia, and agape. But we can understand "fondness." Even if we can't articulate a meaning for the word, it likely brings to mind warmth of feeling, perhaps compassion, perhaps even whatever we might understand "love" to be from someone who has our best interests at heart.

In light of the current events in Gaza and the impact the Israeli airstrikes seem to be having to continue to radicalize and mobilize the Arab community, it seems odd but incredibly necessary to talk about the love of God. I know that a Jew and a Muslim would not see God as I might. I do not know enough about their traditions and their beliefs to make any kind of observation that could be of any value. But there was another observation in The Shack made about Christianity that I found interesting: Jesus does not want to make anyone a Christian. He wants to join them into their transformation into sons and daughters of God, into God's Beloved. More importantly, God is willing to pursue us to transform us.

So then I wondered what might happen if we took nothing else but that idea from The Shack. If we labeled ourselves "believers" if we had to be labeled. If we realized that it really is all about the relationship with God and the relationship as He defines it, not as we try to prescribe it with expectations and "ought". I'm not sure, but I bet it would be startling and beautiful.

I don't make resolutions at the beginning of a New Year. It's pointless because I make resolutions throughout the year and often the same one more than once which is why the whole thing is completely pointless. And even though I'm not throwing myself on The Shack bandwagon because then it becomes it's on idol, it's own ritual and that just gets ugly, it has given me much to think about. So, if nothing else, perhaps in 2009, at the very least, I can remember that God is very fond of me.

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