Hating on “The Shack”?

shack  For the record, I’ve read “The Shack.” And no, I don’t believe it’s heresy… as many of my church-going Facebook friends do and re-post often.

Most of them haven’t read the book or seen the movie. Yet, their advice is to avoid it like the plague. My seminary-trained nephew compared suggesting he actually read Shack to my asking him to drink spoiled milk. To hear him expound on his reasoning, you’d think I was asking him to drink poison.

To be clear, I’m a Christ-follower. I’m also someone who made a living as a writer. As such, I appreciate people taking the time to read my work before forming an opinion. Accepting someone else’s translation of my words doesn’t do it justice.

(I suggest Bible critics do the same thing: read the Bible with an open mind before arguing about it. A lot of what you’ve heard is in there is missing, misquoted or misconstrued.)

The Shack is a novel aka a work of fiction. It’s the story of a man’s grappling with God, or rather God reaching out to him, after an unspeakable tragedy touches his family. I’m not going to be a spoiler and give away the details. If you want an overview, go to: http://www1.cbn.com/books/whats-so-bad-about-the-shack

Evidently, some critics expected a solidly Christian message and/or gospel presentation given the story deals with “biblical” issues. The Shack, however, goes outside the box to depict Father God as an African-American woman, the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman and Christ as a way to God, but maybe not the only way.

Presenting the Trinity in a multi-body, gender-bending form is in stark contrast to Scripture which teaches that God is spirit, that “in Christ is all the fullness of the godhead bodily”  and that Jesus plainly says “I am the way” to the Father.

Why expect fiction to rightly represent non-fiction? Does it matter if the author is Christian (or maybe a universalist, depending your point of view)? Does being Christian mean a writer is bound only to write strictly chapter-and-verse equivalent texts? Does being creative mean being heretical?

I hope not. I’ve written about serial killers; contractors who cheat; corporate deceptions and outright liars who purported to be Christian. Does daring to pen their stories make my relationship with God suspect?

I think the outcry over The Shack misses the point of the novel, which is very clear to me: No matter how tormented and terrorized by life we may be, God loves us and He cares. He is willing to meet us in the middle of our mess, restore our souls and make our lives into something beautiful. All He asks of us is to respond to His call.

Seems biblical to me: Christ came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). We didn’t choose Him, He chose us. (John 15:16)

We modern-day Christians are in danger of becoming irrelevant with our knee-jerk rejection of everything with which we disagree.

Yes, we must know the genuine to spot the counterfeit, which means knowing what the Bible teaches so that we can separate truth from error. But what is the good of knowing the Truth if we are so objectionable that we never get to share Him?

I believe that Christ has left us in the world so that we might engage the culture in a way that brings people to God. Jesus calls this being His witnesses.

So if we think the devil is in the details of The Shack, why not do what Scripture teaches: “Examine all things; hold fast that which is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21) It’s a good place to start building bridges instead of erecting walls.

Call me a heretic, but I think we serve a big God and limit Him with our little minds. One day we are going to be surprised by the tools He used to draw people closer to Himself, maybe even an unorthodox book like The Shack.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

 

 

 

Love: Show More Than Tell

There’s nothing like death to give you a fresh perspective on life. And I’m recently returned from a funeral.

Everyone there seemed to know the departed in slightly different ways and even by slightly different names. Some called him by his last name, Bellamy. Others used a nickname, Billy. To me, he was Uncle Monroe, his given name and the one my mother always used.

To some, he was a co-worker. To others, a friend, a fellow church member or a relative. Some knew him on the nightshift in work clothes. Others recognized him in dapper duds at formal dinners. He’d lived for decades in an urban metropolis but his roots were rural and he never forgot.

He was a fixture in my life. My mother’s last sibling and slightly younger brother born on Christmas Eve, he was tall and well-dressed whether in plain clothes or Sunday go-to-meeting suits. Mustachioed and smelling of Aramis cologne, he’d suddenly appear in our driveway for a visit, fresh off the road from his home in Atlanta slightly more than 100 miles away.

He always drove a truck, stick shift until the knee began to bother him, with a camper top and cooler in the back full of drinks. The truck changed by the years, but the greeting was always the same, “Hey, baby!”

My uncle never talked much about himself to me. I knew his son graciously shared him with the nieces. I vaguely knew that he’d served in the Armed Forces, worked at the post office. He was a Baptist when everyone else in the family went to African Methodist Episcopal Church. He didn’t push church. When I worked in Atlanta, he invited me just once that I remember: to hear a singer with a voice fit for the Met who had grown up in the congregation.

At the funeral, I got the full resume. He’d served in the Navy. He was married to the same woman for 68 years. He worked for the post office, 36 years. He was an honorable “Deacon Emeritus” who had mentored several deacons who would mature to become chairmen of the board. He himself had devoted many years to bereavement ministry.

The details of my uncle’s life were long a mystery but his consistent, unmistakable love for me was very clear. I sat at his funeral remembering how he drove his truck from Atlanta to Raleigh nearly 30 years ago to give me away at my wedding. It would have been much easier to buy a plane ticket. The drive was a gesture of love, again. Mom needed a ride, and they enjoyed each other’s company.

I know that I’m partial, but my Uncle really was something special. Most of us Christians are the Titus 1:16 variety: we claim to know God but our actions deny him. We talk too much and live too little. We don’t cultivate real relationships. We’re plastic, chameleons who are so busy doing “church” that we’ve forgotten we are Christ’s ambassadors.

My friend, God is love. God so loved the world that He gave us His Son at great sacrifice for our good.

I know my uncle loved God, because he loved me all my life.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35

Forget Fault

 Once upon a time, a family bought a wonderfully clean car for a steal-of-a-deal and considered themselves fortunate to have gotten so lucky… until the car had a catastrophic coolant failure at a traffic light resulting in a repair bill that cost more than the car’s Blue Book value.

These Christian folk had a choice to make: to accept the situation with grace as a “Life Happens” moment while trusting God for the next step or to do what most of us do when something goes wrong: find someone to blame.

The reasoning goes something like this: If something is wrong, it has to be someone’s fault. What we actually mean is,  someone else’s fault.

This family had several blame options. They could have blamed the guy who sold them the car, the driver for failing to check the hood, the mechanic for not pointing out a potential defect, themselves for being gullible consumers or God for not preventing the whole thing.

Needing to assign blame before we can move on is a failure to grapple with an uncomfortable truth. Sometimes things really do “just happen,” at least from a human perspective. There is no “fault.”

In the case of that family car, the cause of the problem appeared to be metal fatigue. A metal part suddenly failed.

It’s the rare person who can simply accept something like that and move toward a solution without bitterness, ranker and causing a helluva stink. In corporate-speak, such stinks are known as “venting,” translated as having a fit just to make yourself feel as though you’ve done something. Nothing good ever comes of it, of course, which brings me to the next point.

From a Christian viewpoint even when we can find the smoking gun, what does it really matter? Being able to point to someone and say “whodunit” may make a nice wrap for an Agatha Christie Poirot mystery,” but it doesn’t fix problems, heal relationships or promote spiritual growth.

Maybe the question isn’t  who is to blame but “What can I learn from this?” God always wants us to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  (2 Peter 3:18)  And He uses all of life to accomplish this end.

Our persistence in placing blame is really pointless. (It hasn’t done anything constructive for me.) We’re all guilty of being human. We are faulty creatures who make mistakes, despite our best intentions. When things go wrong, as they sometimes do, my challenge is to take it personally, to see it as opportunity to press into God a little closer, to listen more intently for His voice, to become more God-focused and less self-reliant.

Ultimately, we Christians are called to put our trust in God, not in our circumstances whether they be good or bad. Life really does happen in unpredictable ways, and we can make ourselves crazy by demanding to know the why.

As time goes by, I am learning to leave the mysteries of life in the hands of a faithful, all-wise God, believing that through life’s struggles He is “working in me both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:13)

Got Gifts? Thank the Giver.

Ever stop to think that everything you have is a gift?

I have. Each of my children was born into the world naked, screaming, filling their little lungs with free air. They are a gift to me, not something I crafted with my own hands and certainly not something my doctors created.

They never expected me to have children. Yet, I have them, each one born in a hospital birthing room with those amazed doctors attending.

After the Apgar scores, they were washed, diapered, heads topped with little knit caps and their little bodies tightly bundled in those pink-and-blue striped blankets that made them look like little sausages.

From the beginning, everything my children have had has been a gift:

Blankets, onesies and toys and all that would come later: a multitude of meals, museum visits, picnics, voice and ballet lessons, T-ball, soccer, basketball and countless uniforms, haircuts and hairdos, truckloads of clothes, birthday parties with armloads of gifts, braces, vacations, plane tickets, medical care, hospital stays (only a few, for which we are thankful) and camp and college fees. Our continual presence, protection, provision.

All of it a gift.

No strings. No price. Just: Because we love you, we are freely giving you what you need and some of what you want. Enjoy the gift.

This is actually my story and yours, too.

Think of it. We are naturally selfish, greedy, all-about-me creatures. We like to take credit for our successes, blabbering about pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps and being self-made men and women.

Nonsense. We’d all be nothing if Someone hadn’t been generous with us.

The apostle Paul wrote:

“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive. And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (I Cor 4:7)

 

  • Smart? Have a mind for high level math… facility with languages… musically gifted? You had nothing to do with that. Some gifts are hard-wired. You might have been born with a deficit of some kind, a learning disorder.

 

  • Beautiful? Be thankful instead of vain. You could just as easily bare an unsightly deformity. Though society elevates the “beautiful,” being unattractive doesn’t diminish one’s worth. Believe it or not, God actually takes responsibility for the less than perfect people among us. (Exodus 4:11)

 

  • Born to wealth? So what? You didn’t earn it. None of us choose our parents. You could have as easily been born into Third World poverty.

The older I get, the more I am aware that we make too much of ourselves. We so easily forget from whence we came, or what might have been, and to whom we owe a great debt.

Our pastor recently ended an eloquent sermon about the life of Noah with a point that has stayed with me: No matter where we go, no matter what we achieve, no matter who we become, we ought never to forget God.

God alone is the author of Life. It is He who made and formed us. (Deu 32:6) And it is God who makes possible every good thing we enjoy: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17)

Enjoy the good gifts of life, but don’t get twisted about their source. I didn’t do it and neither did you. God did.

Honor Where It’s Due

   My son asked me the other day why someone we know routinely mispronounces the word “sword,” opening with the sound of the Nike symbol “swish.” The guy has an earned PhD and still doesn’t know that the “w” in sword is silent?

My guess is he learned to say “sword” as a child by repeating the way someone close to him said it, maybe a parent or grandparent. As a full-grown, well-educated man that pronunciation has stuck with him as part of his family fabric. His wife, who also holds a doctorate, is probably the only one close enough to him to correct him. She probably won’t, out of love and respect for him.

Then I told my son a story from my own childhood.

When I was growing up my Mom would come home from the beauty shop or grocery store and mention that she saw someone we knew, only she didn’t use the word “saw.” Typically, she’d say “I seed” so-and-so. As long as I can remember this was Mom’s way of expressing the past tense of “see.”

Mom was an intelligent and resourceful lady with beautiful handwriting and a love of newspapers, magazines and Paul Harvey. She’d left the South before graduating high school to go north for better opportunities and returned years later to work long hours in a textile mill.

In spite of all that (or maybe because of it), Mom valued and encouraged education. To her credit, all the girls who grew up in her home graduated from college and went on to earn advanced degrees. We never scrubbed toilets, did laundry or kept house for anyone but ourselves.

I’ll tell you something else we never did. We never corrected her when she said she “seed” someone.

I learned the English language well enough to earn a living as a writer, but I knew better than to tell my Mom how to speak. Some things are sacrosanct. My relationship with my Mom was one of them. What I am today, I owe in large part to the foundation she laid. Out of respect, I understood that it was not my place to correct her.

My place was to honor her. Not because she was perfect. Not because she was always right. She was neither of these things, but she was my mother. The position alone afforded her a respect that was inviolate.

 

The Bible says (and yes, I still believe the Bible is right):

 

“Honor your father and mother”—which is the first commandment with a promise—so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Ephesians 6:2-3

 

To honor someone is to recognize their value. We may have many friends, many mentors. Parents stand alone. We ought to appreciate them, to hold them in high regard.

Do I even need to say that biblical honor is all but dead?

Children routinely return from college to shove their “enlightenment” in their parents’ faces, rejecting and ridiculing everything their parents’ hold dear and everything they were taught to respect. The children feel smug in being liberated from their parents’ so-called ignorance and antiquated ways.

These “smart” young people are ignorant of a truth I learned early in my marriage: To honor your parents is to bless yourself.

I learned this after my husband took me to task for my being rude and disdainful toward my father. I justified my behavior by rehearsing how he was biologically my father, but never had assumed a father’s role in my daily life. So what did I owe him? My husband bluntly reminded me that wasn’t the point.

As a Christian, out of love and respect for God, he said, I had an obligation to honor my father for the position he held in my life. He was my father, period. Simple, but very hard to accept. I understood that my mother should be respected. She’d raised me. My father never had been a real father to me but was my “father” nevertheless. God’s clear command was to honor him for that alone. I could not escape that.

A lifetime’s bad habit is not easily broken. But I repented; and I worked at it .

Before my father died of lung cancer, less than a decade ago, I had the privilege of spending the better part of day with him at his home in the Bronx. We poured over pictures from his youth, his service photos, and neighborhood snapshots. I listened to his stories. It was awkward, but worth the effort. When he died, I had far fewer regrets than I might have.

Honor belongs to parents, but the blessing goes to children: “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

As we approach Mother’s Day on May 11 and Father’s Day in June, consider that parents have a short shelf life. Both mine are gone. Honor yours while you can, even if they haven’t been what you might have hoped. Without them, there would be no “you.”

In an age of easy abortion, that your parents gave you life is blessing enough. If they loved and cherished you, were real parents despite their frailties, you are blessed indeed!

Kiss Ishmael Goodbye!

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

You know Ishmael. You probably have one yourself.

Ishmael is my attempt to get what I want on my schedule because I’m not willing to wait for God to act. Practically speaking, Ishmael is a manifestation of my own self-will, impatience and unbelief. Ishmael is me saying, “Okay, God. Since you won’t, I will.”

Historically, of course, Ishmael is Abraham and Sarah’s solution to a problem created by God. The Book of Genesis introduces this childless couple, past the age of childbearing, with no heir in a culture where male offspring meant something. God, of His own volition, promised Abraham a son. Independent of anything Abraham would do, God said here is what I will do.

But God did not say when. And waiting is always the hardest part.

As years passed, in the minds of Abraham and Sarah, time was running out. They began to write their own script.

Scene 1: Sarah gives Abe her handmaid Hagar; who gets pregnant and gets an attitude. Sarah gets offended, takes her hurt out on Hagar, who runs away. Fast forward, Hagar returns, gives birth to Ishmael. Abraham has a son!  And so begins the resulting family drama.

Scene 2: Eventually, Sarah does become pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. Now Abraham, age 100, has two sons. Ishmael: the son of Abraham and Sarah’s presumption. Isaac: the son of God promised. Abraham is on cloud nine, but not for long. Their improvised solution now presents an unavoidable problem. Ishmael and Isaac cannot coexist, no matter what the bumper sticker says.

Abraham’s story is my story, our story.

In our early years, life stretches before us, a blank canvas. As years pass, we don’t always like the scene we’ve painted; our hopes and dreams aren’t realized. We wrote The Great American novel, twice, and no one will publish it. We married Prince Charming and are now living with Homer Simpson. We got an MBA and still got passed over for promotion.  The prodigal we’ve prayed for is at home in the Far Country with no plans to move.

Ishmaels are conceived at this intersection of disappointment and disillusionment:

  • a cross country move for a “dream job” that uproots the family and almost destroys a marriage
  •  an ill-timed and under-financed business venture;
  • divorce and/or marriage to a trophy spouse or newly discovered “soul mate”
  • etc., etc., etc.

Ever birthed any Ishmaels? I have. Unwilling to wait, I’ve struck out on my own. When God finally did what He said He would do – as He always does – I couldn’t enjoy His blessing the way I might have if I’d waited. Ishmael complicates things. Ishmael, as Abraham’s history reveals, is a complication for my children and their children for generations to come. That’s why he has to go.

It’s not easy to send him packing. Ishmael is my baby, a part of me. Abraham invested 14 years in Ishmael, pouring himself into that relationship, before Isaac came along. But that didn’t change God’s perspective. Ishmael was Abraham’s idea, not God’s.  And God will not abandon His plan to sanctify the result of my carnality. He won’t kill Ishmael either. I have to deal with the monster I created.

God gives us the choice. Ishmael or Isaac? Your plan or mine; what’s it going to be?

I’m kissing Ishmael goodbye.

When the tears dry and the dust settles, I expect to find what Joshua found after the battles beyond the Jordan. God will have kept His  promise, in His time.

“Not a word failed of any good thing which the LORD had spoken to the house of Israel. All came to pass.” Joshua 21:45

God Wants You to Live

  • A pregnant mother is brutally murdered in her suburban home, teeth fragments scattered around her room, blood puddling so that her toddler, left unharmed by the assailant, tracks crimson footprints through the house. The convicted killer: her husband.
  • A woman is shot dead in her employer’s parking lot by the father of her children in the midst of a protracted custody battle that ends as a murder-suicide. Their children: orphaned. 
  • A young man is stabbed to death in his own apartment. Police arrest his live-in partner amid rumors of domestic abuse.

These are not random plot lines from an episode of CSI or, my personal favorite, The Closer.

These are real life tragedies involving flesh-and-blood people whose names and faces I knew. Not characters in a Hollywood drama. These were neighbors, fellow church members, co-workers.

No one ever expects to actually know somebody whose life ends in homicide. But what used to be the stuff of screenplays or page-turning novels has become the scenario of everyday life.

Relationships matter.

The people with whom we choose to enter into intimate relationship can alter the course of our lives for good or ill. The right relationships with the right people can be a blessing, life-giving. The wrong relationships with the wrong people in the wrong circumstances can be deadly.

How do we know which people can be trusted? We don’t. Ultimately, those who have a relationship with God, must choose to trust God. Through Jeremiah, the prophet, God said this:

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” He added: “I, the Lord, search the heart…” 

Whatever else may be a mystery to you about God, know this:

Now, be honest. Do you see yourself or someone you know living a plot line with the potential to end badly – in bruises, body bags, morgues?

Resolve to do something: To get help, To get out.

No one has to die. You can walk away. You can start over. God makes all things new.

* Are you in Wake County, NC and need safety, support, aware in a domestic violence situation?  Interact offers a 24-hour crisis line: 866-291-0855 Toll-Free or visit http://www.interactofwake.org/