Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Kingdom

One of my flat-bellied friends phoned me the other day and said that he had finally figured out why I don’t talk much about the kingdom of God. I was intrigued as I think of myself as speaking about the kingdom frequently. In the course of the conversation, I realized that I don’t actually use the words ‘the kingdom of God’ that often. That doesn’t mean, however, that the kingdom is not important to me, or that I am not addressing it in my books and lectures.

Any reader of Matthew, Mark and Luke knows that the kingdom of God is a central subject. The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of the heavens, is mentioned 55 times in Matthew, 20 in Mark, 44 in Luke. But in John it is addressed only 5 times. Does this mean that John is not interested in the kingdom? No, of course not. In the place of the kingdom language John prefers the language of ‘life,’ which he uses 43 times. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the good news is that the kingdom of God has come. In John, the gospel is that real life has come. Either the kingdom and real life are two different things or they are speaking of the same reality. As an interesting side note, Jesus speaks of salvation only twice, once when speaking with Zaccheus, and once with the woman at the well.

Much has been made of the differences between the Synoptic Gospels and their kingdom emphasis, and John and his emphasis on eternal life, but the obvious point of connection between them all is the person of Jesus. For me, all of the great New Testament ideas—new covenant, kingdom, eternal life, salvation, atonement, adoption, justification, regeneration, baptism of the Spirit, redemption, heaven, etc.—have their true content and meaning in Jesus himself.

The new covenant is the new relationship established in Jesus’ own experience between the blessed Trinity and broken, sinful humanity. In Jesus the Father, Son and Spirit have reached us in our traumatic darkness, and established a real relationship with us at our very worst. Our contribution was to crucify the Father’s Son. Dying in the arms of our bitter and cruel rejection, Jesus embraced us in our treachery—and he brought his Father and the Holy Spirit with him. This is the new covenant, the new relationship established in the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the incarnate Son. Jesus is the new relationship. He is the one in whom the blessed Trinity and broken humanity meet and are together.

To my mind, to speak of the kingdom of God is to speak of the same reality from another angle, or with a different emphasis. The kingdom of God is not about some kind of abstract rule of God, whereby he imposes his authority upon his creation from a distance by law, or even by grace. The kingdom is about the sheer life and joy, the peace and goodness, the shocking love and abounding fellowship and creativity of the Father, Son and Spirit setting up shop on earth in Jesus, and through the Spirit’s witness and work, the kingdom is about this very life in Jesus coming to full and abiding and personal expression in us, and in our lives, and in our relationships with one another, and in our relationship with the whole creation, until the earth and the cosmos become a vast burning bush alive with the trinitarian life of God. (T. F. Torrance would be proud of that sentence!)

Real problems arise when we separate the great New Testament themes from Jesus himself. They then become abstract, non-relational and impersonal concepts, devoid of the life and relationship of the blessed Trinity. They become commodities or things that we can possess or manipulate or control apart from Jesus himself. Salvation becomes a legal exchange rather than an ongoing relationship of shared life in our darkness. The further these ideas are removed from Jesus himself, the more they are separated from each other as well. We end up with a vision of the kingdom of God, of salvation, of eternal life, and of adoption, which have little in common. But when we think of these great themes from a center in Jesus himself and his own life and relationship with his Father and the Holy Spirit, they become unique expressions of Jesus and of his relationship with the human race and creation.

Jesus teaches us that eternal life is not possession of an infinite battery pack, but knowing his Father through him. “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life (1John 5:20). Eternal life speaks first and foremost to the quality of our existence, not to its duration. It is abounding or super-abounding life, as Jesus said (John 10:10), which is so ‘alive’ it cannot be extinguished, but endures forever. And this life is not something altogether different from that of the Triune God. It is the trinitarian life itself, shared with us relationally in and through Jesus. Eternal life is the thriving, flourishing, rich and unencumbered life that comes to expression in us as we know the Father himself with his Son in the Spirit, not in isolation, but together with others. This life is not self-centered, but other-centered. Fueled by freedom to love and to be loved in fellowship, which comes from knowing Jesus’ Father, this life overflows in goodness and joy, and in freedom to give ourselves for the benefit of others. Such life could not possibly be contained, but overflows into our relationship with all creation.

Salvation involves both a retrospective and prospective dimension, as John McLeod Campbell said. Retrospectively, salvation focusses on the removal or overcoming of sin and its consequences. Prospectively, it focusses on renewal and the giving of life. Dying a humiliating death in the embrace of a thousand disgusted faces, Jesus submitted himself to our sin and iniquity thereby becoming “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He takes away our sin by bearing and suffering it personally, by enduring our scorn and bitter rejection, by dying in our hatred. And he was not alone. In submitting himself to suffer such injustice and brutal murder at our hands, Jesus not only made himself the scapegoat for our ills, but he was making our alien humanity the dwelling of the Holy Spirit. He was ushering into our great darkness his own relationship with his Father (life) and his own anointing with Holy Spirit (baptism). He is both the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and “the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33). In him we are both justified and adopted, our sin is overcome and we are included in the eternal life of the blessed Trinity.

In this way the trinitarian life set up shop, so to speak, on earth, in our death and hell, the new relationship was established with broken sinners, real ‘knowing’ of the Father was opened in our darkness, and the Holy Spirit “accustomed Himself” to dwell in our flesh, to borrow a great phrase from Irenaeus, . Such is the kingdom of God—and eternal life, salvation, justification, adoption, the new covenant, heaven. They are all about Jesus himself and what became of the blessed Trinity, and to us, and to creation in him.

Thank you, Holy Spirit. We will have more light, please.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Story Behind the Story

Let me thank you for your emails and phone calls. Many of you have expressed your concern for me since I have not posted a blog in a while. The tornado did not hit my part of Mississippi, but just north of us was a disaster. I drove through that area two weeks ago. The damage was shocking and incredibly widespread. Hundreds and hundreds of huge trees were snapped in half like match sticks and flung on houses and cars. My heart broke as I thought of all the shattered dreams. And now it looks like the oil spill in the gulf will grow into the greatest disaster of all. I grew up not far from the coast, and I grieve daily as I watch the slow death of a part of the world that I dearly love. The implications of this spill are unimaginable. We need a miracle, cascading miracles.

On another level, since January Perichoresis has been financially strapped. Times are tough for us all. I think we will make it through this month, but after that it does not look good at all. So I have disappeared into my study and been working around the clock to finish my book on The Shack, and to finish my novel. I am two-thirds done with both. If you can help financially, please do so. You can send a tax-deductible gift to Perichoresis • P. O. Box 98157 • Jackson, MS 29298.

Here is an excerpt from one of the first chapters.

Never intended for publication, The Shack was written by William P. Young (known to his friends as Paul) as a story for his children. He had two aims: first, to give a gift that would express his love for his kids, and second, “to help them understand what had been going on in his inside world,” as his friend Willie put it. Paul’s goal was to get the story to Office Depot before Christmas to make fifteen copies for his children, his wife, and a few others. But even while working three jobs, there wasn’t enough money. Eventually copies were made, and the story circulated through his family and friends. He was encouraged to have it published as a proper book, but found that it was rejected by every publisher that was contacted, as being ‘too out of the box’ or ‘having too much Jesus.’ For Paul, its actual publication as a real book, now one of the best selling books in history, is lagniappe, as the Cajuns say—a little something extra. His dream was fulfilled when the first copies were made and his children had a story that would explain something of their father’s journey into the real world.

I heard Paul say that he reached the point in his life when he cried out, “Papa, I am never again going to ask you to bless something that I do, but if you have something that you are blessing that I could share in, I would love that. And I don’t care if it’s cleaning toilets or holding the door open or shinning shoes.” And Papa replied, “Paul, I’ll tell you what, how about I bless this little story you are writing for your kids. You give it to yours, and I will give it to mine.” The rest, as they say, is history.

But is it? There is far more going on in an average person’s life than anyone would dare to dream. And that is certainly true of Paul Young. The Shack is not a novel written by an academic who finally learned to communicate with regular people. There is a story behind the story, several in fact, but I will stick to Willie’s statement. ‘‘To help them understand what had been going on in his inside world.” (p. 12) The inside world, the world of the invisibles, of pain and turmoil, of shame, broken hearts and broken dreams, is the world that drives us all, and especially the larger-than-life tale in The Shack. The story behind the story is the gut-wrenching hell that Paul Young suffered in his own life. I have seen a picture of Paul when he was six years old. He looked like an old man—weary, miserable and spent, and terribly sad. His eyes screamed despair. The picture made me cry. But that is the beginning of this story we have all come to love, at least most of us.

By the time Paul was six years old, he had been emotionally abandoned, physically and verbally beaten and sexually abused—repeatedly. To say the least, he was crippled inside from his early days in life. No child—no person—can withstand such trauma. It creates a lethal roux of shame, fear, insecurity, anxiety, and guilt. These invisibles coalesce into a damning, debilitating, and unshakeable whisper: “I am not alright. I am not good, not worthy, not important, not loveable,” which haunts every single moment of life. How does a child, or anyone, cope with an inner world of such anguish? No one can.

As a fish was not made to live on the moon, we were never designed to live in shame. But what do you do? Where do you go? Most of us bury it all in a garbage can in the backroom of our souls, and move on. Or try to. But what we bury rules us. What we don’t know that we don’t know will destroy us. ‘I am not’ becomes ‘I will be,’ and we dream a dream of becoming. ‘If I can just get married and have children.’ ‘If I can just get that job or promotion, that money, that car, that house, that power, that position, that new relationship.’ And off we go. But such ‘things’ are incompetent to address spiritual pain. They never work, though we will defend them ‘til they kill us. So we medicate, go on autopilot, check out, or we stay busy, we get involved in a great cause, manage other people’s inner worlds, live through our children, or just stay drunk in one musical way or another. It’s too much.

Paul Young turned to religion, partly because it was the environment he grew up in and therefore readily available, and partly because it presented a possible way to perform his way into becoming valuable. He was born in Alberta, Canada, but before his second birthday found himself on the mission field in the highlands of Netherlands New Guinea (West Papua). Around six, as was required by the particular mission board, he was shipped off to boarding school. Before the age of ten, the family unexpectedly returned to Canada and by the time he graduated from high school, Paul had attended thirteen different schools. His dad had made the change from missionary to pastor.

These facts don’t tell you about the pain of trying to adjust to different cultures, of life losses that were almost too staggering to bear, of walking down railroad tracks at night in the middle of winter screaming into the windstorm, of living with an underlying volume of shame so deep and loud that it constantly threatened any sense of sanity, of dreams not only destroyed but obliterated by personal failure, of hope so tenuous that only the trigger seemed to offer a solution.

Religion was the only world Paul knew, the cards he was dealt. So he played them. He believed in the ‘religious’ version of Christianity. He had too. With ‘I am not good’ whispering in every breeze, he set out to prove that he was good. He graduated at the top of his class in college, became a shining star, a people-pleasing, religious performer on his way to the top. But every moment involved the exhausting task of hypervigilance, constantly scanning each group, each discussion, each meeting and moment to manage people’s impression of himself. For how could Paul, or any of us, let folks know of the dying inside. With one hand on the lid of his garbage can, he smiled, taught the Bible, became ‘the nice guy,’ the counselor, while keeping everyone at a safe distance. But he found no relief from the raging turmoil in his inner world. He cried out to God for healing, re-dedicating himself and his life a hundred times, until his re-dedicator finally burned out. His life became a form of hiding, while desperately searching for relief and help anywhere he could find it. But there is no healing in religion. Healing happens when you meet Jesus in your shack, a place Paul tried hard to deny even existed.

He performed himself into ministry, into business, into marriage, into fatherhood, trying to exhaustion to become an authentic human being while hiding the underlying shame and personal failures. A single phone call rocked his world forever. Two words in fact. ‘I know.’ Kim, Paul’s wife, had found out about the affair he was having with one of her friends. That is one way that shame works its poison in our lives. There are millions of others, of course, but one is that we turn to another person, a “magical other” who will be our all, our life, our salvation. I suspect Paul found out what Shakespeare meant when he said, ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ But that’s not the whole truth. ‘Heaven has no ally like a woman who knows how to love.’ The book’s dedication reads, ‘to Kim, my Beloved, thank you for saving my life.’ While Mackenzie’s weekend at the shack represents eleven years of Paul’s actual life—eleven years of pain and emotional torture, depression and mere flashes of hope—it was Kim’s heroic love wrapped in fury that held it all together. From a human perspective, without Kim and her heart Paul Young would probably be dead, or tucked away in some cold asylum, or an empty man still performing. There would have been no story to tell, at least not one about meeting the blessed Trinity in the garbage can.

On the other side of hell, as real freedom and life began to dawn, it was Kim’s insistence that Paul write something for the children to explain his journey and new-found liberation. She didn’t mean a book, and neither did Paul, but most folks are thrilled that it all turned out this way. On more than one occasion, I have heard him speak of Kim and their children with tears streaming down his face. The book was born in the crucible of life, of trauma and abuse, of empty religion, misery and betrayal, of mercy, love and reconciliation. Luther said somewhere that God makes theologians by sending them to hell. In hell, of course, no one is interested in theology. What we learn in the emptiness of grief, in the pain, the trauma of suffering is that we are not interested in pseudo-promises, intellectual masturbation, or “Skippy, the wonder Christ,’ as my friend Ken Blue puts it. What we learn in hell is that we want out. We learn desperation for life, for healing, for real salvation, for a Savior who saves here and now, who reconciles, who heals our brokenness, and delivers us from our shame. We need something that works.

This is the story behind the story. The Shack could have easily been titled ‘From Hell to Heaven,’ or ‘From Overwhelming Shame to Being Loved into Life,’ or ‘How Jesus Healed a Screwed Up Man,’ or even ‘With Gods Like Ours No Wonder We Are So Sad and Broken.’ For the story is about hell and heaven, trauma, shame and finding love, the real Jesus accepting a broken man, and it is about the Father, Son and Spirit finding us in the far country of our terrible and powerless mythology—to share their life with us. For the truth behind the universe is that God is Father, Son and Spirit, and the one unflinching purpose of the blessed Trinity is that we would come to taste and feel, know and experience the very Trinitarian life itself.

What Paul and Kim have lived through and what they have discovered in the love of Papa, Jesus and Sarayu is the joy unspeakable, full of glory that Peter talked about, and the abounding life that Jesus promised. They cannot go back to the same old, do more, try harder religion with its properly attested Bible verses. Like C. S. Lewis, in the midst of misery they were surprised by joy.

Some have taken offense at the theology of The Shack. Paul’s response is not one of theological argument or biblical proof-texting, though he is very adept at both. His response is his own life and relationships. He would say, ‘I have a tee shirt from hell, several of them, in fact. Religion doesn’t work anywhere, and especially there, but the Father, Son and Spirit came to find me in my hell. They accepted me, loved me, embraced me, and are healing me with their love.’ And, I think Paul would ask a simple question, ‘How’s your theology working for you?’ And knowing Paul, he would follow that with, ‘how does your wife or husband or friends think your theology is working for you?’ So, while The Shack is a story for his children, it is a bit more complicated than that. This story is matter of life or death. Paul Young is serious. He wants his own children to see the disastrous incompetence of religion to heal our broken souls, and he wants them to know the astonishing liberation of Papa’s embrace.

The Father, Son and Spirit, whom he calls Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, are not myths like Santa Claus, the white, blue-eyed Jesus, and the tooth fairy. They are real. They meet us in our pain, in our anger, bitterness and resentment, in our shame and guilt and powerlessness, in our miserable, broken relationships—and in our deadly religion—and there they love us into life and freedom. Hence, the second dedication, ‘…all us stumblers who believe Love rules, stand up and let it shine.’

Sunday, April 18, 2010

God in Our Image

Sometimes I begin a seminar by having the group close their eyes and answer the question, ‘Have you ever heard the whisper, I am not?’ Without my even asking, hands go up. Sometimes people raise both hands. There is always a gasp or two, and nervous laughter. Then I ask, ‘I am not what...? Instinctively people answer the question with one word. As they answer I write it down on the board. Here is a list from a recent conference.

I am not... welcome, not perfect, not good enough, not loved, not lovable, not understood, not deserving, not the one, not satisfied, not acceptable, not special, not certain, not appreciated, not there yet, not important, not smart enough, not worthy, not fast enough, not safe, not liked, not included, not anything, not fulfilled, not respected, not valuable, not it, not happy, not free, not forgiven, not able, not tall enough, not pretty enough, not strong, not healed, not supported, not saved, not wanted, not special, not adequate.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all carry the burden of this whisper, and it is a burden, a ‘yoke grievous to be borne’ to borrow a great phrase my Professor, J. B. Torrance. It debilitates and poisons our lives. It can be scary to look honestly at our own ‘I am nots,’ or the family of them that have taken root in our souls. Two things will happen for sure. First, you will be shocked at how much of your time, energy and life have been dedicated to managing this burdensome yoke, and how it has shaped your perception of yourself and others, and your relationships or lack of them. But, as Paul Fitzgerald of Heartconnexion ministries says, ‘what is not acknowledge cannot be healed.’ And if is not healed, it is influencing.

Second, you will be liberated. When we look at ourselves and face our ‘I am nots’ a wonderful thing happens. We experience the sheer acceptance of the Father, Son and Spirit. It’s almost funny. For we all know that the Lord knows us inside and out anyway, but we have a way of not thinking about his awareness of us, and our lives. But an honest look at ourselves makes us vulnerable to Papa’s love. That is as beautiful as it is ironic. Our ‘I am nots’ make us fear exposure and thus judgment. This is the trick of the father of lies. But what actually happens when we get honest is that we have nowhere to go. And when you have nowhere to go you become keenly aware of where you are—known, loved, accepted and delighted in by Jesus, his Father and the Holy Spirit. You may even hear another whisper, this one laced with divine delight and humor, “Well, duh! And... You didn’t think we knew that?” We have been loved and accepted our whole lives, but not in our minds. And that is the problem.

John Calvin said that our minds are a perpetual factory of idols. The beautiful news of our inclusion in Jesus’ relationship with his Father and in his relationship with the Holy Spirit is too good to believe. How could I be so loved, so embraced, so accepted? It can’t be.

At somewhere around this point in the seminar I have the group close their eyes again and ask another question. ‘What is God like?’ Answers come quickly and usually with considerable passion. Here is a list of the answers.

Holy, Judgmental, Indifferent, Powerful, Mean, Removed, Love, Distant, Legalistic, Uncaring, Impersonal, in Two Minds, Unsafe, Unapproachable, Angry, Gracious, Loving, Harsh, Abusive

With a list like this you would think I was speaking in a prison, but I wasn’t. This list, or one very similar to it has cropped up time and again in my travels around the world. It appears to be universal. Never once has the word Trinity been said, or the word relational—except, of course, by people who had been through the seminar before.

Here is another question. ‘Do you notice a similarity between the two lists?’ At this moment in the seminar there is dead silence, usually followed by something akin to a corporate gasp, and then head shaking and laughter. The way we think of God is the fruit of our ‘I am nots.’ It is called projection. While the Bible tells us that God created us in his own image, the truth is we have created god in ours. We hear the whisper, ‘I am not...’ believe it, project its pain into heaven and create a corresponding god, who then confirms our ‘I am not...’ Without even knowing it we tar the face of Jesus’ Papa with the brush of own wrongly perceived ‘notness.’ It is a hermeneutical nightmare, which ruins life, poisons freedom, and destroys relationships. With a god like this how could anyone face their ‘I am nots,’ or even acknowledge that anything is wrong?

The whole quagmire is rooted in a lie, and knowing the truth is its undoing. Jesus shares his own ‘I Am’ with us. He always has and always will. And he does so in the deep places. It is Jesus’ own I Am—I am the beloved Son of the Father, I am anointed with the Holy Spirit, I am wanted, welcomed, loved, known, cared for, safe, a thrill to my Father’s heart, I am acceptable, important, worthy, good, and full of joy—that he puts within our hearts. And the Holy Spirit works to help us hear it and to take baby steps of faith that it is true, steps against our own judgment or mindset. As we do, we begin to know that we are known, accepted, loved and delighted in, and we have freedom to look honestly at ourselves. We begin to see Jesus’ Papa with Jesus’ eyes. Then comes more freedom to be honest. In time our ‘I am nots’ are erased by Jesus’ great ‘I ams.’ And Jesus’ own life and peace and joy and freedom with his Father and the Holy Spirit begin to express themselves in us, in the way we see ourselves and others, in our relationships, work and play. It is, as Paul Young says, ‘an incremental process.’ And it produces life. Such is the kingdom of the Triune God. Thank you, Holy Spirit. We will have more please.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday

I just read an essay on Jesus “absorbing the wrath of God” on the cross. It almost made me throw up. With such ease and passion and not a little patronizing the writer split Jesus’ Father into two different persons, and then ripped the Father-Son relationship apart, apparently without even knowing it, or caring. What madness. I suppose the Holy Spirit just stood there dazed wondering whose side he was supposed to join. There is something sinister about the need to have the Father vent his rage upon his own Son. And even more so when one then tries to call such an act “glorious grace.” But punishment is not forgiveness, and murder is not grace, and Jesus did not suffer the wrath of his Father, and the Holy Spirit was not torn between two lovers.

“Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up.” (MT 20:18-19)

It was the human race—not the Father—who condemned his Son. We cursed him. We poured our scorn, our wrath, our rage upon Jesus. We murdered him. And Jesus deliberately submitted himself to us and to our bizarre wrongheadedness. He bore our wrath. He suffered our enmity and died in the arms of our scorn. And he was not alone. His Father and the Holy Spirit were with him. And that is just the point. In the murder of Jesus the life of the Father, Son and Spirit found its way into our greatest sin—and overcame it. The cross is not about Jesus being forsaken by his Father; it is about the Father’s Son incarnate and the One anointed in the Holy Spirit submitting himself to the darkness of the human race, and thereby establishing a relationship with us as gross sinners. In the genius of the blessed Trinity our rejection and murder of Jesus were turned into the ultimate act of acceptance and embrace. In the murder of Jesus the blessed Trinity was “absorbing the wrath of the human race,” thereby forming oneness with us in our sin, and including us in Jesus’ relationship with his Father in the Holy Spirit. That is glorious grace, and forgiveness, and atonement, and real reconciliation, and love, and holiness, and right relationship, and mercy, and judgment.

Thank you Father, Son and Spirit for loving us beyond our wildest dreams.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Blessed Roux

The astonishing beauty and joy and goodness of the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit is the blessed roux destined to permeate the dish of the whole cosmos.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Freedom to Be

My friend Paul Fitzgerald of Grace Connexion Ministries showed me a poster that he uses in one of his lectures. It was a tombstone with a place for a name. Underneath that was the simple epitaph “I survived.” When I first saw it I laughed, but then it has haunted me ever since. I will be posting some thoughts soon on the origin of our “I am nots.” I am not loveable. I am not good enough. I am not worthy, not special, not wanted. We all have them, and they debilitate us, poisoning our freedom to live life. We go into survival mode. One of my most damaging is “I am not there yet.” It is a simple statement, but it drives me, and I suspect it drives nations, corporations and denominations as well. The particular problem that “I am not there yet” creates is the inability to enjoy the moment, and that means people and Papa’s creation. That is a consequence of the enormous drive to contribute, to do more, to create. Folks who are afflicted with this particular problem get an awful lot done. They are typically over-achievers. And we typically miss out on our daughter’s smile, the simple joy of being in the room with friends, or the exquisite colors of a bird. Even when we take a break, we can’t take a break.

Last week I got a call from a older man who had been ‘asked to leave’ the church where he served as a pastor. He was devastated. He had no idea what he would do. ‘Ministry’ was his life. After I listened for a while to his hurt and to his fear, I told him, “Jesus loves you an awful lot.” He asked, “what do you mean?” “He loves you so much as to deliver you from the machine, so that you can be free to live. If you are a pastor, no one can keep you from caring about people. You don’t need to be in a institution to do that. All you need is people. So now you are free to get to know people. And you can do that anywhere, beginning with your own family.”

“I am not there yet” usually means that we buy into someone’s definition of where ‘there’ is, and some notion of how to get there, and we lose ourselves in the diligent process of being faithful. So much so that we don’t even know who we really are. Our very identity, our sense of who we are becomes confused with our role in ‘getting there.’ My pastor friend got delivered from being in ‘ministry.’ Or perhaps I should say he got delivered from someone’s or some group’s definition of ‘ministry.’ It was a surgical cut that hurts like hell, but it was designed with love for liberation.

Where is ‘there”? All our “I am nots” have their origin in the whisper of the father of lies. They certainly are confirmed by life experiences, by childhood wounds, by financial loss, betrayal, tragedy, and disappointments. There is evidence for the whisper, or so it would seem. But given the evidence, what will it take to get there? What will it take to feel worthy? What will it take to feel important, or wanted, or special or loved? These are the better questions. Who told us what ‘special’ is and why did we believe them? Who defined ‘there’ for me, and why does their opinion matter so much? What is the origin of ‘important’ or ‘worthy’? What constitutes being ‘wanted’ or ‘loved?’ Who or what has defined these quite fundamental ideas for us?

Toward the end of The Shack there is conversation between Mack and Jesus that is very relevant here.

‘Jesus?’ he whispered, as his voice choked. ‘I feel so lost.’

A hand reached out and squeezed his, and didn’t let go. ‘I know, Mack. But it’s not true. I am with you and I’m not lost. I’m sorry it feels that way, but hear me clearly. You are not lost.’” 114

I think Jesus’ own “I Am” is the answer to all of our “I am nots.”

I Am there, and you are in me. So you are there too.
I Am worthy, and you are in me. So you are worthy too.
I Am loved, and you are in me. So you are loved too.
I Am important, and you are in me. So you are important too.
I Am wanted, and you are in me. So you are wanted too.

Blessed are the ones who have the freedom to be, for they shall see glory everywhere.

I just noticed a male cardinal sitting on a limb in my backyard. Blood red feathers against the backdrop of the brown hues of leafless trees. I wonder what that means?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Two Gods

Since Christmas I have been working around the clock on a book on The Shack. For the next stretch I will be posting some of the material I am working on. By now, The Shack has probably become the best selling book in history, apart from the Bible, or at least it is close to it. Well over 11 million copies have been sold in about 30 languages. At least ten more translations are in the works. The wild, global popularity of The Shack in itself tells me that there is serious spiritual hunger in people’s hearts. I hope and pray it is a sign of the passing of the Augustinian captivity of the Church. Perhaps I am too critical of Augustine, but he is the Father of Western Christianity, and that version has handed down the deadly quagmire of deism, legalism and rationalism—the unholy trinity of the Latin West.

A quick search of the internet reveals that The Shack has liberated untold numbers of people, and, not surprisingly, stirred up the proverbial hornet’s nest. Some folks are not pleased at all, slinging the ‘h’ word around like they are the appointed guardians of orthodoxy. Whatever people are trying to say is wrong with the book when they call it heretical, I think Athanasius would be quite pleased with The Shack, not to mention the Father, Son and Spirit. I would go the other way and say that insofar as one thinks the theology of The Shack is heretical, that is the distance they themselves have fallen from the early Church’s vision. If the doctrine of God set forward in The Shack appears problematic, then have a read of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word of God. The faulty assumption in much of the criticism of The Shack is that ‘modern’ evangelicalism is indeed the definition of orthodox Christianity. That is a dangerous assumption.

The issue is the goodness of God. Apparently some folks don’t think that Jesus’ Father is in fact as good as the ‘Papa’ of The Shack. Are we really worried that someone might get into heaven who is not supposed to be there? Are we actually concerned that a broken man or woman or child might illegitimately believe in the sheer goodness of God and find healing and hope, only to be bitterly disappointed when they finally meet Jesus’ Father?

Perhaps behind the criticisms of The Shack is the sting of another question that is way more personal, and scary, and in some ways more profound. It is simple and straightforward. ‘Could I be this wrong?’ ‘Could we be this wrong? Paul Young is the apostle of the broken heart, holding out to hurting people a vision of the Triune God that actually brings healing to the soul, but as such he is also necessarily the apostle of Western crisis. Somewhere inside, I suspect, we all know that he is right, that Jesus’ Father is this good, that we are this loved and accepted, that the Holy Spirit in person has embraced us all in Jesus, but my, my does this ever fly in the face of many of our cherished notions.

The mythology of the fallen mind found its most sublime expression in Greek philosophy, which through Augustine and others then warped Western theology at large. That is not to say, of course, that all is wrong, for the Holy Spirit is blessedly at work in us all. There have been many protest, and many breakthroughs, not least in the great Reformation, and in the work of Karl Barth and others, but the god of the philosophers still reigns in the West. And that is the problem. The Western mind is riddled with two entirely different gods. The one being the Father, Son and Spirit, and the other what the Greeks called the ‘Unmade’ or ‘Unoriginate,’ whose ambiguous nature has steadily been filled with legalistic indifference, distance and sterility. Such a god leaves humanity hesitant, fearful, insecure. The Shack brings the problem to the surface. The love, indeed the tenderness, the sheer approachability and humanity of the Triune God portrayed in The Shack touches the raw nerves of our despairing hearts, and it does so with unimaginable hope. If God is like Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, then my life can be different. I can live loved in peace and hope. But how can this hope become real to us, truly liberating and healing, when the god of the philosophers fills our heads? We are torn between the news of being loved, cared for and accepted, which is given to us in the witness of the Holy Spirit, and the alien concepts that rule our minds from Greece, which tell us that God is not so kind and cannot be trusted. The god of the philosophers with all its theological tentacles must be slain. But that is scary business. For some of those tentacles might be favored notions upon which careers and indeed entire denominations have been built. So, while The Shack is a great story of one man’s healing, it is also a prophetic Word crashing the lifeless party of Western deism, legalism and rationalism. Thank you, Holy Spirit, we will have more please. Kill the beast.

A final word from Athanasius. “The pagans, who are altogether strangers to the Son, were the authors of the word, ‘unmade;’ whereas our Lord Himself commonly spoke of God as His Father, and has taught us in like manner to use and apply the same…. Nowhere in Holy Scripture does the Son call the Father the ‘unmade.’ And when he teaches us to pray, He does not say, ‘When you pray, say, O God unmade,’ but rather, ‘When you pray, say, Our Father, which are in heaven.” (Against the Arians, I.34)