Dry Bones Live (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

April 3, 2017

GUEST POST:  This is a homily delivered by Mackenzie Steele at All Saints Church of Christ on April 2, 2017.  Thanks, Mackenzie!

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There are two realities present in the season of Lent: One, I am a broken person dependent upon God for redemption. Two, the world is a broken place, created for good and dependent on God through the work of the Spirit to return to that intended good. In the first, I am defined by my sinful nature; indeed I view myself entirely bad and in need of the grace of God each day. This may be true, and I would not discount the need for this reminder through the season of Lent. But, as a recovering fundamentalist, being defined by my sinfulness creates a legalism that I find unhealthy in my relationship with God. Which leads me to the second reality of Lent: the world is indeed a broken place, where the story of God has been replaced by stories of consumerism and greed and a false sense of happiness and security. Although it was created for good, it has fallen prey to brokenness. This is the world in which the church finds itself. In both of these realities, Lent is understood as the recognition of sinfulness and brokenness in preparation for the glorious celebration of Easter.

So I have found myself in tension this week in preparing for today because the texts from the Lectionary this week, as we have heard them already, are resurrection texts. The turn towards resurrection life, although typically reserved for Easter Sunday, is a necessary reality this afternoon. It would be impossible to read Ezekiel 37 and not hear the beautiful language of new life coming up from the dust. The desperate nature of Lent is important, but I think it can be heard in this resurrection text as much as anywhere else.

In my initial reading of this text, it was easy to focus on myself as the dry bones, the broken person in need of God’s redemption. And for the purposes of Lent, this is one good reading of this passage. However, I would suggest that we focus on that second reality of Lent as I mentioned before: we are resurrection people, who live in a broken world in desperate need of God’s promise of resurrection life from Spirit-empowered people. So we look forward to the second coming of Jesus, in which all things are made new. And we wait in the season of Lent, recognizing our dependence on God as new-creation people to partner with God for the sake of the world.

I would like to read this passage again, and allow you to imaginatively experience this text in light of this truth: the world is the valley God has placed the redeemed church within. God desires for the church to speak new breath into the world as Ezekiel does for the bones. Allow yourself to enter the scene of this text: a valley full of dry bones, lying in wait for the mighty work of the Spirit through Ezekiel. Let me read this again as you enter into your imagination, recognizing that our imaginations are animated by the Spirit who is at work in all things:

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.

Imagine this scene. Take in the sights, smells, sounds. Allow yourself to enter into this moment as Ezekiel did, with the hand of the Lord resting upon you.

And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Imagine how you would react to this request. What thoughts go through your head? What emotions do you feel? How is your body responding to this command from God?

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them. But there was no breath in them.

Can you hear the surprised tone? Everything had happened exactly as God had commanded. And yet, the actual life hadn’t been breathed into the bodies yet.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.

Recognize the power of this moment. Life was returned to the death of the valley. We were allowed to partner with God in the act of making things new. God chose us to be vessels for his power, and the display of his power created a reality within us that we didn’t know existed. God answers his own question that he poses to us. “Can these bones live?” Yes, and they will be a sign of the power of God for the rest of the world to see. More than that, the embodied experience of making new life is a reality that we now carry; we have confidence that we can partner with God in redeeming creation again.

Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

The Lord promises to meet us in our graves and pull us out. God meets us in our humanity, in our frailty, and gives us the Spirit of life. By this we know that he is God. And by this we desire for others to know that he is God.

We are partners with God for the sake of the world. We have been called to breathe the Spirit of life into the death of the world, where pain and suffering and brokenness reign and where hope seems lost. We the church are called to live lives animated by the Spirit, experienced in our own resurrection from the dead in our baptism into new life. Just like Ezekiel, we have been given the power of an embodied experience of new life. Just think of the moment when you surrendered your life to Jesus. That lived experience of dying to ourselves and being raised into the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation upon which we recognize the power of God in our lives and in the world. Think of the other aspects of assembled worship:

We sing songs that remind us who we are and who we worship, and that transformation of identity shapes the ways we think and speak during our week. We give of ourselves financially, and that creates a discipline of generosity that we practice in more ways than monetarily throughout our week. We listen to the word of God proclaimed, and this grounds our knowledge in Scripture as a participatory narrative for our week. We take communion, participating in the sacrifice and power of God as a sending into the world, that we may live as children of God redeemed by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit.

In our gathering, we breathe in the life of community and we are reminded of our sending out into the world. These are the experiences through which we are trained to worship God in our week, and in our worship we are aware of the presence of God at work and our calling to partner with God for the redemption of all things. In this we place our hope, even as we recognize the brokenness of the world. This is the tension we live in, particularly in the season of Lent. And this is what makes our celebration of Easter that much more important: in Easter, we celebrate our resurrection in the present and the hope of the resurrection to come for all of creation.

May we the church, who claim resurrection power through the Spirit at work within us, partner with God to breathe life into the valley of the dry bones around us, and hope in eager expectation for the fullness of resurrection life in the Kingdom to come. Amen.


Nicodemus (John 3:1-17)

March 23, 2017

GUEST POST:  Becky Frazier delivered this sermon at the All Saints Church of Christ on March 12, 2017. Becky is an M.Div. student at Lipscomb University.  Thanks for sharing, Becky!

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In this passage, we meet a man by the name of Nicodemus; he’s a Pharisee, and a well-respected leader, possibly even a member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus is a good Jew. He’s very well read, and knows the scriptures backward and forward. And he’s likely heard some of the inflammatory things that Jesus has said and seen the miraculous works that he has done.

So he comes to talk to Jesus, and John tells us that he does this at night. Most scholars will agree that he’s coming under cover of darkness so no one, specifically his Pharisee friends, will catch him talking to Jesus. He addresses him: Rabbi- Teacher- a sign of respect, saying “we know that you are from God, because we’ve seen the signs you do.”

Jesus’s response to this is “Truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus is confused; after all, he hadn’t asked what he needed to do to see the Kingdom of God. He hadn’t asked anything at all. Really, he had just come in and said a respectful hello when Jesus responds with this statement about being born again. Though it might seem like Jesus is abruptly changing the subject, I don’t think he is. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Nicodemus asks “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answers, “Truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”  Jesus tell Nicodemus, “Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

But despite Jesus’s admonishment not to be, Nicodemus is surprised and says incredulously “How can this be?!”

In other places, Jesus tells his followers and the crowds that the Kingdom of God is like salt, or light, or leaven, but here, Jesus tells Nicodemus, you can’t even SEE the Kingdom of God until you take a step back and come at this from a different angle, until you see if from above.

It’s important to understand that the phrase that we translate as “born again” actually has a dual meaning in the original Greek. It could mean born again or it could also mean born from above. Nicodemus, the great scholar that he is, choses the most basic meaning of this phrase “born again” and doesn’t consider the possibility of a deeper, more spiritual understanding of being “born from above”.

You can see why he would be so oblivious. After all, he’s a prominent Jewish teacher. The text refers to him as THE Teacher of Israel: Well-read, highly knowledgeable, respected in the community. He has all of the right letters after his name, went to the best school, attends synagogue every week. He doesn’t even need to be born again physically. He’s a Jew. He was born right to begin with. He was born into the covenant community, into God’s chosen people.

Even today, the term “born-again Christian” refers to someone who has a great conversion story. Someone who left behind a life of drugs, or alcohol, or another type of addiction. Someone who was sexually immoral. Someone who was on a self-destructive path but has now come to know Jesus and turned their life around. But Nicodemus is exactly the kind of person that does NOT need to be born again and he knows it.

So, back to my earlier point, when Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “Rabbi, we can see that you are a teacher come from God”, and then abruptly Jesus tells him that he needs to be born again, to be born from above, Jesus is not introducing a new subject to their conversation. What he’s saying is, Nicodemus, you don’t need another teacher. You don’t need another book to read or another idea to discuss and develop. Nicodemus, you don’t need more education, you need a savior.

Jesus references a scene from the old testament where poisonous snakes are sent to the Israelites who are wandering in the desert. Moses petitions God to save the Israelites from this terror and so he made a bronze snake on a staff and anyone who had been bitten just needed to look at the snake and the poison would vanish and the victim would live. Jesus is comparing himself to that snake, and foreshadows his own death on the cross. Jesus knew that Nicodemus needed to be saved from the poison that was spreading inside him, but this poison didn’t look like a life of sin and debauchery. It looked like a life of strict conservative religion that had lost the plot somewhere along the way.

In the words of Tim Keller, Jesus isn’t calling Nicodemus to morality and religion. He’s challenging the established morality and religion. He’s reminding him that God loves all of his creation and has always been trying to move us closer and closer into relationship with him. Verse 16 is probably one of the most well-known verses in the entire bible: children in Sunday school memorize it, athletes write it on their faces, it’s on bumper stickers on our cars: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

You see, Nicodemus’s, like his other Pharisee friends, had been guilty of trying to put the Spirit into a box, to contain it and give it structure and pass judgement on who was allowed to have it. Jesus says, “No, the Spirit is like the wind, which blows wherever it chooses.” If you try to close all of the doors and windows to keep in the wind, it’s just going to end up musty and airless in the room while the breeze dances with the trees outside. The same is true when we try to box in the Spirit and put rules around it, and keep it for ourselves.

Many of the Jews, like Nicodemus, had forgotten that their entire purpose, the whole reason that they were God’s chosen people to begin with was to be a blessing to the world, as we saw from the reading in Genesis earlier. But they had gotten so focused on being special that their navel-gazing kept them from this holy work. I think I may identify a bit too much with Nicodemus here. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been guilty of thinking that “those people” need a rebirth, need salvation, but not me. I grew up a Christian. I read the Bible. I’ve never done anything too bad. I’m going to school to be a preacher and I’ve done a lot of reading about God. I wonder how many times I’ve hindered the work of the Kingdom by thinking that the Spirit couldn’t possibly work in that way, or in that place, or in those people.

It seems that Nicodemus ended up having his re-birth after all. We hear of him again briefly, twice more in the book of John. In one case, he was standing up to the Pharisees who were trying to arrest Jesus. And, after Jesus’s death, we see him one last time, bringing oils and spices to prepare Jesus’s body for burial. His re-birth from above came when he truly saw Jesus and what he had come to do.

This week, as we see signs of spring and rebirth all around us, I hope that you will be challenged by Nicodemus to see what areas in your life need a rebirth from above. Maybe it’s in how you view other people. Maybe it’s in how you view your call, your part in the work of the kingdom. And maybe it’s in how you view God and what he can and is doing among us to bring about reconciliation and redemption to the whole world. Birth isn’t easy. It’s long and painful and scary and just when it’s over, the task of nurturing that new life is just as long and painful and scary, but when the end result is that we are finally able to see the Kingdom of God, we know that it was all worth it in the end.

 


St. Photini of Samaria – Woman, Evangelist, and Martyr

March 20, 2017

GUEST POST:  Claire Frederick of Nashville, TN, earned an M.Div. graduate from Lipscomb University and is presently the  Program Director of Engage at Lipscomb University.  Yesterday, March 19, 2017, she delivered this sermon at the All Saints Church of Christ yesterday.  I wanted to share it with you on this Feast day of St. Photini of Samaria (March 20).  Thanks for sharing, Claire!   JMH

 Text:  John 4:5-42

Last week we heard an excellent sermon here at All Saints Church of Christ on the Pharisee, Nicodemus, of John chapter 3. And I’d like to compare and contrast the Samaritan Woman and Nicodemus just a bit this evening.  

Nicodemus was a man, a Jew, a teacher of Israel, a member of the religious elite. He was an insider to the covenant community, and yet, he did not fully grasp (at this point anyway) what the Spirit of God was up to concerning Jesus.

Jesus had told Nicodemus that the Spirit (like a wind) blows wherever it pleases. It cannot be kept in a box, contained, controlled or predicted. For followers of Jesus, it’s simply our job to try and keep up with the movements of this Spirit.

Well, this week the Spirit is about to blow Jesus right through the region of Samaria, which is an unusual move on Jesus’ part because most Jews, as we well know, avoided Samaritans like the plague due to longstanding racial hostilities.

There was an unspoken travel ban on crossing this border.

But the text says Jesus HAD to go through Samaria; there was some radical boundary crossing Jesus HAD to do; and some walls the Spirit HAD to break down concerning certain categories of who is invited to fully participate in the Kingdom of God.

But more about that in a minute.

Last week, Jesus and Nicodemus spoke at night under cover of darkness. This week we find Jesus sitting beside a well at high noon in broad daylight, conversing with a Samaritan woman.

As someone who questions Jesus, her story in some ways parallels that of Nicodemus. For example, Nicodemus was thinking too literally about being “born again” and how to accomplish that exactly; the Samaritan woman is thinking too literally about “living water” and how she can get her hands on enough of it so that she will never again go thirsty. They both need to take their thinking to another level, a spiritual level.

Nicodemus thinks that his physical birthright as a Jew gives him correct standing with God. The Samaritan woman thinks that worshiping at the correct location in the correct temple is what makes a person right with God, and both desire clarity and insight into these matters.

Jesus will have to open up both of their minds to a deeper understanding of the work of the Spirit and how a time is coming and is already here—when the Spirit of the Most High God will not live in “temples made by human hands” (Acts 7:48), but will be, as the prophet says: “poured out upon all flesh” (Joel 2:28), upon “all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39).

You see, people’s bodies are meant to be temples where God’s Spirit resides (1 Cor. 6:19). And because of that democratizing, eschatological reality, true worshippers can worship the Father in spirit and in truth anywhere and everywhere — under an oak tree, in a field, on a mountaintop, or right here in this chapel today.

And likewise, anyone can become a mouthpiece for God, can prophesy about God—regardless of gender, class, age, race, or status. In many ways, the Samaritan woman here is Acts 2:17-18 and Galatians 3:28 personified and prefigured.

There are many similarities between Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, but there are important differences too. She is not the preferred gender in a patriarchal society; she is not of the chosen people, the pure-bred Jewish race; she is without social power or standing, particularly considering the fact that she has no husband.

And yet, Jesus makes time for her, HAD to go through Samaria to speak with her.

If you look at the icon above, you will see an Eastern Orthodox image of the Samaritan woman from our story today. Church tradition relates that the Apostles baptized her with the name “Photini” or “Photine” meaning “enlightened one.” Her feast day is celebrated on Feb. 26 in the Greek tradition and is celebrated today, March 20, in the Slavic tradition.

Now we know from the text, that after her life-changing conversation with Christ, she went and told her entire town that she had met the Messiah. And because of her testimony, many of the townspeople came to a saving belief in Jesus. For this reason, she is sometimes hailed as the “first female evangelist” or the “first to proclaim the good news or gospel of Jesus.”

But the history of Western interpretation for Photine has been unkind and unfair, because of her five husbands. I wonder how many sermons we’ve all heard condemning her adulterous lifestyle, her promiscuity. I’ve often heard that the reason why she was at the well at high noon was to avoid the gossip and the finger-pointing of other morally superior women who would’ve come to get their water at a decent hour of the morning, in cooler temperatures.

Yet nothing in the tone of these verses conveys that Jesus is condemning the woman and her history. That tone belongs to centuries of commentators, not to Jesus. Jesus’s words here appear to be more a statement of fact than of judgment. I hear a note of empathy and compassion here, rather than condemnation.

You see, the Samaritans followed the same Laws of Moses that the Jews had in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). And so, according to those laws, women could not initiate divorce, but a husband could. We have assumed that divorce was something she chose or caused, but that’s not necessarily true. It could have been something done to her.

According to Deuteronomy 24:1, “If a man’s wife becomes displeasing to him, because he finds something indecent about her, he could write her a certificate of divorce, and send her away from his house.” This left the woman in a vulnerable position. The reasons for a husband’s displeasure were expanded over the years to include everything from infertility to the quality of her cooking.

There is then the possibility that this woman had been passed around from man to man because of some defect in her.

There is also the possibility that the Samaritan woman had been widowed multiple times. With high mortality rates in the ancient near East, what are the odds that Photine was caught in a situation of Levirate marriage, where one brother dies and another brother is made to marry her; then another dies, and then another, and so on.

A serial widow would struggle to remarry—some men might fear that a curse or a demon was associated with her, and that his own life would be in danger if they wed. This could be why the last male of the family has refused to marry her, but has at least provided her a situation of co-habitation.

In many ways, Photine seems like the hypothetical woman of Matthew 22:28 personified. Remember when the Sadducees asked Jesus about such a woman, who had had 7 husbands, all of whom had died. They asked Jesus: “Therefore, at the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be, since they all had her?”

Whose wife will she be? I thought about this question all week as I thought about Photine. And then it hit me. At the resurrection—at the eschatological marriage feast of the Lamb—she (like we) will be the bride of Christ, because she heard his words and, like her townspeople, believed that he really was the Savior of the world.

Isn’t it ironically symbolic that she meets Jesus at a well?

If you know your Old Testament, then you know that when a man and a woman meet at a well, a wedding usually follows. Wells were kind of like ancient pick-up joints or singles bars. Moses met his wife Zipporah at a well in Midian, remember? Eleazar found Rebekah, Isaac’s future wife at a well also.

And today Jesus meets Photine at a well, and it is the same well where Jacob met his first wife Rachel in Gen 29 also at midday, high noon. And as if to solidify the symbolism in John 4, the Samaritan woman asks Jesus whether he is greater than their common ancestor Jacob, an obvious nod to the earlier story.

But her encounter with Jesus is unlike any encounter she’s ever had with a man, because he is no ordinary man. He is not looking to pick her up or pass her around or use her for unseemly means. Rather, he speaks truth, takes her seriously, looks her in the eye, acknowledges her dignity, answers her questions and challenges her assumptions.

She asked this man to give her life-giving water and theological answers. And instead, Jesus gives her himself, the faithful Bridegroom (an image already used by John the Baptist to describe Jesus in John 3:29).

Jesus, who is greater than Jacob, has come to call all of us to be part of a royal priesthood. Jesus came to reconcile all people to one another and to God. He came to gather together Nicodemus, and Photine, and people like you and me—from all races, and nations, and tribes—to worship and transcend the distinctions that have historically kept us apart. Because God’s Spirit lives in us, we are no longer Jew/Greek, male/female, slave/free. Rather we are “all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:28).

As a woman in Churches of Christ, it took me some 40 years to finally hear my own voice in a house of worship. For that reason, Photine inspires me. I admire the way she doesn’t wait, doesn’t hesitate, but uses her voice to engage the Savior, to proclaim the truth that Messiah has come, and to invite her whole town to get to know him better… and they do.

May we remember her for these things, and not for her five failed marriages.  Let us pray…

O Almighty God,

You did pour forth water for the Hebrews from a solid rock:

You did come as one of us to the Land of Samaria, and addressed a woman,

Whom you did attract to faith in you, and she has now attained life with you eternally.

May we become more like St. Photine, the “enlightened one,”

Who drank deeply from your living water,

And then experienced a holy spring welling up inside herself…

She went and quenched the thirst of her townspeople

With news of the living Word made flesh—The Messiah.

She saw that the fields

Were ripe for harvesting

And did not delay to bring in many sheaves to you.

May we bravely go, and tirelessly do likewise.

Amen.


The Shack: The Movie

March 6, 2017

My wife and I, with some friends, saw “The Shack” last night.

Paul Young telescoped his 10 year journey of spiritual recovery into a parabolic weekend experience with the Trinity.

The movie pictures this weekend in 2 hours.

What I appreciate is the joyous interaction among the participants in this loving dance, the serious dialogue between Mack and the Trinity, and the hopefulness that does not dismiss pain.

What I fear is that if one only sees the movie, without reading the novel, the dialogue will sometimes seem superficial. A movie cannot capture the depth of the theological dialogue in the novel anymore than a novel (parable) can capture the depth of a 10 year journey.

Spiritual recovery, just as our journey with God, is always a process, and it needs time and depth in order to fully blossom. A movie may jump-start that journey but it cannot carry it, nor can a novel (though it can move it along), and even 10 years is insufficient. We are all on this journey, and this is a story (whether movie, novel, or Young’s own personal testimony) that can enrich everyone who takes time and energy to watch, read, and listen.

The movie introduces key themes important for spiritual recovery: anger, lament, forgiveness, companionship, accountability, compassion, hope, and love.

It is a good start for a conversation, and the conversation will inevitably probe more deeply than any movie is able to do.

May God have mercy on all who face their shacks, are willing to enter them, and meet God there.

For those interested, I interact with the Shack in my own personal story here.


Lent and Following Jesus into the Water

March 4, 2017

Text:  Luke 3:21-22.

In obedience to the Father, Jesus went down into the water and came up out of the water praying.

Jesus followed sinners into the water as they repented and confessed their sins. Jesus identified with sinners by sharing this water ritual with them. He underwent a ritual designed for sinners! He shared in this communal moment when Israel experienced the forgiveness of sins and the beginning of the end to their exile.

In response the Father anointed the Messiah with the Holy Spirit, affirmed the Son, and expressed delight over the Son.

This is our experience as well.

Through baptism we join other sinners in the water, confess our sins, and pray for God’s work in our lives. In response, the Father anoints us with the Holy Spirit, affirms our adoption, and expresses delight over us.

Our baptisms are moments when we follow Jesus into the water in obedience to the Father.

Our baptisms are moments when the Father says over us, “You are my child in whom I delight.”

Our baptisms are moments when the Father sends the Spirit into our hearts so that we, along with Jesus, might cry, “Abba, Father.”

Our baptisms are moments when we follow Jesus out of the water committed to the ministry of the kingdom.

We follow Jesus, led by the Spirit, from the water into the wilderness. During Lent, we sit with Jesus in the wilderness for forty days.

May our 40 days of Lent enrich our relationship with God.


An African American Female “Papa”–Say What?

March 2, 2017

One of the most striking features of Paul Young’s parable entitled The Shack is his depiction of the Father. This has occasioned criticism at several levels.

[This post is chapter 15 in my book Meeting God at the Shack: A Journey into Spiritual Recovery.]

Is it idolatry to portray the Father in such a manner? Does the female metaphor undermine the biblical image of the Father?

Admittedly, the imagery is startling. To picture the Father as a gregarious African-American woman is counter-intuitive to most Western Christian sensibilities. Is the Father really so gregarious? Is the Father female? Is the Father African-American? Is the intimacy too chummy, too familiar? Is the holiness—the transcendent distinction of the divine—trumped here?

My take on this literary move by Young is shaped by my understanding of what he is doing in The Shack. Young is weaving a story that will help wounded people come to believe God really loves them. Many, like Young himself, were wounded by their fathers. Mack was physically abused by his father and wants nothing to do with him.

A critical moment in the parable is when the door of the shack swings open and Mack meets God. Whose face will he see? What kind of face will he see? How will God greet Mack? If Mack sees his father, then shame, hurt, anger, and pain would fill his heart. Instead, Mack sees a woman of color.

This arises out of Young’s own experience when his earliest memories of love and acceptance were shaped by the dark-skinned women of New Guinea. Those memories and some subsequent relationships with African-American women explain why Young portrays Papa as an African-American woman. Young is not trying to be politically correct or promoting some kind of “goddess” motif. Rather, he writes out of his own experience of love—where he himself felt loved.

The African-American form of the Father in the parable is a metaphor; it is not a one-to-one image of the Father, as if it were an idolatrous substitute for God. It functions as a theophany, not a digital photo. It comes in a vision (a dream; Mack had cried himself to sleep on the floor of the shack).

God appears to Mack as an African-American woman because this metaphor or form communicates to Mack how delighted God is to spend time with him. The metaphor overturns some mistaken conceptions of God in Mack’s mind—conceptions more rooted in his abusive earthly father than in the God of Scripture. It is a theophany—the appearance of God in a particular form—for the sake of encounter, communication, and connection.

Theophanies are common in Scripture. God comes as three visitors to Abraham’s tent. God, in human form, wrestles with Jacob. God comes as a dove descending out of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus. God appears as a burning bush. God is even pictured with hands and feet, sitting on a throne in the Temple’s Holy of Holies.

I don’t find a theophanic depiction of the Father disturbing. It would be more disturbing (and indebted to Greek philosophy) to ascribe to the Father a kind of transcendence that cannot appear to human beings in a theophany, vision, or dream. This does not detract from the revelation of God in Jesus. In fact, it is consistent with that revelation, as incarnation (God coming in the flesh) moves beyond theophanies.

God comes to people in a way that communicates something about the divine identity. This does not mean the form in which God comes is actually who God is. To identify the form with God is idolatry and fails to recognize how God transcends any form in which God appears. A theophany reveals the divine nature through a particular medium, but the divine nature is not limited to that medium.

This is a brilliant move. I know people who cannot connect with the Father’s love because their own fathers were so abusive. If they opened their shacks and saw their fathers, they would hesitate, doubt, and reject the love offered. Their hearts would leap with fear rather than delight. But if they open their shacks and see how God has come to them in a form (theophany, metaphor) which connects with loving experiences in their own life, then they would more readily embrace the love offered. God meets us in our personal experiences in ways that best communicate divine love and in ways that we might best experience that love.

That God appears as a woman is not a huge stretch. Jesus himself told a parable that pictured the Father as a woman searching for a lost coin (Luke 15:8–10), analogous to the father who waited for his lost son to appear in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Scripture often uses feminine metaphors to describe God’s love for Israel (cf. Isaiah 49:15; 66:13) and even describes God as both the One who fathers us and the One who gives us birth (Deut. 32:18). Young simply uses the metaphor in an extended way to make the same point biblical authors make. It is a theophany of divine love.

God, of course, is neither African-American nor Asian nor Western. God, of course, is neither male nor female; neither black nor white. God transcends and at the same time encompasses such categories. Masculinity and femininity are both aspects of the divine nature since we—both male and female—were created in the image of God. Whether black or white or red or yellow—as we sing in the children’s song, the diverse ethnicity and colors are also aspects of God’s own diversity (the Trinity) and divine love for the diverse character of the creation. God created diversity! It is part of God’s original intent for the world.

Young recognizes the relative way in which God appears as an African-American woman by changing the form when Papa leads Mack to Missy’s body. On that day Mack needed a father, that is, he needed the human—even male—qualities fathers represent, and Papa comes to him as male. The form in which God appears to Mack is relative to Mack’s needs as God seeks to commune and communicate with him.

The truth is this: God is delighted to meet us at our shacks. Young communicates this through a feminine African-American metaphor for the Father, because it is what Mack needs (and how Young experienced recovery as he connected with those early experiences of love from the indigenous women of New Guinea).

I find it helpful to use different metaphors for God as I envision God’s delight for me and experience the comfort of God’s enveloping love—something I am still learning to do. Whether it is crawling into my mother’s lap or a bear-hug from my brother, it communicates something true about the Father where an image of a male parent might not always do the same thing emotionally and spiritually. My favorite metaphor for the God who greets me at my shack is the image of Joshua sleeping in my arms as he rests on my lap in my big chair.

The Shack’s metaphor is bold and daring, but enriching and redemptive, for those who connect with it, given their own particular experiences.

Our imagination, guided by Scripture and sanctified by the Spirit, is an important tool for letting the truth that God loves us sink into our hearts, into our gut. During my devotional time, I envision the Father, Son, and Spirit meeting with me. They are delighted that I have come to listen to them and talk with them. They welcome me. My imagination becomes a means by which I experience, by the power of the Spirit, the love of the Triune God.

The Shack has given many believers the resources to imagine—to visualize in their minds—their own encounter with God for the sake of imbibing God’s love and letting it settle into their hearts. The Spirit uses our imagination—our dreams, art, and poetry—for that purpose just as the Spirit uses preaching, assembled praise, and the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) as well. The Spirit, through metaphors, images, other people, and the sacraments, impresses our hearts with the truth that the Father loves us and that we are God’s beloved in whom God delights.


Samaritan Hospitality

February 23, 2017

Text: Luke 10:25-37

One of my favorite questions Jesus asks in the Gospel of Luke is, “How do you read it?”

An expert in the law (one of the “wise and learned” in Luke 10:21 to whom spiritual depth is often hidden) asked Jesus a question: “what must I do to inherit eternal life” (or, our parlance, what must one do to be saved?). The expert knew the answer—it was a good question, and the expert gave a good answer. Jesus and the expert were in total agreement: love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). Life flows from loving God and neighbor. This is salvation.

But that was not the point the expert wanted to make. So, wanting to “justify himself” he sought clarification on who exactly is the neighbor one is obligated to love. Is “neighbor” restricted in some way? Does it mean the one who lives beside me? Does it mean only those of my own ethnicity? Does it mean only those of my own faith? Does it mean only those who follow the strictures of my religion? Should I love the Gentiles….the Romans….the Samaritans?

The expert had the “law” right—the first and second greatest commandments. But “how did he read it?” What did it mean to say “love your neighbor”?

The parable, with which many are so familiar, answers the expert’s question, and it illuminates not only who is our neighbor but also what it means to love. Some readings of the parable are so focused on the idea of neighbor that it is easy to miss the equal stress on the “love” or the “mercy” (10:37) that was shown in the parable.

Clearly the introduction of a “Samaritan” is a shocker, especially since Jesus three closest disciples had recently wanted to rain fire and brimstone on some Samaritan villages (Luke 9:51-56). Whereas the priest and Levite (upstanding moral representatives of the Jewish faith) “passed by,” the Samaritan did not. Whatever the rationale of the priest and Levite (and we are not told what it was though we might speculate it has something to do with ritual purity or perhaps the danger [risk] involved in helping), they avoided the hurt man. The Samaritan—the one least expected to help a presumably Jewish victim—loved the man.

The contrast in the parable is this: we will avoid the hurting or love the hurting. It is the choice we make as “Samaritans”—can we help those who hurt even when they dislike us? Can we love our neighbors who hate us?

Loving neighbor in this parable is risky and expensive. Stopping was a risk. Tending to an unknown victim was a risk. Slowing down his travel through such dangerous territory was a risk. Funding his stay at the Inn was expensive. There were, potentially, good “rationales” for avoidance. Loving a neighbor is an act of vulnerability and it costs something.

The words pile up in this text to illuminate the act of loving. It involved “compassion” (10:33), like Jesus for the widow at Nain or the Father for his son upon his return from the “far country.” He “took care of him” (10:34) as he focused his attention on him to the exclusion of other concerns. He had “mercy” (10:37) which is the word Luke only uses in the songs of Luke 1 (vv. 50, 54, 58, 72, 78). There they express divine care, the love of God. Loving our neighbor involves compassion, mercy, and focused attention.

In this parable, loving a neighbor meant hospitality (that is, loving a stranger)—involvement, connection with another person.

We have “Good Samaritan” laws. Seinfeld even ended their series on the premise of the “Good Samaritan” law—the Seinfeld characters were so lacking in compassion and mercy that they joked at the misfortune of another. They were tried and convicted without ever understanding neighborliness. “Good Samaritan” laws reflect how deeply this parable is embedded in our cultural consciousness.

Mostly, we think of the “Good Samaritan” calls in terms of extreme situations. We stop to help a motorist who has broken down on the road. We call 911 when we see an accident or witness an act of violence. We rush to contribute money to Tsunami, Katrina, or Pakistani disaster relief.

And, yet, the hurting are lying all around us. We don’t’ see them. We tend to avoid them or don’t even know they are there. We would rather—and I must admit  my tendency is this direction—go to our homes, insulate ourselves from other people, and stay uninvolved. We are individual homes in suburbia rather than part of a community. Even the church is rarely church other than at church. People are lonely and disconnected.

Hopsitality is almost an extinct art. We are too busy, and we have too many irons in the fire. It is easier and less expensive to avoid the hurting. It is more comfortable to stay insulated from others than to become involved in relationships that might prove demanding, involving, and time-consuming.

Community, however, is built through hospitality—through loving strangers, building relationships, and committing what we owe to “common” (read “communal”) use.

The word “hospitality” in Greek means to “show friendship [philo] to strangers.” It is to love your neighbor, and neighbor does not mean those who live next door or even those who “go to church” with you. Neighbor includes even strangers. Even in the Torah, loving your neighbor mean to love the “alien” even as if he were “one of your native born” (Lev. 19:34).

Perhaps it would be good to recover hospitality as a contemporary virtue. Community is built through relationships, and hospitality is one means of building that community. Perhaps it would be good  to open our homes to strangers. It might be good to learn  again what “Sunday dinner” used to be  in our culture—the inviting of strangers to share a meal with us.

I remember my “Sunday dinners” growing up. Roast, carrots and potatoes—every Sunday! But what I remember most was that there was always a stranger at the table. My parents always invited someone home from church who did not have place (a community) to spend the afternoon. We would eat, talk, play games, watch the ballgame together, and then return to the Sunday evening service. To this day I still have people ask me if “Mark or Lois Hicks” were my parents, and then remind me that they ate with us one Sunday. They were Samaritans—to white, black, Asian, and others—in their time. We need to be Samaritans in our time.

“How do you read it?”

How does the parable of the “Good Samaritan” challenge our lifestyles? Yes, we may be good “emergency Samaritans,” and thus we keep the law of the land with its “Good Samaritan” laws. But do we love our neighbors? Do we live hospitable lives of mercy and compassion to the stranger and alien in our land?

“How do you read it?”


Salvation in Stone-Campbell Theology

February 22, 2017

Paul describes salvation in three tenses—past, present and future. We have been saved (Ephesians 2:8), we are in the process of being saved (2 Corinthians 2:15), and we will be saved (Romans 5:9-10). Theologians have generally summarized these “tenses” as “Justification, Sanctification, and Glorification.” The Stone-Campbell Movement has recognized each of these, but different people at different times have stressed one over the other.

Alexander Campbell identified the three tenses as holy state (justification, pardon), holy character (progressive sanctification), and holy new creation (hope as physical regeneration through the resurrection of the body and the renewal of heaven and earth). Campbell describes salvation in this holistic manner in his Christian System and his essay on “Regeneration.” A change of state involves a new birth (pardon and adoption) that produces a new life (a change in character through the working of the Spirit) that terminates in full redemption at the resurrection (eternal life understood as “physical regeneration” on a renewed heaven and earth). Consequently, salvation, which is the function of the whole remedial system, includes the past, present, and future.

This holistic understanding of salvation is present whenever Stone-Campbell authors explain the Remedial System (Hiram Christopher) or the Scheme of Redemption (Robert Milligan). But while this holistic picture never disappeared from the theological landscape within the Stone-Campbell Movement, the present and future aspects of salvation generally receded into the background.

Campbell, for example, most often stressed the past dimension of salvation. His corpus is primarily concerned with the assurance and enjoyment of forgiveness. Even his “systematic” discussions often leave little space for present and future soteriology. This emphasis is understandable given Campbell engagement with the frontier’s search for the assurance of forgiveness and the importance he attached to baptism as God’s “sensible pledge” of salvation. Often the emphasis on justification was polemical. For example, Campbell’s Christian Baptism identifies the “consequents of baptism” in terms of past tense soteriology. The Campbellian emphasis on baptism, so dominant in the Stone-Campbell Movement, effectively conceived salvation as a past event.

This is particularly true among the Churches of Christ. Three authors illustrate the point. T. W. Brents’ The Gospel Plan of Salvation (1874) is wholly concerned with justification as it never mentions the present and future aspects of salvation. Even when discussing the new birth and the Holy Spirit it is wholly concerned about conversion as an event in the past. David Lipscomb’s Salvation from Sin (1913), edited by J.W. Shepherd, focuses on Justification. While a few chapters discuss eschatology and pneumatology, the discussion is oriented toward understanding the necessity of obedience to divine law at the converting moment. K. C. Moser’s The Way of Salvation (1932) defends an orthodox Protestant understanding of justification though sanctification and pneumatology are not altogether absent but eschatology is. Contextual factors, of course, contributed to this emphasis. Brents and Lipscomb were polemically engaged with Calvinists and Baptists, and Moser was responding to the legalism he perceived among his own people. Nevertheless, this context moved Churches of Christ toward a primarily past and legal (though not necessarily legalistic) understanding of salvation. Salvation is primarily justification, that is, the pardon and forgiveness of sins.

The Stone-Campbell Movement, however, has at times emphasized the present dimension of salvation. While Barton W. Stone often reflected all three tenses of salvation, he emphasized the transformation of the believer into the character of Christ as the primary experience of salvation. Union with Christ did not mean the imputation of Christ’s legal righteousness, but the transformation of the character by participation in the nature of Christ. Salvation was conceived primarily as sanctification that would result in ultimate justification. Thus, in the end we would be declared righteous because, by the power of the Spirit, we would be made righteous through a change in our character. This manifested itself in Stone’s willingness to commune with the unimmersed at the Lord’s table (their character is more important than their baptism) and his insistence that the only kind of union that would stand the test of God’s intent was “fire” union, that is, a Spirit-shaped character that loves God and his children. Salvation, then, was more a process than a past event.

Robert Richardson pursued this emphasis on spiritual transformation in his Office of the Holy Spirit (1873) though he discusses conversion as a past event and briefly acknowledges a future “hour of redemption.” Richardson urges the “restoration of the Spirit” to the Stone-Campbell Movement’s soteriological message. The presence of the Spirit, he contends, effects a tremendous change in the moral nature of humanity.

Salvation as process rather than event, or as moral rather then legal, gained prominence among the Disciples of Christ in the early twentieth century. Salvation, as Edward Scribner Ames described it in his The New Orthodoxy (1918), is oriented toward persons rather than “states.” Salvation is not primarily a state, but a movement toward the divine ethic embodied in lived out faith. Similarly, Herbert Willet pointed out that the new life, “the possession of the mind of Christ, a character such as his,” was the most important dimension of faith (Basic Truths of the Christian Faith, 1903). Absent from many discussions of salvation in the early twentieth century among Disciples is eschatology. Given the social context of Fundamentalism and WWI, as well as higher critical views of Scripture and the emergence of an imminent understanding of the kingdom of God in the Social Gospel, eschatology dropped out of the common language of salvation.

What the nineteenth century church shared, however, was a primarily individualistic understanding of salvation. Though they sought communal unity and portrayed the coming kingdom as a cosmic event, salvation was primarily forgiveness from personal sin and the development of a holy character. While the Disciples often expressed this through social ethics in the twentieth century, the Churches of Christ and Independent Christian Churches fostered an individualistic focus on salvation.

Contemporary Disciples have adopted a transformational understanding of salvation. In fact, as many Disciple theologians move toward and embrace Process and Liberation theology, salvation as process is the dominant model for understanding God’s redemptive work. In this context salvation is conceived in cosmic terms rather than anthropocentricity. The cosmos is in the process of becoming as sin is eradicated. Thus, transformation is understood as part of a cosmic community rather than relegated to the individual life of the believer.

Independent Christian Churches shared the mixed atmosphere of Disciples and Churches of Christ. The “double cure” (justification and sanctification) was present in much of its literature as discipleship received a greater emphasis than in Churches of Christ. Nevertheless, the dominant concern has been justification and the experience of forgiveness, particularly as it related to baptism. Given the rise of Dispensational Premillennialism, the positive dimensions of eschatological soteriology were lost as churches reacted negatively to the new Fundamentalism.

Churches of Christ, prior to the practical expulsion of premillennialists among them, often had a healthy eschatological emphasis though it was subordinate to the past and present dimensions of salvation. R. H. Boll, for example, perhaps best modeled the portrayal of salvation as past, present and future. However, by the mid-twentieth century, the Churches of Christ along with the other segments of the Stone-Campbell Movement had essentially lost the eschatological emphasis in their soteriology. Of course, hope functioned as part of their religious life, but the attention it received did not compare with the past or present experience of salvation and it did not shape soteriological reflection.

The Stone-Campbell Movement, then, has usually stressed the past and present dimension of salvation, and mostly from an individualistic vantage point. It either emphasized salvation as a legal state (thus past) or a holy character through transformation (present process). Though eschatology was part of this picture, especially in the nineteenth century, it was largely lost because of the Movement’s polemical (debates over baptism) or social (institutionalism, anti-dispensationalism, and emphasis on social transformation) interests. At the end of the twentieth century, however, the Stone-Campbell Movement, in all of its segments, was moving more toward a communal and holistic understanding of salvation with a balanced stress on all the “tenses” of salvation.


Faith and Repentance in Stone-Campbell Theology

February 21, 2017

Frontier Calvinism emphasized the necessity of regeneration as well as repentance before faith. The Spirit awakens godly sorrow that leads to faith. Consequently, the regenerate person mourns, regrets and despairs over sin and then comes to saving faith through some kind of religious experience.

From the beginning the Stone-Campbell Movement rejected this conversion narrative. In his “Compendium of the Gospel,” which appeared in the Apology of the Last Will and Testament, Barton W. Stone argued that “faith,” which is the belief of testimony, “produces regeneration” and “necessarily precedes it,” and that “faith produces reformation.”

The standard understanding of the ordo salutis in Stone-Campbell theology is faith, repentance, baptism, regeneration, forgiveness of sins, and then reception of the Holy Spirit. The elderly Stone wrote that faith purposes “to repent, reform and obey the gospel in order to justification, pardon and salvation” (Christian Messenger [1842], 329).

Alexander Campbell carefully distinguished between two Greek words in the New Testament. One, metamelomai, means mere regret or remorse. The other, metanoeoo, means a change of mind. Campbell preferred to translate the former as “repent” and the latter as “reform.” Evangelical repentance is not mere regret, but a reformed life or a change of direction. One may, in Campbell’s language, repent without reforming, that is, they may regret their mistakes without turning to God. The biblical definition of repentance is reformation and it is a necessary condition of salvation. The sin-offering of Christ is ineffectual without repentance.

Repentance, then, involves a regret for sin (a feeling) and a reformation of life (action). Both, however, are the effect of faith. The belief of God’s testimony about Jesus produces a sorrow for sin (feeling) that then leads to reformation (action). Campbell stringently maintains the psychological sequence of fact, testimony, faith, feeling and then action. Action involves “works worthy of repentance,” including restitution when possible. Actions evidence sincerity. “True repentance is, then, always consummated in actual reformation of life” (Christian System). The first act of repentance is to undergo the baptism of repentance and experience the “bath of regeneration.” Repentance, according to Campbell, “is intimately associated with Christian baptism.” Acts 2:38 functioned paradigmatically not only for baptism but also for repentance in Campbell’s theology.

Campbell’s ordo salutis created tension with his Calvinist contemporaries. They believed repentance preceded faith, but Campbell argued that faith preceded repentance. Frontier Calvinists appealed to Mark 1:15, “repent and believe the gospel” (as well as Acts 20:21). Campbell explained that this was addressed to covenant people who already believed in God and thus repentance was demanded on the basis of that faith. Since faith is the belief of testimony for Campbell, it is “one of the mysteries of mystic Babylon” how one can “repent of a sin against a God in whom he did not believe, or against a Christ of whom he had not heard.” Repentance is the “first fruit” of faith; it is an effect of faith.

The Stone-Campbell understanding of repentance is dependent upon Campbell’s foundational exposition, but the lengthiest articulation is found in Walter Scott. He presents repentance as a change of mind regarding Scripture, God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit and consequent moral conduct. Faith as an acknowledgement of facts and repentance as a change of mind regarding God’s moral authority and Jesus’ Sonship in Scripture, leads to repentance (moral reformation) and obedience to the gospel (and consequent reception of the Spirit). The significance of baptism as repentance, however, emerges strongly in Scott. Moral reformation without obedience to the gospel in baptism demonstrates “deference to the facts” but at the same time a rejection of divine authority regarding the “positive institute of baptism” (Gospel Restored, 318). The promise of God attached to baptism is the reception of the Holy Spirit and thus the power and strength for a holy, reformed life.

Subsequent discussions of repentance followed the lines of Campbell and Scott. For example, J. W. McGarvey’s Lard’s Quarterly exposition depends upon Campbell, and N. B. Hardeman practically reproduces McGarvey’s sermon on repentance. The discussions, however, became more pronounced against Calvinism or more defensive of baptism. T. W. Brents, for example, not only objects to the theory that repentance precedes faith but that repentance is a direct gift from God. Brents rejects any understanding of total depravity that undermines a person’s ability to repent when God has commanded it. God induces repentance through facts (faith) and persuasion. Guy N. Woods stressed that some place repentance before faith in order to preserve “the dogma of salvation by faith only” since if people are saved at the moment of faith and repentance is necessary for salvation, then repentance must precede faith.

However, Stone-Campbell theology is not uniform. Robert Milligan, for example, identified repentance with the change of will rather than mind. Faith involved an intellectual (mind) change that generated an affective (heart) change. Love for Christ engendered repentance (a change of will) that then led to a change of conduct (conversion). Repentance is not a change of conduct, but “it consists properly and essentially in a change of the will, effected by means of godly sorrow in the heart.” Repentance is the submission of the human will to the will of God. Milligan’s conditions of church membership were faith, love, repentance, conversion, prayer, confession and baptism.

Those who define faith as trust in Christ for salvation have tended to see repentance as logically prior to faith. Focused on Acts 20:21, Hiram Christopher argued that repentance toward God in the sense of both sorrow for sin and a change of mind precedes faith in Jesus which leads to obedience in baptism. The order is faith in God, repentance from sin, faith in Jesus and then baptism. Also in the light of Acts 20:21, K. C. Moser believed the order was belief in the facts, repentance toward God, and trust in Christ. Moser insisted that faith was more than belief of testimony. Rather it was a trust in the redemptive work of Christ. Consequently, repentance preceded faith because the penitent sinner who has renounced sin seeks redemption from sin through acceptance of Christ’s work through trusting in him. Though “repentance logically precedes faith in the sense of trust,” they are actually “inseparable.” For Moser this penitent trust in Jesus is expressed in baptism. Baptism embodies the sinner’s change of mind and his full trust in the atonement of Christ.

Where faith is defined primarily as “belief of testimony,” then it precedes repentance. Thus faith can exist without repentance as the will stubbornly refuses to submit to reform. But where faith is defined primarily as “trust,” then it follows repentance since one does not trust in what one is not willing to follow. Contemporary discussions generally recognize that evangelical faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. They are so intertwined that the logical sequence is inconsequential. Even Milligan notes that “faith and repentance have always a mutual and reflex influence on each other.” Faith and repentance are practically a single event and ultimately one does not exist without the other if faith is understood as an affective trust and repentance is understood as a change of mind and life.

Bibliography: Alexander Campbell, “Repentance,” Millennial Harbinger Extra 4 (August 1833), 345-48; “Reformation,” MH Extra 4 (August 1833), 349-51; “Tracts for the People.—No. IV. Repentance Unto Life,” MH 17 (April 1846), 181-92; “Repentance and Faith? Faith and Repentance,” MH 32 (January 1861), 14-18; Walter Scott, The Gospel Restored, 315-412; J. W. McGarvey, “Repentance,” Lard’s Quarterly 1 (1864), 172-82; “Repentance,” in Sermons, 97-108; T. W. Brents, “Repentance,” The Gospel Plan of Salvation, 234-48; Robert Milligan, Scheme of Redemption, 456-60; Hiram Christopher, Remedial System, 269-76; N. B. Hardeman, “Repentance,” in Hardeman Tabernacle Sermons (1922), 196-203; K. C. Moser, “Repentance and Faith,” in The Way of Salvation, 60-76; and Guy N. Woods, Questions and Answers, 249-252.


I Will Go See “The Shack: The Movie”

February 17, 2017

While some have perhaps read The Shack as an actual account, the title page identifies the piece as a “novel.” This is a fictional story. But…it is nevertheless true. The movie, too, is fictional…but true.

Read The Shack, watch the movie, and walk with me into the world of spiritual recovery, a journey into my shack and your shack (Meeting God at the Shack, my new book). That is what The Shack is about.

The book, as well as the movie, is a modern parable. Like a parable, the events described are fictional though possible (that is, it is not science fiction). And, like a parable, it becomes a world into which we step to hear something true about God, life, and the soul. 

The Prodigal Son (Luke 15), for example, is a fictional but true story. As fiction the story has no correspondence in fact, that is, it is not a story about a specific, actual family. No one walked up to Jesus after the parable to ask the name of the son, which family he came from and into which “far country” he went. Whether it is actual history or not is irrelevant. It is a fictional tale. But the story is nevertheless true. The Prodigal Son says something true about God and his relationship with his children.

A parabolic story draws the listener or reader into the world of the parable so that we can see something from a particular angle. A parable is not comprehensive theology, but a story-shaped way of saying a particular thing. As a piece of art rather than didactic prose, it allows a person to hear that point in an emotional as well as intellectual way. It gives us imagery, metaphor, and pictures to envision the truth rather than merely describing it in prose. Rather than analyzing propositions, we become part of a parable’s narrative. We are free to experience our own life again as we are guided by the storyteller.

Parables, as the parables of Jesus often do, sucker-punch us so that we begin to see something we had not previously seen about ourselves, God or the world. They speak to us emotionally in ways that pure prose does not usually do, much like music, art and poetry are expressive in ways that transcend discursive or academic descriptions. This enables the right side (the artsy side) of our brains to connect with what the left side (the analytical side) of our brain thinks about. We can feel these truths rather than simply think about them. As a result those truths can connect with our guts (our core beliefs about ourselves) in ways that our intellect cannot reach. The truths, then, can settle into our hearts as well as our minds.

The Shack is, I think, a piece of serious theological reflection in parabolic form. It is not a systematic theology. It does not cover every possible topic nor reflect on God from every potential angle. That is not its intent. That would be too much to expect from a parable. The “Prodigal Son,” for example, is not a comprehensive teaching about God.

Rather, the focus of The Shack is rather narrow. Fundamentally, given my own experience and hearing Young talk about his intent, I read the book as answering this question:

How do wounded people journey through their hurt to truly believe in their gut that God really loves them despite the condition of their “shack”?

The parable is about how we feel about ourselves in our own “shacks.” Do we really believe—deep in our guts, not just in our heads—that God is “especially fond” of us? How can God love us when our “shacks” are a mess? The parable addresses these feelings, self-images and woundedness.

The theology of The Shack engages us at this level. It encourages us to embrace the loving relationship into which God invites us. Consequently, it does not answer every question, address every aspect of God’s nature or reflect on every topic of Christian theology. Instead, it zeros in on the fundamental way in which wounded souls erect barriers that muzzle the divine invitation to loving relationship.

So, I invite you to reflect on these themes—to process them within your own journey, out of your own woundedness, and in relationship with your own God. I invite you to walk with me through my own spiritual journey of recovery and perhaps illuminate your own walk with God.

May God hear our prayers for healing, meet us in our shacks, and love us so profoundly and deeply that our wounds become scars rather than festering sores.