The Shack

A friend kept encouraging me to read “The Shack” so I could discuss it with her. I told her I don’t read much fiction and kept putting her off. But I found the DVD at the local library last week and watched this version of William P. Young’s 2007 book. I must say, though the viewing took two nights, it was hard to hit “pause” and go to bed!

“The Shack” deals with tragedy when a little girl is kidnapped and murdered. In this regard, the book isn’t sugar-coated. Tragedy is part and parcel of life, and one of the most difficult things to deal with in a life of faith. “Why do good people suffer?” is a question as old as the book of Job, and the answer, or what we have of it, depends on one’s theological slant.

One branch of Christendom insists God decrees all things and ultimately gets glory from all things. Another branch insists God may or may not decree all things--there are forces in our world that bring about bad things, such as human will and Satan. And those in this camp say we must have faith to believe we’ll be stronger and better for having faced tragedy, and one God will offer an accounting.

Whatever the case, Mack Phillips and his wife entered a period of grief. Mack eventually received a unique invitation to meet God. One surprise in the film is that he experiences God in a different way since God is female.

Of course, the author is taking some liberties. Biblical culture was male-dominated and God is almost uniformly referred to in the scripture as male. I suppose if we were pressed on this we’d admit that maleness and femaleness is a human quality and really transcends the nature of God. But in our everyday Christianity we refer to God as Jesus did: “Our father.”

The author uses word and drama to demonstrate God’s love for all, even for the evil man who took the Phillips’ daughter. This was the most significant idea I came away with. God does, indeed, love everyone. Jesus prayed forgiveness for those who murdered him, so this concept really shouldn’t be surprising.

To those who suggest “The Shack” takes liberties with scripture I’d simply say the book doesn’t claim to be scripture. It’s a parable, just like John Bunyan used in “The Pilgrim’s Progress”—now a classic. “The Shack” probably won’t achieve Bunyan’s status, but it’s simply one man’s attempt to explain to this generation that God doesn’t abandon us in our pain. It’s true, and we trust some hear this who might not come and hear a sermon in church.

Back To School, Part 2

The reformer Martin Luther said his mother would wake him up for school when he was a boy by knocking on one of the posters on his high poster bed. "Martin," she said, "get up. It's morning."

Luther later said this is what will happen on resurrection day. Jesus will knock on his casket and say, "Martin, it's morning. Get up!"

My mother did something similar, but wasn't quite as theologically profound as Mrs. Luther. She'd come in singing,"School days, school days, dear old golden rule days." I grew up hating those lyrics!

I have appreciation for wonderful teachers I had in those school days. All of us have fingerprints on our souls left by teachers who taught us the metrics of life, but also taught us the meaning of life.

Jesus was the master teacher. The Jewish people called him "rabbi" which means "teacher." He said "Come to me and learn from me" (Matthew 11: 28-30).

Jesus came to teach us about God.

The greatest question humanity asks is "what is God like?" And our greatest quest is "how can I find him?" The Christian message is that God took the initiative and came to us."The word became flesh and dwelt among us," said the gospel writer John (John 1:14).  And Jesus said, "He that has seen me has seen the father" (John 14:9).

Jesus came to teach us about life.

Most of his teaching had to do with everyday living. He taught about choices, exhorting us to seek God's kingdom first and trust that God will make everything else fall into proper order (Matthew 6:33). He taught us about forgiveness, making our forgiveness from God dependent on the forgiveness we offer to others (Matthew 6: 14-15). And he taught us about service, telling us that the greatest is not the one with many servants, but the one who serves (Matthew 23:11). We serve others because we love God and want to follow the example of Jesus.

Jesus came to teach us about heaven.

He said surprisingly little about the physical nature of heaven. It is John in Revelation who gave us photos of heaven: gates of pearl, walls of jasper, streets of gold and the fountain of life-giving water. Jesus seemed not as concerned about this. He basically taught that heaven is where God is. Our innate search for God is finally satisfied through being with him in eternity.

 Jesus further taught that he himself is the way to heaven (John 14:6). Peter may or may not be the gatekeeper, but Jesus is the key! Without him we have no hope of heaven. We follow him safely into eternity.

Back To School

Where has the summer gone? Area schools open their doors again soon, to the chagrin of many students and to the delight of many parents. It was always a depressing time for me as a child when the more relaxed summer schedule was done!

Christians go to school, too, for the New Testament calls us “disciples.” This word has two meanings: to follow and to learn. As someone noted, the followers of Christ are branded on their ears and feet, for we hear his voice and we follow him.

Jesus, the master teacher, invites us to learn from him. He said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29).

How do we learn in the school of Christ?

First, God through his Holy Spirit equips some to teach the Bible (Ephesians 4:11). This is a significant gift because teachers impact our lives.

I had some very good Bible teachers as a child and teen-ager. These were laypeople in our church who loved the scripture and taught us to love it, too. I had good teachers at Samford University, too, where I majored in religion.

The late Dr. W.T. Edwards challenged us to apply ourselves and learn.

We’d complain, “Dr. Edwards, this material is over our head.”

“Lift your head!” he’d always reply.

I had good teachers at Southern Seminary in Louisville, too, including Drs. Dale Moody, Frank Stagg and Lewis Drummond.

The pastor is a teacher and we should value time we spend hearing the Bible taught from the pulpit. Sometimes people get a bit nervous when high noon approaches and the service isn’t done. My family sat in the Atlanta Braves stadium some years ago. When the tied game went into the 10th inning the announcer said, “Free baseball!” When your pastor goes past twelve you ought to think “free church!”

We also have several fine Christian radio stations in our area so we can access good Bible teaching while relaxing at home or driving.

A second way we learn is by studying the scriptures ourselves. Luke said of the Berean church that they “searched the scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11). There’s no magic plan to personal Bible study. The most important principle is to have a daily appointment and do it.

And the final way we learn is through fellowship with Christ.

“Abide in me,” Jesus said (John 15:4). Just as we invite Christ into our lives to bring salvation, we invite him every morning to walk with us that day. Fellowship with Christ teaches us more about him.

Dr. Sigurd Bryan at Samford once said that the school of Christ never graduates a class, for we continue to learn until we die.

The Good Ol’ Summertime

It’s a great time of year, except for the bugs!

Or so says a new survey reported in "USA Today." Insects are the most often mentioned detriment to backyard outings and picnics. But there are other irritations. Fifty-one percent of respondents don’t like flimsy paper plates, 36 percent don’t like unsteady lawn chairs, 35 percent don’t like plastic utensils and 31 percent don’t like the plastic squeeze bottles with mustard and ketchup drippings running down them.

The survey even included the hard core complainers, since 15 percent of men and 10 percent of women don’t like checked tablecloths!

In spite of all these negatives, summer is a great time. A time for family and friends and travel and baseball. For grandparents it's a time to take the young ones to the zoo or fishing or to the beach. Grandparents enjoy these outings as much or more than the grandchildren.

But, alas, summertime is not usually a good time for our churches since attendance plummets and finances falter. I’ve never really understood why attendance goes down in the summer. If our members went to church when they were out of town, the out-of-town churches would have good attendance, and the church back home would have good attendance from the out-of-towners who were visiting. I’m afraid the truth is many of us simply take vacations from church when we travel.

So, a few suggestions to keep your church healthy in the summertime.

First, attend church someplace while out-of-town. We can be encouraged and refreshed worshiping with another congregation while traveling. And it does us good to see what other churches are doing--we might learn some new ideas we can bring home with us. Be sure to pick up a worship bulletin and give to your pastor or music minister when you return. They usually like to look these over for new ideas, too. Many ministers don't get to visit other churches very often and they enjoy knowing how others are doing things. (Lay folk should be sure not to brag on the sermon you heard while on vacation to excess!)

Second, be sure your responsibilities are taken care of before you leave. Enlist someone else to usher or teach or count money. Nothing is more disconcerting than having tasks go undone when no one is aware of a planned absence.

Third, leave your tithes and offerings with your church before you depart. Expenses go on even when you’re not there. 

Enjoy your trip, but don’t take a vacation from God. We need him and his church-- even in the summertime.