Returning to the Shack

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There’s a rickety old shack in the Oscar winning movie, Forest Gump, where Forest’s best friend Jenny grew up. Jenny’s shack is also the place that hides her darkest, most painful memories—early years of sexual abuse.

After they reach adulthood, Forest and Jenny revisit the shack. It is a powerfully wrenching scene when Jenny, enraged by the memories she cannot shake, hurls fistfuls of rocks at the hated shack. Later, Forest finishes the job by flattening it with a bulldozer. But the ill-effects of childhood suffering are able to withstand Forest’s demolitions efforts.

Paul Young’s runaway bestselling novel, The Shack, which has now been made into a movie, takes up a similar theme.

A Redemptive Encounter

The shack in Young’s tale is the site where Missy, the beloved young daughter of the main character Mack, is brutally murdered by a sexual predator. The impact of her brutal death on Mack is, as you can imagine, utterly devastating. Like Forest’s friend Jenny, Mack lives a tormented life because of what happened to his little girl in the shack. The shack casts a dark and terrible shadow over his life that he can’t escape.

The shack—that dilapidated vacant old eyesore—comes to represent unspeakable loss and an open wound in Mack’s soul. Just like Jenny, Mack returns to the place most abhorrent to him, drawn by a note in his mailbox signed “Papa”—the name his wife Nan uses most often for God. But unlike Jenny’s story, Mack’s story doesn’t include a bulldozer scene. Instead of trying to destroy the shack, Mack enters it alone. He is angry, skeptical, fearful, and filled with revulsion.

Yet it is in returning to the place that pains him most that Mack has a life-altering, redemptive encounter with God.

[bctt tweet=”Returning to the place that pains him most brings a redemptive encounter with God.” username=”missioalliance”]

A Counterproductive Debate

Young’s novel attracted enormous attention, as has the recently released movie. This, in itself, would be reason enough to discuss The Shack. Young has also drawn fierce criticism from evangelicals for his portrayal of the Trinity and for his theological views which he is audacious enough to put into the mouth of God.

From my vantage point, it seems counterproductive to debate, when Young is serving up to us on a platter an amazing opportunity for deep conversations and real ministry with so many people. We may not like every detail of the book or agree with every theological statement it contains. (And in all fairness, Young’s critics should also inspect C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, not to mention their own views, under the same theological microscope.)

Young is doing here what most people do every day. He’s asking the tough theological questions that hound every wounded soul. (If you’re not in that demographic, sooner or later you will be, so this is for you too.)

Why do bad things happen—not just in the abstract, but to me? Does God really care about me? Why is my life such a mess, if God is truly good?

And here’s one to ponder: How do we present God as Father to this father-starved generation and call them to draw near to Him, when the mention of “father” conjures up images that are uncaring, distant, and (in more cases than we’d like to admit) abusive? Young tackles that question head on by starting in the kitchen with “Papa” represented as a warm, embracing African-American woman and leading Mack from there to know “Papa” as Father who will shepherd him gently through the hardest stretches of his journey.

I suspect one explanation for the skyrocketing sales of this book is that there are a lot of hurting people in this world who long for an honest discussion of the big questions they are already asking. Young is giving them that discussion.

I read and discussed The Shack when it first came out with six highly respected, theologically minded people. All seven of us are seminary graduates with years of experience in theology, biblical studies, and pastoral concerns. You may be surprised to learn that our discussion touched only briefly on the theological controversy and then went in another direction. Yes, we are all seminary graduates capable of wading into the controversy. But we have another thing in common which changed our reading of Young’s book.

We all have shacks.

Meeting God In Our Shacks

If you’re hurting—if there’s a painful, immovable fixture on the landscape of your life—this book will touch you in your deepest place. It did that for all of us. Frank and I felt a deep connection between Mack’s struggles and the shack because we were dealing with the aftermath of his brother Kelly’s death in the snow cave on Mount Hood.

The Shack is about revisiting the hard places—the shacks—of our lives and wrestling honestly with God there (instead of avoiding, ignoring, or trying to bulldoze it). Somehow God meets us in our shacks. This is the consistent story of God’s people all through the Bible: Job, Abraham and Sarah, Naomi, Hannah, David, and Jeremiah, to name a few.

The Shack is about being reassured of God’s relentless love for you in the presence of your greatest reason to doubt Him. How ironic for Mack to come to grips with God’s love at the murder scene of his daughter where God’s love seemed so wholly absent.

I’ve always said, I’d rather hear about God’s love from someone who believed they had lost it, than from someone whose rosy life never forced them to doubt.

The Shack is about the importance of the hard places in our lives. In our victorious, prosperity-obsessed, air-brushed Christianity, we completely miss this. There’s a lot of truth to the charge coming from people who are leaving the church that we are not honest about the shape of our lives and the state of our faith. In the church, shacks are secrets unless something unforeseen blows your cover. Shacks are regarded as shameful. And the doubts they produce are considered to be signs of spiritual failure, not the path to growth.

I don’t necessarily advocate full public disclosure of our deeply private struggles, but there surely is a place for us to acknowledge to one another that we all have spiritual struggles, we all wrestle with doubts about God, and we all have our shacks.

Biblical sufferers offer us that kind of honesty, and we should be grateful that Paul Young has been that honest too.


This updated post was first published at www.MissioAlliance.org on March 20, 2017.

It was published at Huffington Post on March 21, 2017.


An earlier pre-movie version first appeared at www.carolyncustisjames.com in September 2008.


 

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An Unlikely Women’s History Celebrant

john-calvinI suspect the renown Reformation pastor John Calvin is one of the last men anyone would expect to show up during Women’s History Month—at least in a favorable way.

This is where the capability of church historians (I’m thinking of one church historian in particular) to dig up unexpected revelations rivals the twenty-first century press and never ceases to amaze me.

Out of the blue, Frank sent me the following quote from a letter, dated 16 September 1557, that Calvin penned to Protestant women who were imprisoned for their faith in Paris.

Mademoiselle Phillippe de Luns, a noble woman, was one of the Paris women. Calvin’s bracing letter of ezer-warrior encouragement didn’t arrive a day too soon. She was burned at the stake on 27 September 1557.

John Calvin’s detractors should probably sit down before reading.

Since we have a common salvation in [Jesus Christ], it is necessary that all with one accord, men as well as women, should maintain His cause. . . . For he who marshals us to battle, arms and shields us at the same time with necessary weapons and gives us dexterity in wielding them . . .

He has shed His Spirit on all flesh and caused to prophesy sons and daughters, as he had foretold by his prophet Joel, which is evidently a sign that He communicates in like manner His other necessary graces, and leaves neither his sons nor daughters, men nor women, destitute of the gifts proper for maintaining His glory. . . .

Consider what was the courage and constancy of women at the death of our Lord Jesus Christ; when the apostles had forsaken him, how they continued by Him with marvelous constancy and how a woman was the messenger to announce to the apostles His resurrection, which the latter could neither believe nor comprehend.

If He then, so honored women, and endowed them with so much courage, do you think He has less power now or that His purposes are changed? How many thousands of women have there been who have spared neither their blood nor their lives to maintain the name of Jesus Christ and announce His reign? Has not God caused their martyrdom to bear fruit? Has their faith not obtained the victory over the world as well as that of martyrs? … and have we not still before our eyes examples of how God works daily by their testimony and confounds his enemies . . .


Source: Bonnet CCCCLXXVI, #2716 in OC 16: 632-34. Cited in Elsie Anne McKee, Editor and Translator, John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety, Classics of Western Spirituality (NY: Paulest Press, 2001), 329-330.

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Refueling Hope!

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My memories of the Synergy Women’s Network are never far below the surface. It doesn’t take much for them to burst into life for me again.

That happened as I watched the historic Women’s March on January 20, knowing Synergy women were in those crowds.

Whenever another gifted Synergy writer gets published, I chalk up one more Synergy success. (Kudos to Lesa Engelthaler for her relentless mentoring/editing and to the publishers who scouted for new talent at our conferences!)

I get flashbacks of why Synergy got started in the first place every time I receive a S.O.S. email from a woman in ministry stranded “out there” somewhere and know exactly which of my Synergy friends will help her.

International Women’s Day reminded me of national Synergy conferences, the courageous work Christian women are doing all over the world, and the challenges and opportunities looming on the horizon.

Thoughts of Synergy and what God is doing through his daughters fill my heart with hope. No matter how dark things look, I know God’s kingdom is making headway because his daughters and sons are bearing light in all those dark places and we aren’t giving up.

Memories of Synergy2011 (our final national conference) came flooding back, along with the ongoing global plight of women that we considered there, when my friend Virginia Quarrier Knowles posted a couple of videos she recorded (see below) on Facebook. That conference was without a doubt our most honest look at the scope and ferocity of the battles Jesus calls us to fight and when our determination to engage surged.

The Synergy Legacy

Books & Culture ReviewSynergy conferences were always forward looking. We were (still are) passionate about God’s calling on our lives and energized by the challenges and opportunities before us.

Our 2011 conference theme was “The Rest of the Story: From Here to Eternity” and spread a more realistic yet hopeful and creative vision for our mission than ever before. Guest speakers that year were Andy Crouch, Nikki Toyama-Szeto, and Sheryl WuDunn.

Sheryl and her husband, Nicholas Kristof, co-authored the NYTimes bestseller, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. The book’s name comes from the Chinese proverb, “Women hold up half the sky.” The book is a jarring global exposé of human rights violations against women and girls the authors describe as “the paramount moral crisis of the twenty-first century.” 

It’s a book every ministry leader should read!

Sheryl focused attention on the global plight of women and girls. The challenge in Half the Sky that convinced me this was an issue we as Christians need to address was that “Americans of faith should try as hard to save the lives of African women as the lives of unborn fetuses.Michael Jordan and the Malestrom

Reading Jesus and the prophets just reinforces my conviction that the global plight of women and girls is a crucial part of the Bible’s agenda and of our responsibility to keep it on the church’s radar. My book, Half the Church—Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, merges God’s vision for his daughters with this agenda.

Believe it or not, it is possible to have a clear and honest grasp of the appalling attrocities  happening here and around the world and still hang onto hope. As Calvin College Philosophy Prof James K.A. Smith wrote recently in the Washington Post,

Count me one of the “willfully blind” perhaps, but I would never count out a savior who rose from the dead.”

A New Day for Synergy

In 2014, Synergy became part of Missio Alliance—a step forward that was consistent with both organizations firm commitment to men and women partnering together in ministry. I had attended Missio conferences before that, and it was obvious to me that a commitment to and value of the ministry of women to the whole Body of Christ was already in their DNA. As I’ve said before, Missio Alliance was a logical place for Synergy to land.

I’m sharing these videos as a reminder to women who were part of Synergy that we haven’t gone away and to encourage you to check out the upcoming Missio Alliance Conference, Awakenings and plan on joining us. The conference is April 27-29 in Alexandria, Virginia.

y450-293I’m currently reading N.T. Wright’s new book, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning Jesus’ Crucifixion (which I’d recommend you’d read whether you can make it to the conference or not). I’ve read several of his books, and have yet to read one that didn’t leave me with a fresh sense of hope (a.k.a., informed optimism). This one is no exception. I can’t wait to hear him speak on this at the conference. I suspect plenty of us could use a bracing infusion of hope about now. This conference promises to deliver. Prof Wright is just one of the speakers in this strong line-up that I’m counting on to feed my hope.

For those who have never heard of Synergy, these videos will give you a glimpse  of the kind of work we did at Synergy and still are passionate about doing.

Come to Alexandria and get a fresh dose of hope!


 


 

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International Women’s Day

On January 21, 2017, day two of the president’s first week in office, city streets in America and around the world were flooded with predominately pink-hatted female protesters raising awareness of women’s rights. The pink hats were a visible protest of how, during the presidential campaign, the issue of sexual assault against women was was brushed off as mere “locker room talk.”

Despite the fact that the topic didn’t seem to be a deal breaker for supporters of the current president (even his evangelical supporters), it is an issue that as Christians we can’t afford—and women won’t allow—to drop.

Sexual assault isn’t mere “talk” to women. Far from it. It is a brutal reality for one out of four women, and that figure probably understates the problem, since many assaults go unreported.

After the protests, my friend, Professor Paul Louis Metzger asked if I’d be willing to do an interview on the march and how the Bible speaks (or doesn’t) to women’s rights. That led me, strangely enough, to re-examine the interactions between Ruth the Moabitess and Boaz in the Old Testament book of Ruth.

After responding to the questions, I’m convinced Boaz would be totally on board with the Women’s March. See if you agree.

Interview: “On the 2017 Women’s March Across the Globe”

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Franciscan Blessing for Such a Time as This

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May God bless you with a restless discomfort
about easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you really can make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God’s grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

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Celebrate National Women’s History Month with the Bold Women of the Bible

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March is National Women’s History Month and an opportunity to spotlight the incredible contributions of women to national and global history. It is also a golden opportunity for us to rediscover the strong legacy bequeathed to us by women in the Bible.

This will involve addressing the injustices done to women and girls whose stories are recorded in the Bible but who are casualties to widespread cultural assumptions that men are leaders and women are born to follow.

Consequently, vital stories of women in the Bible—lots of them—have been downsized or marginalized and lost to us. Portraits of strong, courageous women leaders in the Bible have been removed from their rightful place as role models for women and girls at a time when strong godly female role models are desperately needed.

We are cautioned not to get excited or to entertain big ideas for ourselves from the stories of women like Deborah, Esther, Priscilla, Lydia, Junia, and Phoebe, when their stories are in the Bible for our instruction and should fill our hearts and the hearts of our daughters with fierce passion and determination to give our all in service to Jesus.

We aren’t alerted to notice or called to aspire to the the radical brand of bold and selfless leadership of Ruth the Moabitess or to follow the example of the hungry-to-learn Mary of Bethany and her courageous solo affirmation of Jesus’ mission on the eve of his crucifixion.

We completely miss how, for example, the young slave girl Hagar, barren Hannah, and the washed up childless widow Naomi are at least three female shapers of Judaeo-Christian theology. Hagar teaches us the intimate side of the God “who sees me.” Hannah’s theology informs us of God’s sovereign rule over everything from the womb to the throne.  Naomi reassures us of God’s stubborn relentless love (hesed) for us, what Sally Lloyd-Jones described as “Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love.” The theology of all three women shows up in the writings of King David and is indispensable truth for believers in every generation.

It’s worth mentioning that men lose out in this arrangement too, for not only do they also have much to learn from these strong women, ignoring them causes  men to expect less from their sisters in Christ which, in turn, deprives them of strength, courage, and wisdom they need and that God means for them to gain from us.

It is time we reclaimed these women’s stories and reinstalled their portraits in their rightful place as Role Models for women and girls today. Without them, we will inevitably lower the bar for ourselves and our daughters when kingdom matters are every day at stake, when earth is emitting a distress signal, and when we cannot spare anyone in the monumental gospel ministry Jesus has entrusted to us.

ca2dc-41ylc8ol6mlSo celebrate National Women’s History Month and rekindle your own passion to join the stream of godly female history by reclaiming the bold legacy of women in the Bible.

Although every book I’ve written (including Malestrom) offers a fresh re-look at the stories of women in the Bible, a great place to start is with Lost Women of the Bible—The Women We Thought We Knew which is currently available on Kindle for $1.99. 

Already here in Pennsylvania, a group of sixth grade girls are reading and discussing their way through Lost Women of the Bible. They’re discovering they are ezer-warriors for Jesus and embracing a very big vision for their lives from these vital women role models.

 


Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION:  Lost

CHAPTER 1:  A Forgotten Legacy—Eve
CHAPTER 2:   The Unknown Soldier—Mrs Noah
CHAPTER 3:    Lost in the Margins—Sarah
CHAPTER 4:    The Invisible Woman—Hagar
CHAPTER 5:    Missing in Action—Tamar
CHAPTER 6:    The Power Behind the Throne—Hannah
CHAPTER 7:     A Sleeping Beauty—Esther
CHAPTER 8:    The First Disciple—Mary of Nazareth
CHAPTER 9:    Apostle to the Apostles—Mary Magdalene
CHAPTER 10:  Recovering the Blessed Alliance—Paul and the Women of Philippi

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS with each chapter

 To order:  Lost Women of the Bible—The Women We Thought We Knew

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It’s a Man’s Prerogative to Change His Mind

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In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Christian History Institute is running a series of “Throwback Thursday” blog posts. The purpose is to educate more readers on the Reformation. Each contributor blogged on a quote from a reformer.

My quote comes from the mouth of Martin Luther when he finally saw the light—a second time.

“Men cannot do without women. Even if it were possible for men to beget and bear children, they still could not do without women.”                       —Martin Luther

To read the article go here.

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