Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Knowing Papa

A few months ago, after I finished teaching a Wednesday night class at West Houston and turned to chat with some folks, someone slipped a copy of William P. Young’s surprising best-seller novel, “The Shack,” on my lectern and walked away unrecognized. This was a sweet and thoughtful gesture and I want to thank whoever did it!

Young wrote “The Shack” for his six children as a Christmas present. No publisher was interested, so two friends helped him self-publish it and established a promotional budget of $300. The rest is history: “The Shack” recently sold its millionth copy, has been on numerous best-seller lists, and is the basis for a planned movie.

The story is indeed captivating. A man named Mackenzie (“Mack”) Phillips experiences a terrible tragedy in his family and begins a period of his life in which “the great sadness” envelops him. Married and with children, he yet lives in a blanket of spiritual and emotional numbnesss. One day he receives a note from God (“Papa”) inviting him to return to the remote shack in eastern Oregon where the tragedy took place. He spends a weekend there in conversation with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each manifested in surprisingly human ways.

Young refers to his story as a “parable,” and has said that the book’s title is a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain.” His character, Mack, is “basically autobiographical.” Indeed, he wrote the book at his wife’s prodding to explain to their six children his decade long journey of healing with God. Young spent the first six years of his life in New Guinea among the Dani, a technologically stone-age people to whom his parents were missionaries. By the time he was sent off to boarding school at age six, he was in most respects a white Dani. His parents returned to the West a few years later and he spent his childhood moving around Canada as his father ministered in small churches. Young never identifies (in his interviews, to my knowledge) the source of his own wounds but clearly the church played a significant negative role.

I was not mesmerized by “The Shack” as many others have been, but I found it to be a tender and thoughtful story of visiting and talking with a God (in three persons -- Father, Son, Spirit) who loves his children, feels their pain, and walks with them through their tragedies even as he (often) allows these tragedies to happen. This novel reminded me in a refreshing, inspiring and powerful way that the Christian faith is based in a RELATIONSHIP, and if we lose our experience of that relationship, the Christian life can be dry and routine. And while it certainly is not a theological treatise, the Shack gives some pretty good “answers” from “Papa” to Mack about why he allows the world to stumble along as it does, so filled with pain and pathos.

I am reminded of an old story in which an old and a young minister preach sermons on the Shepherd’s Psalm (Psalm 23) on successive Sundays at the same congregation. Afterwards, a wise older member sums up the difference: the young preacher knows the psalm, the old preacher knows the Shepherd. Reading the Shack will make you want to better know the Shepherd, the one whom Jesus calls “Abba,” or “Papa.” And that’s always a good thing.


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