Friday, February 27, 2009

"The Shack:" Spiritual Reading or a Crock?

Sorry about the imagery, but there it is.

During the season of Lent, I usually try to set aside the secular novels that I like to read, and delve into books that would (presumably) enhance my relationship with God. (The key word is "try:" have you ever read a papal encyclical front to back? I have started a few, but gave up and never finished any of them.) I have read some really good spiritual books, too, including St. Therese's The Story of a Soul and Raymond Arroyo's moving and sometimes hilarious biography of Mother Angelica (founder of the EWTN network). I have heard much buzz in the last couple of years about William P. Young's The Shack, and decided to give it a try.

I do not speak for the Catholic Church. That's the Pope's job. Nor do I speak as a theologian (be it Catholic or Protestant); just an ordinary Catholic Christian who longs for a deeper relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While I found The Shack to be moving and inspirational, I don't think it really changed my perception of God except to remind me of just how deep His love for me really is.

The Shack tells the story of Mackenzie "Mack" Phillips, who is struggling with profound grief over the kidnapping and murder of his six-year-old daughter, Missy. When he receives a postcard in the mail inviting him to come to "the shack" where the crime took place, he is especially alarmed when he sees who it's from: Papa. This is the name he used in his childhood to address his abusive father, and it's also what his deeply religious wife calls God. Still, he is curious, and decides to accept the invitation.

When he arrives at the dilapidated old cabin, it is winter; but suddenly the season changes to summer and the shack becomes a lovely log cabin. There he meets the three persons of the Trinity: Papa, God the Father personified as a large African-American woman. (I kept picturing Queen Latifah. As much as I like Queen, I don't think she really personifies God.) He also meets Sarayu, a small Asian woman who is the Holy Spirit, and a middle-eastern young man who of course is Jesus. The rest of the book is mostly a dialogue between Mack and the persons of God, and they help him to understand how precious he is to them (Him) and the awesome power of Christ's saving work on the Cross. The imagery in the book is quite lovely and even powerful: in one scene, after walking across a lake with Jesus, he is allowed to see his daughter in Heaven and she assures him that she loves him and is happy. In another scene the Holy Spirit shows him a garden full of beautiful plants growing in a tangled mess, and (s)he tells him that it is the garden of his own life. The book does a good job of illustrating the beauty of God's love for us, and his longing for us to be with him. It sends a powerful message about the importance of forgiveness as well: Mack must forgive himself for the death of his daughter (even though he is clearly not to blame), and also forgive his abusive, alcoholic father. (SPOILER ALERT!! Near the end of his visit with God in the shack, the image of God the Father becomes, instead of the Queen Latifah figure he has been comfortable with, the image of his own father.)

So what's the problem? One Protestant review I read went so far as to say that portraying the Father and the Holy Spirit in the image of human beings is heresy. I don't know what the Church would say about that, but what bothered me about the book was the flippant way God seemed to dismiss the authority of leadership and the commandments of Scripture; and even the institution of the Church. "As well-intentioned as it might be, you know that religious machinery can chew up people!" Jesus tells Mack in one scene. Wait a minute--wasn't it Jesus who built the Church on the Rock of Peter, and commanded his disciples to teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? The book seems to imply that we don't need church; we can just worship Him in our own way. We don't need laws, either; we just need a relationship with Him. Is it not important for us to obey God if we want to grow closer to Him?

Overall, I liked the book. Entertaining and inspiring, yes. Spiritually fulfilling, not so much. I did like the images of love, hope, and forgiveness; there is a line repeated several times that stuck as a favorite of mine: "I am especially fond of that one." Just as we love each of our children equally and differently--each one's personality touches us in a different way, but we love each one just as deeply as the others--God loves us each for who we are, baggage and all. I think this is the overall message of The Shack. So, go ahead and read it, and think about how much God loves you; but if you are looking for the true Gospel, pick up a copy of the Bible.

I am especially fond of that one.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"25 (well, only 9) Random Things About Me:" I Have Been Assimilated!

After promptings from several friends and family members, I finally joined Facebook about a month ago. It's been a great way to keep in touch with far-away friends and family, and to get re-acquainted with high school classmates. As my brother says, resistance is futile, and I have been assimilated; I love being part of the Facebook collective. A couple of weeks ago, I was tagged for the "25 Random Things About Me" note that has apparently become somewhat of a Facebook sensation. After I posted my own version, I found myself thinking of things I could have included. I wanted a do-over, so I've decided to take some of my "random things" and put them here, and discuss a few that I didn't mention in my Facebook version. I don't know if I'll eventually blog about 25 things, but here are a few for starters!

1. I love being Catholic. When I was growing up, I attended a fairly large Baptist church with my family. My parents read me Bible stories, taught me to pray, and helped me understand what it means to be a Christian. My Sunday School teachers and my pastor were amazing Christians who helped me strengthen my love for Jesus Christ. I had a couple of Catholic friends growing up, and I was curious about Catholicism, but never interested enough to try and learn more about it. After I started dating my husband, a cradle Catholic, I began to ask questions about the faith, both to him and other Catholic friends. I found EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) on cable, and learned a lot from Mother Angelica and the priests and lay Catholics who appeared on screen. After we got married, I decided that since our children would be raised Catholic, I wanted to learn more about the Church. I began taking RCIA after Mass each Sunday, and wouldn't you know it, I believed what they told me: The Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ, and the Catholic Church is the one that Jesus established here on Earth. Almost thirteen years later, I am closer to Christ than ever before.

(In a future blog, I will post a longer version of my faith journey.)

2. I'm a Biker Chick Wannabe. I've never actually driven a motorcycle, only ridden on the back of one. In high school I had a friend who drove a bright yellow Yamaha all over town. I called it his banana bike. He even had a matching yellow helmet. One summer afternoon after spending a lazy day on the river, we were riding the bike home, trying to meet some deadline or other. Maybe my parents wanted me back at a certain time; I don't remember. As we were approaching a railroad crossing, the lights started flashing and the bells started ringing, and down came the big long arms. Instead of stopping like we were supposed to, my friend drove around the gates and across the tracks. Even though the train was not yet in sight, I feared for my life. I think that was the only time I had ever been mad at this particular friend!

In the early 1990s, I took a cross-country car trip with my family. On the road, we would often see individuals or couples riding motorcycles packed to the hilt with camping gear. Traveling through Wyoming and South Dakota, we began to see more and more bikers, most on Harleys and all wearing lots of leather. Many were traveling in large groups. We learned that they were on their way to Bike Week in Sturgis, South Dakota. One morning we stopped for breakfast at a Mom & Pop diner, and the place was filled with bikers. Instead of being the rough, dirty, loud group that I imagined bikers would be, they were all laughing together, having a great time, and were very polite. I decided then and there, that before I die, I want to buy a Harley and ride it from one side of America to the other. My husband says that would be fun, until it started raining. We'll see.

3. In college, I spent a summer in Yellowstone National Park. I had the glamorous job of cleaning guest rooms in one of the Park's hotels. To this day, Yellowstone is my favorite place on Earth. I made no money that summer, but it was worth it. Plus, now I'm really good at making a bed; in fact, I have been known to check out the bed in hotels where I've stayed, and redo the bed if I don't like the way it's made.

4. I'm a pro-life Republican in a town full of pro-choice Democrats. But I love them anyway. Some of my friends have bumper stickers that say, "Obama '08," "Another Pro-Choice Voter," or "John McCain for Retirement." During election season when Barack Obama came through town, many of my friends went out to see him. When Sarah Palin showed up, I came out to support her. I know several people who made the trek to Washington, D.C. on January 20 for the inauguration; I made the same trip two days later for the March for Life. I wear a Precious Feet pin every day, and my pro-choice friends don't seem to mind. I've had conversations with some of them about our differences of opinion, but we respect each others' beliefs.

5. I'm a fan of auto racing, especially the Indy Car Series. Being the only female in the house will do that, I suppose. I watch every Indy Car race every season, and we try to go to at least one race a year. Someday I hope to attend the Indy 500.

6. I love to go geocaching. We discovered this hobby a couple of years ago, after my husband decided that for one of our kids' birthdays, we would buy a hand-held GPS receiver. We used it to look for hidden treasures left by people who practice the sport of Geocaching. Usually, the treasures are containers full of kid-friendly trinkets; if you take a prize, you always leave someting to replace it. I wish we had more time to do this together as a family, because it is always a thrill to find a hidden "cache" that most people don't even know is there. (I want to blog about this one sometime, too!)

7. My husband taught me to ski.
When we were dating and before we had kids, we would ski at least every other weekend in the winter. We didn't go much when the kids were small, but now we try to go at least once or twice a year. It's great to see the boys enjoying something we love, too!

8. I'm good at remembering birthdays. If you tell me your birthday, I will probably remember it without having to write it down. Just don't ask me to remember the year. If I do forget, I'm probably only off by a few days. Name a celebrity, and there's about a 50-50 chance (I'm guessing) that I'll know his or her birthday. If I do have to look it up, I probably won't forget it. If I didn't send you a birthday greeting, I didn't forget your birthday; I just forgot to send you a card. (Funny story: One weekend we're visiting my in-laws, and someone says, "What is the date today?" Someone else answers, "April 7." Before I can stop myself, I blurt out, "Russell Crowe's birthday." My mother-in-law gives me a funny look and says, "How in the world did you know THAT?" "It was in the paper this morning." Which was true, but what I didn't tell her was, I already knew that April 7 was Russell Crowe's birhtday.)

9. We have a yellow Lab who eats everything in sight. As long as she thinks it might be food. She has been known to eat plastic food storage bags that once held something edible. Lately we've had to make sure the kids empty out their lunchboxes as soon as they get home. She is stubborn; but she is friendly to everyone and we wouldn't trade her for anything.

I have a few more Random Things in mind that I might want to tell you about, but for now, since this post is already long enough, I'll leave it at Number 9. God bless you, and don't forget, Ash Wednesday is coming up in less than a week! Are you ready? I'm not...!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Blessing of Reconciliation

This past week, my eight-year-old received his first Penance. My baby, my youngest, has officially reached the age of reason. He was a little nervous about it, he said; the night before, when I sat with him to help him go through the Ten Commandments, he looked at the list briefly and announced that he was ready.

This year, the second graders celebrated First Penance during their Religious Education classes, and as I was preparing for my own lesson for my fifth grade class (coincidentally, on the Sacrament of Reconciliation), he was literally hopping up and down: "I wanna go to my first Confession! I wanna go to my first Confession!" As I sat in the pew and waited, I wondered what he would say to the priest. After his brief time in the confession room, he bowed his head for his penance, and then turned around to look at me, with a great big grin on his face. "That was fine!"

That is how I feel each time I go to Confession. I feel a little nervous about the prospect of stating my sins out loud, even though I know that God already knows my weaknesses. When I emerge after receiving absolution, I always feel a great sense of joy. "That was fine, and I am clean again!"

As a convert to the Catholic faith, the Sacrament of Reconciliation was one that I struggled to understand; I knew if I asked God for forgiveness for my sins in prayer, he would forgive me. Why did I need to go to a priest? And wasn't Christ's death on the cross for my sins enough to reconcile me to Him? I have learned over the years that YES, I can go to God in prayer and confess my sin; and YES, His saving work on the Cross, once for all, freed me from slavery to sin. But I've also learned that sometimes it is helpful, and even necessary to confess my sin to a priest. First of all, it is comforting to have a person, a representative of Christ on Earth, say to me, "I absolve you from you sins; go in peace." The priest who heard my first confession nearly thirteen years ago, said to me, "These sins are behind you; you've confessed them, now FORGET ABOUT THEM." I have also learned that the Sacrament of Penance was instituted by Christ himself, when he appeared to his disciples after His Resurrection:

Jesus said to them, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." --John 20:21-23

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a gift from God that too many of us take for granted. Let's not forget that Jesus loves us infinitely and knows all of our faults, and we can approach the confessional with joy, not trepidation. My kids have figured that out, and I'll hope I'll remember, too!
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