Hurting? Find comfort at "The Shack"

In a world where unexplained tragedy occurs, William Paul Young's novel "The Shack" may serve as a source of comfort. The New York Times Bestseller tells the story of Mackenzie Allen Phillips, whose little daughter Missy has been abducted and brutally murdered.

In the aftermath, "Mack" questions the goodness of God and in his anger and depression begins to wonder why he should follow God.

Then, on a wintery day, Mack receives a note from God in his mailbox inviting him to meet God at the shack where Missy was killed. Mack accepts the invitation and heads back to the dreaded place not knowing what to expect. What he finds there changes him completely.

"The Shack" has been in print since 2007 and has received mixed reviews. Some readers hate it, others love it. Most of the hatred seems to be based on how the author depicts the Trinity, which goes beyond the conventional view that God is a male. Young's depiction is not modern feminist theology, however, his view echoes Scripture and what Christian writer Henri Nouwen wrote in "The Return of the Prodigal Son," that "God is both Father and Mother to us."

The question then becomes, are conventional views of the Trinity correct? Who really understands the Trinity anyway? "The Shack" definitely gives thoughtful material on the matter.

The book also addresses the question of how God communicates with people. Is God's revelation limited to Scripture? Does God still speak to his children they way he spoke to people in the Bible? "The Shack" provides hope that God has not stopped speaking; in fact, it sparks the imagination as to how God does speak to us.

Overall, "The Shack" makes God look good. The writer emphasizes several times that Jesus came in flesh. The book does not degrade the Bible in any way. "The Shack" provokes thoughtful response on the questions that people have been asking since the dawn of time: What is the nature of God? Does God speak to humanity? It also addresses the greatest question of all: Does God care for me?

Young's easy style of writing makes the book a fast read, but don't read it too fast. You'll miss out on the depth of the story.

You can find "The Shack" at The Shack


Two Commentaries

Today, my husband Mike and I published two complementary commentaries on the religion page of the La Junta Tribune-Democrat. We thought that they might be of interest to Yahbut's readers...

The Moral Incoherance of the Obama Administration
by Mike Steeves

First, I confess that the "moral incoherence" thing is lifted from columnist Michael Gerson's recent article in the Washington Post. Gerson notes that there is "one common thread" running through President Obama's pro-choice agenda: "the coercion of those who disagree with it." Gerson's article is about the manner in which the Obama administration runs roughshod over human life, relegating it to the status of what is politically convenient. Gerson notes, "It is the incurable itch of pro-choice activists to compel everyone's complicity in their agenda. Somehow, getting "politics out of science" translates into taxpayer funding for embryo experimentation. ‘Choice’ becomes a demand on doctors and nurses to violate their deepest beliefs or face discrimination."

Obama has nominated Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. She will implement the government's policies on human embryonic stem cell research - you know, where we take "leftovers" and poke 'em and strip them of cells for research, killing them in the process. Sebelius, a practicing Catholic, maintains that "my Catholic faith teaches me that all life is sacred."

Pro-choice extremists House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Biden are Catholics who assert the sanctity of life while defending government-sanctioned abortion. Sebelius has been rebuked by her archbishop for this. Pelosi earned a figurative backhand from the Pope during her visit to the Vatican. Gerson writes, "this appointment seems designed to provide religious cover. It also smacks of religious humiliation - like asking a rabbi to serve the pork roast or an atheist to bless the meal."

Then we have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Prior to September 2007 Clinton was at best ambivalent about "torture" of terrorist suspects held in military facilities. Then she did a flip-flop, coming out against it. At that point neither she nor then candidate Obama had signed that American Freedom Campaign petition requesting all presidential candidates oppose torture. Obama said of Clinton, "There are folks who will shift positions and policies on all kinds of things depending on which way the wind is blowing."

Clinton's lack of a moral compass is nowhere more evident than her even more recent "flip-flop" on human rights. Long a highly vocal opponent of Chinese human rights violations, Clinton said during her recent visit to the Far East: "But our pressing on those issues can't interfere on the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." Amnesty International expressed shock and extreme disappointment over that comment. A Washington Post's editorial was more pointed: "Hillary Rodham Clinton undercuts the State Department's own human rights reporting," in direct reference to Clinton's gushing over Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

The State Department reported on Feb. 25, "the [Egyptian] government's respect for human rights remained poor during 2008” and “serious abuses continued in many areas." It cited torture by security forces and a decline in freedom of the press, association and religion. Clinton responded with "We issue these reports on every country. We hope that it will be taken in the spirit in which it is offered, that we all have room for improvement." The Washington Post fired back with "Ms. Clinton's words will be treasured by al-Qaeda recruiters and anti-American propagandists throughout the Middle East. She appears oblivious to how offensive such statements are to the millions of Egyptians who loathe Mr. Mubarak's oppressive government and blame the United States for propping it up."

These are odd behaviors for some of the most senior members of the political party that ranted and raved against President Bush over Guantanamo and the so-called "torture" of terrorist suspects. Some truths are apparently not all that self-evident.

Religious beliefs provide moral compass in political mire
by Alicia Gossman-Steeves

Do religion and politics mix? Coming from a Wesleyan holiness background, my first answer is an unequivocal "yes." However, the answer is not that simple.

As an American I recognize that the founding fathers fought hard to keep religion out of politics, or government, and vice versa. Memories of extensive religious persecution in the Old Country was fresh in their minds and they did not want to repeat it in the fledgling country that they were trying to create. I'm glad they did this. How would you like to be tortured or have your head mounted on a pike just because the President happened to be Protestant or Catholic, Jewish or Muslim and you did not share his or her religious views?

There is a group in our society that fervently believes that the founding fathers were all God fearing Christians whose intent was to "found a Christian nation." A simple review of their writings shows this is not true. In fact one of our most brilliant founders, Thomas Paine, often called The Father of the American Revolution because of his authorship of Common Sense, was at once a believer in God yet a disbeliever in Christianity. Others of our founders may have feared God in a reverent way, but what they feared most were people using God to promote their own agenda and persecuting others in the process. They feared religion taking over government and government taking over religion.

As long as government, people, religion and politics exist this fear will be rational. There is nothing wrong with zeal, the apostle Paul said, as long as the purpose is good. The zeal people feel about certain agendas should never leak into government and government should not regulate certain practices. The purpose of government is to govern, or to administer the law. The role of government is not to dictate. Faith should not dictate either.

Where religious belief comes in, and where my unequivocal "yes" falls, is when faith is used as a moral compass to guide decision making and is not forced on anyone else (Notice I said "forced." There is nothing wrong with reasonable discussion.). This is where I see many of America's political leaders failing miserably on both sides.

What we need is a return to values on which the majority of people can agree. Following the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule were not bad ideas for our society to follow. Incidentally, several religions incorporate these values as well and many people in our society try to incorporate these values even though they do not claim to follow Christ or Judaism. These age old values can be a moral compass, one which our society can lean upon so that everyone can live in harmony, freedom, and justice. Government should come in when people do not follow that law. Cannot people of faith lead this charge? I believe they can and should.


Nothing is Wrong with a Little Mystery

I enjoy good murder mysteries or intense "who done it" plots, but I don't like riddles. In philosophy I enjoy friendly debate over ethical issues and the writings of some of the major philosophers, but questions about the existence of chairs and other inanimate objects are a little too abstract for my taste.

I do not always enjoy the process of discovery like my children do when presented with a riddle. I like solid answers; they enjoy the mystery and the process of discovery.

Endless debates over issues show us that we do not have all of the answers. That's okay, a little mystery never hurt anyone.

I'm not alone in this view. French physicist and philosopher of science Bernard d'Espagnat, who recently won the Templeton Prize for religion (with a nominal purse of 1 million pounds or $1.42 million U.S.), said that "mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated. On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being." His work acknowledges that science cannot fully explain "the nature of being," according to the Associated Press.

This does not mean that science should be thrown out. d'Espagnat emphasized that, if anything, science can tell us what the nature of being is not.

The French scientist is also known for his work during the 1960s through 1980s on the development of quantum physics--another mystery I do not understand. Because of his work, d'Espagnat has surmised that the human mind "is capable of perceiving deeper realities." He is "convinced that those among our contemporaries who believe in a spiritual dimension of existence and live up to it are, when all is said, fully right."

That's very interesting. From what little I do understand, quantum physics is the study of what is going on at a sub-atomic level. According to scientists, what goes on in the sub-atomic world is very different than what goes on at our level. It would seem from his study in this area of physics, d'Espagnat understands that what we can see is very different than what we cannot see. He understands that there are different realities out there. That might help explain why I've always thought that the spiritual world is in another dimension that exists right alongside ours.

The spiritual dimension continuously crosses over into our world, we just can't see it. However, I am not thinking of Casper the Ghost flitting about, or the X-Files, or the simply "paranormal," whatever that is. I am looking at, or for, something much more than that.

Those who are a part of the spiritual dimension can see what goes on in our dimension. Perhaps this is why the writer of Hebrews can write about "a great cloud of witnesses." Maybe this is why we can believe in an invisible God and why we "feel" evidence of his spirit surrounding us at certain times.

Another interesting quote came from Physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) who said, "Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it."

Indeed. We can also say anyone who is not shocked by the mystery of God has not begun to seek. But just because we don't understand, does not mean that we cannot enjoy both the mystery and the process of discovery. Hmm ... I think I'll ask my kids what riddles they know.


Why stay in church?

The percentage of people who claim to have no religion has grown from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2009, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. Yet surveys also show that the majority of Americans do believe in either God, or a "universal spirit", or a "higher power."

From these findings, it seems like religion has taken a serious hit. My question is this: Do people still believe in God yet do not believe it is necessary to attend church?

According to the survey, about 12 percent of Americans believe in a higher power but not a personal God. About 1.2 percent, since 1990, have become part of non-mainstream religious movements such as Wicca, Scientology and Santeria.

The Washington Post published an article in June, 2008 citing a poll that said 92 percent of Americans believe in God or a "universal spirit."

Compared to the survey, it seems that even God has taken at least a seven percent hit since I do not know how many of the 92 percent from the Post article believe in God or in a "universal spirit."

Since I am a religion writer, trends in religion are interesting to me. I write about them because I hope that they will help area churches gain some perspective for their ministries. From my position, it is easy to analyze the numbers and try to guess why they are increasing or decreasing, but I can only speak about my own experience in the church.

When I was growing up, I had friends who did not attend church regularly even though they believed in God. I, on the other hand, was taught that if someone believed in God they went to church. I did not understand at the time that my friend's family was experiencing angst over what went on inside the church--gossip, hypocrisy, and other sinful behaviors. When this family's feelings subsided, they returned to church. They left again when they saw that nothing had changed. I would not understand this until years later when I started experiencing the same things.

Fast forward many years later and you will find a woman struggling to find a reason to stay in church. Oh, I believed in God. I loved God and still do, but I was struggling with feelings of betrayal, anger and loneliness. I think that the only reason I stayed in the church was because I knew that my children needed it. They were not experiencing the same things and had no idea that I was having these feelings.

So then we must ask why I felt that my children needed it. Can't we still believe in God without going to church? Yes, but it goes deeper than that.

Over the last two years, I have been studying spiritual formation and a huge part of proper formation has to do with the importance of community. We need each other. Like Proverbs says, "Just as iron sharpens iron, friends sharpen the minds of each other," (27: 17, CEV). In other words, we are supposed to be friends to one another in the body of Christ. We are supposed to think with each other and figure out what the Scripture means together. We are supposed keep each other on the straight and narrow. We are supposed to care for each other and work through, or around, our ideological differences.

Is that happening in the church for everyone? I fear that it is not. Why else would people leave? Once someone has experienced true love in the body of Christ they will find no equal--they will not want to leave.

Look at it this way. If I, one who has been in church since the age of two and who knows the language of believers, can experience alienation, what are others feeling who have not been in the church and do not know the language of believers? Why stay when you do not feel accepted?

My theory on this is that no one can change the church from the outside. It's like two siblings picking on each other. This is tolerable for both of them, but if someone from the outside picks on one of the siblings, watch out.

Only brothers and sisters in Christ can truly point out what's wrong in the church and we need each other to make the church what it should be, what Christ meant it to be. If some through gossip or other sinful behavior defy the church's efforts to be unified, then they should be prayed for, confronted in the spirit of love and sometimes asked to leave. This business of not wanting to confront those who are not Christlike hurts the Church deeply.

Often this unwillingness is linked to finances; the church's largest donors can sometimes be the worst offenders. Sometimes these "spiritual wolves" may not have financial power, but they are politically or socially powerful because they have mastered the art of manipulation as a result of their own brokenness. These types are very destructive to not only the church as an organization but also to the church in a larger sense, as the Body of Christ; the Church Universal. Could allowing these behaviors to continue in the church be the reason the unchurched are increasing in number? After prayerful consideration, if the Spirit leads, I believe that it would be better to let these people leave rather than let these spiritual wolves feed upon the sheep of the church.


Because of God, we hope

As we are being told in the news, and by reading the newspapers, doom and despair are everywhere. Truthfully, I have heard that so much lately that my mind is becoming numb.

That is until I read a commentary by another religion writer in another newspaper. Basically, the jist of what this writer was saying is that we have no hope. The only thing we can cling to is the fact that this season, too, shall pass. He even claimed that religion offered nothing and dismissed the claim that God was in charge. He said that it was all so depressing.

Frankly, his article depressed me even more than anything the news has had to say.

What are we to do if hope in God is misplaced by hope that a season will pass? We can take courage in the fact that seasons will pass, but what if they don't? What if the discouraging situation we are facing continues for the rest of our lives?

We have to hope in something that is more solid than earthly friendships, the love of family, acts of kindness, heroism and our own integrity. The only thing I know to be more solid than any of these is God. In this, I believe that religion offers us something, because religion is a quest to find God. Where better to find God than in the midst of crisis?

What I find discouraging during this time is the fact that so-called lawmakers and government appointees can get away with evading their taxes and whatever else they are doing. The present administration is full of them. If we as ordinary citizens tried that, we would be audited and perhaps thrown in jail. Instead of owing an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah, as some preachers are fond of saying, we may one day owe an apology to Al Capone and all of the mafia types who have been jailed because they evaded their taxes.

It is the sinfulness and hypocrisy of humankind that discourages me more than anything. Here we are, made in the image of God, and we live like the devil instead.

But then, there is God. I believe that he is watching and, because of the way he has set the world up, people who do wrong will suffer consequences--either in this life or in the life to come. It's not that I wait for this with a spirit of maliciousness, thinking that I have nothing to fear. I just hope that one day God will make things right--and he will.

Of course, we do not have to wait. "Hope and change" are not based on empty political rhetoric. We can change because of God's love. Because of that, there is reason for hope.