Re-Visiting The Shack (3): Ch.5 – “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”
Mack Accepts Papa’s Invitation
Mack has decided to accept the invitation to meet whoever it is that sent him the invitation. The character of God has been identified as the central issue. This chapter begins Mack’s journey into the swirling depths of encountering the true and living God in the midst of his Great Sadness.
And that’s the first learning we can take from this chapter. God always meets us in the depth or center of our pain. That’s why Mack has to come to the shack. Baxter Kruger says we all have a garbage can at the center of our being in which we stuff all the crap that shames, guilts, embarrasses, mortifies, isolates, and poisons us. We sit atop that garbage can to keep the lid securely in place. No one will ever get a look in there! Yet it is just there that we will find God, ready and able to meet and minister to us in our crap.
Graham Greene, in The Heart of the Matter states what has to be the deepest truth of human life: "Don't imagine you--or I--know a thing about God's mercy." This is what Mack is on the way to learning, though the way will be long, convoluted, and painful.
But what can induce us to open up our garbage cans to find God there? What is that finally makes Mack willing to go to the shack? In my experience human beings change for three basic reasons. The pain becomes unendurable, something or someone forces us to, or we discover a more compelling, healing vision to embrace and live into. Mack goes for the first reason. He can’t take the life-sucking, life-numbing, Great Sadness any longer. Once there, he will find an unfathomable mystery – the presence of the triune God – that not only heals his hurts, banishes the Great Sadness, and restores Mack to the human being he was always meant to be.
Why don’t you want to open your garbage can? Too busy, always blaming others, engaged in denial, rationalizing? These are common tactics all of us are well-versed in!
Mack Unlearns Goddddd!
Mack makes the long, terrible trek to the shack. He trudges through the winter chill and starkness. He makes himself climb on the porch and go in that hated, haunting place. Everything remains the same as Mack remembers, including the demonic sacrament of Missy’s blood staining the floor.
The bloodstain unleashes all Mack’s fury and rage. And it leads him to the first unlearning necessary to growth in knowing God, the true God. Aiming his bile at the “indifferent God he imagined somewhere beyond the roof of the shack” (78), Mack cries out, “So where are you? I though you wanted to meet me here. Well, I’m here, God. And you? You’re nowhere to be found! You’ve never been around when I needed you – not when I was a little boy, not when I lost Missy. Not now. Some ‘Papa’ you are!” (78-79).
The indifferent God, Goddddd, never shows up! Because he doesn’t exist (save in our distorted imaginations). This icon of useless deity needs to be shattered before all else. And that’s what this chapter in the story is about.
Goddddd’s absence here, at the center of Mack’s pain, is the last straw for him. “I’m done God, he whispered. “I can’t do this anymore. I’m tired of trying to find you in all this” (80). Don’t most of us reach that point at seasons and places in our lives? The tragedy is some of us do in fact give up and close ourselves off from the true God. But what in fact is happening is an invitation, an invitation to be done with Goddddd and throw yourself into the vortex of hurt that engulfs you and, lo and behold, discover that Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu are already there waiting for you!
Mack thinks to leave this terrible place. But God, the triune God, having invited Mack to meet him in the center of his pain, is faithful to his word. Old Goddddd rebuked, the true God makes himself known to Mack!
It begins with a sudden – and impossible - Spring thaw. Warmth and beauty return in moments as Mack steps off the porch to leave. The shack was sparling fresh and landscaped like a postcard. Was God really in there? Fearing a psychotic break, Mack’s anger bubbles up again and he strides to the front door to find out. But before he can bang on the door, it opens to reveal a beaming, large African-American woman arms wide open to embrace him! She effuses,
“Here you are, and so grown up. I have really been looking forward to seeing you face to face. It is so wonderful to have you here with us. My, My, my how I do love you!” (83)
And embraces him again.
Mack tears up and this woman tells him, “It’s okay, honey, you can let it all out . . . I know you’ve been hurt, and I know you’re angry and confused. So, go ahead and let it out. It does a soul good to let the waters run once in a while – the healing waters.” (83)
Mack, though, can’t let go. Not yet. He’s not ready to unreservedly give himself to this person. The woman assures him it’s okay and that things will unfold in his “terms and time” (83).
Mack quickly learns that he and this woman are not alone. In a beautifully drawn figure, he meets Sarayu, the Holy Spirit. “She seemed to shimmer in the light and her hair blew in all directions even though there was hardly a breeze” (84). She seemed Asian but was so fluid that it was hard for Mack to get a good look. Sarayu glides over to Mack and with a little brush sweeps his tears into a small jar. “I collect tears,” she tells him.
And then a man arrives on the scene. A Middle Eastern looking carpenter. Guess who he is?
Stunned Mack asks if there are more people at the shack. The woman chuckled, “No, Mackenzie, we is all that you get, and believe me, we’re more than enough.” (85)
Mack’s reality has been redefined! His world, just like the physical surroundings of the impossible new Spring at the Shack, has been made new! There’s no longer any bloodstain on the floor of the shack. St. Paul put it like this: “If anyone be in Christ, there is a new creation old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). He doesn’t quite know what to do, or exactly what’s happened, but he likes it (86).
Such a fine description of what encountering the triune God instead of Goddddd is like! It feels too good to be true, yet even our most expansive notions of the true fail to capture the reality of this encounter. The woman’s “We more than enough” proves to be the quintessential understatement.
The three then introduce themselves to Mack. The African-American woman is Elousia (Greek root meaning “tenderness”). She is the housekeeper and cook at the shack. Elousia is a name special to her but she tells Mack to call her what his wife Nan does, “Papa”! (86) As he tries to process this astonishing turn of things, the Middle Eastern looking fellow introduces himself as a handyman though he too enjoys cooking and gardening as much as the other two do. He is also from the Jewish house of Judah! Mack knows then who he is. Jesus.
About to collapse under the wonder and marvel of all this, the Asian looking women steps forward to him. “And I am Sarayu . . . Keeper of the gardens, among other things.” (87)
Finally, from his maze-filled mind, all he could think to ask is “which one of you is God?” ‘I am’, all three replied in unison.” (89)
And there you have it. Mack doesn’t understand what he has experienced. But he believes it!
Meeting the Triune God
Mack discovers that God is NOT Goddddd but Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu, the triune God. It a brave and risky move for Young to picture the deity like this. Especially to have God the Father, Papa, be an African-American woman! He is doing here, I believe what C. S. Lewis hoped to do in the Narnia Chronicles, draft an image of God so strikingly different yet true that I can slip behind the “watchful dragons” of our received, churchly images that come to obscure as much or more than they reveal.
And I think he succeeds. “Papa” as a African-American woman reveals our inherited chauvinism and racism in regard to God. It jolts us to remember, or think about for the first time, that God is neither male nor white. Nor any other race nor gender. While his biblical name is “Father,” the biblical God displays both male and female characteristics. That’s why we claim the ground of our genders, male and female, are found in him.
Beginning with God as triune, Papa, Jesus and Sarayu, also cuts against the tendency iin the West to begin with God’s unity, his oneness, which often ends up in at least a functional Unitarianism from which it is but a short step to Goddddd! The Eastern Church begins with the three persons of the trinity and moves toward their unity. Young does this, I believe, to highlight the relational character of the biblical God. He is love himself, consisting in the ever-living, never-ceasing, life-giving receiving and returning of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is both in and is these relationships. The ancient symbol, “The Shield of the Trinity” tries to capture the relational “thickness” of the triune understanding of God.
One good rule of thinking properly about the Trinitarian God of the Bible is this: “In his eternal being and in all his activity, the one God is always and at the same time the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” (A Declaration of Faith (PCUSA), ch.5, ll.124-126). “Always and at the same time” – irreducible Threeness and relationship.
Another rule to be held together this that one is that the works of the trinity are indivisible. That is, though each person of the trinity may have focal tasks (Father – creation, Son – redemption, Spirit – sanctification/Papa – housekeeping and cooking, Jesus – handyman, Sarayu – gardening), each is also involved in and committed to the tasks and goals of the others. Remember, Jesus tells Mack that he is interested and cooking and gardening as well as his handyman responsibilities. (86)
If we want to be theological about all this, we can say that Young has given us a view of the trinity from the traditions of the Eastern Church. It is thoroughly orthodox and artistically risqué. And it is all the better for the latter because his imagery requires us to consciously think about what we believe about God. I believe he does manage to sneak behind our watchful dragons of inherited and churchy language and thought about God.
All this high-falutin’ talk about God may seem far from life-giving, not to mention intelligibility. Someone once said of the trinity, “The father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible!” Yet even though explanation of the triune nature of God eludes us (and ever will), description, intelligible description, is possible (as above). And more, from that description we can get a grasp on the great love for us!
1. Because God is love himself, consisting in the ever-living, never-ceasing, life-giving receiving and returning of love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we can be certain that everything God is, wills, and does is from that love. This is a reality Mack will struggle to learn throughout The Shack.
2. Because God is love himself, he came to our aid in person in, with, through, and as Jesus of Nazareth! He didn’t send a proxy or angels, or the like. His passion for us and to be with us is such that nothing less than his coming as one of us, and remaining one of us through the rest of eternity as Jesus Christ, we have been embraced, reclaimed, healed, and restored by him in Christ.
3. Because God has become one of us in Christ, we can trust his word to us. God did not remain distant and aloof, up and far away, shouting commands and warnings to us. No, in Jesus God came among us, spoke to us his word in the words of that first-century Galilean peasant, and, like the good prophet Jesus was, he bore the brunt of the judgment with and for his people. And that is love, friends.
This is some of the “cash value” (forgive the crass metaphor) of understanding God as he presents himself in the Bible. Nothing other than a Trinitarian view can sustain any of the points above. And to grasp, or better, be grasped, by this God who is love, is the whole point!