I Liked “The Shack”

There’s a LOT of hype out there about this book, and it usually starts like this: “Well I haven’t read the book and don’t to read the book, but here’s my opinion about what I’ve heard about this book…” Or: “So-and-so from this branch of theology liked it/didn’t like it, and that tells me everything I need to know about the issue.”

I’ve been taught some pretty wackadoo theology in my lifetime. And it’s a hobby of mine to read books and watch “religious” movies just for the fun of ripping them to theological shreds. On the other hand, I’m just as eager to find nuggets of good theology out there for public consumption as well. So I was skeptical and had low expectations of The Shack because there’s rarely good stuff out there, but I also had an open mind – willing to consider a perspective I hadn’t before, and to think in new ways.

On both counts, I wasn’t disappointed.

Generally speaking (because I could go on and on and on with specifics – my book is full of post-its and underlining!), The Shack is a bit like Pilgrim’s Progress in that it is not so much the plot line that is important but the dialogue between the different characters. In The Shack, the main characters are Mack Phillips and God – “Papa” or El-ousia, Jesus (as Himself), and “Sarayu” (a.k.a. the Holy Spirit). In a very small nutshell, Mack has a vision in which he spends a weekend hanging out with the Triune God at the dilapidated shack where his young daughter was molested and murdered – but in the vision, it’s a beautiful lakeside cabin.

What I really enjoyed about The Shack was that complex and substantial theological questions are handled in a very accessible and Gospel-filled way. This book tackles issues like the “otherness” of God, the problem of evil, original sin, relationship, the Cross, reconciliation between God and mankind, the Trinity, grace, freedom, love, and forgiveness in dialogue. As one who prefers to learn and teach through dialogue rather than lecture, I appreciated the conversational give-and-take as Mack’s understanding develops.

I was taught by the late, great Gerhard Forde that you can talk about theology, even talk about Jesus Himself and everything He did all day long, but until it is made personal – until it’s all for you – it’s not the Gospel. It doesn’t do anyone any good to talk about how Jesus died and rose unless Jesus died and rose for you. That personal aspect of the Gospel and the centrality of Christ’s work is made abundantly clear over and over again in The Shack. Every doctrine – even the Trinity itself, is explained as being for us. That one was new and different for me to think about, yet so consistent with the larger picture I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of it sooner.

Young is big on relationships. It’s a very strong theme throughout the vision. God’s relationship with Himself in the Trinity, and His relationship with us (only possible through Jesus), and our human relationships with one another. God didn’t create relationships to be hierarchical, but so that we could serve and love one another. Relationships are meant to be free, mutually submissive, and loving. And at the center of it is Jesus, Whose death and resurrection reconciled God to the world.

Some have suggested that The Shack is “emergent” because of its emphasis on personal relationship with God and its anti-institutionalistic stance on religion. This, no doubt, appeals to proponents of that movement. And while that may be true, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate. My impression is that Young does a great job with the Gospel, the for you behind everything God does, the problem of evil, submission, love, forgiveness, and even the atonement – better than I’ve probably ever encountered outside the Bible and Small Catechism. Salvation’s achievement is clearly taught and proclaimed in The Shack. Where it falls short is in the delivery of salvation and God’s gifts for us in Christ through His instituted means of Word and Sacrament. For this reason, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone I wouldn’t be willing or able to have a continued conversation with.

And that’s my biggest beef with The Shack – it stops short. Over and over and over and over again, Young emphasizes God’s desire for a relationship with all people through Jesus, as well as the fact that only He can and has done everything necessary for that to happen. But the reader is never told where she may go to continue that relationship aside from looking to her own feelings, “visions”, impressions, private revelations, dreams, etc. I don’t think Young would be opposed to finding God where He has promised to be for us – in His Word and Sacraments. My guess is that he just doesn’t know about it, or understand that God is present and continues the relationship in tangible, external ways. So, his readers probably won’t know about it either.

The problem with failing to address the delivery of God’s gifts for us is that it also leaves the reader wondering if we are being taught universalism in this book. Clearly, The Shack teaches universal atonement (so do we). But when there is no concrete delivery of the benefits from that atonement achieved for everyone through the means of grace, there is nothing to be rejected and therefore no real consequences for rejecting all that God has done for us. Young deftly dodges questions about this issue when interviewed, and carefully avoids it in the book. Strangely, for all his emphasis on everything being for us, Young seems to be ignorant of just how Jesus makes Himself concretely for us.

However, that’s exactly where we, as Lutherans especially, can step in and pick up the ball. We know where the Lord continues to come to us on a regular basis to give to us of Himself – not because we follow the rules better than other churches, or because we have the best rituals, but because that’s what He has promised to do for us. He has not only reconciled us with Himself through Christ’s death on the cross for our sins, He nourishes His relationship with us through His Word and through the daily dying to our sinful nature in Baptism, and through the nourishment of His own Body and Blood. We don’t have to go to a rundown shack and hope to have some sort of visionary encounter with God in nature, or our trust in our own feelings in order to have a relationship with God today. We know that the Lord comes to us, to love us, to forgive us, to give us His gifts, and to serve us every week in clear and tangible ways. He says so and His Word is True.

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Permanently Marked

It probably wasn't most brilliant idea I ever came up with to get a tattoo in college (junior year, March 12, 1993 to be exact), but at least it was a Trinity symbol. I had been thinking of getting a tattoo for a while, I just didn't know what to get done. When I saw the triangle of three fish embroidered on a kneeler pad in Cleveland, OH, I knew that was it. Before it registered in my mind that I was a paying customer and could make the artist change the design (even if he was big and scary-looking), "Ace" was already working on the outline, which is well…permanent*. 

I can't say I regret getting a tattoo in principle. I just don't like the tattoo on my ankle, and haven't liked it
since the day I got it. I still think the image itself is really cool and meaningful, but it's too big. Way too big.
It's higher on my ankle than I wanted – practically on my calf. And it's upside-down, which makes it look like a
messed-up Superman emblem from a distance. 

Yet there it is, for the rest of my life.

We all know that tattoos, once generally considered artifacts from the adventures with less-noble savages and unsavory
types you wouldn't want your precious daughter to date, have now become commonplace. So what is a Christian to think
about things like tattoos? 

Most obviously, there's that whole Bible verse thing. God instructed the ancient Israelites, "You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:28). However, the verses immediately before and that one also condemn eating rare steak, trimming the hair at your temples or on your beard, cutting oneself for the dead, and selling your daughter into prostitution. So should we be observing more laws than we do? Probably. But Christians have been set free from bondage to the Law. As Paul teaches, all things are now permissible for us…but not all things are beneficial (1 Corinthians 10:23). 

For example, it might not be smart for you to get a tattoo somewhere that is not easily covered by everyday clothing later
in life. And it's probably not wise to get something permanently inked on your body that isn't necessarily permanent – like your boyfriend's name. And it would be a bad idea to get a tattoo of some pagan religious symbol. And you really shouldn't disobey your parents and get a tattoo against their will or without their consent. 

Tattoos are no longer the exclusive territory of bikers,
sailors,
"unwashed
heathens
" or even of
Olympic
athletes
.  These days, ordinary people – like me – are getting inked more and more. My tattoo is not a naked woman emblazoned on my chest, or a swastika on my hand, or a teardrop on my cheek. It's a symbol of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It's a reminder of my Baptism. 

Do I wish it was in a different place so I could cover it up more easily? Sometimes. I also wish I could cover up my faith
sometimes too. It's there whether I like it or not. Is it too big? Absolutely. So's God, if you ask me on a bad day. Do I ever think about having it removed? Yep. But that would be like trying to undo my Baptism, so I haven't. 

So while you are free in Christ to adorn the body you've been given in this life with things like tattoos, piercings, hair dye, and jewelry…you are also free to keep things simple. These outward things are not what make you a Christian, nor are they what make you truly beautiful. God doesn't see us that way. He sees us as the washed, holy, pure, unblemished, unwrinkled, unmarred people He has made us in Christ.

In Baptism, we are marked with the sign of the Cross on our forehead and on our heart to identify us as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified, who bears the marks of our sin in His own body. We remember that Baptismal mark every time we make the sign of the Cross. That cross from our Baptism is invisible – but it's just as permanent as a tattoo, if not moreso. It marks us in this life…and marks us for eternal life in Jesus Christ. 

* Yes. It hurts to have a tiny needle jab ink deep into the layers of your skin. It doesn't feel like getting a bunch of shots at the doctor's office, it's more like getting snapped by a tiny rubber band. Really hard. In the same place over and over, like, a zillion times.

On Being Silent

"As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says." (1 Corinthians 14:33-34)

More often than not, this passage is quoted to keep women in line, to remind us that we are prohibited from being pastors because we Scripture tells us that we are not permitted to speak in church. It's usually quoted by men, and frequently with a scowl.

It stings. It makes the hair on the backs of our necks stand up. We don't like it, and we don't like the people who quote it at us. Silence is not something that comes naturally to us since the Fall. 

Women keeping silent means trusting that then men given to you will speak for you, will represent you, will take your needs and desires into consideration, will do what's best for you, will not forget about you, will put you before themselves.

The problem comes in when we take a hard look at the men around us. They fail us all the time. They forget to pick up milk at the store, they work late, leave their dirty socks on the floor and whiskers coating the sink. They're needier than babies when they get a sniffle. The sink still leaks, the lawn needs mowing. They get angry and say mean things to us. They scare us, they hurt us. And sometimes they just up and leave us, or force us to leave them for our own safety.

Trust men like that to speak up for us? Depend on them to take care of us? They can't even load the dishwasher the right way! How in the world can we just sit back and expect them to do the right thing without us practically doing it for them? It's just as bad at church as it at home, maybe worse.

Scripture reminds us that the Church is the Bride of Christ. We are there to receive God's gifts for us through Word and Sacrament. And the only faithful thing we have to speak together are the words we have been given by the Lord in Scripture. Women get to demonstrate this faithfulness in silence twice over. There's a reason quietness is extolled as beautiful in women, it's faithfulness.

"The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent." 
(Exodus 14:14)

Our husbands are to love us Christ loves His Bride, the Church. They get to be Christ for us. That means they get to be the ones who fight for us, who speak for us, who tend to us, care for us, protect us, and even sacrifice their lives for us. Not just husbands either. The elders of the church are given that responsibility for the adult women without husbands or other male family members to care for them. 

The Lord, through the men given to us, will fight for us. Even the sinful, flawed men in our lives, whose sins and flaws we know all too well. Those men on their own, no, they probably aren't trustworthy and probably won't make good decisions all the time. But the Lord is working, doing good for us, through these men he's given us. He's also given us the faith to receive all the good they, and He, are going to do for us. We have no reason to expect anything less than the best from Him, and them. 

"…let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious." (1 Peter 3:4)

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on your side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In ev'ry change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; your best, your heav'nly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul; your God will undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul; though dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in this vale of tears;
Then you will better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe your sorrows and your fears.
Be still, my soul; your Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.

Be still, my soul; the hour is hast'ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, loves purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

(LSB #742)

How to Get a Job at the Car Shop

There are different types of jobs and
different types of towns.  There can be many kinds of stores in the whole
planet.  

Even some stores are the big green home stores.  No matter
what you are doing it always is suppose to be the right way and only you can do
whatever you want but not something bad. 

Even a type of any object. 
Some objects are really sharp even knives.  Screws and their ends are
pointed.  Screws are very pointy and you may get poked.  There are
different types of stuff that may be dangerous or soft and not dangerous.

Gas
might be really hot because sometimes it flames up and that's how cars use up
gas.

I don't know what to do to get a job.  Can you help me!


Dictated by Isaac to Grandma Jean while he was at her house this summer.

Post-Conference Thoughts

Having just coordinated three Higher Things Amen conferences this summer, I have a few
post-conference reflections to share…

Worship

Once again, conference worship (TEN total services in 4 days, plus nightly Prayer at the Close of the Day in small groups) was a huge highlight of the conferences. Worship at HT conferences is pretty much the same as it is in many of our home churches all across the country, using the liturgy and hymnal. Yeah, we find some pretty amazing organists. We're pretty sure that
Chris Loemker has a secret set of arms like some Hindu organ-playing demi-god.
Oh, and Pr. Cwirla wore his "bling" stole for the Divine Service at Amen – Irvine. But other than that, things are pretty normal.  

Worship at HT conferences is not like a concert where you sing along with the band who actually drown out the audience's singing. The congregational singing – oh, the singing!! – is just…breathtaking. Hundreds of teenagers, singing HYMNS at the top of their lungs. In harmony! 
Kids are supposed to require strobe lights, disco balls, and big-name (or
big-name-sounding) bands, dramatic illustrations with movie clips on the big
screens, etc. etc. etc. in order to get their interest in anything.  Not
true!  They love the liturgy, they love hymns!  Chaplains took the
opportunity at all three conferences to teach about different aspects of the
service that might not be familiar to everyone.  The Daily Services book
also contained important information that taught about the services and
practices as well.

At
HT conferences, only LCMS pastors preach and lead the services, only LCMS musicians (clergy and laity) play the instruments and direct the
choirs. All of the services are taken straight from the LCMS hymnal. That means
you can go to church on Sunday, open up the hymnal and see the very same services we used at the conferences.
The hymns we sang are all in there too. And I bet your pastor would be tickled rose (the liturgical version of pink) if you asked him to lead one of them sometime, or teach
your youth group about the history of the liturgy.

Work

Catechesis at the Amen conferences was
also incredible. This year, we had two of our very best teachers leading the plenary sessions. 
LCMS pastors, Rev. George Borghardt and Rev. Mark Buetow taught us about
Salvation’s Achievement and Delivery and faith’s response of "Amen" in
our lives and vocations.  Their dynamic and approachable teaching styles reminded us that Lutherans don't always have to be stodgy and
straight-laced (and for those of us who are stodgy and straight-laced, it’s
still OK to crack a smile once and a while).  And who can forget their free-time karaoke performances?? (No one, since
they're on YouTube!
For SIX 45-minute classes, they kept their youth audiences in rapt attention. I heard time and time again from kids (including ones I didn't know) about how much they learned and
grew from these sessions.

Breakaway
and In-Depth Sectionals were also a hit. Conference attendees have the
opportunity to choose an "In-Depth" sectional which meets for three
sessions, as well as numerous "Breakaway" sectionals which are
one-time sessions. The Catechesis Coordinators for each conference recruited a ton of great teachers from the adults registered to the conferences. There were sessions on just about every topic under the sun, all taught by LCMS pastors and laity. In total, there were 96 separate classes offered at all the three Amen conferences this
summer!

Youth get to choose the specific topic they want to learn about, but all of the sessions teach meaty theology in an accessible way. Kids don't need watered-down, children's message type lessons covered with a sparkly veneer of fun.
They don’t need skits or video clips (skits on a screen) to learn.  They
don’t need hands-on activities touching rocks or burning pieces of paper to
learn.  To learn, they need to be taught and given some meat to dig
their teeth into and inwardly digest.  The learning opportunities at HT conferences challenges youth in their faith, teaches them substantial theology, and
equips them to make use of it in their everyday lives. And they do! 

Play
This year was a little different as far as the fun and entertainment of the conference went. Instead of trying to herd hundreds of teenagers to a major venue for something fun (the Amen – Irvine beach party being the one exception), we brought in some
different types of entertainment and let everyone just…have fun in their own
way. The campuses provided a number of different activities from swimming and soccer to line-dance lessons,
movies on a theater screen, dodge ball tournaments, and the ever-popular karaoke! Ultimate Frisbee, Apples to Apples, card games, and just hanging out gave youth from all over the country (even the world) to laugh and get to know each other. And if your group didn't want to do any of those things, they could go and do their own
fun thing during that time block. It really doesn't take wads of money and glitzy production plans for everyone to have fun!

And
while the entertainment portion of the conference days are well…entertaining,
having fun is not the point.  Countless youth will tell you that the
worship was "fun" and the catechesis was "fun".  Fun in
that context simply means they were engaged and interested in what they were
doing.  It wasn’t just something they watched happen but piqued their
interest, and made them want more.  If you think about it, when "church" is just another place to go to be entertained, play in a
souped-up garage…er…praise band, listen to leaders of different
denominations talk to you about about morality, have fun, and hear a
watered-down devotional (motivational) talk…then the place that has the coolest band, the biggest plasma screens, and the most motivating morality sermons will be where they go when they become adults.  

If they continue going to church at all.  

That’s what happens when we replace the theology of the Cross for the theology
of Glory.  There are tons of places in the world where we
can go to learn how to live with good, upstanding morals.  There are even
more places to go and be entertained in all sorts of ways. There’s only one
place to go to hear the Gospel – to the Church, where the Gospel is proclaimed in
its purity and the Sacraments are administered in accordance with it.

We do all these things at HT conferences the way we do because we want nothing but the best
for youth and want to help Lutheran pastors, parents, and congregations to provide it for
them and keep them coming to Church, where God’s gifts for us in Word and
Sacrament are being given out. These are the formative years when teens really develop a personal understanding of their faith, why would anyone want it to be shaped by the teaching of authoritative people who teach anything less than the pure Gospel of Christ and Him crucified for us?

(For more information from the conferences and pictures from
this summer, please visit www.amen2008.org.)