The Shack: A Shovel In The Heart

The new movie, The Shack, based on the hit novel of the same name, tells the gripping story of great pain and shocking loss. But right there is where The Shack steps beyond another retelling of the human suffering story.

It does so by revealing loss as a doorway to life. As such, it challenges our definitions of “good.” In other words, it confronts our assumption that “good” is a synonym for my preferences and desires…you know, good equals painless.

The Shack is a shovel, thrown deep into your heart. For example, it makes us face the truth about personal judgments. To reach a verdict against any human – terrorist, deviant, killer, traitor, or even myself – is to presume against the Creator and only Judge of us all. Therefore, for me to judge anyone is an audacious (and dangerous) demand that I be crowned King.

Against the backdrop of those illusions, The Shack invites us to step into a much higher view: God is with us through all of life, including the painful and horrid moments. That perspective forces us to realize that life is a continuum; our earth life is a like a capsule of time and space floating in a sea of eternity. Whatever we lose here, we find there. Death is never “the end.”

Finally, for me, The Shack is a powerful reminder that Heaven often arrives in an earthly eruption of Hell. So when I insist that life please me and never bring any pain, I miss the portal that so often brings Heaven on earth.

In all of these perspectives, The Shack is a surprising, powerful, and clear view of The Kingdom of God. That beautiful dominion of God invades our world (including our comfort zones, preferences, and myopia) and reveals a new and radiating increase of His authority.

And that new government brings peace, rest, and joy.

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The Taste of Silence

In 1988, Bieke Vandekerckhove was a 19-year-old university student in her native Belgium when she was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Although the average life span after diagnoses is two to five years, she lived 27 years with it (she died four months ago).

Her only book, The Taste of Silence (English translation from Liturgical Press, 2015), is a beautiful, candid, sometimes searing, but deeply wise view of her journey into ALS. Like so many others in history, she found that vast and pure view in prison. For Bieke, that prison was her body.

What do you do when a lightning bolt explodes out of a clear sky, blowing your body, soul, and spirit apart? Do you collapse into a pile of smoking rubble? Escape into chemicals, fight to regain control, choose suicide? Or, surrender to the One Who “directs the steps of the godly” and “delights in every detail of their lives?” (Psalm 37:23 NLT).

Vandekerckhove surrendered.

In her submission, she tumbled into great silence. I understand that; it’s what happens when a painful loss pushes you beyond the walls of language. I could so identify with Bieke as, in the silence, she found profound gratitude, even for her diagnosis and for “the collapse of all my beliefs.” ALS took her beyond what she knew and preferred, and into the beauty of “not-knowing.” In that place beyond thought, she “discovered the art of waiting in the dark.”

In the dark, Bieke found “the God of the Bible, and not the god who is…bound by the contours of logic and morality.” She also discovered that God meets those who live real life. That is a place beyond information. As I read this book, I often thought of Hebrews 11:34, which speaks of those who “became powerful in battle.” They found success as it was forged in the heat of life, not through knowledge or credentials.

Just as Bieke found triumph through ALS.

What Do You See?

She learned that so much of life boils down to what we see. The deeper she went into the illness, she found that she suffered “more from an eye problem than from a muscle disorder.” Bieke seems genuinely grateful for the “great powers of suffering, death, and mourning” that “work a simplification in us that makes us see things differently. Perhaps making us really see for the first time.”

“All Things”

Although she was certainly Christian, Vandekerckhove’s journey through ALS gave her a great appreciation for Buddhism and other religions and perspectives. For that reason, I’m sure many Christians will reject this book.

I think her perspectives are valid and valuable.

She quotes the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 7:24: “Wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.”

God is so large and so pervasive throughout His creation that His word can push through anyone, anything, anytime, anywhere. He owns it all; any or all of it can carry His voice. Just as His voice once (at least once!) animated a donkey, so it “pervades and penetrates all things.”

It is not a stretch for me to believe that a woman, sliced and diced and pulverized by the beautiful and terrible mercy of God, saw evidence of Him everywhere.

I deeply appreciate The Taste of Silence. It carries a ring of truth on every page. And I am moved by, and grateful for, a young woman who dared to tell her harrowing but hallowed journey into the largeness of God.

To summarize that journey, she wrote that when she surrendered to the mystery, and thought she lost everything, “remarkably my grip loosened and I rediscovered everything in a new way. Life was everywhere, in the midst of death, even as life slipped away from me…Everything became a gift.”

In her book, she passes the gifts on to readers whom she does not know. I and many others are grateful that she did.

Finally, although I loved the book, I must be fair and tell you that (to me) this short book burned bright for 15 chapters, or about 85 pages. The final 60+ pages felt like wet firewood; they just wouldn’t burn. But, those 85 pages were more than enough.

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“Excuse Me, Barista, May I Live Here?”

Washington, DC, summer of 1994. From the muggy blanket of heat and city sounds and odors, I stepped into a new and magical cocoon of coffee aroma, cold air, quiet greens and charcoals, and Sinatra’s velvet crooning of “In the Wee Small Hours.”

They called the place “Starbucks.”

This was more than a store. I felt like I had slipped through a hidden door in the cosmos, passing from mess and madness into a fortress of peace and safety. Out there could never intrude in here. That very first Starbucks seemed to be a metaphor of how to live in a harsh and polarized environment.

In fact, when you read the 23rd Psalm it sounds like David wrote it in Starbucks – the place of quiet rest and sweet restoration. Fear and evil are locked outside. But inside a lavish table is spread in full view of a hostile world. And, honey, that cup of sublime goodness just overflows. Of course, I will dwell in this house forever! Duh.

This is not a mere coffee shop; it’s an alternate society, a counterculture, another government.

The Safe Place 

Everyone lives in the tension between yesterday and tomorrow. The old is exhausted and dying; the new has not fully arrived. We endure the death grip of yesterday while tasting the promises of tomorrow. That struggle is not unique to any time or people; it is always true.

The safe place is a zone, a domain within that struggle. And it’s usually located in the midst of turbulence or great loss. For example, we’ve all seen a dying person give up the fight to stay on earth. They simply embrace the next dimension of life (Secret: you don’t have to die in order to enter that place). And we’ve all seen people go through crucibles that brought him or her into a surprising zone of victory.

External conditions didn’t change at all. But they found a new way to live in the midst of it. And that new way did not spring from power, beauty, education, money, or control. At the point where they gave up their own strength, they slipped into the safe place that is always within and around us.

What Does the Place Look Like?

Imagine that you are sitting in a beautiful and restful suite with 10 to 12 other people. The room is elegantly designed, built, and furnished. The lines and light and colors and depth of quality call every occupant to higher thoughts and purposes.

The people in the room reflect integrity, confidence, grace, and good humor. Their speech is gentle, clear, calm and reasonable. They listen. Their laughter is full and deep and clean. No shrill tones and no combative, angry or mocking voices are heard in that room.

Vertigo may prevail outside. But spin anyone in this room and they will come up pointing to the North Star.

And everyone here is serious and focused. For example, as one man reads a document to the group, the sound of children playing outside grows louder. His eyes never leave the document; he continues to read as he steps to the open window and slowly closes it. The room becomes blessedly quiet. He continues to read as he returns to his seat.

No one went to the window to disparage or correct the children. These are mature people; they don’t react to distractions. They are passionate about, and focused on, a great purpose. They don’t have time to pick fights or borrow offenses from what is going on outside. Good grief; they know all those things will pass.

New World in the Morning

Look, I understand that we live in harsh and dangerous times. An age is passing away (as ages always do). It’s painful and frightening. And I’m not aloof from it; I’ve wept over the losses and hurled too many bad words at my life’s various media screens.

But, when I get still (with a fine cup of coffee!) inside the safe place, I remember that the global shaking and convulsions are the birth pangs of a brand new era. All that is worthless or dispensable will collapse into dust and blow away. All that is worthy and eternal will overcome and preside.

Just as a Starbucks in Washington once illustrated for me, we can all find a safe and delightful place right in the middle of transitional chaos.

Hey, I know; let’s meet there after work and talk about it.

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Mother Antonia’s Great Adventure

Grandma Chinn probably had Alzheimer’s. But we didn’t have a name for it in those days. Her mental and behavioral quirks were just…Grandma. We knew her, not a disease. After a visit with her we said things like, “Bless her heart, she’s a little confused today.”

By the time my father became afflicted with Alzheimer’s, we knew a whole lot about it. In fact, I grew to despise my knowledge of that disease. I found it too easy to relate to Alzheimer’s, not to Dad.

The Bible says that knowledge “puffs up.” Sure does. Knowledge is like vodka; a little of it gives me the swagger and bluster to announce judgments about things far above me, things that are simply none of my business and not within my capacity.

That must be what gives us the arrogance to believe that we can classify human lives as “tragic, good, cut short, blessed, cursed, troubled,” etc. Those are very audacious pronouncements. And our “helping professions” are worse. They use terribly insulting language in their catalogs…defects, deformities, disfigurement, malformed, etc. Malformed? Disfigured? According to whom?

Surely I am not the only one who hears the phrase “vegetative state” as grossly dehumanizing. How did civilized people ever allow an old school yard slur – “Vegetable!” – to enter the lexicon of medical language?

Sounds like knowledge might puff up.

A better perspective comes from David, the Psalmist. He wrote of God, “Even the darkness is not dark to Thee, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Thee.” (Psalm 139:12)

Maybe a life is a life. Maybe lives of one hour or those lived with severe spinal injuries are as beautiful and blessed as ones lived in great health, luxury, and longevity. Is it possible that God sees them alike and grants the grace to live there? Perhaps life needs to be lived straight ahead, without comparison to others and without the imposition of human designs or alterations.

Mary Clarke grew up in the wealth and splendor of Beverly Hills. She was a socialite and had closets of fine clothes. Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, and Dinah Shore were her neighbors. Mary lived a typical Southern California life; she was a member of the Beverly Hills Country Club and she married and divorced twice.

When she was 50, she gave away all her possessions, became a Roman Catholic nun and moved into – into, not near – a notorious Tijuana prison. As Mother Antonia, she lived in the same conditions as the prisoners; her home was a 10’ by 10’ cell (which she painted pink) and she ate what they ate. She lived in that cell for the last 36 years of her life (she died in October 2013).

In 1994, when a full-scale riot broke out, the 5-foot-2 Mother Antonia walked through a blizzard of bullets, her face aglow. Eyewitnesses said she never stopped smiling. Armed only with love, she saw the riot come to a peaceful end. Prison was to her what a basketball court was to Michael Jordan. The zone.

She once said, “Happiness does not depend on where you are. I live in prison. And I have not had a day of depression in 25 years.” Incredibly, this woman moved into the darkness and found that it became as bright as the day.

Do you think that Mother Antonia’s great sense of adventure could turn Alzheimer’s or quadriplegia or even death into a brightly lit ballroom?

If God sees darkness and light the same, maybe we can too. I know many people who have lived “a hard life.” And I know it’s not easy. But I’ve also seen them put that life on, like a new tuxedo or evening gown, trusting God to bless it, fill it up, and turn it into a grand ballroom waltz.

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Living Life in all the Ways it Might Come to Us

Growing up in the farm country of south central Kansas, I quickly learned that agrarian life could be brutal. I saw the long days (and sometimes nights) of very hard labor; watched farmers cope with tornadoes, blizzards, livestock diseases, and volatile market conditions; and we all knew the sickening thud of sudden accidents. By the time many farmers lie down in satin caskets, the passing mourners well understand the scars, missing fingers, and empty sleeves.

The Portal of Suffering

Not coincidentally, I also grew up in a large sense of God.

The prairie Calvinism in farming communities molded people into a vertical posture. All day long their eyes searched that enormous sky; they knew it could bring life or death. And they bowed their knees to whatever it brought. As a result, the “grain” of their lives revealed the deep burnished luster of rich woods, an unfathomable beauty and excellence of spirit.

Suffering had not reduced them; it had enriched them.

A dear friend’s wife has struggled with multiple sclerosis for more than forty years. Recent emergency surgery revealed that she now has extensive cancer, and during that surgery she suffered a heart attack. They both know the end is near.

In a recent email, he gave me an astounding view of their journey. To read his description of what they have both seen through this grueling trial is to stand at the edge of a spiritual Grand Canyon – it is deep, majestic, humbling, and bottomless. And he summed it up with: “Life has to be lived in all the ways it might come to one.”

Those simple and profound words describe how humans have lived for most of history. Only recent decades have brought the possibility of a self-designed life. “I’ll take a little of that…maybe just a pinch more. And no, none of that.” Convenience, comfort, and control are the new values. But what have they stolen?

Designer Gods

The moment of human conception brings life to us in a new way; that baby is a tiny slow-motion hurricane. She or he slowly careens around the womb, evicting any shreds of convenience, comfort, and control. Furthermore, the baby brings nausea, pain, morning sickness, baby furniture and other expenses, and a final and primal explosion of water, blood, muck… and a new human. Sometimes that new person is ill, deformed, or dead.

Historically, even when life brought an unplanned or perhaps mortally ill baby, people lived it as it came. In the depths of the crucible, people begin to see that God, only God, could bring shimmering beauty from the gnarled grain of a wind-warped cypress. After all, He is the One Who “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20 NIV)

Self-designed gods tend to select only the babies that we can imagine.

Have you noticed that most people die when they are hit with a terminal disease or terrible injuries? That’s been happening throughout human history (of course, God sometimes heals people. But to live in expectation of that is to entertain distractions from living a purposeful life).

Clearly, the God Who is God often sends diseases and infirmities as His servants, to escort His children to a higher dimension of life. The wise and weathered heart knows that this too is just part of living life in all the ways it might come

But, in recent decades, many have migrated to a self-designed faith, a true American folk religion. Perhaps its primary feature is human control. Therefore, it has gutted the classic faith. Trust is no longer a factor.

This new faith accommodates the illusion that we do not have to pass on from earth life. New designer theologies insist that God has chosen to heal everyone. We all know many well-meaning Christian believers who have marshaled heroic and urgent prayer for the purpose of helping people stay …right here in River City.

Oh, the irony; meeting God must be avoided at all cost!


What if we all stepped away from our obsessions with ourselves and just embraced all the ways that life might come to us? Do you think we might find ourselves in a larger and more magnificent design? Might we live better if we stopped spending so much time trying to control our health and continuity? Could we rediscover trust?

The farmers of my youth were generally humble folks. From their example, I see that humility is the only way to “live life in all the ways it might come to one.” But it never begins till we give up our design and control.

When we do that, trust is the only road left.

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