Today I Saw God
Did you see the movie, The Shack?
The book just blew me away. Reading it a few years back, I marveled at the creative expression its author, William Young, used to tease out the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and their unique rolls in ministering to one of their beloved when tragedy strikes. The thing is, for me, reading is rarely believing. It may inspire me, but that doesn't last long. But if you engage my other senses with sights, sounds, camera and action, things get real-er.
That's what I was hoping for when I shelled out the small fortune to see The Shack on the big screen. And man, that scene at the lake didn't disappoint. Even though I know what is coming, I am praying it won't happen. And when it does, I feel it in every fiber of my body.
It's amazing how this happens when we empathize with characters on the screen. Our bodies react physically as if it were happening to us. The tragic scenes evoke this for me; then I'm hooked. I'm right there with Mack Phillips in his rage, his pain, his depression, and his plight. This is no longer simply a story or a performance by an actor, it feels real.
Now, the tone is set for God, in three Persons, to do what only God can do. The novel did this magnificently. I'm expecting big things from the movie. I'm pulling for Mack and the transformation I know he has coming to him. With him, I sit at the crossroads of perhaps the #1 question we all have for God: why? Why, do you let terrible things happen? With everyone else in that theater, I'm waiting to be convinced by a good answer.
But honestly, I am not.It seems to me (and I'm no film critic) that main character, Mack Phillips, has reverted to human husband and father, actor Sam Worthington. And Sam, asked to forgive the unforgivable, just can't. Who could? He delivers dialogue asking the right questions, demanding answers and explanations, and confronting God for the truth, all as I surely would. I believe him. But, in the pivotal moment, he tosses down his backpack (apparently symbolic for giving up the burden he is carrying) and complies. I just don't believe him. His facial expression and his body language are just acting, way more like a teen tantrum than a surrender to God.
I'm so disappointed. I had hoped this movie which had drawn accolades in pre-screening for Christian crowds could reach would-be believers with the sure message that a compassionate and just God dearly loves them and can be trusted, even in the face of terrible injustice. I had hoped people on a spiritual quest for God would leave affirmed on their journey. Instead, it felt like the main character was still doubtful.
Thank you for the important reminder, Papa God, that we can't just pretend to have faith and expect people to believe us.
"If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved." ~ Romans 10: 9-10
And I guess we shouldn't be relying on Hollywood to do the job we're meant to do. If we don't believe in our hearts before we profess with our mouths, we're just actors, and all the world's a stage.
Funny thing, when I googled Mr. Worthington, I found a brief interview he did about The Shack and his preparation for this role. He has a young family, and it is clear that the story cut him deeply. He also has a wicked-strong Australian accent. I felt a bit foolish falling for his portrayal as Mack Phillips, All-American dad. But that's his job; actors are trained to trick us into believing in them.
God's not like that, thank goodness. He/she/they are in the truth business.
Nearly a dozen of my small group members went to see "The Shack" together recently. It is sometimes hard enough to get two calendars to line up, so it is pretty remarkable that we could all make it work. What I loved even more than the coordination and commitment we demonstrated was the fellowship we enjoyedespecially during the funny, as well as the more emotional, scenes in the movie.
How many people do you have in your life that you can cry with? I don't just mean the kind of sparkly tears that mainly stay within your eyelids, either! No, we had some full-on sniffling going throughout the movie with packs of tissues being shared as freely as the bread and wine we receive during Communion. This isn't a movie review, but if you're not familiar with this movie (which is based on a best-selling book), you can read more about it on their website.
We talk about the importance of being vulnerable with God, but when it comes to our fellow humans on earth, it isn't always easy to reveal our emotions so openly. Even in small groups that are designed for sharing and learning together, we often become accustomed to being together in a particular context, letting others see who we are only gradually, as trust builds.
Sometimes this happens because nobody wants to be the "over sharer," or the one who reveals so much of their inner monologue that others may raise their eyebrows. Other times it happens simply because it takes courage to let others see your heart, particularly when you are grappling with strong, messy emotions that are not neatly tied up with a pretty ribbon.
I think small group fellowship is at its best when it offers a safe space to share real emotions and real conversations about things that matter. Some of the earliest adult Sunday school classes grew out of the Methodist Societies that John Wesley formed in England in the 18th century.
These classes met as a way to learn together and hold each other accountable to spiritual practices during a time when the world felt like a challenging place. Class leaders were spiritual coaches of sorts, who helped their class members stay on the path to personal holiness. Smaller subgroups of the same gender and marital status would also meet each week so they could share their personal struggles on a deeper level with one another.
Confessing a sin or other struggle to one other person can feel terrifying. It can also feel incredibly freeing. Once spoken aloud, and once we're met with grace, our struggles have less power to hold us back from the life that God imagines for us. When we are willing to be vulnerable with God and with each other in this way, we discover anew that we are fully human. We remember that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
When I left my small group friends after the movie, I felt deeply moved by the idea that we are carrying out a tradition that began centuries ago each time we gather. Sniffling together, disagreeing together, praying together and celebrating togetherit is all a blessing when we show up for each other this way.
Are you in a small group this season? If you're not, visit Floris UMC's website or reach out to Bill Gray, director of grow ministries. I hope you'll find that your small group is a big blessing in your life.