Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Shack: Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

The Shack was a terrible book, badly written, offering shallow comfort and questionable theology. I’m not optimistic that the movie (premiering March 3) will be able to transcend these immediate problems unless it totally abandons any commitment to its source material and engages a screenwriter who can make us forgive the stereotypes and articulate a coherent spiritual response to the unrelenting grief of a bereaved parent.

Protagonist Mack receives a mysterious invitation to revisit a shack where his young daughter was abducted and murdered. He finds Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu waiting for him—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and Mack challenges them with his questions and doubts about his battered faith. They cover theodicy, of course—reconciling the existence of evil and suffering with an omnipotent benevolent God; but they also discuss Trinitarianism, the incarnation, Hell, predestination, original sin, and forgiveness.

Author William P. Young tries for a fresh characterization of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but falls back on stereotypes and predictability. Papa is a jolly Black mother-figure who bakes pies and whips up four-course meals. Sarayu is a mystical, Asian-influenced, pan-dimensional being. And Jesus, of course, is a rugged but gentle Middle Eastern handyman with a big nose. Mack “knew instantly that he liked [him].”

The Shack strays from orthodoxy with vaguely universalist theology, and along the way it fails to provide any deep or satisfying answers to the problem of pain.

The plot revolves around Mack’s suffering over his daughter’s horrifying death. When Mack talks to Jesus about this, seeking understanding and peace, Jesus tells him that his daughter was never alone because the Holy Spirit was with her; they talked and she was comforted; “she was more worried about you and the other kids, knowing that you couldn’t find her. She prayed for you, for your peace,” Jesus tells Mack. “She was so brave!”

This flaccid response to grief and suffering offers the shallow comfort of make-believe. The key question of the book—How do I cope and find comfort in the deepest grief?—gets a cursory treatment in the form of a dialogue with no universal truth or wisdom.

Mack’s conversation with Jesus is fiction, of course—but even in fiction the reader seeks truth and wisdom that transcend the page and translate to real life. Author Young shows Jesus attempting to “fix” Mack’s grief with bromidic assurances. Even if it’s true that the Holy Spirit is with us—and I believe it is—these words don’t bring relief from grief and suffering. They don’t reverse the bad thing that has happened.

We live in a world that still suffers the consequences of sin. Christians sometimes get confused about the promises of the Kingdom.  We are not promised that we will be protected from these consequences. We do experience new life in some ways and at some times—yet clearly not in other ways or times. We cannot “claim” the blessings of comfort and peace right now, on our own timelines, in spite of the vapid affirmations of popular health and wealth preachers.

Even Jesus experienced this already and not-yet paradox of the kingdom. In the garden of Gethsemane, Matthew tells us that Jesus was “very sad and troubled…He fell to the ground” and cried out to God: “My Father, if it is possible, do not give me this cup of suffering.” Luke writes that Jesus was “full of pain” and that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” But His Father did not answer this prayer. Jesus continued to suffer, to the point of death on the cross.

Through his resurrection, Jesus conquered death—but still people die. Aidan died.

In my journey through the valley of the shadow of death, there were no grief-erasing Bible verses, no magic conversations with Jesus, no portion of my faith that instantly turned my sorrow into peace and comfort. That’s not how the blessings of the kingdom work this side of eternity. There is still grief. God has not yet wiped every tear from our eyes.

In real life there are no words that can bring comfort to a grieving parent. It is not only feckless to try to take away a person’s sorrow, it is manipulative and insulting. There are no words, no faith, no message, that take away grief.

What the real Jesus would have said to Mack, what he would say to me, is, “I hate this. I hate the evil that took your child away from you. It’s wrong, and horrible, and no parent should have to endure it. I wish I could take away your pain.”

It’s called empathy. God the Father endured the loss of his own Son. Jesus is “not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but…one who was tempted in every way.” At Aidan’s funeral, the pastor said “Jesus does not come to death with a gracious invitation. Death is, for Jesus, the Last Enemy, and to death he comes with a sword. To death Jesus comes with his robe dipped in blood.”

These violent images of war convey with Shakespearean vividness that death is the enemy—and that’s what Jesus would have communicated to Mack. He would not have offered unhelpful platitudes that do not bring comfort in the face of such a grievous loss.

So the book failed in its treatment of the universal problem of pain, and the movie will fail too unless it reimagines these conversations and offers a more realistic depiction of what faith can and cannot do for a grieving parent.  

My own recovery from paralyzing grief after the death of my son entailed a long and emotionally grueling process. Time, tears, prayer, therapy and friendship—not to mention wine and anti-depressants—brought me to an experience of grace such that grief is no longer debilitating.

Now I am able, sometimes, to live in the awareness that God is present with me, in the middle of my sorrow. I finally began to discover moments of peace in the presence of God.

It’s paradoxical that peace, shalom, can exist in a world that contains the deepest grief and suffering. It makes no sense—but that is the paradoxical nature of the Kingdom that Jesus offered. Shalom exists, and Jesus walks with us through our grueling times. Jesus somehow, mysteriously, holds on to us.

And unlike the lame message of The Shack, He does not expect us to pretend that death is OK. He never suggests that we can feel better because of some fake spiritual fluffery.

I don’t completely understand it, but the real gospel, the real Jesus, is comfort enough.


Monday, November 21, 2016

Summon Him

Aidan's birthday falls the day before Thanksgiving this year. He would have turned nineteen. 

He'd be in the middle of his freshman year at college. I'm guessing he would have chosen to take his post-secondary education slowly, to give himself more time to figure out where he was headed and how he wanted to get there. After four years of diverse learning opportunities as a home-schooled high-schooler, he would likely have already accumulated some community college credits.

I think there was some film-making in his future. His first novel would have been finished long ago. He probably would have found a publisher before me, darn him. He'd be writing poetry, and he'd have chapbooks on the shelves at Quimby's or Barbara's Bookstore. He might be starting to think about seminary.

I dreamed about him recently:

I was working a table at a school fundraiser. Papers, clipboards, and a cash-box littered the surface of a rectangular card table. 

Aidan sat on a metal folding chair behind the table. My tiny, white-haired boss walked through the door and hovered near us, flitting around like a nervous aunt in charge of the cookie table after a baptism in a small town church.

In front of me on the table, photographs and images of varying sizes were arranged on a wide poster board. Flimsy and uneven, most of the photos had been cut from magazines. Captions printed on strips of white computer paper lay with casual inelegance below the images. Some of the pictures had come loose. Others, I noticed, had not been placed carefully enough and covered portions of the captions.

As I tried to rearrange and re-attach the pictures, other pieces came loose and needed to be re-taped. I felt my anxiety building.

“I’m not old enough to help,” Aidan said. There was sadness and frustration in his voice.

“Well, you can help me fix this poster,” I said. I started to show him what I needed him to do with the tape and pictures. He smiled, but barely, concentrating with serious attention on the work at hand.

Somehow, even while I was talking to Aidan and demonstrating how to fix the board, I knew that he had died. I knew that he was no longer with us. It didn’t make sense—I didn’t understand how he could be there with me after he had died.

Maybe Kevin could explain it to me. I couldn’t make sense of it, but he would understand.

I stepped away and crouched down to dig my phone out of my purse. I briefly wondered what my boss would think about my getting out my phone to make a personal call right in the middle of the fundraising event.
I pressed the code to unlock the phone. The icons on the home page had been jumbled into a different order. I swiped and searched, looking for the phone app icon. Finally I opened the phone app—but I could not find the re-dial button, or the list of recent calls so I could call Kevin with the press of one button.

I couldn’t remember his phone number. I started to cry.

The phone was a lost cause, so I went off to find Kevin in person. He was sitting on the tuscan yellow leather couch at home. His dad sat on the other end of the couch, and his mom sat on a straight back chair.

“I have to ask you something,” I said. My crying turned into choking, gasping sobs that made it impossible to get the words out. I couldn’t even remember what words to use because I was so confused. 

Somehow I managed to force the words out of my mouth.

“I know that Aidan is dead,” I said. “I know that I can’t make new memories with him anymore.“ I sat down next to Kevin on the couch. His dad was nearby, and now we were all crying. “But he’s there with me, working at the table.”

Crying made it hard to breathe. I closed my eyes. In my mind I saw Aidan standing next to the table, leaning over the poster board where I had left him: cowlicky, flyaway hair; long, slender fingers; a gangly adolescent frame; his shoulders and chest slightly concave from having his chest cracked open several times.

“I don’t have memories of this—I’m making new memories of being there with him,” I said, still crying and gasping for breath. “I don’t understand how I can be making new memories with him when he’s gone.”

The dream ended. It had encapsulated a heartbreaking truth of loss: I will never make new memories with Aidan again, except in the fleeting, surreal images of my dreams.

If I could summon him to my dreams, I would sleep all the time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

For the Other

Please stop telling me how to feel.

Stop telling me to calm down. Stop telling me to get over it. Don’t tell me to relax or to stop being offended.

If you know me, and you care about me, I would be grateful if you would give me a minute; if you would really pay attention.

I am grieving the outcome of this election. I am disheartened, discouraged, and disappointed. I have just recently attained a small degree of emotional health and stability after a crushing personal loss—and this feels like a set-back to me.

You may not understand this. You probably don’t understand it. That’s OK. You don’t have to understand it in order to be empathetic. All you have to do is believe me that this is really how I feel.

I am trying my best to not say unkind things about people who supported Trump. I think I’ve succeeded for the most part—but if I’ve said or written something that feels like a personal attack or insult, please bring it to my attention. I do not want to hurt or offend you. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt, and I would like you to do the same for me.

You say how upset you are by the negativity—as though “negativity” on its own is a bad thing. “Negativity” is the only appropriate response to racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, and violence. No matter who we voted for, we should ALL be negative when we read a story about a young Saudi college student in Wisconsin beaten to death, or middle-school students in Michigan chanting “build the wall” at Latino classmates.

This is why I grieve. This is why I am discouraged, and even afraid for my friends who are Latino, black, gay, Jewish, or Muslim.

White Trump supporters do not, as a group, I presume, feel threatened and afraid when they leave their homes. They don’t wonder if they will be insulted or demeaned or threatened just because of who they are or what they look like.

But the groups that are targeted by Trump and some of his supporters do feel these kinds of threats and fear. The president-elect of the United States has said rude, scary, demeaning, threatening things about them—and some of his supporters take this as license to bring their formerly hidden racism, ethocentrism, misogyny out into the light.

Trump’s America is frightening for some people—entire groups of people. If you could acknowledge this without minimizing it, or contradicting it, or blaming it on the media, it would go a long way to helping those of us who are grieving and/or afraid to believe that this is not the America that you want to see.

Please don’t minimize it by saying it goes both ways.

I know of a few incidents that went the other way—Trump protesters that went too far, a white man who was beaten possibly because he voted for Trump. But these, I believe, are rare events in a backdrop of rising intolerance for the Other.

Pointing out that some Trump supporters have been insulted and even harmed by Trump-opposers does not mitigate the fact that Trump’s presidency, aligned with the KKK and other hate groups, represents an increase in fear and actual danger to at-risk groups. This comparison is another false equivalence in a sea of false equivalencies. It doesn’t even come close to being the same because Trump supporters are the ones who have the power and influence of the President on their side.

I’m not in any way saying that all Trump supporters are racist or sexist or any other “-ist.” I’m not saying you are. I’m saying it’s out there, and it appears to be getting worse.

I started out by telling you about my own grief and discouragement—but none of this is really about me and my feelings. I acknowledge my own white, cis-gender privilege. My sorrow is not for me.

I grieve for the Other. For the immigrant. For the mother of young black men. For a Muslim woman afraid to wear a scarf. For a brown-skinned store owner, for a young woman getting her first job, for a queer student in a classroom.

I am grieving for America.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


Dear Internet,

Today's election day. It's also my birthday. 

l was born on election day sixteen years ago. I've read enough ancient history to know that Election 2000 was tightly contested. Al Gore won the popular vote, but George Bush won the electoral vote. (I don't really understand the electoral thing completely--but from the little bit I do know, I think we should get rid of it.)

My mom told me she voted for George Bush back then, and then again in 2004. I can't even with that. What was she thinking? Then she got her head straight and voted for Obama twice. 

I know she said her opinions have changed a lot over the years. This is another thing I don't really understand. She doesn't even get the difference between gender and sexuality--I had to explain it to her at dinner tonight. She sort of got it.

I said, "How can you not understand this?"

She said, "For fifty-five years my brain has been wired to think about it differently."

Old people. Sigh.

Now it's election day on my birthday again. It's another close one, but it looks like Amerikkka has gone and elected what seems to me to be a terrible person who says offensive things about women and Muslims and disabled people every time he opens his mouth.

I am not happy about living in a country led by a cartoonishly misogynistic serial philanderer who actually bragged about committing sexual assault. Who incites his scary followers to beat people up. Who threatens to kick Muslims out of the country.

I'm so disappointed in America. 

I'm only sixteen. I should not have to carry this burden of fear and disappointment about a whole country on my shoulders. I should have a couple more years to be carefree (ha) and lighthearted (double ha). But no. America goes and does this.

Thanks, America. Thanks for ruining my birthday.

M. Peevie, out.

Oh, I should mention my parents gave me a beautiful Andrew Bird poster for my birthday which I love. I'm giving my mom credit even though I'm positive my dad picked it out.  

Friday, April 22, 2016

The vending machine: A true story

Hungry. Again. Sitting in the vending room at a flimsy metal table on a wobbly chair. The vending machines hum and whisper. Don’t ask me what they’re saying. I don’t speak vending machine.

I scan the options for desirable snack choices. One machine holds normal vending noshes: candy bars, potato chips, cheese puffs. The other machine boasts “Healthy Options” but apparently it’s the loosest possible definition of “healthy.” I can choose from potato chips—baked, not fried; tiny bags of nuts, granola bars, Twizzler bites, and—healthiest of all—Cheez-Its.

I am nothing if not health-conscious. I choose the Cheez-Its. One dollar for a one-point-five ounce air-puffed cellophane bag of golden, crispy, melt-in-your-mouth squares. I would literally sell my soul for a Cheez-It on any given day.

As an aside the other day a man and a woman were browsing the cracker aisle in Target, and I heard him say, “All of a sudden you’re against Cheez-Its?” and she said, “I haven’t had a Cheez-It in like six years.” Under her breath, but loud enough for the Cheez-It-despising sociopath to hear, a woman who ate a whole box of Cheez-Its yesterday (me) said, “Communist.”

I poke the edge of my George Washington face-up into the cash slot. The machine sucks it out of my grasp, like a pre-schooler snatching a candy-bar from a stranger in a white van, or like Toni Taxwinkle (props John Kass) siphoning tax dollars directly out of my bank account.

I double-check the item code and press G-5. The silver coil turns, slowly advancing the red bag of yummage to the edge of the shelf. The bag starts to fall, and I hold my breath, anticipating the first crunchy bite of cheesy goodness.

But the bag catches and holds on, braced between the side of the vending machine and the ledge. It mocks me.

I pound fecklessly on the glass, but the crackers don’t budge. I try shaking the machine, but it weighs as much as a Hummer.

I refuse to be daunted, and I know exactly what to do. I’m going to double down. I pull out another dollar from my wallet and square off against the thieving apparatus. The working theory is that the second bag of Cheez-Its will knock the first bag down as it falls.

Everything goes great: the dollar slides in, I press the buttons, the silver coil turns. The red bag slides forward. As it reaches the edge, I hold my breath. The package starts to fall, encounters its brother—and the first batch gives in to the gentle push from behind, dropping into the bin.

The second package continues to move forward. For a brief moment, my heart floods with hope, which quickly turns to bitter disappointment. The bag hangs up in exactly the same location as the first, and I almost give up on life.

But I like to think I’m a problem solver. I stare at the window of row after row of delicious “healthy” snacks. I ponder how to get the stubborn package of cheese crackers down from its perch where it clings like a squirrel on a telephone wire: it looks like it should fall, but it stays put, defying the alleged law of gravity. I lean down and try to reach my hand up past the swinging plastic theft guard. (I’m only guessing that it’s called a theft guard, because there’s no way to reach past it to the first row of snack items, let alone three rows up where my crackers levitate.)

I look surreptitiously over my shoulder like a person getting ready to tell a racist joke, then try another shake, another feckless glass pounding. Nothing.

Crazy idea pops into my head. Maybe if I select the item above the crackers, it’ll knock the bag down as it falls. I check the stash to make sure the snack option one row up is worth the investment. I’m not going to waste a whole dollar on sugar-free vanilla wafers for crap’s sake. Bleah. But I’m in luck. It’s delicious, chewy Twizzler bites.

Dollar in. Buttons pressed. Coil turns. The chewy twists fall, and I swear Time has slowed down. It’s like watching an outfield play in slow motion, the ball heading toward the wall, the outfielder leaping, arm outstretched—and the ball ekes past the open glove by a millimeter. The Twizzlers bounce against the Cheez-Its, knocking them slightly out of position, but falling uselessly to the bottom of the tray. Well, not completely uselessly. I still get to enjoy some tasty Twizzler bites.

But now I’m mad. So far I’ve spent three dollars just to get a tiny bag of cheese crackers, and I’ll be damned if I will let the Machines win. This is probably what a steam-punk hero feels like. Courageous, facing unbeatable odds in a harsh, futuristic mechanized world. “Leave no snack behind” becomes my rallying cry.

I know it doesn’t make sense to keep trying the same thing over and over again, but I’ve pretty much decided to spend every dollar in my wallet if I have to—one dollar at a time. What’s the worst thing that could happen if I give it another try? I could end up one dollar poorer still, with only two bags of Cheez-Its and a pack of Twizzler bites to ease the sorrow of this journey we call life.

I go for one more bag of Cheez-Its. For a terrifying moment I think they’re both caught in vending machine limbo.

They teeter.

They fall.

Both of them.

I feel like Jack Bauer right after he disarms a nuclear bomb and saves Los Angeles, only this is real life, man. This is some real shit.

I tell this story to M. Peevie.

“Well, where are the snacks?” she asks, always a pragmatic child.

“I ate them,” I say.

“All of them?” She can’t believe it, which is weird because she’s met me.

“Well, I did give one bag of Cheez-Its to Robert the homeless guy,” I admit, blushing to admit such an act of overwhelming generosity.

“I can’t believe you didn’t save me any Twizzlers,” she says.