The Specificity of Love

Some of us struggle from time to time to grasp the specificity of God's love. Sure, we acknowledge that "God is love" (1John 4:8). Our hopes are pinned on this, our ethics shaped by this. But let's press it a bit further: we may know God is love, that God loves people generally, but how sure are we that God loves us specifically? I'm talking here not about our faith, but more about our feelings (can Presbyterians do that?!). How sure are we that God loves us personally in a detailed, tailor-made, specific way?

I believe that tremendous growth in Christ occurs as we experience the "16 inch drop" from head to heart, when we go beyond knowing about God's love in our minds to feeling God's love in our hearts. Let me share one such example from my life.

Almost 20 years ago, while in my first quarter at seminary, I found myself plunged into an 18-month depression. Mine manifested itself in feelings of low self-worth, in recriminating thoughts from my past, and a gnawing guilt. As I began to see the contours of my depression, particularly my struggles with guilty feelings over my pre-Christian past (none of it terribly spectacular in hindsight, but troubling to me then, nonetheless), I found a very helpful book in the seminary library (Bruce Narramore's No Condemnation, still in print). It was one of those books that, thumbing through it in the library stacks, I knew I needed to own. I'm a marker of books and this was one which seemed perfectly suited to my needs. I asked the librarian about the book and whether it could be ordered and purchased. She believed not. I was sorely disappointed and trudged home, all the while praying and asking for God's help in my struggles. As I mounted the outdoor stairs to our second floor apartment, musing on this book, my gaze fell through the parted curtains of the unit below. Through the window, on a coffee table, beneath a light, I could see clearly a copy of Narramore's book! I rushed down the steps, knocked on the door, and my neighbor, Ron, a doctoral student in psychology, told me he had just purchased the book on special order from the seminary bookstore! I was overwhelmed and rushed to order the book myself. As I expected, it proved to be an indispensable navigational tool as I journeyed through my depression and into fresh discoveries of God's very specific love for me.

It was a powerful reminder then (and still today) of how God keeps in step with us. God knows us specifically, names us, cherishes us, and can provide for us in ways that are unique to our needs. God's love is not some generic, yellow-label, "Kirkland brand" love. God's love is not a one-size fits all kind of love. It's tailor-made. And when we experience this, "God is love" takes on a whole new meaning. How have you experienced God's specific love for you lately?

The Parable of the Trees

“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; But their delight is in the law of the LORD, And on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, Which yield their fruit in its season, And their leaves do not wither. In all they do, they prosper.”
--Psalm 1:1-3 NRSV

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” --John 15:1-5 NRSV

I have two cottonwood trees growing in my backyard and they’ve got me worried. They’re now taller than our two-story house and in many ways, that’s good. They provide greenery and shade, some welcome relief in the hot afternoon sun. But what’s got me worried is that much of their root system is visible on the grass beneath them! Big bulky roots now snake across the lawn and make for difficult mowing. I’m concerned because these roots don’t seem deep enough to provide for the stability of these tall trees. I’m worried that one of these days, when the Chinook winds howl out of Eldorado Canyon, those trees will topple right onto our house.

I’m no arborist, no tree expert. But I’m guessing the cottonwoods in the Rock Creek subdivision struggle for stability. You see, we are notorious here for our Bentonite clay soil, which makes it tough for things to grow. I suspect the roots of these trees go where the water is—on the surface, rather than at the depths. I asked my dad, a much smarter man than I am when it comes to these things, and he had a novel suggestion: “why don’t you consider digging postholes [long cylindrical holes] next to the trunks of the trees and fill them with small rocks. That way you can water the holes and send the moisture beneath the surface. The roots will know where this moisture is and move deeper to get it.” That seemed like a lot of work to me! But his reasoning made sense: the roots go where the nutrients are; if the moisture and nutrients are shallow, they set themselves down there. If these good things lie deeper, the roots of the trees will be forced to go deeper to get the feeding they need. And hopefully, when this happens, the trees will become more stable, more able to endure the harsh conditions of Colorado's Front Range. Does this make sense?

In the two Bible passages above, discipleship is compared to a tree and a grapevine. In order to derive the nutrients needed, the tree and the vine-branches need to be plugged down deeply into the source of life. In Psalm 1, this is the water of God’s word. In this case, a firm rooting in God’s revealed will grants life and stability to the believer. In John 15, Jesus likens his followers to branches of a grapevine: provided they stay rooted firmly in him, the true vine, they will derive the life and strength they need to bear fruit—lives of faithfulness that reflect Christ’s love to the world. If the tree is not planted near the river of water, if the branch does not abide securely in the vine, their lives become unstable and unfruitful. They wither and die.

There comes a time in a disciple’s life, indeed, in a congregation’s life, when the roots are called to go deeper. They’re called to press down beneath the surface to find nourishment. To stay at the surface is to be in jeopardy, to become unstable, ultimately to be fruitless. To get those roots to go deeper is tough; it may involve pruning the branches; it may mean a painful posthole needs to be dug. But the goal is vitality and in God the Master Arborist’s hands the outcome is joyful, fulfilling life.

I wonder: how might the Lord be calling us these days to sink our roots deeper?

The Appeal of The Shack

I continue to ponder the curious appeal of The Shack. What is it exactly about this book that seems to capture people? As I mentioned in the last entry, the book is not particularly well-written--it's certainly not an Anne Rice, Susan Howatch, Anne Lamott, or Walter Wangerin-style piece of fiction. It doesn't have the thoughtfulness or theological substance of C.S. Lewis or N.T. Wright or Eugene Peterson. So what's the appeal? Why do I continue to be drawn to it and why does its dialog refresh and renew me? I can think of several reasons why this book might be causing a stir.

The Power of Story
It may be a postmodern truism, but story or narrative seems to be the preferred vehicle for communication today. However, by contrast, much theological truth in contemporary pulpits and ministries comes to us in linear, logical fashion: sermons with numbered points, alliterative subpoints, and the like. I know. I've done it. The tight, reasoned logic of truth well-outlined can be very comforting and attractive--at least to the preacher! But what about to the listener? Truth at right angles, truth that matches up perfectly by number and letter, that truth can be dry and airless and uninspiring. There's no mystery, no awe, no sense of the sublime or transcendent. This truth has little power to move us. But consider Scripture: the best teaching in the Bible comes to us in story-form: parables, narrative, history. God's truth isn't revealed in an outline or a series of points delivered from on high, nor is it given as a set of theological doctrines carved in stone. Biblical truth comes to us primarily through the unfolding of a grand drama of love lost and regained. It's epic and captivating. The Shack may not be great fiction, but it is story nonetheless and it begins and evolves right where we live: in the challenges and tragedies of this life. Truth in the Bible is often sung, spun, or unfolded--not argued, reasoned, or taught. Those of us who preach and teach: let us listen!

The Reassurance of Relationship
Along with story, the Bible speaks primarily through relationship: it tells us of a God of relationship (the Trinity) who risks all in creating human beings to love and cherish. Bearing God's image, we are made for relationship, saved for relationship, and we will be resurrected for relationship: with God, with each other, and with ourselves. The time Mack spends in the Shack with God is all about a relationship renewed. We learn that it isn't airtight doctrine that's ultimately important. It's not even righteous behavior or obedience. What is emphasized in the Shack is trusting relationship: do we dare believe God loves us passionately? Will we trust this indwelling God in all we do? It's story, not systematic theology, which has the power to convey the transforming truth of relationship. And this is why many of us like The Shack. Perhaps we've made this religion thing too complicated!

Truth in Surprising Form
I don't know about you, but I find that some of my best times with God come when I don't plan for them! I build the altar of devotion in the morning, with serious Bible reading and prayer--and then the fire of God comes down somewhere else: in a bike ride, in a sunset, in a piece of music or art. When this happens, I'm reminded that I do not manage my relationship with God; I don't conjure up God with my religious ritual. Instead, God graciously meets me in all places and at all times--whether "spiritual" or not! The question is: do I have eyes to see him? Sometimes I find that I can read the Bible with teeth gritted, doing it because it's good for me, because I need it, because I should. It has all the joy and wonder of taking my daily multivitamin. But reading a novel? Hey, that's my time--I'm not on the clock. I'm relaxed, I'm kicking back...and whammo, God meets me! I think our guard can be up when we get into the routine of religious ritual: we're primed for a preconceived way of perceiving God. But when God meets us "off the clock", that's a different story. All of of a sudden, everything's changed: God is somehow bigger, more fun, more present, more real. Reading The Shack isn't easy or even necessarily pleasant; but it's fiction and our usual religious expectations may be relaxed. And then God is free to meet us in unexpected ways.

What Do YOU think?
A blog is not a one-way piece of communication. You've heard from me. Now I'd like to hear from you. If you've read The Shack, why do you think it's appealing to people? What itch does it seem to scratch? And what can we who lead in churches learn from this? How can we adjust the way we communicate to take the unchanging gospel to a changing world?

Shack Attack!

It's a New York Times bestseller. It currently has 1.1 million copies in print. It's spent over 22 weeks on USA Today's Top 150 bestsellers list. And it's self-published. By a Canadian former pastor. Who was turned down by several Christian publishing houses. It's religious fiction of a different stripe. It's William P. Young's The Shack, taking churches and our broader culture by storm, it seems. It's irritating irascible theological conservatives. It's grating on the literary nerves of elitist bookish types. And it's helping people understand more of God's love in ways that are hard to describe.

I just finished the book, reading it on the recommendation of several church members. I found myself caught off guard and captivated: not because it's terribly well-written (it isn't), nor because it's theologically airtight (it's not; nor is it meant to be). I was and am still captivated by it because its dialog has helped me hear God in a fresh way, to more easily experience his love for me and all of us. When a book causes me to pray more freely, worship more joyfully, and feel more loved, well, I pay attention.

Here's the basic plot without any spoilers, I hope: Mackenzie Allen Phillips is a father of three children, the youngest of whom is kidnapped and brutally murdered during a camping trip. Devastated by the loss and on the edge of despair (as well as leaving the faith), "Mack" is summoned by a mysterious letter, signed by "Papa" (his wife's name for God) to the Shack, the scene of his daughter's murder. What transpires in the Shack is riveting: a conversation and time spent with the triune God, revealed in quite unusual ways. The tender dialog, the pointed questions on suffering, tragedy, faith, love, and hope are biblically resonant, without being preachy or pedantic. The recasting of biblical truth in non-linear and winsome ways has the potential to take well-known (and well-worn) truths about God and move them beyond our minds and into our hearts. That's what seems to be happening for readers of The Shack.

For me, it has felt like a spiritual chiropractic adjustment: prolonged sitting in the chair of the religious professional has given me a bit of a crick in my system, a certain stenosis of the spirit. The Shack has seemed to crack or adjust things for me. I feel curiously realigned: more limber in my prayer life, my worship more genuine, less forced. I do believe my belovedness by God seems more and more plausible, to my heart and spirit--and not just to my mind.

So now I'm returning to The Shack. I am taking its conversation between God and Mack and digesting it slowly, savoring it and journaling about it, particularly seeking to pay attention to what it evokes--or even provokes--in me.

If you can shuck the mantle of any literary snobbery, if you can humble yourself to this latest form of popular Christianity, if you can read with the eyes of a contemplative and not a systematic theologian, you might just be blessed by The Shack. I was and am.

For more go to: