Wow. That's really the only word I have for it. Last night, at our church, we hosted an evening to discuss William P. Young's best-selling novel The Shack. Billed as an evening of dessert and discussion and publicized to our congregation, we had planned for up to 80 people. We had Peet's coffee and light refreshments for 80 people. Chairs and tables for 80 people. Well, guess what? Over 240 people showed up. Church members, regular church attenders, friends from book groups, members of other churches, people we hadn't seen in a while. Wow. Man, I wished I'd taken that multiplication of loaves and fish course in seminary...those cookies were gone before the evening even started.
Clearly, this book and the effect it's having is phenomenal. If you're interested, you can look at my earlier posts for some of my initial reflections. Today, I would only add a few more--and ask you, if you're comfortable and have read the book (and especially if you attended the evening), to share with me your thoughts as well.
What came through clearly last night was heart. Passion. Emotion. Readers were touched by the novel. Specifically, many mentioned they felt God's closeness and love in ways they never had before. For many of us, I suspect, our faith is primarily rational assent combined with duty: we believe the Bible and we seek to put it into practice. The Shack is reminding us that following Jesus is first and foremost a relationship of loving trust--and an obedience of the heart that flows from this.
One gentleman made this astute observation (I'm paraphrasing somewhat): "As I look around this room and hear from people who were moved by this book, I'm aware that these are people who've been attending church for many, many years. These are people who are devoted Christians and yet they are the ones who are being touched in such surprising ways. Why is this?!" Great question! And that's the question I and other church leaders need to be asking. Why are our people moved in this way? What does their reaction tell us--about the state of their souls and the state of our church? Where are we hitting--and more importantly, where are we missing--the mark in our ministries?
As I mentioned in my last post, religious structures are delivery tools or distribution systems for living water. The danger to any water utility is to focus so much on our piping systems that we reduce the living water to a trickle! Thirsty people need to drink--and they'll find their satisfaction in other ways, some better, some worse.
The Shack evening was a revealing moment and a wonderful invitation. We saw people's hearts open up in delightful ways: vulnerable, teachable, welcoming, tender, receptive. The invitation the evening issued was one of connection and simplicity: how will we make room for one another and be the church in ways that are primarily relational, not religious? I think we need to keep on pondering and not rush to programmatize (I'm making the word up, but you know what I mean).
Do you have any more thoughts on why this book is such an impact? I'd love to hear...
Recently, our couples group was having an interesting discussion around Chapter Two of N.T. Wright’s very good book, Simply Christian. The chapter, entitled “The Hidden Spring”, is focused on the longing for God (which Wright calls the “echo of a voice”) found in humankind’s irrepressible pursuit of spirituality. Wright highlights how human beings are made for God, that we thirst for God, and that no amount of rationalism, materialism, or any other –ism can satisfy our thirsty souls. We come wired that way. To show how modernity has failed to repress or deny the human urge for spirituality, Wright opens with an analogy of a dictator who paves over a series of artesian wells only to find that over time these springs of water inevitably force themselves through the concrete.
It occurred to me, expanding on this analogy of humankind’s irrepressible thirst for God (for what the Bible calls “living water”—see Psalm 42, and especially, John 7:37-39) that all human attempts at spirituality are efforts to access this living water and lift it to our lips to drink. From the simplest cupping of the hand for a scoop of water, to turning a spigot, human beings have a history of making attempts to drink of God’s life. Larger historical religious systems are more like elaborate water utilities, vast subterranean pipelines with buried water mains, switches, tanks, pressure systems, filtration, faucets, and hot and cold handles. Whether highly sophisticated or disarmingly simple, these spiritual structures are variations on the same theme: helping people drink of Living Water. Some are effective; some are outmoded; some are broken; some are brand new. Through some comes a trickle, through others a geyser. Some are polluted; some are reddish and stained with rust. The effectiveness of each system has to do with whether or not it is firmly anchored to its source and whether or not it can pipe the water unadulterated to thirsty people for satisfying consumption. In many cases, repairs are needed: water mains break, sinkholes develop, and a crew must be called in to mend the system. In newer communities, newer water provision systems must be dug into the ground. The piping is made of different material; the sink fixtures reflect a different style. But the living water and its accessibility to the thirsty human soul—that’s the whole goal of any religious structure, any spiritual activity. These are delivery systems which mustn’t be confused with that which they deliver. The point is getting human beings to drink deeply of Living Water—not to focus overmuch on the delivery system itself. Make sense?