This week’s eNewsletter Feature
was written by Jim Teague
FPCE director of communications .
A few chapters into Wm. Paul Young’s novel “The Shack,” the protagonist, Mack, finds himself in a cabin in the woods having a conversation with three strangers who treat him with love, respect, and deep compassion. It is as if they have known him all his life, though he has no recollection of ever having met them.
It doesn’t take long for the reader to figure out who these characters are: A large gregarious Black woman (who asks Mack to call her Papa) represents God the Father; a vaguely Asian woman of indeterminate age named Sarayu is the embodiment of the Holy Spirit; and the third, a 30-something man of Middle Eastern descent, explains his given name is Yeshua, though many now call him Jesus. Mack is still a little slow to catch on:
Thoughts tumbled over each other as Mack struggled to figure out what to do. Was one of these people God? What if they were hallucinations or angels, or God was coming later? That could be embarrassing. Since there were three of them, maybe this was a Trinity sort of thing. But two women and a man and none of them white? Then again, why had he naturally assumed that God would be white? He knew his mind was rambling, so he focused on the one question he most wanted answered.
“Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?”
“I am,” said all three in unison. Mack looked from one to the next, and even though he couldn’t begin to grasp what he was seeing and hearing, he somehow believed them.
It’s easy to get distracted by the unique way Young chooses to represent the three persons of the Trinity (through dialogue it is explained they are presented to Mack in these peculiar ways to break down his preconceptions of who God is).
What was especially striking to me, however, was the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. God the father (or Papa) explains it to Mack this way: “We are not three gods, and we are not talking about one god with three attitudes, like a man who is a husband, father, and worker. I am one God and I am three persons, and each of the three is fully and entirely the one.”
Since early May, our Sunday teaching series has been all about how we are “Created for Community” and what that looks like for us as a body of Jesus followers.i As we began the series, just after Lent, Senior Pastor Raymond Hylton talked about the community of the Trinity and how we as a congregation (and as the worldwide church) are called to reflect that relationship. Over the course of the series, I have been reminded again and again of the all-in-one trinitarian imagery in “The Shack.”
Throughout the book, Young draws a picture of genuine affection and mutual adoration between the three persons of the Trinity. There is no hint of insecurity or a need for self-aggrandizement, only an honest assessment of the perfect goodness that exists among them as one being.
“All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within Me, within God myself,” Papa tells Mack.ii
In other words, by being in fundamental nature a community of three in one, God has never been alone, and has never known the fear of being abandoned or sent away because of failing to measure up to an external standard. (Mack raises the question of Jesus on the cross when he said in Matthew 27 and Mark 15 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But Papa responds, “You misunderstand the mystery there. Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him.”)
I still remember being on my bed over a decade ago reading those pages and considering what I had just taken in. I had been a believer for more than two decades, and yet I had never looked at the idea of the Trinity as an eternal, unbreakable relationship. The concept filled me with both incredible awe and not a small amount of bewilderment.
I am, by nature, an extrovert, so even though I occasionally enjoy extended periods of alone time, my emotional bucket tends to fill more quickly when I am with others. Not only do I yearn for relationship and grieve over conflict that results in separation, but, given the choice to have a meaningful social interaction or accomplish a necessary task, I’ll take the social interaction every time (sometimes to my detriment). It’s not wrong for me to greatly value my relationships, but it puts lots of pressure on both me and those I interact with to always meet unspoken expectations and to fear a future where things are bound to change one way or another. At some moments, it can feel like a dependency.
The idea that God has always existed in perfect relationship (and will for eternity), neither yearning for intimacy to bolster self-esteem nor fearing abandonment due to personal failings or outside circumstances, staggers my mind.
When I can keep that idea close at hand, it changes the dynamics of my relationship with all three persons of the Trinity. God is no longer a being who is constantly disappointed in me, but, rather, one who is consistently at peace, fully able to redeem everything, and confident that all will go to plan, even when my choices or circumstances suggest otherwise. In addition, my other relationships become less like something valuable or needy I must always fear to lose, and more like gifts I can enjoy while remaining safe and content in the consistency of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The images of the three persons of the Trinity presented in “The Shack” are helpful to me as I consider these things.
Of course, “The Shack” is a work of fiction written by a fallible human (just like you and me). It’s not Scripture and doesn’t pretend to carry that weight or authority. Young came under a great deal of criticism for choosing to have Papa—God the Father—represented (in the book and later in a film version) as a large Black woman with a quick wit and powerful hugs.iii I think those criticisms are unfounded and miss the point.
This Sunday we come to the end of the “Community” series, with Rev. Amanda Golbek, our Minister of Children and youth, teaching on “Unity in Community” from Ephesians 4:1-6. Join us for this worship and communion service in person or online as we honor and interact with our perfectly connected God.
FPCE director of communications
iIf you missed any of the series’ previous teachings, you can go back here to look at the scriptures we pulled from, and listen to the sermons through links to our Podcast.
iiIn another novel, Cross Roads, Wm. Paul Young explores this idea again, looking at the harm caused by self-isolation in times of grief and failure.