Sunday, September 12, 2010

Reflections on The Shack by William P. Young

On page 40, the narrator observes: "It is remarkable how a seemingly insignificant action or event can change entire lives." I have seen this to be true in my own experience in several ways. A smile is contagious; smiles are often described as the universal language of mankind. Mary Christelle Macaluso once said, “If you have made another person on this earth smile, your life has been worthwhile.” I fully agree with this statement; the seemingly smallest of actions can make all the difference in the world. Mother Teresa said, “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” Smiles always make my day; they fill me with optimism, hope, and sanguinity. The simple things in life make me the happiest. A euphonious song on piano, a canopy formed by crape myrtles and pine trees representative of the merging of cultures, the massive and infinite sky lay out like a painter’s canvas, “like a patient etherised upon a table.” A tree in my backyard, still, sturdy, strong, pure, broken, yellow, green, alive, vibrant, bona fide. A gentle breeze from the north carrying the flowers from the Bradford pears to the deep green grass like snowflakes, occulted from the naked eye. Monarch butterflies, dark, rich, luscious roses, tulips along the edge of the center, circular garden bed, bright red and brilliant yellow. Soaking up the sun’s rays, the feeling is evocative of God kissing his child on the cheek, embracing, enveloping, consuming like “a melody softly soaring through my atmosphere.” He is my stimulus, and I am his creation. 
At Missy's memorial service, the narrator tells us, people filed by her small empty coffin, "all sad as they paraded by, no one knowing what to say." I think the most helpful thing to do when someone is going through a tough time is to simply be there for him or her. Sometimes, having someone sit with you is more comforting than attempts to find the right words as words often fail us. I have found the presence of others to be the most helpful to me when experiencing times that try men’s souls. Pages 64-65 describe Mack's struggles with the "if-only" game. The “if-only” game can never be won because this counterfactual thinking fails to change current circumstances; this kind of thinking cannot turn back the clock or change the past. I wrestled with this game through a good portion of junior year when I fell very ill. Often I wondered if God was punishing me or if I should have lived my life differently. My mother figured I fell ill because God was testing me, testing my will, strength, and determination; in a way, I felt blessed to encounter this kind of struggle, but oftentimes, I only felt pathos, solitude, and isolation. I would continually pray for the light at the end of this tunnel to arrive, although exercising patience was difficult, but eventually this old life did crumble and fade away.
In Chapter 9, Sarayu shows Mack a messy, fractal garden. The garden is full of colors, herbs, flowers, plants. Mack describes it as a “chaos in color…confusing, stunning, and incredibly beautiful.” As they walk, Sarayu picks various herbs and plants and flowers, giving them to Mack and creating a bouquet. I love this description of the garden as a “chaos in color.” The second law of thermodynamics states that nature naturally tends toward a maximum in regards to entropy, or chaos. Later in the chapter, Papa arrives, and Mack remarks that he feels comfortable in the garden even though it is a mess. Papa and Sarayu smile at each other. Sarayu says, “And well you should, Mackenzie, because this garden is your soul—this mess is you!  Together, you and I, we have been working with a purpose in your heart. And it’s wild and beautiful and perfectly in process. To you it seems messy, but to me, I see a perfect pattern emerging and growing and alive—a living fractal.”
Despite the fact that nature may seem chaotic on the surface, much of the “chaos” we see behaves according to patterns detailed in the Fibonacci sequence. The limit of the Fibonacci sequence is the Golden Ratio, which is approximately 1.618. In nature, one can come across this ratio in many areas of art and science. The numbers of clockwise and counterclockwise spirals in the seeds of a sunflower are two consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence. The shells of snails and pine cones are also well-known examples of the Fibonacci sequence. Sarayu’s quote reminded me of the interconnectedness of mathematics and nature and the belief among many early mathematicians that truth is beauty. As John Keats articulated in his poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” In tenth grade, I presented a project on chaos theory and the Mandelbrot Set in which I discussed the applications of these concepts to ecology, blood vessels, internal structure of lungs, graphs of stock market data, and the human heart. In the words of Immanuel Kant, “God has put a secret art into the forces of Nature so as to enable it to fashion itself out of chaos into a perfect world system.” 
In Chapter 10, Jesus asks Mack where he spends most of his time in his imagination: the past, present, or future. I try to spend as much time as possible in the present in life, but most of my time in my imagination is spent in the future. Spending time in the future is good because it promotes habits such as planning ahead and learning to be responsible. Spending an excessive amount of time in the future is unhealthy, however, and Satan rejoices when we fall prey to this mistake, as The Screwtape Letters informs us. A persistent focus on the future is part of Satan’s overall plan for our undoing because constant focus on the future instills a fear of either hope or anxiety in us and can even fill us with dread if our expectations do not come to full fruition. On the other hand, Satan is also pleased if one is too calm and tranquil regarding prospects of the future due to a false sense of security, complacency, or too high a regard for his own abilities. Several sources of wisdom have warned us against this kind of nonchalant disposition. Phillips Brooks once said, “Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men!” When one prays for virtues to meet the difficulties and struggles in store for him and focuses on the present where all consciousness dwells, he is out of Satan’s grasp. We must also be wary to not adopt a sense of complacency about the future because of trust in our own abilities. Proverbs 3:5 reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Leaning on our own understanding and justifying contentment about the future with this reasoning is dangerous, because as humans, we are fallible and can easily be lead astray if we do not look to the right sources for inspiration, which only God can provide.
We all have someone in our lives who we initially viewed as intimidating but later came to view as warm, friendly, and loving. Oftentimes, our relationship with God works in this manner. Sometimes, the hellfire-and-brimstone sermons like that of Jonathan Edwards, especially “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” cause us to view God as unmerciful, unforgiving, judgmental, and vindictive. Later, enlightening works such as Young’s The Shack and Max Lucado’s God Came Near can illuminate the truth about God’s nature and show us that he is a loving, wonderful, holy, heavenly Father who alone is worthy of our praise. Paula’s aphorism can apply to relationships other than those with God. I once found one of my math teachers intimidating, but upon discovering her love of classical music, I found that I shared a common ground with her, and she suddenly seemed personable and charismatic in my eyes. Sometimes, finding similarities with other people helps make them a little less intimidating. Similarities remind us that others are just like us. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Allowing ourselves to feel intimidated is a choice we make; alternately, we can choose to appreciate ourselves and others for God-given talents and refuse to fall into the trap of comparison by counting our blessings.
When Papa tells Mack that “faith does not grow in the house of certainty,” she means that the proud will not be able to enter heaven. While we should feel assured and confident in our expectations for the future, we should not presume upon God’s grace and assume that he will save us. Faith arises as a result of humility and obedience rather than pride and certainty. Proverbs 3:5-6 reminds us of this truth, stating, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” Certainty is in a way a false sense of complacency that arises as a result of leaning onto our own understanding; we must instead lean on the word of God because it is the ultimate source of real truth and understanding. For this same reason, we cannot trust our emotions more than we trust God. Emotions are capricious, often impulsive whims that arise without forethought or good judgment. Emotions would provide for an incredibly fickle foundation, and we would never find peace or rest because emotion would always upset us. God offers peace because he is the Voice of Truth; he reminds us that he has bigger plans for us than we could possibly conceive for ourselves. He takes tragedy and makes something good out of it. As children of his kingdom, we are like phoenixes that are reborn from the ashes. If we place our trust in him, he will guide us and act as a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path.
Mack’s conversation with Papa begins to make him feel guilty, and Mack shares his sentiments. Papa responds, “Let me know how that works out for you. Seriously, Mackenzie, it’s not about feeling guilty. Guilt’ll never help you find freedom in me.” In Hosea 5:15 God is speaking and he says, “I will go away and return to My place until they acknowledge their guilt and seek My face; In their affliction they will earnestly seek Me.” According to this verse, God’s only purpose for guilt would be to cause someone to submit to God’s will and turn to him as his guide. Guilt can be good, for feeling guilt indicates the presence of conscience, or the ability to determine right from wrong. Guilt can be destructive, however, if we allow guilt to consume us, for going down this path will lead us to the conclusion that we shall be forever unworthy of God’s love. God paid for our sins, so we appear perfect in the Father’s eyes. Romans 8:1-3 reminds us of this truth: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.
"You do not just live in a world but a world lives in you." This quote reminds me of 1 Corinthians 3: 16-17, which reads, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” While we inhabit the world we live in, God’s spirit inhabits us. While the Lord has been and will continue to be our dwelling place, as Psalm 90 reminds us, He lives within each of us. It is our job to try to remain pure so that God may inhabit our bodies. As a result we should be in the world, but not of this world. While we inhabit this earth, we must not conform to its ways and become enemies of God but rather be transformed by the renewing of our minds, as specified in Romans 12. Only then will we be able to test and approve God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.
“Forgiveness does not excuse anything." This statement means that we should not act recklessly with the expectation that all our transgressions will be forgiven. In other words, while God is merciful, we cannot presume upon his grace. We should confidently hope that God will fulfill his promise of salvation, but we cannot take advantage of this wonderful gift by behaving in a careless manner and expecting God to forgive us.
"Oh child. Don't ever discount the wonder of your tears. They can be healing waters and a stream of joy. Sometimes they are the best words the heart can speak." Upon reading these words, I immediately thought of the healing power of the tears of Dumbledore’s phoenix, Fawkes. Tears can express both joy and sadness. I think men are often told that tears are a sign of weakness. I myself have been told this. Personally, I think the reason for someone’s tears determines whether or not I respect someone who sheds them. I don’t think tears of self-pity are acceptable, but I can empathize with tears over loss of a loved one, feelings of hopelessness, and joy, or tears that are expressions of indignation against social or moral injustices, as tears for this reason signal the presence of a conscience and a heart for mankind.
When Willie hears Mack say that God is especially fond of him, Willie tears up and gets emotional. I think hearing these words would evoke that kind of response from someone because for many of us, God is the one whom we most desire to be in favor with. It is his opinion that matters more than anyone else’s. To know that God is fond of me would make me the most joyous being in the universe because it is him that I desire to please; it is him that I desire to serve; it is him that I want to live for.
About Mack, Willie says that "he embraces even the darker shades of life as part of some incredibly rich and profound tapestry; crafted masterfully by invisible hands of love." I think a person gets to this point as a result of experience; it takes a wise and erudite person to recognize the importance of both hills and valleys in a person’s life and why it is important that both times of joy and grief exist in a healthy balance. The description of a tapestry “crafted masterfully by invisible hands of love” reminds me of the poem, Huswifery, by Edward Taylor. In the poem, the narrator desires to be clothed in “Holy robes for glory.” He desires to be clothed with “Understanding, Will, Affections, Judgment, Conscience, Memory.” I think these elements make up a complete life; all are essential to forming a complete picture just as both darker and lighter shades are necessary to craft a tapestry or other work of art.
Mat and Kailey’s (two of my classmates) comments about dealing with the divorce of parents really hit home. While I cannot relate to what this experience is like, I imagine that enduring through something like this leaves an indelible impression on the mind. I am glad that God worked through the divorce of Mat’s parents and made something good come out of this situation even though the divorce was a terrible thing to have happen, for this hardship brought Mat closer to God. As both Mat and Kailey said, however, understanding does not always bring about closure, as both still feel the sting of their parents’ separation. I think heaven will be a place where all our pain and all our burdens shall be relieved, a place with no more tears. I think God is the only one who can work through tough times and bring us peace and tranquility. Only he can calm the storm within us; only he can tame our internal tempests.