I’m always inspired by how easily wonder and mystery comes for little children. Their eyes get big as they believe in the impossible, or they might gasp in awe at something that to them seems like pure magic. For them, it’s so simple. They’re so full of belief, so curious, and so easily excited by discovering the things that we, as adults, think of as mundane.
Growing up, there was a certain degree of magical wonder in our home. We believed in fantasy characters like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and even the Tooth Fairy for as long as our young minds would hold onto them. I remember one Easter in particular my parents went to special lengths to make the Easter Bunny believable by using powdered sugar to make bunny prints on our carpet leading us through our home to our Easter baskets. For a woman like my mother who was a meticulous housekeeper, that was sacrifice!
As the years passed, the Tooth Fairy faded and belief in the Easter bunny gave way to the simple giving and receiving of Easter baskets. However, at the plea of my inner child, my dad continued to dress up in a red suit and visit us each Christmas Eve until I was well out of college. It was one of my favorite magical Christmas moments every year.
But wonder and mystery were not as acceptable when it came to our faith. Growing up conservative, evangelical Christians, there was not as much wiggle room in regards to exploring the awe of Christ. Rules, expectations, and appearances took precedence over wonder, mystery, and awe. We seemed to find comfort in a God we could place in a box–a God we could understand. Black and white answers and principles that were either clearly right or clearly wrong were foundational to the functionality of our faith. We needed to know. We needed to have it all together. We needed to be right.
This theology of course, was very harmful to me as I got older. Unable to openly question my faith, I was trapped into believing in a very small God. This became especially complicated when I began to question my sexuality. Doubt was seen as a form of weakness and fear was believed to come from not centering yourself in the truth of Christ. Therefore everything was supposed to be “cured” by simply praying harder and believing in God more.
But this theory failed me when I realized I was gay. Being gay did not fit into the black and white theology I was raised on. As a result, I believed that God did not love or accept me because of this fatal flaw.
This version of faith failed me again when I came out to my parents, family, and friends. With very few exceptions, almost all of them followed their allegiance to their need for certainty and belief in what they thought was right, rather than being willing to confront what they did not understand and face their fear of the unknown out of love for me. As a result, I lost everyone I loved the most. What I learned, is that the need for certainty can be deadly. It can kill relationships, it can kill faith, and it can even take lives.
But over time on my journey of refocusing, I rediscovered wonder and awe. It’s not as scary to me now as it once was. Don’t get me wrong, I struggled for a long time to let go of my need for certainty. But what I learned was that certainty didn’t require any actual faith at all.
If you know everything already, what need do you have for God?
As with most people, the older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know. But rather than allowing that to frighten me, I’ve come to let it inspire me. It pushes me to discover and learn more. And my not knowing (or my questions, or my doubt) drive me to have an even deeper faith. Because believing in God, in the midst of my doubt and questions, is what faith is really all about to begin with.
So I’ve become comfortable with not knowing. I’ve become okay with not having all the answers worked out to all the big theological questions. I’ve learned to accept, and in fact, find comfort, in what I don’t know. It leads me to a greater place of mystery, and wonder, and awe of who God is. And in fact, it leads me to peace, because I’m free from the weight of having to have all the answers.
I don’t know what comes to mind for you when you think of wonder and mystery: perhaps it’s the phenomena of space and the time that you saw the milky way on a dark, starry night; perhaps it’s the recollection of your wedding day or the day you brought a child into the world; perhaps you think of creation, or even evolution.
What you do not know or understand may provoke awe in you, or it may provoke fear. But today I encourage you to work towards a faith that allows space for your questions. Give your heart permission let go of your need for certainty and leave space for the unknown.
Allow God to expand your understanding of what you don’t understand, and in turn create room for wonder, mystery, reverence, and awe.
Then, let it live inside of you every day.
Because Love Makes All the Difference,
It is now two days after Easter and I suspect most of us spent a good chunk of yesterday recovering from Easter festivities. The Easter bunny may have visited your home or left baskets for your little ones. If you were lucky, he might have even left a basket for you! You most likely attended a church service of some kind or shared a meal with family or friends. But now that Easter is over, what’s next? How do we carry that new “resurrection” life past Easter Sunday?
Leading up to a holiday, it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bussle. Perhaps you’re good with time management and took time to reflect on what the holiday means to you personally, or perhaps like many of us, the craziness of life didn’t allow for you to reflect the way you would’ve liked. I know for me personally, I was so caught up in launching this new non-profit to help LGBT people navigate their coming out process, that it left me little time at all to reflect on what Easter meant to me this year in light of the 5-year anniversary of my own coming out. Fundraising campaigns, 5-year “It Gets Better” videos, website updates, and sending out my manuscript for endorsements all pulled for my attention simultaneously. It was exciting, but it’s also overwhelming and exhausting.
My body reminded me of that this morning when I woke up. I spent a good part of yesterday trying to help my back recover from all I’d put it through this past week. Yet this morning it still struggled to heal. Dealing with chronic pain is far from my desired lot in life. I hate feeling restricted or weak. But after a full week of working like a mad woman, my body was not-so-gently reminding me that I needed to slow down.
“I can’t slow down!” I informed my body quite firmly. “I have endorsement requests still to submit, loads of fundraising still to do, blogs to write, and proofs to read. Don’t you understand that I’m on a deadline? I just need you to function properly.” But my body doesn’t seem to understand deadlines. It only understands stress and the toll that doing too much takes on me physically over time. Therefore I am struggling to keep up while my body screams at me to slow down.
So as I attempt to slow down and reflect today (and yes, share my thoughts with you while I do it-why not kill two birds with one stone?) I contemplate how to carry that new life that is given to me in the gift of Easter past the Sunday celebration.
These are the 3 ways I’ve come up with to keep life in my body and soul moving forward:
I Choose to Believe that it will Get Better
I’ve seen incredible things happen in my life over the last five years since I came out. Yes, I’ve experienced incredible loss, but I’ve also experienced incredible joy and freedom. I choose to believe that I will see many more great things come to pass in the next five years. While chronic pain is not something I ever would have chosen, I have learned a lot about listening to my body and treating it with respect. I choose to be optimistic that my situation will continue to gradually get better over time, while being realistic that I won’t ever be “normal” again and that there will always be things that I have to do differently than other people.
You may not have chronic pain, but whatever the mountain is in your life, a healthy balance of being positive that it will get better while being realistic in the goals you set, can be the difference for you between success and failure. Your perspective can also give you a life full of joy in the midst of the challenges you face.
I Choose to Have Faith
I’ve had many moments in the midst of fighting to make the dream behind Beyond a reality where I’ve had to remind myself that God has brought me this far for a reason. There were many times where the task of writing and reliving my story in order to share it in the form of a book seemed to be more than I could handle. But in those moments when I had to dig deep, I reminded myself that I haven’t come all this way for nothing. There’s a purpose that lies before me to help other LGBT people of faith with their own coming out process. Every roadblock I’ve reached along the way has taught me something and made me a stronger person. So I choose to have faith that “that he who began a good work in me will carry it on to completion.” (Phil. 1:6)
Whatever mountain you’re climbing, remember that you only need the faith of a mustard seed to be able to move it. (Matt. 17:20) Many times faith is the very thing that will carry you from one day to the next as you strive to accomplish your goals. Even the smallest amounts of faith cause new life to spring up in our souls and launch dreams beyond what we ever thought was possible.
I Choose to Rely on God and the Help of Others to do What I Can’t do on My Own
Living with chronic pain makes me very aware of my limits. I hate limits. Launching a non-profit on my own with virtually no financial resources yet to back it also reminds me of my limits and puts both me and my ministry at the mercy of others. If you read my blog last week announcing the launch of Beyond, then you know how much I hate campaigns and fundraising. I hate depending on others that way and I especially hate asking for money. But the one thing that causes me to press on to find the financial means to support this new baby of mine is knowing that the lives of other LGBT people are on the line if I don’t.
So I press onward, climbing a mountain that many days feels overwhelming, but doing so because I believe so strongly in what God is calling me to do with the story he’s entrusted to me. For those of you who have already believed in me and put your money behind this mission, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. We still have a very long way to go in reaching our goal, but as we work together, I chose to rely on God to open the right doors and I choose to believe that people will help in whatever way they can.
Today I may feel weak and weary, but tomorrow I will press on because we are stronger together. Whatever your mountain is, don’t carry it alone. Share your burden with others and together we will reach the top, full of joy in our spirits and fresh life in our souls.
Because Love Makes all the Difference,
5 years ago today, I came out to my family. This is my “It Gets Better” story to commemorate this day:
You can read my story by clicking here: Refocusing My Family.
Please consider partnering with us as we launch our new non-profit for LGBT people of faith, called Beyond. For more information, click this link: Beyond Campaign Launch.
Please watch this short video and then read the letter below!!!
(If you would like to view this video in ASL, go to AmberCantorna.com and hover over the “Donate” tab)
Five years ago this week, I sat my family down and spoke the three most terrifying words of my life: “I am gay.” Growing up in a fundamentalist, home-schooled, conservative Christian family with a father that’s been an executive at Focus on the Family for almost thirty years, speaking those three small words forever changed the course of my life. I faced instant rejection from those I loved the most and over time, I lost not only my relationship with my parents and only sibling, but also my extended family, many of my friends, my church, and my hometown. Sadly, their desire to be right won out over their ability to love. This amount of devastation sent me into a downward spiral of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide. I didn’t think I was going to survive until the end of 2012.
Now, as I mark this anniversary 5 years later, I am married to the love of my life and we are building our own family together in Denver, CO. Despite the continued grief I feel from the loss of my family and friends, I am more at peace, more free, and happier than I’ve ever been in my life.
But it’s not that way for everyone. Countless others still wrestle inside conservative families that tell them they can’t be both gay and Christian. My own journey through this pain has ignited a deep passion in me to help others, which is why I’m writing.
This week we are announcing the launch of a new non-profit organization called Beyond. Our mission is to walk alongside other LGBT people of faith and their loved ones who are struggling to resolve the conflict they feel between their faith and their (or their loved one’s) sexuality. We will also focus on creating conversations for change among parents, pastors, family, and friends so that those in the LGBT person’s closest circle of influence can become their strongest allies, rather than shun them out of fear.
Statistics show that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are 4x more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. And those coming from a rejecting family like mine are 8.4x more likely to attempt suicide. Not only that, but 40% of transgender people have reported attempting suicide, with most of them doing so before the age of 25. These numbers are astronomical which is why support from those they love can make all the difference for them between life and death.
I was so close to becoming one of those statistics. It’s only by the grace of God that I am still alive today. But with that gift of life comes a responsibility: a responsibility to be a voice for those who still can’t speak and a responsibility to create change in our culture so that LGBT people are more free and more safe to come out and be who they really are. That is why I founded Beyond.
This is where you come in! To get this non-profit off the ground, we need seed money. Our budget for this first year of ministry is $52,000. This will enable us to bring a message of hope to LGBT people all over the country. I believe that hearing personal stories is what transforms a culture and promotes change. Nothing is as powerful as seeing someone with your own eyes and hearing the story of how they made it through the very tragedy you are facing. As you may know, I spent this last year writing my own story in the form of a memoir. It’s titled Refocusing My Family: Coming Out, Being Cast Out, and Discovering the True Love of God and will release from Fortress Press on October 1st, 2017. I believe this will be a valuable resource to many and because I believe so strongly in the power of stories, I want to share my story with as many people as possible. To me, it has nothing to do with book sales. I couldn’t care less about that. To me, it’s about giving people a story they can relate to so they feel a little less isolated and a little more encouraged in their own personal journey. Sharing my story could be the difference between life and death for them. We currently have 16 cities across the U.S. and Canada that we’d like to travel to within the next year to share this message of hope through speaking engagements and events. Your financial gift will make that possible.
But we can’t do it without your help. If you know me, you know I hate asking for money, even when it’s for the most worthy cause. The only thing I hate more than asking for money is know that someone else’s life is on the line if I don’t. And that is the case today.
So as we launch this campaign this week, I’m asking you to dig deep and consider a generous donation to help get Beyond off the ground. I know that you share in my passion for reaching this demographic, which is why I specifically chose you to partner with me. While $52,000 feels like a lot to someone who hates fundraising, I am committed to this mission and know that together we can reach this goal. Because Beyond will be a 501(c)(3) organization, your gift is tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law and 100% of your gift will go towards helping LGBT people and their families find hope, healing, and freedom both in their faith and in their relationships with one another. Our goal for raising these funds is June 14th, 2017.
You can donate by clicking here. I am also offering incentives that correlate with certain giving levels. You can learn more by clicking this link! Please also consider sharing with your friends and on social media. Your help in spreading the word will make such a difference.
If you would like to discuss our mission, budget, or your financial contribution in more detail, you can contact me directly at 720-598-6903 or Beyond.AmberCantorna@gmail.com.
Thank you so much for your prayerful consideration in this endeavor. I look forward to hearing from you soon and thank you in advance for your generosity. Your contribution could save someone’s life this year.
Because LOVE Makes all the Difference,
President/Founder of Beyond, Author of Refocusing My Family
18601 Green Valley Ranch Blvd, Ste 108-133
Denver, CO 80249
During this Lenten season, our church has talked a lot about suffering. Normally no one rejoices over studying such topics, any more than I’ve rejoiced over studying my history with shame while reading Brené Brown. It’s not easy and it often makes us uncomfortable. But for some reason I haven’t found this topic of suffering depressing the way I thought I would. Instead, I’ve found it refreshing and enlightening. The ability to talk about difficult topics such as suffering has added a dimension of rawness and richness to the community of people at our church that have been open to receiving it. It’s allowed space for authenticity where so many other churches practice facades.
This past week, our co-pastor Jenny Morgan spoke about the importance of dying before you die, as in the need to let go of certain things in our lives so that when we physically pass away, we are able to do so in peace rather than fighting our physical death out of fear.
So as we approach Good Friday and draw near to Easter, I’ve been thinking about the things in my life that I need to put to death in order to make space for fresh new things to take root in my spirit and grow.
Here’s what I’ve decided to start with…
I choose to put to death perfectionism. The need to perform and put on a good appearance in front of others doesn’t cultivate authentic connection. By letting go of perfectionism, I make room to be gentle with myself and transparent with others.
I choose to put to death prejudice. No matter how much I think I’ve learned to accept and embrace all the vast diversity in the world, I am not exempt from the subtle prejudices and judgment that so easily creep into the human heart. By intentionally letting go of prejudice, I make room to continue to learn about people who are different from me and embrace all the beautiful diversity that the world has to offer.
I choose to put to death hate, bitterness, and unforgiveness. Boy, it’s hard to let go of my desire for justice for those who have wronged me or those I love. But holding on to hate and bitterness only eats away at my soul and unforgiveness festers like a wound that refuses to heal. By letting go of these things, I am entrusting my need for justice to God and freeing up room in my soul to love more people better and deeper.
I choose to kill my need for other people’s approval. Seeking approval often causes me to put on a front and show people what I want them to see in order to fit in. I am learning that is not authentic connection. Authentic connection comes when I bring all of myself to the relationship without filtering what people see and am embraced and loved for all of me. By letting go of my need for other people’s approval, I make space for relationships that are real and connections that are built to last.
I choose to put to death my need for certainty. Clinging tightly to what I think I know has not worked out well for me in the past. Don’t get me wrong, I love the assurance of certainty. I am detail-oriented and a meticulous planner. I like to know things in advance and be able to prepare ahead of time. But the black and white/right and wrong religion I grew up in mandated certainty but provided a false sense of peace. Since then I’ve learned that there are so many things I was wrong about. By letting go of my need for certainty, I open up myself to learn and grow in the (many) things I do not know, and make space for wonder, mystery, and awe. Those three things have brought me more peace in recent years than any amount of certainty and I’ve learned to be okay with and even embrace the things that I don’t know.
Finally, I choose to put to death my need for busyness. Thanks to Brené Brown (again!) I’m learning that exhaustion does not need to be my status symbol that I’ve accomplished enough and my level of productivity does not need to define my self-worth. I need to rest in the fact that I am enough regardless of what I accomplish in a given day and be content with myself even when things still remain on my “To-Do” list when I crawl into bed. By letting go of these things, I allow space for rest, for creativity, for joy and for contentment and the belief that I am enough.
There’s more, like putting to death fear, putting to death my expectations, putting to death my need for comparison and competition, and putting to death my numbing behaviors. With the help of Brené Brown and my Deepen group at church, I am learning that a wholehearted and fulfilled life comes from believing I am enough and allowing others to see the real me. Embracing my vulnerability allows others to embrace theirs and together we build authentic community.
So parts of me have died today. But in all honesty, they are parts that never brought life to begin with. Letting go of them feels a little uncertain, but is also freeing.
This is by far not an overnight transformation. This is something I will have to work at every day. But today I choose to die to these things, so that more life and more joy and more authentic connection can be cultivated inside me giving life not only to my own soul but hopefully to those around me as well.
Because LOVE makes all the difference,
This past year, I spent a huge portion of my time each week writing my first memoir. That meant that I looked at and examined my own life from all angles and perspectives for hours each day. It was like immersing myself in intensive therapy. I learned a lot about myself and I uncovered truths about my childhood that were both tough to acknowledge and hard to sit with. While some of those realizations were difficult for me to accept as truth, they were equally helpful at helping me understand my own story. It was both healing and heart-wrenching, both eye-opening and painful to see.
I’ll admit there are things in this book that I wish weren’t about to be made public to the entire world. It’s not easy to expose your most painful moments to anyone and everyone that wants to read them. But I am also aware that had I chosen not to include some of those vulnerable details, the story would not be as relatable, nor as powerful. I believe that it is when we are vulnerable, raw, and open about who we are, the mistakes that we’ve made, and the pain we’ve experienced that we not only find our own freedom, but we liberate others to find theirs as well.
This belief was ignited from a defining moment I had as I neared the end of writing my manuscript. I was reading through a particular section and thinking to myself, “Gee, I sure wish I didn’t have to include this in the book.” Then it dawned on me: I didn’t want to include this in the book because I still felt as an adult the same shame it caused me to feel as a young child. And there I was, back at the issue of shame. Again.
But then I realized, I had a choice: I could move forward and continue to feel shame over this piece of my story or I could own it. So I said to myself, “Heck, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to go all the way.” Scavenging through old photo albums, I chose several pictures that illustrated this piece of my story, and copy and pasted them into the folder of photos to be included in the manuscript.
Over the following weeks as I thought about the situation, the idea of owning my story began to resonate deeper and deeper inside me. Those pictures I chose to include are ones that I’ve always hated to look at myself, much less show to another person. But now, choosing to include them in the book as evidence of my story made me feel a sense of power and authority over a part of my life that previously, had always made me feel weak. It was my way of looking it in the face and deciding that it wasn’t going to own me or cause me to feel shame any longer. Instead, I was going to own it.
I’ll be the first to admit this transformation doesn’t happen overnight. In moments of uncertainty I’d find myself in a state of panic, wanting to delete entire sections of the manuscript to hide away all my weaknesses and failures where no one could see. “Surely the whole world doesn’t really need to know about all this, right?” I’d try to convince myself.
Wrong. Deep inside I knew that people needed to see all sides of me in order to both know that I am human and to raise awareness for issues that people may not otherwise confront or understand. But vulnerability is hard. When the years you’ve felt shame over something far surpass the number of years that you have not felt shame over it, admittedly, it’s going to take some time and practice to fully let go. But once I decided to take that plunge into the sea of vulnerability, a sense of pride rose up alongside my fear, and gave me the confidence I needed in the road that lies ahead as I intentionally own my own story a little more each day.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I continue to marinate over this idea at the same time that my book group and I press on in our study of Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. So much of her work focuses on discovering our own worthiness through owning our stories and letting go of shame. So it was no surprise when I typed “own your story” into my Google search engine, that a list of quotes by Brené Brown came up. Here are a few I’d like to share with you. Perhaps you will join me in meditating on them throughout the week:
-“When we own our own stories, we avoid being trapped as characters in the stories someone else is telling.” -Brené Brown, Rising Strong
-“You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” -Brené Brown
-“When we deny the story, it defines us. When we own the story, we can write a brave new ending.” -Brené Brown
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hustling for my worthiness. I’m tired of trying to convince myself that I belong. I want to be brave in owning my story, I want know deep in my being that I belong, I want to choose what defines me, and I want to love myself for all the beautiful and unique imperfections I possess. I hope you will join me in this journey.
Because we are all beautifully imperfect,
I’ve been reading Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection and it is undoing me. People warned me this would happen, which in all honesty, is why it’s taken me so long to pick it up. I knew it was going to require some energy. But when a group of women from my church decided to embark on this journey together, hungry for community, I enlisted. Four weeks in, Brené’s concepts surrounding shame, vulnerability, courage, compassion, and connection are already challenging the way I both think and live.
One morning last week, I woke up feeling unusually homesick and, oddly enough, craving a road trip. This was strange to me because with the chronic pain I battle, road trips have become a much bigger challenge for me than they used to be.
Then I realized, March was the month I always used to hop in my car for spring break and drive to Montana to visit my favorite grandparents and other relatives. March is also the month that my grandpa unexpectedly passed away four years ago. And five years ago this April, I came out to my family and as a result, lost everything.
Suddenly, my feelings of homesickness and desire for familiarity and belonging made sense. This time of year holds a lot of pain for me. Whether I’m consciously aware of it or not, my soul remembers. Awareness of my triggers always helps me process them, but that doesn’t necessarily make the process any easier.
It was with that realization that I then realized something else: I suck at being vulnerable. I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I woke up with tears in my eyes that morning, nor did I want to admit that I felt homesick. It felt weak, like I was somehow revealing my nakedness. But deep inside, I longed for the arms of a Mama Bear to wrap me up and let me cry on her shoulder. Yet I struggled all day to reach out.
Being guarded is ingrained in me. The evangelical church taught me to wear a façade and appear like I had it all together, even when I didn’t. My family stressed the importance of reputation and maintaining appearances, which gave me no place to talk about the real things of my heart. And life experience taught me to be careful who you trust, causing me to rarely expose my weaknesses, struggles, and shortcomings for fear of being disowned, betrayed, abandoned, or labeled a failure. So the reality is, I’ve learned to protect myself and my heart.
But according to Brené Brown, that is not wholehearted living. Deep inside I know it. I’ve always longed for more and craved authentic connection with others–a place to belong and be fully myself. Granted, moving to Denver after coming out five years ago brought me closer to that than I’ve ever been, allowing me to finally feel at home in my own skin and belong in the community of my home church. But still, I long for more. I long for a deeper and more authentic connection with people.
So in attempt to become a little more human and a little less guarded and robotic, let me assemble some courage and risk being vulnerable by sharing the rawness of what really went on in my heart last week:
First, it was hard for me to admit that I still regularly dream about my family because when I do, my day often starts with tears.
It was hard for me to say that I’m homesick. I often default to saying I miss specific events rather than specific people because it’s easier, or at least, less painful. In all honesty, I wrestle with what it means to miss people who have hurt me so deeply, as if it were something I shouldn’t experience. I suppose you can both miss someone and not be sure you want them back at the same time. But regardless, it hurts and feels complicated.
It was hard for me to acknowledge that a dream I couldn’t remember affected me all day, not because of the dream itself, but because of the memories, loss, and sadness it caused to surface.
I did finally reach out to a Mama Bear…sort of. I sent a text at about 7pm that night after sadness accompanied me all day. Yes, I suck at being vulnerable. But I’m trying. I want to live wholeheartedly with enough courage to call a Mama Bear at 7am, not text her at 7pm. I want to be vulnerable and let people see all parts of me. I want to not be afraid to admit that I’m hurting. I want to live authentically, and hope that as a result, I find the true connection and belonging that my heart seeks.
If you need to be undone, join me in reading The Gifts of Imperfection. It will challenge your soul, and perhaps we can learn and grow in authenticity together.
P.S. In effort to continue being vulnerable, I admit that I was horrified when I saw that my blog last week did not generate in “perfect” format. While it was formatted correctly on my website, the email that went out to my subscribers was not. The problem has since been resolved with my apologies. Alas, I am human after all.
The Shack is the story of a man named Mackenzie Allen Phillips (fondly called Mack) who is wrestling with guilt, shame, and grief over the abduction and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy, while on a family camping trip. Evidence of his daughter’s murder was soon found in the Oregon wilderness at an abandoned shack. Mack is shell-shocked and devastated. Feeling responsible for her death, Mack beats himself up emotionally and struggles to move on from this place of utter pain, sadness, and despair.
When Mack received a letter signed by Papa (his wife, Nan’s, nickname for God) inviting him to that same shack for the weekend, Mack is all at once perplexed, outraged, and intrigued. Wondering if perhaps Missy’s killer is looking for a sick way to lure him back to that place, he is unable to get the mysterious note out of his mind. With the rest of his family away for the weekend, Mack sneaks away to the shack, expecting to face his biggest enemy.
But instead of meeting his daughter’s killer, what Mack experiences upon arriving at the shack, is an encounter with God. The figure of God, who is portrayed as a black woman (Octavia Spencer) exudes nothing but warmth, love, and compassionate understanding. Jesus (portrayed as a Jewish man) and the Holy Spirit (portrayed by an Asian woman) are also of key importance, each of them playing a significant role in bringing healing to Mack’s festering heart.
The film’s 132 minute journey takes you through both grief and healing; through the pain of loss, and the hope of restoration. Despite the arguments some may pose about the underlying theology represented in The Shack, here are four reasons why I think every Christian should see this film.
1. We’ve all experienced a Great Sadness.
No matter where we’ve come from in life or what roads we’ve walked, the chances are, we’ve all experienced a Great Sadness in some form. In the story, Mack’s Great Sadness was the loss of his daughter, Missy. It overshadowed his life, shackled him to pain, and colored the way he viewed both the world and God.
“We’ve lost so much already, I don’t want to lose you too,” Mack’s wife, Nan, says to him one day. Mack is slowly slipping away into his grief and she feels helpless to prevent it.
The Great Sadness is a universal theme we can all relate to: grief so strong that it threatens to suck us under into total darkness, pain from loss or despair so great that every day is a struggle. Our own encounter with the Great Sadness allows us to identify with and join Mack on his journey through pain and likewise, through healing.
2. We all have questions.
Once Mack starts to wrap his head around the fact that he is in the very presence of the Trinity, he begins firing off questions.
“Why did you bring me here?”
“Am I dead?”
“Does (Missy) forgive me?”
“Why would I (trust) you? My daughter is dead!”
His head spins as his mind struggles to comprehend what is happening–or why God would allow this to happen to his beloved daughter. Throughout Mack’s questioning, all three of the Trinity exude nothing but patience, kindness, and love as he processes the answers he is given. It’s quite comforting, actually, to see the grace with which God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit interact with Mack, despite all his doubts and obvious anger and pain. It portrays a safe space where we too can bring our own questions, feelings, and fears before God. It shows a dimension of God that loves our questions rather than despises them, because it creates an opportunity for us to know God better and draw closer in relationship with God.
3. We don’t know everything about God
The dialogue between Papa (God) and Mack reaches a convicting moment when Papa looks at Mack with complete love coupled with complete honesty and gently says,
Oh, how often I’ve been guilty of that. Raised with the misconception that God loves you if you are good, but is angry if you are bad, so often I’ve expected punishment from God rather than love, rejection rather than acceptance, and abandonment rather than embrace. That then poses the question, “How many other misconceptions about God do I have?”
This film challenges some of those misconceptions and paints a picture of a more understanding, loving, and embracing God. Who doesn’t need more of that?
4. We all long to encounter God.
It’s wired inside us. We look for God everywhere and when we can’t find evidence of God’s presence, we turn to other things: work, exercise, busyness, denial, suppressing our emotions–essentially, we become numb to our pain.
But what if we slowed down and sat quiet long enough to actually encounter God? What if we actually opened our minds to the possibility that some of the beliefs that we hold about God just might be wrong? What if we allow space for a God that heals, that loves, that restores, that accepts, and that embraces to come in and breathe life back into our souls?
I believe that we’d find peace beyond compare.
Maybe you’re not actually able to just stop your life and sit in complete silence until God shows up. I know when I try that I often end up just staring at the wall or obsessing over my “to-do” list. If you find yourself doing the same, let this movie guide you there. Allow yourself for 2 hours, to quietly sit beside others in a theatre and open your heart to encountering God.
This film is full of concepts that will make you think–about your own life, about your beliefs about God, and about your pain. When I sat in the theatre, tears and sniffles were heard all across the room as we sat in a space that felt full of the comforting presence of God. I could easily count on one hand the number of movies I’ve ever seen twice in the theatre. But after viewing The Shack this past week, I have found my heart longing for more, longing to return, longing to see it again and soak up the richness of God that is seen and felt throughout the film. There were so many concepts that I found so comforting that my heart is continuing to process them a full week later.
“DID YOU NOT KNOW WHAT THE HOLY ONE CAN DO WITH DUST?”
These words have been sitting on the ground of my soul for the past week. I can’t shake them or the power they hold to resonate so deeply within me.
It’s been 5 years since I’ve attended an Ash Wednesday service. Lent was frequently observed in our household growing up; but as an adult, there have been some years that I’ve chosen to observe Lent and others that I haven’t. Some years, because of my religious background, the pressure to conform to a custom simply for the sake of ritual (or to me, what feels like “measuring up”) has felt too cumbersome. Other years it has felt inviting, like an anchor that grounds me or gives me direction in life. Some years I have given something up, while other years I have added something to my life for that season.
This year was the first time that my wife and I attended an Ash Wednesday service together. At first I thought I was going more for her than for me. I had experienced this tradition before, she had not. But entering the silent sanctuary of our church, I realized I was wrong. I needed to be in this space. Sitting in quiet reflection in a room lit only with candles, those small flames felt like beacons of hope. There was a peace present that my heart had been craving. I tried hard to slow my breathing and ground myself in the silence and calm provided. We were led through a time of reflection, a time of reverent worship, and an explanation of the significance of this tradition before then receiving the ashes.
In years past, I’ve heard phrases like, “From dust you came, and to dust you will return” spoken as a solemn reminder of our humanity. But this year, I heard something different. This year, I heard a poem that was more than a depressing reminder of how mortal we are. Instead, it was a breath of life that reminded us what God can do with us mere mortals.
All those days
you felt like dust,
as if all you had to do
was turn your face
toward the wind
and be scattered
to the four corners
or swept away
by the smallest breath
Did you not know
what the Holy One
can do with dust?
This is the day
we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour
we are marked
by what has made it
through the burning.
This is the moment
we ask for the blessing
that lives within
the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil
of this sacred earth.
So let us be marked,
not for sorrow.
And let us be marked
not for shame.
Let us be marked
not for false humility
or for thinking
we are less
than we are
but for claiming
what God can do
within the dust,
within the dirt,
within the stuff
of which the world
and the stars that blaze
in our bones,
and the galaxies that spiral
inside the smudge
-Jan Richardson (Author, Artist, Minister)
The phrase in bold struck me and my eyes welled with tears. It was like God breathing life into me, just like he did all those years ago when he created Adam, the very first man. Going forward to receive the ashes, a fellow congregant cupped my head in her hands, locked eyes with me, and said, “Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust?”
I couldn’t contain my tears. So much of my life has felt marked by sorrow and shame and loss. So many hopes tainted by the dust of life, by common humanity, by mortality, by choices of selfish ambition, or even good intentions gone wrong. And yet…and yet, we forget what God, the Holy One, can do with dust. We underestimate his power to redeem and make beauty from the ashes. We forget that God is good and that he loves to meet us when we are at our lowest, and rescue and redeem and reclaim all that has been lost.
One of my favorite stories from the Bible is the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees, catching her in the act, took her and threw her down in the dirt in front of a crowd for public ridicule. Yet Jesus, instead of condemning her the way the Pharisees expected, got down next to her in the dirt and wrote something in the dust that remains a mystery to us, yet clearly brought life and healing to this embarrassed woman.
Sometimes sitting in the dust of our humanity is the best place to be. It is humbling. It is authentic. It is honest and God meets us there.
If I could see you face to face today, I would cup your face in my hands and gently ask you, “Did you not know what the Holy One could do with dust?”