The Shack; a novel

Where tragedy confronts eternity, by Wm. Paul Young (a summary by Pat Evert) 

  • Prologue 

Although externally religious, his overly strict church-elder father was a closet drinker. His daddy was not a fall-asleep-happy kind of alcoholic but a vicious, mean, beat-your-wife-and-then-ask-God-for-forgiveness drunk. Thirteen-year-old Mackenzie reluctantly bared his soul to a church leader during a youth revival. His father took it upon himself to teach his rebellious son a lesson about respect. For almost two days, tied to the big oak at the back of the house, he was beaten with a belt and Bible verses every time his dad woke from a stupor and put down his bottle. Two weeks later, when Mack was finally able to put one foot in front of the other again, he just up and walked away from home. But before he left, he put varmint poison in every bottle of booze he could find on the farm. Most of Mack’s youth was spent overseas, working his way around the world, sending money to his grandparents, who passed it on to his mama. In his early twenties he eventually ended up in a seminary in Australia, made peace with his mama and sisters, and moved out to Oregon where he met and married Nannette A. Samuelson. Mack is not very religious. He seems to have a love/hate relationship with religion, and maybe even with the God he suspects is brooding, distant, and aloof. He has been married to Nan for just more than thirty-three mostly happy years. Raising a family kept her from pursuing dreams of becoming a doctor, but as a nurse she has excelled and gained considerable recognition for her chosen work with oncology patients who are terminal. While Mack’s relationship with God is wide, Nan’s is deep. Mack is not comfortable with his writing skills. So he asked if I would ghostwrite this story—his story, “for the kids and for Nan.” He wanted a narrative to help him express to them not only the depth of his love, but also to help them understand what had been going on in his inside world. 

  • A Confluence of Paths

Freezing rain came out of Canada. Snow or freezing rain suddenly releases you from expectations, performance demands, and the tyranny of appointments and schedules. There will be no apologies needed for not showing up to some commitment or other. Everyone understands. Mack made it down the driveway to get the mail. The reward for his efforts was a single envelope with only his first name typewritten on the outside; inside a typewritten message simply said: 

Mackenzie, It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.
I’ll be at the shack next weekend if you want to get together. 

Mack stiffened as a wave of nausea rolled over him and then just as quickly mutated into anger. He purposely thought about the shack as little as possible, and even when he did, his thoughts were neither kind nor good. If this was someone’s idea of a bad joke, he had truly outdone himself. And to sign it “Papa” just made it all the more horrifying. “Idiot,” he grunted, thinking about Tony the mailman, an overly friendly Italian with a big heart but little tact. Why would he even deliver such a ridiculous envelope? It wasn’t even stamped. In getting back in the house he had slipped and hit the back of his head. The gash on the back of his head was oozing blood around a few small pebbles still embedded in his scalp. Who would dare put something like that in our mailbox? Papa was Nan’s favorite name for God, and it expressed her delight in the intimate friendship she had with him. 

  • The Gathering Dark

Little distractions like the ice storm were a welcome although brief respite from the haunting presence of his constant companion: The Great Sadness, as he referred to it. Shortly after the summer that Missy vanished, The Great Sadness had draped itself around Mack’s shoulders like some invisible but almost tangibly heavy quilt. He ate, worked, loved, dreamed, and played in this garment of heaviness, weighed down as if he were wearing a leaden bathrobe. The story of Missy’s disappearance is, unfortunately, not unlike others too often told. It all happened during Labor Day weekend. Mack took three of his children on a camping trip to Wallowa Lake in northeastern Oregon. The plan was to return the following Tuesday night, just before the first day of school. 

On a hike Mack had told the girls an Indian story where the chief’s daughter voluntarily gave her life for the rest of her people. Many of the men of these tribes were sick and dying. Legend had it that a princess would die so that they would be cured. She threw herself off a cliff and the the next morning all who were sick arose healed. As they silently gathered around her broken body at the base of the cliff, her grief-stricken father cried out to the Great Spirit, asking that her sacrifice would always be remembered. At that moment, water began to fall from the place where she had jumped, turning into a fine mist that fell at their feet, slowly forming a beautiful pool. Because of love, the child willingly gave up her life to save her betrothed and their tribes from certain death. 

That evening, Mack sat before a beautiful sunset of brilliant colors and patterns. He was a rich man, he thought to himself, in all the ways that mattered. They went on a short hike away from the campfires and lanterns, to a dark and quiet spot where they could lie down and gaze in wonder at the Milky Way, stunning and undiminished by the pollution of city lights. Later Mack tucked the three in turn into the safety and security of their sleeping bags. 

   Missy asked, “How come God’s so mean?” Ah, here was the question that had been brewing. “What do you mean, Missy?” “Well, the Great Spirit makes the princess jump off the cliff and makes Jesus die on a cross. That seems pretty mean to me. Will I ever have to jump off a cliff?” Mack’s heart broke as he understood what this conversation had really been about. He gathered his little girl into his arms and pulled her close. With his own voice a little huskier than usual, he gently replied, “No, honey. I will never ask you to jump off a cliff, never, ever, ever.” “Then will God ever ask me to jump off a cliff?” “No, Missy. He would never ask you to do anything like that.”

  • The Tipping Point

Mack and the kids filled the next three days with fun and leisure. Missy, seemingly satisfied with her daddy’s answers, never again raised the issue of the princess, even when one of their day hikes took them by some precipitous cliffs. Mack was reminded how his dad had died when he was just a kid. He drank himself to death. On their last day Kate and her brother were paddling like pros out on the water. Both were obediently wearing their life jackets and he waved at them. It is remarkable how a seemingly insignificant action or event can change entire lives. Kate, lifting her paddle to wave back in response, lost her balance and tipped the canoe. The ties of the lifejacket had gotten tangled in the canoe webbing. Mack dove in and turned the canoe upright. Now Josh’s face was above water. Mack surfaced behind Josh, who was limp and unconscious, blood oozing from a gash on his head where the canoe had banged him as Mack had righted it. He immediately began mouth-to-mouth on his son as best he could. Overwhelmed with relief and the adrenaline rush of a narrow escape, he began to cry, and then suddenly Kate was sobbing with her arms around his neck, and everyone was laughing and crying and hugging. A potential crisis had been averted. Or so Mack thought.

  • The Great Sadness

Mack stood on the shore, doubled over and still trying to catch his breath. It took a few minutes before he even thought about Missy. Calling her name he realized she was not there. Word of the water rescue had reached the little two-room camp headquarters ahead of them, and everyone there was in high spirits. This changed quickly as the three took turns explaining Missy’s disappearance. Only one witness saw an old military-green truck heading out the entrance before noon and down the road toward Joseph. He remembered that the little girl in the green truck was wearin’ red and she was either laughing or bellerin’, he couldn’t really tell. And then it looked like the guy slapped her or pushed her down, but I suppose he coulda been just playin’ too. The next hours saw a massive escalation in response to Missy’s disappearance. An all-points bulletin was sent out as far west as Portland; east to Boise, Idaho; and north to Spokane, Washington. The FBI field offices in Portland, Seattle, and Denver were put on notice. Nan had been called and was on her way, being driven by her best friend, Maryanne. Even tracking dogs were brought in. 

“We’ve been trying to catch this guy for almost four years, tracking him across more than nine states now; he’s been continually moving west. He’s been nicknamed the Little Ladykiller, but we have never released the ladybug detail to the press or anyone else, so please keep that on the downlow. We believe he’s responsible for abducting and killing at least four children so far, all girls, all under the age of ten. Each time he adds a dot to the ladybug, so this would be number five. We haven’t found one of the bodies of any of those four little girls, and although forensics has come up with nothing, we have good reason to believe that none of the girls have survived.” A few hours later, Mack and his two children drove to the hotel in Joseph that had become the staging grounds for the growing search. He was swept helplessly away in the unrelenting and merciless grip of growing despair, slowly rocking back and forth. Soul-shredding sobs and groans clawed to the surface from the core of his being. And that is how Nan found him. Two broken lovers, they held each other and wept as Mack poured out his sorrow and Nan tried to hold him in one piece. In one day he had spent a year’s worth of emotions, and now he felt numb, adrift in a suddenly meaningless world that felt as if it would be forever gray. The FBI entourage arrived mid-afternoon from field offices in three cities. It was clear from the start that the person in charge was Special Agent Wikowsky, a small, slim woman who was all fire and motion, and to whom Mack took an instant liking. At 5 p.m. the first promising report finally came in, from the Imnaha roadblock. Two couples had encountered a green military-looking truck matching the description of the vehicle everyone was searching for. Twenty minutes later, another call from Wikowsky, this time to tell them they had found the truck. It took Mack’s crew almost three hours to reach the first team and by then it was all over. The dogs had done the rest, uncovering a descending game trail that led more than a mile into a small hidden valley. There they found a run-down little shack. Mack immediately saw what he had come to identify and, turning, crumpled into the arms of his two friends and began to weep uncontrollably. On the floor by the fireplace lay Missy’s torn and blood-soaked red dress. As was true in the other four cases, authorities didn’t recover Missy’s body, even though search teams had scoured the forest around the shack for days after its discovery. As in every other instance, the killer had left no fingerprints and no DNA. He’d left no useful evidence anywhere, only the pin. It was as if the man were a ghost. The Great Sadness had descended and in differing degrees cloaked everyone whose life had touched Missy’s. So when Mack received the note from “Papa” telling him to meet him back at the shack, it was no small event. Did God even write notes? And why the shack—the icon of his deepest pain? Certainly God would have had better places to meet with him. A dark thought even crossed his mind that the killer could be taunting him or luring him away to leave the rest of his family unprotected. Maybe it was all just a cruel hoax. But then why was it signed “Papa”? He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that didn’t seem to make any real difference or effect any real changes. Yes, Mack wanted more, and he was about to get much more than he bargained for.

  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Some time in his heart and mind during the days following his tiff with the icy driveway, he became convinced that there were three plausible explanations for the note. It was either from God, as absurd as that sounded; a cruel joke; or something more sinister from Missy’s killer. Regardless, the note dominated his thoughts every waking minute and his dreams at night. Late Thursday afternoon, Mack saw Nan, Kate, and Josh off with hugs and kisses all around. He knew he was driving straight into the center of his pain, the vortex of The Great Sadness that had so diminished his sense of being alive. Early afternoon Mack finally pulled over and parked at the barely visible trailhead. He sat there for almost five minutes reprimanding himself for being such a fool. He stood and stared down the path, deciding to leave everything in the car and hike the mile or so down to the lake; at least that way he wouldn’t have to lug anything back up the hill when he returned to leave, which he now expected would be in very short order. After only five steps, he stopped and retched so strongly that it brought him to his knees. At the far side and down the slope he saw it—the shack. After entering Mack couldn’t help himself as his eyes were drawn to the one place he could not bear to look. Even after a few years, the faded bloodstain was still clearly visible in the wood near the fireplace where they had found Missy’s dress. I’m so sorry, honey. Tears began to well up in his eyes. And finally his heart exploded like a flash flood, releasing his pent-up anger and letting it rush down the rocky canyons of his emotions. A weary old man, he started the hike back to the car. 

Mack had barely walked fifty feet up the trail when he felt a sudden rush of warm air overtake him from behind. Three weeks of spring unfurled before him in thirty seconds. The snowbanks had vanished, and summer wildflowers began to color the borders of the trail and the forest as far as he could see. The dilapidated shack had been replaced by a sturdy and beautifully constructed log cabin. A walkway had been built to and around the front porch, bordered by a small white picket fence. The sound of laughter was coming from nearby—maybe inside, but he wasn’t sure. It was a place that Mack could have imagined only in his best dreams, and this made it all the more suspect. He now faced another dilemma. What should you do when you come to the door of a house, or cabin in this case, where God might be? The door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large, beaming African-American woman. “It’s okay, honey, you can let it all out…” He felt the presence of love. It was warm, inviting, melting. “Not ready?” she responded. “That’s okay, we’ll do things on your terms and time. Well, come on in. A wiry-looking person appeared to be of northern Chinese. A man then stepped in, touched Mack on the shoulder, gave him a kiss on both cheeks, and embraced him strongly. Mack knew instantly that he liked him. Then she smiled and a huge weight lifted off his shoulders, as if he had been carting his gear in a backpack. She was hugging him without hugging him, or really without even touching him. “You could call me what Nan does.” Surely this was not the Papa who sent the note? “I mean, are you saying, ‘Papa’?” “Yes,” she responded and smiled. “And I, am Jesus,” interrupted the man. “And you may call me that if you like.” Mack stood dumbfounded and mute. What he was looking at and listening to simply would not compute. It was all so impossible… but here he was, or was he really here at all? The Asian woman stepped closer and deflected his attention. “And I am Sarayu,” she said as she tilted her head in a slight bow and smiled. “Keeper of the gardens, among other things.” “Then,” Mack struggled to ask, “which one of you is God?” “I am,” said all three in unison

  • A Piece of π

You’re not supposed to do anything. You’re free to do whatever you like.” Now Jesus was serious—“don’t go because you feel obligated. That won’t get you any points around here. Go because it’s what you want to do.” Mack tells Papa, “If you couldn’t take care of Missy, how can I trust you to take care of me?” There, he’d said it—the question that had tormented him every day of The Great Sadness. “That’s why you’re here, Mack,” she continued. “I want to heal the wound that has grown inside you and between us.” “Don’t ever think that what my Son chose to do didn’t cost us dearly. Love always leaves a significant mark,” she stated softly. “Love and relationship. All love and relationship is possible for you only because it already exists within me, within God myself. Love is not the limitation; love is the flying. I am love.” Papa was so beautiful and astonishing, and even though he was feeling a little lost and even though The Great Sadness still attended him, he felt himself settling down somewhat into the safety of being close to her. “The God who is—the I am who I am—cannot act apart from love!” 

  • God on the Dock

Maybe this was a hallucination being brought on by all his grief and despair. Maybe it was a dream, and he was asleep somewhere, maybe in the shack freezing to death? Mackenzie, you do this yourself. You don’t play a game or color a picture with a child to show your superiority. Rather, you choose to limit yourself so as to facilitate and honor that relationship. You will even lose a competition to accomplish love. It is not about winning and losing, but about love and respect. Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to hold power over another is to choose to limit oneself—to serve. “Papa, I loved watching you today as you made yourself fully available to take Mack’s pain into yourself and then gave him space to choose his own timing. You honored him, and you honored me. To listen to you whisper love and calm into his heart was truly incredible. What a joy to watch! I love being your Son.” 

“Speaking of Sarayu, is she the Holy Spirit?” “Yes. She is creativity; she is action; she is the breathing of life; she is much more. She is my Spirit. And her name, Sarayu? That is a simple name from one of our human languages. It means ‘Wind,’ ‘a common wind,’ actually. She loves that name.” “And the name Papa mentioned, “Elousia.” The name means ‘the Creator God who is truly real and the ground of all being.’ God, who is the ground of all being, dwells in, around, and through all things—ultimately emerging as the real—and any appearances that mask that reality will fall away. Astounding, isn’t it? It’s Papa’s miracle. It is the power of Sarayu, my Spirit, the Spirit of God who restores the union that was lost so long ago. Me? I choose to live moment by moment fully human. I am fully God, but I am human to the core. Like I said, it’s Papa’s miracle. It’s what everything is all about. The human, formed out of the physical material of creation, can once more be fully indwelt by spiritual life, my life. “You know,” Mack responded, suddenly struck anew by the absurdity of his situation: where he was, the person next to him. “Sometimes you sound so… I mean, here I am, lying next to God Almighty, and you really sound so…” “Human?” Jesus offered. “But ugly. I am with you and I’m not lost. I’m sorry it feels that way, but hear me clearly: you are not lost.” Today had been one long day. Maybe he would wake up at home in his own bed after a night of vivid dreaming, but somewhere inside he hoped he was wrong.

  • A Breakfast of Champions

“But if you are God, aren’t you the One spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire?” “I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.” He had never seen three people share with such simplicity and beauty. It was how they related. Each seemed totally aware of the others rather than of himself. Then turning back to Jesus he added, “I love the way you treat each other. It’s certainly not how I expected God to be.” You respond with such graciousness to each other. Isn’t one of you more the boss than the other two?” The three looked at one another as if they had never thought of such a question. “Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being,’ as your ancestors termed it. What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours. Humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that people could work or live together without someone being in charge.” Every human institution that I can think of, from political to business, even down to marriage, is governed by this kind of thinking. It is the web of our social fabric,” Mack asserted. “It’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you,” Jesus added. “Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you. When you chose independence over relationship, you became a danger to one another. Others became objects to be manipulated or managed for your own happiness. Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong ones use to make others conform to what they want.” Jesus picked up the conversation. “As the crowning glory of creation, you were made in our image, unencumbered by structure and free to simply ‘be’ in relationship with me and one another. If you had truly learned to regard one another’s concerns as significant as your own, there would be no need for hierarchy.” “Mack,” said Papa with an intensity that caused him to listen very carefully, “we want to share with you the love and joy and freedom and light that we already know within ourselves. We created you, the human, to be in face-to-face relationship with us, to join our circle of love. As difficult as it will be for you to understand, everything that has taken place is occurring exactly according to this purpose, without violating choice or will. You are the ones who embrace fear and pain and power and rights so readily in your relationships. But your choices are also not stronger than my purposes, and I will use every choice you make for the ultimate good and the most loving outcome. If you could only see how all of this ends and what we will achieve without the violation of one human will—then you would understand. One day you will. Mackenzie, you cannot produce trust, just as you cannot ‘do’ humility. It either is or is not. Trust is the fruit of a relationship in which you know you are loved. Because you do not know that I love you, you cannot trust me. Together we will watch that change take place. I’m not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love. And I do love you.” 

  • A Long Time Ago, In a Garden, Far, Far Away

Mack had expected a perfectly manicured and ordered English garden. This was not that! It was chaos in color. His eyes tried unsuccessfully to find some order in this blatant disregard for certainty. His mind still trying to grapple with and control the pandemonium of sight and the movements of hues and shades. Every step he took changed whatever patterns he for an instant thought he had seen, and nothing was like it had been. The place where they stood was an open spot surrounded on three sides by peach and cherry trees, and in the middle was a cascade of purple and yellow flowered bushes that almost took his breath away. “Mackenzie.” She pointed directly at the incredible purple and yellow patch. “I would like your help clearing this entire plot of ground. There is something very special that I want to plant here tomorrow, and we need to get it ready. Let me begin by asking you a question. When something happens to you, how do you determine whether it is good or evil?” Mack thought for a moment before answering. “Well, I haven’t really thought about that. I guess I would say that something is good when I like it—when it makes me feel good or gives me a sense of security. Conversely, I’d call evil something that causes me pain or costs me something I want.” Sarayu interrupted. “Then it is you who determines good and evil. You become the judge.” “Yes, I spend most of my time and energy trying to acquire what I have determined to be good, whether it’s financial security or health or retirement or whatever. And I spend a huge amount of energy and worry fearing what I’ve determined to be evil.” Sarayu said gently. “It allows you to play God in your independence. You must give up your right to decide what is good and evil on your own terms. That is a hard pill to swallow—choosing to live only in me. To do that, you must know me enough to trust me and learn to rest in my inherent goodness. That in one instance, the good may be the presence of cancer or the loss of income—or even a life. 

  • Wade in the Water

What Jesus had been suggesting, Mack finally allowed into his consciousness. He was talking about walking on the water. If I may prove my case, do you think humans were designed to live in the present or the past or the future?” “Well,” said Mack, hesitating, “I think the most obvious answer is that we were designed to live in the present. I suppose I would have to say that I spend very little time in the present. I spend a big piece in the past, but the rest of the time, I am trying to figure out the future.” “It is your desperate attempt to get some control over something you can’t. It is impossible for you to take power over the future because it isn’t even real, nor will it ever be real. You try to play God, imagining the evil that you fear becoming reality, and then you try to make plans and contingencies to avoid what you fear.” “So why do I have so much fear in my life?” “Because you don’t believe. You don’t know that we love you. The person who lives by his fears will not find freedom in my love. I am not talking about rational fears regarding legitimate dangers, but imagined fears, and especially the projection of those into the future. To the degree that those fears have a place in your life, you neither believe I am good nor know deep in your heart that I love you. When walking on the water he looked down, it seemed that his feet were on something solid but invisible. He turned to find Jesus standing next to him. They started off with footwear and lunch bags in hand and walked toward the opposite shore, about a half mile distant. The water felt cool and refreshing and sent chills up his spine. Walking on the water with Jesus seemed like the most natural way to cross a lake, and Mack was grinning ear to ear just thinking about what he was doing. Mack stepped off the water and onto the small rocks, gingerly making his way toward a log that had fallen. “Have you noticed that even though you call me ‘Lord’ and ‘King,’ I have never really acted in that capacity with you? I’ve never taken control of your choices or forced you to do anything, even when what you were about to do was destructive or hurtful to yourself and others. To force my will on you,” Jesus replied, “is exactly what love does not do. Genuine relationships are marked by submission even when your choices are not helpful or healthy. Papa is as much submitted to me as I to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.” When I am your life, submission is the most natural expression of my character and nature, and it will be the most natural expression of your new nature within relationships. The world is broken because in Eden you abandoned relationship with us to assert your own independence. Most men have expressed it by turning to the work of their hands to find their identity, value, and security. The woman’s desire—and the word is actually her turning—so the woman’s turning was not to the works of her hands but to the man, and his response was to rule ‘over’ her, to take power over her, to become the ruler. Women in general will find it difficult to turn from a man and stop demanding that he meet their needs, provide security, and protect their identity, and return to me. Men in general find it very hard to turn from the works of their hands, their own quests for power and security and significance, and return to me. We want male and female to be counterparts, face-to-face equals, each unique and different, distinctive in gender but complementary, and each empowered uniquely by Sarayu, from whom all true power and authority originate. Being my follower is not trying to ‘be like Jesus,’ it means your independence is killed. 

  • Here Come da Judge

Behind the desk sat a tall, beautiful, olive-skinned woman with chiseled Hispanic features, clothed in a dark-colored flowing robe. She sat as straight and regal as a high court judge. She was stunning. “Well, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, I am here to help you. So then, Mackenzie, may I ask which of your children you love the most?” When I think of each of my children individually, I find that I am especially fond of each one. What they do might affect my pride, but not my love for them.” She sat back, beaming. “You are wise in the ways of real love, Mackenzie. So many believe that it is love that grows, but it is the knowing that grows and love simply expands to contain it. Love is just the skin of knowing. Mackenzie, you love your children, whom you know so well, with a wonderful and real love.” But Mack replied, “I don’t believe that God loves all of his children very well!” Mackenzie, you are not here to be judged. You will be the judge!” You have judged the actions and even the motivations of others, as if you somehow knew what those were in truth. You have judged history and relationships. You have even judged the value of a person’s life by the quality of your concept of beauty. By all accounts, you are quite well practiced in the activity. Judging requires that you think yourself superior over the one you judge. “So, who is it that I am supposed to judge?” “God”—she paused—“and the human race. Now, what about the man who preys on innocent little girls? What about him, Mackenzie? Is that man guilty? Should he be judged?” “Yes!” screamed Mack. “Damn him to hell!” “What about his father, the man who twisted his son into a terror, what about him?” “Yes, him too!” “How far do we go back, Mackenzie? This legacy of brokenness goes all the way back to Adam—what about him? But why stop there? What about God? God started this whole thing. Is God to blame? That God cannot be trusted? “Isn’t that your just complaint, Mackenzie? That God has failed you, that he failed Missy? That before the creation, God knew that one day your Missy would be brutalized, and still he created? And then he allowed that twisted soul to snatch her from your loving arms when he had the power to stop him. Isn’t God to blame, Mackenzie?” Finally he said it, louder than he intended, and pointed his finger right at her: “Yes! God is to blame!” The accusation hung in the room as the gavel fell in his heart. “Then,” she said with finality, “if you are able to judge God so easily, you certainly can judge the world.” Again she spoke without emotion. “You must choose two of your children to spend eternity in God’s new heavens and new earth, but only two. And you must choose three of your children to spend eternity in hell. I am only asking you to do something that you believe God does. You believe he will condemn most to an eternity of torment, away from his presence and apart from his love. Is that not true?” “I don’t want to be the judge,” he said, standing up. He couldn’t! For him, it wasn’t about their performance; it was about his love for them. “I… will… not… do… this!” Mack yelled, his blood boiling hot inside him. “You must,” she whispered. 

You have judged them worthy of love, even if it costs you everything. That is how Jesus loves. And now you know Papa’s heart,” she added, “who loves all her children perfectly. She’s not punishing you, or Missy, or Nan. This was not her doing.” “But she didn’t stop it.” “No, she didn’t. She doesn’t stop a lot of things that cause her pain. Your world is severely broken. You demanded your independence, and now you are angry with the One who loved you enough to give it to you. “For love. She chose the way of the cross, where mercy triumphs over justice because of love. Would you instead prefer she’d chosen justice for everyone? Return from your independence, Mackenzie. Give up being her judge and know Papa for who she is. Then you will be able to embrace her love in the midst of your pain, instead of pushing her away with your self-centered perception of how you think the universe should be. Mack stood up from the chair. “I don’t want to be a judge anymore. I really do want to trust Papa.” His gaze was drawn to movement, to the group playing along an eddy near where the stream flowed into the lake less than fifty yards away. He saw his children there—Jon, Tyler, Josh, and Kate. But wait! There was another! He gasped, trying to focus more intently. Moving toward them. Then it became clear. “Missy!” There she was, kicking her bare feet in the water. As if she heard him, Missy broke from the group and came running down the trail that ended directly in front of him. Meanwhile, Missy had arrived and stood directly in front of him. Her gaze was clearly not at him, but at something that was in between, larger and obviously visible to her but not to him. Missy’s face erupted in a huge smile, dimples standing out. In slow motion, with great exaggeration, he could see her mouth the words, “It’s okay, I”—and now she signed the words—“love you.” “She’s really okay, isn’t she?” “More than you know. This life is only the anteroom of a greater reality to come. No one reaches their potential in your world. It’s only preparation for what Papa had in mind all along.” “Can I get to her? Maybe just one hug, and a kiss?” he begged quietly. “No. This is the way she wanted it.” “Your children are here, but they aren’t. Only Missy is truly here. The others are dreaming, and each will have a vague memory of this—some in greater detail than others, but none fully or completely. This is a very peaceful time of sleep for each of them, except Kate. This dream will not be easy for her. Missy, though, is fully awake.” She made a big embrace as if she were hugging him and, with eyes closed, exaggerated a kiss. From behind the barrier he hugged her back. And now Mack could clearly see the voice that had called his Missy. It was Jesus, playing in the middle of his children. 

  • In the Belly of the Beasts

As Mack made his way down the trail toward the lake, he suddenly realized that something was missing. His constant companion, The Great Sadness, was gone. The Great Sadness would not be part of his identity any longer. Perhaps he was beginning to trust him after all, even if it was only in baby steps. “So what do I do now?” “What you’re already doing, Mack—learning to live loved. Have you noticed that in your pain you assume the worst of me? I’ve been talking to you for a long time, but today was the first time you could hear it, and all those other times weren’t a waste either. Like little cracks in the wall, one at a time but woven together, they prepared you for today. “So how do I become part of that church?” he asked. “This woman you seem to be so gaga over.” “It’s simple, Mack. It’s all about relationships and simply sharing life. What we are doing right now—just doing this—and being open and available to others around us. My church is all about people, and life is all about relationships. The simplicity of enjoying a growing friendship, the ongoing dialogue of us sharing this journey together. All I want from you is to trust me with what little you can, and grow in loving people around you with the same love I share with you. It’s not your job to change them, or to convince them. You are free to love without an agenda. 

  • A Meeting of Hearts

Mack groped for the courage to speak his heart. “Papa?” he said, and for the first time calling God “Papa” did not seem awkward to him. “I had no idea I had presumed to be your judge. It sounds so horribly arrogant.” “Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t ever assume that my using something means I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors. The truth is, Mack, the real reason you did not tell Nan was not because you were trying to save her from pain. The real reason was that you were afraid of having to deal with the emotions you might have encountered, both from her and in yourself. Emotions scare you, Mack. You lied to protect yourself, not her!” And again he was floundering in guilt. “So, what do I do now?” “You tell her, Mackenzie. You face the fear of coming out of the dark and tell her, and you ask for her forgiveness and let her forgiveness heal you. Ask her to pray for you, Mack. 

Nobody knows what horrors I have saved the world from ’cause people can’t see what never happened. All evil flows from independence, and independence is your choice. If I were to simply revoke all the choices of independence, the world as you know it would cease to exist and love would have no meaning. If I take away the consequences of people’s choices, I destroy the possibility of love. Love that is forced is no love at all. Just because you make horrendous and destructive choices does not mean you deserve less respect for what you inherently are—the pinnacle of my creation and the center of my affection. My purposes are always and only an expression of love. I purpose to work life out of death, to bring freedom out of brokenness and turn darkness into light. What you see as chaos, I see as a fractal. All things must unfold, even though it puts all those I love in the midst of a world of horrible tragedies—even the one closest to me. One day you folk will understand what Jesus gave up. Honey, you asked me what Jesus accomplished on the cross, so now listen to me carefully: through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world, the whole world. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way. 

  • Verbs and other Freedoms

This was the most calm and consistent sense of peace that Mack had felt in ages—if ever. He was no longer surprised how easily tears could come to his eyes. I have no idea how to go back to my life. Somehow it seemed easier to live with God when I thought of him as the demanding taskmaster, or even to cope with the loneliness of The Great Sadness. Emotions are the colors of the soul—they are spectacular and incredible. When you don’t feel, the world becomes dull and colorless. Just think how The Great Sadness reduced the range of color in your life down to monotones and flat grays and blacks. Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions. Most emotions are responses to perception—what you think is true about a given situation. If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too. So check your perceptions, and beyond that check the truthfulness of your paradigms—what you believe. “I’m realizing how few answers I have… to anything. You know, you’ve turned me upside down or inside out or something.” Keep in mind, Mackenzie, that I am not a human being, not in my very nature, despite how we have chosen to be with you this weekend. I am truly human in Jesus. 

Rules cannot bring freedom; they have only the power to accuse. “I”—she opened her hands to include Jesus and Papa—“I am a verb. I am that I am. I will be who I will be. I am a verb! I am alive, dynamic, ever active, and moving. I am a being verb.” To move from something that is only a noun to something dynamic and unpredictable, to something living and present tense, is to move from Law to grace. May I give you a couple of examples? Expectation — You are not expected to perform in a way that meets my expectations. A living friendship rapidly deteriorates into a dead thing with expectations and requirements. It is no longer about you and me, but about what friends are supposed to do, or the responsibilities of a good friend. “Or,” noted Mack, “the responsibilities of a husband, or a father, or an employee, or whatever. I get the picture. I would much rather live in expectancy.” Responsibilities and expectations are the basis of guilt and shame and judgment, and they provide the essential framework that promotes performance as the basis for identity and value. Papa now spoke up. “Honey, I’ve never placed an expectation on you or anyone else. The idea behind expectations requires that someone does not know the future or outcome and is trying to control behavior to get the desired result. Humans try to control behavior largely through expectations. And because I have no expectations, you never disappoint me.” “What? You’ve never been disappointed in me?” Mack was trying hard to digest this. “Never!” Papa stated emphatically. To the degree that you resort to expectations and responsibilities, you neither know me nor trust me. And to that degree you will live in fear. 

  • A Morning of Sorrows

He knew only that he would never be the same and wondered what these changes would mean for Nan and him and the kids, especially Kate. But Papa, wanted to take away one more thing that darkened his heart. Papa spoke gently and reassuringly. “Son, this is not about shaming you. I don’t do humiliation, or guilt, or condemnation. They don’t produce one speck of wholeness. Today we are on a healing trail to bring closure to this part of your journey—not just for you, but for others as well. “Papa, how can I ever forgive that son of a bitch who killed my Missy? If he were here today, I don’t know what I would do. I know it isn’t right, but I want him to hurt like he hurt me… If I can’t get justice, I still want revenge. I’m stuck, Papa. I can’t just forget what he did, can I?” Mack implored. “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another person’s throat. Forgiveness is first for you, the forgiver,” answered Papa, “to release you from something that will eat you alive, that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly. Forgiveness in no way requires that you trust the one you forgive. Missy, she has already forgiven him, by my presence in her. That’s the only way true forgiveness is ever possible.” He wept until he had cried out all the darkness, all the longing, and all the loss, until there was nothing left. Don’t let the anger, pain and loss you feel prevent you from forgiving him and removing your hands from around his neck. Son, you may have to declare your forgiveness a hundred times the first day and the second day, but the third day will be less and each day after, until one day you will realize that you have forgiven completely. Suddenly it all made sense. He looked at Sarayu’s gift and realized what it was for. Somewhere in this desolate landscape the killer had hidden Missy’s body, and they had come to retrieve it. Mack managed a smile as his soul continued to melt and heal in the love of his Father. Busy as he was with his own thoughts, he tenderly held the body of his daughter close to his heart.

  • Choices of the Heart

Even though Mack carried the burden of Missy’s body back to the cabin, the time passed quickly. Jesus stood before them his work, a masterpiece of art in which to lay the remains of Missy. With great care they gently placed the remains of Missy into the box, laying her on a bed of soft grasses and moss, and then filled it full with the flowers and spices from Sarayu’s pack. Closing the lid, Jesus and Mack each easily picked up an end and carried it out, following Sarayu into the garden to the place in the orchard that Mack had helped clear. There they buried her. “Everything you do is important. Every time you forgive, the universe changes; every time you reach out and touch a heart or a life, the world changes; with every kindness and service, seen or unseen, my purposes are accomplished and nothing will ever be the same again.” “Kate believes that she is to blame for Missy’s death.” Mack was stunned. Yet it made perfect sense that Kate would blame herself. She had raised the paddle that started the sequence of events that led to Missy’s being taken. Mack knew his time here was over and he needed to head back and figure out how to tell Nan about everything. He was back in the real world. Then he smiled to himself. More likely he was back in the unreal world. So he went down the mountain to return home. Lost in thought, Mack simply pulled through the intersection when the light turned green. He never even saw the other driver run the opposing red light. There was only a brilliant flash of light and then nothing, except silence and inky blackness. In a split second Willie’s red Jeep was destroyed, in minutes Fire and Rescue and the police arrived, and within hours Mack’s broken and unconscious body was delivered by Life Flight to Emmanuel Hospital in Portland, Oregon.

  • Outbound Ripples

He slept often, but it seemed that every time he opened his eyes it would cause no little excitement. Everything seemed to hurt. At first Mack had no idea where he was or how he had ended up in such a predicament. He barely could keep track of who he was. A steady parade of family and friends came by to wish a speedy recovery. He had been told many times, that he had been mostly unconscious for almost four days after a terrible accident in Joseph. Finally Willie asked, “So, are you telling me that he was there? God, I mean?” And now Mack was laughing and crying. “Willie, he was there! Oh, was he there! Wait till I tell you. You’ll never believe it. Man, I’m not sure I do either.” Mack stopped, lost in his memories for a moment. “Oh, yeah,” he said at last. “He told me to tell you something.” Mack paused, grasping for the words. “He said, ‘Tell Willie that I’m especially fond of him.’ ” Then he heard Nan say the accident had happened on Friday night. “Don’t you mean Sunday?” he asked. “Sunday? Don’t you think I’d know what night it was? It was Friday night when they flew you in here.” Sometimes the drugs would get the better of him and he would slip off to dreamless sleep, occasionally mid-sentence. Initially, Nan focused on being patient and attentive, trying as best she could to suspend judgment but not seriously considering that his ravings were anything but remnants of neurological damage. But the vividness and depth of his memories touched her and slowly undermined her resolve to stay objective. There was life in what he was telling her, and she quickly understood that whatever had happened had greatly impacted and changed her husband. “I believe you,” Nan whispered, and he nodded and smiled, surprised by how important that was to hear. 

Willie drove Mack and Nan to Joseph in his new-used SUV where they met Tommy, the deputy, and together the four headed into the Reserve. They probably would never have found the exact spot if it hadn’t been for Papa. Sitting at the top of a pile of stones in front of the cave was the rock with the red marking turned outward. To realize what Papa had done made Mack almost laugh out loud. But they did find it, and when Tommy was fully convinced of what they were opening up, he made them stop. Mack understood why it was important and a little grudgingly agreed that they should reseal the cave to protect it. They would return to Joseph, where Tommy could notify forensic specialists and the proper law enforcement agencies. The following day experts descended like buzzards, recovering Missy’s remains and bagging the sheet along with whatever else they could find. It took only weeks after that to glean enough evidence to track down and arrest the Little Ladykiller. Learning from the clues the man had left for himself to find Missy’s cave, authorities were able to locate and recover the bodies of the other little girls he had murdered. 

  • After words

All the changes in his life, he tells me, are enough evidence for him. The Great Sadness is gone, and he experiences most days with a profound sense of joy. Somehow he has become a child again. Or maybe more accurately, he’s become the child he never was allowed to be, abiding in simple trust and wonder. He embraces even the darker shades of life as part of some incredibly rich and profound tapestry crafted masterfully by invisible hands of love. If you ever get a chance to hang out with Mack, you will soon learn that he’s hoping for a new revolution, one of love and kindness…