When the trailer for a movie makes you cry, you know you’re in trouble. Actually, Chris and I both teared up at the brief clip from “The Shack,” which showed a powerful moment between “Papa,” portrayed by Octavia Spencer, and Mack, the main character. I had read the book years ago and loved it, but I found myself resistant to see the film, leery of the usual ultra-cheesy portrayal of faith in movies. Until the tears. My final push came in the form of a conversation with my counselor about God and my long-standing struggle to feel close to Him.
I asked my counselor if he was familiar with the movie, and I told him about my tears that had come so easily. I described the scene that drew me in with this woman’s incredibly kind presence and her words about never leaving. “I’ve always struggled with feeling close to God,” I explained. “I find it more meaningful to connect with the idea of Jesus, or the Spirit. With God, it is so hard to unwrap my childhood picture of him as an angry, judgmental, old man from the truth that I know in my head. I have a hard time really believing. If God was Octavia Spencer, though…now that would be a different story.”
“So your knowing of God isn’t embodied, at least not in the same way as Jesus,” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
My heart felt tender leaving our session that day, knowing there was something important that needed my attention and care. Since I make it a practice to reserve Wednesday nights after my counseling sessions for self-care, our evening was free to finally head to the theater. I sat in the dark as the movie began, mindful of a desire to not watch with a hyper-critical eye. Though the references to God as “Papa” set off a “cynicism alert” a few times, I was able to settle my internal reaction down. I wanted my tender heart to be open and to listen and feel with all of me. And I did feel…deeply.
Here is what I loved most about Octavia Spencer as God, besides her obviously nurturing, loving presence: she is the representation of God to Mack because she is the one woman who showed fierce kindness to him as a young boy. After being beaten by his abusive father, Mack encounters her, and she tenderly holds his tear-stained, bruised face in her hands and says, “That’s not love; love doesn’t do that.” As an adult man, reeling from the traumatic death of his daughter, Mack cannot picture God as anything remotely good…until he is reacquainted with this picture of Love. My counselor’s words about an “embodied knowing” of God came back, connecting with the powerful image of a God who would meet a hurting person in the form of Love embodied in the story they carry – Love they would recognize and feel because they knew it and had experienced it.
The indefinable nature of God was represented in the film as well, by the changing of Papa’s form from that of a kind black woman to a strong, somewhat mysterious Native American man. He explains that his presence is needed in order for Mack to face something particularly hard. He doesn’t dismiss Mack’s pain or anger; instead, he lays forgiveness and anger side by side, acknowledging that they can both be present at the same time. I considered the message that
Love takes on many faces, according to what is most needed in the moment.
The question is “do I see these faces?” Do you?
In the weeks since attending the movie, I’ve found myself wondering about the Octavia Spencer’s in my story: people who saw me, who stayed with me long enough to quiet my anxious heart, and who taught me that goodness and love are not only possible, but intended for me. Faces of Love – men, women, young, old, family member, friend –are literally re-creating my connection with God, my faith and trust, and my ability to rest in His presence.
I wonder if you’ve ever considered who your faces would be? What would change if we intentionally, with an embodied knowing, engaged the incarnational reality of our God? I’ve begun praying more imaginatively, connecting to images of Love that I already know, integrating my story and experienced reality with what I so desperately long to believe is true of God. And I can almost feel the warm, comforting arms of Octavia Spencer wrapping around me as she whispers, “Shhh, it’s okay. I’m right here, and I’m not going anywhere. Have I told you how especially fond of you I am?”
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.