I’ll be somewhere else for Christmas

In December of 1998 my father made an unusual holiday journey. Less than a year earlier he’d been diagnosed with melanoma which eventually laid siege to his brain… Read more on the Baptist News Global website.

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Love’s Family Tree

charlie browner

“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham…”
~ Matthew 1:1

Sometimes people decide they’re going to read through the New Testament in order to grow spiritually. So they turn to Matthew because it’s at the beginning of the New Testament and, alas, never make it past the first seventeen verses. This guy begat that guy, and whosit begat somebody else, and what’s-his-name fathered so-and-so. Just dreadful.

As every great storyteller knows, the beginning’s got to be great. He or she has to have us from Hello. Had John Grisham begun The Firm twenty years ago with a three-page genealogy, he might still be practicing law in Mississippi. No gifted writer starts by blathering on about who begat whom. It’s a lucky break for Matthew that the Jewish Christians to whom he was writing were maybe the only people on the planet who weren’t bored by the “begats.” After all, this was their story.

There are two things I particularly love about the lineage of Jesus.

First, the surprising variety. There are all sorts of folk, both pious and problematic, dangling from the branches of this family tree and Matthew doesn’t try to cover them up or pretty them up, God bless him. As family trees go, Jesus definitely has a Charlie Browner on his hands. This is something of a relief to me since my own family has its share, not only of humble, salt-of-the-earth types, but also bootleggers and jail-dwellers and a smattering of moonshiners. No problemo. Jesus’ family is a fixer-upper, too.

The other genealogical jewel here, I believe, shines best in the names of the women on this list. Sure, there are plenty whose names should have been included but weren’t. Conversation for another day. But four of the five who do make the cut all have something surprising in common:

Not one of them is Jewish.

You would assume to see a lineup of pure-blooded Hebrew matriarchal all-stars in this genealogy. But nope—turns out Jesus wants everybody on his family tree: Jews, Hittites, Moabites and Canaanites. Also Postmodern-ites, Democrat-ites and Republican-ites, not to mention seducers and murderers and schemers and well, just everybody.

Ultimately what this boring list of names stands for is the beautiful news that none of us really belongs but God loves us just the same. Not one of us qualifies for a spot on this tree but God welcomes sinners like you and me anyhow. It’s not about pedigree—it’s about mercy.

What do you know, maybe the boring thing’s not so boring after all.

This devotional originally appeared at http://www.nextsunday.com. NextSunday Resources, an imprint of Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc., is a free press focusing on “quality Bible study and church resources that celebrate the intelligence of learners, the devotion of teachers, and the mission of churches everywhere.”

Bedrock Love

leopard-skin-tall

In my dreams we are Fred and Ginger.
We dip.
We twirl.
We glide cheek to cheek
in a pool of blue light,

you in that smart top hat,
me in chiffon and stilettos.
People gaze at us with longing.
How elegant! they exclaim.
How effortless!

In the real world of course
you and I are not Fred and Ginger
we are not even close.
On our best days we are
maybe Fred and Wilma

punching a time-clock down at
the quarry; padding around on
chubby square feet;
wearing the skin of some
prehistoric thing.

You grin and say Let’s go for
ribs at the drive-in.
And as we race off
in that car with
stone wheels

and no floorboard
I think What a lucky girl
I am, living this
Yabba Dabba Doo life
with you.

Theological Reflections on a Bulldog

Willie as PuppyOur dear English Bulldog, Willie Boy, died last week. Hearts are still at half-mast around here.

Back in December of 2005, in a moment of temporary insanity, Tim and I decided to grant our daughter Lucy’s persistent and increasingly creative requests for a puppy. We approached the task of choosing a breed with painstaking precision.

Okay, in truth we Googled this dog. Plugged in the two most essential characteristics—“requires minimal exercise” and “excessively affectionate”—and voila (or as we say in the South: wah LA), all fingers pointed to the English Bulldog. (Our Google search for dogs born potty-trained came up empty.)

Willie lived up to his breed’s reputation. He was a furry love sponge whose idea of rigorous exercise was a trip to the mailbox. He fit in from the get-go.

And along the way Willie taught me some things about God. For one thing, God appreciates a good joke. Anyone who doubts God’s sense of humor has never met canis lupus bulldawgus. It’s my fixed belief that bulldogs got thought up at around 4:45 on Friday afternoon, when God was feeling a wee bit prankish.

And Willie was evidence that God uses all the crayons in the big box. In 1848 Cecil Frances Alexander of Dublin, Ireland, wrote some words that would become a best-loved children’s hymn: All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful: The Lord God made them all. 

Mrs. Alexander wrote the hymn to help children better understand the opening words of the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

I can report that Willie Boy didn’t know the Apostles’ Creed from applesauce. He never once weighed in on the predestination debate, or invited anyone to consider the gospel, or lifted a paw to help address the problem of evil in the world.

And yet, as my heart lurches now for our jowly, gassy, ornery little guy with the undulant waddle and goofy underbite, I can’t help but marvel at our colorful Creator—who jolly well could have made all animals boringly alike, but who, for the sheer pleasure of it, gave us bulldogs and baboons, wart hogs and wallabies, poodles and panda bears. Yippee!

So here’s to you, Willie Boy—you hilarious reminder of God’s creative goodness. Sleep soft, old friend. You gave us joy.

Willie's jowls on floor

Chuck It/ Love It: #2

CC flickr.com/darylljann/4206002971/

CC flickr.com/darylljann

I offer today the second installment in the Chuck It/Love It series—in recognition of my alternating desire to chuck the Church over Niagara Falls and announce my undying love for the wobbly thing on the JumboTron at Turner Field. (Entries are from my journal spanning twenty-plus years and three churches in three states. Names and identifying details have been changed.)

Chuck Church
“Nobody here has forgot the church. We just wish we could.”
~ Romulus Linney, Heathen Valley

Today I visited with Tad. He and his partner, Rob, have been part of our church for about a year now. Tad and Rob sometimes hold hands in worship, which sends some people into complete apoplexy, I know. But today I didn’t want to talk about any of that. Today I wanted to know Tad better; to hear more of his story. His life story. His God story.

We sat with the sun on our shoulders as he told me of the day when his mother, father and four of his five siblings severed all ties with him because he is gay. Nine years went by. Then Tad’s father became gravely ill. The children flew from all parts of the country to be with him in his final hours. At the hospital, as everyone gathered around the father’s bed, Tad remained in the hallway, just outside the door. His sister, the only one who’d remained close to Tad, bent down and whispered in their father’s ear: Daddy, Tad is here, too.

The father opened his eyes and declared to the family and to the universe: I have no son named Tad. Then he died.

Tad also told me, with tears dripping off his chin, of how in high school he’d had an under-the-radar boyfriend; a secret he eventually revealed to his youth pastor in their extremely conservative church. Two years later the boy died in a motorcycle accident. After the funeral the pastor told Tad that his boyfriend’s death was God’s punishment for their wicked relationship.

“Your friend died in his sin,” he’d said, “but there’s still hope for you, Tad.
If you’ll simply turn straight and stay straight, God will find it in his heart to love you again.”

Love Church
Recently Marlo called me about getting together. “I think maybe God is trying to get my attention,” she said. “This is new for me and I don’t know what to think about it.”

“Come on over,” I said.

I first met Marlo several months ago on a Sunday when her 23-year-old daughter, Kelsi, introduced us after worship. Kelsi’s speech and cognitive abilities are impaired because of brain trauma she suffered as a child after falling from a tree. But Kelsi is brave, hopeful, resilient and, what’s more, last summer she collided with Jesus in a beautiful way while hanging out with other twenty-somethings from our church.

Everyone else in her family is adamently non-religious. So when Kelsi started bringing up her new-found faith at the dinner table, Marlo decided to come and see for herself what snake-oil fakeries these Baptists might be peddling to her daughter.

After worship Kelsi dragged Marlo to the foyer to meet me. Because of her brain injury Kelsi has absolutely no filter. Whatever she’s thinking is exactly what comes out of her mouth:  “Pastor Julie, this is my mom. She’s an agnostic. So you have your work cut out for you. And my father isn’t here today because he thinks church is a big crock.”

After such a poetic introduction I was happily surprised a few months later when I got the call from Marlo asking if she could come see me.

I’d barely closed my office door when she threw herself on my red floral couch and said with obvious agitation, “I can’t explain it, but every time I’m at your church I get the feeling that God is tapping me on the shoulder. In a Baptist Church, for God’s sake! My friends think I’m nuts. I don’t know whether to feel relieved or mortified.”

She described how, during her first time in worship, when we came to the Passing of the Peace she panicked and didn’t know what to do. Turning to the elderly man next to her, she stuck out her hand and blurted: May the force be with you.”

I love Church.