by Louie Crew Clay
Imagine the consternation in the family if, after your parents had looked three full days for you, they found that you were not lost but had deliberately stayed behind in the big city they had taken you to visit. Imagine their reaction if after they roundly complained to you, you— like a smart aleck — showed no concern but instead returned the complaint, telling this man you called “father” (who some neighbors whispered was only ‘your “uncle”): “Can’t you understand? I am about my father’s business?”
Mary and Joseph surely must have been doubtful at that moment. The story reads like one that any mother would indeed ponder, yes, burn right into her heart — like many motherhood traumas, fun to tell years after it happened but not fun at the time.
I remember the story as a vivid revelation when I first read it in a Baptist Sunday School in the 1940’s, when I too was 12 — reaching the stage Baptists call “the Age of Accountability,” that mystical moment when your sins start counting. Somehow accountability is timed just right for puberty, when sin starts to be so much fun.
My adult teachers tried to mask the real religion here, as we adults almost always like to do: the lesson book had one of those glowing pictures of a beatific child watched by solemn scholars, not a kid looking anything like the rest of us when we argued with our Sunday School teacher who said folks like our dad would go to hell for playing golf on Sunday afternoons when we knew no one needed a god that unkind. Suddenly I realized that this kid Jesus was a kid like me, arguing with his parents and his teachers, claiming his own integrity, his own right to think and to tie his thinking into all parts of his own experience, when the others — Mother Mary, Uncle Joe, Grandma Anne — were wondering where the damn kid had gone.
I watched very closely how he got away with it. That’s the crux. Anyone can be a smart aleck, but how do you get away it? Especially, how do you avoid the punishment you might otherwise deserve, I wondered.
“I must be about my parents’ business.”
I searched for irony to help me pray for Lurleen my governor when she appeared at the University of Alabama where two years before, her husband George had stood in the same door which I now entered with black students. I’ve always felt so much like a political button myself, that I rarely wear one, but that day I sported my all-time favorite which I had ridden all the way to Washington, D.C. on my BSA motorcycle to fetch: “The Governor of Alabama is a Mutha.” My bosses warned me through a sneaky intermediary that I would lose my fellowship if I joined the protest, so the blacks persuaded me to be sneaky. We arranged that I would not demonstrate outside but would go in early to save them places on the front row of the balcony. They appeared just as Mrs. Wallace entered. Eyes throughout the room fixed on us as we sat down when everyone else stood while the ROTC led a 10-minute ovation for her. Three thousand other Alabamans glared at us.
The following Sunday at Canterbury House even Episcopalians, whom I’d joined just after going through a Baptist undergraduate college, were no more successful than my Baptist teachers had been in trying to hide the same shocking revelation. The priest began, “O, Lord our governor, whose glory is in all the world … ” Not, “O, Lurleen, our governor …. ”
I am fascinated by how often established religion can’t keep us completely away from saving truth.
St. Paul knew the problem too, the problem of real religion versus established religion, on those many occasions when the two are not the same. In Philippians (3:3-4), Paul is downright campy about the argument. The established folks, the original Jewish Christians, are playing their credentials for all they are worth, pointing to themselves as literally the chosen people. Paul jokingly calls such folks the katatome, literally the “gashers,” punning on their boasts that they are cut, that they are the peritome, the circumcised, as if a couple of inches of skin secures for them first place before God. Paul suggests that such mutilations, even though he sports one, are not different from the kind of mutilations pagans practice.
With the strong new wine of the Spirit working in him, Paul looked at his religious heritage, found what was good about it, laid claim to that as very important, but tested all against the supreme revelation of God as love manifested in Christ. He defined the new contract, the New Testament. When an old vision of God proved false — like those images of God dashing the heads of our enemies’ children against the stones, like those images of God sending people to hell because they eat shrimp and indulge in other such Levitical abominations — Paul got another vision, a re-Vision, just as all who really believe in the Holy Spirit should expect.
The real children of God, Paul claimed, are not those who follow the law, but are those whom God in grace has adopted.
Adopted by God? A member of the family? The language sounds technical, doesn’t it, like one of Paul’s contorted sentences?
When I was 8, my aunt and uncle took me with them to fetch their adopted daughter, Sally, who was 4 months old. My mother never liked Sally. I was the only blood descendant of my grandparents in my generation. After Sally and I were grown, Mother was furious when Grandmother gave family silver to Sally.
“It’s not right,” Mother snorted to me in the car going home after she had learned about the gift. “It’s just not right. After all, she’s not their real grandchild. She’s a member of the family only by adoption.”
“But, Mother, you are a child of God only by adoption. Doesn’t that count?” I asked.
“Don’t get cheeky, child!” she said.
“I needst’ must be about my Parent’s business.”
I love that word cheeky. It’s a visible gesture. The smart aleck, but the smart aleck with a difference, the smart aleck as a saint. The smart aleck who dares to call even adult authorities to a higher vision of the truth.
Marx was right at least in part. Most people want their religion to be an opiate. God wants it to be a strong tonic.
You want to follow me? Jesus asks. Then don’t stop with worship of me. You can’t keep me trapped on a lovely altar. I’ll be wherever anyone is hungry, out of work, in jail, ignorant, helpless; an outcast, or in any other kind of adversity, and I will judge you by how you let me borrow your face in all such places you can reach. Don’t revere my cross: take up your own.
You want forgiveness, do you? You want to feel good instead of just sanctimonious and sentimental? Well, I’ll plant a prayer that people will say all around the world for centuries in every language and most of them will never hear that it contains its own answer: quit asking me for forgiveness; you’ll have forgiveness only when you forgive those who wrong you. Get off your knees. Stand on your own two feet. You, like me, are God’s child. Adoption is the real deal.
I knew that Dad might not live for me to see him again as I got off the Greyhound after a 26-hour journey. I caught the cab in 105° heat to ride to the nursing home. Mother had died five months earlier after their first 12 days in this place. The three of us had always been very close.
Even through his immense pain, Dad rallied again to enjoy our reunion. When I went for the last time, I held his hand and said, “Dad, I know that I have not been the son you wanted, but I love you very much.”
(Who would ever really choose a son whose very identity as a gay person would put the parent through the scornful hoops our church and society routinely require? I asked myself in my heart of hearts.)
Dad took about three minutes as he insisted on pulling himself up to the rail of his bed.
“Louie, you are very wrong, my son. You are the son I wanted! I love you very much.”
How much more our heavenly parent says to us, more than we’re prepared to hear, “You, just as you are, are the child that I want.” When you really hear that, you will never be the same again.
Louie Crew Clay is professor emeritus at Rutgers University. He is the founder of Integrity and he has served The Episcopal Church as a deputy to six General Conventions (1994-2009), as a member of Executive Council (2000-2006), and as a member of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Newark.