Why the Begats Matter

People’s lives are at stake.

if we want to stand for justice in our world.

Atatiana Jefferson was murdered by a police officer this week. She is the most recent victim of murders of innocents. I lament her death, but lament is not enough to stop the madness. I have a responsibility to see her as my kin. The Gospel demands of us this radical reconstrual of our identities, attitudes, and behaviors.

The Christian New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew begins with “begats.” Genealogy matters in the recorded story of Jesus.

Genealogy in the New Testament is also a bit peculiar as genealogies go. The Gospel of Luke’s begats are different than Matthew’s. Why is that? Did the two writers have two different family Bibles (and thus two different versions of Jesus’s ancestry)?

Scholars disagree on why Luke’s and Matthew’s genealogies differ, and this essay is not the place to muddle through the scholarly debates. What is clear is that genealogies held value for both of these ancient writers.

Genealogies say something about who we are by saying something about who our ancestors are. They also set boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Who has the right bloodline to inherit this or that name or property or authority? Who begat whom with whom and from whom? Genealogies set parameters for personal, social, and political life stories.

What do Jesus’ genealogies tell us about his identity?

Most genealogies in patriarchal societies focused on male ancestors. That is what makes Jesus’ genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew so striking. Note some of the names recorded by the writer of Matthew as part of Jesus’ family tree:

Tamar (Genesis 38)
Rahab (Joshua 2)
Ruth (The Book of Ruth)
Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)
Mary (the mother of Jesus)

Women are included in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, even some Canaanite and Joabite women. So-called “outsiders.” Women who were deemed scandalous. The genealogy even includes an unnamed woman, “the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” We know her as Bathsheba.

Surfacing “subjugated knowledge”

Matthew’s genealogy brings to mind for me the work of French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault. Foucault constructed “genealogies” of contemporary practices and institutions. His aim was to show how present power dynamics emerged out of struggles, conflicts, alliances and power plays that are too often buried or forgotten.

Foucault sought to surface “subjugated knowledge” that is routinely muted or disqualified by dominant or more powerful voices.

Matthew’s Gospel disrupts the usual bloodlines and histories to include the stories of outsiders in Jesus’ genealogy. If Jesus was born to remake the world and transform the human story, then he needs a subversive and radical genealogy that includes those routinely discounted. Matthew gives us that.

Who do we name in our genealogies?

Why does this subversive begatting matter? The reason, for me, takes the shape of a question:

Who do I name in my genealogy? I have my family tree, of course, the one that Grandma recorded on those pages in the center of the Crainshaw Bible. I have a responsibility to be aware of my family’s history. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus urges me to take this a step further. Matthew’s genealogy urges me to pay attention to whose names are not recorded on those glossy family tree pages.

The presence of the women in Jesus’ genealogy signals that Jesus’ life-story will inaugurate a new and unexpected identity for the people of God, one where subjugated knowledges, bodies, and stories are respected and embraced as kindred.

A call to radical kinship

Too many people in our communities today face violence, danger, and even death because of their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, economic reality–in other words, because they reside in realms of “subjugated knowledges.”

The time has come for those of us who claim kinship with Jesus to reimagine our genealogies. Who are the Tamars, Rahabs, Ruths, Bathshebas, and Marys in our communities? In our life stories? Where can we encounter those whose wisdom and voices have been subjugated or denounced or destroyed by the powers that be.

Whoever our Tamars, Rahabs, Ruths, Bathshebas and Marys are, we need to name them, lament the pain they have experienced, confess our participation in the injustices they have endured, and do whatever we can to celebrate our kinship with them in the beloved community of God.

And our responsibility does not end with lament, confession, and celebration. People’s lives are at stake.

Jesus calls us to stand with those relegated to and endangered on the margins, even if we risk our own security and privilege by doing so.

The begats matter in the genealogy of Jesus. They matter for us too as we work to extend radical hospitality and inclusivity to others. And they matter if our lament over Atatiana Jefferson’s death is to move us to everyday actions that, because we are her kin in God’s beloved community, resist injustice in all of its forms.

When Wisdom Is Silent

It’s noisy out there. And in here (in my heart). So hard to know what is real. Authentic. True.

Listening for Liturgy’s Strange Voices in Speech-Saturated Public Spaces

Note: I am giving the Aidan Kavanagh Lecture at Yale’s Institute for Sacred Music next week. This is a draft of the introduction to my presentation. Or perhaps it is a draft of the preface to the introduction, the primary word here being draft :).

Is that true? Really? Come on, now. That’s a Babylon Bee article, isn’t it?

I can’t believe I just spent that much time reading that post. 

How many views did I get? Only half as many “likes”? Why didn’t those other people “heart” my photo? 

It’s noisy out there. And in here (in my head). So much static. Interference. Meme-omic chatter.

Permutations and op-ed combinations “to infinity and beyond” (or so it seems).

Anybody and everybody talking about anything and everything on any and every platform.

Traffic honking. Politicians fili-blustering. Information speeding down super-spyways.

News headlines blaring. Guns firing. Sirens wailing. And people too.

It’s noisy out there. And in here (in my heart). So hard to know what is real. Authentic. True.

I think part of the noisiness is because so many of us are searching, hoping, longing, yearning for, even scrambling for–something. Maybe we long for what my mama used to call the “gospel truth.” Of course, she didn’t realize that her use of the phrase harkened back to a time when to tell the “gospel truth” meant to speak a “truth” as undeniably believable as, well, you know–“the Gospel.”

Let’s Google that. Google what? The “Gospel truth.” What is the “Google truth” about “Gospel truth”?

Truth that is undeniably believable? Undeniably believable for whom? And which Gospel? Aren’t there four in the biblical canon? Four perspectives. Four voices. Four contexts. Four portraits.

Gospel truth. From the Old English, God (good) spel (news) truth? Good news truth. Good tidings truth, as some dictionaries suggest. I like that. But who talks about “tidings” these days except at Christmastime?

And where do we look–or listen–for good tidings truth in today’s speech-saturated public spaces?

Thus the title for my presentation–When Wisdom Is Silent: Listening for Liturgy’s Strange Voices in Speech-Saturated Public Spaces.

I am curious–ironic, isn’t it, that “curious” is from the Latin, curiosus, or “careful,” from cura, or “care”–I am curious whether and how worship practices can infuse speech-saturated spaces with good tidings that disrupt the clang and clamor of the truth and knowledge power-brokers-that be. How can our liturgies be places where estranged voices can be heard and respected as proclaimers of good tidings wisdom?

[An aside–a comment, if you will–curious is related to curate which is from the Latin, curatus, which means “to take care of” which also means “spiritual guide or priest.” I Googled that, btw. A curate is a priest? To curate the truth is to “priest” the truth? Is that true, really? How does liturgy curate truth?]

Over many years, I have pondered the relationship between Wisdom Woman and the Strange Woman in Proverbs. They both call out in public places. One is praised; the other is vilified. Is it possible that liberating and healing truth is both wise and strange? That God is both wise and strange? And how do we have ears to hear either through the cacophonous discord of our public speech-making?

Thus ends this prefatory draft. Stay tuned. I know I am. Indeed, I wait in hope for the next words and sentences to be revealed…

It’s the Great Pumpkin Season, Charlie Brown!

I have a different theory altogether about the origins of manufacturers’ efforts to pumpkin spice the world at the start of each September.

Pumpkin Season is here!

…pumpkin spice lattes
…pumpkin spice bagels
…pumpkin spice donuts
…pumpkin spice pound cake
…pumpkin spice pancakes
…and, yes, even pumpkin spice Cheerios

Photo by Sheila G. Hunter. Used by permission.

But wait. Am I misrepresenting the season? Am I on the verge of doing a terrible disservice to the noble pumpkin that hales from the Cucurbita genus and is therefore a great aunt to cucumbers, melons, and squash?

Yes, I can almost hear the exasperated eye-rolls of the pumpkin season deniers and pumpkin purists. The 65,900 acres of pumpkins harvested in the US in 2018 (according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service) were not grown in soil seasoned with cinnamon and cloves. None of the more than 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins that turned those acres orange last fall tasted or smelled anything like a latte.

That’s because pumpkin and pumpkin spice products are connected in name only, right?

A Matter of Taste
Photo by Jill Crainshaw.

Five spices make up the addictive (at least to some people) flavors in the famous (or is it infamous) “Pumpkin Spice Latte” (PSL): cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice. These spices, mixed together in various proportions into coffee or cake batter or ice cream, somehow make some of us think “pumpkin.”

And I have to admit that even to a pumpkin season devotee like me, this is something of a curiosity. Like my friend says, “Pumpkin itself has no taste—lots of nutrients—but no taste.”

Well, I suppose the whole debate over Pumpkin Season actually is a matter of taste. And I have to admit, while I think pumpkin does have a taste, a pumpkin picked from my backyard garden and baked in my kitchen oven doesn’t taste or smell like a PSL.

Over the Harvest Moon about Pumpkin Spice Everything
As pictured online in an advertisement.

So—what ignited the pumpkin spice craze that led to over $80,000,000 worth of PSL sales in 2018? Why are so many people so over the harvest moon about pumpkin spice everything? And, as an aside, if you will, who is buying that Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Beard Oil I saw on my newfeed? (Even this pumpkin fan was surprised to discover this addition to the seasonal offerings!)

A 2015 BBC News Magazine author, Vanessa Bradford, sought answers to these questions. She interviewed food scientist, Kantha Shelke, who offered this insight:

“Pumpkin is not a favourite food. Children and many adults often avoid pumpkin as they do rutabagas and some root vegetables. But many of us believe we should be happier (and nicer and more giving) during the holidays and pumpkin-spice products are just one of those things – like juniper and pine and wood burning stoves and fireplaces – that can change our frame of mind.”

Kantha Shelke

Does this mean we can attribute skyrocketing pumpkin spice everything sales to nostalgia, marketing, and social media hype along with a rather bittersweet (which is not a PSL flavor) desire for a particular mind-and-heart-set?

The Great Pumpkin Theory

I, for one, am eager for transformed hearts and minds. But I don’t really think PSLs or other pumpkin-y products are a necessary variable of transformation. (What the necessary variables are is subject matter for another post that in a stroke of irony has to do with “seeing Jesus in a mocha“–not a PSL.)

I have a different theory altogether about the origins of manufacturers’ efforts to pumpkin spice the world at the start of each September.

Last year’s Jack-O-Lantern at my house, carved by Sheila Hunter. Photo by Jill Crainshaw.

Do you remember back in the 1960s when Charles Schulz wrote and produced the animated TV special, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? In the show, Linus gives up trick-or-treating on Halloween night and stays awake into the night waiting for the Great Pumpkin to come to his “sincere pumpkin patch”?

The Great Pumpkin never shows up.

My theory? Those of us in my generation (I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide who that is) who sympathized with Linus have spent the last five years filling the void left by the no-showing Great Pumpkin with, well, the spice of pumpkin that doesn’t require an actual pumpkin or even the pumpkin patch.

Spicing Up Life and Sowing Seeds

I love Pumpkin Season. Yes, I know that my frame of mind and my shopping during said season are probably being shaped by the advertising and marketing powers that be. Even so, I relish the first day of Pumpkin Season (September 21 for me, my birthday) and the way it spices up my life rhythms with the promise of autumn.

I also relish the opportunities Pumpkin Season provides for me to sit down in a favorite coffee shop with a friend, enjoy a sip ‘o the season, and delight in the delectable spices we contribute to each other’s lives.

And in those moments of sharing, perhaps we sow seeds (and not pumpkin seeds) that have the potential to transform hearts and minds.

“Harvest Moon, 2018. Photo by Jill Crainshaw.

Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

well, not really, but God’s Spirit was present in that mocha moment. . .

Note: I first wrote this post in June 2015. My mother has since died, and on Sundays I often think about her and our mocha moments. I revisited this piece for #blogtober. As I reread and revised it for today’s post, I realized—many people are hungrier than ever for a glimpse of the sacred, in particular when it is revealed through justice-making and shared hope.

“Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha.” Can’t we picture such a headline in our news feeds? We have seen announcements like it before: “‘Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese’ Sells for $28,000.” The now-famous grilled cheese was reported to have an imprint of the Virgin Mary’s face on it. It had been stored in a baggie in a bedroom dresser for ten years before we heard about it in the news in 2004.

$28,000? Are we that hungry for a glimpse of the sacred?

Social media outlets have been abuzz recently about churches in survivor mode. Statistics paint a grim picture of the future of institutional Christianity. What are churches offering that people aren’t buying? 

What are we hungry for today?

A mocha stirred up these thoughts for me. You see, I have been seeing something that looks a whole lot God’s Spirit swirling about in a mocha I have a date with each week. 

The mocha itself is at best mediocre. I get it for free from one of those institutional coffee machines you find in hospitals or convenience stores. I press one of six buttons–hot chocolate, mocha, cappuccino (regular or decaf) or coffee (regular or decaf). The machine ponders my choice. Then it grinds and sputters and spits my beverage into a 6-ounce cup.

This particular machine resides in my mother’s senior adult apartment community. When my mother moved to my city, I was glad that the transition was not as difficult as other parental moves I had heard about. My mother pared down her stuff and moved with some ease from her house of 45 years into a studio apartment. The ascetic quality of her new space suits her just fine. 

More difficult was the change her move sparked for me. Overnight my schedule became tied to hers. My mother’s life became less cluttered, mine more cluttered.

That is how the mocha machine came to dispense more than just a mocha. I organize my mother’s medications every week. I also do her laundry. Once these tasks are done, she and I go downstairs to wait for her lunch hour. While we wait, I sip on a mocha.

I have never been a devoted mocha drinker, but the day the mocha machine was “out of order,” I was too. I had come to anticipate drinking that Styrofoam-seasoned, somewhat chocolate flavored drink.

I sat to wait with Mom the day the mocha machine was on the fritz. The stories and conversations went on around me as usual, and I found myself laughing and joining in. The weekly mocha had helped me in those initial months of transition to sit and listen and hear the wisdom-infused storytelling of my mother and her new friends. It had offered Spirit-sweetened seasoning to my caregiving activities.

Now, even without the mocha, I was connected somehow. Perhaps what many churchgoers seek is not unlike what I seek as a caregiver: moments when God’s Spirit sneaks in to stir up and transform.

If people go to church at all, they go seeking moments when their life stories are heard and held with care. They go wanting to experience something about their place in the human community. They go to encounter and even join forces with a God who is working to end injustice and heal our world. Neither exacting doctrinal analysis nor sentimentalized sacramentality will accomplish these things.

But perhaps cultivating holy “mocha moments” can. Coffee shops are popular these days. Many people love to grab a cup of java with friends over breakfast biscuits. Others go to coffee shops to drink their favorite roast at a solo table while working on their laptops. But even those of us who drink our coffee solo at coffee shops are not alone. Not really. We notice, we regulars, when Susan is not at her usual corner table. 

Could it be that we humans seek everyday community-making rituals and sometimes even embrace them as everyday sacred? Hmm … and could this mean that God is already loose and at work in the world? Does it mean that churches don’t have sole (or even primary) responsibility for naming and managing God’s presence beyond their walls?

I say “yes” to all of these questions.

Churches need to think about how their public and spiritual identities can be born again for our hyper-connected, coffee-shop-community times. Churches also need to pay attention to gifts already present in their worship traditions.

I learned as a child to look for Jesus in a bit of bread and a sip of drink. Before I started partaking of communion or learned anything about communion’s theological intricacies, I watched when folks in our church tipped their heads back to drain those tiny cups. I noticed that when my father returned to our pew after communion he had a different smell. I wanted to taste that drink. I wanted to smell different like he did. I also learned as a child that God loves me and others no matter what. God’s grace is about these things.

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

Churches that will thrive in the future will fling open their doors not only to let God’s Spirit in but also to share physical food and drink with hungry people. They will also offer with determined joy God’s gifts of radical welcome and fierce generosity to all people.

Perhaps to the extent that we learn to welcome all—friends and strangers—to our church tables we make possible more of those everyday grace-filled moments when people glimpse something that resembles Jesus, even in a mediocre mocha.

On Rekindling Your Passion

Some passions keep luring us back into their embrace. Or is it their clutches?

for writing (and other callings to creative work)

I wrote my first novel–well, started writing it–with my best friend in fifth grade, Sandra. Sandra and I lived in the same neighborhood and spent many days after school hanging out together.

We didn’t start out to write a novel on that afternoon when we came up with the idea. For a few days, we had been curious about a vacant house down the road from where Sandra lived. Of course, we didn’t know any facts about the house or its occupants. All we knew was that one day tricycles and a Buick were parked out front and the next day they were replaced by a “for sale” sign. Something sinister must have happened, we surmised.

Our imaginations took over from there. After several days of conjecture, we decided to write a mystery novel featuring the now empty house and its departed inhabitants.

I don’t remember why we chose to record our unsubstantiated theories about the house in a novel. Looking back, that seems like an odd undertaking for a couple of ten-year-olds.

Both of us were devoted fans of 1970s teenaged sleuths–Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchock’s three investigators. Our love of reading those mysteries may have inspired our own writing aspirations. We were also avid watchers of “Dark Shadows,” a soap opera that we found to be funny and scary all at the same time. The story we began to imagine about that house down the street was scary–and hilarious–to us. We giggled as much as we wrote as we huddled around the typewriter on those after school afternoons.

I am certain the novel was a success. That, too, is unsubstantiated if success is determined by the quality of the writing or the quantity of books sold. We did not sell or even show the novel to anyone, and I have no idea what happened to the draft we created.

We typed our story on a portable Sears typewriter using typewriter paper we had cut to the size of novels we had checked out from the public library. Those typed sheafs of paper are long gone as is my memory of the plot and characters. Sandra might remember more than I do, but she and I lost touch over 40 years ago. I have a vague notion that she might be a pharmacist now–and maybe a writer, too?

Writing that novel ignited a passion within me. That is why I consider it a success. Ever since those afternoons of pounding out a plot on that manual typewriter on Sandra’s family’s carport I have loved to write.

In the years since I collaborated on that first mystery, I have written sermons, lectures, essays, academic books, blogs, poems, and stories. I have even co-written and published a full-length novel–Come Home Free–with a new writing partner, Sheila Hunter. None of my projects have made bestseller lists. Most of them have been read by only a handful of dedicated fans. Fame and fortune do not characterize my artistic endeavors. But over the years, I have continued to enjoy the writing craft and my identity as a writer. I love imagining myself to be a writer. I love being a writer.

On those days when my imagination has run dry or when I wonder if writing is worth the agony it causes (yes, writing is sweet agony most of the time), that debut novel that never debuted comes to mind. Or it should.

How can any of us rekindle our passion for creative work in the face of manuscript rejections, lack of readers, or just plain old loss of motivation? Three remedies come to mind.

First, we can take some time to remember what first sparked our artistic passions. One day after school Sandra and I jumped in and started writing a novel. We didn’t know how to do that or even have a good strategy for our efforts, but we had great fun spinning that fanciful yarn of ours. Those feelings of desire and enjoyment have never dissipated and have the power bring me back to the keyboard even on days when apathy threatens. Sometimes we need just to dive in and write.

Second, we can reignite our curiosity about the things we encounter in our everyday lives. We might even stoke our imaginations by observing and brainstorming with another artist or friend. I think such brainstorming sessions should always involve a certain amount of giggling.

Third, we can continue to create through the dry spells. It took me a long time to add “writer” to my resume. Through writing, I have developed my voice and gained clarity about what I believe and value. Writing connects me to other people and the world around me. Writing gives me space to follow paths that lead me away from emails and calendars. Sometimes I even write myself down unexpected trails where adventure lurks around the bend. I am a writer. Writers write. And writing itself can rekindle our passion.

I wish I still had a page or two of that childhood novel. I am curious about the voice and imagination of the ten-year-old me. I am also curious about what sort of tale Sandra and I decided to tell about that vacant house down the street. I am sad that those pages are gone. But a few manual typewriters are still around. The next time I hit a writing wilderness–when all else fails–maybe I will sit down at an old Sears and see follow whatever plot my fingers remember.

Photo by Jill Crainshaw

the writing work of the people

crafting poems, prayers, and litanies for worship

What does worship sound like? What ideas, hopes, dreams, and laments do the words of worship spark or stir or set loose in our hearts and minds? What images of God swirl up out of our communal prayers and hymns to shape what we believe and who we are as people of faith? Words are powerful. How we use words in worship matters.

At Wake Forest University School of Divinity, I teach a course entitled “Liturgical Writing as Spiritual, Theological, and Prophetic Act.” One aim of the course is to encourage students to become liturgical writers, in other words to craft prayers, poems, spoken word pieces, hymn texts, blessings, calls to worship, and more. The course also invites students to explore and name what theologies they are embodying through their choices of language, images, styles, and forms for public prayers and written liturgies. In the course, students learn about elements of worship and explore historic and contemporary examples of how words and linguistic patterns are used in liturgies. Students also share their own liturgical writing efforts each week in a writers’ workshop format. My primary hopes for the course? I want students to explore relationships between the historic and traditional voices of diverse liturgical forms, their unique voices and theologies, and their roles as public prophets, theologians, and spiritual leaders. I also hope that students will attend to elements of style that support vivid and effective liturgical communication: rhythms of public prayer, use of metaphor and imagery, how form and language create atmosphere in worship.

Sometimes students are reluctant to “write liturgies.” In some cases, that is because they come from traditions where most liturgical elements are already crafted for them in denominational worship books or in other resources. Other students come from traditions where writing liturgies is not a common practice. I invite all students to experiment with liturgical writing as a spiritual discipline that can spark greater awareness of their personal theological beliefs. Liturgical writing can also instill confidence in students about the vitality of their public voices as they prepare to become worship leaders.

As students in the course take their initial forays into writing liturgical elements, I encourage them to consider what I call “place-connected” dimensions of worship. What do I mean by this? The most important thing we can do when we craft prayers, hymns, and litanies is to let our liturgies arise as we are fully present to our surroundings and to the story that is unfolding in front of us in our communities–in our places.

Sometimes students request templates to help them frame their written work. I tend to avoid using templates and instead offer students basic information and guidance about the shape and purpose of various worship elements. I want students to explore what it means to be fully present in a pastoral moment and then consider how to express what they experience through extemporaneous and written prayers and other liturgical forms.

The work of hospital chaplains provides an example of the place-connected prayerfulness I hope to encourage in pastoral leaders. Chaplains are often asked to pray at the bedsides of patients. To think theologically on my feet and shape a prayer that arises from the soul of the moment means, for me, noticing everything and every person in the room. Is there a stuffed animal in the room–where did it come from? Who is present? What stories are people telling? Is it winter outside or springtime? What is outside the window? Even the shoes people are wearing can sometimes tell you something about the narrative arc and emotional center of the praying moment.

Having connected with all that is present in the moment (including what is present in the chaplain’s own heart and body), then the chaplain can focus on an image or metaphor and allow a prayer to arise with that image at the center. I find that this gives prayers emotional color and weight that make them memorable and powerful.

Today’s ministry students and pastoral leaders encounter on a daily basis a wide array of multi-denominational and multicultural religious contexts. Ministers are often asked not only to lead in public worship but also to offer prayers for a range of situations and occasions (over family meals, at public events, and for varied ritual occasions, such as commencements, house blessings, and church dinners). As they explore historical and traditional liturgical forms and resources and attempt to craft some of their own worship words, students learn much about the dynamic and often prophetic relationship between what we pray and what we believe.

Note: In collaboration with students in two versions of this course, I have published collections of their liturgical writing. Words Made Flesh: Poems and Prayers for Worship and Uncommon Words, Common Worship; Selected Prayers, Poems, and Laments. Both were published by Wake Forest University’s Library Partners Press.