I. Uncle Jesus

This is the long-form essay with which I launched this blog, first posted one year ago today, February 9th of 2014. It is the first of three “foundational” essays that I believe are important enough to post annually, so I will be reposting the second and third in the coming weeks, as well. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year already! Thank you so very  much for your support. Onward (and upward!)…

 “An epiphany brings a truth about the world into the sphere of vivid personal experience.”

– David E. Cooper

Several threads of thought spinning in my mind – some for a lifetime – have recently come together in an unexpected way, presenting an idea so remarkable to me it must be shared. Much as the bee buzzing from flower to flower is content to gather nectar with no notion whatever that she is also pollinating the field she farms, these ideas all began as small things, snippets of experience, without a clue where my thoughts were taking me until we arrived: an insight so filled with joy and astonishment it took my breath away, and even as I write this it remains a source of wonder.

So, whether out of sheer, naïve enthusiasm, or (as some will say) an overly-inflated sense of my powers of perception, or perhaps – and this would be my choice – as the flowering of some unseen spiritual nurture, I am letting you in on my “discovery.” That said, it is one thing to wish to share the full emotional force of a cosmic-level realization, and quite another to string together the words to do so. Ultimately, after several false starts, I have concluded there is no shortcut and the only way to get to the end is to begin at the beginning – follow each thread as it was spun – in the hope that, when finally joined, they will align for you as they have for me.

The First Thread: “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep”

My parents were putting me to bed with nightly prayers long before I could remember it. I’m sure they started as soon as I could form the words. It was the age of Norman Rockwell and Donna Reed, and after my parents had been held down as teens by the Great Depression only to be flung by the frightening excesses of WWII to the most exotic corners of the earth, all Hank and Jane Wilson – and millions of their peers across the country – finally, really yearned for was the simple, the ordinary and the expected. So, it should be no surprise that the prayer we always, always said, until I was at least eight or nine years old, was no different: “Now I lay me down to sleep//I pray the Lord my soul to keep//If I should die before I wake//I pray the lord my soul to take.” And, then I would add my own personal coda: “God bless Mama and Daddy, in Jesus’ name, Amen.” Of course, the grandparents were soon included in my nightly prayers, and when my sister came along, she also joined the list, which, as the nights turned into years, grew until it embraced neighbors, friends, aunts, uncles and dozens of cousins. Early on, it reached the point that my parents tired of it and would just leave me to finish when we got to that part, and many were the nights I fell asleep still thinking of people to add, never even making it to “Amen.”

And, as best I’ve been able throughout my life, I’ve tried to continue widening my embrace, adding others to my list until, finally, I grew to realize that, if every human being is equally a child of the same Heavenly Father, then what I really should do is embrace everyone – include all the people of the earth – for who would I, could I, omit if we are all the same to Him, if we are all truly “ben” or “bat Jehovah?”

Of course, logistically, even as a mental exercise, this is not easy. Perhaps it is easier to visualize seven billion people than seven billion dollars, but not much. On the other hand, everything, even praying, improves with practice, and when you start, as I did, with only your parents, then, over a lifetime, expand your prayer to include family, friends and, ultimately, a planetful of people, the step-by-step growth in “inclusion acuity” makes it  a little easier.

I still begin, as I have since those earliest days, with loved ones, and then I move on to our neighbors. Living, as we do, in the midst of residential Manhattan, there are a great many neighbors, so I start with the ones we know who live next door and on the floors above and below, then stretch out my mind to include the unknown neighbors of the buildings beyond, and on out a little more until our ten thousand nearest neighbors – that being about the largest number of individuals I can get my head around – are included. I pray for the shopkeepers and shoppers, the students and teachers, the parishioners and preachers, the elderly who live in the Jewish Home for the Aged just up the block and their caregivers, the sidewalkers and trash-talkers and derelict homeless sitting in the park. Whoever they may be and whatever they may be doing, I pray for our ten thousand nearest neighbors in that moment.

I pray that each may have a day of inspiration and confirmation; a day filled with personal touchstones of faith, synchronicities that astonish, coincidences beyond explaining, all those little things that give us starts and turn our thoughts to God and angels, that say ‘you’re on the right track,’ and ignite the “joy profound” within our hearts. And further, that once ignited across the neighborhood, all that joy might generate positive energies enough to spread the love up and out across the whole of New York City, from our ten thousand nearest neighbors to our ten million nearest. To embrace all – natives and visitors – who may chance to be here on that day, from the southern shores of Staten Island to the top of the Bronx, from the Hudson River to the edge of the outer boroughs. Ten million are, after all, only nine-hundred, ninety-nine additional souls for each of those already included, and I try to envision everyone from the destitute in the darkest shelters to the powerful in their penthouses. I truly believe in angels, as the title of this blog suggests, and I include them in my prayer, as well, along with my request that they please help each of us perceive, as best we can, the presence of the Father in our lives; that they please lift the veil just enough for us to see a glimmer of the Light, for it only takes a glimmer to confirm the Light is there.

Finally, having fully embraced and envisioned, as best I can, my ten million fellow New Yorkers, I ask for God’s grace to expand my prayer one more time, from the whole of the City to the whole of the earth, from ten million to seven billion, which, as it happens, is actually less of a stretch, since it only requires adding six-hundred-and-ninety-nine souls for each of those ten million already embraced. Seven continents, seven seas, seven billion sisters and brothers under one Heavenly Father. All of us in the dark, but looking, as best we can, for the way forward. Two hundred countries, a thousand cities and a million towns filled with seekers after Truth.

In other words, the thread that began on those early nights as a blessing for “Mama and Daddy” has stitched itself into the essence of my life and grown to encircle everyone. And that, I find, is a source of imperturbable solace and strength. Richard asked me one day, after a passing stranger on the sidewalk had been particularly rude to us, why I wasn’t angry. “It’s hard to be angry with someone you just prayed for,” I said, realizing, even as I said it, just how true it was.

The Second Thread: Not All Unseen Friends Are Imaginary

A view of Collier Creek near our house in Grayson, AL, in the Bankhead National Forest, Alabama (Photo by David Young: davidyoungphotograph.net

A view of Collier Creek near our home from ’48-’57 in Grayson, AL, in the Bankhead National Forest, Alabama          (Photo by David Young: davidyoungphotography.net)

Who was Jesus, really? There are many answers, yet none can be proved. He called Himself the “Son of Man,” whatever that means, and even among learned theologians, opinions are so scattered as to be of little use. There are those who believe He never lived at all, or at best, was a clever charlatan with big ideas. Many others believe He was merely a man, but a man who could justifiably sit alongside Siddhartha, Lao Tzu, Moses, Zoroaster, Mohammed and, one supposes, many other ancient sages who might be named if they could but be remembered. I’d even go so far as to say that many “Christians” who go to church regularly really only believe Him to have been a man, a great man, perhaps, but, still, only a human who died on a cross and went to Heaven like the rest of us hope to do, and, after all, aren’t all people who go to Heaven really “still alive?” So, perhaps, to say that Jesus lives is no great stretch….

And, then there are others, like me, who actually believe Jesus was something extraordinary: the Creator Son of the Universe we inhabit; The One who made us and then became one of us the better to know and love us; an All-Powerful Personality who was, by choice, both completely Divine and completely human.

In my case, this thread of understanding began to spin early on, for, if those nightly prayers were started before my memory tapes, our days at the Church in the Forest began even earlier. Mama had named it that, and it was the only church in the hamlet of Grayson, Alabama, a tiny sawmill town in the midst of the Bankhead National Forest. Think “Hansel and Gretel” and you’ll have the setting exactly, and my father was the woodsman! His boss, a kindly lumberman named Clancy, had donated the materials to build the church once my parents rallied the townspeople to raise it. That was two years before I was born and, by the time I came along, it was a thriving little Baptist church. (They held an election – Baptist vs. Methodist – after it was erected. The Baptists won in a landslide.) Truly a poor church serving the poor, to paraphrase Pope Francis, it had nothing like the resources needed to support a full-time preacher, so a succession of itinerants – from “fire and brimstone” to “down and dour” – made their way through, and, when there was no one else, Daddy filled in handsomely.

It was there among friends – and everyone in Grayson was my friend – I began to discover my singing voice, and “Jesus” was the first word of the first song I ever learned, and the second song, too, come to think of it. His name was said before every meal we ever ate, regardless of where or with whom we may have been. His story was always front and center, whether at Wednesday night fellowship, or at Church School and preaching twice on Sunday, not to mention that He was right there in the pew racks, staring back at us even as we prayed to Him, with His flowing brown hair and deep blue eyes printed on cloud-shaped cardboard fans from the Double Springs funeral home. In short, Jesus was as much a part of my childhood as the pine trees and sawdust. Of course, that doesn’t mean I really understood who or what He was. After all, life was immersed in Him in those parts, and as is often said, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask a fish.”[1]

One of my favorite things about Sunday School in those early years was its exclusivity. Because I was the only child in town anywhere near my age, I was often the only pupil in the class, but like the good troopers they were, my teachers never seemed to mind, and would forge ahead using the Southern Baptist study guides, week after week, even if we were alone. And, it was in just such a class, when I was nearly five, that a frustrated Mrs. Lethcoe said to me with some insistence in her flat, North-Alabama twang: “Tommy, Jesus just wants to be your friend!” Well, now, that was something I could understand.[2]

Imaginary friends come naturally when you’re an only child living in the woods with nary a playmate in miles, and one of the reasons I took to Nell Lethcoe’s suggestion so instantly was because I already had relationships going with two friends who were, apparently, invisible to others (as neither Mama nor my babysitters could see them). They were little old British ladies who wore printed cotton tea dresses and flowery hats. Their names were Mrs. Seafey and Mrs. Coctiff, and I honestly have not the vaguest notion how I happened to cast them in those particular roles. Nevertheless, they were my friends and we truly loved each other. Every afternoon, I would set the child-sized card table in my bedroom with my sister’s toy Blue Willow dishes and, at precisely four o’clock, the three of us would settle in for tea. We talked about all manner of things over the months of our association, from the death of an elderly friend to the love of my new baby sister, so it was only natural I would think of adding Him to our circle once the idea of Jesus-as-friend was voiced, and I wasted no time asking the ladies if they agreed.

Well. I suppose they assented, since, within a nanosecond of my posing the question, there He was, sitting right across the table and looking like His picture on those funeral-home fans, only vital, robust. His familiar appearance put me at ease, and His voice was low and gentle like a mountain brook flowing over river rocks. We loved each other instantly, or, at least, I loved Him instantly, as I gathered He had already been loving me for some time. The ladies (my angels?) were tickled to a rosy hue, and we had a wonderful visit together for the rest of the afternoon as He and I locked in a friendship that has only grown stronger with every passing year. It is often said that to truly believe, you must believe as a child. I know exactly what that means.

We continued meeting like that for some weeks until, the final time we sat around my table, He told me it would be our last tea, but that He would always be as near as my desire; that I need but knock and He would never fail to answer any question or rise to any occasion. And, dear reader, after nearly sixty years of enjoying His close association, nay, friendship, I can attest that He has been as good as His word to that little me all those years ago. To illustrate, I could relate many specific and moving examples, but this essay would be a book if I tried to tell them all in the fullness they deserve, so I only mention a few here without details [but with end notes]: at seven, I found myself signing an official Baptist commitment card to be His missionary for life[3]; at nine, I received a special dispensation from the Bishop for early Confirmation[4]; at thirteen, in a profound prayer on the night of JFKs assassination, I was led onto the path that held me fast for seventeen years, all the way through law school, and ultimately to NYC; when I was seventeen, He helped me maintain my sanity through a very difficult relocation[5]; when I was nineteen, He confirmed to my satisfaction in another intense prayer that I was not a mistake and that my having been born gay was as natural and as much a part of His plan as the sun rising in the morning; and, when I was 23, during and after my mother’s losing battle with pancreatic cancer, two profoundly personal, inexplicable mystical appearances occurred to absolutely seal the deal of our relationship[6].

In the crazy days of my youth, I used to ask Him for signs that I was on the right path, but I long ago stopped needing them when I began seeing them all the time, and the long and short of it is that for me to say, “I believe in Jesus,” is to understate the case. I know Jesus. We are good friends. I have seen Him with my own eyes sitting right across the table from me, and heard Him with my own ears in the most unexpected of times and places. I know that He lives because He is my ever-present Friend, my long-time, often disappointed, ever-forgiving, pro-active Friend, and the thread of our association has only grown stronger and more resilient through the mercerizing years I have spent dog-paddling, as best I could, through life.

Oh, there have been times, even years, perhaps, when my attention to our relationship has waned, but even in those times, when I finally came around, it was always as it should be when old friends  meet: as if there were no time between. That said, we are far beyond those days, and the thread of our companionship – of our real, true, living friendship – is, for me, unmistakable and unbreakable.

The Third Thread: An Unexpected Obsession

Several years ago I received a letter addressed in an elegant hand on engraved blue note paper from someone I did not know, and, when I opened it, a confetti of small black and white photos fluttered to the floor. These, it turned out, were “School Days” portraits of my mother and her siblings from the late 1920s sent by a distant cousin who had found them in one of her grandmother’s old trunks. I was thrilled to see them, and soon wrote back to thank her and, while I was at it, to ask some questions about her branch of our family.

She did get back to me, but once the questions had surfaced, I decided to look for some answers on my own by logging onto Ancestry.com. The site was new and offering a two-week free trial membership, and, well, oh my word, but did I fall down a rabbit hole! It was some months, as Richard will attest, before I finally emerged.

And, what a Wonderland I found! The more I uncovered about the people from whom I and my parents sprang, the more I wanted to know. It was like the best novel ever, full of surprises and sudden turns to drive me forward, or rather, backward in time, as I met thousands of fascinating forebears and – as a quite unexpected delight – reconnected with history in a fresh and much more personal way through their stories. It was an extraordinary journey, and as I continued, generation before generation, it became ever more clear just how rich the marvelous tapestry of family can be.

But, all that said, and in spite of the delight of it, there was something else going on. It was more than mere interest, or even curiosity, that kept pulling me deeper into the family story, kept driving me to keep at it as if for some more noble prospect than mere family research could deliver. My compulsion was full-bore and – though I was somehow sure it was borne of the spirit – I was at a loss to understand it even as I continued, faithfully, to dig.

There are, as you might expect, some family lines for which the information only covers a few generations, but I was surprised by just how many lines continued back for hundreds of years. Indeed, there were so many leads to follow and historical eddies to explore, I ultimately limited myself to researching only as far back as the “original immigrant” in each line, but not, fortunately,  before I had one of my most thrilling moments when I clicked on yet another little green leaf of 10th Century information to discover Lady Godiva, of all people, was one of my 31st great-grandmothers! Now, that was a rush.

Even if I did believe in reincarnation, I would still doubt “past life” readings that say their subjects were Cleopatra or Charlemagne, since the chances of having been “one in a billion” are, well, one in a billion. So I really didn’t expect to find such notoriety in my own background, much less the royal line of Lady Godiva. But, the more you churn the information, the clearer understanding grows, and I soon realized that when you get back as far as the 10th Century, the only people whose ancestral records were kept so completely were the nobility, so any information from those long-ago days is almost certainly related to the aristocracy, and further – as also became clear in time – almost everyone alive today has at least some royal blood.

Lesson One: Families Don’t Grow on Trees

Which leads me to the first of my great discoveries down the rabbit hole: Families don’t grow on trees. A family is not at all the vertical construct we generally imagine. Indeed, it is shaped nothing like a tree at all. Rather, picture a field of daylilies where expansion comes both from the multiplication of underground tubers within each family group, as well as their seeds – pollinated by butterflies and planted by birds – that soon fill the meadow with color. Family, in other words, is an entirely horizontal affair.

Now, this is counter-intuitive because the shape of the family we know is actually, for the most part, treelike, with a trunk and branches that leaf out into our loved ones. However, even in 20/20 hindsight, we are not very good at taking the long view of our dearly departed. Instead of envisioning the great flowering field of 1,048,576 18th great-grandparents that each of us, by definition, must have had, we think only of the first few. But two parents come from four grandparents who came from a whole host of forebears: 2×2=4 x2=8 x2=16 x2=32 x2=64 x2=128 x2=256 x2=512 x2=1024 x2=2048 x2=4096 x2=8192 x2=16,384 x2=32,678 x2=65,536 x2=131,072 x2=262,144 x2=524,288 x2=1,048,576. And, as hard as it is to believe, if you keep doubling it all the way back to Lady Godiva, she was only the most notorious of my 4.2 billion 31st great-grandparents!

Lesson Two: We Are All Cousins

But that, you might well posit, is impossible. After all, there weren’t even 4.2 billion people on the planet in the 10th Century, and, of course, you would be right. But in the end, it’s not about the size of the population but the number of conceptions, and it only took 2.1 billion of those. Plus, as it turns out, some of our ancestors were extremely good at conceiving. Consider two examples: Genghis Khan and the passengers of the Mayflower.

It has long been known that Genghis Khan was fond of procreation. It was even reported by Chinese observers as early as the year 1272 – only forty-five years after he died – that there were already twenty thousand of his progeny in positions of power across several neighboring regions.[7] And, in 2003, the American Journal of Human Genetics reported that over sixteen million men living today – and, by extrapolation, their sixteen million sisters – are all Genghis Khan’s descendants: thirty-two million literal cousins sired by one man only eight-hundred years ago![8]

The case of the Mayflower is similar. She landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 with just over a hundred survivors, but forty-five of them died the first winter, leaving a colony of only fifty-seven Pilgrims. Consequently, if you are related to one of them, it is almost a slam-dunk certainty you are related to several, since they and their children had only each other for “acceptable” mates, and even after additional ships arrived, their numbers were exceedingly small for scores of years.

Mindful of this, and being made of hardy stuff (especially the women), they tended to have a great many children – very often in excess of twenty – who, in turn, had a great many more. The result, over time, was similar to that of the Mongol Emperor, only this concentration of genetic inheritance included twenty-four procreating men rather than just the one. An article in the September 20th, 2004 edition of the Kingston Mariner relates: “a staggering thirty-five million people claim an ancestral lineage that runs all the way back – sometimes through fifteen generations – to the original 24 [Mayflower] males. That number represents 12 percent of the American population.” [9] (emphasis added)

In other words, we are all – and I do mean all – far more related than we think. Everyone reading this – however far away in time or space you may be from the here and now of this writing – is almost certainly my blood-kin cousin. And, even without the concentrated hubs arising from isolated populations or overreaching despots, this would still be unavoidable. Let us take another look at the math. Lady Godiva had eleven known children, but, again, for the sake of being ultra-conservative, let’s say she only had two who bore children, giving her four grandchildren who then only gave her eight great-grandchildren, etc., so that you generate the same numbers as with the grandparents, only going in the other direction. In other words, given a perfect progression, over 4.2 billion people living today could claim my 31st great-grandmother as their own. And, the same calculus would also have to be true for every other one of my 4.2 billion  31st great-grandparents! How could we not be related? The fabric of family is tighter than canvas and covers the whole of the earth.

Now, it is no doubt the case – at least common sense would allow – that Europeans are more related to each other than to Africans, who are more related to each other than to Asians, etc., but that said, we humans have been prone to cross-fertilization as far back as the Neanderthals,[10] and, it only took one 12th Century marriage between a Crusader and a Persian, for example, to join millions of previously distinct forebears into one family that, by today, has extended the bloodlines of both to a great proportion of the planetary population.

[Also, lo and behold, just this week, The New York Times published an op-ed by A. J. Jacobs entitled “Are You My Cousin?” which makes exactly my point using new insights arising from the growing list of genealogy-related websites.[11] Did I say “synchronicities that astonish”?]

But Still, My Angels, Why?

All these were fascinating, fun discoveries, but I still could not quite understand my compulsion to keep looking deeper and deeper for family truths. Why the obsession? What was my inner Father trying to tell me; teach me? I often took the question to Him in prayer, but the answer remained elusive. I did, however, after many thousands of hours rummaging around in history’s attic, finish the job of naming my forebears back to the original immigrants as best I could. I also followed a few lines as far back as the time of Christ, which proved to be 65 generations, more or less, and included Romans, Greeks and Semites. I won’t even bother you with the geometric calculation of their potential grandchildren, but it’s in the billions of billions and certainly includes almost everyone alive today but the hidden tribes of the Amazon.

A Joining of Threads

Of course, I should have known, having prayed the question with a sincere heart, that the answer to why I was so obsessed with family information would eventually come as promised, and, though it was quite some time before it finally fell into place, it was as satisfactory an answer as I could ever have desired.

As I did my research, my growing understanding of family ties did have an impact upon my prayers for others – from the neighborhood, to the city, to the planet –  since I began thinking of my neighbors as something more, as my actual cousins, and it really does feel different.[12] There is an undeniable intensification of the emotional investment when you truly see that those you are praying for, however unknown, are literal family. Blood, as they say, is thicker than water, and what had become increasingly clear to me as I did my research was the utter impossibility of drawing any dividing lines between our one family of seven billion cousins. Family, we learn from the cradle, is to be accepted with love – in spite of foibles or follies, if necessary – and not to be unkindly judged. How wondrous, then, once all are embraced as kinfolk, to dismiss unkindness altogether!

And then, one marvelous morning as I prayed, all these threads of understanding, some having taken a lifetime to work their way up through my consciousness, came together in an instant, as most revelations do. Though I always begin my prayers with the simple words “Dear Father,” the Divinity I perceive, and to whom I speak, is really an amalgam of the “Father in Heaven” to whom Jesus deferred in His own prayer, the “Holy Spirit” – who I perceive to be “God in Action” – and, of course, the “Son,” or my lifelong Friend, Jesus, Himself. And so it was on the day of my epiphany, as I was prostrate in the dark, I came to that part where neighbors are my focus, and, almost without realizing it, prayed “for our ten-thousand nearest neighbors, our ten-thousand nearest cousins… YOUR ten thousand nearest cousins…” And then I stopped as the full force of what had just happened washed through me. Of course! That was the point! That was the reason, I suddenly realized, I had been so obsessed! My oldest Friend, my dear Friend Jesus, who had been holding my hand since those days around the tea table, had been leading me, step-by-step, so that I would finally, fully see the reality that we – He and I and, yes, you – are not only friends, but family!

And with the next breath, the next realization – flowing from my long-established understanding that Jesus was the eldest of a large family of children – that if He and his brothers and sisters were my cousins, then He was also, inevitably, my uncle! Uncle Jesus! And, instantly, my prayer changed again as my perception altered.

The “brotherhood of man under the Fatherhood of God” is an old trope, but a valid one, that relies upon a wondrous spiritual nexus – Heavenly Father to His material children – to connect us all together. But how much more tangible is this new nexus, to be a member of the actual family of God! It’s one thing to ask a loving spiritual, but Heavenly, Father for forgiveness, and quite another to ask a favorite Earthly uncle for a favor.

The Family of Jesus

With all the emphasis upon His ministry and chosen family of twelve Apostles, Jesus’s actual family gets short shrift.  With the exception of Mary, we don’t really think much about them at all, though most experts agree He had several siblings.[13] Matthew, Chapter 13, tells us of four brothers named James, Joseph, Simon and Jude, and “sisters,” so one may conclude that, at the very least, He had six.

There are also records of later generations, including Judas Kyriakos, great-grandson of Jesus’s brother Jude (and the last Jewish-Christian “Bishop of Jerusalem”),[14] but, of course, we have no way of knowing exactly how many nieces and nephews He may have had. Nevertheless, for the sake of discussion, let us continue taking an extremely conservative approach and assume that only two of them had children. If we then assume the same progression and double the number in each generation, by the 31st, around the year 1000 AD, Jesus would already have had 4.2 billion potential great-nieces and great-nephews, and given that it would take another thousand years to bring us up to date,  each and every one of those 4.2 billion would likely, by now, have their own 4.2 billion!

And, if that isn’t assurance enough for you that we are all, almost inevitably, the nieces and nephews of Christ, add into the equation the undeniable consequences of the Diaspora – the spreading out of the Hebrews to the furthest ends of the earth – which began with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem six centuries before Christ and would seem to be entirely unrelated to His arrival, but for the sake of making the point, if the Universe wanted to ensure that Jesus might ultimately – in the fullness of time – be the literal blood Uncle of His entire human family, it could not have gone about it in a more systematic or effective way. That said, I don’t believe any loving Father (or Uncle, for that matter) would so displace His family as has been done to the Jewish nation throughout history, but it is an inarguable fact that the result is a far more interrelated world than it would ever, otherwise, have become.

Of course, if you believe, as many do, that Jesus was conceived immaculately, then any DNA endowment would theoretically be purely that of His mother. However, (and I’m bound to get into trouble for this) if, as I, you believe that His Divinity is actually enhanced and His sacrifice ennobled by His having been the Creator Son of our Universe who allowed Himself to be conceived in the normal way – as the utterly vulnerable firstborn Son of Mary and Joseph – His endowment would, of course, include the inheritance factors from both families. Either way, the point remains the same. Whether His DNA was only hers, or some combination of hers and God’s, or a combination of hers and Joseph’s, her son was still the blood brother of James, Joseph, Simon, Jude and His sisters, and He was still the uncle of every child born to them and great-uncle of every grandchild.

As it happens, benevolent uncles were a big part of my childhood. My grandfather had several brothers, and my favorite relatives in the early years were my Great-Uncles Edgar and Powell, both of whom were long widowed and doted on me at every opportunity. Beyond that, my mother’s brothers, Ned and Bubba – yes, Bubba – were fundamental to the health of my self-esteem as I grew up a stranger in a strange land. They were always there with a word of encouragement or even to help with more mundane things like buying a used car, or refilling the honey jar from the 55-gallon drum of honey kept on the back porch.

So, the idea that Jesus was not only my lifelong Friend, but my actual Uncle, as well, was a wonderful discovery, and one I took instantly to heart. Of course, it may not mean very much to you, if you don’t believe, as I do, that He is the Master Creator Son of the Universe who made not only our world, but the millions of similar worlds that populate our heavens; or if you don’t believe, as I do, that out of all the worlds He has made, He chose this one to live out a singular life of one of His very own material creatures – from defenseless infant to Divine Teacher – the better to know us and love us as one of us, as well as to show us the way through His perfected example. But, I do believe all of those things right down to the core of my beating heart and seeking soul, so for such a God to be, also, my literal Uncle is more than unimaginable, it is a gift of love and hope far greater and more uplifting than anything I could possibly deserve or even ever desire. God is my Uncle? God is my Uncle and your Uncle, too!

And, that, my dear cousin, is news worth sharing.

            February 9, 2014


[1] I have been utterly unable to track down the source of this quote, though there are thousands of uses of it cited by Google, most of which attribute it as “an old Chinese proverb.” Nevertheless, the sentiment is sound.

[2] As an aside, in all the years following that day, in spite of spending countless hours in countless churches, I have not heard one other person put it quite so well. Indeed, for years I have told this story and always called Nell Lethcoe’s simple, emphatic statement to me the “most profound theological point I’ve ever heard.” At least, this was true until Pope Francis appeared, but it turns out that “friendship with Jesus” is also one of his favorite themes. As recently as 1/4/14, for example, he actually tweeted (tweeted!) “Dear Young People, Jesus wants to be your friend, and wants you to spread the joy of this friendship everywhere.” You have to love it when the Pope quotes your childhood Sunday School teacher!

[3] It’s a long story, but had my Great-grandmother Baker died either one day before, or one day after, the day she actually passed away, I would not have been shipped off for a week in mid-July of 1957 to Cook Springs Baptist Women’s Missionary Union Camp, and would not – as a seven-year-old! – have found myself, at the end of that week, compelled to sign a 3”x5” commitment card that, of all things, I would continue to be a “missionary for Jesus” for the rest of my life. I may have been too young and too innocent, but in full consultation with my teatime Friend, I made a knowing commitment and I am still striving to live up to it.

[4] Two years later, when I was nine – and still very much in the glow of my innocence – I discovered our preacher was to be transferred (we had become Methodists in a new town by then) and since I found Brother Langford to be the most Christ-like of all the preachers we had ever had, I asked him to confirm and baptize me before he left. It took a special dispensation from the bishop because I was three years too young, but I succeeded in confirming my commitment to my good Friend in the best way I knew how.

[5] When I was only six weeks away from the end of my Junior year, I was suddenly transferred from the tiny (300 students in six grades) rural Florida high school where my mother had been a revered teacher, to an Alabama city school of 2000 people in 3 grades where no one knew me and I had no time at all to learn an entirely new curriculum before spending my final high school summer working in a bread factory as a union trainee. I was miserable and had it not been for the embracing group from the Campus Crusade for Christ led by a wonderful woman named Cook, I’m not sure I would have made it through my senior year intact. But, thanks to my Friend, and His – and my angels’ – particularly strong and consistent overcare, often demonstrated to me in real, perceptible, ways, I managed to suffer through with only minor scrapes and bruises. I literally could not have made it through those torturous months without my faith.

[6] The first of these occasions may sound insignificant in the retelling, but it involved several entirely unlikely, nearly impossible, sightings of an out-of-place dragonfly that appeared in response to my prayers for guidance and strength during those painful months, and the message received was, essentially, “Your prayers are heard. Do not worry. Worrying only depletes your energies and accomplishes nothing.” From that moment on, though I did the best I could for her in the weeks that followed, and mourned her passing when she died, my worry ceased and those energies were put to better use. The second event was an actual, as-God-is-my-witness, cloud-based vision that included a clear-as-a-bell image of my Friend Jesus standing tall with the sun streaming through His flowing hair and beard, His right arm raised in a blessing. Of course, as is the case with all such personal “for your eyes only” touchstones of faith, I cannot prove either of these contacts really happened, but I know, and He knows, that they did.

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/11/science/a-prolific-genghis-khan-it-seems-helped-people-the-world.html “As for Genghis himself, Dr. Morgan cited a passage from ‘Ata-Malik Juvaini, a Persian historian who wrote a long treatise on the Mongols in 1260. Juvaini said: ”Of the issue of the race and lineage of Chingiz Khan, there are now living in the comfort of wealth and affluence more than 20,000. More than this I will not say . . . lest the readers of this history should accuse the writer of exaggeration and hyperbole and ask how from the loins of one man there could spring in so short a time so great a progeny.”

[9] Article by John Galluzzo printed in the September 20th 2004 edition of the Kingston Mariner and reposted on the History News Network website of George Mason University on October 23rd of the same year. Link: http://hnn.us/blog/7360#sthash.DzfuEwh8.dpuf

[12] Or, as  A. J. Jacobs put it in his article “Are You My Cousin” in The New York Times on 2/2/2014: “…a mega[family]tree might just make the world a kinder place. I notice that I feel more warmly about people I know are distant cousins. I recently figured out that I’m an 11th cousin four times removed of the TV personality Judge Judy Sheindlin. I’d always found her grating. But when I discovered our connection, I softened. She’s probably a sweetheart underneath the bluster.”

[13] It is incumbent upon me at this point to allow that there are many who dispute whether the brothers and sisters of Jesus were His full brother and sisters, half brothers and sisters, or somehow the children of some other couple. For me, I go with the writer of Matthew, who said “His Brothers” and “His sisters,” without qualification of any sort.

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One Response to I. Uncle Jesus

  1. Wonderful, Tommy. I am so glad to have known you when you were the Youth Leader. You are such a sweet spirit!

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