July 22, 2014

Dear Centenary family,

One of my favorite places in Washington, DC, is the National Portrait Gallery.   I have visited the gallery many times and never grow tired of this treasure trove of art.  

On one of my visits to the gallery, there was a display of 48 original Norman Rockwell paintings which were on loan to the gallery from Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas.  Norman Rockwell is an icon.  His art reflects an idyllic and humorous understanding of the American family.  While he occasionally will take on issues like poverty, even those paintings that reflect some pain show a sense of peace and well-being.  Rockwell endeared himself to the American public because he was an artist of hope.  Rockwell painted that which we all wish we could be.  Rockwell makes us pine for the “good old days” with his paintings because most of them are nostalgic in nature. 

I was in Washington, DC this past week for the baptism of Timothy Nelson Bagwell – the best grandbaby ever.  I found myself thinking about family.  It is clear to me that all families are dysfunctional in one way or another, though some are more clearly damaging than others. 

Take Jacob’s clan... He had 12 sons born of two wives and two concubines.  And if that wasn’t complicated enough, add his clear favoritism toward his best-loved wife Rachel, and her two sons (Joseph and Benjamin).  Mix in Joseph’s adolescent arrogance and you have a recipe for disaster.  Joseph generates so much anger that 10 of his brothers throw him into a pit and sell him into slavery.  (Wouldn’t it be interesting, if Rockwell were still alive, to ask him to paint a scene from this incredibly dysfunctional family?  Even Rockwell himself cannot clean up this mess enough to create nostalgia.) 

To cut to the end of the story, eventually there is an imperfect reconciliation and the tribes of Israel are named for the sons of Jacob…which gives you a sign that this story is a larger than life, intended to be seen for much more than the words on the page.  Literalism robs the story of its meaning.  

I take some comfort in the messiness of Joseph’s story.  Frankly, I believe that Rockwell has his limitations.   Even when we are at our best, we will not be able to heal every broken relationship, tie up every loose end or reach perfection in the relationships we have in our families, friendships, community or church.  Forget it.  Some people like to over-spiritualize the process saying they will be like Jesus, expressing perfect, limitless love in different relationships.  That is a sanitized understanding of Jesus.   Be reminded that even Jesus struggled with family relationships, but I will save that story for another time.  The fact is that we are not perfect… and sometimes we expect too much of the situation.  We are seduced by a Norman Rockwell view of life which captures our imagination and causes us to feel guilty if we don’t measure up. 

Loving is always constrained by human imperfections.  The best we can do is to do the best we can and then lean heavily on God’s grace.

Thank goodness that the Kingdom of God is filled with dysfunctional families and dysfunctional people!  That means that there is room for me… and you!   
School is beginning for teachers and students over the next several weeks.  We lift them all in our prayers!
I will be preaching this Sunday a sermon I titled “The Kingdom of God – Hidden and Revealed.”  We will be looking at Matthew 13.  Make your plans to join in worship!

Manna and Mercy.
Tim Bagwell

Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself.  Serve.

July 30, 2014

Dear Centenary family,
Not too long ago, I stood by the graves of my grandparents in Cartersville, Georgia, about 45 minutes north of Atlanta.  The graves are simple.  On one is the name Horace A. Shinall and on the other Bertie B. Shinall.  Daddy Shinall died in 1993 and Mama Shinall died in 1995.  Horace and Bertie are my father’s step-father and mother. 

Daddy and Mama Shinall were sharecroppers.  Neither one finished the 4th grade.  When you hugged them, Horace and Bertie smelled like authenticity.  Do you know what authenticity smells like?  In my childhood memory, it smells a little like snuff.  They both loved dipping snuff and spitting into the tin cans they kept next to their rocking chairs.  Horace and Bertie felt comfortable in their own skin, which is a great and wonderful gift. 

On this recent trip, I rode by the old farm on Grassdale Road, north of Cartersville.  Everything has changed.  Apartment buildings and suburban sprawl have wiped away all traces of the former houses and barns where Horace and Bertie lived and farmed.  Cotton fields have been replaced by streets and cul-de-sacs.  My memories, however, are intact:

  • I remember the outhouse.  Since there was no running water in the old farmhouse, we had to use the outhouse. Going to visit Mama and Daddy Shinall was a lot like camping. 

  • I remember the old well where Daddy Shinall would allow me the privilege of lowering the bucket into the well with a crank handle embedded in a log.  The pail was attached with a rope and the rope was threaded through a pulley which hung directly over the well.  When the bucket was full of water, you simply cranked it back up and brought the water into the house.

  • I remember the wood burning stove where Mama Shinall made the best biscuits ever, using lots (and I do mean LOTS) of Crisco.  And she did it all by feel.  She did not own a measuring cup and always mixed the dough in a wooden bowl. 

  • I remember pinto beans and chow-chow . (If you don’t know what chow-chow is, look it up.)  Pork was served with almost every meal. 

  • I remember picking cotton.  It really is true - I picked cotton when I visited them one time.  My Dad tells me that when he was a young adult, before going off to college, he picked 300 pounds of cotton in one day.  A really productive farm hand would pick around 200 pounds.  These were the days when you slung a long, burlap sack over your shoulder and walked down the rows of cotton.  Dad told me that though some accused him of adding some rocks, he was completely innocent.  He also told me that when the cotton was weighed in the evening, he had 298 pounds and because he was so close to 300, he went back out into the field and picked 2 more pounds so that he would have 300 pounds.  Everyone was amazed.  (A note of confession – since I was 6 when I picked cotton, I was not very productive.  In fact, I think Daddy Shinall had to pull me on his bag.)

  • I remember that Horace and Bertie loved “The Dukes of Hazzard”.  If you remember the name of the car that was driven in that old television program, you get extra points this week.

You have a story.  Even if your life is littered with some pain, I can guarantee you that somewhere along the way someone blessed you.  For me, two of the people who blessed me were Horace and Bertie – Mama and Daddy Shinall.    Who blessed you?  It could be parents, grandparents, a teacher, a friend…. What memories do you have?  Those memories are gifts of God and are sacred.  Be for someone else what that special person was for you.
A Place at the Table is my sermon title this Sunday.  Hope you will be present as we begin a new series. 
Manna and Mercy,
Tim Bagwell

Love God.  Love Others.  Love Yourself.  Serve.