Chapter 1

Maggie’s Family

Her name was Maggie, but everyone called her Grandma Meme. She had earned every bit of that noble title. In Maggie’s particular corner of the American South, Meme stands as a sufficient honorific on its own. But when coupled with the modifier “Grandma,” the term borders on the reverential.

Maggie was my wife’s grandmother, the matriarch of ninety-plus descendants in her lifetime. She lived long enough to hold several of her great-great grandchildren. You don’t often see five generations framed in one portrait these days.

When she was fifteen, Maggie ran away to marry an older man. Such a marriage wasn’t legal, yet it happened. She was fleeing a dysfunctional family. Soon enough she would start one of her own. Among her descendants was a murderer—one of her sons, in fact. There were multiple drug addicts, criminal activity, mental illness, several prison sentences, and a few other things you just don’t discuss in polite company. But there was also the effective councilwoman of a sizable city. A well-loved college professor who produced award-winning documentaries. Successful business owners and ranchers. A talented engineer, as well as a gifted special education teacher. Amazing musicians. A missionary to a particularly difficult region of the world. And a son who prayed for every member of the family each day. (He recorded it all in a journal.) In short, Maggie’s family makes for a pretty fair sampling of the human race.

Maggie’s husband, to whom she remained married for twenty-five years, distilled illegal moonshine in the Tennessee hills. Not surprisingly, he drank hard. And Tom [not his real name] was a vicious drunk.

When I met Maggie, she was a delightful old woman whose eyes sparkled with each gem of southern wisdom she imparted. Her colorful stories seemed so incredible you might be tempted to doubt their veracity. Her family, however, assured me they were all true. Regardless, I never knew Maggie to lie.

One story she never tired of telling was the time she went to court to fight a parking ticket. Maggie had left her vehicle in a handicapped spot, as was her custom. Despite displaying the appropriate permit, she still received a ticket. And so she went to court to fight this rank bit of injustice. The judge asked what her disability was. Indignant over the possibility that he might not believe her, she promptly removed her lifelike prosthetic leg and placed it on the judge’s bench.

The judge dismissed the case.

But Maggie never shared the story with me about how she came to need an artificial leg. Other family members told me that one. Her husband had come home drunk—as was his custom. He often beat her, and twice shot at her. The second time he didn’t miss, shredding her leg with a shotgun blast. Her nine-year-old daughter—my mother-in-law—mopped up the blood after Maggie had been rushed to the hospital.

Her husband never went to prison. Backwoods justice, I suppose. Or the lack of it. Not surprisingly, the unhappy couple separated, the marriage finally coming to an end with her husband’s death from bad moonshine. Few mourned his passing.

But Maggie carried on, better than ever. She gave her life to Jesus and became a regular fixture in her local church. She remarried, much more happily this time, and lived to be 89. The good, the bad, and the paroled came to her well-attended funeral. It was my wife’s great privilege to eulogize her. After Leisa sat down, one family member after another rose up to praise Grandma Meme. Her life had blessed so many. Yet the road had been exceedingly difficult. Her family had been—and continues to be—one hot, glorious mess.

A wise friend of mine made an astute observation about family. “When you take a look at model families in Scripture . . .” he said. Grinning, he let the statement dangle in the air, unfinished.

His point, of course, is that even in the Bible we don’t find examples of great families. The very first family had a fratricide, as Cain ambushed Abel in the field (Genesis 4:8). Noah had a son who mocked him for getting drunk (9:21–23). A glance at Israel’s founding fathers reveals a shockingly human bunch. Abraham had two partners—wife and concubine—living in the same household two different times (Genesis 16:1–4; 25:1–6). His progeny began a sibling rivalry that continues to this day. His nephew committed incest on consecutive drunken nights, in the process creating Moab and Ammon (19:30–38), two nations that would lead to more unrest for future Israel. Oh, and there’s that bit about Abraham using his wife’s sex appeal to save his own skin—while putting her at risk of sleeping with the king (12:10–20). Then he did it again (20:1–18)! His son Isaac would do the same to his wife, Rebekah.

Isaac and Rebekah played favorites with their twin sons Jacob and Esau, fueling a nearly murderous feud that would last for decades. Jacob’s kids would murder all the males in an entire village (Genesis 34), sleep around, and sell their own brother into slavery (37:18–36).

It doesn’t get any better when we get to the leaders who followed these unlikely patriarchs. Moses killed a man (Exodus 2:12). Eli the priest had sons who stole from worshipers and “were seducing young women who assisted at the entrance of the Tabernacle” (1 Samuel 2:12, 22). King David had enough family dysfunction (and wives and concubines) to keep a blockbuster movie franchise going. And it only gets worse from there.

And yet, these are the people God chose to work with. We can try to sanitize this all we want, but the New Testament takes up the same theme in the very first chapter. A look at the genealogy of Jesus in shows this in startling relief. The ancestors of David, through whom Jesus would come, include Tamar (Matthew 1:3). She tricked Jacob’s son Judah into believing she was a prostitute so she could get pregnant by him (Genesis 38:1–30). How did she know Judah would be interested in a prostitute? No doubt she was well aware of his character. Jesus comes from the line of Judah.

Rahab also gets mentioned. She was a prostitute in a military town. Don’t forget Ruth, whose bittersweet story is retold as an example of loyalty and love. She is a direct descendant of Moab, a child born as the result of Lot’s incestuous encounter with his own daughter. The genealogical line of Jesus continues through David and Bathsheba, who had been the lawful wife of another man until David stole her and killed her husband.

It’s instructive that many of these same people are highlighted as heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rahab, David—all ancestors of Jesus. Families in the Bible, it seems, are a hot and glorious mess. Just like us.


What stories from your family history do you like to tell?

What kinds of stories about your family do you prefer not to share? Why?

When you think of your father and mother (or step-parents, or guardians), what feelings are evoked in you?

Perhaps your family history is cloaked in secretive mystery. If so, how does this make you feel?

When you think of a “normal” family, what comes to mind and why?

Why do you think the genealogy of Jesus includes people with glaring moral failures?