I once had an aunt with a serious case of schizophrenia. She thought one of her daughters came to her on a beam of light from the moon. She also had rages of temper and threatened to kill her children. Things got so bad, she had to be hospitalized for a time, and then medicated for years.
One day I was driving through the community where she lived, Bryte (just over the river from Sacramento), because my mother spent a large part of her childhood there. I was with my wife and my father; I had asked my dad to explain everything he knew about my late mother's life there—where she lived, the gas station she was born in, and other such lore. We were hoping to do a drive by, wanting to avoid my Aunt Julie at all costs. But as we drove down her street, we spotted a man shouting for help from a rooftop. It appeared his ladder had fallen over. So my dad got out of the car and propped the ladder up against his house.
As fate would have it, this man's house stood next to my aunt's house, and before my dad could make a safe escape, out popped Aunt Julie, "Bob? Bob Galli!? What are you doing here? What a wonderful surprise!"
And before you know it, we were in Aunt Julie's house, sipping coffee and soft drinks, listening to her strange and wonderful stories.
We have a fair number of Aunt Julies in the church, don't we? People who tell strange and wonderful stories about the end of the world. Those who in a crazy burst of Islamophia burn the Koran. Those who are sincerely confused about what type of prosperity the gospel promises. Those on the left and the right who equate their politics with divine politics. Those who are in love with their self-righteousness more than God. Maybe some readers think this author and Christianity Today are crazy aunts!
In any event, each of us has to put up with crazy aunts in the family called the church. Just when we think we can pass them by on the other side of the road (like the priest and the Levite tried to pass by the mugged victim), they come running toward us with a smile and a warm greeting. Or they drop in unexpectedly at our church. Or they make headlines—and this just after we've pulled off a program that's done a pretty good job of making God or the church look cool again.
We're tempted at such moments to distance ourselves from them. To push them away. To lock them out. We're likely to mock them so that others will know we're not like them. In short, we disown them. We say, "They're not one of us."
The problem is that they very much are one of us. They are naming the name of Jesus, proclaiming loyalty to him first and foremost. Often they are making substantial sacrifices of fame or fortune to do what they feel God is calling them to do. And they don't care, because they believe they are doing it for Jesus.
When my Aunt Julie rushed out to greet us, we had no choice but to fellowship with her. She was my blood. She was the mother of my cousins. She was the sister of my mother. She deserved some respect. And more. My mother loved her, as did her daughters. So I needed to love her.
Earlier in her life, to love Aunt Julie meant to keep her from her children lest she harm them. At one point, it meant putting her in a mental ward. Later it meant making sure she took her medicine. By the time of the ladder incident, when medication seemed to be doing the trick, it meant listening to her strange stories with genuine interest, to laugh at her jokes (which, in fact, were often very funny), and to treat her like family.
We're fond of saying that the poor and those hostile to the faith deserve our respect and love, and of course, the same goes for the Aunt Julies in the church. That will mean confrontation sometimes, sometimes publicly, sometimes privately. In rare instances, when the gravest of betrayals has occurred, families may disown a member. That happens when a member disowns our Elder Brother and his Father, when someone denies the faith or promotes teachings that destroy the health of the church (what is called heresy or false teaching). Then they become enemies of the gospel, and while still deserving our love (which includes the invitation to repent and return), they really can no longer be said to be family, can they?
Under normal circumstances, though, to disown our Aunt Julies would mean to disown ourselves. Because when we look deep within ourselves, we see wild passions and lusts we don't always control. We entertain crazy thoughts and imaginations that are scandalous. We tell ourselves wacky stories that are lies. Often the only difference between us and the vocal Aunt Julies is our ability to keep the thoughts of our heart secret. But God knows the thoughts of our hearts, knows how desperately wicked the heart is (Jer. 17.9), knows that all of us are in essence Aunt Julies.
But while we were Aunt Julies, Christ died for us. To know that, to trust that, to give your life to the One who died and to the family created by his Spirit--is to know that you too are a member of this dysfunctional family.
I wonder if I should invite Harold Camping over for coffee, so we can share a laugh or two--if he'll have me.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of the forthcoming God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Even Better than 'Love Wins' (Tyndale, July 2011)