Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage (Genesis 38) transports me to Lawrence Avenue in Uptown Chicago, where the People’s Church offers a landmark for the ministry of the late Preston Bradley, who organized the church in 1912. While he gained great respect and fame for the growth of his church (4000 members in its heyday) and for his civic leadership in fighting poverty and bigotry of all forms, Bradley’s longest lasting legacy is in the world of soap operas. It all started in 1920 when an unwed teenager, Irna Philips, gave birth to a still-born baby after being abandoned by her boyfriend. She overcame this tragedy, gaining comfort and hope by listening to the radio sermons of Preston Bradley, whose ministry was captured in the prayer he prayed at the dedication of the church: May it always be an open door to the downtrodden and the broken and the bruised and the bleeding. Rev. Bradley would later become the source and inspiration for Rev. John Ruthledge, the central character of a radio drama created by Irna Phillips, a radio drama that would come to television in 1937 and set the record for longest-running tv show, 72 years. Reverend Ruthledge spoke the show’s first words, an Edwin Markham quote which became its introductory tag line: There is a destiny that makes us brothers, none goes his way alone. All that we send into the lives of others, comes back into our own. Irna Phillips’ drama, The Guiding Light, finally went off the air in 2009, long after the lights of Rev. Ruthledge and his desk lamp had burnt out.
Irna Phillips may have invented the genre of soap operas, but she didn’t need to invent the material for their plot lines. If her own life didn’t provide enough subject matter, she could have listened to Preston Bradley read scripture, like today’s passage from Genesis. It’s hard to imagine Irna Phillips or Agnes Nixon or any other soap writer coming up with more crazy and complicated relationship woes than we find in these 30 short verses. You have religious intermarriage, run of the mill wickedness that leads to an untimely death, a widow’s arranged marriage to a brother-in-law who “spills his seed on the ground” every time they have sex to avoid fathering a child (which leads to another untimely death), disguise, prostitution, the widow tricking her father-in-law into having sex, all resulting in the birth of twin boys who start their battles before they see the light of day. Luke and Laura eat your heart out!
And this is one of those stories that eventually finds its way into family lore of Mary and Joseph, summarized in Matthew’s genealogy in simple fashion: Judah, the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. Behind these 11 words is one of the captivating stories these young parents will tell their firstborn son as they help him understand who he is and where he comes from. No wonder Jesus eventually got tagged “friend of sinners.” It was in his bloodline. It was part of his story. You can almost hear Rev. Ruthledge giving the intro: There is a destiny that makes us family. . . One of the reasons soap operas work is that we do all have a destiny that makes us family, and all of us experience some of the soap opera qualities of failed and flawed lives. But we also experience the advent hope embodied in the weekly Friday cliffhanger – something’s about to happen, something’s coming, and we carry the hope that when it does, love will prevail. This is the hope of advent, the hope of the guiding light that beckons us from our broken places. The theme song for this story could well be one of the songs we sing this season: O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here, disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. . .
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.