Thursday, September 22, 2016

I Pledge Allegiance …

Once upon a time, Vacation Bible School lasted a week, took place in the morning, and featured a highly structured opening assembly. During the assembly, the pianist would play a “stand up chord” and a “sit down chord” to signal us when we were to—well, to stand up or sit down.

Early in the ceremony, the pianist would play the stand up chord and we’d rise for the pledges. We said three. We’d pledge allegiance to the Christian flag. You may not know there is a Christian flag, much less a pledge to it, so, as a public service, here are the words to the pledge:

I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands, one brotherhood uniting all mankind in service and love.

That’s the version I learned. Sometime during my childhood, our Southern Baptist VBS guide led us to stop saying “mankind.” “Good,” you might be thinking. “’Humankind’ is less sexist.” Well, no, that’s not why we changed it. In fact, we kept right on saying “brotherhood.” We changed “mankind” to “Christians.” I reckon we were more concerned about flirting with universalism than we were with engendering sexism.

We’d also pledge allegiance to the Bible. That pledge went like this:

I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's holy word, and will make it a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path, and hide its words in my heart that I may not sin against God.

Over the fifty or so years that I’ve lived since those days, I’ve encountered lots of adults who pledge allegiance to the Bible, but who seem to have little allegiance to—or even awareness of—what it says, and especially of what it means.

I’ve seen lots of people who will, with great passion bordering on glee, beat you up if you won’t join them in swearing allegiance to the Bible.

I’ve seen many people whose lives reflect the Savior who shows us what the words of the Bible mean but who won’t, out of their commitment as Christians, swear allegiance to Bible, vilified by people who swear such allegiance but whose lives exhibit little to none of the love and grace of Jesus.

We also pledged allegiance to United States flag.

I think I’ve heard some discussion lately about how some people respond to that flag and how other people respond to those who respond.

Those that have ears to hear, let them hear …

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Milestone

I’ll mark a major milestone this Saturday, September 24, 2016, when I celebrate my fifty-eighth birthday.

Ordinarily, the fifty-eighth anniversary of one’s birth wouldn’t be regarded as significant. It’s not like turning fifty or sixty or a hundred. Fifty-eight is to birthdays as Tuesday is to weeks: shrug-worthy.

It’s important to me, though.

When it comes to my immediate family, I’ve long been the last one standing. My only sibling, a brother named Stanley, was born two years after me and died twelve hours after his life began. My mother died in 1975 after a seven-year struggle with cancer. She was fifty-three. My father died of a massive heart attack in 1979. He was fifty-seven.

So as of Saturday, I’ll not only have outlived all of my immediate family members; I’ll also have lived to a greater age than any of them managed to reach.

I’m thankful.

I’ve come to realize, though, that the true measure of life is its depth, not its length. The quality of a life is especially seen in the love that is experienced in it.

Let it be noted that I have lived as one of the most blessed human beings that ever walked this globe.

I have known the love of Debra, who has been light in my times of darkness, hope in my moments of despair, and faith in my periods of doubt. And during the other thirty-eight years of the thirty-eight years and three months that we’ve been married, she has multiplied my joy.

I have known the love of our children Joshua and Sara, who have amazed me with their love for life, their embrace of the world, their quest for knowledge, their depth of understanding, their sense of humor, and their commitment to their beloveds.  

I have known the love of the Lord. I really have.

It’s all been grace.

Thank you, Debra.

Thank you, Joshua.

Thank you, Sara.

Thank you, Lord.

There have been many others whom I have known and loved and who have known and loved me.

Thank you, too.

A lot of love has been packed into these fifty-eight years.

I am grateful ...

Monday, September 19, 2016

Obviously

I have come to dislike certain words during the sixteen months that I’ve been working as an editor.

One word that has earned my great disdain is “obviously.” When I come upon it, I delete it, because if something is obvious, you don’t need to point out that it’s obvious, because it’s obvious. Once I’ve deleted the word, I often delete the entire sentence, because if something is obvious, there’s no need to say it, which should be obvious.

There’s another problem with the word: one person’s “obviously” is another person’s “you’ve got to be kidding me.”

That observation brings me around, unfortunately, to the presidential election.

There are in my circle of relationships many people who say, “Obviously, we can’t let Donald Trump become president.” In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I say that, too. We find it ludicrous that anyone would even consider voting for him.

To me and to others, it’s obvious that Hillary Clinton is much to be preferred to Donald Trump.

But it’s not obvious to lots of other people, including many that I know, respect, and love. They say, “Obviously, we can’t let Hillary Clinton become president.” They are confounded that anyone would choose to vote for her.

From my perspective, the criticisms of Trump are accurate while those of Hillary are overblown. 

But that's not my point.

From my point of view, those who think like I do are right, while those who don’t are wrong.

But that’s not my point, either.

My point is that what’s as plain as the nose on your face to some people is as incomprehensible as dark matter to others.

I wonder why that is.

Sometimes I think that it’s because of differing backgrounds and experiences. While I do think that can have a lot to do with it, I’m also aware that many people whose backgrounds and experiences are similar to mine have a different sense of the obvious than I do. 

So I don't know why what's obvious to you isn't obvious to me, and vice-versa.

It seems to me that, for those of us to whom the choice is obvious, regardless of which option is obvious to us, the die is cast.

We’re going to vote for Hillary.

You’re going to vote for Trump.

That’s just the way it is. We may as well stop yelling at each other. We’re not going to change your minds, and you’re not going to change ours.

We can better use our time and energy trying to figure out how we’re going to proceed after the inauguration next January, because no matter who gets elected, she or he is going to preside over a badly divided nation in a horribly conflicted world.

We're going to have to find a way to work together, or we've had it.

Obviously .

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I Used to Be Mike Ruffin

I was speaking at a family member’s funeral a while back. The service took place at a church that many of my family members and friends either attend or have attended. Many of them were present.

When I stood to speak, I said, “Good afternoon. I used to be Mike Ruffin.”

And all the people laughed.

But I’ve come to realize how accurate a statement that is, especially from the perspective of the people who knew me way back when.

I was born and raised in Barnesville, Georgia, a small town more or less halfway between Macon and Atlanta. I attended Gordon Grammar School. I graduated from Lamar County High School. I worshiped with the folks at Midway Baptist Church. I played on the Barnesville Little League Mets. I worked at Burnette’s Thriftown grocery store. After I decided to become a minister, I preached at a good many churches in the greater metropolitan Barnesville area.

And then I left. I went away with the blessings of my family, my community, and my church to pursue an education in preparation for a career in the ministry. My family and friends were proud of their preacher boy.

I guess some of them still are.

I moved back to my home territory last year after four decades away. 

Things happened over those forty years, and because those things happened, I’m not the same Mike Ruffin I was way back then. That surprises and bothers some people. But how sad would it be had I done all of this living and not changed?

What happened?

Education happened. College and seminary introduced me to books, thinkers, and ideas that challenged my thinking and shifted my worldview. My educational journey fertilized my existing love for books and learning. One of the best things my schools did for me was to turn me into a lifelong learner with knowledge of where to find what I needed and wanted to learn.

Experience happened. Through forty years of being involved in people’s lives, I learned that simple answers, neat categories, rigid systems, and arrogant pontification aren’t helpful. I also learned that presence, acceptance, understanding, humility, and empathy are invaluable. I learned that being human means being breakable and vulnerable, and so kindness and compassion should be cultivated.

Faith happened. The faith I had borrowed from my parents, my church, my region, and my tradition gave way to my faith. Years of struggling to believe have led me to the place where I now stand: all I can do is try to follow Jesus. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like I think my way of looking at things is better than some other folks’ ways. I really don’t want to sound like that. But my experience with Jesus has led me to believe that I must view people and situations through the lens of grace, love, and mercy. To feel, think, talk, and live any other way is to deny my faith.

That’s what life has taught me. That’s what I know. But life has also taught me that there is so much I don’t know. For me, faith and humility must live together.

I used to be Mike Ruffin.

I still am Mike Ruffin.

But I’m a different Mike Ruffin than I used to be.

What happened to the preacher boy they knew four decades ago?

By the grace of God, the boy became a man.

By the grace of God, the preacher became a human being …

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Living Parables

Last Sunday, I was preaching about Jesus again. I seem to be stuck on that subject.

Anyway, the text was Matthew 13:1-23. In the first few verses, Jesus tells a crowd what is usually called the parable of the sower (although a better name is the parable of the soils). He just tells the story and leaves it hanging there. He offers no explanation or interpretation.

It’s easy to imagine the people asking each other what that was all about.

When Jesus and his disciples are alone, they ask him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” They wonder why Jesus doesn’t come right out and say what he means instead of telling stories that people have to figure out for themselves. Jesus answers. “The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”

I think Jesus understood that if you offer propositions and arguments to people who are predisposed to reject what you’re saying, they’ll just say “No” and be done with it (and you), but if you tell them an intriguing but puzzling story, they’ll become—and perhaps remain—engaged with it (and you).

As I was preaching, a thought leapt into my mind: perhaps Christians would do well to think of our lives as parables. 

Jesus told compelling and confounding stories. His parables caused his listeners to consider counterintuitive and countercultural possibilities. His stories, like all good stories, drew his hearers in and, once they were in, held them there.

It’s easy to imagine the people who heard Jesus’ parables continuing to think and talk about them for a long time.

What would it mean for our lives to be parables? How could our lives affect people so that they become and remain engaged with the possibilities that our ways of life present?

Our lives are parables when they involve ways of living that confuse and confound people. They are parables when they make people wonder and ponder. They are parables when they demonstrate the ways of Christ in a world that seems to want none of them.

We Christians offer our best witness to the crowds when we demonstrate radical love, radical grace, radical understanding, radical generosity, and radical forgiveness.

They’ll wonder what that’s all about. They’ll wonder why we’re so weird.

They’ll think. They’ll ponder.

They may come around to Jesus. They may not.

But they’re more likely to eventually respond to the witness of a living parable than they are to a “Christian witness” that comes down to self-righteous judgmentalism.

So let’s be Jesus’ parables. Let’s be the story of God’s love, grace, and mercy . . . 

Monday, August 29, 2016

When Christians Read the Bible

In my day job, I edit Bible study materials for adults. I recruit writers and shape their efforts into a form that’s suitable for publication. Hundreds of churches and thousands of people depend on our company to provide dependable materials to assist them in studying the Bible and following Jesus. I reckon it’s work worth doing.

Every great once in a while, a writer fails to come through and I have to write the lessons myself. In fact, I just finished writing five lessons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew 5­­-7.

As I worked on those lessons, I was reminded again of how Christians are supposed to read the Bible.

I need to make a few preliminary comments before I get into that subject further.

First, Christians should actually read the Bible. We shouldn’t just accept somebody else’s words—not even those of an erudite columnist—about what it says. We should read it for ourselves.

Second, if we’re Christians, then we should read the Bible as Christians. We aren’t Biblians; that is, we’re not saved by a personal relationship with a book. As the old hymn “Break Thou the Bread of Life” puts it, “Beyond the sacred page, I seek thee, Lord.” We’re saved by a personal relationship with the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.  So we do everything, including reading the Bible, in light of our relationship with Jesus.

Third, there’s more than one way to read the Bible. What I’m talking about is how the Bible itself directs those who follow Jesus to read it.

Christians should read the Bible in light of the fact that Jesus is our ultimate authority. How do I know? The Bible tells me that Jesus tells me so.

Early in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Mt 5:17-18). Christians believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah. That means, among many, many other things, that the law and the prophets point to and are fulfilled in Jesus. 

Jesus fulfills Scripture.

That’s why Jesus can say, as he says six times in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said,” then quote something from the Old Testament law, and then say, “But I say unto you …” As he earlier said, he doesn’t abolish the law; he fulfills it. He completes it. He gives it its fullest meaning. And, since he is our Lord and Savior who has ultimate authority in all things, we listen to him. 

The Bible is important, but Jesus is more important. The Bible is authoritative, but Jesus is more authoritative.

Jesus is Christians’ ultimate, absolute authority.

Christians, therefore, read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Our reading and interpretation take the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus into account. 

A person can read the Bible in other ways and still be a Christian. But a person can’t read the Bible any other way and call it a Christian reading.

Reading the Bible as a Christian is challenging. That’s because Jesus didn’t offer his own interpretation of everything in the Old Testament. That’s a good thing, because if he had, the Sermon on the Mount would be 3000 chapters long instead of just three, and few enough people read it as it is. But he gave us enough examples to guide us in reading the Bible through his lens.

Let’s look at just one example.  

In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

The law stated the principle “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” three times: in Exodus 21:23-24, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. It’s right there in the Bible, so, as Christians, we’re obligated to live by it, right?

Wrong.

As a matter of fact, Christians are obligated not to live by that principle that is stated three times in the Bible. We are obligated not to because Jesus points us to another, greater, more demanding way to live. We are not to seek “an eye for an eye”; we are rather to turn the other cheek. We are not to refuse to give up what someone wants to take from us; we are rather to share graciously, to the point of ridiculously.

Jesus has the authority to say, “You have heard it said … but I say to you” because he is the Son of God, the Savior, the living Word, and the Messiah. As followers of Jesus, we’re not bound by “you have heard it said”—even if we heard it said in the Bible. Because we are Christians, we’re bound by “but I say unto you.” Jesus is our ultimate authority, and Jesus tells us how to read the Bible. Since Jesus fulfills Scripture and thus is our ultimate authority in all things, the only way to take the authority of the Bible seriously is to read it in light of Jesus.

How does reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus change our understanding of it? Well, that’s the hard part. We have to find our way, bathing our reading in prayer, submitting to the guidance of the Spirit, and checking every possible interpretation and application against Jesus’ teachings and example.

But based on this one example in the Sermon on the Mount (and I encourage you to read Jesus’ other “You have heard it said … but I say to you” sayings in Matthew 5), it’s pretty clear that our motives and attitudes, especially the ways that we think and feel about other people, even (and maybe especially) those that we regard (or that regard us) as enemies, matter a whole lot.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus really expects us to take all that love and grace stuff as seriously as he did …

Friday, August 19, 2016

Remember the Library

When I was a third grader at Gordon Grammar School in Barnesville, Georgia, I became interested in the Battle of the Alamo. I don’t remember why, but I did.

I thought about Googling it, but then I remembered that the Internet hadn’t been invented yet. So I asked my mother to take me to the Carnegie Library to get a book about it.

After checking to see if they had any new Hardy Boys mysteries, which they didn’t (they always had the same two that I’d already read and, no matter how much I begged, they never got any others), I looked around and found a book about the Alamo that looked interesting. It was a pretty hefty volume, but I managed to tote it to the desk and set it before the lady working there. I don’t know if she was a librarian, a volunteer, or Andrew Carnegie’s great-great-niece, but I remember what she said.

“You can’t read that. It’s too advanced for you.”

Then she walked off. A minute later, she returned with another book and handed it to me. “That’s more on your level,” she said. It wasn’t a pop-up book, but it might as well have been. Anybody who’d spent a year at Miss Sylvia’s Kindergarten (shout-out to my fellow alumni!) could have read that thing in twenty minutes while watching the Officer Don Show and playing “Operation” (although I admit to always having trouble removing the funny bone, even when giving it my full concentration).

I’d never been so insulted in all my eight years.

Amazingly, given that I was a remarkably meek and mild kid, I stood up for myself. “I don’t want that one. I want the other one,” I said. When the nice lady protested again, my mother said, “Let him get the one he wants.” They probably rolled their eyes at each other.

Sighing, the library lady picked the book up and stamped the due date in it so hard that I thought she might have left a dent in the desk. “It’s due in two weeks,” she announced, which translated meant, “I’ll see you when you come crawling back asking for the kiddie book I said you should get.”

I brought it back a week later. I’d finished it. I’d even understood it. I could have written an insightful book report on it.

As I remember it, I marched up to the desk, slammed the book down, and said to that library lady, “Boom!”

Actually, I probably just deposited it in the after-hours book return slot.

There are four morals to this story.

First, never tell a kid what she or he can’t do. You don’t know. Neither do they, until they try.

Second, let ‘em read. Books are a window to a wonderful world.

Third, support your local library. It’s an incredibly valuable resource.

Fourth, remember the Alamo! Otherwise, you might be doomed to repeat it ...