Wednesday, December 10, 2014

As Slow as Christmas

It was late on Christmas Day; the sun had set and my parents and I were somewhere between Yatesville and Barnesville on our way back home after the day-long celebration of Christ’s birth through the eating of food and the exchanging of gifts. Into the quietness of the moment broke my father’s voice; he said, “Well, that’s that for another 365 days!” And my ten-year-old heart sank. How on earth and under heaven could I wait 365 days for next Christmas to arrive?

At that age the phrase “as slow as Christmas” was still packed with meaning for me. The period from one Christmas to the next seemed to stretch on for a decade. The closer Christmas got, the slower time seemed to move; during the last few days before the big day the second hand on my Timex watch appeared to tick once every ten seconds. “Hurry Christmas, hurry fast,” the Chipmunks sang, but it never did; “Christmas, don’t be late,” they also sang, but it always was.

I confess that to my child’s mind it was the Santa Claus aspect of Christmas—an aspect that is filled with its own special brand of wonder mixed with anxiety—that made time move so slowly for me. Looking back, though, I realize that there was a great benefit to the mysterious, if imaginary, slowing down of time in the days leading up to Christmas: it created space in which I could experience the real mystery and wonder of the season. In that space I could and did marvel over what God had done in Christ.

Another reason that time seemed to slow to a crawl for me back then was that once school let out for the holidays I had nothing to do until Christmas Day arrived. That has changed, too; I have not had “nothing to do” since 1975.

That’s not all that has changed. Now the phrase “as slow as Christmas” mocks me and my lifestyle; now 365 days go by as if they are 36.5 days. It seems as if we celebrated Christmas just a few months ago. Whereas pre-Christmas time slowed down of its own accord during my childhood, now I have to take intentional steps to create space in which I can experience the mystery and wonder of the great act of love and grace that was carried out by Almighty God in the birth of Jesus Christ.

That’s why I am so grateful that somewhere along the way I became aware of the Christian practice of observing the Season of Advent; it gives some structure and meaning to this time of waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas. It also provides some incentive and some reminders for me to take some time out during these days to think about and to pray over the great love of God—a love that we can never fathom but can grow to appreciate more and more and to live in light of more and more.

Time did not really slow down when I was a child; it just seemed like it.

We cannot really slow time down now; we can, however, set some time aside to read about, to reflect upon, and to marvel at the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

It would be a good thing, too, if the practice of slowing down and being present with the God who loves us enough to come to us would carry over into the rest of our year and into the rest of our life …

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m White

On October 3, 1995, a jury found O. J. Simpson not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Watching the news that evening I saw film of a group of young African-Americans—I think they were college students—bursting out in cheers and applause when they heard the verdict.

I was puzzled by their reaction; it seemed to me that they were celebrating a miscarriage of justice. I wondered how anyone could cheer when two people had been brutally murdered and their likely killer had been set free. I had not viewed the trial as “the case of a famous black man who had allegedly killed his white ex-wife and her white friend” but rather as the trial of a man who had allegedly murdered two human beings.

Clearly that group of young people saw it differently.

I suspect that their celebration was not fueled by a belief that Simpson had not committed the crimes and thus an innocent man had been freed. I am certain that they did not think that a person who killed two other people should not be held accountable for his crimes.

I think maybe they were celebrating because the legal system that had in so many cases failed to provide justice to African-Americans had, in a very public way, worked in favor of a black person. Perhaps, while I’m sure those celebrating held no animosity toward the victims and probably felt sympathy for their families, there was even a wry pleasure taken in the very real possibility that Simpson had actually done the deed; after all, how many times had African-Americans been victimized—suspected of, charged with, and even convicted of crimes they did not commit— by the justice system? How many times had it seemed that whites had been unfairly acquitted of crimes against blacks (the trial of the officers accused of beating Rodney King had just occurred in 1992)?

But I’m not black. So I’m hesitant to draw conclusions about what those students were thinking and feeling. I’m admittedly guessing and that’s dangerous.

What I am is a white man who has always lived in a predominantly white culture and so I have difficulty putting myself in the place of someone living as a member of a minority in that culture and dealing with systems of power that seem not to offer justice to me and my kind.

I have listened to African-American commentators talk during the coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri situation—and these are very accomplished, professional people—about how they had to teach their children, and especially their sons, how to act when confronted by a police officer; they offered such advice as “Keep your hands in plain sight” and “Don’t talk back.” The shocking thing to me was that they had to assume that their sons would be so confronted, and probably confronted many times, whether or not they had done anything wrong.

My father never had such a conversation with me. The assumption in our house was that police officers (and all people in authority, for that matter) were our friends who were there to protect us. The further assumption was that if a police officer stopped me he would have a very good reason for doing so and that I’d probably be safer in jail than I would be at home under such circumstances.

So now we have the Ferguson crisis before us. I do not know what actually happened that led to the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. I do not know if justice was or was not done in the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson. I do know that there are serious systemic issues in Ferguson that hopefully its citizens will work together on improving. I also know that the rioting and looting hurt and don’t help the situation. I know that I have serious questions about the increasing militarization of our law enforcement entities and the possible role it plays in exacerbating such situations.

But I don’t know how black people in Ferguson, Missouri feel. Shoot, I don’t know how black people anywhere feel. How could I? I’m a white man in Fitzgerald, Georgia.

Truth be told, I have to admit that I don’t know how other white people feel, either. Sometimes some of them say and do things that puzzle me just as much as did the reaction of that group of black students to the Simpson verdict. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how anybody else feels. And sometimes I’m not real sure that I really know how I feel.

It seems to me that one key to improving race relations and other kinds of relations in this country is for each one of us to face up to who we are and to how our individual identity is shaped by such factors as race, economic status, education, sexuality, religion, genetics, and community. We need to understand and accept who we are, insofar as we are able to see who we are, so that we can analyze the place from which we begin to deal with situations that challenge our societal relationships and with the people involved in those situations and relationships.

As for me, I’m a white straight middle-class professional Protestant Southern male who is respected in my community so that the assumption about me of those in power is that I am not in any way a threat to anybody. While I would not go so far as to say that I’m treated with deference, I would go so far as to say that I am always given the benefit of the doubt. If it’s a close call, I can live comfortably in the knowledge that it’s probably going to go my way.

In other words, I have it made; the only way I could have it more made in this country, or at least in my part of it, would be to have more money.

It is very helpful for me and my kind to remember that before we claim to know too much and before we talk too much about the experiences and reactions of people who don’t have the privilege of having it made.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that that reality really ought to have a good bit of impact on how I feel about, think about, pray about, and treat other people, even those that I don’t understand.

Which is, after all, everybody …

Monday, November 24, 2014

So Very Kind of Pretty Much Thankful

On the one hand, I have an easy time giving thanks.

On the other hand, I have a difficult time giving thanks.

Let me try to explain.

Giving thanks comes easy to me because I have so very much for which to be thankful.

I am thankful for my family. My Good Wife and I have been married now for going on thirty-seven years; I am thankful for the love, grace, commitment, tenacity, and joy that have characterized our relationship so that it has been fulfilling as well as enduring. Our two children are grown, educated, employed, out of our house, and happily married. I am so thankful.

I am thankful for my career. I sensed God calling me to the ministry over four decades ago and I have been privileged to pursue and to live out that calling ever since. While my ministry has taken various forms and my career has careened down some interesting paths, I have had and still have a career that intrigues and challenges me and hopefully does some good in the lives of some folks. I am so thankful.

I am thankful for my growing wholeness. I can honestly testify that at this point, after almost six decades of living, I am relatively sound in my spirit. Given the struggle that it has always been for me to have a sense of peace, I am most grateful to be at the place I am. I do not think that I am as whole and sound as I will become; I also know that things will happen that will challenge even the level of wholeness and soundness at which I think I have arrived. Life is, after all, a journey. Still, because of the grace shown to me by the Lord in allowing me to learn some ways to approach proactively the development of our relationship, I am spiritually healthier than I have ever been. I am so thankful.

Yes, I am truly thankful. And yet I have difficulty expressing whole-hearted thanks. Why is that?

I think—I hope—it’s because of my love for other people, a love that has grown as my sense of being loved by God and as my love for God have grown.

So while I am thankful for my family I am also mindful of people who have no family, whose families are busted and broken, and whose families are characterized by manipulation and by abuse.

So while I am thankful for my career, I am also mindful of those who are unemployed, who are underemployed, who are in unsatisfying careers, or who find no meaning in their work other than the making of money.

So while I am thankful for my increased and increasing wholeness, I am also mindful of those who are struggling, who see no light at the end of their particular tunnel, and who would give anything to believe that there is a God who loves and cares for them.

I think—I hope— that it is my growing and developing Christian faith that causes me simultaneously to be thankful and not thankful. On the one hand, I am so thankful to God for all the blessings that are mine. On the other hand, how can I be truly thankful so long as so many others are struggling to find the blessings for which I am so thankful in my own life?

So during this Thanksgiving week as I give thanks to God for all of my blessings I am also asking God to bless those who are struggling to know blessing—and to show me how to help them and thereby bless them.

Perhaps you will join me in such prayers …

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Top 10 Reasons that Baptists Should Attend Their Church's Business Meetings

#10: Because it’s when we decide how the money we give is going to be spent (so if you're not there we assume you don't give anything or don't give enough to care what we do with it).

#9: Because there’s no sermon.

#8: Because it’s an exercise in Baptist thinking and practice; we take that priesthood of the believer, soul competency, and church autonomy stuff so seriously that we actually let anyone talk and everyone vote and we live by the decisions that we make.

#7: Because since anyone can bring up anything they want and can say anything they want you sometimes hear some really interesting and even entertaining things.

#6: Because decisions affecting the life, ministry, and witness of the whole church are made and so it’s important that the entire church be represented.

#5: Because you get to experience the dynamics and discussion firsthand and so when folks are talking to you in the days following the meeting about what happened in the meeting you’ll be able to be a well-informed participant in the conversations rather than have to accept what you hear second or third or fourth or fifth hand.

#4: Because it’s great practice at speaking the truth in love.

#3: Because it’s an expression of our joint commitment as Christians to worshiping God, to following Jesus, to serving our community and our world, and to loving each other with the love of Christ.

#2: Because it's one way that we demonstrate that we take seriously our responsibility as members of Christ’s Church.

And the #1 reason that you should attend your church's business meetings: You never know what will happen. You just never know

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Three Weddings (and Some Funerals)

I don’t know how much of it was legitimate wondering and how much was adolescent neurosis, but there was a time when I wondered if I would experience the blessing and privilege of being happy in life.

There were real barriers, I thought, between me and happiness. I was skinny. I was a nerd (but not a geek; there’s a difference). I wore thick glasses. I was socially awkward. I was an introvert. I was insecure.

My strongest points were that I was a good student and a nice guy. So there you go.

To me, happiness meant having a good and strong family of which to be a part. An only child, I did not mind being alone. But I did not want to spend my life alone.

I had a good and strong family with my parents but when my mother died toward the end of my sixteenth year the walls of that fortress began to be breached. A year and a half following that event the good Lord sent Debra Kay Johnson my way. Full of grace, she loved me as I was. On June 10, 1978, she married me. A year later, my father died.

It would be presumptuous of me to claim that the Lord sent Debra to me so that I would not have to bear my burdens alone. But the fact is that she was there so I did not have to bear my burdens alone. And for that I give thanks to God.

Along the way we were blessed with Joshua on February 21, 1984 and with Sara on March 30, 1987. They have been and continue to be our greatest joy.

There have been other funerals along the way, most significantly those of both of Debra’s parents in 1996 and of her two oldest siblings. It was not lost on me that my children had no grandparents to be seated at their weddings.

But still—our children have had weddings!

Joshua Ruffin and Michelle Richards were married in the Senate Parlor Room of the Wisconsin State Capitol building on December 2, 2012. They are doing well.

Sara Ruffin and Benjamin Gunter were married at RoseMott Vineyards at Gin Creek Plantation in Hartsfield, Georgia on October 25, 2014. They will do well.

I am happy.

There was a time when I feared I might never be happy. But today I am. That is my testimony and I gladly offer it.

I have everything I ever dreamed of and feared that I would never have. Debra and I have been married for thirty-six years and we have, by the grace of God and with a good bit of effort, a good and strong marriage. Both of our children are grown, are educated, are employed, and are married to excellent partners.

I am not na├»ve. There are more losses to come and when they do come I will still know the joy of the Lord even if my happiness has to go away for a while. But I’m not thinking about that today. Today I am celebrating the blessing of family and testifying to the truth that by the grace of God I am a happy man.

I am happy because of my family; I am happy because of Debra, Joshua, Sara, Michelle, and Benjamin.

Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

And It Stoned Me

The wedding ceremony of our daughter Sara to Benjamin Gunter will take place this Saturday. Anticipated and planned for months, its occurrence will be an opportunity for great celebration—and not a little relief—for all involved, but especially for the bride and groom.

I confess that I want everything to be just like my little girl wants it be; she has a dream for her wedding ceremony and I very much want her dream to come true.

Things get in the way, though.

It’s an outdoor ceremony which makes weather a possible complicating factor. Ten days out, the forecast called for nine consecutive sunny days with an 80% chance of rain on the tenth day—on the wedding day. The next day the chance of rain was removed for the forecast. The day after that it was back, albeit at only 60%.

On the following day during my prayer time I asked the good Lord if it was wrong to pray for good weather on our daughter’s wedding day. I received no clear answer. The impression I got, though, was that while it was ok to hope that the weather would be good and that if I wanted to mention it to God while I was talking to God about other matters, that was fine, but that I should probably remember that pretty weather on a wedding day didn’t register very highly on the cosmic concerns meter.

“I understand,” I thought/prayed, “but it’s our baby we’re talking about here.”

Anyway, as of today, three days before the wedding, the forecast calls for a mostly sunny day with a high of 77°. Unless something really strange happens, when the wedding begins at 6:00 the weather should be just about perfect. I’m glad. And I doubt seriously that my prayers had anything to do with it.

If they did, then I should feel very guilty about not praying away a few tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes.

The wedding venue offers a choice of two classy ways for the bride (and her father) to appear at the wedding ceremony: a Rolls Royce or a horse-drawn carriage. Our unpretentious Princess (that’s what her name means—look it up!) chose the carriage. Ever since making that decision, she has envisioned herself riding up to the ceremony on the carriage, surveying the entire scene and hearing the music that she so carefully chose for that moment.

So early this week we got word that the horse, whose name is Forde, has an abscessed hoof and might not be able to work this Saturday. This was very disappointing news. The Rolls, Sara said, would not offer her the panoramic view and the auditory access of which she had dreamed. Plus, she said, it would look snooty.

So the next morning during my prayer time I asked the good Lord if it was ok for me to pray for the health of Forde. The response pretty much paralleled the one I got when I asked about the weather.

As of this writing, we have no further word on Forde’s availability.

Yesterday (the Tuesday before the wedding), we had plans to run some wedding-related errands. When Sara got up, she had a severe pain in her right side and was nauseated. It was the sickest I had seen her in her twenty-seven years and so I set out to find a doctor that could see her right away. Thankfully, local family physician Dr. Mann said we could come immediately. When we got there, I made sure they knew Sara was getting married on Saturday. After examining her, Dr. Mann said that she needed to go to the Emergency Room to receive the medications and to have the tests that she needed.

I didn’t bother to ask the good Lord if it was ok to pray that nothing serious be wrong with our daughter. I just started praying. (I did throw in a brief mention of the upcoming wedding.)

So we went to the ER of our local hospital, the Dorminy Medical Center. As soon as we got there, I made sure they knew Sara was getting married on Saturday. She was given wonderful care under the direction of Dr. Brulte. Medicines eased her pain and nausea and a CT scan revealed that she had a kidney stone that had made its way to the place where the urethra connects to the bladder.

Dr. Brulte called the urology office of Drs. Anderson and Peters in Tifton to see if they could see her and they said to be there at 1:30. It was 12:30. I didn’t go back with Sara (Mama was with us now) so I couldn’t announce the impending nuptials but I’m sure someone did. Dr. Anderson said there was a 50/50 chance that Sara would pass the stone but that he would schedule an extraction procedure for the following day just in case. After going through pre-op, Sara went to the restroom in the Surgery Center and passed the kidney stone.

Today (Wednesday before the wedding) she feels fit as a fiddle.

We are so thankful that Sara is all right and we are so grateful for the wonderful job that the medical professionals did in helping her.

And while I am grateful for the good wedding weather it seems we are going to have and while I hope for good health for Forde the horse, I frankly don’t care anymore if the bottom falls out and if she has to ride up on a golf cart …

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


The first zoo I ever visited was the one in Memphis, Tennessee. I was maybe eight years old and my parents were visiting their friends Ed and Melba Baldwin. They had stuff in Memphis that we didn’t have in Barnesville and so we went to see some of it—the gates of Graceland (Elvis was still living there then), the Lakeland amusement park, and the Memphis Zoo.

I’m sure that we saw lots of interesting and exotic animals at the zoo. But the picture that I have carried around in my head for fifty years now is of the monkey exhibit—I think they called it Monkey Mountain. There were goats—mountain goats, maybe—that were in there with the monkeys. And the monkeys were sitting on the goats’ backs, leisurely picking things off of them and eating whatever they were picking. I stood for the longest time, fascinated by those nit-picking monkeys, wondering what they were picking and eating.

Lice. They were picking and eating lice. And lice eggs. And fleas and ticks. And probably some dead skin and other stuff.

It’s called allogrooming when animals groom one another and autogrooming when an animal grooms itself. Research indicates that the practice of allogrooming serves both a hygienic and a social purpose; animals help each other stay clean and they establish a relationship through the practice of picking nits. From a hygienic standpoint, the practice is helpful because there are some places an animal just can’t get to on its own. From a social standpoint, the practice obviously requires closeness.

We humans are well-served by sticking mainly to grooming ourselves, especially when it comes to our moral and ethical practices. After all, my primary task when it comes to self-maintenance is tending to my own spirit to be sure that I am constantly growing into the person that I am meant to be—and no one can see my spirit but God and me. Well, only God can see it fully, but I can see mine a whole lot better than you can—and you can see yours a whole lot better than I can.

Still, we all have blind spots; we all have places in our perspectives, in our assumptions, in our motivations, and in our actions that we just can’t see and that we just can’t reach. If those places are going to be dealt with, we’re going to need someone to deal with them for us. We need people in our lives who can pick our nits that we can’t pick ourselves.

There is great difficulty in such living, though, because our egos get in the way. The person needing a nit picked may not want to admit it and may feel that the person offering to help has no standing to do so. On the other hand, a person wanting to pick someone’s nit may come at the task from a feeling of superiority and self-righteousness.

We find these words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” -–Matthew 7:1-5

It’s interesting that Jesus did not say that we were not to take the speck (the nit!) out of our neighbor’s eye; he said that we are to do so only after dealing with the log in our own eye. That is, we should take care of our own problems—problems that should be obvious to us but to which we are often willfully blind—before trying to help someone else with theirs. I also find it intriguing that Jesus did not say that we had to deal with a speck in our own eye—with our own nit—before helping someone else with theirs. Perhaps that’s a tacit admission that we all have them and that if we wait until they’re gone to help each other we’ll never help each other. The truth is that we’re all nit-bearers trying to help bear one another’s nits.

There’s an art to such living that is fueled by love and grace that come to us only by the Spirit of God. Such living requires a dedication to mutuality, to vulnerability, to humility, and, most of all, to love. We won’t always get it right because our ability to receive gentle correction and to offer gentle correction will sometimes be limited by our pride.

But we owe it to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ to be as helpful to one another as we can be. Insofar as we are able, let’s pick our own nits. But insofar as we need it, let’s be open to the loving nit-picking of our sisters and brothers …