Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Stairway to Someplace

Led Zeppelin’s forty-five-year-old (!) song “Stairway to Heaven” has been in the news lately. The estate of a former member of the band Spirit is suing Zeppelin, claiming that the legendary British rockers plagiarized the opening notes of the song from Spirit’s song “Taurus.”

I don’t know enough about music to know if they have a case.

I do know enough about Jesus to know that “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t a Christian song.

A friend tells of hearing a well-known radio personality talking about his first on-air job. It was on a Christian radio station. He was Jewish. His show was on at night and, since he was the only person on duty, he had to answer phone calls. It was 1971, and he said he continually fielded requests to play “Stairway to Heaven.” He tried to explain to caller after caller that it wasn’t a Christian song. “It’s not Christian just because it mentions heaven,” he said.

That reminded me of a story I heard about something that happened at a South Georgia radio station that featured Southern Gospel music. One of its on-air “personalities” was a local minister. One day in 1977, he introduced a song with words something like these: “Folks, I have a new record here. It’s by a group I’ve never heard of and I’ve never listened to the song before, so we’re going to hear it for the first time together. It sounds like a great Gospel song. So let’s listen to the Kendalls sing ‘Heaven’s Just a Sin Away.’”

And all the people said “Oh my!”

Somebody hopefully told the DJ, ““It’s not Christian just because it mentions heaven.”

As a matter of fact, not everything that’s called “Christian” is in fact Christian.

Take “Christian” political candidates.” Please.

Candidates who trumpet their “Christian faith” and “Christian values” make me nervous. First of all, I’m not sure that a person will, if genuinely Christian, “trumpet” such things. I mean, Jesus said we shouldn’t, and if Jesus said not to do something, then his followers certainly won’t do it. Right? Besides, if you’re really filled up with the love, grace, humility, and compassion of Christ, it’s going to show, whether you want it to or not. And if you get credit for it, you’re going to be embarrassed by it.

Second, when candidates make their “Christianity” part of their advertising and rhetoric, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they’re just trying to attract votes from a particular segment of the Christian community. Once, some members of the church I pastored at the time wanted to put out some “Christian voting guides.” “They’re not in support of any particular candidate or party,” they told me. So I looked them over. The values that the guide said should direct our voting decisions lined up very nicely with one party’s platform. There were other Christian values, some of which are very important, that the guide failed to mention, all of which lined up with the other party’s platform. I declined the request to distribute the voting guides in the church.

Don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying there are not Christian politicians. Some are characterized by love, grace, and humility. They regard their public service as a part of their Christian commitment. You’d strongly suspect they’re Christian, even if they never say they are. What I am saying is that we need to watch out for those who say the right words and check the right boxes, but whose attitude, bearing, motivations, and actions seem to indicate that they may not know Jesus very well, if at all.

A song’s not Christian just because it mentions heaven.

Politicians aren’t Christian just because they say they are. Some of them count on Christians being gullible.

So let’s be discerning …

Friday, April 8, 2016

Zip-Line Church

The Braves played in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium from 1966-1996. That’s thirty-one years. This will be their twentieth and final season playing at Turner Field. Next year they’ll move into a brand new state-of-the-art park up in Cobb County. I expect the one after that to be built on the shores of beautiful Lake Lanier.

When you look at a map that shows where their season ticket holders live, the move makes sense. There are other advantages to the new location. If they need to call up a player from the AAA Gwinnett Braves, he’ll be just an Uber ride away, for one. But as someone who lives south of Atlanta, I’m sorry they’re doing it. It’s going to make it much more complicated to get to the old ball park. Make that the new ball park.

The new place is called SunTrust Park. It’s named for the bank, not as an indicator of Helios worship. It’s part of a huge development called The Battery Atlanta, which, its website modestly proclaims, “will be the South’s preeminent lifestyle destination.”

I didn’t know lifestyles have destinations.

I think what they mean is that there will be stuff to do there, and the stuff will be fun. And expensive. It will feature dining, shopping, and lodging of both the temporary (an Omni hotel) and long-term (550 “modern residences,” which sounds to me like something out of The Jetsons) varieties.

There’s no telling what kind of attractions the stadium will feature. I mean, at old run-down out-of-date Turner Field, you could have a radar gun measure the speed of your best fastball. They’ve already announced the inclusion at the new place of a zip-line that will transport folks from one end of the concourse to the other.

This will be cool.

I know I want a kid stuffed with cotton-candy, hot dogs, and Coke zipping over my head. What could go wrong that a long hot shower featuring much scrubbing with anti-bacterial soap won’t take care of?

Oh, lest we forget, they’ll also play baseball there.

Maybe a few folks—you know, the old-fashioned “traditionalists”— will go to actually watch the games.

It all reminds me of the way church is getting to be these days. Lots of stuff is going on at church. Some of it ranks right up there with a zip line.

A long time ago in a city far, far away, our daughter went to a church’s Vacation Bible School during the summer between her kindergarten and first grade years. On Thursday, she came home excited because they were going to have a waterslide on Friday. So on Friday she went to Vacation Bible School with her swimsuit on under her clothes. When she got home, we asked her about the waterslide.

“They just laid a big sheet of plastic on the side of a hill and sprayed water on it,” she said. “It wasn’t that great.”

“But you know,” she continued, “You can’t judge a church by its waterslide.”

Maybe not. You probably shouldn’t judge a church for having a waterslide or zip line or whatever, either. And I understand the desire to try to attract folks to the church. I really believe, though, that we need to think long and hard about what we’re doing.

We may inadvertently be sending the message that Jesus is not enough of an attraction.

Another church in another community where I once lived had a big giveaway on Easter Sunday. They gave away a big screen TV, a Caribbean cruise, and a car, among other things.

They had a bigger crowd than we did. That’s understandable, though.

All we had to offer was a crucified and resurrected Lord . . .

Monday, March 28, 2016

Ruffinly

Back on March 1, I heard NPR’s Renee Montagne interview Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah about her new novel, The Book of Memory. During the interview, Gappah talked about “Zimglish,” in which Zimbabweans coin words based on English words:

Because we love our Bible — we consider ourselves a very strong Christian country — so we have a lot of phrases that we take from the Bible that we think are English words. So, for instance, Nicodemus is a man, a Pharisee who went to Jesus at night and said, "How can a man be born again?" So to do something "nicodemously" is to do something secretly, under cover of the darkness. So you have politicians condemning the "Nicodemus machinations of the government" and you think, "What?" It's my absolutely favorite Zimglish word of all time.

So in Zimglish, “nicodemously” means “to do something secretly, under cover of darkness.”

This, of course, got me to thinking about other possibilities. Allow me to share some I came up with.

“Abrahamly and Sarahly” = to do something that you’re just too old to do, and then laugh about it.

“Gideonly” = to be a total chicken who soars like an eagle.

“Jonahly” = to “progress” from blatant disobedience to petulant obedience, while picking up a great fish story along the way.

“Judasly” = to do something so unspeakable that people talk about it from then on.

“Isaiahly” = to walk around town naked for three years and still have people take you seriously.

“Gomerly” = (a) to be married to a preacher who insists on airing your dirty laundry in public. (b) to have children with really unfortunate names.

“Jezebelly”= to have a dog food named after you.

“Joshualy” = (a) to think the past tense of “fight” is “fit.” (b) to tend to make a really big mess.

“Gabrielly” = to get all uppity, in a heavenly sort of way.

“Jobly” = to wish somebody would give you a break already.

“Pharaohly” = to be ridiculously indecisive.

“Adamly and Evely” = to wish everybody would stop blaming everything on you.

“Solomonly” = to do some really dumb things for someone who’s supposed to be so stinkin’ smart.

“Goliathly” = to be really tired of people saying “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

“Danielly” = to have a way with cats.

“Samsonly” = to bring the house down.

“Bathshebaly” = to wish you weren’t so doggone beautiful.

“Shadrachly, Meshachly, and Abednegoly” = to be extremely cold-natured.

“Esauly and Jacobly” = to engage in over-the-top sibling rivalry.

“Paully” = to have an extreme aversion to short sentences and simple thoughts.

“Lotly” = to make a really bad real estate investment.

“John the Baptistly” = to dress funny, to eat weird stuff, and to talk real loud.

“Ezekielly” = to wonder why people are always asking you what you’ve been smoking.

“Beloved Disciplely” = to choose to remain anonymous, only to have most folks assume they know who you are.

“Philemonly” = to be the recipient of a passive aggressive letter.

“Jesusly” = to know the way, go the way, and show the way.

And last but not least:

"MikeRuffinly" = to have lots of people wonder about you . . .

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Winnie-the-Pooh Effect

On the March 21 edition of the CBS Evening News, Jim Axelrod presented a story that made me realize (again) that you can never know the ongoing impact an action might have.

Henry Colebourn was a veterinarian in Winnipeg, Canada. He was on his way to join the forces fighting in Europe during World War I. When he got off the train in a small Canadian town, he encountered a hunter who had killed a bear and was selling her cubs for $20 each. He bought a female cub and named her after his hometown.

Winnie the bear cub accompanied Colebourn across the Atlantic and became the mascot of his regiment in England. But he couldn’t take her to the front lines in France, so he left her with a London zoo, intending to reclaim her when the war ended. But four years passed, and Winnie found a home at the zoo.

In fact, she had such a friendly disposition, the zookeepers let children go into her enclosure to play with her. One of the children who became entranced by Winnie the bear was a boy named Christopher Robin. His father, A. A. Milne, began writing stories about Christopher and the bear, who has been known ever since as Winnie-the-Pooh. The adventures of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh have enchanted innumerable children (and adults) over the decades.

Now Lindsay Mattick has written a book entitled Finding Winnie: the True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear that tells the story of how her great-grandfather found and protected the creature that inspired the Pooh stories. As Mattick said, "That's powerful to know -- that something you do in a moment can go on to have these incredible huge ripple effects that you never could even have imagined."

I’m sure that lots of people have done lots of things that produced ripples that influenced my life. The one I’m aware of that I’m most grateful for happened right about this time of year in 1975 in a classroom at Forsyth Road School when Mrs. Key told me I should think about attending Mercer University. I not only thought about it—I did it. I found my path, my principles, my wife, and my mentor at Mercer. And it all started with a suggestion by my Creative Writing teacher.

I’m glad I know about, remember, and can be grateful for what Mrs. Key did. But there’s no telling how many other people did so many other things that ended up having an effect on me that I have no idea about. The right word spoken at the right time, the right deed done at the right moment, or the right encouragement offered on the right occasion can set events in motion that can make all the difference for someone. It might affect lots of people. It could even change history.

So, when we have the chance to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing, to speak the kind word rather than the harsh word, to offer the constructive suggestion instead of the destructive criticism, to take the high road rather than the low road, to build up rather than tear down, to promote hope rather than fear, to embrace rather than push away, and to love rather than hate, let’s do it.

You may never know what a difference it’ll make in other people’s lives. But that’s all right.

It’s enough to know that it might.

Besides, you’ll know the effect it’ll have on you.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

What Do You Want to Be True?

I listen to what people say. I read what they write. My listening and reading tell me what they think about the way things are. I may or may not agree with them. I may decide they’re right or wrong. I may think they’re sadly misguided or on the right track. I may think they’re brilliant or stupid, humble or arrogant, and constructive or destructive.

Some folks evidently either think nothing of lying or don’t know the difference between lying and truth telling. I assume, though, that most people try to represent accurately what they really think about what’s going on. They’re describing what they believe to be true.

Often, though, I’m left concerned about what they want to be true. I think that’s important, because what we want to be true may drive our thinking, talking, and writing more than what we think is true.

So when people talk about the shape our nation is in, I’m left wondering what they want to be true. Do they want it to be true that the nation remains hopelessly divided? Or do they want it to be true that it becomes more united?

When people talk about wars and potential wars, what do they want to be true? Do they want it to be true that the world suffers through perpetual conflict? Or do they want it to be true that it becomes more peaceful?

When people talk about healthcare, do they want it to be true that people’s access to quality medical care depends on their financial resources? Or do they want it to be true that it depends on their status as human beings?

When people talk about the environment, what do they want to be true? Do they want it to be true that our descendants will live in a sick and polluted world? Or do they want it to be true that they’ll live on a healthy and clean planet?

When people talk about religion, what do they want to be true? Do they want it to be true that adherents of different religions will continue to fear and harm each other? Or do they want it to be true that followers of different religions will learn to respect, appreciate, and understand each other?

When people talk about guns, do they want it to be true that America is a country where everybody is armed and ready to shoot? Or do they want it to be true that America is a place where people feel less threatened and thus less in need of arming themselves?

When people talk about education, what do they want to be true? Do they want it to be true that only those children whose families can afford to live in nice neighborhoods receive a quality education? Or do they want it to be true that every American child has access to good schools with good resources and good teachers?

Sometimes when I listen to what people say or read what they write, I worry about what they seem to want to be true. I think that matters, because we’ll be driven by what we want to be true to build the kind of society we want to have.

So think about it: what do you want to be true? Give it a lot of thought, because it just might come true . . .

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sugar Sugar

Half a century or so ago, my father and I were in the car listening to a program on the Mighty 1090 WBAF AM in Barnesville, Georgia. It was a church program, and a lady was testifying.

“The Lord done cured me of my sugar,” she said. “In fact, he done cured me of my sugar twice!”

Daddy chuckled and said, “The Lord must not have done too good a job the first time.”

I remembered that story from so long ago the other day when the nurse called to tell me the results of the blood work from my annual physical.

“Everything looks good,” she said as I half listened, expecting that to be the end of the sentence as it had been with every other blood work report I had ever received. But it wasn’t.

“Except your blood sugar,” she continued, as I snapped to attention. “It was 229.”

“What’s it supposed to be?” I asked. I’d never cared before.

“80-100,” she said. “229 is really high.”

So later that day, I was back in the doctor’s office to have my blood checked again. I figured the earlier reading had been a fluke and my sugar level would be close to normal this time.

This time it was 269. So they did an A1C test, which, as I understand it, determines how much glucose your blood has been storing over the last three months. It’s the test that determines if you have diabetes. The scale goes to 12. My number was 11.6.

I always was a high achiever.

My doctor said, “With a number that high, I should probably put you right on insulin. But I’m not going to. Let’s see what we can do with oral medication and diet.”

I’m happy to report that with oral medication and diet, my glucose level has already dropped to more acceptable levels. I have quickly learned to pay attention to how much sugar and how many carbs are in foods. I’ve been helped in my education by my Good Wife, who, upon hearing my diagnosis, instantaneously transformed into the cutest, sweetest, and kindest sugar and carbs Nazi the world has ever seen.

When we got home on the day of my diagnosis, I noticed that we had a lot of bananas. My usual reaction to such a circumstance would be to ask for a banana pudding. But I didn’t. And I was crying inside. I’m not going to lie—I miss my Little Debbie Nutty Bars. And I had just fallen in love with these chocolate and marshmallow things sold at the Dollar General up the road—they taste like Pinwheels but cost two-thirds less. Don’t get me started on fried chicken.

But it’s all right. And it’s going to be all right. I’ve eaten whatever I’ve wanted to eat for fifty-seven years. I don’t mind having to do differently for the next fifty-seven.

Besides, a funny thing is happening on the way to eating healthy: we’re finding that there all kinds of interesting things to eat that we never would have eaten had I not suddenly paid the price for being too sweet.

For example, I’ve been eating oatmeal for breakfast for years in the interest of heart and colon health (and because I like oatmeal). I used to put a little sugar and some 1% milk in it. Somewhere along the way, I started using artificial sweetener (Stevia, most recently) and milk. But I’ve been told to try to avoid artificial sweeteners because the body doesn’t know what to do with them. So I’ve been trying other things. And lo and behold, oatmeal tastes better and much more interesting with stuff like almonds, walnuts, raisins, unsweetened coconut, and cinnamon in it (no, not all at once--not yet, anyway).

Now don’t get me wrong. I didn’t want diabetes and I’m not glad I have it. If I’m not careful, it could lead to some pretty bad consequences down the road. But I’m choosing to look for the positives in my new situation, three of which I’ll point out.

First, I live in a time when medical science can detect and treat diabetes.

Second, I’ve never put sweetener in my coffee, I like unsweetened tea, I prefer sweet potatoes to white ones, and I love fish and chicken (even if they’re not fried).

Third, there are a zillion delicious low-sugar and low-carb foods out there that I never would have tried had I not developed diabetes. I would have just kept on eating the some old (admittedly delicious) stuff that I’ve always eaten. When life gives you high glucose levels, you make low-sugar and low-carb deliciousness out of it.

I choose to look at my new reality as an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to expand my tastes, to explore new foods, and to become healthier.

You’ve heard it said that when God closes one door, God opens another one.

Well, I don’t blame God for this. I don’t think God sits up in heaven and says, “Oh, today’s the day I give Mike diabetes.” But I do think that God has made us in such a way that we can and should look for ways to live creatively and positively with what our humanity throws at us.

And so the door has closed on some of my favorite foods. I’ve been forced to accept that closed door.

But there are lots of yummy things on the other side of this other door that I’ve chosen to walk through.

Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

There’s Nothing to Go Back To

I’ve been thinking about this line from an old gospel song: “There’s nothing to go back to.” The song is “I’m Too Near Home (To Turn Back Now).” It’s about keeping your eyes on heaven. The chorus says,

I’m too near home with my Lord, too near heaven’s reward
I am not returning to sin I’ve made my vow
There is nothing to go back to
Praise the Lord, sweet heaven’s in view
I’m too near my heavenly home to turn back now.


So a life of sin is the nothing to which the singer can’t go back. Besides, heaven’s in view, so it’s best to keep looking forward.

I say “Amen” to that, but it’s not the way my mind is using that line these days. Instead, I keep thinking about the desire to “go back” that seems to be driving so many American voters during this presidential election cycle (and that seems to drive so many people in the way they view the world). They want to “go back” to a time when, in their view, America was stronger, greater, and better than it is now.

The problem with that kind of thinking is there’s nothing to go back to.

And if all you want to do—and all you want the nation and the world to do—is to go back to the way things used to be, then there’s nowhere to go. When it comes to time, we aren’t allowed to go backward. Therefore, there’s no point in looking back, and there’s really no point in pining for what’s back there.

I once had a church member who was perpetually frustrated. I finally figured out that he was never going to be happy until it was 1955 again. Therefore, he was never going to be happy. 1955, like every other past year, is gone for good.

As best I can understand from my reading of Scientific American, parallel universes—perhaps an infinite number of them—exist. My Good Wife and I have been binge-watching the excellent television program Fringe lately, and travel between such worlds is an important part of the show’s fascinating plot. It can’t be done, though. At least it can’t be done yet. At least it can’t be done as far as I know. Sometimes, though, when I get a really strong sense of déjà vu . . . . Nah, we’ll stick with it can’t be done.

The same goes for time travel. I’m as intrigued with time travel as the next nerd. It’s theoretically possible, but practically unlikely, unless somebody comes from the future to show us how to do it, which would be pretty ironic. Whether it’s H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, that old cheesy television show Time Tunnel, or Stephen King’s 11/22/63, I’m a sucker for a good—or a bad—time travel story.

For now, though, the only time travel we can do is in fiction.

I understand people being anxious. Change brings anxiety, and things are changing rapidly and irrevocably. The world is becoming increasingly complex. The nation is becoming increasingly diverse. Our evolving technology makes it simultaneously possible to do greater good and greater harm than we’ve ever done before. And because of instantaneous communication (I’m looking at you, Twitter), we not only know about what happens as soon as it happens, but we also have 4,365 interpretations of it instantly available, including those that put the worst possible spin on it.

We have options as to how we’re going to handle the situation we’re in. But going back isn’t one of them. We must live in the present and we can live toward the future, but we can’t live in the past.

So, when you’re discussing the problems of the world and you hear the words “I remember when . . .” or "I think we should go back to . . ." coming out of your mouth, just hush. Nothing you’re about to say is going to do any good.

We can’t go back. We must find ways to embrace the present and to move into the future.

If we’re going to make it, we really have no choice. But let’s not look at it that way. Let’s see it as the great opportunity it is. We still have the chance to get together, to work together, and to try together to make this world a better home for all of us.

Let’s not waste our time and our energy in the pointless, fruitless endeavor of wanting things to be like they used to be.

There’s nothing to go back to.

But there’s plenty to go forward toward . . .