Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Mike the Poet


In late spring of 1964, I joined my fellow graduates of Miss Sylvia’s Kindergarten on the stage of the Gordon Grammar School lunchroom in Barnesville, Georgia. 

At a designated point in the midst of all the pomp and circumstance, I stepped forward and, with trembling knees and shaking voice, recited the first poem I ever uttered publicly. It was “The Swing” by Robert Louis Stevenson.

How do you like to go up in a swing,
   Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
   Ever a child can do! 

Stevenson was a pretty good writer. Thinking I could do better, I eventually wrote some poems of my own. It was when I was a student in Mrs. Key’s creative writing class at Forsyth Road School. The one I remember was about space. It was a moving piece with great depth and insight. The closing line was,
The biggest space I know of
is the space between your ears.

I don’t know which of my classmates I had in mind. If you think it was you, let me know and I’ll apologize.

I wrote a few poems over the next half-century, but I’ve only recently begun writing poetry in a disciplined way. I try to write one every week. Some of them are about my life, while others are about my perspective on the world and related matters.

I thought I’d share two of them to let you know where my thoughts have been lately. The fact that they don’t rhyme tells you how deep and serious they are.

The first one is called “Uneven Spaces.” I think it’s about how I want to live.

The sign in the passageway
between the terminal and the plane
said, “Caution: Uneven Spaces.”

It meant, I think, that the junctures
between the passageway’s sections
created a tripping hazard.

It set me to thinking about how
we always need to watch our step
because life isn’t level or uniform.

Some parts are high, some low.
Some are wide, some narrow.
Some are predictable, some surprising.

A problem: if you spend all your time
looking down for the uneven spaces,
you’ll miss seeing lots of amazing things.

Some things are worth the risk
of falling flat on your face.

The second one is called “Hardening.” I think it’s about how I want to grow old.

Three score and ten seems fair.

But if you feel pretty good as you get near it,
four score starts to sound reasonable,
four score and ten attainable, and
five score not out of the question.

Then you think about how
your minor arthritis might become major,
your occasional forgetfulness might become frequent,
and your declining hearing might go all the way down,
and you tell yourself well, none of that would be so bad.
Minor inconveniences requiring bearable adjustments.

But what if you become
more set in your ways,
more stuck in your perspectives,
more callous in your sympathies,
less open in your search for truth?

And you find yourself realizing
you’d rather go sooner with hardened arteries
than later with hardened attitudes.

You may not write poetry. But I hope you take time to think deeply about your life in the world.

We only get to do it once, and we need to find as much meaning in it as we can.

To read my weekly poems, follow me on Instagram at michaell.ruffin.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Music to Get Ready for Church—and Life—By

When I was a boy growing up in the little house on Memorial Drive in Barnesville, Georgia in the 1960s, my parents and I got ready for church with Southern gospel music emanating from the nineteen-inch black and white television set.

We’d listen to two programs that an Atlanta station sent our way.

The first show was the Gospel Singing Caravan, which featured the LeFevre family. Boomershine Pontiac in Atlanta sponsored it. The second program was the Gospel Singing Jubilee, hosted by the Florida Boys.

Both programs featured other popular Southern Gospel groups of the time.

Fast forward half a century (which is pretty much what I’ve done). These days, as my Good Wife and I are getting ready to go to church on Sunday mornings, we listen to the Southern Gospel station on Pandora. It doesn’t play the quartets my parents and I listened to in my growing-up years. Instead, it mainly plays country artists singing gospel songs.

On a recent Sunday, we heard two classic songs by two classic artists back-to-back.

The first was Peace in the Valley by George Jones. As you may know, Jones is the greatest country singer of all time. He sings with a tear in his voice. He could sing Pop Goes the Weasel and break your heart.

So as George sings the opening words of Peace in the Valley–“Oh well, I'm tired and so weary, but I must go alone, 'til the Lord comes and calls, calls me away”–you can hear him suffering. But you can hear the hope in the chorus:

There will be peace in the valley for me, some day.
There will be peace in the valley for me, oh Lord I pray.
There'll be no sadness, no sorrow, no troubles I see.
There will be peace, peace in the valley for me some day.

The second song was Merle Haggard’s version of  Just a Closer Walk with Thee. Merle had a reputation as a tough guy, but he sounds vulnerable as he pleads,

I am weak but Thou art strong.
Jesus keep me from all wrong.
I'll be satisfied as long
as I walk, let me walk close to Thee.
Just a closer walk with Thee.
Grant it Jesus is my plea.
Daily walking close to Thee;
let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Hearing those two great hymns back-to-back set me to thinking about the fact that until we reach the peaceful valley, we must live in this less-than-peaceful world. Until we reach the state in which we’ll know “no sadness, no sorrow, no troubles,” we deal with sadness, sorrow, and troubles.

While we’re here, we Christians want to walk closer and closer with Jesus. We have committed our lives to following him, and we know that he will lead us in the ways we should go.

On one hand, walking with Jesus can give us greater personal peace. It can give us the greatest peace we can have before we get to heaven.

On the other hand, walking with Jesus leads us to confront the world’s lack of peace. As a Christian, I cannot be satisfied with having ever-greater peace for myself. I cannot be at peace while so many people know no peace. I cannot be content not to suffer or to have help in my struggles. I want as many people as possible to be lifted out of their suffering or to have support in their struggles.

A half century of walking with Jesus, and hopefully of steadily drawing closer and closer to him as we walk, has taught me that being his follower means caring more about others than I do myself, of putting other people’s needs ahead of mine, of standing with those who are struggling with the hard realities of life, and of embracing those whom society tries to push out to the margins.

I’m grateful to George and Merle for helping me think about the important truths that their songs announce, and for giving me the opportunity to push on toward truths that lie behind the songs.

Until we reach peace in the valley, our walk with Jesus should lead us beyond satisfaction with personal peace and on to a quest to bring greater peace to as many people as possible.


Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Necessary Vocations

I recently read a 1955 novel by Leigh Brackett entitled The Long Tomorrow. It’s set a couple of generations after a nuclear war has devastated Earth’s cities. The new Constitution of postwar America forbids the building of cities. People live only in small towns and rural areas.

A major crisis in the book revolves around the desire of a man to build one more warehouse than he’s allowed by law. The limit he wants to violate is in place to keep a city from developing. Things don’t go well for him.

Because the war had little effect on the simple lifestyle of Mennonites, many people have adopted their ways, leading to New Mennonites being the dominant religious and social force in America.

Much of the story’s tension comes from the postwar society’s anti-science and anti-technology stance. It is an understandable position, given that scientific progress, especially in nuclear science, contributed to the mass destruction experienced in the not-too-distant past.

As the novel’s plot develops, we find that some technology still exists. Unbeknownst to most people, some people are secretly still working on nuclear power, allegedly for good purposes. Len, the young man who is the protagonist of the story, struggles mightily between the simple ways of his raising in a New Mennonite community and the possibilities of resumed technological progress.

I won’t give away the resolution, such as it is, in case you decide to read the book, which I recommend you do.

Reading The Long Tomorrow got me to thinking about what might happen after an apocalyptic event such as a nuclear war. It also got me to thinking about the skills that would most help civilization survive in the aftermath of such an event.

Some of us remember the 1983 television film The Day After. It’s about a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. A few years ago—I think it was on the thirtieth anniversary of the film’s first airing in 2013—I heard a discussion about it. One person said that while the film dealt only with the immediate aftermath of the war, she’d like someone to make a sequel about its extended aftermath. How, she wondered, would civilization survive and recover? She pointed out that people with practical skills would be very important in such a world.

Lately I’ve seen many people on social media promoting the value of vocational education. I agree that people should be encouraged to follow the educational and career paths that suit their gifts and interests. Besides, we need people who know how to do practical things. We need welders, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, carpenters, and more. I mean, try to get along without them and see how far you get. As someone who doesn’t have such skills, I admire those who do.

But we also need the people who study science, mathematics, technology, and engineering. The advances they bring about have done, do, and will do much good. It is also true that such advances can be used in negative ways that bring about destruction, as happened in the novel The Long Tomorrow and in the film The Day After. That’s why scientists should also study ethics.

We also need the musicians and the writers. We need the philosophers and the poets.

We need those who can dream the future and those who can build it.

We need for all of us to find and do our part.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Coexist

You may have seen a “Coexist” bumper sticker on some vehicles. We have one on one of ours. The sticker uses the symbols of several religions to spell the word “Coexist.” It thereby makes the statement that people who practice different religions need to learn to live together. It makes the even deeper statement that we need to respect and appreciate each other as we practice our particular religion.

It’s a noble and worthy goal. Like most noble and worthy goals, it’s difficult to achieve.

There are lots of reasons for that difficulty. For one thing, we only know what we know. Most of us who practice a religion practice the one we were raised in, so we believe what we’ve always been told and worship as we’ve always worshiped.

For another thing, we treasure our faith. It’s valuable to us, as it should be. But it’s a short step from treasuring our faith to thinking that other faiths have no value. That short step is a step too far.

For still another thing, we think our religion is right. We may think ours is absolutely right and others are absolutely wrong. Or we may think that ours is more correct than others. The truth is that few of us have ever practiced another religion than the one we follow now. We have the option of switching our allegiance to another religion, but chances are good that we never will.

It’s asking a lot for people who practice different religions to get along. After all, we have a hard time getting along within our own religions. There are many denominations within my Christian tradition, and there are many subgroups within those denominations and many sub-subgroups within those subgroups. Such groupings exist for various historical and social reasons. But they do exist, and they’re not going to stop existing.

The bottom line is that there have always been multiple religions. There always will be. One reason for this is that we’re dealing with God, and God is a lot to deal with. It’s mighty presumptuous for any individual or group to think they have God figured out.

Now, I believe with all my heart that God most fully revealed God’s self to us in the person of Jesus Christ. I am well aware that I was raised in the Baptist version of the Christian tradition. I am well aware that I was trained to be a Christian minister. Still, after all these years, I find following Jesus to be a most meaningful way to experience, worship, and serve God.

The “t” in “Coexist” is a cross, which is my religion’s symbol. The cross implies humility, selflessness, and service. As a Christian, I want my perspectives, attitudes, words, and actions to be carried out in light of the cross.

So to my fellow Christians I say, believe what you believe. Hold the convictions you hold. Practice the practices that you practice. Always be growing in your faith and in your knowledge.

But be kind, gracious, and loving about it.

We want everyone to know Jesus. But I doubt they’ll pay much attention to him if we’re jerks about it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Walking in the Way of the Cross

Have you ever participated in the Stations of the Cross? If you’re a Christian, you should. It is a spiritually enriching and challenging experience. If you’re not a Christian, you’ll still find it an interesting and possibly moving experience.

The Stations of the Cross is an exercise in following Jesus as he moves toward his crucifixion. The First United Methodist Church of Barnesville, Georgia offers the opportunity to engage in this exercise from Tuesday, April 16 through Good Friday, April 19 from 3:00-7:00 p.m. and Saturday from 9:00 a.m.-noon in the sanctuary.

Artists from the church and community have provided wonderful visual representations of the various stations. I am privileged to be the author of devotions, written in verse, for each station.

The cross is a central symbol for the Christian church. We see it prominently displayed in and on many sanctuaries. The cross is a central symbol of the Christian faith because of its vital role in a central tenet of that faith: Jesus Christ died on the cross so we might be forgiven for our sins.

Most Christians have heard a lot of preaching about Jesus dying on the cross for us. Such preaching is helpful and true. It is basic to the gospel message.

But there is another aspect to the cross that we might not have heard quite as much preaching about. It’s an aspect that over the last few years I’ve found myself thinking, writing, and preaching about. The cross reminds us that Jesus died for us, but it also reminds us that Jesus calls us to die with him. Our calling to participate in what Jesus does on the cross is also basic to the gospel message.

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

When we put our faith in God by whose grace Jesus died on the cross for our sins, we also commit ourselves to following him. At the heart of following him is taking up our cross, which means willingly, purposely, and actively giving up our lives as he gave up his.

What does it mean to follow Jesus in taking up our cross and giving up our lives?

It means always to be looking for ways to serve God by serving others. It means to put others ahead of self. It means to do whatever we can do to help the oppressed and dispossessed. It means to practice love, grace, and mercy. It means to live humbly. It means to live peaceably. Such living should permeate our attitudes, our perspectives, our motives, our words, our relationships, and even our politics.

I hope you who are Christians will participate in the Stations of the Cross. I hope that as you follow Jesus to his cross, you’ll also ponder what it means to take up your cross and follow him. We all need to do better at it.

I hope you who aren’t Christians will participate in the Stations of the Cross. The exercise will give you a good look at who Jesus is and what Jesus did. It will also give you some insight into who Christians can be when they really follow Jesus.

(You can preview some of the artwork and devotions by following Barnesville First United Methodist Church on Facebook or by following michaell.ruffin on Instagram).

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Nostalgia

My Good Wife and I recently traveled to Champion Stadium at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World to watch the last two Atlanta Braves Spring Training games ever to be played at that venue.

It’s the end of an era that lasted twenty-two years. The Braves moved their Spring Training headquarters from West Palm Beach to Lake Buena Vista in 1997. In 2020, they’ll move it to a brand-new complex at North Port, Florida, which is in Sarasota County. In fact, they played the final game of this year’s Spring Training in the new stadium. Reports are that it is fantastic.

I look forward to visiting the new place next spring. I’m sure it will be a great place to watch a baseball game. I understand that it’s configured so that 70% of the seats will be in the shade for a 1:00 p.m. start. It has the added advantage of having beaches nearby.

But I’m sad about the end of the Braves’ relationship with Disney. I admit I won’t miss such silliness as having Mickey or Goofy accompany the tossers of the first pitch to and from the mound. Still, Champion Stadium is the only place I’ve ever watched Braves’ Spring Training games. I will always wax nostalgic about it.

I expect to tire of hearing myself say, even as I sit in utter contentment at CoolDay Park (that’s it’s name) in North Port over the next couple of decades, “Remember how back at Disney/ESPN’s Wide World of Sports/Champion Stadium/Lake Buena Vista they used to…?”

We tend to be nostalgic. After the new Lamar County High School opens this fall, students who have attended classes in the current facility since 1975 will smile and say, “Remember when…?” People of my generation who grew up in Lamar County are that way about the schools at Booker, Gordon, and Milner.

And that’s okay. Memories that bring smiles to our faces are good things. Change is okay too, because it creates opportunities for the creation of new memories that will bring new smiles to our faces.

My nostalgia will always be tied to Dr. Howard Giddens, my teacher and mentor with whom I went to Spring Training every year from 1995-2005. For a few years, I went with a small group of friends. One year our son went with me. For the last few years, my Good Wife and I have made the trip together and will, Lord willing, continue to do so. (She loves baseball. It was a necessary prerequisite for marrying me.)

The best kind of nostalgia isn’t so much about missing the place or wanting to go back to the time. It’s about remembering the people with whom we shared the experiences.

The Braves have signed a thirty-year lease with Sarasota County to hold Spring Training at CoolDay Park. By the time it runs out, I’ll be ninety years old. Maybe the Braves will be ready for another change by then. Maybe I will too.

Who knows what I’ll be experiencing at that point (if anything)? Perhaps my wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be with me as I watch the Braves play some Spring Training games.

Wherever I am and whomever I’m with, I’ll cherish the people who are with me. I’ll also cherish the memories of the people who have been with me in years gone by.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Some Thoughts About Politics

It’s early in 2019. So far, roughly 197 Democrats have announced that they will be candidates in the 2020 presidential election. Meanwhile, a couple of Republicans are reportedly weighing the possibility of running for their party’s nomination against the incumbent president who really isn’t a Republican—c’mon now, you have to admit he isn’t—but who won their nomination and the presidency in 2016. Oh, and there’s a super-rich guy who used to sell coffee that costs three times as much and has no better taste than what you can get at McDonald’s who may run as an independent for some unfathomable reason.

So yes, the 2020 election is already on our minds. Lord have mercy.

Still, 2019 is a non-election year, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about politics before we start thinking and talking too much about the candidates. It might do us good to think and talk about the ways we think and talk about politics.

I’m going to focus on the ways we think and talk about presidents, but I suspect my observations are more broadly applicable.

Let me put my main thought right up front: when it comes to evaluating presidents, we aren’t objective. How we judge a president’s actions depends largely on whether we voted for him.

(For simplicity’s sake, I’m using “him” to refer to presidents, since thus far they’ve all been men. I hope and trust this will change soon.)

Here’s my main evidence for saying we aren’t objective in the ways we evaluate presidents: a president we approve of can do and say controversial things and we defend him, but if a president we don’t approve of does and says the same (or the same kinds of) things, we attack him.

I wonder why that is? I can think of several possible reasons.

First, we have trouble separating legitimate criticism from partisan attacks.

Sometimes when a new president is elected, his opponents (enemies might be a more accurate word) throw every accusation they can come up with at him. Some of their criticisms are accurate, some are extremely exaggerated attack versions of accurate criticisms, and some amount to fictional conspiracy theories. The enemies’ approach is to throw as much at the president as possible, knowing that some of it, true or not, will stick.

One reason we have trouble separating legitimate criticism from partisan attacks is that we tend to limit ourselves to media outlets that confirm our preconceived notions. Another is that we tend to get a lot of our information from Internet sources that aren’t vetted well for truth and accuracy—or aren’t vetted at all.

Second, we don’t like to admit that we may have been wrong to support and vote for a candidate who became president.

We may have what seemed to us good reasons to support and vote for a candidate. We heard the warnings about him and we thought they were exaggerated. After he has been president for a while, we realize there are reasons to be concerned. But to acknowledge it is to admit that we were wrong to vote for him. That’s hard to do, especially since it implies that those who voted for the other candidate may have been right (or at least less wrong).

Maybe we should remember that a vote isn’t a marriage vow. We didn’t pledge to be faithful to the president no matter what he does. And faithfulness to the country, to the Constitution, and to our neighbors might compel us to change our minds about a vote we cast.

If we do decide it wasn’t the right vote, we can’t go back and change it. But we can try to do better next time.

What can we do to try to think more objectively about a president for whom we voted?

We might try regularly asking ourselves this question: if President #1, for whom I voted, does something that I criticized President #2, for whom I didn’t vote, for doing, then shouldn’t I also criticize President #1 for doing it?