Saturday, November 21, 2015

Mixed Blessings

This is the time of year that we give some attention to offering thanks for the blessings in our lives. Some folks thank the stars, some thank the fates, and some thank themselves. I’m numbered among those who thank God, which frankly complicates things a bit.

Think about it. If I think my life is controlled by the stars, when life falls apart I can figure that once the heavens realign I’ll be ok and I can move on. If I think that whatever happens to me is due to fate, when something bad happens, I can chalk it up to the randomness of life and move on. If I give credit to myself for whatever happens, then I can blame myself when something goes wrong and move on.

It’s different when I have to take God into account. Now, if I just believed in a God who is the Prime Mover or the First Cause—in the words of the late Andrae Crouch, a “God who didn’t care, who lives away up there”—things wouldn’t be so complicated. I could just think about such a God like other folks think about fate or luck.

But I believe in a personal God. I believe in a God who has chosen to interact with us in the here and now of our lives. I believe in a God who knows every hair on my head (which, regrettably, isn’t as great a challenge as it once was). I believe in a God who loves me. I believe in a God who entered this world in Jesus Christ to live and die as one of us. I believe in a God who is with me every moment of every day. I believe in a God who cares about what happens to me, who hurts when I hurt, and who grieves when I grieve.

Yet I can’t believe in a God who doesn’t allow bad things to happen to me and to everybody else. So far as I can tell, there is no such God. I guess there is a sense in which I have come to accept that there is in fact randomness, or at least unpredictability, to life. Things happen that make no sense. To try to make sense of them is to risk going insane. Sometimes, asking “Why?” just doesn’t get us anywhere.

I used to spend a lot of mental, emotional, and spiritual energy wondering why my mother died when I was sixteen and my father when I was twenty. After all, I reasoned, they were good people, and I wasn’t a particularly bad fellow. So why did this happen to them? Why did it happen to us? Why did my mother suffer with cancer for the last seven years of her life? Why did my father suffer a massive heart attack while working at Thomaston Mills?

I find no comfort in the thought that there is always someone worse off than me. Yes, many children are orphaned at a much younger age than I was. Yes, I’d rather have had good parents for a short time than sorry ones for a long time. The truth is, no matter how I tried to reason it all out, none of it made any sense to me. It still doesn’t.

Life is filled with mixed blessings. That’s because every blessing has two sides. On one side is what we have. On the other side is what we can lose. I think that happiness comes from (1) choosing to be grateful both for what we have and for what we had that we’ve lost and (2) choosing to be grateful for what we have, knowing that we might lose it, but not fearing that possibility.

Life is a mixed blessing. The prayer of thanksgiving that I find myself praying often these days is, “Thank you, God, for all of it.” I try really hard to mean that prayer when I pray it. “Thank you, God, for all of it. Thank you for the gains and the losses, for the joys and the sorrows, for the highs and lows, and for the successes and failures.”

After all, that’s life.

And life is what I’m grateful to God for . . .

(First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Thomaston Times on November 20, 2015)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Saints and Ain’ts

November 1 was All Saints’ Day. The observance started off in the early church as a way to remember and celebrate the martyrs, those who were faithful to the Lord at the cost of their lives. It eventually evolved into a day to honor all of the Lord’s saints who have made it home. Many churches observe All Saints’ Day by recalling the lives of those members who have died during the preceding twelve months. We did that in the last couple of churches I served as pastor.

Yes, there are Baptist churches that do such things.

I always found it a very meaningful experience. We had already remembered those folks when we held their funeral or memorial services, but we focused on them then as individuals. All Saints’ Day reminded us that our departed sisters and brothers were and are a part of our church family. It also reminded us that all of those who have gone before us constitute that great cloud—and after all these years it truly is a great cloud—of witnesses that surrounds us. You can’t be a saint without being among the saints. It’s the saints that come marching in, not the saint.

A saint is someone who’s been sanctified, which means it’s someone who’s been made holy. The thing is, it’s hard for us to know who’s holy and who’s not. Sister Bertha Better Than You (thanks, Ray Stevens) thinks she’s holy, but she’s actually holier-than-thou, which isn’t the same thing. She’s holy, to paraphrase, Mark Twain, in the worst sense of the word. Some people who think they’re saints give saints a bad name. Some people think that the most ludicrous thing you could call them is “saints,” which is in fact evidence that that’s what they are. Some of the people that we judge to be holy really aren’t. Some of those that we judge not to be holy actually are. We have low and shallow standards. We think not being bad is the same as being good. We judge a book by its cover.

We don’t know what we’re talking about. The truth is that only God really knows who’s a saint and who isn’t. I’ll give you one little rhyme to keep in mind, though: if you think you’re a saint, you most likely ain’t.

The Gospel of Luke contains a couple of stories that should make us stop and think about what it means to be holy, or at least to be on the way to being holy. In the first (Luke 18:18-25), a rich ruler comes to Jesus wanting to know how he can inherit eternal life. He calls Jesus “Good Teacher,” to which Jesus responds with “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” You might want to keep that in mind when you get to thinking that hey, maybe you are good after all.

Anyway, Jesus tells the man that he knows the commandments and the ruler says that he sure does. Why, he’s kept all of them since he was just a little rich ruler. Jesus doesn’t argue the point. I imagine the fellow really was good at not doing what he wasn’t supposed to do. Instead, Jesus told him, “You lack one thing. Go sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor. That way you’ll have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The man went away with his possessions intact and his heart broken.

Everybody would have told you that man was saint. But he wasn’t.

Then there’s that famous wee little man, Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus was rich, too, but he padded his portfolio by cheating the taxpayers out of their hard-earned money. He worked with the hated Roman occupiers of Israel. Everybody would have told you that he not only wasn’t a saint but had no possibility of ever being one.

But when Jesus came to town, Zacchaeus wanted to see him. I guess he had heard that Jesus was a friend of sinners and if there was anything Zacchaeus knew about himself, it was that he was a sinner in need of a friend. He was so determined to see Jesus that he tossed his pride aside and went running down the road to get ahead of the crowd. Finding a climbable tree, he climbed it. You can imagine his neighbors pointing up and laughing at him. You can also imagine him not caring. When Jesus saw him up there, he told Zacchaeus to come on down because he just had to spend some time with him.

It had probably been years since anybody except other shady outcasts had shared a meal with Zacchaeus. But Jesus did. And Zacchaeus was glad to have him. As soon as Jesus accepted Zacchaeus and Zacchaeus accepted Jesus, the little big man started throwing his money out to anybody who would take it. “I’ll give half of my stuff to the poor. If I’ve cheated anybody, I’ll pay them back four times what I bilked them out of.”

You see the difference between Zacchaeus and the rich ruler, don’t you? When Jesus challenged the ruler to sell his stuff and help out the poor, he couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, didn’t have to be challenged. He just started sharing.

That’s what love and grace will do to you.

My point here, though, is that everybody would have said the rich ruler was a saint. He kept his nose clean, he had a sterling reputation, and he was an upstanding citizen. But his heart was cold. His wealth (and no doubt the power that came with it) was more important to him than anything else, including God and people. Everybody would also have said that Zacchaeus was an irredeemable scoundrel. But when the love of Jesus sparked his heart, it erupted in a blaze of generosity and reconciliation.

So the next time you get to thinking that somebody’s a saint or that somebody isn’t, you might want to just go think about something else and leave that one to the good Lord.

When I was just starting out as a preacher, my father, the late, great Champ Ruffin, advised me, “Son, when you start doing funerals, don’t feel like you have to preach everybody into heaven, ‘cause everybody ain’t going.” I’ve since presided over hundreds of funerals. I’ve treated some of the deceased as if they were saints and I’ve hedged my bets on quite a few. Still, I once had a friend say to me, “Mike, I’m Methodist and you’re Baptist, but I want you to preach my funeral. You can find something good to say about anybody.”

I guess I can.

But saying it doesn’t make it so . . .

(First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on November 10, 2015)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Four Evers

I heard about a student who turned in his exam paper without answering any of the questions. The professor said, “Son, don’t you know anything?” The student replied, “Professor, I don’t even suspect anything!”

At least the student was honest. How often do we pretend to know what we don’t even suspect?

You may have heard the saying, “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell God about your plans.” If that’s true, I’ve given the Almighty many a chuckle over the years. You probably have, too.

There was a time in my life when my faith in God was all about forever—that is, I thought that the main point of being saved was to be able to live forever. These days, while I still look forward to going to heaven, which I strongly suspect is real, I understand better that the life I have now is the only life I ever will have. Jesus said that eternal life is to know God and the Son whom God has sent. To be saved is to have a personal relationship with God. So, if I am saved in this life, which means I know God in this life, then I am already living the eternal life. It doesn’t just start when I die. It’s going on now. My life in heaven will, in some very significant ways, be a continuation of the life I’m living now.

Here’s the thing, though: I have no way of knowing what’s going to happen in this life. Oh, I may suspect some things. There are developments that I expect and for which I try to prepare. Still, beyond this second in which I am taking my current breath, I have no idea what will happen. I believe, though, that it matters very much how I deal what happens.

I’ve come to realize that the Christian life is about forever, but it is not just about forever; it’s also about four “evers.”

The Christian life is about whatever. It’s about accepting whatever comes with grace (in God, everything is all right), peace (with God, I am all right), and hope (by God, everything is going to be all right). It’s about understanding that no one is immune from anything. Good and bad come into the lives of all human beings. To quote the theologian Clint Eastwood, “Deserving’s got nothing to do with it.” The difference that faith makes is that somehow, it all means something. We may not know what it means, but we live in trust that it means something. So we don’t shy away from any of it. We accept it, we take it on, we grapple with it, and we live through it and beyond it. As the writer Frederick Buechner said, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

The Christian life is about whoever. Some 7.3 billion people live on this planet. No matter how many people you and I know, we know just a very small fraction of the world’s population. A lot of us try not to get out and about among them too much. I for one will do my Black Friday shopping in my chair via my iPad. And I suppose that once Amazon and Walmart get those drone deliveries going, we may not have to leave home at all. Nonetheless, people of faith have a responsibility to other people. We are responsible to the people that we meet as we live our lives. We should treat them with understanding, compassion, and kindness. We also have a responsibility toward the people that we will never meet. We are responsible for not thinking and speaking of them as stereotypes and caricatures. Whoever is out there, we need to pray for them, to be concerned for them, and to love them—even if they are our enemies (Jesus said that, you know).

The Christian life is about wherever. There is a sense in which we’re on our way to God. That’s why we talk about heaven. At the end of sojourn on Earth, we’ll know as we are known, as the Apostle Paul once put it. We’ll be in God’s presence with none of the stuff between us that gets in the way down here. But we are already in God’s presence. Sure, one day we’ll make our home with God, but God has already made God’s home with us. They’re already playing Christmas music in the stores and the Christmas decorations have been for sale since Labor Day, so I guess it’s not too early (yes it is, but I’ll do it anyway) to mention what Christmas is about. It is about Immanuel—“God with us.” Jesus was God with us and the Holy Spirit is God with us. So wherever we are on Earth, wherever we are in our life, wherever we are in our journey with God, God is with us.

The Christian life is about whenever. When I was a teenager, someone handed me a round wooden object about the size of a silver dollar. On one side it said “Tuit.” On the other side it said, “Remember all those times you said you’d put God first in your life when you got around to it? Well, here’s a round tuit.” It was silly, but it made its point. The old saying “There’s no time like the present” is applicable here, although I’d change it to “There’s no time but the present.” For now, now is the only time that we have. So whenever we have the opportunity to share God’s love, grace, and mercy, we need to take advantage of the opportunity. Whenever we can, we should.

So yes, the Christian life is about forever. But it’s also about four “evers”: whatever, whoever, wherever, and whenever. And it will be until forever gets here …

[First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Thomaston Times on Friday, November 6, 2015]

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Gone If It’s Fair

It was very late on Tuesday, October 21. The Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox were locked in the titanic struggle at Fenway Park that was game six of the 1975 World Series. Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk strode to the plate in the bottom of the twelfth inning. The score was tied 6-6. Pat Darcy, the Red’s eighth pitcher of the game, threw a pitch that Fisk lifted high and deep down the left field line. Fisk hopped down toward first base, waving his arms to the right, trying with all his might to convince the ball to stay fair. He leapt into the air as the ball struck the foul pole 310 feet away and just above the thirty-seven foot high left field wall known as the “Green Monster.”

Sox fans at Fenway and everywhere else erupted in celebration. I smiled as I watched the scene unfold on the thirteen inch black and white television in James and Eddie’s dorm room at the end of the hall where we lived during our freshman year at Mercer University.

It is still one of the most dramatic moments in World Series history. It happened forty years ago, and I can remember it like it was yesterday. Fisk’s solo home run allowed the Red Sox to defeat the Reds 7-6.

Fisk’s shot just barely made it out of Fenway. But if he had hit it 500 feet to straightaway center field, Boston still would have won the game by one run. That’s because a home run counts as one run no matter how far the batter hits the ball. It’s the same way in other sports. A touchdown that’s scored from one yard out counts as six points; so does one scored on a 100 yard kickoff return. A twenty yard field goal gets you three points just like a fifty-three yard one does. A soccer goal scored from midfield is worth one point just like one made from right in front of the net. (For what it’s worth, this is why I think the three point goal in basketball was an unfortunate innovation. A goal is a goal is a goal.)

Would Carlton Fisk have felt any better about his home run had he hit it way out to the deepest part of the field? No, he wouldn’t have. Plus, we wouldn’t have that iconic shot of him waving the ball fair.

If you’re anything like I am—an average person just trying by the grace of God to do a decent job at being a human being—then you have to admit that you don’t usually possess or exhibit what could, by any reasonable measure, be called “great” faith. And you may, like I do, sometimes beat yourself up over it.

My advice to you is to stop it. Stop it right now.

My further advice to you is to be glad for the faith you have and to let it do its thing in your life.

In Luke 17, Jesus tells his disciples that they have to forgive those who sin against them. He’s really serious about it, so he says that if someone commits such a sin seven times in one day and repents seven times, then a follower of Jesus must forgive that person seven times. All those sevens are Bible talk for “You must forgive someone as often as necessary.”

Quite understandably, the disciples say, “Increase our faith!” (I wonder if they said it in unison.) Then Jesus tells them that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed (which is teeny tiny), they could uproot a tree and plop it down in the ocean. Some very good scholars maintain that the construction of that sentence in Greek means that Jesus really says, “Since you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can uproot the tree and drop it in the Mediterranean.” If that’s the case, Jesus is challenging his disciples to let the faith they have, little though it may be, do its thing in their lives. And if they’ll do that, they’ll find that they can do such outlandish and spectacular things as forgiving those who trespass against them, which is a whole lot harder than using spiritual telepathy to move trees around.

I find this very encouraging because, when it comes to faith, I seldom hit a mammoth homerun. My faith usually just squeezes inside the foul pole.

But it still counts . . .

[First appeared in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on Tuesday, October 27, 2015]

Friday, October 23, 2015

Good If You Like 'Em (or, Chitlins & Church)

I will attend my first Chitlin’ Hoedown in Yatesville on October 31. So don’t bring your kids to my house later that day for trick-or-treat. If you do, they’ll get little pieces of leftover chitlins. Boo!

I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve not attended the Hoedown in previous years. After all, Yatesville is my late father’s hometown and I’ve always had family there. I’m not sure why I’ve never gone before. Until recently, I’ve lived anywhere from two to ten hours away, and I guess I just didn’t deem chitlins worth the drive.

Now that I live less than a mile from downtown Yatesville, I reckon I’ve lost that excuse. Our proximity to the happening has created some concern around my house, though. My Good Wife has a very clear childhood memory of that one time when her mother cooked chitlins. She had to leave the house because of the smell, which she describes as being somewhat unpleasant. “Stinky” is the word I think she used. My Good Wife seldom resorts to such language, so it must have been bad. Anyway, we’re concerned that the chitlin’s aroma may come wafting down the hill to our house and to our nostrils. It may set our dogs to barking.

I don’t know when I first heard the word “chitlins.” I was a child, though, and since Google wasn’t available back in the Dark Ages, I used my next best research tool: I asked my father what they were. “Pig intestines,” he answered. “And people eat them?” I inquired, my voice quavering with shock and awe. “Yes,” he said, “but they do a really good job of cleaning them first.” That struck me as a good thing.

I thought the word was spelled “chitlins,” since that’s the way we pronounced it when we used it in very clever ways, such as when we didn’t recognize the mystery meat in the school cafeteria and said, “It must be chitlins,” or when we hadn’t studied and said, “I’d rather eat chitlins than take this test,” or when we needed to return an insult with an insult and said, “Is that your face or did you just eat some chitlins and forget to wipe your mouth?”

Then, one day at about this time of year in 1972, I was sacking groceries at my new after-school job when down the conveyer belt came a frozen pail with “Chitterlings” printed on the lid. “What’s this?” I inquired of one of my more experienced colleagues. “Chitlins!” he replied. It made sense, given the way we Southerners deal with words. I mean, how do you pronounce “scuppernongs”?

The burning question for me is this: will I try the chitlins? I don’t have to; they also serve chicken at the Chitlin’ Hoedown. I like chicken. But if I do try the chitlins, will I like them? And if I like them, what then? After all, my Good Wife isn’t going to cook any for me. Not ever. They’re stinky.

If my late mother-in-law were still with us, and if I asked her if chitlins are good, I know exactly what she’d say. She’d say, “They’re good if you like ‘em!”

Now, some of you are thinking, “How could anybody not like chitlins?” And some of you are thinking, “How could anybody even think about eating chitlins?” I admit that they sound gross to me. But hey, oysters are gross, and the only problem I have with eating a dozen oysters on the half shell is that I’d rather eat three dozen, preferably with hot sauce and horseradish. I wonder if that’s a good way to eat chitlins.

“They’re good if you like ‘em.” And there’s no accounting for taste.

That’s why chitlins remind me of church.

So much of how we think about church these days comes down to matters of taste. What do we like? What don’t we like? Some of us like contemporary worship; some of us favor traditional worship. This one prefers a choir and pipe organ; that one is much more drawn to a praise band. She likes preachers who deliver their message in a conversational style; he gets more out of an animated approach. Somebody values silence and contemplation; somebody else wants to have something going on all the time.

Such things are largely a matter of taste. It’s good if you like it.

But some things about being the church and about being Christian are not a matter of taste or a matter of choice. For all of us, whether we are Protestant or Catholic, whether we are formal or informal, whether we are rural or urban, and whether we are conservative or progressive, being the church and being Christian comes down to two non-negotiable essentials: (1) we are to love the Lord our God with everything we are and (2) we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We can’t be who we are without love.

So when you join me at the Chitlin’ Hoedown in Yatesville on Saturday, October 31, eat ‘em or don’t eat ‘em and like ‘em or don’t like ‘em. But remember: even as we are divided by our stance toward chitlins, we are bound by our need to eat. We don’t have to eat chitlins, but we do have to eat food.

And ponder the truth that, even as we Christians are divided by our stance toward various practices and doctrines, we are united by the necessity to love God and to love people …

(First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Thomaston Times on Friday, October 23, 2015)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

False Profits

I’m writing these words on Wednesday, October 7, 2015—the day that some “Christian” online group that I had never heard of before they got a little publicity this week—says will be the day the world ends. You’re reading these words on or after Tuesday, October 13, 2015, which means that they got it wrong. That’s no big surprise, given that all of the other—and there have been a lot of them—individuals and groups who made such predictions before them, also got it wrong.

So hug somebody and tell them you’re glad we’re still here.

OK, I do confess to thinking that if the end could come before we have to live through this entire 2016 presidential election cycle, it would be a relief. I mean, if the good Lord is open to suggestions, I’d suggest the day before the Iowa caucuses.

Still, I have to tell you that I just don’t get it. I don’t get why people keep making such predictions. I don’t get why folks keep listening to them.

I mean, Jesus himself said that no one knows the day or the hour except the Father (Mark 13:32). Jesus said that he didn’t even know. Frankly, I don’t want to be standing anywhere near someone who claims to know more than Jesus knows. That’s why I’ve always advised the congregations who have had to listen to my preaching to get as far away as possible from anyone who says they know when Jesus is coming back. I’d give you the same advice. Don’t buy their books. Don’t watch their television programs. Don’t visit their websites. Don’t send them any money.

Just say no to cranks.

I said earlier that I don’t get why people listen to these predictors of the date of the end, but maybe I do understand a little. It seems to me that people are eaten up with fear and with the anger that is often a leading symptom of fear. I hear lots of people saying that things are worse than they’ve ever been and that they’re just going to keep on deteriorating. I don’t know. I’m reminded of what my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, used to tell me when I was a teenager: “Son, your generation is no worse than mine. You just have better weapons to work with.”

He may have been right, but I wouldn’t know; Mama wouldn’t let me have any of the weapons.

Seriously, though, people are afraid. The main thing they’re afraid of is change. So the more things change, the more afraid they become. And one of the ways that they deal with fear is by becoming angry. They then direct that anger at whomever or whatever they think is responsible for all of the change that is occurring. Or they direct it at anyone or anything that happens to be in their line of sight. They can get to the point that they are so afraid and so angry that they just want something done. And one remedy would be for Jesus to come back and fix everything or take us out of this mess.

Now, the Bible certainly teaches that the Lord is going to return. But the Bible also makes it very clear that we can’t know when that’s going to be. It’s a waste of your time to try to figure it out. It’s a waste of your life to listen to people who say they have it figured it out. Two main points can be derived from what the Bible says about the return of the Lord: (1) it will happen and (2) in the meantime, we are supposed to live our lives following Jesus and serving people. 1 Thessalonians has one of the most well-known passages about the Second Coming:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 NRSV).

But then Paul goes on to say that in the meantime, we should live our lives doing what Christians should be doing. And just a few verses later, he repeats his encouragement that we encourage each other: “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing” (5:11).

So my word to you is this: let’s do all we can to make things better, let’s trust God for the ultimate working out of all things, and let’s encourage each other.

I encourage you not to waste your time on “preachers” and “teachers” who tell you when the end is coming. Just like the rest of us, they won’t know until it gets here . . .

(First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on October 13, 2015)

Friday, October 9, 2015

Why I Don’t Have a Cross Tattoo

I don’t have a cross tattoo.

I don’t have a cross tattoo because I don’t have any tattoos. I don’t have any tattoos for three reasons: (1) I’m afraid of the needle, (2) I don’t think one would look good on me, and (3) my Good Wife won’t let me get one.

If I were to get a tattoo, though, it would probably be a Mercer Bear, a guitar, or a book (in that list you gain further insight into why I should not get one). I would not get a cross tattoo. In fact, I would not get a tattoo of any Christian symbol. I would not get one for the same reason that I don’t wear a fish lapel pin, a cross necklace, “Christian” t-shirts, or any other such outward and artificial pronouncement that I’m a Christian.

I just don’t think they offer a meaningful witness to my following of Jesus. Put more bluntly: they don’t prove a thing. And they might even be hypocritical. I have enough of a struggle with hypocrisy; I don’t need to compound it by saying to folks, “Hey, look at me! (And I sure am glad you can’t see my heart!)”.

Really, now, what good is a cross on my body if I haven’t taken up my cross and followed Jesus? What good is a “Christian” t-shirt if my life isn’t clothed in the love of Christ? What good is “Christian” jewelry if my life isn’t adorned with the grace of God?

(Now, let me hasten to add that there are plenty of people who can wear such outward symbols of their faith with integrity. They wear them as a sincere expression of a genuine faith, and I say “More power to them.” I’m talking about those of us who struggle with their integrity and to those who should.)

There’s an old joke about the police officer who pulled a driver over. When he approached her, she angrily asked what she had done. “Well, the officer said, “I heard you blast your horn at that fellow who pulled out in front of you and I saw you make that obscene gesture at him. So when I saw the ‘Follow Me to Church’ bumper sticker on this car, I figured it must be stolen.”

Speaking of police officers and vehicles, there’s been a bit of brouhaha about some law enforcement departments putting “In God We Trust” decals on their cars. I won’t get into the whole separation of church and state issue—you know, the whole question of whether government owned vehicles should have a religious statement on them. If I did, someone would just point out that “In God We Trust” appears on our money, which actually gets back around to my point: isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that we use money that proclaims “In God We Trust” when, in fact, more of us trust in the money than trust in God? Or that we try to trust in both of them at once? (I’m pretty sure Jesus had something to say about that.)

But I’m talking about decals on law enforcement vehicles, not about money. Here are my two questions about them: (1) What difference do the decals make if the people riding in the car don’t actually trust in God? After all, trust in God is something you have on the inside, and if you don’t have it there, shouting it from the rooftops (or from the back of your car) won’t make any difference. (2) What difference do the decals make if the people riding in the car do actually trust in God? After all, trust in God is something you have on the inside, and if you have it there, shouting it from the rooftops (or from the back of your car) won’t make any difference.

I recently moved to Upson County and I celebrated my birthday last month so, when it was time to renew my car’s registration, I came to Thomaston to do it. (Let me insert here that all of the ladies working in the office were very nice and professional in their dealings with me.) When the very nice lady helping me asked me if I wanted an Upson County sticker or did I have an “In God We Trust” sticker, I heard myself saying, “Well, I trust in God, but I’ll take the Upson County sticker.” I have three reasons for making that choice. First, I like to know what county cars are from and I like folks to know which county I’m from. I think it’s interesting. Second, my non-scientific research indicates that folks with the “In God We Trust” sticker on their car tag drive much faster than those with their county sticker. I don’t need to be tempted to be so presumptuous of God’s favor. I’ve already given you my third reason: I am aware of my hypocrisy. I know that I don’t trust God like I should. It makes me nervous to proclaim otherwise.

I have for a long time been intrigued by the fact that Jesus says two seemingly opposite things in the Sermon on the Mount. He says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others, in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). He goes on to say that we who follow him should give our offerings and offer our prayers in secret. “Don’t do those good things in ways that let other people see you doing them,” Jesus says.

But elsewhere in the sermon, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city build on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

So which way is it, Jesus? Do you want my faith to be seen or unseen? Do you want it to be visible or invisible? Do you want me to trumpet my faith in you through “Christian” t-shirts, “Christian” jewelry, “In God We Trust” stickers, or even cross tattoos?

Or—and I really think this might be it—do you want me to grow so much in my following of you, in my trust in you, and in your gracious love of me that it can be seen in the ways that I talk and act, and especially in the ways that I treat other people?

Maybe all the outward decorations in the world don’t really say a thing about my faith.

Maybe all the inward realities of my relationship with you can’t help but honestly and legitimately show themselves in the ways I live . . .

[This post originally appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Thomaston (GA) Times on Friday, October 9, 2015]