Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A Free Press


May 3 was World Press Freedom Day, which is promoted annually by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). According to its website, it

is a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom, to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.…

It serves as an occasion to inform citizens of violations of press freedom - a reminder that in dozens of countries around the world, publications are censored, fined, suspended and closed down, while journalists, editors and publishers are harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered.

It is a date to encourage and develop initiatives in favour of press freedom, and to assess the state of press freedom worldwide.

3 May acts as a reminder to governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom and is also a day of reflection among media professionals about issues of press freedom and professional ethics. Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 1303 journalists have been killed worldwide since 1992. Nine died on April 30 of this year in an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. They were covering the aftermath of a suicide bombing when a second bomb was set off, killing the journalists and several relief workers. Also according to the CPJ, 262 journalists were imprisoned in 2017.

We assume that journalists here in the United States aren’t in danger, but we have some cause to be concerned. People in very high places say very negative things about journalists who report unfavorable things about them. Sometimes, they even point to the journalists who are covering a large gathering and criticize them in extreme terms. Politicians should be careful with such words. It’s bad enough to intentionally inspire disdain toward the press, but they could unintentionally inspire violence.

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” According to the Legal Information Institute of the Cornell University School of Law, the Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment’s prohibition of Congress from making any law against freedom of the press applies to the entire federal government and to state governments.

We should support a free press around the world. We should also support a free press here at home. I know we hear a lot about “fake news,” but it seems to me that what some people call “fake news” is actually negative coverage they don’t like, rather than something that is factually incorrect. Journalists aren’t perfect. Reporters have their perspectives and worldviews as anyone else does.

But we need a free press because it is necessary to our democracy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to investigate everything that our elected and appointed officials are doing. That’s the job of journalists, and we need them to keep doing it.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Sheep and Shepherds

I spent six years of my life preaching in a sanctuary that had a large stained glass picture hanging over its baptistery. (For you good folks who worship in churches that use less water than Baptists and some others do to baptize, that’s where they dunk new believers and the occasional backslider who wants a do-over.) The picture portrays Jesus holding a lamb. It’s one of the most beloved Christian images: Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

We get the image from Jesus’ own words: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). When we think about a good shepherd, our minds also go back to the 23rd Psalm, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” The psalm celebrates the ways that God takes care of us as we journey through life. The Gospel celebrates the fact that Jesus is such a good shepherd that he died for our sake.

We don’t see a lot of sheep in our part of the world, so most of us don’t know much about them. I sure don’t.

One day I was telling a friend how weary I was of having to tell church folks the same things over and over—you know, things like how we Christians really should follow Jesus and try to treat other folks with love and respect. “Well,” he replied, “the Bible says we’re sheep, and sheep aren’t the brightest creatures in the world.” (You should know that my friend was a layperson, not a pastor, so he was talking about his own kind. You should also know that I’d never say such a thing about church members.) The truth about sheep, as I understand it from books and other such tools of enlightenment, is that they need a lot of help to survive; they really depend on a shepherd. It’s in that sense that people are like sheep: we need God to meet our ultimate need for life.

We also need other people. This leads me to mention one way that human sheep aren’t like literal sheep: they can’t become shepherds, but we can. We can become shepherds to each other.

Pastors are shepherds to their congregations; in fact, the word “pastor” literally means “shepherd.” This means at least two things. First, it means that pastors walk ahead of the sheep, showing the way with our lives, and not driving them from behind. Second, it means that, since we pastors are shepherds who serve the Good Shepherd, we are willing to lay down our lives for people. The odd thing about a pastor’s experience is that sometimes, when she or he tries really hard to lead the sheep in the way the Good Shepherd would have them go—the ways of grace, mercy, love, justice, empathy, compassion, and service—it’s the sheep in the church who attack them while the supposed predators outside the church appreciate their efforts.

But pastors aren’t the only sheep that can become shepherds. Any and all of us can as well. It’s in the Bible: “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-17)

We might have a chance to help in a big way. So in Antioch, Tennessee, a few days ago, a young man wrestled the weapon away from a shooter who had already killed four people. And in Detroit, Michigan, thirteen semitruck drivers lined their trucks up under an overpass to shorten the possible fall of a man who was threatening to jump.

We may not be called on to do something quite as dramatic, but we can all lay down our lives for others. It may mean giving up something as precious as our comfort, our convenience, our customs, or even—get ready, now—our preconceived notions.

But we can do it. The Good Shepherd, and some other good shepherds, show us how.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Those Hallowed Halls


I recently had the privilege of serving as an adjudicator for the Extemporaneous Speaking competition in the Region 5-AA Literary Meet. The event took place at Lamar County (GA) High School.

The class of 1976, of which I am a member, was the first one to graduate from that campus. I still call it “the new high school.” They are about to build a newer one, which is good.

As I walked the hallowed halls of my alma mater, I reflected on the fact that I’d never before done so.

I probably need to explain.

From 1970-74, boys went to school on the Forsyth Road (formerly Booker T. Washington School) campus and girls on the Birch Street (formerly Milner) campus. We all—boys and girls—spent the 1974-75 school year, which was my class’s Junior year, at Forsyth Road. As that year wound down, we looked forward to spending our Senior year at the brand new Lamar County Comprehensive High School.

But late in my Junior year, I decided to forego my Senior year to enter Mercer University. So I spent my high school Senior year as a college freshman. I did come back to graduate with my class.

So I couldn’t wax nostalgic as I wandered the halls of Lamar County High School on the day of the Literary Competition. But I did find myself being grateful for the teachers who taught me and helped shape my life at both Gordon Grammar School and Forsyth Road School (aka Lamar County High School).

I’m the only member of my immediate family that attended Lamar County schools, but my wife and both of our children are products of public schools. I support public education. I don’t mind paying property taxes because I know the money helps fund public schools.

I appreciate public education because it presents opportunities. It makes progress possible. It enables informed and productive citizenship. It does all of that without charging tuition. It is available to any student regardless of race, gender, or socio-economic status. If you are a child living in the United States, you can go to school. Public education gives us all a chance to become who we should be.

We need to support our public schools in every way we can. We should insist on having the very best leaders possible, from our local schools to the United States Department of Education. We should encourage our teachers to constantly strive for excellence, both in their teaching and in their students’ learning, and we should pay them in line with the tremendous value they have.

The hallowed halls of Gordon Grammar School are gone. Those of Forsyth Road School are abandoned and deteriorated. New ones will soon replace those of Lamar County High School.

I am grateful for the public schools of Lamar County that helped me become who I am. For the sake of our children, our communities, our nation, and our world, I hope that we will do all we can to help public education thrive.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Rights


In a letter he wrote in the middle of the first century to Christians living in the Greek city of Corinth, the Apostle Paul presented a strong case that he and his fellow ministers had the right to be paid for their service. He asked, “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (1 Corinthians 9:11).

As someone who has collected many a paycheck from churches, I say, “Preach it, Brother Paul!”

But then Paul, as my father would have said, quit preaching and went to meddling: “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (v. 12b). He goes on to say that he has chosen personally not to claim his right. “What then is my reward?” he asks. “Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel” (v. 18).

Did you hear that? Paul said that his reward was to give up some of his rights for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ. He didn’t insist on his rights if doing so might keep others from receiving the salvation he possessed.

In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, which was located in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), Paul wrote, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (5:13-14).

It boils down to this: the Christian way is the way of love. And sometimes we show love by not insisting on our own rights. Another way of saying this is that we think of others before we think of ourselves. Still another way is that of saying it is that we are willing to give ourselves up for others’ sake.

This is, of course, not the way we Americans tend to think, talk, or act. We have our rights. We insist on our rights. We demand our rights.

I think a lot about what it means to be a Christian who is also an American. I understand that standing up for your rights is a basic American virtue. I also understand that giving up your rights for the sake of others is a basic Christian virtue. I also understand that it can be difficult to practice both virtues simultaneously.

I also recognize the problem of a potential slippery slope. We can hardly help but think, “Yes, but if I don’t insist on this right, I’ll lose it. If we voluntarily compromise on a right, they’ll take it away completely.” I furthermore believe that it is often our Christian duty to stand up for the rights of others, particularly those who are marginalized, dehumanized, and oppressed.

Still, when I think about how to live as a Christian in America, I find myself pondering the necessity of accepting some limitations on some of my rights if that’s what love for others compels me to do.

Those who have ears, let them hear.

Those who have hearts, let them love.

Those who have faith, let them live it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Faith and Science


Every great once in a while, my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, would decide it was time to get a new used car. He had one main criterion for any vehicle he purchased: it had to have four doors. The reason was that we transported “the ladies” (as he called them) to church every Sunday. There were three of them and three of us. I’d sit in the front seat between Daddy and Mama, the ladies would sit in the back, and off to Midway Baptist Church we’d go.

One fine Sunday morning in the late 1960s, one of them, inspired by what she’d been seeing on television, said, “Mike, do you believe those men went to the moon?” “Sure I do,” I said. (I was an eleven-year-old expert on such things.) She said, “I don’t.” “Why not?” I asked. “Because they show the ship flying through space. They couldn’t do that.” “But,” I replied, “it says ‘simulation’ right there on the bottom of the screen.” “Uh-huh,” she said.

That afternoon, my father said he wanted to talk with me about that conversation. “First of all,” he said, “she doesn’t know any better. There’s no point trying to talk her out of her opinion.” “Okay,” I said, “but shouldn’t she at least see that the image is a simulation, like it says right there on the TV screen?”

“Mike,” Daddy replied, “she can’t read.”

I was surprised to hear that. She took her Bible to church every Sunday. But I understood what my father told me. Some people’s limited experience lessens their ability to acknowledge what science accomplishes and teaches.

It’s not like I understand quantum physics.

Were you to ask me today if I “believe in” space travel, I’d say no. I’d also say no were you to ask me if I believe in evolution, in human contributions to climate change, or in the wisdom of being vaccinated against diseases. I don’t “believe in” any of those things.

But I don’t have to believe in them. I don’t have to take them on faith. Science verifies all of them, and that’s good enough for me. So while I don’t “believe in” any of them, I accept all of them because scientists tell me that the evidence supports them.

I am very concerned about the seemingly increasing rejection of science among some of our leaders. I hope such rejection doesn’t spread. I hope we elect science-affirming leaders who appoint and nominate other science-affirming leaders. We need more science, not less. We need to approach our difficult situations through rational problem solving, not through irrational posturing.

But science doesn’t tell us everything we need to know and it doesn’t help us become everything we need to be. There are ultimate matters that go beyond what science can tell us. I believe in the God who created what we study through science. I believe in the Savior who shows us how far God will go to be with us and to love us.

I accept science, but I trust in the Lord. Some people say you can’t do both. My experience, and the experience of many other people, says you can.

I started out talking about the lady who told me she didn’t believe those men went to the moon. She was wrong about that. I’m told that some years later, they found her kneeling beside her bed, where she had died while praying.

If I had to choose, I’d take such trust in God over acceptance of science.

But I’m glad I don’t have to make that choice.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Mortal Love


I offer the following observations in light of this year’s confluence of Ash Wednesday, which reminds us of our mortality, and Valentine’s Day, which celebrates human love. Let me define my terms. In the statements below, “mortal” means “human” and “love” means having attitudes and carrying out actions that are other-affirming, other-focused, self-emptying, and self-giving.

To be mortal is to be temporary, which makes love valuable. We are on the earth for just a little while, so we get to love each other in these fantastic earthly ways for just a little while. When we know the time will come when we won’t have something, it becomes much more valuable to us. Life is that way. Love is that way. So we should treat our beloved ones with the honor befitting their value.

To be mortal is to be frail, which makes love graceful. To be mortal is to be breakable. We get hurt, sometimes in our bodies, sometimes in our minds, sometimes in our hearts, and sometimes in our spirits. Sometimes we hurt those we love by not taking our commitments seriously or by not embracing our relationships enthusiastically. At such times (at all times really, but especially at such times), love saves us by its grace. By “graceful” love I mean love that is full of grace, which is the ability and willingness to accept each other in our frailty and to lift each other up when we fall.

To be mortal is to be dying, which makes love lively. Each passing moment brings us a moment closer to death, so we want to live lives that are as full of purpose and meaning as possible. Love contributes to such fullness. By “lively” love I mean love that is life-giving and life-enhancing. If love becomes stronger as our bodies become weaker, we become more alive even as we move toward death.

On this Ash Wednesday, we remember that we are mortal. On this Valentine’s Day, we remember that we love and are loved. Mortality and love make a wonderfully risky combination. If we embrace it fully, we’ll be alive for as long as live.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Middle

Ever since I voted in my first election in November 1976, I’ve considered myself a political moderate. Now, I acknowledge that I usually vote for one party’s candidates because that party’s perspectives and policies for the most part align better with mine than those of the other party. But I’ve always wanted the elected representatives of both parties to put the good of the nation (or the state, county, or city) ahead of a particular political agenda. I’d like them to negotiate and to meet in the middle in order to do all they can do to help us be all we can be.
I don’t think bipartisanship and compromise are cuss words—I’ll say them right out loud, even at church.
One thing I regret about the current state of our politics is that the middle has pretty much disappeared. And as that has happened, those of us who have long sought the middle ground have been forced toward the extremes.
Picture a ring in which a boxing match is about to begin. After giving instructions, the referee says to the combatants, “Go to your corners and come out fighting.” We have our corners. We have our political, philosophical, religious, and social corners. It can be tough to come out of them and engage in the struggle, but that’s what we need to do. That’s what our political leaders need to do. Instead, we go to our corners and stay there. We shout at each other across the ring, but we don’t engage. That’s easier, but it’s not productive.
I realize the flaws in my analogy. One flaw arises from the fact that the point in a boxing match is for somebody to win and somebody to lose. But every once in a while a match ends in a draw, even though one of the fighters is in worse shape than the other. I think the goal for our representatives should be to get in there and slug it out to a draw. One side gets more of what they want than the other, but at least progress will have been made. 
Another flaw in my analogy is that we don’t have two clear-cut sides (Republican vs. Democrat; liberal vs. conservative); there are many sub-groups. A better analogy for our situation might be a wrestling ring in which a thirty-person battle royal is about to take place. Still, no matter how many people, positions, and perspectives there are, if all we do is stand in our respective corners and shout at each other, we end up—well, pretty much where we are. And we really need to move past there.
The poet Robert Frost once said, “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” I admit to having been guilty of that at times. I also admit to being willing to listen to almost anybody. I try to take people’s positions seriously and I want them to take mine the same way. But I do have my convictions. And I’ll admit that there are some folks whose positions are as far from being worthy of consideration as Hog Mountain is from the Matterhorn. So far as I’m concerned, racists, sexists, and xenophobes have nothing constructive to contribute to any civil discussion; they lack the basic humanity that is, to my way of thinking, the starting point for any helpful approach to the issues at hand.
Still, I think that our goal should be to make as much progress as we can. I understand that some folks will say that the issues are too important to compromise on. I’d like to be a purist too. But reality won’t allow for it. We live in a diverse nation that is going to become much more diverse. Our representatives need to put people ahead of positions and do all they can to help us move forward. Sometimes that means making compromises. It means searching for the middle. It means taking small steps.
The last presidential election pushed us farther into our corners than we’ve been at any time in my lifetime. During that election, some of my acquaintances (and even a couple of my friends) thought I went too far in resisting the eventual winner’s campaign. I felt that I had no choice. And now I’m not sure that some dangerous policies can be resisted from any position but the extreme opposite one.
Long term, though, we’d better find a way to resurrect the middle. I’m going to hold onto hope that we can.