Monday, November 24, 2014

So Very Kind of Pretty Much Thankful

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

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

Let me try to explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps you will join me in such prayers …

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

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

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

#9: Because there’s no sermon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Three Weddings (and Some Funerals)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still—our children have had weddings!

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

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

I am happy.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

And It Stoned Me

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

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

Things get in the way, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nit-Picking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fear Itself

I’m afraid that fear is going to be our downfall because when our decisions and actions are motivated by fear we end up with more of which to be afraid and then we make more decisions and take more actions that are motivated by fear that result in our having more of which to be afraid—and so on and so on ...

So, for example, we fear crime and criminals and therefore we incarcerate more and more people.

When one examines the statistics, it is hard to escape the conclusion that our primary motivation in imprisoning so many people is a desire to lock them safely away from us. In an April 3, 2014 article at Mic.com, Laura Dimon shared some very troubling statistics. For instance, while the United States has 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. Also, there are 2.4 million incarcerated persons in the U.S.; that’s a 500% increase over the last thirty years. Furthermore, one in every 108 American adults was in jail or prison in 2012 and one in every 28 American children has an incarcerated parent. Moreover, according to Statista.com, as of June 2014, the U.S. ranked behind only the Seychelles (which has a total population of only around 90,000) in having the largest number of prisoners per 100,000 population; our rate of 707 prisoners per 100,000 populations puts us far ahead of Cuba (510), Russia (471), and El Salvador (424).

Why do we have so many prisoners? Could it be because we are so afraid?

Also, we fear terror and terrorists and so we engage in continuous wars.

We have been at war in South Asia and/or the Middle East ever since Al Qaeda’s attacks on our country in 2001; now, just when it seemed that we were close to extricating most of our forces from that area, we find ourselves ramping up our efforts again. Those who believe that we should not have gone into Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks are few and far between since the Taliban had given aid and comfort to Al Qaeda; our subsequent efforts at nation-building in Afghanistan have been, to say the least, problematic, and likely will remain so. Whether we should have gone into Iraq is more up for debate; I will always be troubled by the fact that we went in under false pretenses.

Regardless, it is what it is and we are where we are and it is clear that the destabilization of Iraq, the events of the Arab Spring (especially in the ongoing impact of those events in Syria), and the bloodthirsty fervor of the ISIS militants have combined to create a terribly volatile and dangerous situation. Perhaps we and our allies have little choice but to intervene. Still, does anyone else feel like we’re starting to live in the perpetual state of war imagined by George Orwell in 1984? And does anyone doubt that if our primary response to the threat of terrorism continues to be a military one then we will likely be at war for generations?

Why are we always at war? Could it be because we are so afraid?

Finally, we fear each other and so we arm ourselves.

According to the Brady Campaign,

--On average, 32 Americans are murdered with guns every day and 140 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room.
--Every day on average, 51 people kill themselves with a firearm, and 45 people are shot or killed in an accident with a gun.
--The U.S. firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.
--A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used to kill or injure in a domestic homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense.


The last statistic is most pertinent to my point. Writing in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine in 2011, Dr. David Hemenway concluded that

for most contemporary Americans, the scientific studies suggest that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit. There are no credible studies that indicate otherwise. The evidence is overwhelming that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes, and it appears that a gun in the home may more likely be used to threaten intimates than to protect against intruders. On the potential benefit side, there is no good evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in.

Why do so many of us arm ourselves? Could it be because we are so afraid?

Ironically, our fearful reactions give us more to fear and our efforts to feel safe make us less safe. Our incarceration of such a high percentage of our citizenry makes it more likely that those imprisoned will become hardened criminals and makes it more likely that the criminalization of a large segment of our population will continue in generations to come. Our perpetual waging of war makes is more likely that the conditions that lead to war will continue and worsen and thus lead to more war. Our arming of ourselves to protect ourselves against others actually makes it more likely that we or someone else in our home will be killed or wounded by our own guns.

It seems clear that the main thing we have to fear is fear itself; it seems clear that we need to rein in our fear so that we will stop taking actions based on fear that serve only to give us more to fear.

Apparently, such fear leads to insanity, if insanity is indeed, as is so often said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If we are going to stop the insanity, we need to stop the fear …

(Please note: a future post will propose an alternative mindset and some alternative actions.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Home

My Good Wife Debra was born in 1957 in the town of Colquitt in Miller County, Georgia (for the uninitiated, it’s located in deep southwest Georgia not too far north of Florida and not too far east of Alabama); she was the last of the six children born to her parents. When she was two her family moved to the nearby county of Calhoun and it was there that she spent the remainder of her growing up years; when she and I met (thank God!) in 1976 as students at Mercer University her parents lived in the country about half-way between the cities of Leary and Morgan, Georgia. When her father retired, they moved back to Colquitt and it was there that they were residing when they passed away five months apart in 1996.

Debra’s oldest sister Jean (Debra’s mother was pregnant with Debra when Jean got married so there is a nineteen year difference in age between Jean and Debra) married a man from Colquitt named Robert Tully and they lived together there until he died a few years ago and she continued to live there until her death last Saturday. She was the only one of Debra’s siblings that lived in Colquitt and so she was the last reason that my wife had for returning to her hometown. And you pretty much have to mean to go to Colquitt.

Debra has never thought of Colquitt as her hometown; Leary carries that honor for her--but we never go there, either—it’s hardly on the road regularly travelled and even the house where she lived is long gone. I share this reality with her since I am the only child of parents who died long, long ago in what feels like a galaxy far, far away—and no, I don’t have a long-lost sister who was taken away to keep her safe from the evil empire (although that would be cool).

In a very real sense, then, we can’t go home again. And that matters. It matters because those places and especially the people in those places helped to form and shape us into the people that we are. It matters because we will always carry with us those places and those people to whom we cannot return.

But in an even more real sense, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because, in the words of the philosopher Buckaroo Banzai, “No matter where you go, there you are.” And my Good Wife and I have made our home wherever we have happened to be at the time because no matter where we are, so long as we are together and the Lord is with us, we are home.

“Home is where the heart is,” they say. Yes, but home is also where the commitment is, where the sense of mutual calling is, and where the shared purpose is. Home is where sorrows are halved and joys are doubled. Home is where burdens are shared and blessings are celebrated.

Yes, home is where we come from but home is also where we are—and home is where we are headed. Home is where we have been but home is also where we live now—and where we will be one day. There is room in our lives to look back at where we came from and there is room in our lives to look ahead to where we are going. Such looking back and looking forward can give us a helpful perspective on life. But we live right here and right now and it is right here and right now that we need to be at home. We should beware lest our looking back or our looking ahead stop being incentive for living and become distractions from living.

In the classic 1978 made for television movie “Rescue from Gilligan’s Island,” the seven castaways are finally—well, rescued from the island after many years of being stranded. Their long hoped for return to civilization does not go well since nothing is as it was when they left. While the castaways are taking a reunion cruise, the new S.S. Minnow is caught in another storm and the passengers and crew are again shipwrecked. Gilligan finds a piece of the original Minnow and announces, “We’re home!”

We can use up our time and energy trying to go back home or trying to go on home. We are better served to live in light of the fact that we are home.

I have this scene running through my head in which I get to heaven and with great relief say, “I’m home!” And the good Lord replies, “And when were you not?”