Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Forty Years of Rings

It was about this time of year in 1977 that I returned to Mercer University for my senior year. A girl named Debra Johnson returned for her junior year. She came back to Macon wearing the engagement ring I’d given her the month before as we’d stood beside the Towaliga River below High Falls.

I’m not being arrogant when I say I wasn’t concerned about whether she’d accept the ring. After all, she’d picked it out. Even though there was no mystery surrounding the proposal, there was much mystery surrounding the future. Nobody really knows what lies ahead, do they?

We had nothing but good intentions. We truly believed we were supposed to be together. I’d go so far as to say we believed God was calling us together. But lots of our friends believed that too, many of whom are long since divorced. By God’s grace we are still married. We also still love each other. We even still like each other!

Somewhere along the way we had the setting on Debra’s ring grafted onto a different band. One day a few years later, she realized the diamond had gone missing from the setting. Finding a large diamond would be hard, so finding this one was impossible. I kept saying, “We need to get you another ring.” She kept saying, “We’ll see."

Eventually she made a decision. She said, “I’d like to have your mother’s rings resized so I can wear them.”

My mother died before I met Debra. It’s a shame. They would have done a good job ganging up on me. But I thought Debra’s choice to wear Mama’s rings was sweet. I also confess to being pleased that it was inexpensive.

Debra had for years hinted around about something she wished I’d give her. Not being a mind-reader, I’d more than once asked her to just tell me what it was. She’d say, “It won’t mean as much if you don’t think of it yourself.” Did I mention I’m not a mind-reader?

When we picked up Mama’s resized rings and Debra put them on, she said, “You know that thing I’ve wanted you to think of giving me? This is it.”

Oh well.

Eventually I decided that Debra should have a new ring of her own. So I put one on layaway at a local jewelry store and paid it off over a couple of years. I gave it to her while we were spending a weekend at Callaway Gardens, where we had gone on our honeymoon twenty-four years before. It was in August, around the twenty-fifth anniversary of my giving her the original ring. As we sat beside the lake, I tried to tell her what she means to me. She cried a little. We had a very nice seafood dinner that night.

She’s been wearing that ring for fifteen years. Maybe it’s the last one. Maybe not.

As for me—well, I’m still wearing the simple gold band she slipped on my finger on June 10, 1978 as we stood at the altar of the Baptist church in Leary, Georgia.

I don’t remember what the preachers (we used two, because we wanted to make sure it stuck) said that day. Over the years I’ve presided over a lot of wedding ceremonies. At each of them I’ve held up the groom’s ring and said something like this: “The wedding band is a circle, which symbolizes the unending nature of the marriage relationship.”

We went into our marriage believing that. We still do.

No, you can’t know what the future holds. When I gave Debra her engagement ring forty years ago, we had lots of hopes and dreams and absolutely no assurances. But we went into it in faith, trusting that God would help us keep growing, learning, and loving.

We still don’t know what the future holds. But I am so grateful for all we have experienced together for the last four decades. And I am glad that, whatever comes, we’ll face it, as we always have, together.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Big Bang, Big Crunch, Big Bang

(A sermon based on 51:1-6; Matthew 16:13-20. Preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Macon, GA on August 27, 2017)

Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait …
It all started with a big bang! Bang!

We’d add a line before those that says, “And God said, ‘Let there be …’”

Still, the best we can tell, that’s the way God did it. It all started with this tremendously dense dot (scientists call it a “singularity”) that banged, and when it banged, boy howdy. The resulting universe is still expanding. Some experts think it will just keep on keeping on.

That’s also how God made the people that came to be known as Israel. There was this tremendously dense pair of dots—a “duality,” it you will—named Sarah and Abraham, and when they started expanding—well, actually, not much happened at first. It was all they could do to have Isaac. But eventually things took off, and boy howdy. Next thing they knew they were a multitude living in a relatively prosperous place under relatively successful monarchs named David and Solomon. God had told Abraham that he’d have descendants in numbers like the sands on the seashore and the stars in the sky, and, if we allow for a little divine hyperbole, he did.

But something—lots of things, actually—went wrong. Maybe one of the things that went wrong was that Abraham’s descendants never quite got, or never quite accepted, or never quite wanted to accept, that little detail in the promise to Abraham about how they were to bless other people. But differently, maybe it all became too much about their privilege and too little about their responsibility (that was in fact part of their privilege). In short, maybe it became a little too much about them and not enough about other folks.

So when the prophet whose words we find in Isaiah 40-55 told his listeners, “Look to the rock from which you are hewn” and identified that rock as Abraham and Sarah, the irony hurt. Abraham and Sarah had left Mesopotamia, gone to Canaan, and become many. Now their descendants were in exile in Mesopotamia, were exiled from Canaan, and had become few.

I mentioned earlier that some experts think the universe will expand forever. But others think that eventually gravity will take over and the universe will start contracting. They also think that it will contract until it becomes another singularity where all the matter in the universe will again be smaller than a subatomic particle.

So why are we here anyway? I don’t mean why are we here in the universe; I mean why are we here in church, worshiping God and trying to follow Jesus?

We’re here because somewhere along the way we began to realize who Jesus is. Maybe it happened in a flash; maybe it happened over time; maybe we just kind of always sort of knew. Simon Peter and the other disciples had been following Jesus around for a while, watching what he did and listening to what he said. So one day when Jesus asked them who they thought he was, Peter piped right up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus told Peter that he knew that because heaven had revealed it to him, that he was going to build his church on the rock of such heavenly insight, and that having such insight would give Peter important responsibilities indeed.

“And just think,” Peter might have said to himself, “we’re right here with you. I’m right here with you.”

You and us, Jesus. You and me, Jesus. It’s going to be great. We’re going to be great. I’m going to be great.

It’s understandable. It’s even good. We should spend as much time with Jesus as we can. We should get to know him as well as we can. We should develop that relationship as much as we can.

But think of the energy being with Jesus produces. What will happen if we keep on focusing it inward, if we let it all be about us, about me?

A big crunch will happens. And if we stay that way, we and the world will be the poorer for it.

A big bang needs to happen. All of that spiritual energy that is compressed in our relationship with Jesus needs to be turned outward.

And so after Peter said the right words about Jesus (“you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”), Jesus started telling the disciples what that meant.

He told them that he was going to suffer, die, and rise again. Peter didn’t like that. He said it couldn’t be. And then, when Jesus said that to follow him meant to lose your life, it probably dawned on Peter that what he was afraid of was true: it wasn’t just about Jesus and him. It was about Jesus and him and the world and everybody in it. It was about giving yourself away and taking others’ pain onto yourself. It was about loving your neighbor as yourself as well as loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

It’s about turning the energy of our relationship with Jesus outward.

Some experts believe that the big bang that produced our universe is just one of a series. They say that every trillion years or so, a big crunch happens followed by another big bang.

Maybe every once in a while we need to go into big crunch mode: you know, let it just be about Jesus and us or Jesus and me for a while.

But it can’t stay that way, not for long.

There’s just too much love, grace, mercy, and peace to spread around.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Random Thoughts After Charlottesville

             1.  "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).

      2.  Legend has it that a relative of mine named Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. I visited there last summer and there are exhibits that support the claim. So a Ruffin may have fired the shot that started the Civil War. I’m not ashamed. But I’m certainly not proud.

3.       Sometime during my boyhood, I was telling a friend how proud I was that our country had never lost a war. He said, “Well actually, Georgia was one of the Confederate states, so we lost the Civil War.” This upset me, since all children think it’s possible to win all the time. So I asked my father if the South in fact lost the Civil War. He gave me that sideways look and said, “Yes, and be glad we did.”

4.       Once a dear lady in a church I served placed a new headstone on the grave of her Confederate Army veteran grandfather. She told me she was going to hold a dedication service and asked me if I’d pray. So my Good Wife and I went to the cemetery at the appointed time. The program called for the saying of the pledge to the flag of the Confederate States of America before the saying of the pledge to the flag of the United States of America. My Good Wife asked me if I was going to say the pledge to the Confederate flag. I replied, “No, because I am not now, nor have I ever been, a citizen of the Confederate States of America.” Neither has anyone else who is alive today.

5.       The first sermon by an African-American preacher I ever heard was in a Mercer University chapel service around 1977. I don’t remember his name, but I remember something he said. He was preaching on the text in Genesis 2 about God forming a man from the dust of the earth. He said, “It’s hard to understand how one speck of dust can think it’s better than another speck just because it’s a different hue.” That made sense to me. It still does.

6.       General Robert E. Lee said this about putting up monuments after the Civil War: “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” We should have heeded his advice.

7.       The “alt-right” is all wrong.

8.       It’s a strange kind of Christianity that condones hate, much less honors and promotes it.

9.       Some of those white nationalists marching in Charlottesville on Saturday were probably raised in church. What on earth did they hear? Some of them probably went to church on the Sunday after they marched. What did their fellow parishioners say to them?

10.   Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (using the words of the nineteenth century minister and philosopher Theodore Parker) famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Indeed it does.

11.   I am completely befuddled that any American can see swastikas on our streets and not be filled with indignation and sorrow.

12.   Heather Heyer cared deeply about people and tried to help the oppressed and disenfranchised. She was going to join those protesting against the Klan and Nazi marchers in Charlottesville when the car crashed into the crowd. She was killed. She was thirty-two years old. She is a hero.

13.   I understand dislike, irritation, and misunderstanding. But I can’t understand hate.

14.   “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” (Nelson Mandela)

      15.  "All you need is love. Love is all you need." (John Lennon)
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Friday, August 11, 2017

Knee-Jerk Reactions

I was recently working on a story in the Gospel of Matthew (14:13-21). Jesus has just learned of the execution of John the Baptist, his kinsman and forerunner. He understandably wants to be alone, so he gets into a boat to travel to a deserted place. But when he arrives, the place isn’t deserted. A large crowd is waiting for him because they have needs they believe Jesus can meet.

Here’s the line that jumped out at me from the story: “When [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (v. 14). When he saw the crowd with their needs, “he had compassion for them.” He saw them and he had compassion on them. That was his knee-jerk, immediate, gut-level reaction. Then he acted in light of his compassion.

Later in the story, Jesus’ disciples realize that the crowd is still in need: they have no food and there is nowhere nearby to get any. So they suggest to Jesus that he send the people away so they can buy food. Jesus has another idea that involves turning five loaves of bread and two fish into more than enough provisions for the crowd. The disciples don’t think they have sufficient resources to feed a large hungry crowd, but they learn that Jesus’ power could turn their little into a lot.

But here’s the question I want to ask: how do we react at the moment we see people in need? What is our knee-jerk reaction when we see the sick, the poor, the refugee, the marginalized, and the oppressed? What is our immediate, automatic, gut-level response?

Over the years I’ve had a hard time understanding people who profess to follow Jesus but whose knee-jerk reaction to people in need is apathy (“Not my problem”), selfishness (“Not with my money”), or even disdain (“We don’t need their kind”). Sadly, I’ve known a lot of people in the church with those reactions. I’m sure other folks have such reactions too, but I find them particularly troubling in people who carry the name “Christian.”

Now, I’m not claiming that my first reaction is always compassion. But I can testify that I want it to be and that it bothers me when it isn’t.

We can’t expect all Christians to agree on the best approach to meeting people’s needs. But we can and should expect all Christians to always be growing toward having the same knee-jerk reaction to human needs. And our appropriate knee-jerk reaction is compassion.

How do I know? Because that was Jesus’ knee-jerk reaction.

Christians follow Jesus. We should always be growing in his grace and love. We want our lives to reflect his ways.

When Jesus saw people in need, the first thing he felt was compassion.

Until that’s our knee-jerk reaction, we have a long way to go.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Letter to Our Grandson

Dear Sullivan,

Welcome to the world! I am so glad you are here.

I hope you will be free to become the best possible version of who you are meant to be and of who you want to be. You can rest assured that we will always love, embrace, and support you. I also hope the world in which you will grow up and live will progress toward being an even better world than the one into which you have been born. I hope you will join with people of good will to contribute to that progress.

I hope you will help your world become more sensible. Right now we’re not displaying much sense and much of what we are displaying is bad. We do things that are counter-productive, harmful, and hateful. I hope the world you help build will have a better grasp on reality than the one into which you have been born has. I especially hope it will grow in realizing that all of us on Earth are in this together. In the words of one of your grandfather’s favorite bands, “There is no more new frontier. We have got to make it here.” Any other way of looking at it doesn’t make sense.

I hope you will help your world become more knowledgeable. Too many people in the world in which you have arrived are against knowledge; they reveal that by valuing their opinions over demonstrated facts. My parents (your great-grandparents) didn’t go to college but they taught me that doing so was crucial to having a good life and to helping others find a better life. Your grandparents taught your parents the same thing. No matter what career you end up choosing and what kind of training it requires, it is vital that you continually pursue knowledge, that you develop varied interests, that you read widely, and that you travel to other regions of the world as much as you can. It is also crucial that you respect and listen to those who know more than you do about particular areas. Don’t disparage those who possess greater knowledge than you have. Listen to them and learn from them.
I hope you will help your world become more aware. Specifically, I hope you will help it become more aware that the real is not limited to the physical and that the true goes beyond the literal. I meant what I said about seeking, embracing, and appreciating knowledge, but too many people limit knowledge to what can be seen with the eye, touched with the hand, or tested in the laboratory. There is much more to life than that. I hope you’ll help your world do better at taking the spiritual into account. That’s where understanding that not all that is true is literal and not all that is literal is true becomes important. Learn the power of metaphor and symbolism. Help your world embrace that power.
I hope you will help your world become more humble. Arrogance is way too prevalent in this one. Too many people believe their experience is normative, assume their perspective is right, and put their own wants and needs ahead of everybody else’s. I want you to develop a clear sense of self and to have the courage of your convictions. But I also want you always to remember that you are one of 7.5 billion people (and by 2050 you’ll be one of 9.6 billion people) who live on this planet. In our eyes you are one of the most important ones, but in fact you are not. Remember that the same God made all of us and that you and every other human being have 99.5% of your DNA in common. (By the way, if you really want to enhance your humility, always remember that a chimpanzee has 98.8% of the DNA you have.) At the same time, remember that you are unique. There is only one you. You differ from other people in only .5% of your DNA, but that little bit is crucial. Take pride in who you are, but don’t be arrogant about it. And always be willing to change.

I hope you will help your world become more loving. From a Christian perspective, to love means to put others ahead of self and to give self up for others’ sake. Not everyone in the world is a Christian. Furthermore, not everyone who claims to be Christian is and not all Christians practice Christian love (I know how strange that must sound). Still, you can think, talk, and act in ways that will help people see the value of service and sacrifice. If enough of them can grow into wanting to help more than to be helped and to serve rather than to be served, this world will finally be ready to being a better place.

Sullivan, I realize that it will be a few weeks before you can read this letter for yourself. I also realize that it lays some lofty expectations on you. It is not a burden you can or should bear alone. Surround yourself with people who want to journey with you on the road to a better world. Build a community that wants to help make the world an even more wonderful place to be. I pledge to you that I will help you in whatever ways I can for as long as I am here.

Know that you are loved.

Know that your love for other people can make all the difference.

Your Grandfather,

Duke


Mike and Debra Ruffin are celebrating the arrival of their first grandchild, Sullivan Nash Gunter, on July 12. Mike’s professor, mentor, and second father, Dr. Howard P. Giddens, was known by the nickname “Duke,” so he has taken that as his grandfather name.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Perfect Mistakes

The other day I was listening to the excellent Georgia Public Broadcasting program On Second Thought. As Athens-based singer/songwriter T. Hardy Morris talked about the 1959 song “Try Me” by James Brown and the Famous Flames, he praised the “perfect mistakes” in Brown’s vocals. Morris was talking about the cracks in Brown’s voice that communicate the song’s emotion.

The phrase “perfect mistake” intrigues me. I wonder if I’ve ever made one. I wonder if anyone has.

Maybe there’s no such thing. But even if there isn’t, there are certainly good mistakes and bad mistakes. The motives behind the actions that lead to the mistakes differentiate good ones from bad ones. Everybody makes mistakes, but what we’re trying to accomplish when we make them matters. 

That’s why every morning we should ask ourselves what we intend to do.  

What are we trying to accomplish through what we think, say, and do? Do we set out to help people or to hurt them? Do we set out to unite people or to divide them? Do we set out to understand people or to judge them? Do we set out to accept people or to reject them? Do we set out to work with people or to manipulate them? Do we set out to build community or to tear it down?

What are our lives about? What developments do we want them to contribute to? What kind of world are we trying to help build?

I read something in a pastor’s church newsletter column almost four decades ago that I never forgot. He was talking about trying to navigate some of the controversies of the time. He said, “I will make mistakes. I choose to make my mistakes on the side of love.”

I’ve tried to live by that. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I hope I made most of them because I was trying to practice love, which from a Christian perspective means to give yourself up for the sake of others and to put others’ needs ahead of yours.

I know that all of our nation’s leaders aren’t Christians. It’s even possible that some who claim to be in fact aren’t. But when I think about what they say and do, I find myself more willing to accept the mistakes they make if I’m convinced they’re trying to help folks and not to hurt them. I find myself less willing to accept those made by leaders who seem not to care if millions of people get hurt.

If you want to witness a perfect mistake, you can try listening to the man known as the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and Soul Brother Number One.

If you want to see political leaders make good mistakes, look for the ones who are trying to do something good and helpful. If you want to see the ones who make bad mistakes, look for the ones who aren’t..  

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

We and They

We ain’t going anywhere. Neither are they.

“Who is ‘we’ and ‘they’ in those statements?” you might be asking.

Well, “we” is whoever we are and “they” is whoever they are. “We” is those who are like we are and “they” is those who are different than we are. “We” refers to our kind and “they” to their kind.

I would tell you to fill in the blanks in the sentence “We are ___________ and they are __________ ,” but your attitudes, thoughts, opinions, words, and actions indicate that you already have. And how you fill in the blanks depends on the answers to lots of questions, like: (1) Who’s your mama and daddy? (2) Where do you hail from? (3) Where’ve you been? (4) What’d you learn in school and in what schools did you learn it? (5) Do you only know and talk to your kind or do you know and talk to other kinds? (6) Where do you get your news? (7) How much do you read and what do you read? (8) How have you experienced life? (9) How aware are you that other people haven’t had the same life experiences as you? (10) How willing are you to expand your knowledge and worldview while simultaneously acknowledging that no matter how much you know, it’s a very small fraction of all there is to know?

People who would answer those questions differently than you do would fill in the blanks differently than you would. And there are lots more people who are different than you who are like you.

Like I said, we aren’t going anywhere and neither are they. Some of us and some of them think that’s not the case, but they’re wrong. Some of us think we can eradicate them and some of them think they can eradicate us, but we and they are wrong, because there’s no way to do that without destroying us all. Some of us think we can carve out an enclave made up of people like we are and some of them think they can carve out an enclave made up of people like they are, but we and they are wrong, because there’s no way to do that without destroying ourselves or themselves. Some of us and some of them think the world would be a better place if everyone was like we or they are, but we and they are wrong, because, people being people, it wouldn’t stay that way for long—and life would be incredibly boring if it did.

The great theologian Sly Stone summed up what I’m trying to say way back in 1969 when he sang, “We got to live together.” That’s not easy. In fact, it may be much more difficult than trying to stay apart or to beat each other into submission. It’ll take people of good will from all places and all persuasions committing themselves to peace and progress with the same fervor that radicals do to conflict and regress.

It’ll require the vast majority of us coming to think in terms of “all” rather than “us” and ‘them.”

And I mean “all,” not “all us” and “all y’all.”