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.”

Thursday, June 1, 2017

America Is Already Great

I recently spent a week in San Antonio, Texas. I was there to represent the publishing company I work for at a preaching conference.

I had a good time.

I had a good time before I even left for San Antonio. The Atlanta airport is a fascinating place. There, all kinds of people wait to board their flights for all kinds of places. They are young, old, and middle-aged. They are families traveling with children and people traveling alone. They are of various sexual orientations. They have varying financial situations. They are sick and well. They are of many different races, ethnicities, nationalities, cultures, and religions. I got a kick out of observing them
.
(The most amazingly diverse collection of people with which I ever awaited a flight was in Nairobi, Kenya back in 2010. The colors, the clothes, the languages—I was amazed at humanity’s beautiful variety, which was packed tightly together in one waiting area.)

One reason I had a good time after I got to San Antonio is that it is a great place to eat. One night I had the best brisket I’ve ever tasted. Another night I had the best chili relleno (my favorite Mexican dish) I’ve ever eaten. I also had a couple of good steaks (although I must admit I’ve had better. In fact, I’ve grilled better ones myself).

Another reason I had a good time is that the preachers who assemble for this particular annual conference are a delightful bunch. They come from churches in denominations that are often referred to as “mainline.” I talked with pastors from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the United Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the Alliance of Baptists. They came from every region of the United States and from many places in Canada. I talked with one pastor from Australia. They were women and men. They were brown, black, and white. They are committed to their calling and craft.

One day, I stopped in a German-themed establishment on the River Walk (a shopping, dining, and lodging development along the San Antonio River, which runs through the heart of the city). The waitresses were lovely Latinas dressed in German garb. A two-man band was playing German songs; one of them wore a Jamaican dreadlocks wig.

As I marveled at the sight, it dawned on me: America is already great. 

And America will become even greater as we more fully embrace our ever-increasing diversity as the great gift it is.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Covfefe (a poem)

Your demagoguery and arrogance,
your shallowness and ignorance;
there’s a word that sums it up:
Covfefe.

Help the rich, hurt the needy.
Withdraw from the climate treaty.
Tweet a lot of crazy stuff.
Covfefe.

Embrace our foes, repel our friends.
Propel us closer to the end.
Ride a cart, don’t huff and puff.
Covfefe.

Admire the dictators and the killers.
Disregard our nation’s pillars.
Lie when it’s easy, lie when it’s tough.
Covfefe.

Cry “fake news” when reporting bites you.
Call them losers when patriots fight you.
If it helps regular folks, make sure it gets snuffed.
Covfefe.

Half your Twitter followers are bots.
You and yours are pocketing lots.
Most rational folks have had enough.
Covfefe.

Put people in charge of what they hate.
Destroy America to make it great.
It’s the opposite of compassion and love.
Covfefe.

When you’re impeached or when you quit
and you’re looking for people to blame for it,
know it’s because you’re guilty of

Covfefe.

© 2017 Michael L. Ruffin


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Puttin’ on the Ritz

Since my Good Wife and I moved a couple of years ago to the farm outside of Yatesville, Georgia, where my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, was born and raised, we’d gone to the movies in Macon, Griffin, and McDonough. We’d never visited the Ritz Theater in Thomaston, the Upson County seat that is a fifteen-minute drive from our house.

That changed last week. We drove over to watch the new Guardians of the Galaxy film. The movie is a lot of fun. I recommend it.

The Ritz is great. It’s a single-screen, downtown movie house. The picture and sound quality is fine. A ticket costs $6.00. The concessions are reasonably priced. As folks would have said back in the Ritz’s heyday, it’s neat.

As I sat in Thomaston’s Ritz Theater, my mind wandered off to sit for a spell in the Ritz Theater in my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia. Some of us spent many a pleasant hour there back in the day.

The first movie I ever saw at the Barnesville Ritz—actually, the first movie I ever saw at any theatre—was the 1965 James Bond adventure Thunderball. I was with my cousins Rhonda and Denise. I can still see the climactic underwater battle (although that’s at least partly because I’ve watched the movie several more times since then). I was seven years old at the time.

One of the most memorable movie-watching experiences I had at the Ritz was seeing Beach Red. The 1967 film was directed by Cornel Wilde, who also starred in it. It’s about a Marine invasion of a Japanese-held Pacific island during World War II. The beach landing scene, which some regard as one of the most realistic ever filmed, is said to have influenced the one in Saving Private Ryan. The fascinating aspect of the movie was its effort to depict the hopes and fears of the combatants on both sides.

The last movie I saw at the Barnesville Ritz was The Green Berets (1968). It was also the first movie that I saw with my parents, which may be one of the reasons it was the last one I saw there. My folks liked to tell me (I don’t know why) that the last movie they had gone to the theater to see was The Ten Commandments (1956). I assume they saw it at the Ritz. I imagine they broke their twelve-year movie fast for two reasons: (1) their nephew and my cousin Charles was a Green Beret who was wounded in Vietnam and (2) they were probably glad that John Wayne had developed a movie that took a pro-American involvement in Vietnam stance to counter the growing anti-war movement in the country. I’m not saying they thought the war was a great idea; it’s just that they were the sort of folks who were nervous about the upheaval of the 1960s. There’s really no other explanation for the fact that they voted for George Wallace for president in 1968.

Mentioning Wallace tempts me to say a few words about the danger in putting a culturally, historically, morally, and intellectually challenged demagogue in charge of the whole country, but I won’t, since we didn’t. That time.

Instead, I want to advocate for the value of the small. I’ve been to those huge theaters with their twenty-four screens and miles of neon lights. They have their place. Choice is good, although it’s not unusual for the sixteen-screen theater located right around the corner from my office not to be showing even one film I want to see. But there’s something comforting about going to a small theater. It feels like home. And, while you’re not likely to know everybody there, you could.

You could say the same kinds of things about small towns, small churches, and small schools. What I said about big theaters applies to big cities, big churches, and big schools: they have their place. But I hope those of us who live, worship, and study in smaller places appreciate the wonders and blessings of our small, close communities. It’s nice to know and to be known.

By the way, I understand they sometimes show outdoor movies in the place where the Barnesville Ritz used to be. I think that’s neat.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Black Holes

In a few months, we may see the first image of a black hole. This is exciting!

Scientists trained the radio telescopes of eight observatories ranging from Antarctica to Hawaii to Spain on two black holes, one located at the center of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and another in a galaxy known as M87. Supercomputers will analyze the data and, if all goes according to plan, we’ll get to see a picture of a black hole for the first time.

The telescope array that undertook this mission is called the Event Horizon Telescope, because an event horizon is what the project is designed to detect. A black hole, which occurs when a star collapses in on itself until all of its mass is compressed into what is called a gravitational or space-time singularity, is super-dense.

The gravity in a black hole is, to say the least, strong. It is so strong that something would have to travel faster than the speed of light to escape. Since, so far as we are aware, nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light, nothing, including light, can escape a black hole.

The event horizon, which is the boundary of a black hole, is the point of no return; once an object—an asteroid, say—gets past that point, there’s no escaping. The extreme gravity of the black hole sucks it in, and that’s that.

Sagittarius A, as the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is known (it’s located in the constellation Sagittarius), is 26,000 light years away. A light year is the distance light travels in a year. Light travels 186,000 miles per second. So how far away is Sagittarius A? You do the math (because I can’t). 

It’s a far piece. It’s farther than over yonder.

But it seems to me that we have some black holes right here among us: fear, hate, prejudice, and ignorance. All too often, all four of them combine in the black hole to end all black holes. We don’t have to wait for a picture. We’ve all seen it.

Some of us are in such a black hole.

I’m not sure how people get there, but they do. And some of us are getting dangerously close to the event horizon. We’re getting very close to the point where we cross over into the black hole where the combination of fear, hate, prejudice, and ignorance sucks us in.

If you get in your spaceship, kick it into warp drive, and cross a black hole’s event horizon, that’s that. You’ll never get out. As I understand it, that’s how the physics work. Oh, and science suggests that the force inside the black hole would quickly tear you to shreds.

Our spiritual and social black holes will suck you in, and once you’re there, they’ll tear your mind, heart, and spirit to shreds. But I don’t believe that, once you’ve crossed the event horizon into the black hole of fear, hate, prejudice, and ignorance, you’re doomed to stay there.

I say that because, while the gravity of a black hole may be the strongest force in the universe, it’s nothing compared to grace and love.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Power of Sacrifice

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Yep, it’s baseball season.

If you took a survey to find out what people think the most exciting play in baseball is, I imagine a home run would be the winner. They might even specify a bases-loaded homer (what we experts call a “grand slam.” Sometimes you’ll hear someone call it a “grand salami.” If you do, pay no further attention to them). 

Incidentally, the late George Scott—not the actor, but the power-hitting first baseman of the Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers—is credited with coining the term “tater” for a home run in the late 1960s. 

One theory of where that came from goes something like this: a batter hits a long home run, somebody says “He really mashed that one,” and someone else says, “Yep, like a tater.”

I hope that’s how it happened.

In my opinion, an inside-the-park home run is as thrilling as it gets.

Thrills aside, the plays I appreciate the most are those that are less exciting but no less important. They’re the ones that require the batter to give himself up: laying down a sacrifice bunt and hitting behind the runner.

Allow me to explain a sacrifice bunt. 

Let’s say a runner is or runners are on first and/or second base with less than two outs. The batter squares around to bunt. That means he faces the pitcher while extending the bat over the plate. The idea is to let the ball hit the bat. The best bunts happen when the bat sort of receives the ball, almost gently. Ideally, the ball will then travel a short distance in front of the plate. The base runner has or the base runners have seen the third base coach’s bunt sign, so he knows or they know what’s coming and is or are ready to advance to the next base.

Here’s the important thing: the batter isn’t trying to get a hit. He’s just wants to get the runners to the next base, from where they are more likely to be able to score—thus into what we experts call “scoring position.”

It’s called a “sacrifice” bunt because the batter has sacrificed himself—he has intentionally made an out—in order to help the team. Baseball’s scoring rules acknowledge the value of the act by not considering an at-bat that results in a sacrifice bunt “official,” so it doesn’t hurt the hitter’s batting average.

Hitting behind the runner is even more sacrificial than a sacrifice bunt. Let me explain how that works. 

Again, we have a runner or runners on base with less than two outs. The batter tries to hit the ball to the right side of the infield. He does this so the base runner(s) will have a better chance of advancing. He also does this knowing that he is more likely to be thrown out at first. This is considered a “productive out,” particularly if it gets a runner to third with one out, from where he might score in any number of ways.

Hitting behind the runner isn’t called a sacrifice, but it’s more sacrificial than a sacrifice bunt, because it counts as an official at-bat and thus the out hurts the hitter’s batting average.

When a batter successfully hits behind the runner and the camera follows him into the dugout, you’ll see other players congratulating him. The announcer will say, “The players know.”

Sometimes somebody around us hits a home run. They may even hit a grand slam. They may even hit an inside-the-park grand slam. When they do, they’ll get noticed. They’ll be praised.

And sometimes somebody just lays down a sacrifice bunt or hits behind the runner.

Pat them on the back. Shake their hand. Thank them.

Let them know you know.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dust in the Wind

Debra and I enjoy going to concerts. We have to pace ourselves, given constraints on time and money. There are many artists we want to see while they’re still able to sing and we’re still able to hear.

Over the last few years, we’ve attended live performances of some of our favorites like James Taylor, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Debra’s had to rein me in some during my fifty-seventh year.

It’s as if I’m determined to mark everything I can off the bucket list.

I also find myself wanting to write everything I’ve ever thought about writing.

I guess that somewhere down deep, I’m still afraid of not living my life before I die. So I have to be careful not to let myself get in too big a hurry.

Speaking of being in a hurry—when I die, I’ll be cremated, because I figure if we really do return to ashes, there’s no point lying around in a box waiting for it to happen.

I’m told that the cremation of a human body usually produces somewhere between three and nine pounds of ash. If you’re buried rather than cremated, it’ll take a good bit longer for you to get back to basics. Either way, though, our ashes will eventually join their cousins, the ashes of the earth, and our dust will float away in the breeze.

God said to the first man in the biblical narrative, and by extension to all participants in the human story, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Admittedly, those words have a certain spirit about them; “You work hard all your life and then you die.” They leave us saying, “Surely there’s more to it all than that!”

Indeed there is.

Almost six decades of reflection on my mortality—and, by extension, on our mortality—has led me to the startling conclusion that we are mortal.

We shouldn’t forget it. We should remember that we are created and that we are temporary. We should maintain a sense of humility, and even a sense of humor, about ourselves. We should remember that as surely as we were born, we will die.

It’s helpful to remember that, being made of stuff, we are prone to do stuff, and some of the stuff we do is not worth doing, or is stuff we shouldn’t have done to begin with. We call some of this stuff “silly” and some of it “sin.” Some of it we do because we’re willful, some of it because we’re prideful, and some of it because we’re weak, frail, and frightened.

But, regardless of why we do it, we do it. In our honest moments, we know we do it and we’re willing to confess that we do it.

I think about mortality every day, but I especially think about it on Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is an annual opportunity to contemplate our dustiness. It gives us a chance to confront our humanity, our frailty, and our impermanence, to acknowledge and repent of our sins, and to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

But we should also take advantage of the opportunity it gives us to live more in light of the fact that we are sentient dust. We are thinking, self-aware dust. We are responsible for what we do in and with our dustiness.

So Ash Wednesday reminds us of the need to face up to our humanity—“we are dust”—and to our mortality—“to dust we shall return.” But it can also remind us to face up to our possibilities: as long as we are conscious, self-aware, spirit-fueled dust, we can become more and more capable of loving God, loving ourselves, and loving others.

Guided by the thoughts of the French monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), we can think of it this way: as sentient ashes, we can move from loving God for our own sake, to loving God for God’s sake, to loving self for God’s sake, and finally to loving others for God’s sake. As we grow in these earthy bodies to love God more and more only for the sake of loving God because God is, because God is love, and because God incites love, we will grow more and more to love ourselves out of God’s love and to love others out of God’s love.

And if we can truly grow in our ability to reach out in love to each other, it will give us another and most helpful way to think about the meaning of “ashes to ashes.” One day, all of our ashes will be joined.

We might as well let them mingle now.

(Excerpted from my book Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death and Life)