Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Let's Educate the Crap Out of This

I was a member of the Lamar County (Georgia) High School class of 1976, the first class to graduate from the new high school.

Yep, I still call a school building constructed in the mid-1970s “the new high school.”

Well, take me to dinner and call me dated!

I didn’t actually attend the new high school, though. I entered Mercer University after my junior year. But I did come back to graduate as the Valedictorian of my class. I don’t know how they felt about it. I was afraid to ask.

I’m glad they tolerated me.

During the first few years of desegregation, which began in Lamar County with the 1970-71 school year (seventh grade for me), racial integration gave way to gender segregation. The stated reason for that was, as I recall, that there was no facility large enough to house a coed high school. Interestingly, though, they put boys and girls back together in the 1974-75 school year, which was the year before the new high school opened. All of a sudden, the Forsyth Road School (formerly Booker T. Washington School) was large enough to hold not only a coed high school, but the middle school grades as well.

One wonders if there was another agenda in keeping the girls and boys separate, doesn’t one?

I don’t remember when I first heard that plans were being made to build a new high school. I do remember that the vote on the bond referendum to fund its construction was controversial. I remember hoping and praying that it would pass, because I knew we needed a new facility.

My father, the late great Champ Ruffin, was back then a member of the now defunct Lamar Civic League. One night he returned from a meeting visibly upset.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked.

“Oh, somebody did a program about how we ought to oppose the school bond referendum. When he finished, I pointed out that I had a child in the school system and he didn’t, and that I resented his program. Nobody backed me up, so I told them they could have their club, and I walked out.”

“Champ, you didn’t.”

That little smile that indicated he knew that he might have done wrong, but was glad he’d done it anyway, crept onto his face.

“Yeah, I did.”

And he never went back.

My education, and the education of all the other children in Lamar County, was important to my father. Thankfully, it was important to lots of other people, too, and so the bond referendum passed.'

I also believe in education. I especially believe in public education. I believe that education is the best way out of the various messes our nation and our world find ourselves in.

To be more precise, I believe that we need broad, sweeping, excellent, amazing, world-encompassing education.

I mean, think about it. Ignorance and misunderstanding lie beneath and behind most of the problems and tensions with which we deal in this nation and on this planet. We need to make sure that American young people learn all the science and math they possibly can so we’ll be able to keep moving forward technologically. We also need to make sure they learn all they can about history, literature, religion, and culture—those of America and those of other people and places, including non-Western societies.

The more we grow in our understanding of each other, the more likely we are to develop and maintain peaceful, helpful, and productive relationships. The more we know, the better off we’ll be.

That’s why we all need to champion education here at home and around the world.

I believe that we should do everything we can do to provide a college education to as many of our people as we possibly can. I furthermore believe that we should do everything we can to do expose our people to as many other cultures as we can, and that we should do everything we can to bring students from other nations to our country to learn about our cultures.

The more we know about each other, the more we’ll understand each other, and the more we understand each other, the less likely we are to want to kill each other.

Shoot, we might even find out we like each other.

In the film The Martian, when Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) realizes he’s been stranded on Mars, he says, “I’m gonna have to science the [crap] out of this.”

When I look at the nation and the world, I say, “We’re gonna have to educate the crap out of this.”

So let’s get to it …

Monday, July 11, 2016

Black Lives Matter: A Word to White Folks

A line in one of my favorite songs (“Hey Lover”) by one of my favorite bands (Dawes) says, “I may be white, but I don’t like my people much.”

I actually like most white people just fine. I’m sure they’re relieved to hear that.

But let’s face it, folks—we’re limited by our whiteness. And one of the ways we’re limited is in our inability to comprehend and appreciate blackness.

That’s why it may be entirely inappropriate for me to try to say anything about the Black Lives Matter movement. Todd Rundgren once observed that he might be the whitest singer in the world. Well, I may be the whitest writer in the world. So maybe I shouldn’t write about Black Lives Matter.

But I’m a white guy talking (in this instance) to white folks. So let’s take a chance.

On the one hand, black folks don’t need white folks to explain or defend them. They do that very well for themselves. On the other hand, it’s basic to Christian practice to care about, speak up for, and act on behalf of others. So, I hope that I’m speaking out of Christian love and not out of some less appropriate motives.

Some of my white Christian sisters and brothers mean well—they really do—when they respond to “Black Lives Matter” by insisting that “All Lives Matter.” They say—and they’re not wrong—that all human lives come from God, that God loves all people, and that every life matters. Yes, Jesus loves all the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white (and all of the variations and combinations thereof), they are precious in Jesus’ sight.

But there’s something that many of my white Christian brothers and sisters don’t understand. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged from a specific context: the recent spate of killings of black men by police officers. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” thus makes a specific assertion: something must be done to change the circumstances, mindsets, and structures that make it too likely—five times more likely than for a young white man—that a young black man will die a violent death at the hands of the police.

To say “Black Lives Matter” isn’t to claim that other lives don’t matter. As someone recently said, to say “Save the Rainforests” doesn’t imply “Screw All the Other Forests.” It’s just that the rainforests have specific and critical needs because they are, at this time, in specific and critical danger. So it is with young black men.

So for white folks to try to broaden the phrase to include “all lives”—again, well-intentioned as that effort may be—is to attempt to lessen the specific contextual meaning and importance of “Black Lives Matter.” It is to deny that African-Americans have a particular experience with institutional violence that is largely beyond white people’s comprehension.

Of all the things I worried about whenever my son left the house, his being killed, or even harassed, by the police was never—not once—one of them.

If you can say the same, then please join me in admitting that we can’t comprehend the experience that inspires the Black Lives Matter movement. Please also join me in acknowledging the experience that inspires the movement and in affirming the movement that the experience inspires.

It’s just something I thought I should say—one white guy to other white folks.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

"Targeted" in America

Some groups in America think they’re targets. They have reason to think that.

Young black males think they’re targets.

There are statistics to back up their thinking. The rate of young black men (age 16-34) killed by police officers in 2015 was more than five times that of white men in that age range. About 25% of blacks killed by police were unarmed, compared with 17% of whites. Economist Sendhil Mullainathan has made a good case that the higher rate at which blacks die at the hands of police is as much, or even more, about unjust economic policies and structures as about racism.

Police officers think they’re targets. As in the case of young black men, some statistics support their thinking. Twenty-six officers have been shot and killed so far in 2016, which is up from eighteen at the same time last year, a 44% increase. Someone has ambushed police officers eleven times this year, up from eight at this point in 2015. The recent sniper attack on Dallas police officers reminds us of the dangers law enforcement officials face.

I’m not a young black man. I’m not a police officer. I’m a white, middle class, Christian, heterosexual writer, editor, and preacher.

You’d think I’d be nobody’s target. That’s what I think.

I’ve noticed, though, that some people who would describe themselves with the same terms I use to describe myself do think they’re targets.

Lots of people who fall into my general demographic think they’re the targets of society and culture. They think that the nation and the world are developing in ways that will lessen their heretofore privileged status.

They’re more or less correct about that, and they (we) might as well embrace the new situation and learn to thrive within it. In the long run, the country and the world will be better with its new situation. We can make that so by enthusiastically seeking and responsibly filling our place in the developing new order rather than kicking and screaming against the changes that are in the process of happening.

Some people who fall into my general categories also think they’re the targets of their government. I’ve heard several of them say that’s one of the main reasons they are adamant about the broadest possible interpretation of the second amendment: they need to be as fully armed as possible in case they need to defend themselves against their own government.

I’ll offer the passing observation that, if the government ever sends its planes, missiles, and drones against you, all the semi-automatic rifles in the world aren’t going to help you much.

It bothers me that folks worry that their own government really poses that kind of threat.

I’ve noticed that such thinking seems to have increased with the Obama presidency.

Maybe it was always there, and the various social media platforms have just brought it more out into the open. Still, I didn’t hear Americans talk about feeling threatened by their government before 2008.

Some people’s attitudes toward President Obama are fueled by racism, but I don’t think that’s the case with the people I’m talking about. Their fears are driven more by what they perceive to be his perspectives and policies, especially what they regard as his emphasis on “big government.” And they figure that, since one of the banners under which Secretary Clinton is running is “Secure President Obama’s Legacy,” they’re probably about to face four or eight years more of the same.

I think such fears are way out of line with reality. But okay. If that’s how you feel, then fine.

I will offer another passing observation: I didn’t worry that the government was likely to come after me when more right-wing, potentially despotic, ready and willing to limit civil liberties administrations were in place.

I guess I just have that kind of naïve trust in the American people and in the United States Constitution. As one who came of age in the 1970s, I figure that if we can survive Watergate, we can survive anything.

Here’s my point: thinking you’re a target makes you think and act like a target. And thinking and acting like a target makes you think and act defensively. And thinking and acting defensively makes it even more likely that something bad is going to happen.

So if you’re not really a target, it’s to your advantage—and to everyone else’s—for you not to think and act like you are.

Now, there are people among us who need to be on their guard. Others of us—well, maybe not so much.

Lots of things will help us find our way out of the situation we’re in.

One thing that will surely help is for those of us who are not at any great risk not to be unreasonably afraid.

Of course, having said all of this, I guess I’ll be looking over my shoulder now …

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The High Dive

During my boyhood, this time of year was all about going to the Barnesville (GA) swimming pool, which was located about where the Gordon Highlanders now play baseball. I’d join many others in purchasing an annual pass and using the laminating machine outside of Carter’s Drug Store to render it waterproof. I’d use it to gain admission to the pool every blessed day (except when I had a Little League game that night, because the coaches said that swimming tired you out too much).

I’d enjoy snow cones, frozen candy bars, and Cokes. I’d saunter up to the concession stand like it was a bar (I’d seen such things on television) and order a “Suicide”—a mixture of Coke, Sprite, Fanta Grape, and Fanta Orange.

It was my first mixed drink.

Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” and Rare Earth’s “Get Ready” repeatedly blared from the jukebox. Being an eleven almost twelve-year-old boy, I’d marvel at the high school and college girls. And they were marvelous.

It was 1970, so do the math—you know who you were …

I’d even spend a little time in the pool.

The Barnesville pool had two diving boards—the low dive and the high dive (the picture is the only one I've been able to find that shows the high dive). I eventually worked up the courage to jump—not dive, mind you, because I’d look silly diving while holding my nose—off the low board, but I never managed to take the death-defying plunge from the high dive. I thereby cost myself some fun and some memories.

Looking back, I wish I’d jumped off the high dive.

I’ve come to realize that, when it comes to swimming in the Christian pool, there are all kinds of people. Let’s splash some water around and see what I mean.

Do you practice “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? Then you’re just sitting on the edge of the pool, maybe occasionally sticking your big toe in.

Do you refrain from striking back when someone harms or insults you? Then you’re becoming a pretty good swimmer.

Do you, in addition to refraining from striking back when people harm or insult you, also stand your ground in a way that forces them to come to terms with who they are and what they’re doing, even if it means taking more hurt onto yourself? Then you’re diving off the low dive.

Do you actually and legitimately love your enemies? Do you love them enough to give yourself up for them? Do you love them enough to pray for them in ways that put their real needs ahead of yours? Then you’re diving off the high dive. Congratulations!

I still wish I had the guts to do that …

Monday, June 20, 2016

Gays, Muslims, and Guns: A Christian American's Perspective

Around two o’clock in the morning on Sunday, June 12, a man opened fire with a Sig Sauer MCX rifle on patrons of Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Forty-nine people were killed. Another fifty-three were wounded, many seriously. Police killed the shooter.

Three things that a lot of American Christians tend to get worked up about came together in that horrifying event: gays, Muslims, and guns. I’d like to say a few things from my perspective as a Christian American, who happens to be straight, about how my brothers and sisters and I should respond to the Orlando tragedy.

The gunman’s goal was to kill gay people. There have been reports that he scouted Pulse in the days before the massacre and that he scouted Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) during the annual Gay Days event that was held just a few days before the shooting. There have also been reports that he visited the club many times over the past three years. It appears he hated homosexuals. We may find out that he hated something in himself.

When we say that the shooter killed gay people, we should acknowledge that the key word in that phrase is “people,” not “gay.” Forty-nine people died. They have names. They have families and friends. They had lives. They loved and were loved. They are missed. They are grieved.

Still, the fact remains that they were targeted because they were members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. Some of us target LGBT folks, too. We target them with our contempt, our ignorance, our misunderstanding, our slurs, and our hate. We target them with our legislation. And we need to stop. We need to stop now. There has been too much negativity toward the LGBT community in America in recent days, and too many people use their supposed “Christian” principles as justification for it. We should foster a culture of loving acceptance and lay down our judgmental prejudices. Christians ought to be in the forefront of treating LGBT people as what they are, namely, human beings created and loved by God. Unfortunately, many of us have had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward doing the right and just thing toward gay people, not to mention lots of other marginalized people.

It’s also a fact that they were killed by a Muslim. He was a Muslim who was born in New York. He was a Muslim who was an American citizen. He was not an immigrant. There are all kinds of Muslims, just as there are all kinds of Christians. Some are of the nominal variety and some are of the sincere variety. Some just check the box while others feel it in their soul. Some are radicalized militants while most are peace-loving practitioners. In Islam, as in Christianity, the hate-filled radicals get the press.

It’s wrong to paint an entire group of people with the same brush, especially when we use it to mark them as evil. A “Muslim” like the Orlando shooter does not represent all Muslims any more than “Christian” preachers who say they wish even more gays had been killed represent all Christians. I know this: I don’t want anyone to group me with those “Christian” preachers or with “Christian” hate groups (now there’s an oxymoron, if ever there was one). If that’s Christianity, you can have it; I don’t want it.

Fortunately, it’s not. And what murderers like the Orlando shooter and terrorists like ISIS practice isn’t the Islam that most Muslims practice, either. There are over three million Muslims living in the United States. If they were all hateful, you’d know it. But they aren’t, and we need to stop thinking and saying they are.

It’s also a fact that the Orlando murderer used a gun to kill those forty-nine people. I have a gun. It’s a sixteen gauge double barreled shotgun that’s older than I am. I inherited it from my father, which is the beginning and end of what it means to me. I kept it put away for almost four decades. Now I keep it handy because we live in the woods and I hear there are rattlesnakes. It’s not been fired in over forty years. It’ll suit me if it’s never fired again. So I admit that I don’t get the love affair many people have with guns.

I’d like to express just two concerns about guns. First, I think we are developing a problematic mindset in this country in that we are counting on the wrong things for security. We’re too afraid, and fear gets in the way of rational thinking and acting. An over-reliance on guns—or on any kind of force—keeps us from addressing those matters that can really make for peace, namely, a solid education for all, broadly based economic prosperity, and community solidarity based in shared values, including the celebration of human diversity.

Second, I think that our politicians are failing us on gun policy (as well as on any number of other matters). Both sides have dug in. Each side takes positions that the other finds untenable, and neither side will budge. But governing is about working together for the common good. It’s about compromise. Some folks need to stop thinking that any limitation on gun rights is bad. There’s no such thing as an unlimited right. Others need to stop thinking that all we need is increased gun control (and I say that as one who believes that nobody outside the military and law enforcement needs access to a military-style weapon and that there should be universal background checks on all gun purchases). We need leaders who will do the hard work of moving along, bit by bit, day by day, year by year, steadily trying to find solutions to the problem of violence in this country, instead of just yelling “No” across the aisle at each other.

I’m a Christian. I believe that my Savior, who said “Blessed are the peacemakers,” who taught us to pray for our enemies, and who voluntarily gave up his life, compels me to think like I think, to say what I say, and to do what I do. I believe that too many Christians are too judgmental, too narrow-minded, too willing to ignore how Jesus lived, and too unaware of the kind of life he calls us to lead. We are too quick to make up our minds about other folks and to close our minds to honest self-appraisal. I want us to become better at being who we are as Christians.

I’m an American. I love this country. I want us to live up to our ideals as well as we possibly can. I believe we have problems that we need to face up to, and that most of those problems are internal: we are too materialistic, too fearful, and not self-reflective and self-critical enough. I want us to become better at being who we are as Americans. I want us to become more willing to accept our individual and collective responsibility for what happens in our nation.

We all have a long way to go. Maybe the legacy of the Orlando tragedy will be that it helped us move in the right direction.

I pray that will be the case.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Homecoming (and Going)

I’m serving as Interim Pastor of The Rock Baptist Church in The Rock, Georgia. We had lunch together after last Sunday’s worship service. Everybody brought food. There were about thirty people there. We could have fed 150. We had at least twelve baskets of food left over. It was all very biblical. It was also lots of fun.

Midway Baptist Church, located on City Pond Road just off Highway 36 between Barnesville and Jackson, Georgia, the church to which my parents first took me when I was ten days old (as my mother never tired of reminding me), and in which I was baptized into the Church and ordained to the ministry, has been having Homecoming on the second Sunday in June ever since John the Baptist baptized Jesus. I’m planning to go this Sunday (June 12).

I have to preach at The Rock before I can go. Gee, I hope Midway has some food left!

The best I can recollect, the last Midway Homecoming I attended was in 1977. That was a year before I graduated from college and got married in June of 1978. So it’s been thirty-nine years since I last went to Homecoming at Midway.

I’ve been busy, especially on Sundays.

I wonder if Midway still uses aluminum wash tubs in the serving line. Back in the day, they used them big-time. There’d be barbecue in one, Brunswick stew in one, sweet tea in one, and lemonade in another. If they’d have had one filled with banana pudding, things would have been perfect. As it was, things were mighty good.

I’ll bet they don’t still have the old fifty-five gallon drum outside water fountain. The best water I ever had came out of that thing. I guess it was the rust. It was a drum with a spigot rigged to it. They’d get a big block of ice from the Barnesville Ice Company (which, as best I can recall, was located about where the bank drive-through is now) and put it in the drum. Some aluminum dippers hung from the tree under which the drum sat. You’d take a dipper, get some water from the spigot, drink it, and hang the dipper back up. We drank after each other without even thinking about it. It was Christian community at its best.

Yep, Baptist churches—especially the rural variety—know how to eat. I reckon churches of other denominations do, too. I just don’t have much experience with them.

Baptists take the Bible pretty seriously. We do believe (although we’d never admit it—it’s a subconscious thing) that it should be changed in one small way. We think that, every time it says “fast,” an “e” dropped out. Clearly, it meant to say “feast.”

As the story goes, three women died around the same time and arrived at the pearly gates together. St. Peter told them that the computer was down, so unless they could somehow prove they should be let in, they’d have to wait. One of the ladies was Roman Catholic. She rummaged around in her purse and pulled out her rosary and showed it to Peter. He let her enter. The second lady was Methodist. She rummaged around in her purse and pulled out her book of Wesleyan hymns. Peter let her go in. The third lady was looking furiously through her purse. Peter asked, “What are you doing?” She replied, “I’m Baptist, and I know I have a casserole in here somewhere!”

Of course, we eat for theological and spiritual reasons. The Bible says that when Jesus comes back and God makes everything as it should be, there’s going to be a big banquet.

We’re trying to get a head start.

Homecoming’s just practice for home going …

Friday, May 27, 2016

Fifty-Seven

My father died on May 27, 1979. He was 57. I'm 57 now. What follows is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death & Life, which will be published this fall.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Debra got home, took one look at me, and said, “What’s wrong?” as I took her in my arms and cried. “Daddy had a heart attack,” I said. “We need to go to Thomaston.”

We arrived at the Upson County Hospital late in the afternoon. Daddy was in the Intensive Care Unit. We walked into his room to find him awake but on a ventilator; the tube down his throat made it impossible for him to talk. Someone had given him a pad and some paper; when he saw me his eyes grew large and he quickly scribbled, “How are you?” He underlined “you.”

My father was lying there with his massive heart attack and he was worried about my tonsillectomy. I thought he was crazy. I’m a father now, too. I’m crazy like that now, too.

I told him I was fine. The truth was that my throat was throbbing and my heart was breaking, but the first thing didn’t matter and the second was too much to deal with for either him or me. Besides, my throat would heal. I wasn’t so sure about my heart, though, given that it had not yet recovered from the damage done to it by my mother’s death four years earlier.

Preacher Bill arrived and prayed with us. He prayed that God would work a miracle in Champ’s (my father’s given name was Champ) life and heal him. He expressed that thought in several different ways but it was the only thing he prayed for. Later, upon reflection, I would develop some sympathy for Preacher Bill’s position. My father was both a good friend to him and a pillar of stability in a church that had so much instability at its core, it often teetered on collapse, and every once in a while just went ahead and fell apart. Still, as Preacher Bill prayed, I grew more and more frustrated because I had already made up my mind that my father was not going to recover. I wanted and needed someone to pray that we—that I—would have the strength to make it through what we were facing and that we would know the comfort of the Lord in our present pain and in our coming grief.

That was the moment I decided that when I had the responsibility and privilege of praying in such situations I would always ask God to help the family deal with whatever they had to deal with. I do ask God to heal but I always also ask God to help both the sick person and that person’s family and friends to live in and through the experience with trust and hope. After all, even those people who experience an astounding recovery, and whose families are so gratefulfor God’s healing power in that instance, must deal with their ever-present mortality. Every crisis, no matter how it’s resolved, is preparation and practice for the next crisis.

Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus and his sisters Mary and Martha were glad. Sometime later, though, Lazarus died again. So far as I know he’s still in the ground.

Besides, I remembered other things that I had heard Preacher Bill say. I remembered what he had said at Mama’s funeral about how she had prayed that God would let her see me grow up before she died. I remembered how I had realized in that moment that my decision to leave home to go to college a year early might have freed her up to go ahead and die. I couldn’t understand why Preacher Bill didn’t perceive what was going on. I was scheduled to leave for seminary in August—Daddy was supposed to drive the moving truck—and now, here it was May, and there lay my father. It was three months before I was going to move five hundred miles away to pursue another degree and to pursue the life that lay before me, and my father had been stricken with an out of nowhere major heart attack.

For all I knew, Daddy might have asked God to let him live until I finished college, got married, and headed off to seminary.

It would have been nice if he had asked God to let him hang around long enough to drive the truck.

I thought Preacher Bill should have sufficient spiritual insight to perceive that what was happening here was God’s doing—with considerable and maddening collusion and cooperation by my parents—and that the best I could do was to get out of the way, let it be, slough through my grief, and suppress my anger at my parents for deserting me and at God for making it happen.

Preacher Bill had said something else at Mama’s funeral that I had not forgotten. He pointed out—he made a really big deal out of it, actually—that she had died at exactly noon on Sunday or, as he put it, “just as we were singing the invitation hymn here at Midway.” (Baptist churches typically sing a hymn at the end of each service during which folks can walk the aisle to accept the Lord or make some other commitment.) I don’t remember him claiming that the Lord had orchestrated events so that Mama’s going to Jesus would correlate with the time in the worship service when we summoned people to come to him, but if he didn’t draw that straight line, I did. Anyone with eyes to see should have realized that God had carefully orchestrated the spectacle of my mother’s death even to the point of having her die at straight up noon on Sunday.

If you don’t think God is capable of orchestrating a spectacle, you should go read your Bible, especially the account of the exodus from Egypt and that of the last week of Jesus’ life.

I tried to shake such thoughts from my head as we waited at the hospital for updates on Daddy’s condition. Thursday night passed with no news other than that he was in serious but stable condition. On Friday the doctor told us that the damage to Daddy’s heart was too severe to do anything about. He said he probably wouldn’t survive, but if he did, he’d be an invalid. I began to pray that my father would live, but quickly my prayer became that, if the choice was between dying and being an invalid, the Lord would do what I knew Daddy would want and let him die.

On Saturday—Saturday again—the doctor told us that Daddy’s lungs had begun to fill with fluid and that it was just a matter of time. I figured it would be about twenty-four hours. Debra and I drove back to Macon that day so she could take a final exam that her somewhat less than compassionate Drama teacher thought was more important than her being with the family of her dying father-in-law. Maybe he thought we were being overly dramatic. I thought he was being a jerk.

Sunday morning came and our family members and friends had gathered at the hospital. Debra and I went downstairs to get something to eat and drink from some vending machines. We were standing there trying to decide what to get when I looked at my watch; it was 11:55. “We’d better get back upstairs,” I said.

I didn’t hear the voice of the Lord this time. I had learned. I just knew.

Daddy died right after we got back. It was straight up noon. Again.

Some well-meaning people judged the symmetry between the day and time of my mother’s and father’s deaths to be beautiful. I found it appalling and frightening.

I was suddenly very weary of God’s showing off. The choreography imposed on my life may have been impressive, but it had become numbingly predictable.

I needed a dance with different steps.

I needed crises without a predictable ending.

I needed the people I loved to quit dying on me.

It was at that moment that my mindset shifted from Psalm 8 to Job’s parody of it. The Psalmist had affirmed,

When I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?
You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
(Psalm 8:3-5)

Indeed, who were we that God paid any attention to us? Who was I that God paid any mind to me? But up to this point in my life I had been grateful for God’s attention. God’s hand had seemed relatively light, even with the death of my mother, and I had trusted that I had, like Noah, found favor with God. When I thought of God, I thought of God’s blessings. Now it was dawning on me that, while Noah found favor with God, his reward was getting to see lots of death and destruction.

So now I began to relate more to Job’s take on the Psalmist’s sentiments:

What are human beings, that you exalt them,
that you take note of them,
visit them each morning,
test them every moment?
Why not look away from me;
let me alone until I swallow my spit?
(Job 7:17-19)

I had considered God’s watchful eye to be a blessing; I now considered it to be a curse. I had been thankful for God’s intervention in my life; I now regarded it as a threat. I had thought that faithfulness to God’s perceived call on my life would lead to life; I now suspected that it led only to death, not so much for me as for the people that I loved.

Math was never my strong suit. Subconsciously I put 2 and 2 together and came up with 5, which was bad math but powerful psychology. Debra was now all I had left; the thought of losing her was unbearably painful, so painful that actually thinking about it was beyond my capabilities, so I came up with other things to worry about. Somewhere deep inside me my controlling formula went something like this: my plans to go to college = my mother’s death + my plans to go to seminary = my father’s death = other plans that led to change might = something happening to my wife.

That didn’t stop me, though; nothing was going to stop me. I had not yet discovered the excellent Memphis band Big Star (their songs “Thirteen” and “I’m in Love with a Girl” are sublime), but their song “The Ballad of El Goodo” could have been the soundtrack for my life at that point: “There ain’t no one going to turn me ‘round. No there ain’t no one going to turn me ‘round.”

So I kept moving forward while things churned inside me. In August of 1979, three months after Daddy died and a few hours after Debra graduated from Mercer University, we headed off to Louisville so I could be there in time to begin classes in the fall semester. She got a job and I started studying ...


© 2016 Michael L. Ruffin