Tuesday, October 18, 2016

“Peace, Peace” When There Is No Peace (Or, I Had to Take a Stand)

I’ve long kept a prayer journal. I write in it as a part of my morning prayer discipline. The written prayer has developed a set form over the years.

First, I write down three prayer sentences.

The first one is a traditional entreaty known as “The Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The second is a line from the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” The third is what I call my “Gethsemane Prayer”: “Lord, our lives are in your hands. Not our will, but your will be done.”

Then, I write down the day’s praises and petitions.

Finally, I write down another prayer sentence that’s lifted straight out of the Bible and that I call my “Reality Prayer”: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

Lately, I’ve had some problems praying the line from St. Francis’s prayer. I guess I’ve been pondering my possible hypocrisy.

I’m not sure I’ve been an instrument of God’s peace during this election cycle.

Some of my friends and acquaintances have been surprised to see me take a stand on social media in opposition to Donald Trump’s campaign for President of the United States. The matter came to a head for me when my Good Wife expressed disappointment at some very negative words I used in a blog post to describe Trump. She’s my biggest encourager, but she’s also second on my list of moral compasses, trailing only the Lord Jesus Christ. So when she expressed concern, I took notice. I also toned down the blog post.

“I’m just not accustomed to you being so political,” she said.

And I have been much more open with my opinion this year than in any election since 1980, when I drove around with a Carter-Mondale bumper sticker.

I think one reason I’ve felt freer to express my views this time around is that I’m no longer identified primarily as a local church’s pastor. During the three decades that “pastor” was my main vocational identity, I tried to be sensitive to the fact that people might interpret my political endorsement as the church’s, try as I might to insist that I was speaking only for myself. Besides, my electoral preference was always different than that of the vast majority of the members of the churches I served, so I couldn’t speak for them, anyway.

The Lord works in mysterious, and sometimes frustrating, ways.

I was also, despite what many others in my denominational family thought of me, a committed Baptist, and a commitment to the separation of church and state is, also despite what many in my denominational family think, a hallmark of the Baptist tradition. I really believed that churches and their pastors should not endorse candidates for public office. I know the IRS can take away the tax-exempt status of a church that does so, but that didn’t matter to me nearly as much as the principle did.

I’ve even preached sermons about how churches and pastors shouldn’t take sides in political campaigns. When I preached such sermons, though, I’d sometimes say that I could imagine a scenario in which I’d be forced to take a stand. I’d say something like, “If a candidate ever comes along whose ideas, policies, words, and actions are so opposed to and so potentially detrimental to the foundations of American life and to the pursuit of peace that his or her election would pose a danger to the nation, I hope I’ll have the courage to say so.”

I’d like to think that, were I still a full-time pastor, I’d have risen to that challenge this time around. I can’t know for sure.

As it happens, I’m doing different things with my life. I’m still a Christian, a Baptist, and a minister, but writing and editing are my main jobs now. So I’ve written and shared lots of words about why I believe Donald Trump shouldn’t be the next President of the United States.

To say so can make me appear divisive. It can make it appear that I don’t value peace in my personal relationships or in our community relationships.

That’s why I said earlier that I wasn’t sure I’ve been an instrument of God’s peace during this election cycle.

But I’m also not sure I haven’t been.

You see, sometimes a quest for short-term peace can be short-sighted. And sometimes a quest for long-term peace can result in a short-term lack of peace. I believe that, at this point in our history, it’s worth sacrificing some short-term peace for the sake of long-term peace.

During the build-up to the Babylonian conquest of Judah, the prophet Jeremiah chastised the prophets and priests who declared “’Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14). They told the people that everything was fine when it wasn’t.

Now, the fact is that many of my family members and friends are Trump supporters (and/or Hillary despisers). And many of them have been quite vocal on social media about their opinions. I suppose that one could make a case that, in the interest of peace and for the sake of love, I should have kept my opinions to myself. But the fact is that I believe that Trump’s election would be an unparalleled political disaster for my friends and family members.

So it is precisely because I love my family members, my friends, and my country that I have been willing to endure (and even create) some conflict for a while for the sake of what I pray will be a chance for greater peace in the future.

I am truly sorry for any offense I may have caused, particularly to my loved ones.

But I am truly not sorry for sounding the alarm I believe needs to be sounded.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Chapter 5: Lonely Boy

One of my earliest memories is of accompanying my mother to visit Greenwood Cemetery.

“Come on, let’s go visit Stan’s grave,” she’d say.

She’d drive through the narrow lanes—I remember one time when the car’s rear bumper caught the corner of a wrought iron fence that enclosed a group of graves—to the back of the cemetery. I’d wander around the headstones while she pulled grass from around a solitary marble marker and then stood there, quiet and still, for a few minutes.

Eventually, when I was able to form the question, I asked her whose grave it was.

“Your brother’s,” she replied.

When I was later able to form the question of what happened to him, she said, “He was born with a cleft palate.”

She didn’t offer to explain what that was, either at that time or any other time. I eventually learned that Stanley Abbott Ruffin was born and died on October 15, 1960, two years and three weeks after I came into the world. Mama had been thirty-seven when I, her first child, was born, so she was thirty-nine when she delivered Stan. He had been my parents’ one and only shot at giving me a sibling.

Somewhere along the way I asked Granny what was wrong with Stan and she said, “He had really bad birth defects. He was born with some of his organs outside of his body.”

“Mama said he had a cleft palate,” I said.

Granny looked at me kind of funny and said, “Yeah, he had that, too.”

Stan’s gravestone has a little lamb on each of the two bottom corners and one date, October 15, 1960, right in the middle.

His parents’ gravestones are to his right. I won’t be joining them.

I’m going to be cremated. I don’t see any point in taking up any space after I’m gone.

I wonder how my life would have been different had Stan lived and had we grown up together in the little house on Memorial Drive. I wonder if I would have developed differently. For instance, if I’d had a brother with whom to bounce around my thoughts and doubts, perhaps I would have become less introspective. If I’d had a brother with whom to share my grief, perhaps that grief would have been less of a burden. This much I know: if I’d had a brother with whom to share my small bedroom, I would have developed a much smaller sense of bashfulness.

I wonder if I would have learned earlier about the challenging nature of life. While I don’t know all the details about Stan’s birth and death, I do know that he was born with severe birth defects. Had those defects not been severe enough to take his life, he and we as his family members would have faced tremendous challenges from the moment of his birth— he would have been a “special-needs” child. Perhaps his situation would have given me a different perspective on my buckteeth, my nearsightedness, and my scrawny frame, all of which I regarded as severe afflictions in my childhood. I assume I would have had some responsibility for his care, and maybe that would have caused me not to focus so much on my trivial and, by comparison, utterly manageable difficulties.

No doubt I would have learned those amazing lessons that family members of special-needs children seem to grasp—lessons about gifts and grace and love that most people seem to struggle so much to learn. Maybe, armed with what I would have learned from Stan about the challenging nature of life, I would not have been so overwhelmed when I was confronted with other challenges later.

As things turned out, I probably would have assumed primary responsibility for Stan when I was very young. I wonder what that would have been like. Would I have learned the lessons that I know my parents would have taught me about unconditional love? Would I have been there for him as they would have been there for him? Now, all these years later, would I still be caring for him? Or would I have learned that, in ways that matter most, he was always caring for me?

Maybe we would have shared laughter. Maybe we would have shared hobbies. Maybe we would have shared the Atlanta Braves. Maybe we would have shared church. Maybe we would have shared faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe we would have shared G.I. Joes and baseball cards and Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Doonesbury. Maybe we would have shared stories, both by living them and by telling them.

Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten along at all. Maybe one or both of us would have turned out to be a jerk. Maybe we would have become estranged.

Maybe, even if he hadn’t died on the day he was born, he would have died young. That seemed to me to be the way of things for people who were my close kin.

Had he lived, maybe I would have mattered even less than it sometimes seemed I did. My mother’s cancer took so much of my parents’ time and energy that there were moments when they didn’t have much left for me.

But it would have been good, I think, to have a sibling, mixed blessing though I’ve heard that can be.

--Excerpted from Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death and Life. ©2016 Michael L. Ruffin. All rights reserved. Available in print and Kindle editions.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

I Pledge Allegiance …

Once upon a time, Vacation Bible School lasted a week, took place in the morning, and featured a highly structured opening assembly. During the assembly, the pianist would play a “stand up chord” and a “sit down chord” to signal us when we were to—well, to stand up or sit down.

Early in the ceremony, the pianist would play the stand up chord and we’d rise for the pledges. We said three. We’d pledge allegiance to the Christian flag. You may not know there is a Christian flag, much less a pledge to it, so, as a public service, here are the words to the pledge:

I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands, one brotherhood uniting all mankind in service and love.

That’s the version I learned. Sometime during my childhood, our Southern Baptist VBS guide led us to stop saying “mankind.” “Good,” you might be thinking. “’Humankind’ is less sexist.” Well, no, that’s not why we changed it. In fact, we kept right on saying “brotherhood.” We changed “mankind” to “Christians.” I reckon we were more concerned about flirting with universalism than we were with engendering sexism.

We’d also pledge allegiance to the Bible. That pledge went like this:

I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's holy word, and will make it a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path, and hide its words in my heart that I may not sin against God.

Over the fifty or so years that I’ve lived since those days, I’ve encountered lots of adults who pledge allegiance to the Bible, but who seem to have little allegiance to—or even awareness of—what it says, and especially of what it means.

I’ve seen lots of people who will, with great passion bordering on glee, beat you up if you won’t join them in swearing allegiance to the Bible.

I’ve seen many people whose lives reflect the Savior who shows us what the words of the Bible mean but who won’t, out of their commitment as Christians, swear allegiance to Bible, vilified by people who swear such allegiance but whose lives exhibit little to none of the love and grace of Jesus.

We also pledged allegiance to United States flag.

I think I’ve heard some discussion lately about how some people respond to that flag and how other people respond to those who respond.

Those that have ears to hear, let them hear …

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I’ll mark a major milestone this Saturday, September 24, 2016, when I celebrate my fifty-eighth birthday.

Ordinarily, the fifty-eighth anniversary of one’s birth wouldn’t be regarded as significant. It’s not like turning fifty or sixty or a hundred. Fifty-eight is to birthdays as Tuesday is to weeks: shrug-worthy.

It’s important to me, though.

When it comes to my immediate family, I’ve long been the last one standing. My only sibling, a brother named Stanley, was born two years after me and died twelve hours after his life began. My mother died in 1975 after a seven-year struggle with cancer. She was fifty-three. My father died of a massive heart attack in 1979. He was fifty-seven.

So as of Saturday, I’ll not only have outlived all of my immediate family members; I’ll also have lived to a greater age than any of them managed to reach.

I’m thankful.

I’ve come to realize, though, that the true measure of life is its depth, not its length. The quality of a life is especially seen in the love that is experienced in it.

Let it be noted that I have lived as one of the most blessed human beings that ever walked this globe.

I have known the love of Debra, who has been light in my times of darkness, hope in my moments of despair, and faith in my periods of doubt. And during the other thirty-eight years of the thirty-eight years and three months that we’ve been married, she has multiplied my joy.

I have known the love of our children Joshua and Sara, who have amazed me with their love for life, their embrace of the world, their quest for knowledge, their depth of understanding, their sense of humor, and their commitment to their beloveds.  

I have known the love of the Lord. I really have.

It’s all been grace.

Thank you, Debra.

Thank you, Joshua.

Thank you, Sara.

Thank you, Lord.

There have been many others whom I have known and loved and who have known and loved me.

Thank you, too.

A lot of love has been packed into these fifty-eight years.

I am grateful ...

Monday, September 19, 2016


I have come to dislike certain words during the sixteen months that I’ve been working as an editor.

One word that has earned my great disdain is “obviously.” When I come upon it, I delete it, because if something is obvious, you don’t need to point out that it’s obvious, because it’s obvious. Once I’ve deleted the word, I often delete the entire sentence, because if something is obvious, there’s no need to say it, which should be obvious.

There’s another problem with the word: one person’s “obviously” is another person’s “you’ve got to be kidding me.”

That observation brings me around, unfortunately, to the presidential election.

There are in my circle of relationships many people who say, “Obviously, we can’t let Donald Trump become president.” In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I say that, too. We find it ludicrous that anyone would even consider voting for him.

To me and to others, it’s obvious that Hillary Clinton is much to be preferred to Donald Trump.

But it’s not obvious to lots of other people, including many that I know, respect, and love. They say, “Obviously, we can’t let Hillary Clinton become president.” They are confounded that anyone would choose to vote for her.

From my perspective, the criticisms of Trump are accurate while those of Hillary are overblown. 

But that's not my point.

From my point of view, those who think like I do are right, while those who don’t are wrong.

But that’s not my point, either.

My point is that what’s as plain as the nose on your face to some people is as incomprehensible as dark matter to others.

I wonder why that is.

Sometimes I think that it’s because of differing backgrounds and experiences. While I do think that can have a lot to do with it, I’m also aware that many people whose backgrounds and experiences are similar to mine have a different sense of the obvious than I do. 

So I don't know why what's obvious to you isn't obvious to me, and vice-versa.

It seems to me that, for those of us to whom the choice is obvious, regardless of which option is obvious to us, the die is cast.

We’re going to vote for Hillary.

You’re going to vote for Trump.

That’s just the way it is. We may as well stop yelling at each other. We’re not going to change your minds, and you’re not going to change ours.

We can better use our time and energy trying to figure out how we’re going to proceed after the inauguration next January, because no matter who gets elected, she or he is going to preside over a badly divided nation in a horribly conflicted world.

We're going to have to find a way to work together, or we've had it.

Obviously .

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I Used to Be Mike Ruffin

I was speaking at a family member’s funeral a while back. The service took place at a church that many of my family members and friends either attend or have attended. Many of them were present.

When I stood to speak, I said, “Good afternoon. I used to be Mike Ruffin.”

And all the people laughed.

But I’ve come to realize how accurate a statement that is, especially from the perspective of the people who knew me way back when.

I was born and raised in Barnesville, Georgia, a small town more or less halfway between Macon and Atlanta. I attended Gordon Grammar School. I graduated from Lamar County High School. I worshiped with the folks at Midway Baptist Church. I played on the Barnesville Little League Mets. I worked at Burnette’s Thriftown grocery store. After I decided to become a minister, I preached at a good many churches in the greater metropolitan Barnesville area.

And then I left. I went away with the blessings of my family, my community, and my church to pursue an education in preparation for a career in the ministry. My family and friends were proud of their preacher boy.

I guess some of them still are.

I moved back to my home territory last year after four decades away. 

Things happened over those forty years, and because those things happened, I’m not the same Mike Ruffin I was way back then. That surprises and bothers some people. But how sad would it be had I done all of this living and not changed?

What happened?

Education happened. College and seminary introduced me to books, thinkers, and ideas that challenged my thinking and shifted my worldview. My educational journey fertilized my existing love for books and learning. One of the best things my schools did for me was to turn me into a lifelong learner with knowledge of where to find what I needed and wanted to learn.

Experience happened. Through forty years of being involved in people’s lives, I learned that simple answers, neat categories, rigid systems, and arrogant pontification aren’t helpful. I also learned that presence, acceptance, understanding, humility, and empathy are invaluable. I learned that being human means being breakable and vulnerable, and so kindness and compassion should be cultivated.

Faith happened. The faith I had borrowed from my parents, my church, my region, and my tradition gave way to my faith. Years of struggling to believe have led me to the place where I now stand: all I can do is try to follow Jesus. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like I think my way of looking at things is better than some other folks’ ways. I really don’t want to sound like that. But my experience with Jesus has led me to believe that I must view people and situations through the lens of grace, love, and mercy. To feel, think, talk, and live any other way is to deny my faith.

That’s what life has taught me. That’s what I know. But life has also taught me that there is so much I don’t know. For me, faith and humility must live together.

I used to be Mike Ruffin.

I still am Mike Ruffin.

But I’m a different Mike Ruffin than I used to be.

What happened to the preacher boy they knew four decades ago?

By the grace of God, the boy became a man.

By the grace of God, the preacher became a human being …

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Living Parables

Last Sunday, I was preaching about Jesus again. I seem to be stuck on that subject.

Anyway, the text was Matthew 13:1-23. In the first few verses, Jesus tells a crowd what is usually called the parable of the sower (although a better name is the parable of the soils). He just tells the story and leaves it hanging there. He offers no explanation or interpretation.

It’s easy to imagine the people asking each other what that was all about.

When Jesus and his disciples are alone, they ask him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” They wonder why Jesus doesn’t come right out and say what he means instead of telling stories that people have to figure out for themselves. Jesus answers. “The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”

I think Jesus understood that if you offer propositions and arguments to people who are predisposed to reject what you’re saying, they’ll just say “No” and be done with it (and you), but if you tell them an intriguing but puzzling story, they’ll become—and perhaps remain—engaged with it (and you).

As I was preaching, a thought leapt into my mind: perhaps Christians would do well to think of our lives as parables. 

Jesus told compelling and confounding stories. His parables caused his listeners to consider counterintuitive and countercultural possibilities. His stories, like all good stories, drew his hearers in and, once they were in, held them there.

It’s easy to imagine the people who heard Jesus’ parables continuing to think and talk about them for a long time.

What would it mean for our lives to be parables? How could our lives affect people so that they become and remain engaged with the possibilities that our ways of life present?

Our lives are parables when they involve ways of living that confuse and confound people. They are parables when they make people wonder and ponder. They are parables when they demonstrate the ways of Christ in a world that seems to want none of them.

We Christians offer our best witness to the crowds when we demonstrate radical love, radical grace, radical understanding, radical generosity, and radical forgiveness.

They’ll wonder what that’s all about. They’ll wonder why we’re so weird.

They’ll think. They’ll ponder.

They may come around to Jesus. They may not.

But they’re more likely to eventually respond to the witness of a living parable than they are to a “Christian witness” that comes down to self-righteous judgmentalism.

So let’s be Jesus’ parables. Let’s be the story of God’s love, grace, and mercy . . .