Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Three Weddings (and Some Funerals)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still—our children have had weddings!

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

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

I am happy.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

And It Stoned Me

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

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

Things get in the way, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nit-Picking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fear Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

According to the Brady Campaign,

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Brothers and Sisters

One of the first quality records (if not the first one) I purchased was Brothers and Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band which was released in August of 1973, a month before I turned fifteen. I bought it because I loved the single “Ramblin’ Man” but I quickly became enamored of the entire album. “Wasted Words.” “Jelly Jelly.” “Southbound.” “Pony Boy.” “Jessica.” “Come and Go Blues.” What’s not to love?

I also quickly became captivated by the picture on the inside of the album cover. (As an aside, let me say that we really lost something when with the advent of the 8-track tape, the cassette, the compact disc, and digital music we lost the great artwork and photography that came with a vinyl record album.) When you opened up the album cover, spread before you was a photograph of the band members with their extended family—wives, girlfriends, children, crew members, and a couple of dogs. They were all sitting or standing on the porch of the house at the Allman Brothers’ farm in Juliette, Georgia, which wasn’t far from my hometown of Barnesville, although, as I have whined about elsewhere, I never went there.

I confess to having had some adolescent wonderings about what it would be like to be part of such a collective. What I didn’t know then but know very well now is that a couple of very significant individuals were missing from that picture. Duane Allman, one of the two brothers whose name the band wore, had been killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon in 1971. Bass player Berry Oakley had died under eerily similar circumstances in 1972. Brothers and Sisters was the first complete album the Allmans had made since Duane’s death (some of 1972’s Eat a Peach had been recorded before Duane died) and Oakley played on just the first three tracks of the new album before he died.

When I look at that photograph now, I am reminded of what happens in and to families (while in no way asserting that the Allman Brothers Band family was “typical”). People live; people die. People come; people go. When they go, they leave a space that cannot be filled while also creating a space where others can come and grow and develop. All of life is about change and about adapting to change; it is about mourning our losses while celebrating life and moving with hope and trust into the future.

Duane was the heart and soul of the Allman Brothers Band; there is no way they should have survived without him. And yet here in 2014, forty-five years after they started, the band is still going; they will play the last concerts of what has been billed as their final tour next month at the Beacon Theatre (where they have played, amazingly, around 300 shows in their career) in New York City. The band has been through a lot, much of it admittedly self-inflicted, but they have hung in there. Not all the relationships survived; I doubt that, except for Chuck and Rose Lane Leavell (who have been married for 41 years), any of the couples pictured in that photograph are still together and some band members have departed while others have been added. But they are still the Allman Brothers Band.

I’m writing these words on the eve of my 56th birthday; during this life I’ve had a lot of people come and go but the only sibling I ever had—the brother I almost had—died before I met him and when I was too young to know that he had even existed. Right now my Good Wife, who was blessed with three older brothers (one of whom died a few years ago) and two older sisters, is with her family in Dothan, Alabama where her oldest sister is hospitalized with a serious illness. Having no personal experience with sibling relationships, I am grateful for the ways in which they love and relate to one another. In recent weeks I have participated in the funerals of two of my childhood friends. On the other hand, a month from now we will be celebrating our only daughter’s marriage. People go; people come. People leave; people stay. People cry; people laugh. People mourn; people celebrate. It is the way of the world.

We are most blessed, I think, by those who, given the choice, hang in there with us for the long haul and we are most a blessing to those with whom we hang in there for the long haul. That’s the case whether we are talking about our family, about our family of friends, about our community family, or about our family of faith.

Gregg Allman has a song in which he affirms, “I’m no angel.” He sure isn’t (I’ve read his book). But neither are you. Neither am I.

But when you’ve fought and tried and failed and succeeded and won and lost and helped and hurt and struggled and survived and the smoke clears and the blood dries and you pull yourself up to take a look around, those who are still there with you are your true brothers and sisters.

Even if you only see one or two, be grateful. Be very grateful …

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stop Making Sense

When I was a child, little made sense to me.

I did not understand the purpose of life. I did not understand the meaning of my life. I did not understand the power and fragility of intimacy. I did not understand the value of vocation. I did not understand the cruelty of disease. I did not understand the experience of death. I did not understand the varieties of cultures. I did not understand the uniqueness of individuals. I did not understand hate and cruelty. I did not understand love and compassion. I did not understand God.

Sometimes I would ask a grown-up person to explain something to me and those I asked generally obliged. Their explanations made no sense to me but they seemed to make sense to them.

I looked forward to becoming an adult so I could understand and so I could explain things to children who did not understand.

As I grew, things seemed to start making more sense to me. I began to figure out how life went and how things worked. I set about diligently constructing systems that helped me to organize my reality. I determined what belonged where and put everything in its place. Before I knew it I had it all figured out.

I was grown. I understood. And it was good.

I’m not sure how many days that situation lasted but it wasn’t many. What happened? Life happened. I had to live a real life in the real world confronted with real people and with real problems. I had to live in a world in which chaos existed alongside order, suffering existed alongside ecstasy, provision existed alongside neglect, plenty existed alongside poverty, and hope existed alongside despair.

As I have grown older (I’ll soon turn 56) and as I have hopefully grown more mature, I have come more and more to understand that life doesn’t make sense and that it is childish to think that it ever will. I have arrived at the provisional conclusion that it isn’t supposed to make sense and that to insist that it should and to try to make it do so is to be childish in my approach to life and to rob myself of much of the wonder and joy that life in fact (as opposed to in fantasy) offers.

Our systems bracket out too much of the reality of life. Our conclusions close us off from the wide range of possibilities. Our security shields us from the thrill of risk-taking. Our tunnel vision blinds us to the wonders lurking in the periphery. Our compartments inhibit the free flow of experience and understanding. Our categories fuel our prejudices and inhibit our acceptance of other people.

When I was a child, I looked forward to things making sense.

Now that I am an adult, I accept that things don’t make sense.

What does God have to do with this? Only everything. While I have stopped expecting things to make sense to me, I assume that they make sense to God. God can be certain and maintain God’s integrity; I can only maintain my integrity by affirming my uncertainty. But that’s all right because I am meant to live life with faith, not with certainty.

So I have abandoned my childish dream of having life make sense and have adopted a new, more adult goal of living gratefully, faithfully, hopefully, boldly, and even a little recklessly this life that does not make sense precisely because it is not meant to do so.

Thanks be to God!

Now bring it on …