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)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I Want to Understand

I want to understand people. I want to understand why people—all people—are who they are, why they think the way they think, why they believe what they believe, why they say what they say, and why they do what they do. What would such understanding require?

It would require that I be Muslim.
It would require that I be an immigrant.
It would require that I be a woman.
It would require that I be poor.
It would require that I be black.
It would require that I be Russian.
It would require that I be Jewish.
It would require that I be unemployed.
It would require that I be a high school dropout.
It would require that I be a factory worker.
It would require that I be an inner city resident.

I’m not any of those things. I’m a Christian, native-born, male, middle-class, white, American, educated, employed, white-collar worker who lives in the rural South. And I’m happy to be what I am. I don’t want to give those things up.

But if I am really to understand all people, it would require that I be everything I’m not, in addition to what I am.

And if I really want to understand everybody, I guess it would even require that I be a bigoted, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, jingoistic science-denier—you know, things I really, really, really don’t want to be.

I really do want to understand people. I want to understand them fully, completely, and totally. I want to understand them comprehensively.

When I started thinking about this, I thought about saying it would be helpful to be a Muslim for a day, an immigrant for a day, and so forth. But that wouldn’t go far enough. You know the old saying, “Walk a mile in my shoes”? A mile-long walk isn’t an adequate experience. I’d have to live someone’s entire life, have their entire background, and their entire experience if I’m really going to understand them.

And I couldn’t do it by groups or by categories. I’d have to do it person-by-person. I’d have to share the experience of every individual in the world. After all, every person’s experience is different. For example, there are different branches of Islam, one could be born a Muslim in a large number of differing contexts, and it matters what family you’re part of. And there are all sorts of genetic, developmental, cultural, and social factors that could influence you. Each Muslim, like each Christian or Buddhist or atheist, is different from each other one.

Everybody’s unique. So to truly understand humanity in its totality, I’d have to have the life experiences of every person in the world. Since there are about 7.4 billion people in the world, it would be hard to do. And since there are around 250 births per minute world-wide (or about 360,000 per day), it would also be pretty hard to keep up.

See, here’s the thing: experience produces perspectives and assumptions. Because of who I am, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, what I’ve studied, and who has influenced me, I have certain ways of looking at and thinking about things. Because of who I am, I tend to respond in particular ways to situations, issues, and people.

I wish I could have everybody else’s experiences, perspectives, and assumptions. But I can’t, so I will go through life being very limited in my ability to really understand other people. So what can I do?

I can do the next best things: I can learn all I can about what makes other people who they are. I can refuse to dismiss other people’s experience. I can study history. I can read literature from other cultures. I can view films made from other points of view. And I can get to know people other than those who share most of my defining characteristics.

If I can’t have everybody else’s experiences and see things from their point of view, at least I can try to move beyond my default setting that prompts me to value my experiences and perspectives above all others.

Our world, our nation, and our communities would be much better off if we’d all at least try …

Thursday, February 23, 2017

L. Q. C. Lamar

It was the late great Mr. C. E. Julian, esteemed teacher of history at Lamar County (GA) High School, who taught me that my home county was named for a man named L. Q. C. Lamar. I don’t think he told us that “L. Q. C.” stood for “Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus”—but it did.

(By the way, he was actually L.Q.C. II—yep, they actually named him after his father, who was already saddled with that name that sounded like a law firm in a gladiator movie. Also by the way, I once asked my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, why he didn’t name me after him. He said, “You must be kidding. Would you really want to go through life being called ‘Little Champ’?”)

I also don’t think Mr. Julian told us that John F. Kennedy devoted a chapter to L. Q. C. Lamar in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage (1955)—but he did.

So who was Lucius (as his friends called him) Lamar?

Well, he was born in Putnam County in 1825 and educated at Emory College, then located in Oxford, Georgia. He married the daughter of Emory’s president. He practiced law and was elected to the Georgia legislature. When his father-in-law became president of the University of Mississippi, Lamar moved his family to Oxford (the one in Mississippi). He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1857, but he resigned in 1860 in order to become a member of Mississippi’s secession convention. He wrote the state’s ordinance of secession. He was one of those leaders who were so enthusiastic about secession they were referred to as “fire-eaters.” He served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate army in the early years of the war and as a diplomat for the Confederacy during its later years.

Lamar again served as a Congressman from Mississippi from 1873 until 1877, when he was elected to the United States Senate. He later served as Secretary of the Interior. He wound up his career of public service as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1888 until his death in 1893.

President Kennedy considered Lamar a “profile in courage” because of his actions as a U.S. Senator. At least three times he acted in ways that were contrary to the clear wishes of his constituents. In those days, it was standard procedure for a state legislature to issue instructions to their national representatives on how they should vote on an issue. On one major issue, Lamar defied the instructions of the Mississippi legislature.

In 1878, while under tremendous pressure from the citizens of his home state, he said,

The liberty of this country and its great interests will never be secure if its public men become mere menials to do the biddings of their constituents instead of being representatives in the true sense of the word, looking to the lasting prosperity and future interests of the whole country.

Imagine—an elected national figure with so much courage and integrity, and with so much devotion to the welfare of the entire nation, that he did what his conscience told him was right, no matter the consequences to his career.

Lamar County should be very proud to carry the name of such a person.

Everybody figured Lamar’s political career was over, since his votes were condemned by almost all of Mississippi’s voters. But a funny thing happened on Lamar’s way to political oblivion. He traveled around the state, explaining why he did what he did. And people were so moved by his integrity and sincerity, they reelected him.

Imagine—voters who are willing to listen to a politician, willing to realize that, even if they don’t agree with him, he has the country’s best interests at heart, and willing to reelect him because of his integrity and courage.

Oh, and I have to say it one more time: imagine a national elected official being more interested in doing what is right and best than in protecting his or her place in office.

I mean, just imagine …

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Name in Vain

The dialogue in lots of good movies and television shows contains profanity. I don’t always mind. In fact, as one who works in words, I can even appreciate the occasional well-placed curse word, especially if it fits the character speaking it and if it helps to communicate true feelings.

I mean, let’s face it: if Rhett Butler had said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot,” the line wouldn’t have gone down in history. And it would have sounded silly.

That being said, I find some scripts insulting. My Good Wife and I recently watched the first episode of an acclaimed new series on a popular streaming service. I doubt we’ll watch any more episodes. They should have called the show “F Troop,” because I think the “F word” occurred more than “the,” “a,” and “is” combined. Very few sentences omitted it, and sometimes a character would use it three or four times in one line. 

It was ridiculous and distracting. It sounded silly. And stupid.

Maybe some of you talk like that. If so, my advice is to undertake a program of radical vocabulary enhancement.

But as bad as that word is—“the mother of all curse words,” as adult Ralphie the narrator says in A Christmas Story—it’s not the profane term that bothers me most to hear an actress or actor utter. I’m most bothered when someone uses the Lord’s name in a curse, which is what we usually think of when we hear the phrase “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

It’s one of the Big 10: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). To take the Lord’s name “in vain” is to treat it as if it is empty or meaningless, so there are ways to do it besides using it in a curse. For example, a professor friend of mine would tell his students that if they asked God to help them on a test they didn’t study for, they were taking the Lord’s name in vain, since they were basically treating the Lord as a rabbit’s foot or a four-leaf clover.

Then there’s praying, speaking, or acting “in Jesus’ name.” 

In the Bible, someone’s name summarized his or her character. So to speak, pray, or act in Jesus’ name is to do so in ways that reflect who Jesus is, what he said, and what he did. If you pray for vengeance on your enemies in the name of the One who said, “Love your enemies,” and who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain. If you, in the name of the One who said that those who will enter the kingdom are the ones who visit the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25) harbor attitudes, speak words, undertake actions, and support policies that hurt the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the stranger, you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC. Around 609, or about two decades before the Babylonians overran Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, the Lord told him to go the temple in Jerusalem and preach a sermon. Here’s some of what he said:

Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.

Jeremiah said that the people could go to the temple and call on the Lord all they wanted to, but they needed to understand that truly to speak and act in God’s name meant to “truly act justly with one another” and not to “oppress the alien, the orphan, the widow.” We all know what an “orphan” and a “widow” are. Do we know what an “alien” is?

An “alien” is an immigrant.

So when we hear our leaders invoke the name of the Lord, we might do well to consider that they might be taking that name in vain, and that if we invoke the name of the Lord in supporting them, we might be, too.

After all, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

As for what the Father’s will is—well, see above on widows and orphans.

And aliens …