Thursday, December 1, 2016

When a Miracle Needs a Hand

When I was a boy, I considered CBS’s broadcast of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer to be the official kickoff of the Christmas season. I loved watching it, emotional roller coaster though it was. 

Tears filled my eyes when Rudolph’s fake nose, which his father, Donner—who was a disgrace to fatherhood—forced him to wear, came off and the other reindeer kids laughed at his shiny sniffer. Righteous indignation stirred my spirit when Comet—who was a disgrace to the coaching profession— announced that Rudolph, just because he was different, wouldn’t be allowed to join in any reindeer games. Hope washed over bucktoothed, near-sighted, scrawny me when Clarice said she thought Rudolph had a handsome nose. 

And don’t get me started on the resurrection of Yukon Cornelius or on Santa having to ask Rudolph to save Christmas—speaking of which, Rudy is a much-needed model of how to be a gracious winner. 

But I don’t want to talk about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I want to talk about ’Twas the Night before Christmas—not the poem, but the 1974 Rankin-Bass cartoon. 

That Christmas classic, set in the town of Junctionville, New York, tells the tale of a brilliant young mouse named Albert who, by writing an anonymous letter to the local paper saying that everyone knows there’s no Santa Claus, causes the jolly old elf to mark the town off his Christmas Eve itinerary. The townspeople are naturally desperate to get Santa to change his mind. The town’s clockmaker, Joshua Trundle, to whom Albert’s father (Father Mouse, naturally) serves as a mouse assistant—because of course he does—comes up with a plan to build a clock that will play a special song for Santa so that, when he flies by and hears it, he’ll know the town has repented and will bring the gifts.

But Albert—remember Albert?—curious to see how the clock works, ends up breaking it. All seems lost. Albert sets himself to repairing the clock. At this point, Albert sings a song to his father. It goes like this:

Miracles happen most ev'ry day
To people like you and me,
But don't expect a miracle
Unless you help make it to be, so...

You hope and I'll hurry,
You pray and I'll plan
We'll do what's necessary 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand

You love and I'll labor,
You sit and I'll stand
Get help from our next-door neighbor 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand

We'll help our Maker to make our dreams come true,
But I can't do it alone, so here's what we're gonna do

You hope and I'll hurry,
You pray and I'll plan
We'll do what's necessary 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand

We'll help our Maker to make our dreams come true,
But we can't do it alone, so what are we gonna do?

You wish and I'll whittle
You drip while I dry
Let's all try to help a little 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand.

Even a miracle needs a hand.

I thought about those words during the recent presidential election, during which I felt compelled to speak out against one of the candidates. Some of my Christian friends, concerned for me because of the amount of concern I was exhibiting about the election, reminded me that, no matter what happened, God would still be on God’s throne. 

I certainly affirm that. Remembering it provides proper perspective. We have to have faith.

But on the other hand, as the Bible says, God helps those who help themselves (Hezekiah 3:2). 

Okay, that’s not in the Bible, but there’s still some truth to it. Biblically speaking, there’s more truth to the statement, “God helps those who can’t help themselves.” Often, when there’s nothing else we can do, we find God doing something. It’s called grace.

Still, God does choose to work through people. God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, but God used Moses to do it. The Son of God came into the world, but he came through Mary. God saved me, but God worked through the good people of the Midway Baptist Church to move me in that direction.

Is it saying too much to say that God needs us? Maybe. I’m not sure. But I am sure that God chooses to work with and through us to accomplish God’s will and to fulfill God’s purposes.

Sometimes, even a miracle needs a hand.

Sometimes, our cooperation and participation amount to a miracle.

I was pastor of a small rural church in Kentucky during my seminary years. One Sunday, after I preached on John’s version of the story about Jesus feeding the multitude (John 6:1-14)—that’s the version that has the boy share his five loaves and two fish—a church member said, “Do you know what one of our former pastors said about that story?” Now, that church had used seminary students as pastors for decades, so they had been subjected to all sorts of experiments. “What did he say?” I asked. “He said he believed that what happened was that when that boy shared his lunch, it inspired lots of other people in the crowd to share theirs, and that’s how Jesus fed everybody in the crowd.”

Now, that’s not what the story says. But I kind of wish it was.

I mean, getting people to share freely with those who are in need? That’d be a bigger miracle than the one Jesus pulled off.

So, when we ask God to help the poor, the hungry, the outcast, the marginalized, and the vulnerable—and we do, don’t we?—we need to listen for what God wants us to do.

After all, sometimes, even a miracle needs a hand. Or maybe even many hands …

Monday, November 28, 2016

No One Wants to Know

I like to cite the great prophets, among whom Kris Kristofferson is included.

Lately—I think out of desperation—I’ve been drawn back to his song “To Beat the Devil.” 

It tells of a down-on-his-luck Nashville troubadour who, thirsty for whiskey and hungry for beans, carries his guitar into a Music Row tavern, where he encounters an old man sitting at the bar. After observing that the singer has chosen a tough life, the old guy sings him a song:

If you waste your time a talking 
to the people who don't listen
to the things that you are saying
who do you think’s gonna hear?
And if you should die explaining how
the things that they complain about
are things they could be changing
who do you think’s gonna care?
There were other lonely singers
in a world turned deaf and blind
who were crucified for what they tried to show.
And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time
‘cause the truth remains that no one wants to know.

One might say that the old man’s words were less than encouraging. Is it really true that no one wants to know? I sometimes wonder.

I’ve been privileged to study, teach, preach, write about, and try to follow the ways of Jesus Christ for a long time. Sometimes I get discouraged, because it seems that no one wants to know. It’s not surprising that non-Christians don’t want to know, but it’s downright shocking that so many Christians seem not to want to know. 

Maybe it’s because the world has had more influence on us than we’ve had on the world. Maybe it’s because we’re more committed to capitalism than we are to Christianity. Maybe it’s because we put more stock in what the talking heads or Internet “news” sites say than we do in what Jesus says. Maybe it’s because we judge Jesus’ way to be too hard. Maybe it’s because we’ve heard so much non-Christian stuff presented under the “Christian” banner that we don’t recognize the real thing when we hear it.

What’s one to do? Let’s start by going back to Kristofferson’s song.

At the end of “To Beat the Devil,” the troubadour takes the words of the old man, whom he has labeled “the devil,” and turns them upside down:

And you still can hear me singing
to the people who don't listen
to the things that I am saying
praying someone's gonna hear.
And I guess I'll die explaining how
the things that they complain about
are things they could be changing
hoping someone's gonna care.
I was born a lonely singer
and I'm bound to die the same
but I've gotta feed the hunger in my soul.
And if I never have a nickel
I won't ever die ashamed
‘cause I don't believe that no one wants to know.

Amen, Brother Kris. I don’t believe it, either.

You kept on singing.

I reckon I—and many more like me—will keep on talking …

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Blocking Shelves

My first job was at Burnette’s Thriftown grocery store, which was located on the outskirts of my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, in a building that now houses a Dollar General. I worked there, sacking groceries and stocking shelves, from the time I turned fourteen in 1972 until I left for college in 1975. If you’re a little older than I am, and if you lived in Lamar County back then, I probably took your groceries to your car for you.

If you tipped me, thank you. If you didn’t, I forgive you. I’ll forgive you more if you make up for it by sending a check.

When things were slow at the store, one of the things we’d do was block the shelves. We’d pull cans, jars, and boxes to the front and arrange them so that it appeared that the section was fully stocked. It gave the aisles a neat and appealing appearance, no doubt enhancing our customers’ shopping experience.

(As an aside, I’d like to say you haven’t lived until you’ve blocked the shelves on the baby food aisle. All those little jars …)

My current job—and I hope my last one—is at Smyth & Helwys Publishing, where I work as an editor. Most days, I edit. That means I sit in front of a computer, reading and editing (and sometimes rewriting) what writers have submitted.

They do let me out a few times a year, though. We exhibit our products at various meetings, and someone has to be there to talk about and sell our books. Sometimes, I’m one of the ones that get to go.

When we have no customers, we straighten the book stacks. That’s right—forty years, three degrees, and tons of experience after I left Thriftown, and I’m blocking shelves again.

Do you know who messed up the products on our shelves? Do you know who messes up the books on our tables?

People, that’s who!

People came along and took cans, jars, boxes, and bags off the Thriftown shelves and fouled up our beautiful arrangements. People come along and take books off our Smyth & Helwys tables and misalign our carefully aligned stacks.

Don’t even get me started on the people who pick something up, decide not to buy it, and then put it back someplace other than where they found it.

Monsters! Barbarians!

Anyway, in life, as in shelves, everything is nice, orderly, and pretty—until people come along.

And, as the late, great Mr. C. E. Julian never tired of reminding us in our high school history classes, “It’s been that way ever since Adam and Eve came out of the garden.”
Actually, now that I think about it, those two messed the garden up while they were still in it.

When it comes to life, I’ve given up on keeping the shelves straight. I mean, I still try to keep things together and to do what I can to contribute to an orderly world, but I’ve accepted the fact that life is about being with, knowing, and loving people.

And people, God love ‘em, make messes. Sometimes they make big messes.

But you know, Thriftown’s purpose wasn’t to have pristine shelves; it was to sell groceries. And Smyth & Helwys’s purpose isn’t to have orderly stacks; it’s to sell books.

The goal wasn’t and isn’t to build a monument; it was and is to run a business. In a business, stuff comes and stuff goes. And without people—glorious, messy, confounding, irritating, marvelous, interesting people—nothing happens, and it all goes away.

So, whether it’s in our businesses, our faith communities, or our nation, if we value blocking shelves over serving people, we’re done for …

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Institutions of Fall

There was a time when I really looked forward to the World Series.

I’ve been a Braves fan ever since they moved to Atlanta in 1966. From that year until 1990, my team never played in the Series. Oh, they won their division a couple of times and so had a shot, but they never made it. It was all right; I didn’t expect them to win the National League championship and earn a spot in the Fall Classic, so I was never disappointed.

Besides, I was a baseball fan. I watched the World Series because it was baseball’s pinnacle. Great baseball was always played; high drama was always provided. I loved baseball, so I loved the World Series.

Then something strange and wonderful happened. The Braves started winning. They started winning big. They started winning every year. Beginning with their worst-to-first season in 1991, they won fourteen consecutive division titles. They played in the World Series five times, winning it in 1995.

And I became spoiled. I found out what it was like to have MY team play in the World Series. I experienced the exhilaration and heartbreak that come from feeling like everything in the universe is riding on every pitch. When the Braves didn’t make it, the experience wasn’t the same. It wasn’t as exciting or as fulfilling.

Lately, there have been some years that I’ve hardly watched the World Series at all.

I’m watching this year. It’s a historic Series; either the Cubs will win their first one since 1908 or the Indians will win their first since 1948. I’m pulling for the Cubs, mainly because our daughter-in-law Michelle and her family, who live in Madison, Wisconsin, are long-time Cubs fans. Plus, I’m tired of hearing about that Billy goat curse (look it up).

I’d be more excited if the Braves were in it. But hey, it’s baseball. It’s the World Series. I’m a baseball fan. I need to participate. It’d be wrong not to.

That brings me to the November 8 election.

Maybe you have a candidate you’re really excited about. Maybe you can’t wait (or couldn’t wait, if you voted early), to vote for your gal or guy. Maybe you’ve waited all your life to be able to vote for the person you’re voting for this year.

Or maybe not.

But hey, it’s an election. It’s important. Our participation is vital to our democracy and to our way of life.

So vote.

And be very, very glad, that of these two great fall institutions, the World Series is the one that happens every year.

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 …