Friday, March 30, 2007

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

Debra was pregnant with our second child when we moved from Louisville, Kentucky, where I had been attending seminary, to Adel, Georgia, where I was to serve as pastor of the First Baptist Church. That was in late September of 1986. We moved into the church’s parsonage at 300 Bear Creek Road. I remember one of the ladies of the church saying that it would be good to have little feet running around the pastor’s home again; it had been awhile since that was the case.

Sometime after Christmas we got busy turning the front corner bedroom into a nursery. Because of the baby’s prenatal positioning, the ultrasounds were never able to detect its gender; therefore, we painted the nursery yellow. Dr. Woodward ordered several ultrasounds because the birth was going to be by C-section and he wanted to pinpoint the due date as closely as possible. It turned out to be April Fool’s Day. We scheduled the delivery for Monday, March 30, 2007.

My Aunt Dot Abbott came down from Barnesville to stay with us while Debra would be in the hospital; we wanted someone there who could keep Joshua, who had just turned three, in his routine. We had a youth event that was led by a group of students from Mercer University at the church that weekend. Debra attended every event. On Sunday afternoon I drove her to the South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta; this was in a primitive time when insurance companies would pay for the expectant mother to spend the night before the birth in the hospital. I was to be back at the hospital at 6:00 a.m. on Monday; I must have awakened a dozen times that night because of my fear that I would sleep through the alarm. I made it on time.

When our son had been born in Louisville, Debra was taken into the delivery room and the incision was made for the C-section before a nurse came to get me. I thought it would be like that in Valdosta. I was wrong. The nurse did come to get me, but as I approached Debra, Dr. Woodward said, “OK, let’s get started,” and he had a scalpel in his hand. I stared lovingly into my wife’s face.

The baby was delivered feet first and bottom side up. They had a little difficulty getting the baby’s head, which was the last part of its body to emerge, out. I got a little concerned. So I was very happy and relieved when success was achieved and the baby was handed to Dr. Anderson, our pediatrician, who was there for the delivery. Debra said, “What is it?” and I replied, “I don’t know.” Once I saw it had a head I wasn’t interested in any other anatomical features. The nurse said, “It’s a girl.” I’m sure Debra heard, but I repeated it nonetheless: “It’s a girl.”

She was and is beautiful. We named her Sara Katherine, after her grandmothers.

Later I visited her in the nursery. She was crying. I picked her up and repeated her name over and over: “Sara, Sara, Sara.” She stopped crying and looked at me with that look that daughters give daddies, the one that warms and breaks our hearts for as long as we live.

I needed to celebrate, so I went to Lucy Ho’s Chinese restaurant for lunch.

And that’s how the Princess of our lives, Sara Katherine Ruffin, came into this world, twenty years ago today.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Living the Forgiven Life: Celebrate the Renewal

(A Lenten devotion based on Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45)

We have been thinking during Lent about what it means to live the forgiven life. The question has been this: how should we live our lives in light of the fact that we have experienced the saving grace of God that he has made available to us in his Son Jesus Christ? After all, if we have entered into a personal relationship with God, if he is present in our lives, if we have been forgiven by him, then things should be different than they would otherwise be, shouldn’t they? Along the way we have said that as forgiven people we should tell the truth about our great sin and about God’s greater grace, that we should trust in the Lord, that we should engage in the struggle of life because in it we become sure of the love of God, and that we should embrace the transformation that has occurred in us by making the intentional commitment to live as disciples of Christ. Here on this last Thursday before Holy Week I want to put before you another vital way that we live the forgiven life: we celebrate the renewal that God has brought about in our lives and that he will bring about in our lives.

The basic affirmation of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ was the Messiah who died on the cross for our sins and who rose from the dead on the third day. Easter, which is now only ten days away, is our primary celebration of that event, but we really celebrate it every Sunday when we gather on the Lord’s Day, the day of his resurrection, to worship him. Resurrection faith means that we trust that we will share in the benefits of his resurrection by experiencing our own resurrection one day. We live our lives in light of that resurrection, always being drawn toward it and always being empowered by it.

Another aspect of resurrection faith is that we experience a renewal of our lives right here and right now. As Paul put it,
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you….(I)f Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Romans 8:9a, 10-11)
If you belong to Christ the Spirit of God through whom Jesus was raised from the dead dwells in you and brings new life to you right here and right now. Now there is cause for celebration!

And renewal is what we need. Sometimes we need community renewal. Such was the case with the people whom the prophet Ezekiel addressed in the sixth century BCE. Many of the people of Judah had been carried into exile to Babylon by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar in the three deportations of 597, 587, and 582. Jerusalem had been destroyed and the people had been ripped away from their homeland and from all the institutions that gave their lives meaning. It was in that context that Ezekiel had his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. In the vision Ezekiel was transported to a valley that was full of bodies that were completely and seemingly irrevocably dead. They were “very dry” (37:2). Into that seemingly hopeless situation broke the Word of God; Ezekiel was told to preach to those dry bones. When Ezekiel preached to those bones they came together and then the sinews and flesh and skin came on them. Then when Ezekiel did some more preaching the breath of God came into them and “they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (v. 10).

This passage is about the resurrection and renewal of a community of faith. Israel had been killed for all intents and purposes; they had been cut off from everything that mattered to them. But God intervened. God acted through his Word and through his Spirit to bring life where there was none and to bring meaning where it had been lost. God was going to open their graves and send them back to their promised land. What would be the result when he did that? God said, “You shall know that I am the LORD” and he said, “Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act” (v. 14). God would bring the renewal to the life of the community that it needed. We can celebrate the renewals, the great infusions of life and purpose and meaning, that we have known as a church in the past. We know what God has done. We celebrate what God has done.

Sometimes we need individual renewal. Lazarus is our brother here. Lazarus got sick and died. Death is the final threat and the great enemy from a purely human point of view. We Christians celebrate the truth that in the resurrection of Christ death has been defeated. Let’s make it particular: I celebrate the fact that my death has been defeated and I need fear it no more. But you know, we die all kinds of little deaths all along the way as we live. We experience all kinds of things that threaten to take so much of the meaning from our lives that it can feel like we’re dying. It can happen when someone we love is sick. It can happen when someone we love dies. It can happen when we are sick. It can happen when a job is lost. It can happen when we have serious family problems. It can happen when we experience emotional or mental struggles. It can happen when we lose focus and purpose in our lives. It can happen when someone we trusted lets us down.

If Jesus can bring Lazarus back from the dead and if Christ is raised from the dead and if Christ will cause us to be resurrected, then how much more can we hear the words of Jesus in our lives when we feel like we are dying: “Come forth!”; “Be unbound, and be turned loose!”? Such renewal doesn’t mean that all our problems will go away. Lazarus still had to live in this world. As we think about living resurrected and renewed lives I think that we need to think in terms not of rising above our lives but rather of rising within our lives. But what a blessing such living is!

We need to remember that only God can give us the renewal that is worth celebrating. We celebrate the new life that we have only because we have it in Christ. And while there are things we do to participate in what God wants to do in our church and in our individual lives, we dare not forget that what really matters can only happen through the power of God’s grace, God’s love, God’s Word, and God’s Spirit. So let us celebrate what God has done. But let us also celebrate what God is going to do!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Josh Ruffin Writes About Josh Kelley...and a Pond

Josh Ruffin has two articles in this week's print edition of Metro Spirit; you can also read them online. Go to His article "On Bowen Pond" is on the home page. Click on "Music" and look under "Music Features" for "Working Songsmith," Josh's interview with Josh Kelley.

My Favorite Old Testament Joke

Little Johnny came home from Sunday School.

His mother asked, “What did you learn about in Sunday School today?”

“We learned about the Exodus from Egypt,” Johnny replied.

“What did the teacher tell you about it?” Johnny’s mother inquired.

“Well,” Johnny said, “she said that Moses led the people out to the sea and they got trapped between the water and the Egyptian army. So, Moses got on his radio and called in the Seabees who built a pontoon bridge. Then the people crossed over on the bridge. But the enemy tried to follow so Moses got back on his radio and called in the air force who bombed the bridge and killed the Egyptians.” Johnny was out of breath.

“Now, Johnny,” his exasperated mother said, “You know good and well that’s not what your teacher told you.”

“No,” Johnny admitted, but if I told you what she told me, there’s no way you’d believe it!"

Just a little reminder about the marvelous audacity of this faith we claim and of this God we serve.

Now, about that resurrection thing that’s going to come up next week….

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Walk On

I don’t know John and Elizabeth Edwards. I’ve never met them and I have no strong opinion about Sen. Edwards’ politics. I do know this: they are human beings and they’ve been dealt a tough hand.

Elizabeth Edwards has suffered a recurrence of breast cancer; her prognosis is that the cancer is “treatable but not curable.” My mother died of breast cancer. As a pastor, I have walked with many women who have experienced that dread disease and I have struggled along with their families. I’m sure that everyone reading this joins me in praying for the Edwards family.

In America, everything that a politician does is controversial to somebody. Last week, the Edwards held a press conference to talk about her health and about his candidacy. They announced that Sen. Edwards would stay in the presidential race. Reaction has, of course, been mixed. Some folks are saying that he is doing the right thing in not letting his wife’s illness stop him from continuing his quest for the White House. Other folks are saying that Sen. Edwards is being selfish, that he should stay home with his wife, and that he is attempting to use her illness for political gain. He of course says that no one should vote for him because his wife has cancer, which I wish could go without saying.

Unfortunately, all too often the comments that people make, in whichever direction they run, are based more on pre-conceived political opinions than on legitimate admiration or true compassion. What do I mean? I mean that it may be that most of the people who are glad he is staying in the race support him or his party anyway while those who are criticizing him were probably already critical of him on other counts. Think of it this way: were the couple in question a conservative Republican candidate and his wife, do we really believe that the same voices would be singing the same tunes? Or am I just being cynical, my capability for which I do not deny?

My wife and I discussed this matter yesterday morning. We agreed that all of this was really the Edwards’ business and not ours, which I guess is really an idealistic position, since if you’re a public figure your business unfortunately becomes everybody else’s business. We also agreed that it made little sense to us for someone to expect Sen. Edwards to cease his campaign because Mrs. Edwards had cancer. In our conversation, I said, “I’m the pastor of a church. Were you to be diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, would anyone expect me to stop pastoring the church and stay home? Being a pastor is what I do. Well, being a politician is what Edwards does. So, should he stop being a politician because of this crisis?” I know that the parallels are very inexact. What he is doing requires him to be away from his wife far, far more than what I do would require me to be away from mine. Still, with all modesty, I think I had a good point, and my wise wife agreed with me.

In his book The Lonely Patient (New York: William Morrow, 2007), Dr. Michael Stein writes about the patient’s experience of recovery from illness.

Bed-bound for too long, the patient inevitably feels condemned, captured, disallowed from participating, and ashamed. Standing is often an ill person’s first act of real recovery, his first act of participation, an experience that is hardly spectacular, since he has done it without thought, perfectly and easily, countless times before in his life. Standing and walking are escapes from the gravitational pull of the woe and resignation that is illness.

In bed, the patient thinks, Is this what I will have to put with for the rest of my life? Walking is the return of doing, of going, of regaining control of the physically possible. It is a metaphorical “getting on with it.” The patient is proceeding—he is “taking the first step.”
(pp. 102-103)

Had the Edwards decided that the best way for them to deal with what they have to deal with was for Sen. Edwards to leave the campaign trail, that would have been perfectly understandable. But I also understand the need to get up, to keep walking, and thereby to maintain some control over the situation.

Sometimes, if you sit down and stop walking, you never get up again.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Everything Old is New Again

(A Lenten sermon based on Isaiah 43:16-21 & John 12:1-8)

We have arrived at the last Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the day on which we will commemorate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Then, we will move through Maundy Thursday, the night on which he was betrayed, through Good Friday, the day on which he was crucified, and finally to the day of all days, Easter Sunday, the day on which he was resurrected. Here toward the end of our Lenten journey toward Holy Week I want us to consider some transitions that may need to take place in our lives. Specifically, I want us to ponder how past experiences need to give way to some new perspectives. I want us to think about how a healthy life of faith moves past the past and learns to live in the present.

Think for a few moments about what has happened to you in the past. Do you value it? Do you regret it? Do you hold on to it? Do you wish you could let go of it? This summer, a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere will be dug up from underneath the lawn of the Tulsa, Oklahoma courthouse. When it was brand-new it was placed in a vault and buried there. Back in 1957 people were given the chance to guess what the population of Tulsa would be in 2007. Those guesses were placed on microfilm which was put in the car. The person whose guess is the closest, or the heirs of that person, will win the car. The question is whether the winner will have a classic car or a pile of rust or something in between. They may uncover a treasure or they may uncover a mess.

For all of us, some of what is in the past is a treasure, some of it is a mess, and lots and maybe most of it is somewhere in between. It is possible to overvalue the positive experiences of the past, even when those experiences were glorious. It is a stunted faith that always looks to the past and wonders why it can’t be like that again. If you’re always looking backwards you can’t see the things that God may be up to now that may be just as great as or even greater than what he did back then. Therefore, we need to be looking for the new thing that God will do.

The Lord spoke through the prophet of the Babylonian Exile whose words are preserved for us in Isaiah 43 and said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old” (v. 18). To what “former things” and “things of old” was he referring? Only the exodus from Egypt! Just a couple of lines earlier he had said, “Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters…” (v. 16). The exodus from Egypt, which had happened some eight centuries before the words of our text were spoken, was the salvation event par excellence for the Hebrew people. It was seen as the mighty act of deliverance by the Lord. Everyone looked to it as the greatest thing that had ever happened. It was that event to which the Lord was referring when he said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” While what God had done back there was very important, what the people needed to be looking for was what he was going to do in their present. What was he going to do? “I am about to do a new thing…. I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (v. 19). He was going to bring about a new exodus, this time taking his people across the desert instead of across the sea. What made that new event more important was that it was for them; it was for the present generation.

Some of us have times in our past that we look upon as the apex of our walk with the Lord. It may be a time when we were very active in the Lord’s work. It may be a time when we were making a home with our spouse and raising our children. It may be a time before the illness struck. You will have to examine your own heart to see if you have such a time in your life. As strange as it may seem to say, you may need to repent of holding too tightly to that time in the past. Once we put such a time on the shelf and start polishing it up and making a shrine of it, we turn it into an idol. The really dangerous part of such an action is shutting ourselves off from the possibilities for the present.

It is a dangerous way of life for a church, too. Granting that God has done some remarkable things in the past of our church, we dare not make an idol of those times. Instead, we need to be looking for what he wants to do now. Now, this does not negate the value of our past experiences. We can be inspired by them. But the crucial thing is to be open to his new mighty acts in our midst. The life of faith is life lived in the present. What does God want to do to us, with us, and through us now? If we’re always looking backward, we can’t see forward—so let’s look forward!

Adequate looking forward requires some depth and sensitivity. In the case of the Jews whom God delivered from Babylonian captivity, their future deliverance did not lead to days of easy victory and obvious fulfillment. Yes, they went home and yes, they reestablished their nation, but the way was hard and they had to struggle through some tough times. But, for those who had eyes to see, God was at work.

We see a similar dynamic at work in Mary of Bethany. It was six days before Passover. Apparently, it had not been too long since Jesus had raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. Not surprisingly, the family was having a dinner for Jesus in their home. At that dinner, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair. As always happens in the aftermath of acts of extreme faith, Mary was criticized for that action. She was criticized by the traitor Judas but you and I know that such criticisms can come from “good” Christians, too. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, in order that she may keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7 NASB). In other words, Jesus was saying that Mary was, in a prophetic kind of way, anointing his body ahead of time for the burial that was to come.

Did she know that she was doing that? We can’t know, of course, but I suspect she did. I have two reasons for saying that. First, John had just told us that some of the Jewish leaders started plotting to kill Jesus from the time of the raising of her brother Lazarus. Word of that could very well have trickled back to the family. Second, in the famous story about Mary, Martha, and Jesus that is told in Luke, Martha is the one busily serving while Mary is the one actively and attentively listening and learning (Luke 10:38-42). Mary seems to me to be the type of disciple who, unlike most of the other disciples, was sensitive enough to who Jesus was and to what he was about to have at least something of a grasp on where his journey was leading him.

Mary could have just basked in the afterglow of what had happened to Lazarus. And no doubt she did celebrate that; such may have been the occasion for the dinner with Jesus. But she still set her eyes on what was yet to come. What was yet to come was even more significant than the raising of Lazarus. That was a great miracle but Lazarus was going to die again one day. What was coming for Jesus was hard and terrible but it would lead to eternal life for Mary and Lazarus and for all others who would believe. That was what she had her gaze set on. It was hard reality but a glorious one.

I want to challenge us to seek to develop the kind of sensitivity and insight that will cause us to know and understand who Jesus really is and what he is really all about. If we will, he will lead us in the ways that we should go. Are we taking the time and expending the effort truly to learn of him? If we will be sensitive to the old, old story and humbly ask God to unleash its power in our present, there is no telling what he will accomplish. Are we looking for what he will do?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

In Memory of Buddy Johnson

(Sabbath Blog #10)

When you marry someone, so they say, you also marry her family.

I’m an only child. I married a girl who is the youngest of six siblings. Debra has two sisters, Jean and June, and three brothers, Buddy, Jimmy, and Clint. They are a good family and they have been faithful and true to each other over the years. I have appreciated and even envied their relationship.

Debra’s oldest brother was Walter Pierce Johnson; he was named after his father’s father and after his mother’s father. But his family members called him “Buddy.” There is a red-haired and freckled gene in Debra’s family that is recessive in her but that comes out in our daughter Sara, especially when she stays out in the sun. That gene was very obvious in Buddy, whether he was in the sun or in the dark.

He was almost sixteen years older than Debra and when I came into the picture he was in the Air Force, which he had joined as a teenager. If memory serves me correctly, he was stationed in England when I met Debra; in later years he was stationed in Turkey and in Spain. In fact, he and his family were living in Spain when we married in 1978; his wife Patsy and he sent Debra a Spanish lace veil for our wedding. His Air Force career and the travels it brought him made him an even more interesting man than he was by nature.

Two conversations that Buddy and I had stand out in my memory. In one he told me that his son Walter Jr. had once asked him if he had ever killed anyone as part of his military service. He said, “I told him ‘No.’ And it was true that I never directly killed anybody. But I know that the bombs that I loaded on planes in Vietnam probably did kill some people.” He had an interesting look in his eye when he told me that, a look that somebody like me who never had to do what he did could never understand.

The Johnson children’s parents, Dick and Kathleen, both died in 1997, Mrs. Johnson in May and Mr. Johnson in October. Some of the men were sitting on the porch in the days after Mr. Johnson died. Buddy said, “Well, there’s one good thing—at least Mama and Daddy didn’t leave us a lot of stuff to fight over.” He laughed even as he spoke that truth. But my in-laws did leave their children the virtues of hard work, honesty, and commitment to family that have stood them in good stead. And I think that in a way, that was what Buddy was saying.

Buddy died last Tuesday, March 20, 2007, in his adopted home of Fort Walton Beach, Florida. He had experienced many health problems over the last few years. He suffered a massive heart attack as he tried to drive himself to the hospital. He would have been sixty-six on April 7. He leaves his wife Patsy, his children Walter Jr. and Doris, and a grandson, Pierce. He also leaves his siblings, among whom is numbered my wife.

She says that one of the things that she will miss the most about Buddy is the way that he hugged. She remembers his hugs as being big, sincere, wrap himself all around you kinds of events. I’ll have to take her word for it; I was just a brother-in-law and never had the pleasure. But I will remember his loyalty, his sincerity, his sense of humor, and especially his love for his baby sister.

May God grant peace to him and to his family.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Things Get Clearer in Clearwater

The Philadelphia Phillies have held their Spring Training in Clearwater, Florida since 1948. For many years they played their spring games at Jack Russell Stadium, which I had the privilege of visiting a few times. It was a great old-time ballpark. The Phillies now play at Bright House Networks Field, which opened in 2004. It is a charming setting for a baseball game. It just feels old-fashioned. A grass berm extends along almost the entire outfield wall, which is covered with advertising. There are lots of palm trees. It is a beautiful facility. The seats offer more leg room than any other stadium we visited this week and each seat has a cup holder, which is a nice convenience, especially for increasingly clumsy middle-aged men such as I.

We went to Clearwater on Friday to watch the Braves play the Phillies. Kyle Davies started for the Braves. The conventional wisdom is that he is slated to be the #1 starter for the Richmond Braves, the team’s AAA affiliate, although apparently that decision has not been made. The conventional wisdom also says that Lance Cormier has outpitched him for the fifth spot in the Atlanta rotation and that the Braves would not have signed veteran left-hander Mark Redman had they not intended to use him in Mike Hampton’s spot. Hampton, incidentally, is reportedly recovering quickly from his strained oblique and may be back earlier than expected. Very soon, if all goes according to plan, the Braves will have seven starting pitchers any one of whom most teams would be glad to take. That’s a nice luxury. Davies pitched well yesterday. He went six innings and gave up one run on three hits to lower his spring ERA to 1.93. He walked one and struck out four.

Mike Gonzalez pitched a scoreless seventh. Chad Paronto gave up a three-run homer in the ninth to Greg Dobbs after the Braves had two defensive miscues that put two runners on base: left fielder Doug Clark and center fielder Willie Harris had one of those “I’ve got it, you take it” moments and let a fly ball fall between them while third baseman Yunel Escobar misplayed a hard grounder. An error was charged on neither play. Left-handed pitcher Steve Colyer struck out the side in the eighth.

The offensive highlight came from Brayan Pena, the young catcher who is slated to be Brian McCann’s back-up. He hit a pinch-hit two-run homer.

My one regret for the day was that I bought two hot dogs at a concession stand and only later saw that they were selling Italian sausage at another stand. The hot dogs were good, though. And now an important note about condiments. They do it right at Bright House Networks Field. They have a condiment station from which you can spoon all the pickles, relish, and sauerkraut you want onto your hot dog. Most places now have condiments in those little packets. Do you have any idea how long it takes to open enough packets of relish to cover a foot-long hot dog? Too long. The “dip your condiments from a container” method is much better.

Based on what I saw, heard, and read this week while on our Spring Training pilgrimage, I think I can accurately predict what the Braves 25-man roster will look like, barring injuries or trades.

Pitching staff:

John Smoltz
Tim Hudson
Chuck James
Mark Redman
Lance Cormier
Bob Wickman
Mike Gonzalez
Rafael Soriano
Macay McBride
Chad Paronto
Tyler Yates
Oscar Villarreal

Starting Eight:

C Brian McCann
1B Scott Thorman
2B Kelly Johnson
3B Chipper Jones
SS Edgar Renteria
LF Ryan Langerhans
CF Andruw Jones
RF Jeff Francoeur


C Brayan Pena
IF/OF Glenn Wilson
IF Chris Woodward
IF Willie Aybar (if he starts the season on the DL, it looks like Martin Prado would get this spot, since Tony Pena has been traded to Kansas City)
OF Matt Diaz

It looks like a solid team, with the bullpen improvement being the most significant development. Is it good enough to finish ahead of the Mets and Phillies? We'll see.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Making History and Seeing the Future

We returned today to The Ballpark at Disney’s Wide World of Sports to see the New York Mets take on the Atlanta Braves. We ended up being a part of history. The crowd of 11,591 was the largest in the ten-year history of The Ballpark. The previous record was the 11,431 that watched the Braves defeat the Yankees on March 27, 2006. I guess that we love to watch the Braves beat those New York teams. It doesn’t hurt that those teams have large followings too; there were lots of Mets fans there today. In fact, we were surrounded—Mets fans were in the row behind us and in front of us.

Our seats were great. We were in the second level right behind home plate so we had a great view of everything that happened on the field.

From our great seats we watched the Braves defeat the Mets 7-1. There were encouraging signs from some of the veterans. John Smoltz started and went six innings. He gave up one run on seven hits while walking one and striking out five. His ERA for the spring is now 1.80. He looks ready to go. Braves fans have been concerned about Chipper Jones because of his chronically sore feet and his troublesome oblique. He started today at third base and had a ground rule RBI double. Also, he fielded his position very smoothly and appeared to be having no physical problems. Mike Gonzalez, Pete Moylan (the submarine-style Australian who is great fun to watch) and Oscar Villarreal each pitched a shut-out inning in relief. It appears to me that both the Atlanta and the Richmond Braves should have great bullpens this year; the Braves seem to have more quality relievers than they can use, even with a twelve-man pitching staff, which I will always believe is overkill.

The real fun of the day was in watching the young batters hit in the seventh inning. The Mets put in superstar closer Billy Wagner to pitch that inning. The Braves had substituted prospects for most of their starters by that point. I figured it would be no contest. I was right—Wagner never had a chance. Doug Clark, who started in left field and who has played a lot this week which makes me wonder if the Braves are thinking about keeping him or if they are showcasing him for a possible trade, singled. Rookie outfielder Billy McCarthy then pinch hit for Smoltz and singled. Rookie infielder Martin Prado followed with a single, driving in a run. Rookie infielder Yunel Escobar grounded to second base and the throw home failed to get the runner; that gave Escobar an RBI. Then young infielder Tony Pena hit an opposite-field three run homer over the wall in the right field corner. When the smoke had cleared, the young Braves had touched up Wagner for five runs.

I think I’ll move to Richmond and watch that team this year.

Seriously, I don’t see how the Braves can keep some of these guys down on the farm much longer. If they are any indication, the future looks bright for the Atlanta Braves.

Tomorrow, we go to Clearwater to watch the Braves take on the Phillies.

Article from On the Jericho Road at

An article that appeared on the blog can be found today at Go there and look for the column "Politicians and Private Morality."

Meltdown on a Cool Night

We traveled today to Viera, Florida, a planned residential community near Melbourne, Florida. Viera is the home of Space Coast Stadium where the Washington Nationals train. Space Coast Stadium was completed in 1993. With a capacity of 8,100, the stadium is spacious and well-appointed. Like its surroundings, though, it has a very generic feel to it; I hope that in the future management will consider adding some touches that will make it more distinctive. Also, the public address system desperately needs help. I was sitting close enough to the young lady who sang the National Anthem that I could tell that she had a very nice voice. Unfortunately, the system distorted it terribly. The foul pole screens are memorials to the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, which is a nice touch. There was a steady breeze that made it feel pretty cool; the only refreshment I purchased was a cup of coffee.

The Braves got off to a 3-0 first lead in the first inning, the result of a Jeff Francoeur double and an Andrew Jones two-run homer, a mammoth shot just to the right of center field. It was encouraging to see Andruw drive the ball without pulling it. Andruw appears to be in very good shape this year. Starting pitcher Mark Redman struggled early but survived five innings, giving up two runs on eight hits. Reliever Rafael Soriano looked very impressive for the second time this week. The Nationals came back to win, scoring three runs off Jonathan Johnson for a 6-5 victory; the winning run came on a bases-loaded walk.

Tomorrow we will see the Braves play the Mets at Disney.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Laid-Back Night in Dodgertown

I was excited about our trip to Vero Beach on Tuesday night to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play the Los Angeles Dodgers. My excitement came from my anticipation of fulfilling my long-time dream of visiting the famous Dodgertown Spring Training complex. The Dodgers have trained in Vero Beach for sixty years and have played at Holman Stadium since 1953. The stadium, which was renovated before the 2003 Spring Training season, seats around 6500. It is a very intimate venue but it also has a crowded feeling; the concourses are narrow and there is very little leg room between the rows of seats. The Dodgers plan to move their Spring Training home to Glendale, Arizona for the 2009 season. I think that’s a shame, given their longstanding relationship with Vero. But I guess it makes sense for them to train nearer their fan base and in the same area as the other West Coast teams.

I ate a Bratwurst with mustard; it was very good. The $3.25 I paid for a bottle of water was a bit ridiculous. Maybe that’s why the very good public address announcer kept reminding us of the need to stay hydrated—there’s good profit in hydration. To be fair, he did mention the water fountains, where free hydration was available.

The crowd was a little strange. In the first place, there seemed to be almost as many Cardinal fans as Dodger fans; the Cards train just an hour down the road in Jupiter. In the second place, I have never been in a quieter group of over 6,000 people. The fact that what noise there was came from the Cardinal fans is understandable, given that the Redbirds won 13-0, but even early in the game when the Dodgers still had a chance the place was as quiet as a graveyard. When they played YMCA during the eighth inning, I counted five people doing the motions. Maybe it was just a laid-back Southern California kind of thing.

As for the game, the Dodgers played terribly. They looked like they mailed it in and had the wrong address. They made three errors. I did enjoy seeing former Braves Rafael Furcal and Wilson Betemit, who started at short and third, respectively. The Cardinals looked like the defending World Series champions that they are. Eli Marrero, another former Brave, had three hits and four RBI and played three positions (right field, first base, and catcher). Preston Wilson also had three hits. Anthony Reyes pitched six scoreless innings; he is now 3-0 with an ERA of 0.56 this spring.

Let me close with a culinary note. Before going to the stadium we ate dinner at Mr. Manatee’s. It was excellent. The atmosphere was casual, the service was good, and the food was tasty and abundant. I had fried oysters and enjoyed them thoroughly. If you’re ever in the area, eat at Mr. Manatee’s. (This is an unpaid and completely voluntary endorsement; I just liked it and thought you ought to know.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Column from On the Jericho Road at

A column from the blog has been posted at Go there today (Tuesday, March 20) and you will see the column "Bowie Kuhn Showed Leadership is Tough." After today it will be in their archives.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Braves 6, Indians 0

We spent the afternoon at The Ballpark (formerly known as Cracker Jack Stadium) at Disney, the Spring Training home of the Atlanta Braves. This year is the 10th anniversary of that beautiful stadium. With a capacity of some 9,500, the stadium is intimate and very fan-friendly. The customer service is outstanding. The weather was warm when the sun was out but comfortable when we had cloud cover, which happened for about a third of the game. I had a foot long hot dog (a note in the program said that since Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex opened in 1997, 300,000 foot long hotdogs have been eaten there and that if they were laid end-to-end they would stretch for 57 miles—I’d like to see that) and a waffle cone. The experience was altogether a good one.

The Braves had a good game, as the score would indicate. This is the next-to-last week of Spring Training, so the players that we saw are for the most part going to be on the major league roster or are considered to be top prospects. Most of the younger or marginal players have already been sent to the minor league camp.

The Braves’ pitching was very sound. Chuck James, who had an 11-4 rookie campaign last season, appears poised enough to avoid the sophomore jinx. He is a left-handed finesse pitcher out of the Tom Glavine mold. He had one rough inning in which he struggled with his control but got out of a bases-loaded jam. After that he settled down and pitched five innings.

The team is banking on having an improved bullpen this year. From what I saw, Braves fans should have high hopes in that area. Bob Wickman, Rafael Soriano (whom they acquired from Seattle for Horacio Ramirez), Mike Gonzalez (whom they get from Pittsburgh in the Adam LaRoche trade), and Chad Paronto each pitched a very effective inning. I had never seen Soriano or Gonzalez pitch in person before; they looked as good as advertised.

There were some hitting highlights as well. Brian McCann had as impressive a one for three day as a hitter can have. In his first two at-bats he hit drives to the left-center and center-field walls that were caught; he displayed impressive opposite-field power. In his third at-bat he hit an RBI triple to the right-center field wall. Scott Thorman, the big Canadian who has the task of replacing LaRoche at first base, hit a home run over the right-center field wall. Non-roster invitee Doug Clark had two hits. Another non-roster invitee, Willie Harris of Cairo, Georgia, had an outstanding day playing centerfield. He made a diving catch and he went one for two with a walk.

The only negative I saw was with the defense. While the Braves were not charged with any errors, both second baseman Kelly Johnson and shortstop Edgar Renteria failed to make a play that looked makeable. On the other hand, Scott Thorman started a smooth first-second-first double play.

All-in-all, it was a very well-played game by the Braves.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Baseball Blogs All Week

Greetings from sunny Orlando, Florida! Well, actually I’m in Kissimmee and it’s late at night. But I wanted to take a moment to tell you what you can expect from On the Jericho Road this week.

I’m down here for my annual Spring Training excursion. I started coming to Florida for a week each spring about ten years ago. Up until this year I came with Dr. Howard Giddens, my college professor/mentor/adopted father. Dr. Giddens started coming in the late 1940s, accompanied by his father and brother. Eventually they were joined by a large contingent of men from the church that Dr. Giddens pastored at the time, the First Baptist Church of Athens, Georgia. After a number of years the gang was reduced to just Dr. Giddens and his brother. Dr. Giddens invited me to come for many years; I finally made time when he told me that if I wouldn’t do the driving he would have to stop going.

For six or seven years it was just Dr. Giddens and me. I can’t even begin to tell you what those trips meant to me. He shared so much of his life and wisdom with me during those trips. Two years ago two men from my church, The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, GA, came with us. One of those men and another one came last year. This year I am glad that I am accompanied by three men from the church. But I am sad to report that Dr. Giddens was unable to come this year. He is 96 years old now and cannot make the trip. We continue to come in his honor. In fact, on the way down on Sunday evening, we stopped and had supper at a Sonny’s barbecue restaurant, which was the place that he always wanted to stop and eat. Dr. Giddens is not with us but in a very real sense he is, for he will come up in conversation every day. Everything we do will lead me to think, “When Dr. Giddens was here we would....” I warned my companions that I would often give voice to those thoughts. They said that was fine.

Here is our schedule.

Monday: Indians @ Braves at The Ballpark at Disney
Tuesday: Cardinals @ Dodgers at Dodgertown, Vero Beach
Wednesday: Braves @ Nationals at Space Coast Stadium, Viera
Thursday: Mets @ Braves at Disney
Friday: Braves @ Phillies at Clearwater

All week long I’ll be posting about what I see on the field; I’ll especially be sharing my impressions on the 2007 Atlanta Braves. So if you like baseball, come by every day this week. If you don’t like baseball, come back on Sunday, March 25, and I’ll be on to other things!

Movie Review: Amazing Grace

(Sabbath Blog #9)

Amazing Grace is the story of William Wilberforce, a member of the British Parliament during the late 18th and early 19th centuries who fought a long battle to outlaw British involvement in the slave trade. The film recounts the struggle that he undertook, along with other abolitionists, to put an end to that horrendous practice.

The story told is a very moving one. I came away from the movie with a sense of the ethical impact that one committed person can make (and with the feeling that I customarily have after seeing such a story that most of us aren’t making nearly the impact that we could). The film paints a portrait of Wilberforce as being virtually single-minded in his passionate efforts to bring an end to the slave trade. I have learned from other sources that Wilberforce actually had very broad concerns all along the ethical spectrum; he was very interested in improving the lot of the downtrodden in England. Still, a movie can only deal with a slice of a person’s life so the focus on his abolitionist activity is understandable and proper. We can go to books for the rest.

Three specific thoughts have accompanied me since I viewed Amazing Grace.

First, service to others is service to God. Wilberforce is depicted as engaging in a real struggle over whether he should remain in Parliament or retreat to a cloistered life of reflection. Should he serve humanity or should he serve God? He decides that he can serve God by serving humanity and so he stays in Parliament and eventually wins his battle against the slave trade. Sometimes some Christians have a similar struggle. No doubt some are called to a solitary life. Most of us, though, are called to live in the world and to bring our Christian faith to bear on the lives of people and on the ills of the world. The challenge is to fuse our private life of faith with our public life of service. It can be done and when it is done great things can happen.

Second, the struggle between what is right and what is expedient never ends. I suppose that there were some people in Wilberforce’s day who did not think of the African slaves as being “as human” as they thought themselves or those like them to be. But in the debates in Parliament as depicted in the movie, the arguments against abolishing the slave trade were primarily economic in nature. “We can’t run the plantations without slaves; if we get out of the slave trade, the French will just step in and prosper at our expense.” “The economy of the Empire will collapse without slaves.” So went the arguments. In too many circumstances, our thinking about what is right from a Christian perspective and what is right from a people perspective (which usually constitute the same perspective) is clouded by what we think is best for us from an economic perspective. The Old Testament prophets and Jesus himself certainly offer some pertinent words in that area.

On a side note, I was struck by a statement made in the movie about what motivates people’s attitudes and actions. At one point in the story, England was at war with France. Someone said, in a discussion about people’s attitudes toward the slave trade, that when the war was over, the people would rediscover their compassion. In other words, people are motivated by self-preservation and by fear as well as by economic considerations. Sometimes they are all tied up together. Perhaps when it comes to the way that we Americans think about and take action toward immigrants and toward people of other faiths, when the war is over, we will find our compassion again.

Third, heroes of the faith are human heroes. I’m sure that Wilberforce had many more flaws and problems than the movie depicts. Nevertheless, he is presented as a very human figure. He has severe health problems. His marriage brings him much solace and encouragement. He struggles with depression over the difficulties he has in enacting his anti-slavery legislation. He has conflicts with foes and with friends. In short, he is flawed but faithful. That’s about the most any of us can expect from ourselves.

Amazing Grace renders a valuable service in raising William Wilberforce to a higher place in the public’s consciousness. In so doing, the film also makes us think about the power of the Gospel and of people who are committed to Christ to effect change in a world that always needs it. Perhaps, upon learning about the way William Wilberforce lived, we will go and do likewise.

Amazing Grace is directed by Michael Apted and written by Steven Knight. It stars Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai, and Albert Finney. It is presently in theatrical release.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Bowie Kuhn

Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner of major league baseball from 1969-1984, died yesterday at age 80. Kuhn served as commissioner during the years that I really started paying attention to baseball; indeed, he is the first commissioner about whom I remember hearing. I remember not liking him very much. The best I can recall, I thought that he was too dictatorial in the way that he did his job. From what I have read since his death was reported, some contemporaries of his had the same opinion that my self-righteous adolescent brain formed.

Now that I think about it, though, I understand better what a tough job he had. The position has a basic conflict built into it; the commissioner is supposed to uphold the integrity of baseball, a game which is of course played by the players and coached by the coaches and umpired by the umpires, but he is an employee of the owners. Nevertheless, he also has some authority over the owners; he can suspend an owner for conduct deemed detrimental to the game, for example. He famously suspended some of the most famous owners in the game, including Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Braves owner Ted Turner. But the commissioner is in a tough spot just by the nature of the job.

Kuhn presided over a period of tremendous progress but also of tremendous upheaval. World Series night games were first played during his tenure. I remember watching the very first one; it was played on October 13, 1971 between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. For a school-aged fan, that was a positive development. During the time that he served, major league baseball expanded by two teams in both the American and National Leagues with each league being divided into two divisions the winners of which would meet in a playoff series to determine the World Series participants. I liked that because in the first year of divisional play in 1969 my beloved Braves won the Western Division, even though they lost in the playoffs to the Miracle Mets.

(It was weird that the Braves were in the Western division along with San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Houston. It was especially weird when you consider that the Eastern Division included, besides New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal, the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. The last time I checked, Atlanta was east of Chicago and St. Louis. St. Louis is the “Gateway to the West,” for crying out loud. That ridiculous situation was finally rectified in 1994 when the leagues went to three divisions and the Braves were moved to the Eastern Division. Unfortunately, that realignment also led to the introduction of a “wild card” team into the playoffs, a move to which I was and am opposed. Second-place teams should not be in the baseball playoffs, and I don’t care how many of them win the World Series.)

Many developments occurred on the labor front in baseball during Kuhn’s tenure. Salaries skyrocketed mainly due to the advent of free agency. Under the reserve clause system, a player was bound to his team even after his contract expired unless the team traded or sold him to another team. A federal arbitrator ruled in 1975 that players could leave their team when their contract expired, which of course made them available to the highest bidder. (One of the first free agents was pitcher Andy Messersmith, who signed with the Braves. Ted Turner wanted him to wear number 17 with the word “Channel” over it as an advertisement for Turner’s cable channel WTBS which carried the Braves’ games. That was not allowed).

Kuhn made one of his most controversial moves just as free agency was coming into play. In June of 1976, Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, knowing that he was about to lose some of his stars without getting anything in return for them, sold the contract of pitcher Vida Blue to the New York Yankees for $1.5 million and the contracts of outfielder Joe Rudi and pitcher Rollie Fingers to the Boston Red Sox for $1 million each. Kuhn voided that sale because he judged it to be detrimental to baseball. The Red Sox were and are my favorite American League team, so I was miffed. In retrospect, I can see the validity of Kuhn’s concerns. The idea of owners auctioning off their best players was troubling. I’m not sure, though, that it is any more troubling than the players auctioning themselves off. On the one hand, Finley was astute in seeing what was coming and in trying to get ahead of the game; he was skilled at that. On the other hand, Kuhn was justified in trying to keep a lid on a volatile and still developing situation.

The bottom line is this: leadership is tough. As a pastor, I think about such issues all the time. A pastor wants to be true first and foremost to the Savior who has called her or him to the ministry of the Word and to the service of the Kingdom of Heaven. But in the real world of the church, there are competing visions and conflicting concerns and differing constituencies. Nobody will agree with you all of the time and sometimes nobody will agree with you at all. Like a baseball commissioner or any other leader, you just have to follow the best light you have and be as true to your core principles as you can be. Hopefully, when you die, people will be able to say what they are saying today about Bowie Kuhn: “We didn’t always agree with him, but we did respect him.”

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Read Josh Ruffin, Again

Go to and click on "Music." Under "Music Features," the articles "Kenny Bridges Interview," "Moneen at Sector 7G," "Whoop & Holler," and "Blood, Sweat, Energy Drinks" are all by Josh. Also, under "CD Reviews" you can read his review of the new album by The Alternate Routes.

Tell him what you think at


Final Score: Georgetown 80, Belmont 55

I confess: I am not the kind of prophet who can tell the future.

I further confess: I am not a very effective good luck charm.

Living the Forgiven Life: Embrace the Transformation

(A Lenten devotion based on Ephesians 5:8-14 & John 9:1-41)

Can you imagine the man in today’s Gospel text, having been given his sight by Jesus after spending his entire life in darkness, ever approaching life the same way again? Or, to think of an even more extreme case, can you imagine Lazarus, having been brought back to life by Jesus after spending four days in the tomb, ever looking at life in the same way again? Being touched by Jesus in such dramatic ways produces changes; it brings about a transformation. We who have been forgiven by God because of the death of Christ on the cross have been changed in dramatic ways, too. But we need to embrace the transformation. Are we fully embracing the transformation that comes with being forgiven? Another way to ask that question would be this: are we living the Christian life for all it’s worth? Yet another way to ask it would be this: are we really living like saved and baptized people ought to live?

Today’s epistle text encourages us, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Some scholars believe that this was part of a hymn or a reading that was used at the baptism of new believers. How appropriate it is for us today. We need to understand that we have been saved, that we have been forgiven, that we have been raised from the dead, that we have been freed from our sins. We need to understand that people who have been made alive by Christ have been made alive really to live. We are supposed to be different and we are supposed to live differently because we are in fact different. We are in light rather than in darkness; we are alive rather than dead. So, we need to take the Christian life seriously. How seriously are you taking it? We have been forgiven by God in Christ. How do we go about living seriously in that forgiven state? How do we go about embracing the transformation that is ours?

We embrace the transformation by living in light of our experience with Jesus. The blind man in our Gospel text had been born that way. He had lived his entire life in darkness. Then, because he had been touched by Jesus, he was able to see. He had to live his life in light of that experience with Jesus; he could do no other. And why would he want to do any other? As great as the man’s experience of gaining his physical sight was, the truly great event occurred later in the story when he came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah (v. 38). That was when his spiritual blindness was cured. Even though we know nothing of the man’s life after that point, we can be sure that the greater change came because of his belief in Jesus as Savior. That’s the greatest experience there is.

You just can’t have an experience with Jesus and remain the same. But we need to be intentional about living the forgiven life. We need to be intentional about embracing the change that has come upon us. As Ephesians puts it, “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light” (v. 8a). Notice the powerful way the verse puts the situation: sin once held such sway in our lives that it can be said not just that we were in darkness but that we were darkness. But when the Lord comes in to our lives we are not just in the light but we are light. Because of that drastic change in our reality, we are called to “live as children of light” (v. 8b). Being Christians does not put us on autopilot. We have to intentionally choose to live as Christians are called to live.

Now, we don’t do so in our own power. We are inspired and taught by the grace and love of our Lord. But the truth still is that good habits come from good practice. I’ve been reading about a baseball player who wants to be a better hitter this year. During the off season he studied film of himself. He changed his batting stance. He took lots of batting practice. Now, his goal is for the right ways of doing things to become second nature to him. Meanwhile, though, he has to exercise the discipline of choosing to do the right things rather than doing the wrong things. Otherwise, his old habits will continue to run his life. Similarly, we have to purposely choose the things that are “good and right and true” (v. 9). Such choices will pay off in the long run.

We embrace the transformation by testifying of our experience with Jesus. When you have an experience with Jesus you have a testimony about that experience. Your experience is your experience and your testimony is your testimony. If you’ve been touched by Jesus you have something to share. When the blind man was healed there was some disagreement among people as to his identity. He just kept on saying, “I am the man” (v. 9). That’s the main thing we have to tell, isn’t it: “I am the one whom Jesus touched and this is how he touched me.” We say, “This is who I am and Jesus is the one who made me this way.” We tell the story of Jesus but we know the story of Jesus because of the way his story intersects our story. We tell of what Jesus has done for us.

Some care should be exercised here. My college teacher Dr. Howard Giddens used to say of some preachers, “They say more than they know.” Some non-preacher Christians are like that, too. They feel compelled to act as if they have all the answers and as if all things are simple to those who know the Lord. We should be careful not to say more than we know, though. When the Jewish authorities told him that Jesus was a sinner because Jesus healed on the Sabbath, he said, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (v. 25). Now, we know that Jesus was not a sinner. But we don’t know everything about Jesus because we can’t know everything about God. Such is the nature of God. But we know what he has done in our lives and that’s what we can talk about with confidence: “Once I was blind, but now I see.” We should study all we can and pray all we can and learn all we can but we need to accept that we’ll never have all the answers.

How do we testify about what Jesus has done in our lives? We do so by living as Christians ought to live. It’s interesting how Ephesians encourages us: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” Try. Make the effort. Know that it may not always be clear. But try. And then live in light of what you learn. Certainly such living means that you’ll avoid the works of sin that characterize the ways of the world. But positively it means that we’ll live in ways that reflect the light of Christ and that show the works of darkness for what they are. We bear witness to Christ by living in ways that reflect the transformation that he has brought about in us.

But we also testify about what Jesus has done in our lives by talking about it. How we should admire this man who insisted on talking about what Jesus had done in his life. He had to go up against the religious experts of his day but he would not back down because he knew what Jesus had done for him. We need to be ready to make our defense and to share our testimony. We each have our own story to tell but each story is the story of what Jesus has done. Tell it. Tell it faithfully. Tell it lovingly. But tell it. Someone you meet today may need to hear it.

We embrace the transformation by valuing our experience with Jesus. One result of the formerly blind man’s insistence on telling his story was that he was kicked out of his synagogue (v. 34). His parents, when questioned by the authorities, had been afraid to say too much because they knew that those who confessed Jesus as Messiah were to be put out of the synagogue (v. 22). In the early years of the church such became a real problem. The man was persecuted for his faith; he was made an outcast because of his insistence on bearing witness to his experience with Jesus. He had to make a decision that his experience with Jesus was more valuable than any other relationship he had or than any other reality that brought meaning to his life

What do we really value? Do we really value our experience with Jesus? Are we embracing the transformation that Jesus has wrought in our lives by valuing our relationship with him more than we do anything else? Think of how you make decisions. Think of how you choose to live. Think of the brand of ethics that your practice. Think of those things to which you do and don’t give priority. Do your choices show that your experience with Jesus has been truly transformative and that he truly is your priority? Or are there things that you are valuing more highly and embracing more closely than him?

It is important, as we live the forgiven life, that we intentionally embrace the transformation that Jesus has caused in our lives. We need to be committed to living the Christian life. That commitment needs to be purposeful and it needs to be radical. We need to bear witness to what he has done in our lives with our lives and with our words. It needs to be clear who we are and whose we are. Is it clear in your life today?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


The NCAA basketball tournament got underway last night with the “play-in” game that determined the team that would earn the 64th and final spot in the “big dance.” For those of you who missed it, Niagara defeated Florida A & M and earned the privilege of getting pummeled by Kansas in their next game. But, the field is now set and Niagara is in it; they should be proud.

I confess that I am not much of a basketball fan. I am a hard-core fan of baseball, which is the world’s most perfect sport. I also like to watch college football; it’s a great spectacle. Somewhere along the way I lost my interest in basketball. It wasn’t always that way. We lived in Louisville, Kentucky for seven years and during that time I became a fan of the University of Louisville Cardinals. They won a national championship during our first school year in Louisville (1979-1980) and during our last year there (1985-1986). They’ve not won one since. Obviously, we functioned as a good luck charm for them.

Lots of people all over the country are filling out their tournament brackets this week. Given that I’ve stopped keeping close watch on college basketball, I don’t do that anymore. I have considered conducting an experiment, though. I’ve heard of people conducting a similar test with the stock market. Here’s how it works. First, get some expert financial managers to select the stocks they think are going to do well. Second, get another group to select a portfolio by taping the stock market pages from a newspaper to a wall and throwing darts at it; they then buy the stocks that their darts hit. Then, at the end of twelve months, see whose stocks have done better. So, I thought about throwing darts at the bracket and seeing how it turns out.

Of course, I could do a careful analysis of each team and try to pick the perfect bracket. The perfect bracket would be one in which you pick the correct winner of every game all the way to the final. I heard somewhere that the odds of doing that are one in one quadrillion. A quadrillion is a one followed by fifteen zeroes, or six more zeros than in a billion. I understand that you have much better though still astronomical odds of winning the lottery or even of getting struck by lightning while you’re going to buy a lottery ticket. Still, lots of people are going to try and lots of people are going to bet lots of money on the outcome.

As for me, I’ll just sort of pay attention until they get down to the Final Four. If I can, I’ll watch the National Championship game.

For what it’s worth, here’s my pick: Belmont University, the #15 seed in the East Region, will go all the way. After all, I used to work there, and I’m a good luck charm.

Just ask the Louisville Cardinals.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Slim Pickins?

I have a personal policy that prevents me from identifying my choices in an election. I believe that it would be detrimental to my work as a pastor to choose sides publicly in an election contest. Now, I’ll talk issues; as a matter of fact, prophetic preaching demands that issues, including those that relate to public policy, be addressed. And, frankly, sometimes when a pastor addresses public policy issues she or he may come off sounding like one candidate rather than another. I believe, given that possibility, that it is wise to discuss such issues at times as far removed from an election cycle as possible. Of course, that gets harder all the time, since presidential campaigns now last two years or longer.

Because I am going to talk about Newt Gingrich in this post, I am going to make an exception to my policy and reveal that I voted for him once. The year was 1976 and I had absolutely no idea who Newt Gingrich was. As a matter of fact, I was not really voting for Gingrich; I was voting against his opponent, Rep. John J. Flynt. During my freshman year in high school in 1973, I had gone to Washington for a week as part of a government studies program sponsored by the Close Up Foundation. All of the students in our group were from Georgia. During the week we had the privilege of meeting with our congressional representatives. Rep. Flynt was the congressman from my district. During our question and answer session with him, he responded to a query in a manner that made me conclude, with much fourteen-year-old indignation, that he had outgrown his usefulness. I remember neither the question nor the answer verbatim, but a student asked him something about a situation in our district and Flynt’s answer seemed to me to have elements of “that’s a local problem and I’m a national politician.” I may have misheard and I’m certain that I overreacted, but I decided then and there that if I ever had the chance I’d vote against him. That chance came in 1976, the year I turned eighteen. So I voted for Gingrich. Incidentally, Gingrich lost that election. He won two years later; I believe that Flynt did not run for reelection that year.

Gingrich is in the news these days because he seems to be toying, along with just about every other politician of note and a few of little note, with the idea of running for president. In recent days his personal life has been the topic of much discussion. He appeared last week on James Dobson’s radio program and in that interview, Dobson asked him about an alleged extramarital affair. Gingrich admitted that he had been involved in an affair during the same period that he was leading the impeachment charge against President Clinton that developed following the revelation of Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich expressed repentance over his actions. He also tried to make the case that the situation with Clinton was of a different nature because of Clinton’s alleged perjury. I do think that some distinction has to be made between “high crimes and misdemeanors” on the one hand and acts of personal immorality or failing on the other. Wrong is wrong, but we certainly need our public officials to respect and follow the law.

As I said, Gingrich admitted to the affair. He is in his third marriage. He has a new book out entitled Rediscovering God in America. He will be the graduation speaker at Liberty University this spring.

Let me repeat: he has admitted to an extramarital affair; he is in his third marriage; he has written a book called Rediscovering God in America; he is going to speak at Jerry Falwell’s college; and he is probably going to run for president. Many conservatives, including some of the “evangelical Christian" variety, are allegedly excited about the prospect. My first reaction to that is “Wow.” On the other hand, it may show some evidence of what some might consider a developing maturity on the part of religious conservatives. If Gingrich truly represents their positions on public policy issues and if they can trust him to pursue those positions, maybe it says something good about them that they can overlook his moral failings and/or accept his statements of repentance. Of course, when it comes to politicians with whose policies Christian conservative leaders disagree, those leaders usually want to make the case that you can’t separate a leader’s private life from his public life and that it is a slippery slope from personal immorality to public corruption.

Gingrich is not alone in having his private life paraded before the entire country. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s marital and extra-marital situations have been bandied about a lot, too. He has also been married three times and he has been involved in some very public infidelity. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission recently said of Giuliani, "I mean, this is divorce on steroids…. To publicly humiliate your wife in that way, and your children. That's rough. I think that's going to be an awfully hard sell, even if he weren't pro-choice and pro-gun control." On the other hand, Giuliani is going to speak as a part of the executive leadership series at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in April. Mitt Romney will be Regent’s commencement speaker. Romney is a Mormon who has been married to the same woman for thirty-eight years.

I find all of this very interesting and I think it’s highly problematic for social and religious conservatives. Giuliani has the leadership credentials but has personal and policy problems. Gingrich has the policy credentials but has personal issues. Romney is the epitome of a family values candidate but, and I say this with all due respect to Mormons, he’s a Mormon, and that’s going to be a problem for a lot of “mainstream” Christian evangelical types.

It is fair to ask whether some conservative Christian leaders are being hypocritical by their implicit or explicit support of candidates with whom they have common ground on the issues but whose personal lives have run so counter to what those leaders stand for. It is also fair to ask whether in other cases more liberal Christian leaders have been wrong to downplay the moral failings of other politicians with whose policies they were in agreement. It seems to me that if you’re going to bash any politician for marital infidelities or other personal sins, then you ought to bash all of them—if you have that much time on your hands.

On the other hand, maybe it’s good to be able to see beyond the personal failings of candidates and to focus on the ways in which they would lead and the agendas they would pursue. Maybe it’s good to accept someone’s statement of repentance so long as we are careful not to hear what we want to hear so that we can support someone that we think will promote our priorities. Maybe it’s good to realize that presidents and prospective presidents are real people who have to lead a real nation in the real world.

Still, I think I’ll keep holding out for a candidate who shares my values, who supports my preferred policies right down the line, who thinks just like I do, who looks and talks like I do, and who has a family that looks just like mine.

Heaven help me, I think I just announced my candidacy!

Rest assured—if nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Opportunity Knocks

(A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent based on Isaiah 55:1-9 and Luke 13:1-9)

Do you remember the Flip Wilson Show? One of his recurring characters was Rev. Leroy, who served as the minister of The Church of What’s Happening Now. “What’s happening now” is a hot topic for people who try to lead churches. We are always trying to find that balance between leading the church to be contemporary enough to be relevant while at the same time bearing sufficient witness to the old, old story. Whatever medium we use to communicate the message, we always want the Gospel message to come through clearly. One answer to the question “What’s happening now?” is that a lot of the same things are happening now that have always been happening. As my high school history teacher Mr. Julian was fond of saying, some things have been happening “ever since Adam and Eve came out of the garden.” Sin certainly falls in that category.

What is sin? Perhaps you think that it is not necessary to formulate an answer to that question. Most of us figure that we could say about sin what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in 1964 about obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” There are problems with such a presumption, however.

For one thing, we tend to see sin in others before we see it in ourselves or more than we see it in ourselves. While it is impossible to know exactly what was in the hearts of the people with whom Jesus was conversing in today’s Gospel lesson, we can make some pretty good guesses based on the flow of the discussion. Luke tells us that some people told Jesus about some Galileans who had been killed by Pontius Pilate. In response Jesus said, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” His question pushed them to think about whether the great tragedy suffered by those people was an indication that they had greater sin in their lives than other people did. Perhaps he also intended for it to push them to consider the validity of any belief that they themselves were less guilty than those who had been killed. You know how those questioners might have been because you know how we can be. If we can conclude that others are sinners and we are not or that others are worse sinners than we are, it can, in a pathetic kind of way, make us feel better about ourselves.

For another thing, we tend to form our own limited definition of what constitutes sin. We may think of certain sinful acts as worse than other sinful acts. We may regard personal acts of immorality as sin, which they are, but tend not to think so negatively of sins of the heart, sins of attitude, or sins of neglect that are just as sinful in God’s eyes. Again, we tend to be especially skilled at calling something sin that we see in someone else’s life but turning a blind eye to the sin that is present in our own lives. The truth is, though, that sin is sin and that every human being who has ever lived, who lives now, and who ever will live is in need of repentance and forgiveness.

You see, then, that understanding sin is not as simple as concluding that we will know it when we see it. Therefore, it may be helpful for me to pose a definition for you. There are several good definitions of sin that have a biblical foundation. Sin can be defined, for example, as “missing the mark,” as “trying to be your own god,” or as “living outside of a relationship with God.” I’d like to offer another definition for you that I believe is also grounded in biblical teaching: sin is missed opportunity. Another way to put that would be to say that sin is settling for less than God in his mercy and grace intends for us.

God has given us the opportunity to live the kind of life that will lead to fulfillment and joy. Now, in some ways, life is a struggle for anybody and everybody. Living God’s kind of life does not eliminate struggle. We will all have hard questions and difficult choices and we will all experience painful events and tragic circumstances. Still, we can know fulfillment and joy even in the midst of hard times if we submit ourselves to the Lord and live in relationship with him. We can have the life God intended for us if we will look past the things out of which our culture makes false gods but which ultimately have no value—money, status, power, prestige, reputation—and let God give us the realities that have ultimate value—a relationship with him, a place in his family, and a part in his purpose.

It is sad that so many people insist on going the way of the world that turns the transient into the ultimate and that finally leads to frustration and judgment. It is a wondrous event when someone turns from that way and turns to the Savior in whom ultimate meaning is found and through whom fulfillment and redemption are experienced.

Such a wondrous event can happen for you right now. I have defined sin as missed opportunity, by which I mean missing the opportunity to live God’s kind of life which is clearly the best kind of life to live. But you don’t have to continue missing that opportunity. Opportunity is knocking. It is knocking because God is standing at the door of your heart, patiently seeking entry. He is standing there, offering forgiveness. So long as God makes forgiveness available you have the opportunity to repent and to experience real life. Why would you ignore him? How can he make the offer more obvious?

We were in a store the other day. We were ready to check out. No one was at the registers at the front of the store. I saw two employees standing in front of the customer service desk. One of them was talking to a customer; the other was standing there, listening. I walked over and stood near them, directly in their line of vision. They ignored me. Finally, I waved my arms over my head like I was trying to flag a taxi. I really did. Still, no one said, “May I help you?” One of them just looked at me like I was crazy until I asked, “Is there someone here to take my money?” She pointed me to a register at which no one was working. I walked over to it and someone magically appeared. God is standing right over there, waving his arms in front of us. He has done everything he can to get our attention. Above all else, he has sent his Son Jesus into this world to die for our sins. How much longer will you ignore him?

Indeed, God has been making the same offer for 2000 years. Have you heard the story about the jogger who would run by the bagel stand every day? The stand sold bagels for fifty cents. Every day as the jogger would pass the stand he would throw two quarters in the bucket but he never took a bagel. After months of this activity, one day the proprietor stopped him. The jogger said, “You probably want to know why I always put money in but never take a bagel, don’t you?” The vendor replied, “No, I just wanted to tell you that the bagels have gone up to sixty cents” (Cindy Hess Kasper, “What God Owes Us,” Our Daily Bread, January 22, 2007). God has been amazingly patient with us. The price of forgiveness has not gone up for 2000 years and it never will. Jesus really did pay it all.

2000 years is a long time, but opportunity will not knock forever. God in his grace has waited, giving us the opportunity to repent. But neither life nor time will last forever. Will you open your heart today to the gracious knocking of our God?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

In a Country Where They Turn Back Time

(Sabbath Blog #8)

The title of this post is a line from Scottish songwriter and singer Al Stewart’s 1976 song Year of the Cat, from the album of the same name. The song begins,

On a morning from a Bogart movie,
in a country where they turn back time;
you go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
contemplating a crime.
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
like a watercolor in the rain.
Don't bother asking for explanations
she'll just tell you that she came
in the year of the cat.

I can’t be sure that the line refers to turning the clock back when a country goes from Daylight Saving Time (DST) to Standard Time. In fact, I doubt it does, given the references to Bogart and Lorre; Stewart seems to be trying to paint a picture of a romance against a film noirish, foggy, and melancholy kind of canvas.

Nevertheless, when I hear the song, I think of the fact that in this country and in about 70% of the world, once a year we set our clocks forward and once a year we set them back. Spring forward, fall back. Well, this year the United States Congress has moved the start of Daylight Saving Time ahead by three weeks so that today, ten days before Spring even begins, we went to DST.

While the idea of DST supposedly began with Benjamin Franklin, the United States was not the first nation to adopt it; that honor goes to Germany, which did it in 1916. Congress authorized DST in this country in 1918 but it was disliked so much it was repealed in the following year. President Roosevelt reinstituted it on a year-round basis during World War II as “war time.” Following the end of the war and of year-round DST, many states adopted their own DST practices. In 1966, Congress adopted the Uniform Time Act, which set a uniform pattern for time changes during the summer. Another experiment with year-round DST was tried in 1974-1975 during the OPEC oil embargo. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 moved the start of DST from the first Sunday in April to the second Sunday in March and the end of it from the last Sunday in October to the first Sunday in November. (Historical information from

The other day I heard someone ask what I think is a fair question: by what definition of “standard” is Standard Time standard when it is followed only four months of the year while DST is observed for eight months? Hasn’t DST become the “standard time”?

I do agree that there are sound ethical reasons for having and even expanding DST. For one thing, statistics show that energy, especially electricity, is conserved during DST months. Statistics also show that traffic accidents decrease during those months. We are also encouraged to put fresh batteries in our smoke detectors on the same nights that we change our clocks, and it stands to reason that lives will be saved as more of us adopt that practice. I do wonder if, since there are clear-cut advantages to the practice of DST, we ought not make it a year-round practice.

Still, I am opposed to that as a matter of self-preservation. The extended daylight in the evening makes is possible to work in the yard until well into the night. All too often what is possible comes to feel like what is necessary. When I get to thinking about mowing the lawn or trimming the hedges or raking the leaves, I’d like to have at least four months where I can say, “I can’t—it’s too dark.”

Friday, March 9, 2007

Being Baptist

I have often jokingly said that I was a Baptist before I was a Christian. While I am joking when I say it, technically it’s true. My parents, as my mother never tired of telling me, took me to the Midway Baptist Church four miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia for the first time when I was ten days old. I suspect that I was added to what they called the Cradle Roll (a means by which a baby could be enrolled in Sunday School) within minutes of my exit from the womb. I was baptized when I was seven years old. Therefore, technically, I was a Baptist before I was a Christian.

The Christian heritage is rich and diverse. All the branches of the Christian tree offer something valuable to the tradition. As a Baptist pastor, I spend most of my time around Baptists. I am convinced that I have built up a resistance to Baptist germs because I have visited so many Baptists in the hospital! When I have the opportunity to be around people of other Christian traditions I find myself comparing my particular faith expression to theirs. There is much in those other traditions that I admire. I often “catch” something very good from them. But there is much in mine that I admire, too.

A few months ago a publication asked me to contribute to an issue with the theme “Why I Am a Baptist.” I confess that on the morning that I sat down to write my article I stared at my computer screen for a very, very long time. The reason for that wasn’t that I couldn’t think of any reasons; it was a recurrence of a chronic problem I have—I always want to sound original. But I couldn’t come up with any original thoughts on why I am a Baptist. In other words, my reasons are the same reasons that many people have listed for very many years.

I have never found a better way to list those reasons than that offered by Rev. Jim Pitts in his sermon at a Georgia Baptist Convention meeting in Savannah, GA sometime around 1990. In his sermon he said that Baptists had historically stood on five great principles that began with the letters A, B, C, P, and S.

A is for the Authority of the Bible.

B is for Believer’s Baptism.

C is for Church Autonomy.

P is for the Priesthood of Believers.

S is for Separation of Church and State.

I still believe in all five of those bedrock Baptist principles. I believe in them so much that even were I to join another Christian faith tradition I would still in my heart be a Baptist.

So that’s why I still am one!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Read More of Josh Ruffin's Work

You can do so at Once there, click on "Music." The stories "Drawn to Banjos" and "Review: Mayhem String Band" are by Joshua. "Drawn to Banjos" is also in the Spirit's print edition. You can also read two of his CD reviews on that same page; his are the first and third ones.

Obviously, I want you to read our son's work, but while you're there, take a look at the rest of the website. They have some really interesting stuff.

Living the Forgiven Life: Engage in the Struggle

(A Lenten devotion based on Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42)

Sometimes we say that we came to Christ or that someone else ought to come to Christ as if it is a simple thing. And in a way it is simple. We must never add anything to the simple child-like faith that is required if one is going to become a follower of Christ. Still, to get to that point of faith, to that place where one can throw oneself at the feet of Christ in utter child-like dependence, can be a struggle. I think of Herod Agrippa who said to Paul, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.” It can be a long way from “almost” to “all right.” A good example of what I am talking about is found in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, a story that had a happy ending.

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman, all kinds of realities stood between him and her. In the first place, there were ethnic barriers. She was Samaritan while he was Jewish. In the second place, there were social barriers. She was a woman while he was a man. In the third place, there were religious barriers, for while the Samaritans and the Jews worshipped the same God they did so different ways, including having competing temples and differing collections of Scripture. And so when they encountered each other a situation of confrontation was set up. Something to admire in this woman is the fact that she hung in there with Jesus and was willing to engage him in the struggle. She entered into a dialogue with Jesus.

I put before you the observation that so long as one is willing to dialogue with Jesus the hope exists that a breakthrough will occur. We Christians need not be threatened by those who ask questions and who challenge what we say or believe. The ones to be truly concerned about are those who have so little interest that they just don’t care one way or another.

So the woman at the well struggled with Jesus. She struggled against the backdrop of her religious background, her ethnic background, and her social background. Where the breakthrough began to occur, though, was when the struggle moved to the issue of her personal life. Here was a woman who had to go out to the well every day to get water. It was a part of the hum-drum struggle of her daily life. Now, this strange man offers her water and promises that if she’ll drink it she’ll never be thirsty again and that it will give her eternal life. I guess she was thinking literally and physically when she responded, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Then, though, Jesus turned the conversation in a direction that pointed toward her area of real thirst, an area of thirst much more real and much more vital than physical thirst. “Go, call your husband and come back,” he said. “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” To which she (understandably) responded, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” He had cut to the heart of the matter. What drove her to go from man to man like that? What caused her to grope and grasp and reach out for love, constantly failing but always trying again? At the point of her deepest need Christ offered his greatest help. In her recognition that he was the Messiah came her hope. Jesus calls you to admit your place of deepest need, your place of deepest hurt. And then he will come to you at just that point.

Some people think, it seems to me, that struggling should end once you find forgiveness in Christ and once you commit your life to being his disciple. That’s a fallacy that people understandably accept, since our initial acceptance of Christ puts many ultimate issues to rest. When sin, death, and hell have been taken care of, what’s left? Well, there’s actually a lot left. We who are Christians, who have been forgiven, still need to engage in the struggle that comes with trying to live as God’s people. Indeed, coming to faith in Christ does not bring the struggle to an end. It continues. The question is not whether or not we will struggle. The question is what we will do with the struggle. The meaning of the struggle is found in what we do with it.

Will we murmur and complain? That’s what the Hebrews did. Now, we need to state right up front that the life of discipleship is a journey. It’s a process. We have to walk the walk and we have to walk it one step at a time. Sometimes the walk becomes difficult. God saved the Hebrews. He brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand. He led them across the sea. And almost immediately they began to complain. They complained at a place called Marah because the water was bitter and God gave them clean water (15:22-25a). They complained at the wilderness of Sin because they were hungry and God gave them manna and quail to eat (16:1ff). In today’s text they came to a place called Rephidim and there they complained because there was no water. This time God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff and water came from the rock. Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, which mean “Test” and “Quarrel,” respectively, because of the attitude of the people. The issue at the heart of their complaining was “Is the LORD among us or not?” (v. 7).

Let’s be fair about this. First, these were real issues that the people were raising. Food and water are indispensable human needs. They were not voicing complaints over trivial matters. Without food and water, they would die. Sometime we complain over trivial issues and we just need to stop being silly. But some issues really are life and death issues. Second, the Bible does not prohibit complaint and lament. Indeed, the book of Psalms contains more laments than any other type of psalm. It is appropriate when we are suffering and struggling to pour our hearts out to the Lord. It is appropriate that we be honest and open with him about what we are experiencing and about that with which we are struggling. Indeed, it is dishonest not to do so. He’s big enough to handle it.

Yet the Hebrews should have learned something by the time they got to Rephidim. I can understand their fears about food. I can understand their initial fear about water. But God had already intervened on their behalf twice. He had already proven through the primary salvation event of the Exodus and through the manna, the quail, and the turning of the bitter water into sweet, that he was among his people. The Hebrews ought to have learned something through what they had already experienced. We should learn and grow through what we experience. That’s what our experiences are for. Our experiences, even the most difficult ones we have, can and should serve to teach us the truth that God is with us.

This brings us to the other possibility. Will we grow in endurance and hope? We who are Christians have already experienced our primary salvation event; we have been saved through the cross of Christ. Paul reminds us, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:1-2a). This has happened; it is the way it is. And having experienced God’s grace through faith and having come to have peace with God in the present, we look forward to God’s great future when we will share in the glory of God (v. 2b). Christ died for us while we were sinners (vv. 6-8) and we can be sure that he will finish the work he has started in us (vv. 9-11). But in the present times can get hard. We can suffer. We can have trials. Many if not most of you are sitting here this morning carrying heavy burdens of suffering and trial. Others of our fellowship are not here today precisely because of the heavy burdens they are bearing.

Paul gives us the glorious word that even our suffering contributes to our walk with God and to our development as Christians. The coming of suffering is a fact. The question is what we will do with it. Paul tells us that we can boast in our present suffering just as much as we boast in our future glory because they are tied together. “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (vv. 3b-5). It’s worth the struggle. It’s worth the struggle because every time we experience pain we learn that God is with us. And each experience should teach and remind us and make us even surer that he is with us. God made the ultimate statement that he is with us in our suffering by suffering alongside us and for us in Calvary’s cross.

Yes, struggle, but remember that the struggle can make us surer of what God will finish in us. Engage in the struggle because it is in the struggle that we become sure of the love and the hope that are in us.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Reflections on Yesterday’s Forum on Women’s Reproductive Health

Yesterday I was a member of a nine-person clergy panel that participated in a forum on “Religious Perspectives on Women’s Health Issues”; the focus was on abortion and contraception. We were supposed to be a ten-person panel but the scheduled imam was unable to make it; I regret that because it would have been interesting to hear his perspective. The members of the panel were identified beforehand as “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” The pro-choice folks had green name placards and the pro-life folks had blue ones. I don’t think there was any significance to the color choices. On the “pro-choice” side were two ministers in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., one from a Church of God congregation, one from the Unitarian Universalist Church, and a Reformed Judaism rabbi. On the “pro-life” side were a Roman Catholic, a Presbyterian Church in America pastor, a Lutheran, and me, the Baptist. All of the members of the panel were bright, articulate, and concerned. I liked them all; some of them I had met before and some I met for the first time yesterday.

All of the members of the panel have a lot of compassion for women who find themselves in the position of having a problem pregnancy. I think it’s fair to say that the “pro-choice” folks tend to focus their compassion more on the women who are dealing with the issue while the “pro-life” folks tend to focus theirs more on the fetus. Baptist ethicist Paul Simmons once wrote that pro-life people are really pro-fetus while pro-choice people are really pro-woman. While I think that is overstating the case, there is some truth to it. Extreme pro-lifers, those who believe that abortions should absolutely never be performed, even if the life of the mother is in serious danger, value the life of the unborn over the life of the mother. Extreme pro-choicers, those who believe that abortions should be available to any woman who wants to get one no matter what the reason, value the life (here I’m defining life broadly—physical, social, emotional, mental) of the mother over the life (here I’m defining it narrowly as physical) of the fetus. Again, though, in their own way everyone on every point of the spectrum exhibited compassion.

It seemed to me that eight of the nine members on the panel, including me, believe that therapeutic abortion should be available as an option in certain cases, such as risk to the life of the mother, pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or the probability of severe fetal malformation. I think that everybody on the panel would welcome a situation in which there would be no more elective abortions (“abortion as birth control” or “abortion on demand”). Some would want to outlaw those via legislation or via a constitutional amendment. Others believe that the better avenue to reducing them is to do a better job of educating young people and parents on sexuality and specifically on birth control. Some believe that much more attention should be given to developing more effective and reliable methods of birth control.

The need for us all to work together in the prevention of unwanted pregnancies was a positive theme of the afternoon. Now, there are people who strongly believe that the use of artificial birth control is wrong and that the only moral type of birth control is natural family planning. That seems to me, with all due respect, an abrogation of the duty with which God endowed us when he gave us the ability to reason and the responsibility of stewardship over his creation. While procreation is a blessing we also need to take steps to prevent overpopulation and its subsequent strain on our planet’s limited resources. I believe along with some of the other panelists that the church should do a better job, in cooperation with parents, of teaching our young people about sexual matters. I’m not quite sure how that should look in practice: I’m open to suggestions. Abstinence is the ideal and we should promote that. Given the realities of adolescent life, though, young people should also know about contraception. Again, any talk about that in the church surely must involve a partnership with parents.

I am grateful for the opportunity I had to participate in the forum because it forced me to do some hard thinking about where I really stand on this issue. I have expressed in previous posts my reticence at talking about abortion because of the fact of my gender; I’m not a woman. Also, my wife and I never had to face a problem pregnancy and thus never wrestled personally with the choice. Still, as a Christian and as a minister I need to be able to articulate a response.

So, here I stand. I do believe that the fetus is a life. Actually, that is not a matter of belief; by any legitimate definition I think it is a matter of fact. I also believe that the fetus is a potential person. It is not a “full-blown” person because that means a certain level of independence and the ability to live in relationship with others. Still, I cannot get past the fact of potential personhood in the fetus; that makes the life worth preserving. Nevertheless, I believe that therapeutic abortions are sometimes regrettably necessary, particularly if carrying the pregnancy to term would put the life of the mother at serious risk. In such a case a decision must be made to value one life over the other and that is very difficult. There are cases in which the already established personhood and relationships of the mother might be judged to be more valuable than the potential personhood of the fetus. That would be a terribly difficult call for a Christian woman who believes that sacrificial love is a hallmark of her faith, but, if she dies for the sake of the fetus, she may actually be selfishly putting her commitment to the fetus ahead of her commitment to her other family members. Again, it’s a tough choice to have to make.

I believe that we should work to eliminate elective abortions or “abortion on demand” or “abortion as birth control.” Should that be done legislatively? I’m not sure. My impulse is to say “Yes.” The problem would come in criminalizing elective abortions while not criminalizing therapeutic abortions. How would such a law be enforced? There are a lot of issues involved with such an effort. I absolutely believe that we Christians ought to do all that we can to educate toward the eradication of unwanted and unplanned pregnancies. Abstinence before marriage and faithfulness in marriage is our ideal and we must stick to it. But we must also counsel responsibility for the sake of our children’s health and their future.