Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Talk with Me about Abortion Some More

The forum at the Medical College of Georgia on “Religious Perspectives on Women’s Reproductive Issues” in which I will be participating will soon be here. (See yesterday’s post for details). I remind you that in my posts on this subject I am “thinking in print” and I am asking you to help me with that process by dialoguing with me through your comments.

Yesterday I said that I was hesitant to talk about abortion because I would never be in the position to have one since I am not a woman. For purposes of this discussion, however, I have been trying to think about the responsibilities that a pregnant woman has for the fetus she is carrying.

Pro-choice folks will probably say that my next statements constitute a caricature of their position; these sentences may in fact do so and if they do I hope some of you will say so and point out to me how that is the case. The pro-choice argument seems to me to include the idea that “a woman has the right to choose what will happen or not happen with her body.” Until the baby is birthed the fetus is a part of the woman’s body and so if she chooses to remove it from her body she has that right, they seem to me to say. I hope that I am not inaccurate in those summary statements.

We still have to deal with the fact that the fetus is a life that has the potential to be a person. A person might choose to have surgery to remove some bodily organ; such surgery might even be elective (some women, for example, have mastectomies when there is a family history of breast cancer even if they themselves have not been diagnosed with it). Usually such surgery takes place because leaving the organ in the body would endanger the life of the person. A person has the right to refuse to have such an organ removed despite the risk to her life. But, and I think that this is a big but, that organ is not a potential separate and independent life. Therefore, it seems to me a leap to treat a fetus like an organ that can be removed or not removed at the discretion of the patient.

It’s just hard for me to get around the fact that a potential person is being eliminated when an abortion takes place and past the thought that the fetus could, if not eliminated, become a human being. My “removal of an organ analogy” leads me to observe that, if the continuing presence of the fetus would threaten the life of the mother, then that could constitute just and moral cause to remove the fetus. The woman and her family would have to decide which life has more value at that point. That would be tough, because one would have to consider the impact of the death of the mother on those already viable lives who love and depend on her (spouse, other children, etc.).

I want to raise one more issue today. I have been trying to think about how a Christian woman should approach the issue of abortion. I keep coming back to the teachings and especially the example of Jesus Christ which focused on self-sacrificing, other-centered love. We talk a lot in church about Christ’s call for us to always put the needs of others ahead of our own needs and to give ourselves up for the sake of others. If we conclude that the fetus is a life (which I believe), then it seems that extraordinary circumstances would need to be in play before a Christian family could seriously ponder abortion, since by definition an elective abortion values the needs of the woman or others ahead of the needs of the potential life that the fetus is.

What do you think?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Talk With Me about Abortion

As I mentioned in a post last week, I will be a member of a ten-clergyperson panel participating in a forum on Religious Perspectives on Women’s Health Issues (with a focus on abortion and contraception) at the Medical College of Georgia on Tuesday, March 6. I hope that many of you will dialogue with me on this blog this week while I try to think through the issues. We might keep in mind that the audience will be made up of medical students. Many of those folks are going to have the responsibility of dealing with women who may need (for reasons of health, for example) or feel that they need (for any number of reasons) an abortion. My real challenge, as I see it, is to offer those medical students something to think about as they try to arrive at their own ethical position.

Let me voice one of my reservations right up front. I’m a man. Now, I’m not usually particularly troubled by that reality, but in this case it makes me kind of sensitive. I have a feeling of “Who am I to say what a woman should do with her body or with the fetus that her body carries?” Because I am not a woman I will never have to make the decision of whether or not to have an abortion. Therefore I am by definition removed by one step from any possible direct involvement in the issue. That does not mean that I can or should try to avoid the issue; it’s just something that makes my throat tighten a bit when I try to talk about the subject.

One of my tasks at the forum is to represent the teaching of my faith tradition on the subject. As those of you who share my Baptist background know, that’s not easy. It is very difficult, the apparent ease with which some Baptist mouthpieces do it notwithstanding, to speak for all Baptists on anything. Still, I think that I can safely affirm that the vast majority of Baptists are opposed to abortion on demand.

I have two questions about that last statement. First, is it really accurate to speak of the status of abortion in this country as “abortion on demand”? Second, am I right to think that most Baptists are opposed to abortion on demand?

The real struggle is of course clarifying and articulating my own position.

It seems to me that one’s stance on abortion really must come down to one’s answer to the question “When does life begin?” I guess that the main options are that it begins either at conception or at birth. Obviously a baby is a life once it draws its first independent breath, so the question really comes down to whether or not the baby is a life before that. I think that it is. But the Bible can be used to argue that, even if the fetus is a life, it is not to be seen as having personhood in the same way that someone already born has personhood. In the Old Testament laws, for example, the life of a fetus was not valued as highly as that of a walking and breathing person: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life…” (Exodus 21:22-23). In other words, the penalty for causing a miscarriage was a fine while the penalty for harm to the life of the mother was parallel retribution.

As an aside, I would note that here the tenuous relationship between religion and science crops up again. Many people of faith fight against most advances of science that seem to them to treat the pre-born as less than a life (embryonic stem cell research, for example). But, if science could somehow prove that an embryo or a fetus is a life, those same people of faith would probably be ready to embrace that scientific conclusion. It seems to me that some of us tend to want to accept or use the conclusions of science when they fit our agendas but not to accept them when they don’t.

Even though I’m a man, I can’t separate my personal experience from this issue. My wife and I have two children for whom we have much love and in whom we have much pride. I remember how I felt when Debra was pregnant. In both instances, from the time that we learned that she was expecting, I thought of what was in her as our child. I didn’t think of it as a fetus; I thought of it as our child. And it would have hurt us deeply had Debra suffered a miscarriage and thus lost one of them.

Yet we are inconsistent. Families sometimes request funeral services for a stillborn child but they do not request them (not in my experience, anyway) for a miscarried fetus. I’m not saying that they should; I’m just saying that if we really believe that fetus to be a life, should not its passing be acknowledged in some way? I have been a ministerial presence in the lives of enough women who have miscarried to know that what they feel is definitely a kind of grief that results from their loss.

That brings up another question: I wonder what the grief experience is like for a woman who has had an abortion as compared to that of a woman who has had a miscarriage. When I first pondered that question it occurred to me that a woman who had chosen an abortion might have her experience complicated by feelings of guilt, but I have dealt with women who have suffered miscarriages who dealt with guilt. They had not chosen to end their pregnancy but they sometimes wonder what they might have done or not done to cause the miscarriage. One difference in those experiences is that the woman who had the abortion made the conscious decision to do so.

Well, these are some of my early thoughts. Please help to clarify them by questioning me, challenging me, and even affirming me.

I’ll be posting on this subject again this Wednesday and Friday.

Monday, February 26, 2007

God is Great, God is Good, Let us Thank Him for….

(A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13)

Most of you probably prayed the same table blessing during your childhood that I did during mine:
God is great, God is good,
let us thank him for our food.
By his hands we all are fed;
give us, Lord, our daily bread.

There was a commercial jingle during my childhood that was similar in rhythm to that blessing:
Nestle’s makes the very best

That made a connection in my mind, because of all the foods for which I was thankful, chocolate was at the top of the list.

Now, though, I am a man, and I am supposed to have put away childish ways. I have, however, put away neither chocolate nor my gratitude for it. In fact, I now have more reasons to be thankful for dark chocolate, as research is indicating that the flavonoids in it are good for me, particularly for my heart and my brain, two rather vital organs. While I know that I am supposed to have put away childish ways, I hope that I will forever remain simple enough in my approach to life that I never stop thanking God for the simple things in life—family, food, friends, and fun.

Nevertheless, I and most of you should now be at a place in our lives where we understand what blessings matter the most. And it is not the material blessings of life that matter the most and for which we should be most grateful.

Still, the material world is not a bad place to start, since that is in fact where we do start. George Harrison sang, “I got born into the material world,” and we all did. Christian faith does not shy away from accepting the material world; the Bible does not shy away from teaching us of the responsibilities we have in relation to our material blessings. So the book of Deuteronomy instructed the people of Israel to make proper acknowledgement of the source of their material blessings. When they gathered their initial harvest in the Promised Land they were to take some of that produce, go the place of worship, show it to the priest, set it down before the Lord and worship him. They were to acknowledge that their material blessings had come from God and they were to give some of it back to him.

We learn something here of the importance of the discipline of giving our tithes. Such giving is not just so that the lights can be kept on and the missionaries funded, as important as such things are. Our giving, when it comes from a grateful heart and from a discerning mind, is our thanksgiving to God for what he has given us. The Israelites were also told, “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house” (Deuteronomy 26:11). Our bounty should be cause for celebration! Giving and celebrating go together because they reflect our acknowledgement of God’s good gifts to us.

Do you remember how Scrooge reacted when the real wonder of Christmas dawned on him? That paragon of greediness turned into a whirlwind of generosity. When the wonder of all that God has done for us dawns on us his generosity fuels our generosity.

Notice, though, that the blessings that were to be celebrated by the Israelites went far beyond material things. When they brought their offering to the Lord they were to make a confession of faith before him. In that confession they were to acknowledge the fact that God had saved them from Egyptian bondage and that he had given them the good land in which they were living. Material things were an important component of the blessings of life but they were a part of a much bigger picture. That bigger picture was freedom from slavery and the blessing of being home. We express gratitude for our material blessings not just because we have been blessed materially but because the God who gives us those gifts also gave us our salvation.

Our greatest blessing is our salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. It is that blessing that gives color and tone and hue to all other blessings. The blessing is not just for me and for mine, though. You may have noticed that in the instruction to celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord had given the Hebrews, they were to do so “with the Levites and the aliens” who dwelled among them. The Levites were Israelites who were ministers, so having them join in the celebration makes sense. But the “aliens” were non-Israelites, foreigners who had come to dwell among the people in the Promised Land. God has always intended that his grace and love and salvation be available to everybody, and they in fact are. So Paul could write,
The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:11-13)

How good and great is God? He is so good that he loves everybody. He is so great that he gave his only Son Jesus so that anybody who trusts in him and who calls on him will be saved. That salvation is for absolutely anybody who will come to him, believe in him, and call on him. Paul said that “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” Our God is a generous God; how thankful we are that his generosity extends to his salvation!

So the blessing that we celebrate the most is our salvation; we celebrate our material blessings in the context of our salvation. That means more than remembering to thank God for our material blessings as well as our salvation. It also means to have a saved perspective on our material blessings. We who are Christians celebrate and express gratitude both when we have material blessings and when we do not. Jesus had just gone forty days without food when he was tempted by Satan. Naturally, then, the first area in which Satan tempted him was food. Jesus understood, though, that something was more important than food, even after going without for forty days. He knew that listening to God’s word and being obedient to God was more basic and more valuable than even the most necessary physical blessings. We should thank God for the fact that we can be thankful even when we don’t have the things that most people think you must have in order to be thankful!

Jesus relied on his relationship with his Father and on what he had learned from his Bible as he fought against the temptations of Satan. We can celebrate and express gratitude to God for his provision in our spiritual struggles. Sometimes we think that the closer to God we get the less we will struggle spiritually. The truth is, though, that often the closer we get to God the more our spiritual struggles increase. We have to look no farther than the life of Jesus to know that is true. No one ever lived in a closer and more obedient relationship to the Father than did Jesus but he experienced excruciating spiritual struggles, beginning with the his temptation by Satan and ending with his painful cry of “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” on the cross. He experienced those struggles exactly because he was so close and obedient to his Father. All the way through, though, he knew the strength that came from his life of faithful obedience. So can we.

Nothing matters more than our salvation. We praise God for that more than for anything else. Being saved, we want to be faithful to God in our salvation; we want to live life in his way. When Satan confronted Jesus following his forty days in the wilderness, he tested him in ways that went right to the heart of who Jesus was and right to the heart of the mission that he had been sent to carry out. Had Jesus given in to any of Satan’s temptations, he would have been turning his back on God’s way for him. He would have been compromising the hard way of the Father for the easy way of the world. He would have been giving up the way of sacrificial love for the way of superficial showmanship. But he did not compromise nor did he give up; he stayed the course. We Christians want to bear witness to who Christ really is as we go about our lives in the world. We celebrate and express gratitude for the help God gives us in being faithful to him and living life in his way.

God is great and God is good in so many ways. He gives us our material blessings. He gives us salvation. He gives us a saved perspective on our material blessings. He gives us the inspiration and resources that we need to persevere in our spiritual struggles. The question for you and me is, how can we best respond to him in gratitude and love?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Professional Bleepers

(Note: On Sundays I am posting a Sabbath blog, my logic being that the Sabbath is a good day to post about things that I enjoy. Fun writing is recreational writing, I figure. So, here is Sabbath post #6.)

The Academy Awards will be given out tonight. We’ll probably watch the show at our house because we all like movies.

My hometown of Barnesville, Georgia had one theatre during my growing up years—the Ritz. I can’t be sure what the first movie I ever saw there was, but the first one I remember was the James Bond flick Thunderball. On Saturday afternoons my mother would drop me off at the theatre with fifty cents in my pocket and with that fifty cents I would watch the double feature, watch the first movie again, and buy popcorn and a Coke. Those were the days.

I saw only two movies with my parents. One was The Green Berets, John Wayne’s movie about the Vietnam War. Let’s just say that it was in a different vein than Apocalypse Now or Coming Home. The other was the original Walking Tall, the one starring Joe Don Baker as Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser. I think that one of the lines used in advertising that film was “It should have been a love story.” It wasn’t. It had a lot of graphic violence for 1973 and the language was, to put it mildly, quite salty. When it was over my mother said, “Why do they have to talk like that?” I answered her, based on all the worldliness that I had acquired in my fifteen years, “Because that’s just the way it is in the real world, Mama.” I’m not sure whether she sniffed or shrugged at me, but either way she dismissed the thought as silly. Folks didn’t talk that way in her real world.

In recent days we’ve watched two of the movies that are up for Best Picture tonight: The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine. It goes without saying that they are both excellent movies. The Departed is a Martin Scorsese directed crime drama starring Leonardo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, and Jack Nicholson. The performances are mesmerizing, the story engrossing, and the climax, at least in my opinion, disappointing. And the language is atrocious. But, folks talk that way in the real world. Little Miss Sunshine is a wonderfully enjoyable movie. At times it is hilarious, at other times heartbreaking, and at yet other times embarrassing (in the sense that you’re embarrassed for the characters because of the situations they’re facing). The cast is outstanding, especially Abigail Breslin, who plays the little girl whose family is determined to get her to a beauty contest hundreds of miles away. And, at times, the language is atrocious. But, folks talk that way in the real world.

Well, I have to agree with Mama (shrug, sniff): they don’t talk that way in mine, and I’m glad. And frankly, it bothers me to have to put up with it in order to see these otherwise outstanding cinematic achievements.

Now, I’m no prude about this. I’ll be the first to admit that if Clark Gable had said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot,” it would not have had the same effect. I just fail to see why professional screenwriters can’t come up with anything better than “I’m going to (bleep) your (bleep) head off if you don’t (bleep) tell me what I (bleep) need to know.” I also fail to understand why, in order to convey that a character is upset, most screenwriters can’t come up with anything more original than having the character stomp his foot or throw something against the wall and say, “Bleep.”

In my opinion, those screenwriters are not earning their money. They need to exercise a few more brain cells, type a little longer, muster up a little more creativity, and find some better ways and better words to give their characters to express their thoughts and emotions.

I’m sure that I’m way too simplistic in how I look at this, but to me, they just make otherwise very smart movies sound dumb.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Plea to My Readers

I need help.

Those of you who know me personally will readily agree, but I have a specific situation with which I need your assistance.

On March 6 I will be one of ten clergy persons participating in a forum at the Medical College of Georgia here in Augusta, GA on the subject of “Religious Perspectives on Women’s Health Issues” (with a focus on abortion and contraception). The panel is a good one and is comprised of folks who identity themselves as “pro-choice” as well as those who see themselves as “pro-life.”

This is a subject that I have needed to think about, pray about, and address. The invitation to participate in this forum gives me that opportunity.

Now, here’s how you can help me. As I prepare for the forum I intend to post my thoughts on this blog. What will appear here will emerge from and be a part of my process of thinking through the issues. I will really be thinking in print. What I write will not necessarily reflect my conclusions but it will represent some steps toward my conclusions.

Please dialogue with me. Post comments. Tell me where you think I’m right and where you think I’m wrong and tell me why. Give me evidence to help me where you think I’m on the right track and evidence that will take me in a different direction when you think I’m wrong. Argue with me. Encourage me. But please help me. I really want to think the issues through as thoroughly and clearly as I can but I need the input of others to do so.

My blogs on this subject will appear on Tuesday, February 27, Wednesday, February 28, and Friday, March 2.

I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Birthday Boy in Print This Week

Our son Joshua celebrated his birthday this week by having two articles published in the Metro Spirit. If you live in the Augusta, GA area, you can pick up a copy of the print edition. To read one of his articles on-line, go to, click on "Music" at the top, look under "Music Features" and click on "Fans of Michael." To read his other article, click on "Arts+Culture" at the top, look under "Get Out," and click on "Modern Gladiators."

You can contact Joshua at

Living the Forgiven Life: Tell the Truth

(A Lenten devotion based on Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Romans 5:12-19)

[Note: Yesterday was Ash Wednesday; thus, we are now in the Season of Lent. Lent has been observed by the Church for centuries during the 40 days, not counting Sundays, leading up to Easter. Traditionally, Lent has been a time to focus on repentance, among other things. On Thursdays during Lent, I will be offering a Lenten devotion. The title for the series of devotions is “Living the Forgiven Life.”]

The Season of Lent is a time of repentance for Christians. To repent means to identify and confess our sins. But it also means to turn around and go the other way; it means to stop thinking, talking, and behaving in ways that run counter to the ways of God and to start instead thinking, talking, and behaving in ways that are consistent with his ways. We repent when we have our initial salvation experience, of course. We need, though, to have an ongoing attitude and practice of repentance. We still commit sins and we still need to seek God’s forgiveness. Indeed, being his children, we have a special obligation to live faithfully and consistently in obedience to him.

Still—and this is very important—Christians are forgiven people. Somewhere I saw this saying: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” We have trusted in Christ as our Savior and God has forgiven us of our sin. The sin that stands between us and God is gone. We are not alienated from him; we live in a personal relationship with him. I worry that when we talk about us Christians confessing our sins and going to God in repentance we will forget to celebrate the fact that even though we commit sins we are forgiven people. So on these Thursdays during the Lenten season I want us to think about living the forgiven life.

The first thing I want to say about living the forgiven life is that forgiven people tell the truth. I am speaking about a particular kind of truth-telling. Forgiven people tell the truth about the way things are with God and us. We are able to tell the truth about the way things are with God and us because we can see the way things are with God and us.

Forgiven people are able to look at ourselves and at our world in the hard cold light of day and name it all for what it is. Forgiven people don’t waste time talking about the way things could have been or the way things ought to be. We could, I guess. We could point to the Garden of Eden stories and we could say, “See, God made this a perfect world and he made us to live in full fellowship with him and to live happy and healthy lives and not to have all these problems but Adam and Eve blew it and we’ve fallen right in with them. Things ought to be better but they’re not because we messed up.” We could linger from now on over the way that things ought to be. It’s interesting, though, that the Bible doesn’t do that. The Bible takes very little time and space to tell us about how it was, about how good and perfect and wonderful it was and could have remained. It then uses the rest of its pages to tell us how it is, what God is doing about how it is, and how it’s going to be when God gets finished with what he’s doing about how it is.

So some people spend all their lives wishing that things were different and like they ought to be. But they aren’t. We forgiven people are able to look right at ourselves and say, “That’s right. I’ve messed up. I’ve wanted to have it my way rather than God’s way. I’ve thought I’ve known better than God and I’ve acted like it. I’ve chosen paths to my detriment when God had a way for my benefit.” And when we’re really, really honest, we forgiven people look at ourselves and confess, that even as saved, forgiven disciples of Christ, we sometimes still choose and act in those same ways, not to our ultimate ruin but certainly to our personal hurt.

There are all kinds of people and not all people could articulate the reality that I’m talking about. Some of you are very self-aware and can ably describe your human state of affairs. Some of you are overly analytical and critical and you are harder on yourself than maybe you ought to be. Some of you are, on the surface of your minds at least, not particularly conscious of your situation. I believe, though, that all of us do have a sense of where we stand. In a Get Fuzzy cartoon, a dog named Rowdy discovered that another dog named Satchel has a cat for a roommate. Rowdy said, “Satchel, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” To which Satchel replied, “Well, I am…but what are you referring to specifically?” All human beings, whether they can name it or not, have that sense that something is wrong, that there is something of which to be ashamed. We forgiven people know what that something is. We don’t say it’s somebody else’s fault. We don’t say that it’s justified. We don’t say that we’re ok. We know what we are. We’re sinners—people who give in to the desire and who make the futile effort to play the role of God in our lives, and it is shameful, hurtful, and foolish—and it is the way it is.

And yet—that’s not the only way it is. True, from the very beginning humankind has been a sinful race and none of us has been able to break that pattern. True, each one of us has repeated the sin of Adam and has broken fellowship with God. True, we stand condemned before God because of our sin. True, there’s nothing we can do on our own to do anything about it. True, there is a sense of helplessness and emptiness and lostness in us. True, it will take a miracle to do anything about our situation. Here crashes in the other truth that must be told, the other truth that forgiven people tell, the truth that we also see and tell in the cold hard light of day—God’s grace is greater than our sin! Our heritage of sin is great, yes. Our state of sin is great, yes. But God’s grace is greater than our sin! This is the truth we tell. This is the state of affairs that we celebrate.

Think of God as a bidder at auction who will go as high as he has to go. Think of yourself as the opposing bidder. You bid sin but God bids grace. You bid more sin but God bids more grace. You bid the sin of Adam and the collective sin of all humanity ever since, culminating in your own sin, but God bids grace. He bids grace and more grace and more grace. You don’t deserve it but he bids it anyway. You don’t deserve it but he loves you anyway. You don’t deserve it but he forgives you anyway. And finally in comes his last bid: “Grace, grace, more grace, more grace—the grace that you see in my Son on the cross.” The bidding is over because it can go no higher. And grace abounds. It abounds for you and for me.

That’s the truth we tell. Our sin is great. God’s grace is infinitely greater. We tell the truth we know. We celebrate the truth we know. In the cold hard light of day, we’re sinners. But in the cold hard light of grace, we’re forgiven. Forgiven people accept the truth about who and what we are. But we also accept the truth about who God is and what he has done. And that makes all the difference.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

It Was Twenty-Three Years Ago Today

We got up very early and went to Baptist East Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky; I think we had to be there at 6:00 a.m. Debra was admitted to the hospital and, after the appropriate preparation work, they started administering the pitocin.

We had been through the childbirth classes together and so I was ready. I don’t remember what all I had in my “let me help my wife get through this” bag; I seem to recall tennis balls in a tube sock and baby powder. I was poised and ready to launch whenever those labor pains kicked in.

They didn’t. Debra had a constant backache but she never had labor pains. I was watching the monitor and when it would indicate the onset of a contraction I would grab my tennis balls and baby powder and get ready to jump on the bed. She would just look at me and I would back off. I was young but I was wise. This went on all morning.

Sometime around noon Debra sent me off to find some lunch. The Burger King near the hospital was selling four hamburgers for a dollar (this was 1984, mind you). When I saw that I danced a little Baptist seminary student jig; back then we needed all the financial breaks we could get. I took my sack of hamburgers back to the hospital and sat down in the maternity waiting room to eat. A couple that was waiting for the birth of a grandchild struck up a conversation with me. They asked if I was alone; I explained that all of our family lived several hundred miles away and that my in-laws were coming after we got the baby home. They said, “Well, we’ll just adopt you.” That was nice. I regret that I did not write their names down so that I could pay appropriate tribute to them.

After eating my hamburgers I returned to the labor and delivery area, hoping there had been progress. There hadn’t. The pitocin dosage had been steadily increased but nothing was happening. Finally, around 3:30, Dr. Schweitzer (not Albert) came in, checked things out, and said, “I think we’d better perform a Caesarean section. The nurses will start getting you ready.”

My mind went back to our childbirth classes. For the most part the course had been helpful and encouraging. One night, though, they showed us the C-section film. I leaned over to my good wife and whispered, “I think I can handle anything but that.” She patted me on the leg and smiled.

When the doctor said a C-section would be necessary, Debra cried a little bit. A nursing student who couldn’t have been a day over nineteen patted her hand and told her it would be ok. I don’t know how much her comfort helped but she did provide some comic relief—when she left the room we had a chuckle over someone so young and inexperienced trying to provide encouragement to veteran sufferers like us. We were in our mid-twenties, after all!

They wheeled Debra to the delivery room. A nurse helped me into a mask and gown and told me to wait in the hall. In a few minutes she came back to get me. Dr. Schweitzer had already made the incision. He said, “Are we ready?” I don’t think we answered because we were pretty sure it was a rhetorical question. The next thing I knew we were taking turns holding the glorious mess that was and is our son.

And that’s how Joshua Lee Ruffin came into this world, twenty three years ago today.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I took last week off from blogging.

My absence from the blogosphere seemed mysterious, I know, since I did not give a reason for taking a break. I am now ready to reveal that reason. Yes, the truth can now be told.

I went away with a beautiful woman—my wife Debra. Debra turned 50 on February 15. Some of you are shocked that I would just come right out and say it like that, but she’s proud of it and I’m proud of her for being proud of it. Sometime last year I asked her what she wanted to do to commemorate that momentous occasion. She said that she just wanted to do something that she had never done before. Now you need to understand something about my wife. Simple gifts make her very happy. I gave her a stuffed red monkey for Valentine’s Day and you’d have thought that it was a diamond ring. Still, I really did want this birthday to be memorable for her.

So I booked us on a Caribbean cruise. It wasn’t a terribly original thing to do, but it was something that we had never done before and it was something that Debra had said she thought she would enjoy. I couldn’t drive her to the port one day and say “Guess what—we’re going on a cruise”; I had to tell her a couple of months in advance so she could prepare. Clothes had to be bought, naturally. (Debra is also the world’s greatest shopper; she acquired her entire cruise wardrobe for what some women would spend on one outfit—and she looked mighty good the entire week.) During the last couple of weeks before the cruise she would, when she thought about the upcoming cruise, launch into her “cruise dance.” I can’t really describe what that was like except to say that it looked like something you’d see on a Peanuts cartoon. It was great.

We set sail from Port Canaveral, Florida on the Carnival cruise ship Elation last Monday at 4:00 p.m. We spent Monday night, all day Tuesday, and Tuesday night at sea. That gave us a chance to familiarize ourselves with the ship. Elation is not the largest cruise ship in the world but it is mighty big. We were joined on the cruise by over 2000 other passengers and over 900 crew members. Our stateroom was nice and comfortable; I had arranged to have it decorated for Debra’s birthday and she liked that.

We had the first of five fine dinners in the Imagination restaurant on Monday night. Everything I had ever heard about cruise ship food turned out to be true—it is really good and there is really a lot of it. The food at dinner was excellent; then there where the midnight buffets, the 24-hour pizza, the 24-hour ice cream, and the 24-hour room service. I think that I gained 24 pounds during the week.

On Wednesday we went ashore at Grand Turk, an island that is part of the Turk and Caicos chain. We took a carriage ride around the island. On Thursday we spent the day at Half Moon Cay, a private island in the Bahamas. We spent the entire day at the beach. It was 85 degrees and sunny; the water was several shades of beautiful blue. On Friday we docked at Nassau, which struck me as kind of touristy. I’m told that you can buy fine jewelry at great prices there. The Straw Market, where you can barter with local merchants for various goods, was interesting. I’ve never seen so many purses one place in my life. We bought our daughter Sara a purse there; she hasn’t seen it yet but she will love it. We got our son Joshua a Bob Marley t-shirt; he likes reggae (and just about every other genre of modern music). We also toured the resort called Atlantis. It’s known for its indoor aquarium. It’s also known for having one suite that rents for $25,000 per night with a minimum stay of four nights. There’s a waiting list. Good grief.

We wondered if we would have any problems with seasickness. The reality for us turned out to be the contrary. We enjoyed the rocking of the boat, which was admittedly gentle. In fact, when we spent out first night back at home, I missed the swaying that had given me the sensation of being rocked to sleep. It had been a long time since I felt that sensation, believe you me!

We arrived back at Port Canaveral on Saturday morning at 7:00 and were off the ship by 9:30. We got back to Augusta at around 5:30 that afternoon. We’re trying to adjust to being home. The crew on the ship took care of our every need; now we’re back to fending for ourselves. It takes some time to accept reality when you’ve spent five days living somewhere else.

So that’s what we did for Debra’s birthday and that’s why I was away from my computer for a few days. We had an excellent trip and that’s good. My wife, who came into this world fifty years ago and into my life thirty years ago and who is love and joy and light to everyone who has the privilege of coming into contact with her, had, she says, the best birthday ever.

And that’s what it was all about.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Being Ready for Anything

(A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 15:51-58; Luke 6:39-49)

[Note: On Mondays I am posting an edited version of my sermon from the previous Sunday morning. I maintain a list of folks to whom I e-mail the full version of those sermons. If you would like to be added to that list, post a comment telling me so or send me an e-mail at]

Anything can happen and it usually does.

The question is, are we going to be ready for whatever comes? We ought not be too surprised when difficult events come our way, and yet too often we live as if they won’t. That’s a shame, because in Christ God has given us what we need to stand up against anything that comes. When we boil everything down to its essence, we can conclude that everything that does happen can be placed in two categories: life happens and death happens. We need to be ready for them both and both can be very hard to deal with.

Let’s talk about these realities in the order in which they occur: life first, then death.

In talking about life, Jesus used the metaphor of a man building a house. He said that the man who built his house on a solid foundation would see that house stand even when floodwaters struck it, but that the man who built his house without a foundation would see the utter destruction of his house. Jesus made it clear of what that proper foundation would consist: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words and acts on them” (Luke 6:46-48). We have a sound and strong foundation when we come to Jesus.

Too many of us, though, live as if the verse ended there, as if once we come to Jesus we’ve done all that we can do to be ready for whatever comes. Now don’t hear me wrong. It is absolutely necessary that we come to Jesus; that is the indispensable first step. As Chris Rice put it in his simple song,

Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head, for love is passing by
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live!

Now your burden's lifted
And carried far away
And precious blood has washed away the stain, so
Sing to Jesus
Sing to Jesus
Sing to Jesus and live!
(Untitled Hymn, words by Chris Rice)

Lost in our sins, living without hope and headed toward dying without hope, then seeing Jesus—coming to him is the act that makes all the difference, the act that leads to our salvation. But we are not ready to face whatever life throws at us if, having come to Jesus, we sit down, cross our arms, and say “There.”

February 15 was a very significant day for at least two reasons. First, it was the fiftieth birthday of Debra Ruffin. Second, it was the day that the Atlanta Braves’ pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training in Orlando. Another important event falls on Tuesday, February 20, when the position players report. Imagine a Braves player reporting to camp. He’s a highly touted rookie and he’s expected to make the major league roster this year. His arrival at training camp begins an encounter with coaches and with veteran players that could and should make all the difference in his career and thus in his life. So he gets to The Ballpark at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, looks around, says to himself, “Well, I’ve made the big time at last,” and takes a seat on the bench. He doesn’t listen to the coaches. He ignores the advice of veterans. He dogs his way through workouts. If by some miracle he does make the major league roster he will be in deep trouble because he won’t know what he needs to know to survive, much less thrive. It’s more likely that he’ll be playing baseball somewhere far away from Atlanta, where the housing isn’t plush and the travel is on busses and the pay isn’t so great. He’s a professional baseball player, but he isn’t ready for whatever comes his way because he refused to listen, to learn, and to follow.

We who have trusted in Christ as our Savior have come to Jesus. But are we hearing what he teaches and doing what he tells us and shows us to do? Be sure of this: things will happen to us that have every potential to shake our faith down to its very core. We need all the help that we can get. If we have a strong foundation, if we have been growing in our relationship with the Lord, if we have been hearing and doing his word, then we can stand.

We Christians, we who have come to Jesus, need to listen to him, learn from him, obey him, and grow in him every day. We listen and learn by spending time in careful and serious Bible study and in regular and focused prayer. Such living will give us the solid foundation that we need to be ready for anything.

So far I’ve been talking about being ready for life. Now I want to talk about being ready for death. Properly understood, life and death should not be separated in our thinking. Death is part of life and life is part of death. And for the follower of Jesus, resurrection is part of both. We can live the ways that Jesus taught and showed us to live because the resurrected Lord is present in our lives. We have been changed; we have been given an eternal perspective on life. That is one of the main forces that helps us to be ready for anything that we face in this life. Notice that Paul, after expending many, many words teaching the Corinthians about the reality of Christ’s resurrection and of ours, ended with these words: “Therefore…be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:57). It is the power of the resurrection that makes us “steadfast” and “immovable,” which sounds like having a solid foundation to me.

The truth is, though, that we are going to die. Our time on this earth is limited. To many people death is a terror and, given that they approach it without hope and without grace, it should be. But is not that way for us. We know the truth, the real truth. Christ has been raised from the dead. We will be raised from the dead. We will receive resurrection bodies that will be imperishable and immortal and incorruptible. Death will be swallowed up in victory! “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 57). Indeed.

Eternal life experienced through a resurrection body, the most wonderful thing about which we can say being that it will be a body like that of Christ, is our destiny as those who have come to Jesus. Approaching our death with utter confidence and strength is the reward of those who have come to him, listened to him, and consistently done what he has taught and showed us to do. Even death can be faced with a strong and sure foundation!

The final stanza of the song I cited earlier celebrates the reality of Christian death well.
And with your final heartbeat
Kiss the world goodbye
Then go in peace, and laugh on Glory's side, and
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus and live!

Are you ready for it? Are you ready to face anything that comes at you as you live? Are you ready to face anything that comes at you as you die? If you know and are growing in your relationship with the resurrected Lord, you can be.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Read an Article by Josh Ruffin

Our son Joshua had an article published in the print edition of the Metro Spirit dated February 15-21, 2007. If you live in the Augusta, GA area, be sure to grab a copy from one of the boxes. You can also read the article on-line. Go to and click on "Music." Then click on the article "Peter Rowan and Tony Rice" (the website lists Erika Bolin, a very good writer herself, as the author, but fear not--when the article comes up, you will see Josh's name there).

Friday, February 9, 2007

No Blog from Feb. 11-18

Dear Readers,

I will not be blogging for the next week. My next new post will be on Monday, February 19.

Thanks for reading.

Whom Would You Kiss for a Snickers Bar?

A while back some commercials ran on television that included the little jingle, “What would you do for a Klondike Bar?” My answer to the question was just about anything that was not illegal, immoral, or unethical. Those things are great.

This week’s question might be “Whom would you kiss for a Snickers Bar?” There’s been a lot of hullabaloo over a Snickers commercial that debuted during last Sunday’s Super Bowl telecast. For those of you who have been vacationing on Pluto, I’ll summarize the plot. Two guys—think Cooter from the old Dukes of Hazzard TV show—are working on the engine of a car. One of them pulls a Snickers bar from his shirt pocket, unwraps it and sticks it in his mouth. The other one, attracted by the candy bar, begins to eat the bar from the other end. So they are both chewing on the Snickers bar from opposite ends—think Lady and the Tramp eating spaghetti. They meet—literally—in the middle. Realizing their predicament, they jump back from each other and, feeling the need to do something manly, they each rip off some chest hair. Ouch.

Some folks were upset about the commercial because they felt that it made fun of homosexuality or perpetuated homophobic attitudes. I can see that, I guess. Of course, straight men could also complain that it made fun of stereotypical “manliness.” Mechanics could claim that the ad perpetuated stereotypes about them. Chocoholics might complain that their illness was made light of. And so on.

The Mars Company has pulled the offending ad. So far as I know, GM is still running an advertisement for which they are getting flak; it shows an assembly line robot that has lost its job becoming so despondent that it jumps off a bridge. It turns out to be a dream sequence (a robot dreaming?) but some folks have complained that the ad makes light of suicide. I think that John Stewart had it right on the Daily Show when he said that if GM is going to apologize to anybody for anything maybe they should apologize to the thousands of human workers who have been laid off.

In both cases, people have been offended by visual images. In other cases, people are offended by words. A few days ago, Sen. Joseph Biden, in an apparent effort to compliment Sen. Barak Obama, used some phrasing that could be regarded as offensive to African Americans. I don’t think that anybody believes that he meant to be offensive, but that’s the way his words were perceived. Such words as those grab the headlines and they will likely dog Biden for months as he pursues the Democratic nomination for President. I wonder how well we are served by a media that gives such words so much attention but that, unless we are willing to go beyond the usual print and television sources, gives so little attention to substantial words about policies and potential solutions to problems. I mean, maybe it tells us something about Biden when he can’t be more articulate than he was in trying to talk about Obama, but surely it doesn’t tell us everything we need to know as we try to evaluate his presidential potential.

I believe that images and words do matter. Christians should work hard not to perpetuate stereotypes about anybody. The love of Christ should be so present in our lives that we want only to build up and to help and never to tear down and to hurt. The Bible teaches that our words are very important. The ancient Hebrews would never have bought into a “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” mentality. They knew the power of blessings and curses. Jesus taught us that the words that come out of our mouths reflect the contents of our hearts. If we say hateful things about people then we must be harboring hate in our hearts. That’s no way for a Christian to live.

We Christians should exercise much caution in how we use our words. As the little song we sang in the children’s Sunday School Assembly at Midway Baptist Church put it, “Oh be careful little mouth what you speak; for the Father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little mouth what you speak.” We should be especially careful about what we say to someone or about someone.

But on the other hand—I do get the sense that folks in American society need to lighten up a little bit. Maybe some of us do take ourselves a little too seriously. Now I want to be cautious here because I may be treading somewhere that I have no right to go. I belong to no group that can lay any legitimate claim to persecution. I do not share in the belief that Christians are a persecuted segment of the American population. We probably should be, if we were being what we are supposed to be, but I don’t think that’s happening. Still, I think there’s much about folks like me that could provide fodder for comedians and essayists and even advertisers.

So…when I see something that makes fun of middle-aged, European-American, heterosexual, hairline-challenged, Southern, nearsighted, skinny-legged, paunchy, middle-class, Christian evangelical Baptist, small-footed, boney-kneed, married with two children, mechanically disinclined, bookwormish, and nerdy male ministers, I’ll try to remember my own advice and not take it too personally.

But please…if you just have to say something, at least be Christian about it!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Even More Josh Ruffin CD Reviews

Our son Joshua has two new CD reviews posted at Go there, click on "Music," and then on "CD Reviews." Josh's are the first and fourth ones on the page.

National Signing Day

Yesterday was National Signing Day, the day when high school seniors can officially accept scholarship offers to play college football. It’s a big day for fans. They gather on the campus of their favorite team to celebrate the signing of top prospects and to fret over whether or not the team got the help they’ll need to compete for a conference or even a national championship over the next few years. Web sites and blogs experience tremendous traffic as fans check in to see how their school’s recruiting class is shaping up and to chat with each other about it all. It’s a big day for coaches. Bless their hearts; their future employment depends on whether they’ve picked the right eighteen and nineteen year olds to recruit. And, of course, it’s a big day for the players and for their families. A full ride to college is nothing to sneeze at; the players and their parents are justifiably proud. They are also justifiably excited about what the future might hold.

I do feel some pain for the young men, though. It can’t be easy to have so many details of your life aired in public. We can find out how much they weigh, how tall they are, what injuries they’ve suffered, and where they live. Sometimes their high school GPA and their SAT or ACT score become public knowledge. I especially feel for those players who are struggling to get their grades or their scores to a high enough level that they can be accepted to the school of their choice. It is perfectly honorable to go to a prep school or to a junior college in order to get one’s academics in better shape. Students who are not athletes do that all the time; it’s just not reported on the front page of the Sports section.

I think we ought to pray for these young men. Many of us know that the transition to college life can be difficult. These guys have the extra burden of being stars. So let’s pray that they will keep level heads and that they will keep the big picture of their lives in mind. They have a great opportunity. And they are far more than big, strong, fast guys who block, tackle, run, throw, catch, and kick. They are human beings for whom the good Lord just may have something great in store.

And even though most of them think they want to play in the NFL, that something great may well have nothing to do with football.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Spiderman, J. Jonah Jameson, and Persecution

Our local newspaper, along with others, has been including a classic Spiderman comic book among the thousands of inserts in the Sunday edition. I’ve been getting a kick out of reading them. It takes me back.

I loved comic books when I was a young fellow. The best I can recall, a comic book cost ten cents back in the mid-‘60s. I swallowed hard and went along when they went up to twelve cents but they went beyond my budget limitations when they hit fifteen cents. At that point I had to choose between comic books and baseball cards; by then baseball cards were uppermost in my affections. I bought my comic books at Shelor’s Drug Store on the corner of Main and Elm in downtown Barnesville, Georgia, my hometown. The pharmacist was Dr. Shelor and the sales clerk was Mrs. Shelor. My parents were good and faithful customers so Dr. and Mrs. Shelor knew me well. I would stand at the comic book rack for an hour, carefully reading several until I decided which one I wanted to buy. When the “Gordon Boys,” the cadets from Gordon Military College, would loiter for a few minutes perusing the less savory publications (detective magazines, for example), Mrs. Shelor would run them off. She never shooed me away from the comics, though.

Inflation did not put an end to my comic book reading because I had other sources. My Uncle Shelor, who is related in some way to Dr. Shelor (I think he is his nephew), was also a pharmacist; he operated a drug store in nearby Zebulon. My Uncle Sonny was related to the folks who ran the grocery store in my father’s hometown of Yatesville. At the end of a month at both stores, the title portion of the front cover of the unsold comic books was cut off, I assume to be returned for some kind of credit, but the comic books themselves were left behind. I read a lot of comic books with half of the front cover missing. Their collector value was gone, but the stories were still entertaining.

Among my favorites were Captain America, Iron Man, Batman, Superman, the Green Lantern, Daredevil, the Incredible Hulk, and the Mighty Thor. But my favorite above all favorites was Spiderman. I’m not sure why, but I think it had something to do with the fact that he was a misunderstood teenager who, when he was not in his Spiderman mode, was a bit of a nerd. I could relate, except that I unfortunately didn’t have the super powers thing to fall back on, except in my daydreams.

So reading the classic Spiderman comics over the past few weeks has been a real pleasure. The one from this week, the original publication date of which was March 10, 1964, included an interesting stream of consciousness segment featuring Spiderman’s perpetual thorn in the side, J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson was a powerful newspaper publisher who, from the first appearance of Spiderman, had it in for the web-slinger. Even as Spiderman brought in more and more criminals and did more and more good, Jameson’s hatred for him grew. We wondered why. In a scene on the last page of this issue, we see Jameson alone in his office, talking to himself. This is what he said:

Am I always to be thwarted, embarrassed, frustrated by Spiderman? I hate that costumed freak more than I’ve ever hated anyone before! I’ll never be contented while he’s free. All my life I’ve been interested in only one thing—making money. And yet, Spiderman risks his life day after day, with no thought of reward! If a man like him is good—is a hero—then what am I? I can never respect myself while he lives. Spiderman represents everything that I’m not. He’s brave, powerful, and unselfish. The truth is, I envy him! I, J. Jonah Jameson—millionaire, man of the world, civic leader—I’d give everything I own to be the man that he is! But I can never climb to his level. So all that remains for me is—to try to tear him down—because, heaven help me—I’m jealous of him!

I hope you’re sitting down as I say that in this scenario, Spiderman can function as a metaphor for a faithful Christian while Jameson can function as a metaphor for folks “in the world” who don’t understand faithful Christians. When we Christians are being who we are supposed to be, we too are brave, powerful, and—especially—unselfish. When are being who we are supposed to be, we do all that we can to love all that we can and to help all that we can, regardless of the personal cost to us and with no self-serving agenda. When folks around us who do not have the Spirit of Christ in them see such loving, selfless actions, they may be positively impressed. But, they may just as likely be confused and troubled and even angered. Why? Because, whether they can articulate it or not, they see in such a life the life they would like to live. They may believe that they can never live such a life, which they can’t, of course, anymore than we can, apart from the grace of God. So, they may strike out and try to tear down because they need to believe that we aren’t what we appear to be.

They are right about us when they believe that we are not perfect. They are even right about us when they think that we cannot really be good. What they can’t understand is that it is Christ in us that makes possible whoever and whatever we are.

Sometimes, of course, they are right when they think the worst about us. We can be hypocritical. We are capable of doing the right things for the wrong reasons. We are capable of acting far better in public than we actually are in private. We are capable of being selfish.

Still, though, we can be attacked and persecuted—probably will be and should be—when we are truly being who we really are. So it was with Spiderman. More importantly—much more importantly—so it was with the great heroes of the faith who have gone before us.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Irritable Clergy Syndrome

We were sitting in a local restaurant one evening. It is a small place where the tables are so close together that you can hear the conversations that are taking place around you while making no effort to eavesdrop. Two couples were sitting at a table next to us. One of the gentlemen was holding forth in very firm and loud tones about his pastor. He said something like this: “I get so tired of that preacher dragging himself around like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He ought to be showing the joy of the Lord in his life. I’ll tell you this: I wish that I worked for the Lord all the time; I’d always have a smile on my face.” I wanted to step over to his table and offer some corrective words. I didn’t, though, because that kind of church member might punch you between the eyes.

Had I said anything to him it would have sounded something like this.

Brother, I can understand your desire to see your preacher feeling chipper and looking radiant all the time. Who would not want the person who is called by God to tend to the flock of which you are a member to experience perpetual joy? I would encourage you to pray daily for him with at least as much passion as you’re talking about him tonight. I would also encourage you to act on the impulse that you are likely to get from the good Lord when you pray for your pastor to get up, go see him, and sincerely ask him if there is anything that you can do to help him so that his burden might be lightened just a little bit.

Trust me, he may not have the weight of the world on his shoulders but he is carrying a heavy load. He is trying to prepare sermons that adequately present the truths of the gospel to the people who will hear him. He is trying to point lost people away from their sins and toward the Savior, and not too many people are anxious for such direction. He is trying to help you and the other members of the church to see whatever hypocrisies you harbor and whatever unchristian attitudes you display and not too many of you really want to hear about that. He visits the sick, he prays with the dying, he counsels the troubled, and he pacifies the angry.

And here’s the thing, brother: chances are that he really, really cares. He truly cares about the Lord, about the church, about the sick and the sin sick—and brother, he really cares about you. If he didn’t care he could walk around with a spring in his step and a lilt in his voice, but for him the burdens are real. To complicate matters more, he feels called to perform all those acts of ministry that I mentioned but he probably spends more time dealing with administrative and troubleshooting tasks to which he does not feel called and for which he is not particularly well trained. Oh, and there’s one more thing: he does all of that with the full knowledge that some of his folks are talking about him behind his back, kind of like you’ve been doing here in earshot of quite a few people, some of whom, chances are, aren’t Christians and are judging the church by your words about your pastor. So, brother, pray for and try to help your pastor. Remember this, too: whatever you are—mechanic, lawyer, doctor, teacher, accountant, truck driver—whatever you are, if you are a Christian, you work full-time for the Lord just as surely as your pastor does. I’ll bet you don’t show the joy of the Lord in your face and with your words all the time, either.

Yep, he would have hit me between the eyes. Now, let me be clear about something. The members of the churches that I have served as pastor and the members of the church that I now serve were and are supportive, helpful, and encouraging. I have been blessed and I am grateful. Still, all churches and pastors deal with such dynamics to some extent; unfortunately, some are terribly afflicted along these lines.

In December 2006, the Times of London ran a story with the headline “Evil-minded parishioners making life hell for clergy.” The story reported on a study that had just been published entitled The Future of the Parish System: Shaping the Church of England for the 21st Century. One of the authors of the report, Sara Savage, said that priests in the Anglican Church were being torn down by the requirement they felt to be nice to everybody, even to those church members who were very nasty in their own behavior. The problem with some church members, she said, is neurosis that borders on psychosis, but even where problems are not that severe, the pressure to keep the volunteers that are necessary to keep the church running happy can prevent the minister from being confrontational. She termed the problems that can develop for pastors “irritable clergy syndrome.”

The truth is that sometimes the problem lies with us ministers as much as it does with our parishioners. We try to be more than we are; we attempt to be superhuman in our responses to life and to people. I once heard William Willimon tell another “overheard in a restaurant” story. He said that two women were discussing their pastor in pretty negative terms. This went on for a while. Then, one of them said, “Well, after all, he’s only human.” The other lady replied, “That’s all we expect—but he’s not doing a very good job of that!” We pastors could help ourselves if we would accept our humanity and develop it fully, even when that requires being sad, angry, disappointed, and even indignant. Our parishioners could help us if they would encourage us to be fully human and if they would not be judgmental when we show that we are.

I guess that sometimes I display symptoms of irritable clergy syndrome. I’m happy to report that up to now it has been episodic and not chronic!

Monday, February 5, 2007

Contrarian Christianity

(A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 & Luke 6:17-26)

[Note: On Mondays I will be posting an edited version of my sermon from the previous Sunday morning. I maintain a list of folks to whom I e-mail the full version of those sermons. If you would like to be added to that list, post a comment telling me so or send me an e-mail at]

There is a type of financial investor known as a contrarian. With full awareness that there is much more that could be said about it, I offer this simple definition: a contrarian investor is one who goes against the herd in her investing strategies. When everyone is investing in one group of stocks, she will look elsewhere. When a sector falls out of favor, that is when she may buy it.

I want to advocate for a contrarian brand of Christianity, a Christianity that goes against the herd. Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:13-14). Most people take the road that is well-traveled and that road, Jesus said, leads to destruction. It leads away from meaningful life and away from eternal life. Few people take the road that is less-traveled and it is that road, Jesus said, that leads to meaningful and eternal life. The Christian way is by its very nature contrarian.

That means that Christians believe in a future that changes the present. That belief in a future that changes the present is based on our belief in the resurrection from the dead. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the foundational events of our faith; the Christian faith exists only because of the resurrection. It is the reality that makes all the difference for us. Our faith and our very lives hinge on the resurrection. It makes all the difference. Because of the resurrection, death will not be the end for us but rather a glorious beginning. Because of the resurrection, we live the forgiven life here and now.

Someone who does not believe in the resurrection of Jesus will have a much better chance of coming to believe in it if we Christians live like we believe in it. And here is where my title comes back into play. Christians are to be contrarians. Our belief in a future that includes our own resurrection is based on a past event, the resurrection of Jesus, and that belief changes the present for us. True, it is not just for this life that we have hoped in Christ, but our assurance of our own resurrection because of the resurrection of Christ nonetheless makes the difference in how we see this world and how we live this life. And it is in living life in light of the resurrection that we bear witness to our Lord.

Contrarian Christianity changes the way that we view our circumstances. While Jesus spoke the words recorded by Luke in the Sermon on the Plain during his life on earth, they were preserved in the gospel tradition and then in our Bibles for the sake of the resurrection community. Jesus could say and the church could affirm that followers of Jesus are blessed when they are poor, when they are hungry, when they weep, and when they are reviled and persecuted because in God’s future they will inherit the kingdom, they will be filled, they will laugh, and their reward will be great in heaven. Jesus could also say that those who were rich and full and well spoken of did not have much to look forward to in the future. I am especially struck by this statement of Jesus about such folks: “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). Interestingly, they spoke well of the false prophets because those prophets spoke in ways that matched what the herd wanted to hear.

Let me offer a summary of Jesus’ words: it is those whose lives are oriented to the future who live God’s way in the present and will know God’s blessings in the future while it is those who lives are oriented to the present who neither live God’s way in the present nor will know God’s blessings in the future.

You might think, as some people do, that contrarian Christians, Christians who have their eyes fixed on the future that God has in store for them, will be “so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.” The truth is, though, that Christians who have their eyes firmly fixed on heaven are in the best position to make things better here. Because we have nothing to lose here that ultimately matters, we are free to take the chances that must be taken to make things better. Because we have caught a glimpse of the way things ought to be, we are motivated to try to move things that way. Because we have been overwhelmed by the love of God, we endure and enjoy the glorious impulse to share love in every way that we can with everybody that we can.

As always, C. S. Lewis put it better than I can.

A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next…. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither [Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 119].

At what are you aiming? Are you like everybody else, aiming at earth and getting nothing? Are you a contrarian Christian, going against the flow and aiming at heaven and getting the right perspective on and the right contributions to earth thrown in?

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Baseball Eschatology (Part Three)

(Note: On Sundays I am posting a Sabbath blog, my logic being that the Sabbath is a good day to post about things that I enjoy. Fun writing is recreational writing, I figure. So, here is Sabbath post #5.)

There is an eschatological dimension to the game of baseball.

Two Sundays ago, in part one of this essay, I said that in baseball there is a realized and an unrealized eschatology. Last Sunday, in part two, I said that the eschatology of baseball has some elements in common with the biblical concept of the Day of the Lord. In particular, what at first blush seems like a final and complete baseball victory is really only temporary, for, once a World Series championship is won, the winning team’s attention must turn almost immediately to the attempt to win the next one. That reality parallels in some ways the biblical prophets’ notion of the Day of the Lord, in which they envisioned “little” days all along the way to the “big” and final consummation of God’s purposes.

Today I want to point out some ways in which the baseball off-season parallels the church’s experience of “living between the Advents.”

“Advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” The first Advent of the Messiah occurred at Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. We await his second Advent. In the meantime, we live in the meantime. That is, we live in the time between the Advents. It appears from the New Testament evidence that the early Christians expected Jesus to return in the near, from their perspective, future. That caused some of them to sit back and wait without contributing anything positive to society. It is in that context that we should hear Paul’s admonition that those who would not work would not eat. In other words, the “between the Advents” “in the meantime” waiting of Christians is to be an active waiting. We are to be sharing the Good News, helping the hurting, ministering to the sick, feeding the hungry, and generally being contributing members of society. While we are to wait, we are to do, so that we will be as ready as possible for the Savior to come.

The 2006 baseball season ended on October 26, when the St. Louis Cardinals won game five of the World Series and took the Series from the Detroit Tigers, four games to one. The 2007 baseball season will begin for my favorite team, the Atlanta Braves, either, depending on how you look at it, on February 15, when pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, or February 20, when position players report, or February 28, when the Braves play an exhibition game against Georgia Tech, or March 1, when they open their Major League Spring Training schedule versus the Los Angeles Dodgers, or April 2, when they open their regular season at home against the Philadelphia Phillies. But, no major league team has been doing nothing during the so-called “off-season.” They can’t. Those who don’t work, don’t eat.

Indeed, while there is a period during which no major league baseball games are being played, there is really no such thing as a baseball “off-season.” In the first place, the players are doing everything they can do to stay in shape. Some play in the Caribbean League or the Mexican League, some play in the Fall Instructional League, and others follow an individualized exercise regimen to stay in shape. In the second place, the management of every team is working hard to improve the team for the upcoming season. Before the advent of the new season, the owners, the general managers, and the managers want to make sure that they have put the best possible team together. Thus, they make trades, sign free agents, and release players, trying to put the best team on the field that they can. It’s all about being active and productive during the time between the actual seasons so that, when the advent of the new season dawns, the team will be found ready.

There’s one more aspect of this component of baseball eschatology on which I’d like to comment. In his parable of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus taught that like a farmer had to wait until harvest time to separate the two, so the church would have to wait until the final judgment to finally experience the separation of those who were truly kingdom citizens from those who weren’t. That is certainly the case. Still, all along the way, as 1 John put it, some go out from the church because they were not really of the church. (On the other hand, some stay put who don’t belong and some hang out just beyond the fringes who really do belong, but I’ll have to get to that some other time.)

Of course, not all of those who leave us do so voluntarily or under negative circumstances. Others leave us because they have gone home to be with the Lord. I hope it doesn’t sound trite to say that those folks have really reached home plate and have truly scored the winning run.

How can such thoughts be applied to baseball? The other day I was looking at a program from a Braves game that was played at Turner Field in 2001. The program included the Braves’ 40-man roster for that season. Only three players who were on that 40-man roster in 2001 remain on it today: Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, and John Smoltz. In the span of six years, 37 players of the 40 who were on that roster have been removed from it. Some are with other teams and some are out of baseball altogether. Some were not a good fit. For whatever reason, they are not on the Braves’ roster because they are no longer of the Braves’ organization. Most have simply gone on to other and I hope just as or even more meaningful phases of their lives. But the roster does change from year to year. Most of the time, we miss the ones who are gone. Maybe we miss some more than others. But the changes in the lineup do come.

This concludes my ruminations on baseball eschatology.

Oh, one more thing: I firmly believe that there will be baseball in heaven. Eternity is all about symmetry, I think, and heaven and baseball just go together too well not to be together for ever. It is said that on a beautiful summer day Ernie Banks, the great Cubs legend, would look around and say, “Let’s play two!” When I open my eyes in heaven one day, I anticipate looking around and saying, “Let’s play two million!”

Friday, February 2, 2007

More Josh Ruffin CD Reviews

Our son Joshua has two more CD reviews this week on the web site of the Metro Spirit. Go to, click on "Music" and then on "CD Reviews." Josh's are the third and fifth ones on the page.

Religion & Rasslin’

In years gone by, I was a regular viewer of professional wrestling.

There, I said it, and I feel better.

When I was attempting to grow up in the 1960s, Channel 11 in Atlanta aired Georgia Championship Wrestling following the 11:00 p.m. newscast on Saturday nights. I’d stay up to watch. My other opportunity to watch the grapplers was on Saturday afternoon; a station in Columbus had a show featuring the same wrestlers. Fred Ward, who was the promoter of the Columbus matches, would always welcome viewers and issue a special greeting to “all our shut-in friends” for whom he would express his hopes that they would “be up and at ‘em real, real soon!” My favorites during that era were Joe Scarpa (who later wrestled as Chief Jay Strongbow), El Mongol (who was supposed to be from Mongolia but who operated a Mexican restaurant that was advertised in the printed programs handed out at the matches, so I’m a little suspicious as to his real nationality), and the tag team of Ray Gunkel and Buddy Fuller. The hated bad guys included Paul DeMarco, Nick Bockwinkel, and the masked tag team called The Assassins.

I constantly badgered my father to take me to see one of the Friday night wrestling cards in Atlanta, which was fifty-five miles away. I would beg and plead; I would cut the ads out of the newspaper and leave them where he could see them. He always said no. “I’m not going to drive all that way and spend all that money to see that fake stuff,” he would sniff. Hope arrived in 1970 with the opening of the Sports Palace on Highway 341 just on the Barnesville side of Griffin. The Georgia Championship Wrestling performers were to appear there every Saturday night. They put up posters announcing the card all over town. And it was only a fifteen mile drive! Knowing that he had lost his major excuse for not taking me, I approached my father triumphantly: “We can drive twenty minutes and see live wrestling,” I told him. He said ok. So one Saturday night he took me to the Sports Palace. I have two memories of that night. One is of one of the Assassins hitting Bobby Shane across the chest with his forearm. The masked wrestler would strike Shane who would go crashing down to the mat. But every time Shane was struck he would spit up in the air as he fell back, like he was trying to make it appear that one of his teeth was being knocked out. This happened repeatedly; I wondered how many teeth Shane thought we’d believe he had. My other memory is of my father laughing through the whole show. I never asked him to take me again and he never offered. I did go several more times, usually with my Uncle Dock and my cousin Rudy. They took it more seriously than did my father.

Of course, my father was right; professional wrestling was and is, to avoid the negatively weighted term “fake,” choreographed and scripted and the results were predetermined. It should not be taken seriously.

How seriously, then, should one take professional wrestling when it is combined with the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ? That very hybrid showed up in a documentary about evangelical Christianity currently being aired on HBO called Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi. Pelosi, who is the daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, produced, edited, and wrote the film. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I do not subscribe to HBO and I have not seen the movie. From what I read and hear, Pelosi spoke with such evangelical leaders as Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard, and Rick Scarborough. She also delved into the, shall we say, offbeat side of the movement, including an excursion to a gospel miniature golf course and to evangelical professional wrestling matches.

In a press release, Scarborough, the president of Vision America, whose stated mission is “to inform, encourage and mobilize pastors and their congregations to be proactive in restoring Judeo-Christian values to the moral and civic framework in their communities, states, and our nation,” criticized the documentary as painting evangelicals in a negative light. The Christian Wrestling Federation (CWF), on the other hand, trumpets on their website ( their inclusion in the HBO documentary. The CWF’s mission statement, found on their website, says in part, that “the CWF is a group of talented athletes using amazing feats, athletic ability, and entertaining stories to share the gift of Jesus Christ…. The Bible says we are to use unique and different ways to reach people for Christ. This is what the CWF is all about... reaching people in a unique way….” Another Christian wrestling organization, Ultimate Christian Wrestling, based in Athens, Georgia, was the focus of an ABC News story in December 2005. The show on which ABC reported featured as its climactic event a drama of apocalyptic proportions, portraying the fate of the various wrestling characters on Judgment Day. That night, according to the story, some two dozen fans made professions of faith. (The story can be read at

What are we to make of all of this? Many Christians are no doubt embarrassed by such spectacle; the whole thing may strike us as tacky. Still, some would say, what difference does it make how the audience is attracted and how the message is presented, just as long as the Good News is proclaimed? The verse that the CWF displays on their internet home page, "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22), could be used to make that very point. Granted, the Apostle Paul did not have professional wrestling in mind when he said that, but neither did he have in mind Christian rock music, Christian drama, Christian comedians, or, for that matter, Christian orchestras, Christian television evangelists, Christian mimes, Christian liturgical dancers, Christian cowboy churches, Christian Gregorian chants, Christian movies….well, you get the idea. It seems to me that most of us are open to creative means of communicating the gospel unless that creative means doesn’t match up with our sense of what is in good taste.

On the other hand, others would argue, in some sense the medium is the message. What kind of message is communicated, then, through such a violent medium, even if it is choreographed and cartoonish violence? Furthermore, granting that Paul spoke of the foolishness of preaching the cross, does that in any way justify an effort to communicate such holy and ultimate truths through such an exceedingly ridiculous vehicle? I can still hear the words of the first pastor with whom I ever worked, Rev. William L. Key, who once said to a group of young ministers, “The church isn’t a circus and the Lord doesn’t need clowns in the pulpit.” Preacher Key didn’t comment on clowns in the wrestling ring.

Can we get so far out there sometimes in trying to communicate the Good News that the message becomes distorted beyond recognition? That question is not just about Christian professional wrestling. It may also apply to quite a lot of things that we in the church are doing nowadays in order to try to be “relevant.”

Of course, discussing such issues can prompt the outbreak of a battle royal. I hope that I won’t be disqualified from the match for raising the question.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

A Classics Kind of Guy

I’m into classics.

I’m not a car guy, but I do hope that before I die I’ll own a 1965 Mustang, preferably a red convertible.

I’m of the opinion that not much music has been produced that is worth listening to since the Beatles broke up.

I’m trying to collect hardback editions of the books that a panel commissioned by The Modern Library designated as the 100 greatest English language novels published since 1900. I’d rather buy a used classic than a brand new novel any day.

Given my career path, it shouldn’t be surprising that I like old things. The languages I’ve studied, biblical Hebrew and koine Greek, haven’t been spoken for centuries. The book that I’ve given my life to studying, preaching, and teaching is almost 2,000 years old, with parts of it going back 1,000 years earlier than that. The institution I serve, the Church, has also been around for two millennia, although the local branch where I work is only seventy-seven years old; it’s just a young upstart compared to some of the other local branches in other places.

I also like old movies. Give me a black and white film noir classic from the 1940s or 1950s (Out of the Past, Kiss Me Deadly) over a new “realistic” bright red blood all over the place crime movie any time. I’d rather watch The Philadelphia Story so I can listen to Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant speaking lines that are so flirtatious you can just about see sparks flying off of them than be titillated by the modern films that not only leave nothing to the imagination but actually chop imagination off at the knees. And don’t even get me started on 1950s science fiction movies that were charming and challenging in their own way as they tried, more often than not, to warn us about the dangers of nuclear testing (Them!, Godzilla) and the then very real possibility of America falling victim to invasion by beings who were intent on destroying human freedom and individuality (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space).

The next thirty-one days will be movie heaven for lovers of old films. Turner Classic Movies (TCM), the only indispensable channel on television, begins its special programming called “Thirty-One Days of Oscar” today. From February 1 through March 3, TCM will show only films that were nominated for and/or won the Academy Award. Various categories will be featured along the way, such as Best Song Nominees and Winners (February 9), Best Actress Winners (February 15), and Best Editing Nominees and Winners (March 3).

The apex of Oscar wins is, of course, Best Picture. Beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, February 22, TCM will show a 72-hour marathon of Best Picture Oscar Winners that will lead up to this year’s Academy Awards show. You have my permission to sit in front of your television for that entire 72-hour period and soak up some of the best movies ever made. Well, I’d appreciate it if you would set your TiVo or VCR or whatever device you use and record the ones that come on during Sunday morning worship time and go to church, but other than that, go ahead, stock up on snacks and stay in front of the television. If you do, you will see movies like Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives, You Can’t Take It With You, On the Waterfront, From Here to Eternity, Gone With the Wind, and Casablanca, and that’s just a sampling.

I’m a classics kind of guy. I’m also grateful for small blessings. To know that I can sit down any time I want over the next thirty-one days and see a classic example of movie-making—now that’s my kind of small blessing.

Now if I could just take a thirty-one day vacation!