Tuesday, June 30, 2009

If America Were a Christian Nation

Whenever we approach the American Independence Day observance, the debate over whether or not America is a Christian nation inevitably rekindles. The debate seems to me to be shaped in three different ways.

First, some people debate whether or not America was a Christian nation in the past. Many insist, and they can find pious quotes from various founding figures to support their contention, that America was founded as a Christian nation by Christian leaders. The most reasonable observers acknowledge that some of the Founding Fathers were Christians, some were agnostics, and some were Deists. One fact jumps out of the mists of history at me: the founding document of our nation, the United States Constitution, not only makes no mention of the Christian faith but indeed mentions God not at all, which leads me to conclude that the Founders went out of their way to insure at least that church and state would be separate in the United States, insurance that was increased by the Bill of Rights.

Second, some people debate whether or not America is a Christian nation in the present. This debate is fueled by consternation on the part of some and delight on the part of others over remarks by President Obama in which he has said that America is not a Christian nation, as in his press conference in Turkey earlier this year in which he said, “One of the great strengths of the United States is ... we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

Some see such comments as an indication that the President does not value the Christian heritage that is so obviously important to American history and to the American ethos but another and likely more accurate way to evaluate them is as a celebration of the melting pot nature of American culture that is or at least should be a source of great national pride. What unifies Americans, in other words, is not allegiance to one religion but our common status as Americans who believe that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are ideals that are worth rallying around and defending. An American Christian is an American, an American Jew is an American, an American Muslim is an American, an American Buddhist is an American, and an American atheist is an American. We are Americans—that is what unites us as Americans.

Third, some people debate whether or not America should be a Christian nation. It is that aspect of the debate that I want to address here.

The first matter that must be addressed is what it would mean for America to be a Christian nation. Does it mean having official government sanctioned religious observances? Surely not, since even a cursory reading of the Hebrew prophets and of the words of Jesus in the Gospels reveals that outward expressions of religion mean nothing if they are not preceded and inspired by a heart that is in a right relationship with God which in turn leads to just relationships with other people and history—even the history of Israel and of the “Christian” West—shows that nations are simply incapable of developing and maintaining such a corporate heart.

Does it mean having a personal conversion experience and the subsequent personal walk with God that are the hallmarks of so much of the Protestant (especially in Protestantism’s Evangelical expressions) emphasis? Again, surely not, since nations are simply not capable of such an experience.

Still, for the sake of argument, let’s posit that what I have said is impossible is in fact possible; let’s assume that American as a whole—as a nation—could somehow be “Christian” in the sense of having a corporate personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Were that the case, would not the next mark of being a Christian nation be that the nation as a whole, led by our elected officials, would strive, led by Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit and instructed by Holy Scripture, to live a Christian life?

If so, what would that look like?

The basic text for Christian living is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, that great manual for the disciple’s life given to us in Matthew 5-7. If American were a Christian nation it stands to reason that it would attempt to live out its corporate life in the world guided by the words of Jesus as found in that Sermon.

Let’s see.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also...” (5:38-39). Therefore, if America should be a Christian nation, then whenever we are attacked we should not retaliate, even in an equitable fashion, but rather we should not resist the nation or group that has harmed us and we should in fact “turn the other cheek.”

Jesus also said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (5:43-44). Therefore, if America should be a Christian nation, then our foreign policy should be guided by our desire to make alliances with our enemies rather than with our friends.

Jesus furthermore said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:19-21). Therefore, if America should be a Christian nation, then our economic policy should be guided not by a capitalistic mindset but rather by the effort to lay up treasure in heaven.

Obviously, this could go on for a while but I hope the point has been made: America cannot be a Christian nation— in any sense of the term that would mean anything— because America cannot be America with a “turn the other cheek” military policy, with a “make alliances with your enemies instead of your friends” foreign policy, and with a “don’t amass treasure on earth” economic policy. With such policies America would fall like a house of cards within a few short years.

“But,” someone will object, “the Sermon on the Mount is not meant to be a guide for how a nation is to live—it is meant to be a guide for how the Church and for how the Christians who make up the Church are to live.” In that objection the objector has agreed with my point.

Or someone else might object, "Besides, it's hard enough for an individual Christian to live out the Sermon on the Mount, much less a nation." In that objection the objector has identified the real issue and the real challenge.

The real issue is not whether America should be a Christian nation; the real issue is rather whether or not the Christians who live in America will be—will think as, will talk as, and will act as—Christians.

The real challenge is not for America as a nation to be Christian—to live a life that is led by Jesus, that is guided by the Spirit, and that is shaped by Scripture; the real challenge is rather for the Christians who live in America to be Christian—to live lives that are led by Jesus, that are guided by the Spirit, and that are shaped by Scripture.

In such living we will provide a needed witness to the nation and to the world, the effect of which will go largely unnoticed and utterly unappreciated, but the legitimacy and integrity of which will speak volumes about who Jesus is, what the Kingdom of God is, and who Christians really are.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On the Jericho Road at EthicsDaily.com

An abridged version of my article about Southern Seminary appears today at EthicsDaily.com.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

In Memory of Southern Seminary

I tried to give them a fair shake; really I did—but I knew in my heart that I was just going through the motions. Still, I did visit a couple of the other seminaries; I accompanied our Campus Minister and some other Mercer students to Wake Forest to take a look at Southeastern Seminary and I did so hoping that I would like it since it was the closest Baptist seminary to my Georgia home but it just didn’t ring my bell and in September of my senior year I flew out to Ft. Worth to evaluate Southwestern which struck me as awfully big which was ok but when I went to a Dairy Queen to get lunch they had never heard of a Mr. Misty and they sold tacos which caused me to conclude that the culture shock would be too great.

Besides, the influence of Southern Seminary on the Mercer Christianity Department was great in those days; several professors had at least one degree from Southern and my mentor Dr. Howard Giddens had two; it seemed to me that the path that led from Mercer to Southern was the most natural one for me to take. Also, the talk among my college student Baptist preacher peers was that Southern was the most academically rigorous of the six Southern Baptist seminaries; one saying held that “if you love to preach, go to New Orleans; if you love the Lord, go to Ft. Worth; if you love to learn, go to Louisville.” I loved all three but I fancied myself a budding scholar and so it came to pass than in August of 1979, on the same day that Debra graduated from Mercer, we loaded up and moved to Louisville for me to begin my seminary education.

We would spend the next seven years in Louisville while I pursued first the Master of Divinity (with an emphasis in Pastoral Ministry) and then the Doctor of Philosophy (Old Testament major, New Testament minor) degrees. Those seven years had their rough spots as I tried to (a) process my grief over the still very recent deaths of my parents, (b) rid myself of the vestiges of legalism that still clung desperately to my soul, and (c) come to terms with the truth that the opportunities that were being given me were being given me by the grace of God and not by any personal merit and therefore I need not be afraid of failure so long as I was trying to follow faithfully, which most of the time I was. In other words, I was still trying to grow up while also trying to assimilate the call I perceived I had from God and trying to achieve academic excellence.

It is first to our gracious God and second to my gracious wife that I owe the outcome: I persevered.

But I also owe a lot to the professors who taught me at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1979-1986. Two merit special attention because of the role that they played in my spiritual, vocational, and academic development.

The first is Dr. Page H. Kelley, who went home to be with the Lord in 1997. Dr. Kelley, a devoted Hebrew Bible scholar who was also one of the world’s foremost experts on the Masorah (the protective “hedge” built around the Hebrew text by those ancient scholars known as the Masoretes), was the supervisor of my Ph.D. work; I also had the privilege of serving as his garrett fellow for three years. As Dr. Kelley’s student and as his teaching assistant, I heard nearly every lecture he delivered; I also experienced not only how he treated me but how he treated other students and that treatment was, while at times necessarily firm, always gracious and fair. Dr. Kelley had a kind and gentle Christian spirit and a genuine love for the Lord, for the Bible, for Baptists, and for all people. During the six years that I taught Biblical Hebrew at Belmont University I used the excellent grammar that Dr. Kelley had produced; I liked to think that I was in that way continuing his ministry.

The second, to whom I was not as personally close as I was to Dr. Kelley but who nonetheless exerted a great influence on me, was Dr. E. Glenn Hinson. Dr. Hinson may be the smartest professor I ever had; he was at least the only one who had both a Th.D. in New Testament from Southern Seminary and a D.Phil. in Church History from Oxford. During my first year of seminary I took the required year-long Church History survey with Dr. Hinson. He would come in most days with a stack of books that he would recommend as parallel readings to us; we would snicker down deep inside because we knew we’d never finish the assigned readings, much less get to any parallel ones. Dr. Hinson would begin each class with a prayer, usually one from Michael Quoist, which I always found moving and meaningful. Then he would lecture, I think without notes, on all the intricacies of the history of our faith; it was mesmerizing.

But Dr. Hinson’s truly lasting influence on me came through another class I took with him: Classics of Christian Devotion. In that course we read many of the great spiritual writings of the faith, ranging from Augustine’s Confessions to Francis of Assisi’s Little Flowers to Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion and from those works I learned, along with the other members of the class and the many others who were blessed to take that course over the years, of the great struggles that led to the great faith of those writers. Dr. Hinson’s real influence on me, though, came not through the assigned readings but through the way in which he shared his life with us, through the confessional nature of his teaching. Dr. Hinson gave me the freedom, later affirmed and deepened by the writings of Frederick Buechner, to accept and to build on all the events and circumstances of my life as I tried to live faithfully as a Christian and as a Christian minister. Like Dr. Kelley, Dr. Hinson is one of the most genuine Christians I have ever known, a truth that is underscored by the chagrin he will feel if he ever finds out that I said so.

While Dr. Kelley and Dr. Hinson had the most lasting influence on me, there are other professors who taught me at Southern whose names I would be remiss not to at least mention: George Beasley-Murray, Bill Leonard, William Tuck, Paul Simmons, Andy Lester, Wade and Jodi Rowatt, J. J. Owens, Marvin Tate, John D. W. Watts, Alan Culpepper, Gerald Keown, Bryant Hicks, Larry McSwain and Dale Moody all come to mind.

Southern Seminary is on my mind because the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is taking place this week in Louisville and during the week the Sesquicentennial of Southern is going to be celebrated. I took a look at the schedule of events that is taking place to celebrate that milestone and I waxed nostalgic; I wish I could be there but I cannot. I cannot because the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that I attended for seven years no longer exists; it died in 1990 when Southern Baptist Fundamentalist party loyalists gained control of the Board of Trustees and that death was cemented in 1993 with the retirement of President Roy L. Honeycutt and the ascendency of Dr. Albert R. Mohler.

In the rewriting of Southern Baptist history that has been taking place since the successful completion of the Fundamentalist Takeover/Conservative Resurgence, the story that is told is that the fundamentalists saved the SBC from liberalism and that, under the leadership of Dr. Mohler, Southern has purged its liberals and has been returned to its historical roots.

My guess and my fear is that in this week’s celebration of Southern’s 150th anniversary--since, in the view of those who are write the “official” history, the forty or so years immediately prior to the fundamentalist victory were dark and liberal years--those professors who gave their careers and their lives during that period to the education of Baptist ministers will not be given due credit, which is somewhat ironic, given that those are the very professors who taught President Mohler during the years of his M.Div. and Ph. D. work.

And so this post is my halting and flawed effort to say to Dr. Kelley and to Dr. Hinson and to all the rest—most of whom left Southern after 1990—thank you and God bless you because you provided an invaluable ministry and left an enduring legacy to me and to thousands of others.

In my heart, I have no seminary alma mater, which saddens me.

But also in my heart, I carry with me the spirit, the values, and the legacy of what the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary used to be.

In a way, it doesn’t matter; Southern is in its new way still a good school—a former student and good friend of mine just finished his M.Div. there and he received a fine education. Moreover, because of what happened to Southern and to the other Southern Baptist seminaries, many more excellent theological education options are now available to Baptist students of the moderate persuasion.

But in a way, it does matter—those of us who were taught and mentored and nurtured at the Old Southern need to be proud of it and to stand up and say so. May we pre-1993 alumni never forget what Southern used to be and may we never forget what she and her blessed teachers did for us.

A Heart that Is Right with God

(A sermon based on Matthew 15:1-20 for June 21, 2009)

It is important that we who are fathers—and indeed all of us—face up to the truth about ourselves.

The first truth about ourselves is that we are all sinners. For the sake of honesty, for the sake of our mental and emotional health, and for the sake of a sound perspective on life, it is good and wise that we own up to our own dark side, to our own potential to think, talk, and act in destructive ways. To have integrity, then, all of us, fathers and non-fathers alike, need to admit that we are sinners.

But for those of us who know and are known by Christ, the truth also is that things should be getting better. That is because the grace of God that we find in Jesus Christ works to change our hearts and the Spirit of God that is present in our lives works to transform our hearts.

Jesus said that the things that truly defile a person come from the heart; things that indicate the changed and changing nature of a person come from the heart, too. Those things come to be present there because of what God does in our hearts. We really can have hearts that have been transformed and that are being transformed by the grace and love of God. We really can have hearts that are right with God.

Still, we need to be careful about making a statement like “My heart is right with God.”

We need to be careful in the first place because of the ever-present human tendency toward pride and arrogance. If our hearts are right with God it is all because of what God has done. We tend to want to give ourselves too much credit. Frankly, a too easy assumption that our hearts are right with God and a willingness to pat ourselves on the back for it are two indicators that our hearts are not as right as we would like to believe.

We need to be careful in the second place because of the ever-present human tendency toward carelessness. Perhaps today, at this moment, you can say “My heart is right with God” and it be true. That doesn’t eliminate the need for vigilance and maintenance. If I go to the dentist tomorrow and he says, “Everything is just fine with your teeth,” that’s a good thing and cause for celebration. But what if I don’t go back to the dentist for the next twenty-five years for cleanings and check-ups? Then, twenty-five years later when I do go for another visit, he says, “Well, you need two root canals and seven fillings.” Wouldn’t it sound foolish if I responded with “But you said twenty-five years ago that my teeth were just fine!”?
God makes our heart right and God keeps our heart right, but it’s a process that needs constant attention.

The assumption of our text is that the Pharisees and scribes thought and probably would have said that their hearts were right with God, but in fact they were not. The assumption of my sermon is that we fathers and indeed all of us Christians want to have hearts that are right with God. How can we know that we have hearts that are right with God and that are being made right with God? What would a life look like that is being lived out of such a heart?

A heart that is right with God issues in a life of integrity

When we say that a ship or an airplane or a building has integrity, we mean that it fits together like it’s supposed to, especially under stress. To say that a person whose heart is right with God will live a life of integrity is to say that her life fits together like it’s supposed to, especially under stress. Jesus used words from Isaiah to describe the lives of the Pharisees and scribes: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” His evaluation of them, based on that reality, was that they were hypocrites. To be a hypocrite is to live a life that does not have integrity. The pieces don’t fit; what you say and what you do don’t match who you really are in your heart.

Integrity is everything in the Christian life. It starts with who we are in our heart, with who we are in our innermost being. If we are developing the kind of heart we need, it is because of the grace of God operating in our lives. The tale is told in that part of our being that no one but God and we can see. Then, the reality of our relationship with God that makes our hearts the kind of hearts that honor him shows itself in the things that people can witness: our attitudes, our words, and our actions.

People tend to overemphasize outward actions, though. It seems to me that many of us struggle with two aspects of this problem. First, some of us put too much stock in the fact that we do the right things while giving too little attention to who we really are. In this case, our actions don’t match our hearts because our hearts are not what they are supposed to be. It was this problem that Jesus was addressing when he said “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” and “To eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

By the first century, Pharisaic Judaism had developed an elaborate system of hand washing the purpose of which was to avoid ritual defilement; if you had touched something unclean and ate without washing, you would be contaminated by the uncleanness being transferred to your food. The intent may have been noble, but the effort was ultimately fruitless, Jesus said. Outward, ritual holiness doesn’t matter if your heart is not holy. Doing all the things that you think God wants you to do externally doesn’t matter if you are not who God wants you to be internally.

Do any of us come to church, sing the hymns, even give an offering, and live exemplary moral public lives but yet have hearts that are really not all that in tune with the heart of God? Are any of us substituting the outward expressions of religion for a life that is really lived in close relationship with God? Our lives lack integrity if our outward actions, even if they are positive and wholesome, don’t reflect the heart that we really have.

I said that we struggle with two aspects of the problem of overemphasizing outward actions. The second aspect is that sometimes our actions don’t come up to the level of what our hearts really are. What I mean is that some of us have hearts that have been radically changed by the grace of God; they are being formed into the kinds of hearts that believers in Christ are supposed to have. Our hearts are capable of tremendous love, of tremendous grace, of tremendous forgiveness, of tremendous sacrifice, and of tremendous faith. But our actions and our attitudes and our words are not reflecting the capabilities of our hearts. Our external lives are not coming up to the level of our internal lives, so we lack integrity.

Wonderful words and attitudes and actions can flow out of our hearts into our lives in the world, but do they?

A heart that is right with God issues in loving attitudes and actions toward other people

That brings me to the other answer I want to offer to my questions “How can we know that we have hearts that are right that with God and that are being made right with God?” and “What would a life look like that is being lived out of such a heart?” I have just said that wonderful words and attitudes and actions can flow out of our hearts into our lives in the world. Those words and attitudes and actions will be based in a personal, down deep in the very heart of your being relationship with the God whose heart was revealed to us by his Son Jesus Christ to be perfectly loving, giving, grace-filled, and sacrificial. So, a heart that is right with God will show itself in attitudes, words, and actions that are directed toward others that reflect the way God feels and acts toward them.

Now, this is not a new legalism. You can’t go out and do a bunch of good deeds to prove that you’re a good person. But a heart that has been and is being genuinely changed by the grace of God will show itself in the ways it causes you to think about, talk about, and behave toward other people.

So Jesus said to the Pharisees and the scribes that they were wrong to nullify the commandment to honor father and mother by declaring their possessions as being dedicated to the temple so as to avoid sharing with their needy elderly parents. It was bad enough that they had allowed their tradition to supersede the teachings of Scripture (although the Pharisees are hardly the only ones to do that!) but they had done so in a way that reflected a callous disregard toward others—in this case their own parents. So Jesus said his disciples, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person….”

In other words, the heart houses that greed and that lust and that insecurity and that selfishness that cause us to take advantage of others and to do harm to them and to treat them as objects rather than as people. But the heart that has been touched by the grace and the love and the Spirit of God produces good intentions, life-affirming attitudes, other-respecting thoughts, and selfless motives. It really can. It really does.

Hearts that house a relationship with God are capable of producing lives that are remarkable in their love, faith, forgiveness, and sacrifice. I said earlier that when a ship or a plane has integrity its pieces hold together especially under stress. What I have been talking about gets hard sometimes. Events and especially other people put us under stress. We doubt that our hearts are changed enough to cause us to be genuinely Christian in our actions toward others, especially when we have been hurt or let down by them.

I don’t personally know any of those Amish families that were so cruelly struck by the murders of their daughters in October 2006 and so I cannot claim to have any real insight into the status of their hearts. I can say, though, that the words that came out of their mouths and the actions that were carried out in their lives toward the one that killed their children and toward his family were Christ-like. They reminded us that it is possible, even in this cruel and sometimes senseless world, to say and do the things that reflect a heart touched by grace, even under the harshest stress and in the face of the most senseless loss.

If it is possible for them, it is possible for us. Do you have a heart that is right with God? Does it flow out naturally into the living of your life? When you’re placed under stress, especially by a person or persons who have done harm to you, what kind of heart is revealed in your attitudes, words, and actions?

It is possible to be genuinely Christian. It is possible to live a life of integrity. It is possible because God makes it possible.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Least "Brainiest" Team in Major League Baseball

According to an analysis published by the Wall Street Journal, the Atlanta Braves, of whom I have been a diehard fan since they moved to Atlanta in 1966, are the least brainiest team in baseball. There may not be much correlation between brains and baseball success, though, since three of the "brainiest" teams (Oakland, Arizona, and Washington) are in last place. Interestingly, only 26 current major leaguers, including managers, have college degrees. Of course, most major league players were drafted either after their senior year in high school or during their college career.

It's still somewhat troubling to this fan that the Braves not only landed in last place on the "brainy" list but did so by a wide margin.

Maybe this explains why it seems that the players don't pay attention very well--at least, if the coaches are coaching, the Braves' players sure aren't listening.

Good Article

Bruce Gourley has an excellent article entitled "Losing the Bible" in this month's Baptist Studies Bulletin. I encourage you to read it and to follow the links in the article--it's quite enlightening.

The Jesus Lens

I am pleased to announce a new blog start-up: The Jesus Lens.

I will still be writing regularly here at On the Jericho Road.

The new blog has a very particular focus and purpose and I hope you will join the conversation.

Let me know what you think!


Mike Ruffin

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Ethical Treatment of Flies

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has protested President Obama's killing of a defenseless fly during the filming of a recent television interview.

I'm all for the ethical treatment of animals, so long as it doesn't lead to enforced vegetarianism.

But a fly is a fly which is by definition a dirty, disease-carrying insect.

That's why there is no such organization as People for the Ethical Treatment of Flies, which is good, since the ancronym would be unpronounceable.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Prayer for Sunday, June 14, 2009

For all your good gifts, O God, we give you thanks—

--for the good gift of praise through music;

--for the good gift of life in all its stages;

--for the good gift of Christian fellowship that transcends geography and other barriers;

--for the good gift of worship in which we can offer our lives to you again;

--for the good gift of the world in which we are privileged to live out our faith;

--for the good gift of your grace that saves us and sustains us;

--for the good gift of the home which is our ultimate destination and of the homes that are ours along the way—

For all these good gifts we give you thanks.

In all our needs, O God, we come to you—

--in our need for love and acceptance;

--in our need for mercy and forgiveness;

--in our need for health and healing;

--in our need for fellowship and community;

--in our need for comfort and encouragement;

--in our need for relevance and meaning;

--in our need for endurance and perseverance—

In all these needs we come to you.

We praise you, O God, because, while we do give you thanks, you have given us your Son and your Spirit; we praise you, O God, because, while we do come to you, you have come to us through your Son and your Spirit.

Therefore will we trust and not be afraid.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Why Moderates Are Usually, Sometimes, Occasionally, Customarily More Correct than Other People

My name is Mike—and I’m a Moderate.

There, I said it and I feel better.

I’m a practical Moderate—I try to live a moderate lifestyle, doing little to excess (except when I find a dish of real banana pudding—the kind the recipe for which you find on the Nilla Vanilla Wafers box and that requires a double boiler, meringue, and an oven—in front of me); I’m a political Moderate—on some issues I think like a Conservative, on some I think like a Liberal, and on some I find myself thinking out of both sides of my brain; I’m a Christian Moderate—I subscribe to and read both the Christian Century and Christianity Today and find myself challenged and affirmed by each of them, depending on the issue (double entendre alert!); and I’m a Baptist Moderate—so my Baptist Conservative or Fundamentalist friends think I’m a liberal and my Baptist Liberal friends think I’m a sell-out.

I confess that I am sometimes troubled by my Moderate stance, approach and mindset. As my good wife is wont to remind me, “If you’re not careful, you’ll be so open-minded your brain will fall out.” Moreover, and perhaps more important, since I wish to displease my Savior even less than I wish to displease my wife, I keep hearing the words of Jesus in Revelation: “You are neither hot nor cold; therefore I will spew you out of my mouth.” I really, really don’t want to be spewed out by Jesus—I really, really, really don’t.

But, to quote Luther, who I suppose could not be classified a “Moderate”—“Here I stand; I can do no other.”

I have said many times—and I mean it—that I wish I could be, whether in political or in religious life, a true-blue die hard Conservative or a true-blue die hard Liberal—and it wouldn’t matter to me which I was since, so far as I can tell, they just sit on opposite ends of the same bench, a bench over which hangs a sign that says, “All those who don’t want to think for themselves, sit here.”

Now, some would say that I’m being unfair and they would be right; one cannot paint all Conservatives or all Liberals with the “non-thinking” brush. I read and listen to Conservatives and to Liberals, both religious and political, who read and who think broadly and deeply. Still, it seems to me that for the most part the minds of most people who think of themselves as “Conservative” or “Liberal” are already made up—their position on something is whatever the “Conservative” or the “Liberal” position on it is.

The true Moderate approach—and I put it that way because some so-called “Moderates” are really just Liberals standing six inches to the right or Conservatives standing six inches to the left—is to seek the truth and to end up standing wherever that quest leads you. Thus, a true Moderate will look at an issue or a problem or a biblical text from every available and reasonable angle and then will (and I put it like this because I’m speaking of Christian Moderates since that’s what I am), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, with submission to Holy Scripture, through the lens of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and by means of the best tools of research and reason available, make up his or her mind, reserving the right to change that mind if clearer guidance and more precise understanding is awarded, with such guidance and understanding always sought and always welcomed.

The danger for Moderates is that our approach will lead to indecision and paralysis; I call it the “Gilligan Syndrome.” In a classic episode of the classic TV series “Gilligan’s Island,” the Professor and Mr. Howell were engaged in an argument. Mr. Howell would make his point and Gilligan would say, “You have a good point, Mr. Howell” and then the Professor would make a point and Gilligan would say, “You have a good point, Professor.” This happened several times until the Skipper said, “Gilligan, everybody can’t have a good point,” to which Gilligan replied, “Skipper, you have a good point!”

Sometimes as a Moderate I am guilty of thinking that everybody has a good point; even when they do, I have to decide for myself, again, under the Lord’s leadership, what the best point is, whether it is held by Conservatives or Liberals or somebody in between or whether it is held by absolutely no one but me. I have to stand where the quest for truth leads me.

Some people think, it seems to me, that Conservatives and Liberals are at least highly principled in their approach to things while Moderates are unprincipled. That’s not true, of course. Among the principles held tightly by this particular Christian and political Moderate are: (1) God and God alone is God; (2) Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Messiah; (3) The Holy Spirit is God’s active and empowering presence among God’s people; (4) Holy Scripture tells us all we need to know to be saved and to live as Christians; (5) The Church is to live out the principles of the Kingdom here in the world; (6) In America, freedom to practice one’s religion, freedom from religious coercion, freedom of speech, and all other Constitutional freedoms are necessary to the vitality of the nation, and (7) I am pro-life, which for me means wanting to maintain and to preserve the value and dignity of human life from conception to death and which therefore means that I am concerned not only with the issue of abortion but also with the issues of hunger, poverty, war and peace, literacy, health care, access to clean drinking water, the environment, and other issues.

But there is one characteristic that characterizes the true Moderate approach and it is this characteristic that makes it likely that on most matters a Moderate has a greater chance than doctrinaire Conservatives and doctrinaire Liberals to be usually, sometimes, occasionally, and customarily more correct: humility. A true Christian Moderate believes in absolute truth but not in his or her ability to arrive at that absolute truth; a true Christian Moderate knows that God’s way is right but does not presume to know what that way is. Still, true Christian Moderates trust that, as we faithfully and honestly and humbly try to find God’s will and way God will lead us in the way we should go, whether we realize it or not; we also know that God just may show us some of that truth and way in other people, regardless of whether their particular persuasion matches ours.

I am Mike and I am a Moderate. I find it a most honest, inspiring, challenging, enlivening, and thrilling way to live.

Besides, we’re usually more correct than other people.

And I say that with all humility.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pray for Antioch Baptist Church

The nearly 200 year old sanctuary of the Antioch Baptist Church, located about half-way between Barnesville and Yatesville, Georgia (in fact, the church campus straddles the Lamar and Upson County lines), was gutted by fire on Wednesday, June 10.

While not the church of my upbringing, it is the home church of many a Ruffin; several of my relatives, including my grandparents, are buried in the church cemetery.

Please pray for pastor Dr. Jeff Morgan and the Antioch Church family as they deal with and bear witness in the midst of this great loss.

To read more about the fire and to see pictures, visit the website of the Barnesville Herald Gazette.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Happy Anniversary...

to us! Debra Kay Johnson became my wife at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 10, 1978, at the Leary Baptist Church in Leary, Georgia. After honeymooning at Callaway Gardens we embarked on an adventure that has gone on now for 31 years and that has given us two fine children, many good friends, and a lot of great experiences.

When we got married I told Debra that one of my goals in life was to be married one day longer than my father's parents who were married for 65 years, 6 months. So, we are not quite halfway there but we've made a good start.

We will celebrate tonight by going to church. In some ways, that summarizes our life together but in other ways it doesn't.

The name "Debra" means "bee," but to me it always has, does now, and always will mean "Joy."

I am a blessed man.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

From this Morning's Reading

The catechism is not enough, theology is not enough, formulas are not enough to explain the Unity and Trinity of God.

We need loving communication, we need the presence of the Spirit.

That is why I do not believe in theologians who do not pray, who are not in humble communication of love with God.

Neither do I believe in the existence of any human power to pass on authentic knowledge of God.

Only God can speak about himself, and only the Holy Spirit, who is love, can communicate this knowledge to us.

When there is a crisis in the Church, it is always here: a crisis of contemplation.
(Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes)