Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Can the Sun Set on our Dependence on Fossil Fuels?

It is 8:00 on the last night of my Panama City vacation and I am sitting on the balcony of our borrowed sixth floor condominium watching the sun set on this day, on my time of rest, perhaps on the pristine beauty of the scene before me, and, hopefully—and with hope is the way that I have slowly come to realize I must think about it—a way of life that is as American as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and, yes, Chevrolet.

I have been here for five days and I have seen no direct sign of the ruinous oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill that is probably heading this way. I have seen indirect signs, though, including much smaller than expected crowds on the beach and at the restaurants and workers, travelling three to a group, walking up and down the beaches quite nobly, so far as I could tell, trying to keep their eyes off the bikini-clad sun worshippers and on the sand of the beaches onto which the tell-tale tar balls could at any time wash, and not too far to the west of where I sit, have washed, ashore.

News outlets have offered us images—although probably not enough images—of the devastation that is being wrought even farther west down the Florida Panhandle and into Alabama and Louisiana. Only God knows--and maybe the experts, at least those who don’t work for the oil companies, can make fairly educated guesses-- just how much damage this oil spill is going to inflict on the environment and on the economy and for how long that damage is going to be inflicted.

The environmental damage that has already been caused and that is still to take place is uppermost in my mind tonight as I think about the beautiful white sand beach on which I have walked and the gorgeous blue and green water upon which I have gazed and that I can in the darkness hear breaking on the shore below me. My heart breaks as I think about how that could change should—and I hope and pray it does not—the plague of oil that has struck other areas strike this one.

But as I have driven up and down Thomas Drive and Front Beach Road this week I have been struck by the thousands upon thousands of motel rooms and condominiums that line those thoroughfares along with numerous shops and restaurants and it is not hard to imagine, given how the economy of this area that is in danger of being affected by the oil spill is obviously being affected, just how devastated the economies of those areas west of here that have already been affected must be.

How can BP or anyone else possibly adequately compensate all of the businesspeople and their employees whose livelihood has been negatively impacted by this terrible event? How can BP or anyone else make up for what is going to be lost this year and in the years to come?

Meanwhile, back in the place of my daily reality to which I will return tomorrow, the debate over a planned coal-fired power plant to be built out in our county near the Ocmulgee River rages hot and heavy. I am no more an expert on coal-fired power plants than I am on deep-water oil rigs but it doesn’t take an expert, it seems to me, to realize a few things, and one of those things is that it is way past time for somebody to take the lead in planning, adopting and implementing an energy policy that will move not only the United States but the world away from our addiction to fossil fuels and toward the use of renewable energy sources.

I would like to think that the United States could take the lead in showing the world the way and I would furthermore like to think that Christians in America could take the lead in encouraging our elected leaders and our industrial captains and our scientists and anybody else who could help to get us moving in the direction of sustainable and renewable energy use to do what has to be done to get us there.

Again, I’m no expert, but I have read experts who insist that, while it would require a mobilization and retooling effort on the scale of fighting a world war, such a transition could be successfully navigated if we have the will to do it.

Why should Christians care? I can think of several reasons.

First, Christians should care about peace and the dependence of nations on oil is the cause of much geo-political instability and will in the future be the cause of even more conflict.

Second, Christians should care about the well-being of people and the human cost of obtaining fossil fuels for our consumption is high.

Third, Christians should care about the earth that God in God’s grace has given us as a home and the damage done to our home in the process of securing fossil fuels is severe.

The experts I have read say that the way forward is found in solar, wind, and wave power. Again, they say that the way forward is difficult and that tremendous will and effort will be required to make it happen.

As a Christian, as a human being, as a citizen of the United States, and as a resident of the Earth, I believe that we need to begin now to move toward national and then world-wide dependence on renewable energy sources and away from a dependence on fossil fuels.

I know it will be hard and tough and challenging and demanding and controversial.

Keeping pretty beaches and pretty water pretty is reason enough to take on the challenge.

But there are even better--and much more substantive--reasons.

So let us begin.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Preacher Boy

A document called a “Certificate of License” hangs on my study wall; it reads, “This is to certify Michael Lee Ruffin who has given evidence that God has called him into THE GOSPEL MINISTRY was Licensed to preach the Gospel as he may have opportunity, and to exercise his gifts in the work of ministry” (capitalization and punctuation reproduced exactly as they appear). The document goes on to say that the License was presented to me by Midway Baptist Church of Barnesville, Georgia on the 21st day of April, 1974.

I was born on the 24th day of September, 1958, so I was five months shy of turning sixteen when I received my “license” to exercise my preaching and other ministry gifts so frankly I am uncertain as to exactly how I had “given evidence” of my call or of much of anything else except maybe raging adolescence and the gumption to get up in front of a crowd of folks and talk.

The folks at Midway of course assured me that I had a tremendous preaching career ahead of me but they had after all helped to raise me and so were more than slightly biased in their appraisals of my abilities.

The signature of Rev. Herman J. Coleman is on my license, although we all knew him as “Preacher Bill.” One thing you had to say for Preacher Bill was that he would give budding or blossoming or dead on the vine preachers the chance to preach if they wanted to preach.

I remember my father, who was serving a life sentence as Deacon Chairman at Midway, coming home once sniffing that sniff that he sniffed when something was bugging him and when Mama asked him what was wrong he said, “(Sniff) Sometimes I think that Bill would license a dog to preach if he said he’d been called.”

Apparently some guy who had just repented of his sins and turned from his reprobate ways and gotten baptized had decided after a couple of days of euphoric discipleship that God had called him to preach and Preacher Bill was ready to give him the piece of paper. “Seems to me like (sniff) we ought to wait a few months to see how he pans out before we go giving him our seal of approval,” Daddy opined.

Daddy didn’t object when Preacher Bill wanted to license me to preach and, to be fair, by the time I had reached the age of fifteen years and seven months I had already done a fair amount of preaching, although all of it was at Midway. That was mainly because of the way that Preacher Bill used our Wednesday night prayer meetings to “showcase” the preaching talent in our church. I once heard our pastor brag that he had not spoken on a Wednesday night at Midway in over three years. That was because he kept a calendar on the bulletin board in the church foyer on which one could, if one so desired, sign up to preach on a Wednesday night.

I was thirteen the first time that I put my name on the calendar.

Somewhere I still have the notes from that “sermon” that was entitled “The Danger of the Tongue”; I took my text from the book of James. After writing a detailed outline of what I wanted to say, I rehearsed the message over and over, timing myself each time until I finally satisfied myself that I had twenty minutes worth of material. When my Wednesday night to preach rolled around, I thundered prophetically against every bad use of the tongue of which I could think, thankfully restricting myself to its verbal misapplications like gossiping, lying, and singing “Jesus Christ Superstar,” until, after about five minutes had passed, I ran out of things to say.

Between the night of my debut and the Sunday morning of my licensing I spoke on a few more Wednesday nights and in one or two Sunday morning youth-led services; in fact, it was during the invitation hymn following one of my youth Sunday messages that I responded to my own altar call and accepted the call to preach.

After I was licensed I got a lot of opportunities to preach at other churches in the area; I guess that a teenaged preacher was enough of a novelty that it seemed a pretty good show to bring in. Besides, I was a convenient speaker for youth-led services in churches that were not fortunate enough to have their own resident preacher boy. Over the next couple of years I preached in several Baptist, Methodist, and Pentecostal churches, for all of which I to this day feel much appreciation because of the opportunity they gave me to begin the process, which continues to this day and will continue to the day I die, of honing my preaching skills.

Just before I entered Mercer University in September 1975, my high school English teacher’s father-in-law, a fine gentleman named Rev. William Key, called and asked me to come see him. So I did and, while we sat sipping iced tea in lawn chairs in his back yard in a suburban area of Milner, he offered me my first preaching job.

He was officially retired, he told me, but he was serving as Interim Pastor at a rural church in the Jugtown community somewhere between Thomaston and Meansville and Barnesville called Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church and he was pretty sure that he could get them to call me as Associate Pastor. The deal would be, he said, that I would visit the sick and the lost with him on Saturdays and then on Sundays, we would alternate—he would preach on Sunday morning and I on Sunday night this week and then the next week I would preach on Sunday morning and he on Sunday night.

They could, he said, pay me $25 per week.

And so it came to pass that for the next eighteen months or so I preached to those poor saints every Sunday. It was an opportunity that not too many seventeen/eighteen year old college freshmen/sophomores get and I will always be grateful to Preacher Key and the folks at that church for giving it to me.

Indeed, I will always be grateful to Preacher Bill and the Midway Baptist Church and to Preacher Key and the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church and to all of those other churches in and around Barnesville, Georgia, that gave this preacher boy a chance.

For that matter, I am grateful to those churches that later gave this preacher man a chance—and to the church that even now gives him the opportunity to exercise his calling and to practice his craft.

I thank them that they did—and that they do—take a chance on me.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


[On Saturday, June 12, I was privileged to get together with friends with whom I attended Gordon Grammar School some 40 years ago; most of them I had not seen for a long time and some of them I had not seen for 40 years. Being the minister in the group, I was honored to be asked to offer a eulogy in memory of our childhood friends who have already left us. These are the remarks I prepared.]

There is a very old song, a song that’s even older than the songs we think of as old, that says, “Wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine.” In the case of we who were students at Gordon Grammar School as the 1969-70 school year ground to its conclusion, it was not wedding bells that were about to break up that old gang of ours—it was school bells, by which I mean that beginning that fall we would all be hearing the school bell at many different schools rather than at the one school that we had all attended together through our growing up years.

We would, in a very real way, not be together anymore, and so we would not, in a very real way, be “us” anymore.

We all lost something in that experience. That loss—the loss of that school and of the close-knit community that we enjoyed there—was for me at least, although I didn’t realize it at the time, the first significant loss of my young life and I suspect that was the case for most of us.

What do you do with such a loss? Well, you miss that which you have lost, you incorporate it into your life, you try to hold on to the good and to let go of the bad, and you move on with the rest of your life. And that is more or less what all of us have done; after all, here we are, having lived our lives to this point, being busy living the lives that we have at this moment, and looking forward to living the lives that God in God’s grace still intends to give us.

It has been a long time since June 1970 when that first significant loss hit us and in the forty years between now then we have all experienced other losses. We must all note for ourselves what those losses have been and who those losses have been and in some cases why those losses have been but you know as well as I that we are, when it comes to loss, all in this together, even if we have not all been together for a very long time.

In some ways we lost each other way back then and I am so grateful for this opportunity to find each other again and to be together again. But we want—we need—to remember those claimed by death over the years and in remembering them to say that they were part of us and that we miss them, and to express the hope that, just as we have come back together after all these years, we will all be together again someday.

I want to close with some words from the song “North of Leaving, South of There” by Michael Kelly Blanchard, who is about our age. I think that he speaks to us in our place in life and in our sense of loss and grief when he sings,

Don’t feel old but I’m not that new,
neither pink nor gold—kind of steely blue.
Not much I know, but this I do—
if you need me, I can be found.

Not that fast but I know where to go,
I might not last, but you never know.
It’s true the glass is less than half full,
but there’s still enough to go around.

I’m wider now than I used to be,
spreadin’ out like some old tree;
branches bowed, losing leaves,
but the sap still flows with the thaw.

In between some laughs and tears,
north of leaving, south of there;
gently grieving the death in here,
north of leaving, south of there.

Change of key don’t end the song,
finally see where I belong
is in the lee of a love so strong—
the mercy of a cross.

These days more goodbye than hello--
first parents die, then friends you know;
you don’t ask why; you let ‘em go.
but their grain is in your wood.

In between some laughs and tears,
north of leaving, south of there;
gently grieving the death in here,
north of leaving, south of there.

Those of us who left Gordon Grammar School in 1970 are far north of leaving and most of us--but not all of us--are still south of there. We thank God for the journey and for those who have walked with us and for those with whom we are still walking.

The Wounded Healer

(A Sermon for the Ordination/Installation of Deacons based on Numbers 13 and preached on Sunday, June 13, 2010. I borrowed the title and acknowledge the inspiration I received from Henri Nouwen's book.)

The church needs leaders.

In the way that our church functions, we look to our deacons to be spiritual leaders among us. Note, please, how I put that. We look to our deacons to be spiritual leaders among us, not over us; we need and expect our deacons to be here with us, sharing in the good and the bad and the middling of our lives.

When the Lord told Moses to send spies into Canaan to scout out the land, he instructed him to send one man from each of the twelve tribes. So those who were sent were not some elite who had no contact or experience with the people; they were of the people. They had shared in the sufferings of the Hebrews in Egypt and in their glorious liberation from bondage; they had been there when God established the covenant with the people at Mt. Sinai and they had been there when the people violated the covenant before Moses even got off the mountain.

In similar fashion, our deacons are called out from among us; you are like us and from us and with us. You have been with us and among us in all of the positive and negative experiences that we have had. We don’t expect you to be superheroes—we expect you to be someone who has experienced life like we have and to have gained experience in life that enables you to go before us effectively.

It was the Promised Land to which the Israelites were trying to get and that’s where we’re trying to get, too, but we will learn as they learned that even the Promised Land is fraught with difficulty and that even if you’re there constant vigilance is required to keep it a good and healthy place.

Along the way, though, we need a vanguard; we need a group of people who will probe and prod and take chances and step out and give us an idea of what it’s like in the next phase, what it’s like in the future.

We need our deacons to be that vanguard. We need you to be the ones that we send out to find out what’s over yonder and what we will face as we try to move over yonder. We need you to go first.

Is it an honor to be asked to go out ahead of us? Yes, in a sense, it is, because for a Christian there is no higher honor than being asked to serve. But be very clear about this: for a Christian there is also no greater risk than that which comes with being asked to serve. It’s dangerous out there.

And you might get hurt.

That should be no surprise to you, though, because you have already been hurt and you are presently carrying the wounds resulting from your hurts. If you have been faithful to the Lord, you have been hurt; if you have been faithful in your service, you have been hurt; if you have been a Christian leader, you have been hurt; if you have lived a normal balanced human life, you have been hurt.

You don’t need to mask those hurts. You do need, though, to learn from them and to let your experience inform your leadership. Only as you get in touch with your own hurts and wounds and understand how God has worked through them to make you who you are can you help us with our hurts and wounds.

We need you to be a healer, but we need you to be a wounded healer. Wounded healers are the most effective because they are the ones who are honest and who have the most integrity and who have the most compassion—and we need your honesty and integrity and compassion.

It’s a challenge to be the vanguard. Moses sent the twelve spies into the land and commissioned them to come back with an honest and accurate appraisal of the situation; that was necessary because the Israelites were about to enter the land and they needed to know what faced them. So the twelve went into the land, traveled all over it, and then came back to Moses and the people to make their report. It was a good land, they all agreed; it was everything that they had hoped it would be.

But when it came to offering a risk assessment, disagreements arose.

Oh, they all agreed on what the risk was—there were mighty people with mighty armies in the land and so taking it was going to put the people into a dangerous, risky situation.

Ten of the twelve said, “They’re too powerful; we can’t fight them.”

Two of the twelve said, “Yes, they’re powerful. But the Lord is on our side and we can overcome in the power of the Lord.”

Therein lies much of the risk and the challenge that you face as spiritual leaders in the church: based on your past experience, based on your relationship with the Lord, based on your spiritual maturity in the moment, you will be asked to scout out the territory and then lead us in the way we should go.

We remember the names of the two, Joshua and Caleb, because they trusted in the Lord and believed that the Lord would overcome any opposition so long as the people were faithful. We don’t remember the names of the other ten—even though the Bible gives them to us—because they were judged to be disobedient and the people—all of the people—followed them.

Remember: it is easier for people to follow you when you lead out of fear than when you act out of faith and so it will be easier for you to lead out of fear rather than out of faith.

It is better for you to get hurt—and for you to lead us to get hurt—out of faithfulness than to avoid hurt—and to lead us to avoid hurt—out of fear.

It is better to get healed---and to help us get healed—when we have been hurt out of faithfulness than to just keep us comfortable and to lead us to play it safe.

So to our new deacon and to our returning deacons and to all of our deacons I say: be a wounded healer and a wounded leader among us; you will thereby lead with compassion and you will thereby lead us into a future in which we are willing to serve faithfully, to take risks for the sake of service, and to be hurt and healed for the sake of Christ and his Kingdom.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Fine Lines

I have been about the business of being a minister for over thirty years now so I can accurately be classified as a veteran but I confess that the anticipation of certain worship services still fills me with a tension that borders on dread.

That is especially true of a service that is going to include a baptism or the Lord’s Supper.

While every worship service is a foray into holy territory, a service of baptism or Communion feels especially holy to me; we are, after all, in those observances enacting in very powerful ways our participation in the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

So the dread that I feel is not a dread that wants to avoid what is going to happen; indeed, the opposite is true—I very much want to participate in those services but I know that I do so in my frailty and in my sinfulness and in my very obvious humanity and therefore I dread the humbling effect that my participation is going to have on me.

I do not forget the grace and love of God and the mercy and service of the Lord Jesus Christ as I come to those services; I understand and believe that it is all about God and not about me. Still, I think that some amount of dread is appropriate when approaching the holy.

I am almost overcome with a sense of both “Woe is me” and “Thanks be to God.”

I also fret some in the time leading up to a service of baptism or Communion because I worry about messing up somehow in my leadership of those services. What if I get the baptismal candidate’s name wrong? What if I drop a communion tray? What if I have failed to get the servers assigned properly?

If it all does not go just right it will, after all, be on me…or so my inflated sense of responsibility tells me. I mean, God is in control, but, after all, I am the pastor.

As I went into today’s worship I was filled with a double sense of apprehension because we were having both a baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the service.

I baptized Chandler toward the beginning of the service. I took my time getting out of my wet robe and waders and donning my lapel mike and jacket and getting my things in order because I had no further role in the service until the sermon. I could hear Casey reading the Scripture as I went down the stairs and took a detour through the choir room where I knew I could find a much needed peppermint.

What I didn’t expect to find there that I found nonetheless was a squirrel.

I don’t know what the squirrel was thinking in that moment that we stared at one another but I was thinking that maybe he would get out of the building in the same way that he got in but instead he decided to go up the stairs into the choir loft and that was when Brad, our Summer Children’s Minister, got a much more boisterous response to his welcome to worship than he had any reason to expect. I mean, no doubt most folks are glad to be there but you don’t expect them to whoop and holler when you say “Welcome” but a squirrel running around the sanctuary sort of changes the dynamics.

I, being the effective and conscientious leader that I am, hung around in the back trying to think (pray?) through the situation and had just decided that if we couldn’t catch the squirrel I would ask the folks to proceed in orderly fashion to our Chapel where we would continue the service (standing room only at that) and was beginning to formulate a plan to transport the communion trays over there when Al, one of our good choir members, came back to open a door because he thought the squirrel might come that way but the squirrel in the meantime got out another door.

I walked into the sanctuary just as the congregation began to applaud and, as I walked by Scott, another good choir member, he said to me “They’re not clapping for you” to which I responded “I don’t expect them to” and after a little while everybody settled down and our Minister of Music Blane explained to the radio listeners what had been going on and I said “I was waiting to see who was going to start talking about their love life and then start naming names” and Brad went on with the welcome.

Then the choir sang and I preached and we shared in the Lord’s Supper (we didn’t drop any trays and the servers’ assignments were carried out just fine) and we sang a hymn and prayed and went home.

I would not presume to say that the good Lord sent that squirrel and, if the good Lord did, I would not presume to say why.

As for me, I was reminded that the lines between the sacred and the profane, between the holy and the regular, between the heavenly and the earthly, between the providential and the accidental, between the comic and the tragic, and between the sublime and ridiculous can be fine ones indeed.

Woe is me!

Thanks be to God!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

My Two New Baseball Heroes (and They Should be Yours, Too)

Unless you choose to live as a hermit (which is understandable) or choose to pay absolutely no attention to baseball (which is not) then you have heard about the perfect game that wasn’t.

In a game played between the Detroit Tigers and the Cleveland Indians on June 2, pitcher Armando Galarraga had retired 26 consecutive batters which put him one out away from pitching a perfect game, which in baseball is defined as pitching a game in which no batters reach base in any way.

Cleveland’s Jason Donald came to bat with two outs in the ninth inning and hit a ground ball between first and second base that was fielded by Tigers’ first baseman Miguel Cabrera who threw the ball to Galarraga who was covering first base and, as the replays showed, Donald was out by half a step, which in baseball space and time is a country mile.

Only he was safe because first base umpire Jim Joyce said he was and that’s the way it works in baseball.

Galarraga retired the next batter to preserve his one-hit shutout and Joyce got bawled out by Tigers manager Jim Leyland, both after the play and after the game, and booed vociferously by the Detroit crowd.

And so it came to pass that previously obscure Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga and veteran umpire Jim Joyce became my two new baseball heroes—not because of their performances on the field but because of the way in which they each responded to what had happened.

When Joyce called the runner safe a look of disbelief passed across Galarraga’s face but he didn’t say a thing to the umpire; he just smiled, took the ball back to the mound, got back to work, and finished his job. As Joyce would later say about the verbal dressing down he took from Leyland and other Tigers players, “I don’t blame them a bit for anything that was said,” Joyce said. “I would’ve said it myself if I had been Galarraga. I would’ve been the first person in my face, and he never said a word to me.”

Joyce also said that he didn’t offer an explanation at that point to Leyland because he believed that he had made the right call. It was only after going into the clubhouse and watching the replay that the umpire realized that he had blown the most important call in a most important game and the realization mortified him. “It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the (stuff) out of it,” Joyce said after viewing the reply. “I just cost that kid a perfect game.”

And with that Joyce left the umpires’ locker room, went to the Tigers’ dressing room, and apologized to Galarraga for the mistake.

In a statement that an ESPN commentator appropriately labeled “ironic,” Galarraga, when asked for his reaction to Joyce’s error, said, “Nobody’s perfect” and then went on to say that he was sure that no one felt worse about what had happened than Joyce did.

Armando Galarraga is now one of my baseball heroes not because of the perfect game that he pitched but did not get credit for but because of the perspective he displayed and the grace he showed in the face of unfairness and its accompanying disappointment. When the blown call occurred Galarraga did not pitch a fit over someone else’s mistake; he instead walked back to the mound and finished the job. And after the game he did not bemoan the mistake that had cost him his place in baseball history but rather accepted the human element in the game and refused to throw stones at the umpire.

And Jim Joyce is now one of my baseball heroes because he immediately faced up to the mistake he had made, acknowledged it, apologized for it, did not try to hide how upset he was by it—and did not try to run from it, given that the next night he walked back out on the field in Detroit and got behind the plate to call balls and strikes.

We live in a time when it can be difficult to find appropriate role models among professional athletes for our children; it is easy to become jaded in this era of players for hire and steroid abuse and other facts of recent baseball history.

We also live in a time when many people seem to be all too ready to claim victim status in circumstances whose insignificance in the great scheme of things makes their claims an insult to those who are truly victims.

We furthermore live in a time when we are far too accustomed to hearing public figures, when they are caught in wrongdoing, say things like “I am not a crook” or “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” or “I misspoke” or “It is somebody else’s fault.”

So fathers and mothers, if you are looking for baseball professionals to whom your children can look up and whose character they can emulate, you could do far worse than my two new baseball heroes.

Taking responsibility, refusing to whine, apologizing face-to-face, and accepting an apology made face-to-face—now those are traits to be admired.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010 will not go in the record books as the night that Armando Galarraga pitched a perfect game but it should be recorded in our minds as the night that Mr. Galarraga and Mr. Joyce showed us how to be responsible adult human beings.

It would be a far better world if more of us would follow their example.