Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Holy Week Message to Christian Parents

In 1969 when I was ten years old I played on one of the worst baseball teams in the history of baseball—the Barnesville (GA) Little League Red Sox. We went 1-14 that year, although I am proud to say that our one win came in our next-to-last game of the season and was over the first-place Braves, a loss that cost them the league championship. I can still replay the last two outs in my mind; the Braves had runners on first and second with one out and two consecutive batters hit bouncing balls to our shortstop who threw to our sure-handed third baseman (me) for the force outs that ended the game. Our coaches took us all to the Dari Delite for hamburgers as a reward.

The Vacation Bible School at my home church, Midway Baptist Church located on City Pond Road four miles outside of Barnesville, was scheduled to take place at night one week sometime near the end of Little League season. My good parents, who customarily and habitually forced me to go to church any and every time the doors were opened, left it up to me to decide whether to attend Bible School or to participate in that week’s Red Sox loss. Given the quality of our team, it was not hard for me to choose Jesus over baseball.

In 1970 when I was eleven years old I played on one of the best baseball teams in the Barnesville Little League—the mighty, mighty Mets. We finished in second place because we could not for the life of us beat those pesky guys from Milner who comprised the Cubs but we won way more games than we lost which was a new experience for me. That summer, when the week for Midway’s Vacation Bible School rolled around, I chose baseball over Jesus.

That’s right—I was capable of hypocrisy even as a child!

Both years, my parents went to help at Vacation Bible School.

There was nothing unusual about my parents not being present at my baseball games; in fact, back then, it was not unusual for lots of parents not to be there. I guess our parents had other things to do that were important to them and if they could work in our ball game they would but they did not put our ball games first and everything else second. In fact, my best estimate based on my memory is that in my four years of playing Little League baseball, a span in which I played in some 75 games, my parents may have seen twelve of them.

It’s funny how I don’t remember feeling cheated or slighted in any way.

Things have changed and I think they’ve changed for the better. These days, parents do everything they can to be present at every game played by their children, which is some feat for those families that have two or more children involved in such activities. I think that showing such support to their children is an admirable thing for parents to do.

In the rural community in which I live and work, our Department of Leisure Services (DLS for short; it’s what they call the Recreation Department) not only does not schedule ball games on Sundays but also avoids Wednesday nights. As a pastor I certainly appreciate that, given that our church and other churches have important children’s activities on Wednesday nights, but having said that, I would also add that I would not get my halo in a knot if the DLS one day had to start scheduling games on Wednesdays if they had good reason to do so (too many teams and not enough fields, for example). After all, the DLS provides a great service to our community by providing recreational activities for all the children of our community and by bringing all the segments of our community together—I wish that our church congregations were as diverse as the crowds at DLS ball games. Besides, there is not and should not be an expectation that a government agency will accommodate its work to church schedules.

Still, I’m glad they do.

But they can’t always.

And so it happens that during this Holy Week there will be baseball games played in our community on Good Friday night and it will be the same all over the country. Now, I am not about to propose that parents force their children to skip their ball games that night and go to their church’s Good Friday service although it might be a good thing to at least let their children know that it is an option for them. After all, to be on a team is to have a responsibility to that team and we want to teach responsibility. On the other hand, if a Christian parent’s child says, “Mom and Dad, I really believe that I should to go to the Good Friday service and miss my ball game,” those parents should not only allow it but should praise their child for it.

I do have a suggestion regarding what parents should do, though.

I suggest that Christian parents say something like this to their children:

“You know how much we love you. We love you so much that you are the second most important thing in the world to us. Indeed, the only one that we love more than we love you is Jesus—and we want you to love Jesus more than you love us. One Friday a long time ago, Jesus died on the cross for our sins—for your sins. That’s why once a year the Church observes Good Friday. It is so very important that we stop on Good Friday and worship God for sending Jesus to die on the cross so that we could come to God and be saved. The most loving thing we can do for you is make sure you know how crucial our relationship with Jesus is. You know how much we love going to your ball games. But this one night—this Good Friday night—we are going to take you to your game and leave you there with your team while we go to the church to worship Jesus on the day that he was crucified.”

I hope that Christian parents—and grandparents and other family members—will take my suggestion seriously. Think of the valuable lesson that our children can learn if they come to understand that Jesus really is the most important person to their parents.

I hope, though, that Christian parents will remember that you can participate in a worship service every day of the week but your children will finally know of your devotion to the crucified Christ by the ways that you live your lives both in front of them and in secret every minute of every day.

But it’s up to you to teach the lessons that must be taught and to foster the development of the relationship with Jesus that must be developed.

Our children need to know how important they are.

They also need to know that there is One who is more important.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Lost Causes of Edmund and Michael Ruffin

At 4:40 a.m. on April 12, 1861 Confederate forces opened fire on Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina, thus initiating the first battle of the American Civil War, an internecine conflict that would result in the preservation of the Union at the cost of some 620,000 military deaths plus an unknown number of civilian casualties.

Southern tradition and Ruffin family legend maintain that the first shot on Ft. Sumter was fired by my ancestor Edmund Ruffin, who at the time of the attack was sixty-six years old.

I first heard about Edmund in a fifth grade history lesson during the 1968-69 school year. Our teacher Mrs. Christine Ruffin, who was married to my father’s first cousin, was about to show us a film about the War Between the States when she said, “Mike, you might want to pay close attention to this” and so I did. Soon there appeared on the screen a picture of a steely-eyed man with long gray hair as the narrator informed us that the first shot on Ft. Sumter had been fired by the man in the picture, one Edmund Ruffin.

Edmund was born in Prince George County, Virginia on January 5, 1794. A farmer, he became well known due to his research into and writings about ways to replenish the soil of Virginia that had been ravaged by heavy tobacco farming.

Eventually, though, he became better known as one of the Fire-eaters, a group of Southern radicals who championed secession of the Southern states as the way to preserve slavery and the Southern way of life. Indeed, Edmund Ruffin travelled across the South advocating for secession. His outspoken views made him a hero to many in the South and that popularity is why, according to tradition, he was given the “honor” of firing the first cannon in the initial fusillade against Ft. Sumter.

Integrity compels me to report that while historians agree that Edmund was present at and participated in the attack on Ft. Sumter most maintain that we don’t know who actually fired the first shot. Being a Ruffin, though, I’ll stand by the tradition!

On June 17, 1865, two months after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant, Edmund, faced with economic misfortune, declining health, and the South’s defeat, committed suicide.

It is often said of Edmund Ruffin, then, that he fired both the first and last shots of the Civil War.

In the last words he penned in his diary Edmund said,

I here declare my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule -- to all political, social and business connection with the Yankees and to the Yankee race. Would that I could impress these sentiments, in their full force, on every living Southerner and bequeath them to every one yet to be born! May such sentiments be held universally in the outraged and down-trodden South, though in silence and stillness, until the now far-distant day shall arrive for just retribution for Yankee usurpation, oppression and atrocious outrages, and for deliverance and vengeance for the now ruined, subjugated and enslaved Southern States!

...And now with my latest writing and utterance, and with what will be near my latest breath, I here repeat and would willingly proclaim my unmitigated hatred to Yankee rule--to all political, social and business connections with Yankees, and the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race.

For obvious reasons Edmund is a hero even now to some Southerners; they see in him a true champion of the Lost Cause and a true embodiment of Confederate courage.

As a descendant of his I confess that I don’t regard him as a hero but rather as what he was: a flawed human being who on the one hand had the courage to act on his strongly-held convictions but who on the other hand was driven by a misguided vision—albeit one shared by many, many other Southerners—of the best future of his beloved home region.

I can’t be critical of his misguided zeal, given (a) that I have no way of knowing that I would not have shared it had I lived in his day and time, (b) that I bring no particular honor on myself by my alarming failure to speak out on and to take action concerning the continuing negative legacies, particular in the area of race relations, of the Civil War, and (c) that my own zeal has been misguided plenty of times.

The Lost Cause that Edmund championed was a lost cause because it was a wrong cause; it was on the wrong side of history, of progress, and of justice.

Do I carry in me a legacy of my ancestor Edmund?

Well, sometimes I feel like I champion some lost causes, too, causes that go by names like love, grace, kindness, forgiveness, simplicity, and humility—causes that are obviously much different than the one that Edmund championed. My causes feel like lost causes because so few people seem to have any legitimate and abiding interest in them as a way of life—as the way of eternal life.

Unlike Edmund’s Lost Cause, though, my lost causes are, I have to believe, right causes; they are right because they reflect the teachings and the life, including the crucifixion and resurrection, of Jesus Christ. They are right causes because they build relationships up rather than tear them down and they bring people together rather than drive them apart.

My approach is different than Edmund’s, too; Edmund was a “Fire-eater,” a rabble-rousing provocateur who was willing to use coercion to the point of violence to advance his cause. My methods, I believe, even though I am very zealous for the cause of Christ, should and must reflect the approach of the Prince of Peace on whose life I base my life and on whose death I will base my death; methods like coercion, demagoguery, and violence (including emotional and spiritual violence) must be rejected out of hand while methods characterized by integrity, humility, grace, and trust must be embraced.

Edmund took his life because events did not turn out as he wanted them to turn out; I will live my life, no matter what comes, believing that God is working God’s purposes out.

150 years ago today my ancestor Edmund Ruffin was at the Battle of Ft. Sumter, participating in an armed assault on a badly outmanned garrison.

Today I, Michael Ruffin, continue to participate as a member of the rag-tag army of Jesus Christ that uses unlikely and seemingly ineffective weapons like grace, love, peace, and mercy in God’s mopping-up operation against an already defeated enemy.