Monday, May 28, 2012

The Greater Risk?

A few years ago our son Joshua had just started college on a Theatre Arts scholarship.

His mother was concerned about him.

She was concerned like any mother or father would be; she wanted him to find the best direction for his life and to follow the path that would make the best use of his gifts and allow him to make the best contribution possible to this old world.

I was sharing her concerns with a friend of ours who was and is a successful professional and whose own children were on a track that would likely take them into successful careers in the business world.

When I said that my good wife was a little concerned about Joshua finding the right way for him, our friend responded, "If one of my children was pursuing the path he is, I'd be worried, too."

I've been thinking about what she said for almost ten years now.

I think I understand what she meant; she meant that (a) the artistic life is a difficult one in which to make a living, (b) the artistic world is filled with, shall we say, "offbeat" people, and (c) the artistic life can be filled with temptations that can threaten the very soul of a young person.

The more I've thought about it, though, the more I've come to wonder what kind of career path, when you evaluate the situation from the perspective of Jesus' life and teachings, puts a young woman or man at the most risk.

Granted, Jesus did have some harsh things to say about actors--that's the root meaning of "hyprocrite" and Jesus didn't cotton to folks acting like they were different--and especially better--than they in fact were.

But Jesus sure had a lot to say about people who put pursuit of the dollar--or the denarius, if you need to be a literalist--at the heart of their life and who make it the point of their life's work.

He did not say, after all, "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an actor or actress to get into the kingdom of heaven." It was not, after all, an actor who said, "I have more awards than I know what to do with; I know what I will do--I will tear down my awards room and build a bigger one and say to myself, 'Eat, drink, and be merry.'"

Now, please don't hear me wrong. There are many people who are successful in business who also keep their priorities in the right order; there are many people in the business world who make lots of money and who still maintain their Christian love, their generosity, and their integrity.

Indeed, I have often told the Lord that I believe it is possible to be simultaneousy rich and righteous and that I'd appreciate the chance to prove it. Clearly, the Lord does not share my confidence in me.

Still, from the perspective of Jesus as it is revealed to us in the Gospels, there may be no greater risk to the souls of our children, or to our own souls, than putting the accumulation of wealth first in our lives--which let me again hasten to say is not the goal of everyone who becomes a stockbroker or banker or construction contractor or merchant or you name it. The great risk lies in the temptation, in the lure of money and of the supposed power that comes with it.

So, if your son or daughter wants to be an actor or painter or dancer or singer, don't sweat it too much. Their soul could be at greater risk if they go into one of the more "conventional" professions.

By the way, it all worked out ok for us. Joshua decided not to be an actor after all.

He's a poet...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Scripture's Truth

Christians affirm the truth--another good word is "trustworthiness"--of Scripture.

Evangelical Christians, of which I consider myself one, take it very seriously.

But do we think about the truth of Scripture in the right way, by which I mean in the way that God intends and in the way that Scripture itself leads us to think about it?

Most of us, in practice if not in carefully thought out theory, assign different levels of authority to different parts of Scripture. We just seem to know, whether or not we've ever studied hermeneutics and theology, that some random law in Leviticus doesn't have the same binding authority on us on this side of Jesus Christ as a saying of Jesus does--although we can be selective in which Old Testament "laws" we want to enforce and don't want to enforce.

Most of us would also affirm, although we might want to have much discussion over what it means, that since Jesus Christ was God with us and thus the epitome of God's revelation of God's self to us, that Jesus is the heart and center of Scripture.

If Jesus Christ is the epitome of God's self-revelation to humanity and if he is that to which all of Scripture points and testifies, then it stands to reason, it seems to me, that we should read and interpret Scripture through the lens of Jesus.

That position has clear if complicated ramifications for how we read the Hebrew Bible.

Today's question, though, has to do with the New Testament.

Given that the four Gospels offer a witness to Christ that is simultaneously consistent and diverse, and given that the letters of Paul and of the other New Testament writers offer testimony that, while clearly motivated by a desire to preach Christ and to apply the good news of Jesus to different situations, nonetheless reveals the realities of the struggle to do so--a struggle in which we continue to engage--might Scripture's second greatest truth, after its greatest truth of bearing witness to Jesus, be in how it bears witness to the honest, evolving, difficult, and messy process of trying to be Christ's presence in the real world?

Alongside the popular motto of "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it" maybe we should place this one: "The truth of Scripture is found in the model it offers of how to wrestle in an ongoing way with the meaning of Jesus Christ and with the meaning of being his followers."

Granted, it won't fit on a bumper sticker.

Thankfully, we have the Holy Spirit to help us...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Non-Viral Preaching

Have you ever noticed that videos of good, sound, biblical, compassionate, empathetic, gracious, loving, humble preaching never go viral? I wonder why that is...

Ten Things You Should Know (But May Not) About Your Pastor

1. She/he doubts.

2. She/he believes.

3. She/he wonders.

4. She/he searches.

5. She/he cares.

6. She/he bleeds.

7. She/he cries.

8. She/he breaks.

9. She/he limps.

10. She/he knows.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sub-Christian Church?

Jesus said that we fulfill the greatest commandment when we love God with all we are and we fulfill the second greatest one when we love our neighbor as ourself.

Does a church that does not focus the vast majority of its energy, resources, time, efforts, and "programming" on fostering those two realities in our lives deserve to be described as "Christian"?

And if we are not about those two main things, what are we about?

If My People

It is one of the most quoted verses in the Bible: "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Is it also one of the most misused?

The context in 2 Chronicles is that Solomon has just finished the dedication of the recently completed temple of the Lord.

Taking the verse literally and taking the context seriously (and I recognize the complexity of "context," given that Chronicles is a post-exilic work and so the priestly writers no doubt had the Second Temple in mind as they told this story while the story being told is set in the 10th Century BCE and has to do with the dedication of the First Temple), we must acknowledge the following:

1. The promises in this verse and in the surrounding verses assume a nation in which the lines between the "people" and the "nation state" are fine if not non-existent and

2. That nation is pre-Christian era Israel and no other nation.

Is it possible for any other nation state to apply the promises made to pre-Christian era Israel to itself?

It seems to me that many people in my context make a too easy and likely inappropriate leap to apply this verse to the United States so that "my people" refers to American Christians (and anyone who will come on board with them) and "their land" refers to America. People living in other nations may make the same leap.

So, to take the verse literally and to take its context seriously seems to mean that it must be applied only to ancient Israel.

Still, being in our Bibles, we want and need to apply it to our time.

How can we with integrity and appropriateness do so?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Flat Bible

My late great professor and mentor, Dr. Howard P. Giddens, once commented on a particular pastor's preaching this way: "I don't much care for his 'flat Bible' approach." We talked about what he meant by that and I came away thinking about the following possibilities about which I am, thirty-something years later, still thinking.

1. Perhaps every part of the Bible does not have equal authority.

2. Or, perhaps some parts of the Bible carry a different kind of authority than do other parts.

3. If either of those first statements is true, how does one determine what kind of authority to attribute to a particular text?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Changes Coming to On the Jericho Road

Dear Readers,

When I started posting at On the Jericho Road in January 2007 my stated purpose, which has appeared at the top of the blog from Day 1, was that I wanted it to be "the place where Michael Ruffin asks questions, raises issues, makes observations and seeks help in trying to figure it all out so that together we can maybe, just maybe, do something about it."

Very quickly, though, the blog evolved into a home for my sermons and for essays on various subjects. I became aware early on that other sites might want to pick up my work (special thanks is due here to my friends at who carried the third post I ever wrote and who have consistently used my work over the years) and so I felt it necessary to produce more polished and less open-ended items than I had at first envisioned.

I now want to return to my original vision for On the Jericho Road as a place where questions are asked, issues are raised, and observations are made, all with a view toward our working together to find ways to think about, talk about, write about, and even do something about the myriad difficulties facing our world.

I suspect that sometimes I will still post full essays here but my intention is regularly to post brief comments and questions that will hopefully generate discussion. The topics with which we will deal could be classified under such headings as theology, ethics, biblical interpretation, and moral/social issues.

Let me say a few things about the discussions I hope we will have.

First, I intend for this to be a safe place where anyone can express any opinion or ask any question.

Second, I do not have all the answers. I hope we will work at developing our thought processes and at having civil discourse about serious issues.

Third, our discussions will take place through the comments function of the blog. While the blog posts will be linked to Facebook, I will not discuss them there.

Fourth, in order to comment you must identify yourself. I have the comments function set not to allow anonymous commenting. We will own what we say.

Fifth, my sermons, as well as essays on preaching, will now appear on my blog This Preaching Thing.

Sixth, essays dealing with American politics, including the intersection between those politics and American Christians, will appear at my blog A View from the Hinterland.

I hope you will join me for the discussion of important matters here at On the Jericho Road...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Resurrection Obedience

[A sermon based on 1 John 5:1-6 & John 15:9-17 for the Sixth Sunday of Easter & Mother’s Day]

When I was a boy my mother would from time to time, as mothers are wont to do, tell me to do something. If I dared ask her why, she would in her kindness and patience give me a reason or two or five. But if I persisted in stalling through repeated requests that she justify her instruction, she would finally say, “Do it because I said so!”

Now, some mothers are mean; some mothers show their supposed love for their children through manipulation or abuse. My mother, though, like all good mothers, genuinely loved me and wanted the best for me—I knew it then and I know it, decades after her death, now. And I genuinely loved and wanted to please my mother, although I did at time have a funny way of showing it.

I loved my mother so I tried my best to obey her; my obedience to her was a response to her love for me and a reflection of my love for her.

My mother earned and deserved my obedience and my love. In a way, though, she also commanded and even demanded it. Oh, I don’t mean that she said, “I am your mother and you will love me!” I mean that the reality of her love and the example of her love were such that it seemed imperative that I respond to her love with mine; I didn’t see where I had much of a choice, given that I had the honor and privilege of being her son. Having the honor and privilege of being her son gave me the honor and privilege of obeying her.

I was my mother’s only child.

But I wasn’t really. Two years after I was born another son was born, this one named Stanley Abbott Ruffin. He was born with severe birth defects and, after being rushed to Eggleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, died after only twelve hours of life.

The only evidence that he lived at all is his small marble gravestone, the book on condolences that my mother saved and that I still have, and the home movie my father took of me standing among the flowers spread over his grave.

I have at times wondered how my life would have been different had Stan lived. What would it have been like to have a sibling, to have a brother? I have learned from observation about the deep love and affection that siblings can share as well as the deep rivalry and antipathy they can share—simultaneously, somehow. Stan was born of the same love that I was and was of the same bloodline and family tree that I was and because he was the child of my parents, whom I loved, I would have loved him, too.

Had Stan lived he would have been a special needs child. My parents would have cared for him faithfully and would have loved him unconditionally and I believe—again, as my response to their love and in obedience to the command inherent in their ways of loving and living—I would have cared for and loved him in the same way. And, given that we would have become orphans together when I was twenty and he was eighteen, I could have had responsibility for him now for over thirty years. It would have been, I imagine, very, very difficult. But I believe, although I’ll never know, that the love that my parents left with me and in me—that the life they left with me and in me—would have lived on in me and been lived out in me toward Stan.

As “different” from me as Stan would have been, he would have still been my brother; he would have been as fully the child of my parents as I am.

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus, on the last night of his life, told his disciples the following things:

1. He had loved them as the Father had loved him;
2. They should abide in his love;
3. To keep his commandments was to abide in his love;
4. He had kept his Father’s commandments and had abided in his love;
5. Joy would be found in obeying Jesus by loving each other;
6. They should love one another as Jesus had loved them;
7. The greatest love was to lay down one’s life for one’s friends;
8. They were Jesus’ friends if they did what he commanded them;
9. They had status as his friends and so they had access to the workings of his heart;
10. He had chosen them as friends;
11. As they obeyed and loved they would receive from the Father what they needed to obey and love; and
12. He was telling them what to do so that they could love one another.

John the Elder tells us the following things that are related to the things that the Fourth Gospel tells us:

1. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah is a child of God;
2. As children who love our Father we also love our Father’s other children;
3. We know we love our Father’s other children when we love God and obey God;
4. The love of God is to obey God’s commandments which is a demanding but not burdensome privilege because God gives us the faith we need;
5. The Spirit of God sent to us by the Father after the resurrection of the Crucified Jesus teaches us what we need to know about Jesus and thus about ourselves and about each other.

It is a good thing when we can carry, whether she is alive or dead, the best of our mother’s life and love with us. It is a great thing that we can carry, because he was dead but is now alive and because his Spirit is with us, the life and love of our Savior Jesus Christ with us. Jesus loved his followers—and he loves us—with all of our differences and in all of our strangeness. Jesus calls, commands, and shows us how to love each other with all of our differences and in all of strangeness.

My brother Stan, had he lived, would have been much different than I; he would have even been, by the majority standards of the world, strange. He would likely have had from birth some characteristics that would, on a literal reading of the Old Testament law—in which we thankfully don’t engage—have disqualified him from full participation in the worship of the Lord. But I have no doubt—not one—that my mother and father would have loved him as much as they loved me and I have no doubt—not one—that, even with all their shortcomings, my home church would have loved, embraced, cherished, and included my “different” brother in their community of grace.

We don’t, you see, get to choose our brothers and sisters; they come to us by the grace of God and so we love them by the grace of God. By grace through faith, by the Spirit of God, and by the presence of the resurrected Christ we love God and we love each other. What does it mean for us to love each other? Well, it begins with accepting each other, it moves through standing and sitting with each other through all of life, and it ends with giving ourselves up for each other no matter what it costs us.

The late theologian Jim Morrison (he of the Doors) once wrote, “People are strange when you're a stranger; faces look ugly when you're alone.” His point, I think (although with Morrison who ever really knew?) is that separation and alienation breed misunderstanding and even contempt. Our world is a place that thrives on categorization and stereotyping that leads to separation and alienation.

The church will be, if we obey Jesus by loving and if we love Jesus by obeying, fellowships that embrace each other in our difference and in our strangeness.

On November 11, 1960, an episode of the Twilight Zone aired that was entitled The Eye of the Beholder. In it, a woman is in a hospital, her face wrapped in bandages. We hear the voices of the doctors and nurses although their faces are shrouded in shadows. We learn that the woman, whose name is Janet Tyler, has just undergone the eleventh and final operation in an attempt to change her facial features so they will be like those dominant in her society. When the bandages are removed, the doctors and nurses express disappointment that the operation has failed and her face has experienced no change at all. When we see her face, we see that she is beautiful, from our perspective. When we see the faces of the doctors and nurses, we see that they are ugly, from our perspective, with twisted features and pig-like snouts.

Mothers love their children when they seem just right and when they seem all wrong. Regardless of how their children seem, regardless of how they are, mothers love them.

Jesus loves us all, just like we are—and the truth is that we are all, spiritually, mentally, socially, emotionally, and behaviorally speaking, a combination of fair beauty and pig snouts, aren’t we?

In this family of faith, grace, and love, in this family whose life is built around following Jesus, love means obedience and obedience means love…