Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Where Have Y'all Been?

I was twelve or so when a friend of mine who built model rockets invited several of us to witness a launch. So we gathered at what used to be the Drill Field at what used to be Gordon Military College in what still is Barnesville, Georgia to observe the spectacle. He prepared the rocket for liftoff and, after the countdown, it indeed blasted off. After the rocket had travelled a few hundred feet into the air, its parachute deployed and we watched it drift down, apparently into the woods that lay between the road that ran alongside the Drill Field and the golf course.

Another friend and I ran across the road and went into the woods in search of the rocket. The woods were easy to get through until we got to the small creek that ran through them; on the other side of the creek they became dense and difficult to traverse. We continued on, working our way through the bushes and briars, wishing we had a machete like we had seen in the Tarzan movies. We were determined to find that rocket.

Finally, we crashed through the outer edge of the dark woods and into the light of day—where we found everybody else on the golf course where the rocket had landed. They had just gotten into a car with the amateur rocket engineer’s parents and driven around to where the rocket was. I deflated; we had suffered the sweat and scratches that were inflicted on us by the woods and we weren’t even going to be thanked for our sacrifice in service to the great rocket project. All we got was a “Hey, where have y’all been?”

Still, the fact is that my friend and I did find the rocket; we just didn’t find it first because we took a harder path. And because we took the harder path, we had the better story to tell!

We’re all on a search and that search, whether we know it or not, is to know God. Thankfully, God wants to be known. God wants to be known so much that he sent his only Son into this world as a vulnerable baby who would grow up to be an executed man. God wants to be known so much that he sent his own Spirit into the world to be with us and among us.

At rare times our search for God seems easy; most of the time it seems hard. All the time it is in the course of the search that we find God; all the time it is the fact that finding God is the journey, not the destination. Most of the time the journey will be more akin to that trek through the woods than it will be to that drive around the corner. We face impediments and challenges; we receive bumps and scratches and bruises; we get dirty and messy.

And all along the way, God—God the Creator, God the Christ, God the Spirit—smiles at us and says, “Where have y’all been?”

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

[This article appears this week in my hometown newspaper, The Barnesville (GA) Herald-Gazette]

I admit that I may not be the ideal person to comment on this, given that I left my hometown in 1975 and have since returned only for the occasional visit. On the other hand, perhaps my perspective as one who grew up in Barnesville and who sees it only once in a while is valuable in its own way; it’s kind of like being the vagabond uncle who sees his niece every few years and so notices the changes in her in a way that those who live near her and see her all the time can’t.

I got to thinking about this last Friday night as I sat in the cold watching the Lamar County Trojans defeat the Jefferson Dragons in the state playoffs. We always come to visit my family for Thanksgiving and it has become part of my tradition to stay over and watch the Trojans’ game on Friday during this nice run of the last few years. When it was announced that the Trojans’ next opponent would be Benedictine, which is a military school, my mind really took off.

I remembered watching the football games played at Summers Field by our own military school, Gordon. Many weekends during my childhood I would watch Gordon Military High School play on Friday night and Gordon Military College play on Saturday night. Out on Forsyth Road, the Booker T. Washington Tigers were playing, too, but we—or I, at least, didn’t give that much thought.

We lived in a divided community.

Immediately following the integration and consolidation of our county schools, I remember attending the games of the newly formed and named Lamar County Trojans at the former Booker stadium at the newly christened Forsyth Road School, then in subsequent years watching the Trojans at Summers Field where the Gordon Military Bulldogs once campaigned against their—and our—foes.

We were together but we had not yet come together.

Last Friday night, I sat among and stood along with the crowd in beautiful Thunder Alley, thrilling to my alma mater’s victory over the defending state champions. As I looked around me I realized how beautiful the crowd was. Yes, it was a large crowd. Yes, it was a boisterous crowd. Yes, it was a remarkable atmosphere—the most remarkable I have ever experienced—for a football game. But the most beautiful thing I saw in that crowd was the camaraderie and commonality. I thrilled to the realization that my home county has become a community even more than I thrilled to the football game.

Now, Lamar County is not heaven (no matter what some people say) and so it is not perfect. You who live there know that much better than I do. Still, as a hometown boy who occasionally comes back to town and who joins with the current residents of Lamar County in celebrating the accomplishments of the football Trojans, I just want to say how proud I am of the community that gave me my start in life.

You’ve come a long way, baby. Keep it up!

And Go Big Blue! Bring Down the Thunder!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Giving Tuesday

Here is a recap of the last few days: November 28 was Thanksgiving Day (I hope you had a good day of family, friends, and food); November 29 was Black Friday (the official kickoff of the consumerist Christmas season and the American version of the Running of the Bulls); November 30 was Rivalry Saturday (Georgia vs. Georgia Tech [Wow!], Alabama vs. Auburn [Quadruple wow!], Florida State vs. Florida [the Chomp got Chopped!], USC vs. UCLA [Yawn], etc.), December 1 was the First Sunday of Advent (Even so, come, Lord Jesus!), and December 2 was Cyber Monday (one of the busiest online shopping days of the year).

That brings us to today, Tuesday, December 3 which is Giving Tuesday.

You might be saying, “Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Rivalry Saturday, Advent, and Cyber Monday I know—but what is this ‘Giving Tuesday’?” According to the website givingtuesday.org, the mission of the Giving Tuesday movement is “to create a national day of giving at the start of the annual holiday season. It celebrates and encourages charitable activities that support non-profit organizations.” The goal is to have a kickoff to the Christmas giving season like we have a kickoff to the Christmas shopping season.

That’s a worthy goal. The Giving Tuesday movement neither accepts nor distributes donations; they instead encourage people to donate directly to the charitable non-profit organization of their choice.

Hopefully, we followers of Christ don’t need a special day to remind us to give and to serve. Hopefully, we are growing into a lifestyle that is built on sacrifice, service, and giving that are birthed out of a heart becoming always more filled with God’s love and grace. Still, like our Sunday worship reminds us that we are to worship all the time, an annual emphasis on giving can help to remind us of our ongoing privilege and responsibility to give.

Like anyone else, I am partial to the work of the organizations with which I am involved and that I support: the Church, Habitat for Humanity, Morningstar Children and Family Services, Rotary International, and All About Animals Rescue. You probably have your favorite causes, too. On this Giving Tuesday, I encourage all of us to support an organization or organizations that are doing what they can to make things better in this old world.

It needs all the help it can get.

In honor of the day, I present this Christmas classic by Elvis. As you (if you) listen to it, I invite you to change the words a little to "Why Can't Every Day Be Like Giving Tuesday?"

It should be ...






Friday, November 22, 2013

Never Young Again

'I’ll never forget the moment when I heard the news.

It was November of 1963; I was a five-year-old boy two months into my educational sojourn at Miss Sylvia’s kindergarten.

I was a little boy sitting in the floor of our little den in our little house in front of our little black and white television when our telephone rang. My mother went to the built-in phone cranny in the hall; I heard her say “Hello” and “I’ll be right there.” The next thing I knew she was snatching me up and throwing a jacket over my Dr. Dentons and saying “We have to go see about your Daddy.”

She put me in the car and quickly drove up Memorial Drive to Gordon Road, turned left and then hung a right into the parking lot of the Lamar County Health Department building, which was the closest thing we had to a hospital. The trip couldn’t have taken more than two minutes.

There were lots of cars in the parking lot.

That was because a lot of men had come there to be with my father. They had all been at the Midway Baptist Church on City Pond Road four miles outside of Barnesville that night, working together to build the church’s first ever indoor baptismal pool. My father had been in the attic, trimming the opening in the ceiling where the light would go, when he lost his balance and fell to the concrete floor below, landing on his head.

When Mama and I walked into the room, all of those men were lined up around the walls while Dr. Crawford leaned over the figure lying on the gurney, using a needle and thread to repair what damage he could. I heard someone tell Mama, “They’re going to move him to the Griffin hospital as soon as Dr. Crawford gets him sewn up.” She released my hand and walked over to the gurney; she leaned over for a few seconds, then straightened up, walked back to me and said, “Go kiss your Daddy goodbye, Son.”

“For how long?” I wondered. “Is he ever coming back?” I wondered.

But I didn’t ask. I just walked over and kissed him on the lips, partly because that was what we always did and partly because it was the only clean place on his face. He smiled at me. I have a vague recollection of the blood and the stitches but I remember that smile so clearly. He told me that he loved me and I told him that I loved him and the next thing I knew I was at Uncle Sandy and Aunt Dot’s house, totally confused and, even though I was with my cousins Denise and Rhonda, very much alone.

I stayed with them while Daddy was in the hospital being treated for two fractured neck vertebrae since Mama spent most of her time with him; I imagine it was just a few days but it felt like months. I would wake up in the middle of the night crying, not knowing where I was—in both the immediate and existential sense.

It was the time in my life that I realized how vulnerable I am—how vulnerable we all are—and just how quickly things can change and change forever. Everything had been fine up until then; I had been full of nothing but innocence and hope and potential but suddenly I found myself filling up with fear and doubt and limitation.

It was my forbidden fruit moment but I had not partaken voluntarily; it had been shoved down my throat.

While I am not positive about the sequence, I think that Daddy was still in the hospital on November 22. I was at my friend Dee’s house when their housekeeper Martha told us, “They’ve shot the President!” I can still hear the agitation and anxiety in her voice.

Perhaps the nation’s experience when President Kennedy was shot was somewhat akin to the one I had when my father smashed into that concrete floor. The young charismatic President had instilled hope in the up and coming Baby Boomer generation with his “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” challenges. The new generation was excited about exploring the “new frontier”; there was no telling what we might do.

And we did a lot of it. We have done a lot of it. We are still doing a lot of it.

But we have done it with the burden of frailty and angst that you bear after the reality of a dangerous and cruel world comes crashing down on you. It’s a lesson that every generation and every person has to learn.

Having my father take a header into a concrete floor when I was five years old is what dumped that reality on me.

Having our President struck down by an assassin’s bullets (and to have his brother Bobby and Dr. King suffer the same fate five years later) is what dumped that reality on my generation. Following President Kennedy’s death, the columnist Mary McGrory told Daniel Patrick Moynihan (then Assistant Secretary of Labor and later United States Senator from New York) that we would never laugh again. Moynihan replied, “Heavens, Mary, we’ll laugh again. It’s just that we’ll never be young again.”

November of 1963 was a mighty early date for me and my generation to wake up and know that we’d never be young again. It’s been tough to live with the knowledge of how quickly it can all change for the worse while at the same time trying to give our lives over to the effort to change things for the better.

But you know, you can’t stay young and innocent and live in the real world and do what has to be done. It’s best to live with our eyes, our hearts, our hands, and our lives wide open. It’s best to give ourselves away in service, believing that it will do some good no matter what it costs us.

President Kennedy was a young man when he died serving our nation.

My father was a young man when he almost died serving our church.

President Kennedy said, “Let us begin.” After his death, President Johnson said, “Let us continue.”

I say, “Let us look this hard world and dangerous life squarely in the eye and say, ‘We are not children living sheltered and unknowing lives; we are grown men and women who know the score. We will do the best we can to make things better. You will try to stop us. So be it. Come at us with all you have. We will never stop trying …'”

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Advents

I have greatly enjoyed my alma mater’s return to the gridiron this year. Going into this Saturday’s Homecoming game against the Stetson Hatters, my Mercer Bears are 9-2 and Head Coach Bobby Lamb is a finalist for FCS national Coach of the Year. It’s been fun.

Did you know that Mercer was one of the teams that met in the first college football game played in the state of Georgia? It was in January of 1892 and their opponent was some school in Athens that has over the years admittedly been more identified with football than has Mercer. Mercer’s first football victory came in the fall of that same year when they defeated Georgia Tech 12-6, a feat we hope to repeat when Mercer opens at Tech in 2016.

The Bears held the Florida Gators scoreless each of the first five times they played; the Bears won the first four games by scores of 12-0, 6-0, 24-0, 13-0, with the squads playing to a scoreless tie in the fifth game. Granted, all of those games occurred before World War I, but Mercer still shut out Florida in five consecutive games. I'm pretty sure Steve Spurrier was the Gators' quarterback back then.

Mercer fielded a football team until 1941; the program was discontinued due to World War II and was revived to great anticipation and with much success this year.


Mercer football has had two advents—it arrived in 1892 and departed in 1941; it arrived again in 2013—and hopefully will never leave again. Of course, lots of important things went on at and through Mercer between 1941 and 2013; we didn’t sit around waiting for football to return—we kept busy doing what we were supposed to do to be a vital university. Perhaps there was always a lingering hope that football would return but once the decision to resurrect the program was made in 2010 preparations began in earnest. Mercer people did not sit around daydreaming about football’s return; they got to work making things ready for its return.

We of the Church are approaching our annual observance of Advent. During Advent we celebrate the first Advent of Jesus that occurred two millennia ago. We also anticipate his Second Advent that is yet to occur. But we also think about and recommit ourselves to living in ways that will reflect what he taught us in his first coming and that will prepare the way for his second coming.

The parallels I am drawing are inexact. When Mercer football was gone, it was gone, except for the memory of it. When Jesus ascended back to his Father, the Holy Spirit came to us and through the Spirit Jesus has remained present with us. Also, while some always hoped for a return of Mercer football, there was no guarantee that it would ever happen, but we have the sure hope that Jesus will return. And because we know that Jesus came, that Jesus continues with us, and that Jesus will come again, we want to take with joyful seriousness the opportunity we have to live in light of all of his Advents.

That, Charlie Brown, is what Advent is all about!


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

150 Years Ago Today. At Gettysburg ...

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


--President Abraham Lincoln

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Breaking Things

I am not terribly clumsy and yet I have a way of breaking things. Now, I am not the artist that my cousin Stan was. When we were boys, I dreaded seeing Stan, who was a few years younger than I, come to our house because he would want to play with my toys and any toy that Stan touched broke. Notice I did not say that Stan broke it because that would be neither true nor fair; it was more like magic—if he touched it, it broke. He just had the gift.

I don’t break a lot of things but when I do break something, it usually belongs to someone I love. I don’t always hurt the ones I love, but I tend to break things that belong to the ones I love.

Tuesday night I broke a pilgrim. My good wife has two Pilgrim figurines, one male and one female—Mr. & Mrs. Pilgrim, I guess—that she sets out every year at this time, these being the days leading up to Thanksgiving. So the other day she placed them on the counter behind the kitchen sink; our sink is located on a bar so there is open air behind it that leads directly to the floor. I was putting a glass in the sink and, rather than walk the four extra steps required to get to the front of the sink, I reached over the counter from behind the sink and—without incident, I might add—placed the glass in the sink.

Something happened, though, when I drew my arm back. I got distracted or careless and my sleeve caught the top of the pilgrim’s hat—if he had been wearing a baseball cap this never would have happened—and before I knew it, Mr. Pilgrim was lying, like James Taylor’s “sweet dreams and Flying Machines,” “in pieces on the ground.” My good wife heard the crash and asked, “What happened?” “I broke a Pilgrim,” I answered—I wonder if I am the first person since Pocahontas to speak those words—then she smiled at me and said, “I can’t have anything nice!”

I knew where she was coming from. Her sister Jean has a bunch of old stuff and sometimes she gives Debra some of it; if it’s a nice old platter or something else fragile I’m very likely to break it, so I try to avoid them.

In this case she was kidding because those Pilgrim figurines are not valuable in any sense of the word—they didn’t cost a lot of money and they don’t have any sentimental value (she doesn’t even remember where she got them, much less how much they cost), and it wasn’t a major award. I mean, it’s not like I broke one of her precious Precious Moments figurines—I never go anywhere near the curio cabinet they’re in. I picked up the pieces of the shattered Pilgrim and she looked at them and said, “It’s ok. It’s just a thing. And I can glue it back together.”

And my mind flashed back, as my mind is prone to do. My father had bought a brand new used black four-door 1964 Mercury Comet; it couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. I was maybe ten. That car had two things on it that I had never seen before on a car: air conditioning and a little lever on the driver’s door with which you could adjust the side view mirror without rolling down the window. One afternoon I got to messing with the mirror adjustor and the next thing I knew, part of it was in my hand and the rest of it was down inside the door. Now, I could have just walked away and let Daddy wonder how it happened, but I wasn’t that kind of kid. So I found him and told him what had happened, handing him the piece that had come off in my hand.

He looked like he was going to cry. “I guess I can’t have anything,” he muttered, and he turned and walked away. Now, Daddy wasn’t usually like that about things; obviously something else—probably lots of something else—was going on that I didn’t know about. The breaking of the mirror adjusting thing felt to him that day for some reason like the last straw; I suppose it was symbolic of other losses he was experiencing or dreading. He was able to get it fixed and after he did he told me that it was no big deal—but it sure did seem like it at the time, although I did not, and still do not, understand why.

The fact, though, is that in relationships things get broken. The further fact is that it is in our closest relationships that the most meaningful things get broken. The risk of brokenness is one of the prices we pay for our close sharing of life with each other. The still further fact is that what we do with the things that get broken matters.

John Claypool told a story about a five-year-old boy who at his kindergarten made, with his teacher’s help, a clay ashtray as a Christmas gift for his pipe-smoking father. They molded the clay into a shape approximating an ashtray, painted it his father’s favorite color, and fired it in a kiln. After the kindergarten’s Christmas program, the boy ran to get the gift-wrapped ashtray for his father and, running down the hall, dropped it. It hit the floor, shattering within the wrapping paper. The boy sobbed inconsolably. His father told him not to cry; “It doesn’t make any difference,” he said. But his mother knew better. She held her son in her arms and cried with him. Then she said, “Let’s pick up the pieces and take them home and see what we can make of what is left.”

It is, like everything else, finally all about grace. Things get broken. We pick up the pieces, take them home, and see what we can make of what is left. And because of grace, what can be made of the pieces can be more worth having than what had previously seemed “perfect.”

“I guess I can’t have anything.” Sure you can. It’s just that after it gets broken you have to fix it and then you have to live with the cracks in it.

What my good wife said of the broken Mr. Pilgrim applies to us and of our relationships, too: “The cracks will give him character …”

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I’ve Been Thinking #1

[Note: this is the first of an occasional series called I’ve Been Thinking; these posts will share some thoughts about what I’ve been—well, thinking about …]

I’ve been thinking about the ways that Christians do and don’t think about other people.

Sometimes I wonder whether we really think all that much about other people. And if we do, do we only get around to thinking about them after we’ve burned up most of our energy thinking about me and mine?

For example, take the ways that we use our time, our energy, and our money. Whether it’s an individual, a family, or a church, how many of us when we’re planning our life or our budget ask as our first question, “How can I/we use these resources to love God with all I am and to love my neighbor as myself?” (two realities that can’t be separated in the Christian life).

Over at my Prayer 365 blog, where I publish a daily prayer, I have over the last two days written a prayer about our first thought—“God, in all things let my first thought be of you” and our second thought—“God, in all things let my second thought be of others.” But how does that show itself in our attitudes and in our actions?

I am fascinated by the ways that we Christians think about and debate public policy. There are, of course, many varieties of Christians with all kinds of backgrounds and experiences so differences of opinion are to be expected. And there are legitimate debates to be had about what kinds of public policies do the most good for the people who are in the greatest need.

Still, I struggle with Christians whose first thought seems to be of self and of “my kind” rather than their first thought being of God with their second thought (and a close second at that—Jesus did say, after all, that “a second is like it”) being of other people, especially of people who are poor, sick, hungry, and marginalized. Those are the people for whom God seems to have an especially tender heart.

God (and everybody who knows me) knows that I’m deeply, deeply flawed and that I practice my share of hypocrisy. But it would never occur to me not to want my tax dollars to go to help families with children buy food for those children or to try to provide health coverage for families in need. I’d much rather have my money go toward such efforts than toward lots of other things it goes toward. Other people do much, much more than I do to try to help in such situations, but, for the life of me, I just don’t get Christians whose first thought on such matters is “I don’t want my money going to help those people”—or some more or less polite version of that thought.

I know—there are deadbeats. I know—there have to be better ways. But I’m not thinking about the details. Again, there are policy debates that need to be had and hard decisions that need to be made.

And I know that in a free society the church’s ideals cannot be the only thing to inform public policy, but such concern for people is held in common by people of all faiths and by people of no faith.

What I’ve been thinking about, though, is the gut-level, heart-felt initial reaction of us Christians toward issues relating to the poor and needy.

What does it say about the character of our heart and the nature of our faith if our first reaction toward helping folks is “No, not with what belongs to me”? rather than “Yes, they need help. What can we do?”

Monday, November 4, 2013

Like Mike

I was a Monkees fan. In fact, I was a member of the official Monkees fan club. The Monkees, for the sadly uninformed and inexperienced, were a “made for television” rock band; the four members (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork), were individually cast and put together as a band. While the Beatles were hailed as the Fab Four; the Monkees were derided as the Pre-Fab Four. The television show was modeled after the Beatles’ films “Help” and “A Hard Day’s Night” and so consisted of madcap adventures interspersed with musical numbers.

The Monkees’ music was actually quite good. They recorded songs written by such outstanding songwriters as Carole King & Gerry Coffin, Neil Diamond, and Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart. On their first couple of albums, which were rather creatively titled “The Monkees” and “More of the Monkees,” the band members sang the songs but 99% of the instrumental contribution was by session musicians. Eventually the Monkees, led by Michael Nesmith (an excellent guitarist and songwriter who had already penned “Different Drum,” Linda Ronstadt’s first hit), revolted against the restrictions that had been placed on them and gained creative control of their recordings.

Nesmith was my favorite Monkee because we had several things in common. For one thing, we shared a name. For another, he was tall and skinny. For another, he sometimes wore glasses (I wore them all the time). For yet another, he had dark wavy hair (which mine turned out to me when I finally grew it long). He was also charming, intelligent, clever, and talented … and I had high hopes.

The Monkees continued to record for several years after the television show ended, but eventually they went their separate ways, although they have toured occasionally over the years, usually without Nesmith, who had found lots of other things in the music and video worlds to do, including making a couple of records with The First National Band and recording many solo projects. Earlier this year, though, Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith toured together following Jones’ sudden death last year.

Michael Nesmith is now seventy years old. This fall he has undertaken a solo tour in which he is playing many of the songs that he has written and recorded over the course of his fifty-year music career. My good wife and I, along with about 125 other people, had the privilege of seeing him last week in a cozy venue in Birmingham. It was great fun to see him having such a good time performing many songs from his body of work, including “Joanne,” “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” “Propinquity (I’ve Just Begun to Care),” “Silver Moon,” “Yellow Butterfly,” “Rays,” and “Grand Ennui.” He ended the show with his sole performance of a song from the Monkees era, “Listen to the Band.”

The show was a great trip through a life of music; we and others who are hearing Nesmith on this tour are privileged that he is sharing that life with us.

We are all building a body of work; we are all making a life. I hope and pray that we—and I surely include myself—can look back on our body of work and know that we have accomplished something that helped folks out a little bit. I hope and pray that we will continue to want to share our lives with others and especially to share those parts of our lives that, for whatever reason, created and continue to create a mutual experience of joy.

How cool it must be to still be willing and able, after seventy years of life and fifty years of work, to keep doing your thing and to share your love and joy with others.

Michael Nesmith was once who I wanted to be when I grew up.

All these years later, he still is …

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Cheesecake Faith

I recently made my first visit to a Cheesecake Factory restaurant. I enjoyed my entrĂ©e—Hibachi Steak (certified Angus hanger steak with shiitake mushrooms, onions, bean sprouts, wasabi mashed potatoes and tempura asparagus)—very much.

Since one cannot—or at least should not—go to a place called the “Cheesecake Factory” without eating cheesecake, my good wife and I set about perusing the massive cheesecake menu. We finally settled on the White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Cheesecake (WCCMNC) because, I mean, why not? We did have to give it some thought, though—they had around forty different varieties of cheesecake on the menu and most of them looked quite delicious. The WCCMNC was, I must say, marvelous.

Usually, though, if I’m going to eat cheesecake, I want plain old cheesecake—nothing extra on it, nothing extra in it—just cheesecake. I am at heart a simple man with simple tastes.

The truth is, though, that I was in college before I ate “real” cheesecake. According to that reputable culinary source Wikipedia, “Cheesecake is a sweet dish consisting of two or more layers. The main, or thickest layer, consists of a mixture of soft, fresh cheese, eggs, and sugar; the bottom layer is often a crust or base made from crushed cookies, graham crackers, pastry, or sponge cake.” Sponge cake? Anyway, “real” cheesecake is a tad heavy.

At least it’s heavy compared to what I grew up thinking of as cheesecake.

You see, my mother served us a “cheesecake” that was not heavy; in fact, it may not have even been cheesecake, although, to be fair, the recipe that she cut out of a newspaper (we still have it) is entitled “Cheese Cake.” Here it is:


Maybe the whipping made the difference. (Mama sometimes seemed to think it did, but I digress.) Anyway, for some reason, her cheesecake was simple and light and fluffy and delicious. It was not “real” cheesecake, but it was good cheesecake. And thankfully, since we have the recipe, it is a cheesecake to which I can sometimes return. I have learned to like the heavier and more complicated versions, but I still like to go back to the simpler cheesecake of my mother and of my childhood. It is foundational for me in my experience of cheesecake.

As I have lived--sometimes thriving and sometimes surviving--I have developed a heavier, more complicated, more informed and more nuanced faith. It has been necessary and helpful. My experience has been deepened and enriched by different ways of thinking about God, about faith, and about life.

A story—one that is too good not to be true—is told about the influential Swiss theologian Karl Barth who, while on a speaking tour of the United States in 1962, was asked by a University of Chicago student if he could summarize his theology in one sentence and Barth replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

That White Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Cheesecake was amazing; I look forward to trying other varieties. I am glad that my tastes have matured.

But I never stop going back to Mama’s cheesecake …

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Taking the World Series(ly)

It is World Series time and I’m wondering why I don’t care more.

There was a time when every fiber of my being looked forward to the World Series. The first one to which I paid much attention was the 1967 Series—I was nine years old—between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, which is, as it turns out, the matchup that we have this year.

I watched every inning that I could of the classic World Series in the 1970s in which those great Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Oakland Athletics teams were involved. I hung on every pitch of the 1975 contest—the greatest series of my lifetime, so far as I’m concerned—between the Reds and the Red Sox. The ‘80s are a bit of a blur what with seminary, the beginnings of my career, and the birth of our children, but I know that I watched as much as I could. The enduring memories of that decade are the homerun by a gimpy Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers off Oakland’s closer extraordinaire Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 tilt and the earthquake that struck during the Oakland vs. San Francisco Series of 1989; both events shook the world in their own way.

I suspect I’ll watch some of this year’s Series but I’m not planning my life around it. I guess it’s partly because I just have other things I’d rather spend my time doing; after all, with each passing moment life becomes more and more scarce and thus more and more valuable so I’m trying to spend my time creatively and well.

I suspect that the main culprit behind my increasing lack of interest in the World Series, though, is the Atlanta Braves baseball team.

I’m a Braves fan. I started following them when they moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta (something for which our son’s Wisconsin in-laws have never forgiven them) in 1966. With a couple of exceptions (1969 and 1982, when they won the Western Division Championship but were swept in the League Championship Series), for the first twenty-five years of their Atlanta residency, the Braves gave us little hope of a World Series experience. Most seasons they were out of the race by the All-Star break. Most seasons we knew that they were really out of the race before Spring Training began.

Then came the most exciting season in Atlanta Braves’ history—the worst to first season of 1991. With young stars in the making like pitchers John Smoltz and Tom Glavine and outfielders David Justice and Ron Gant, with grizzled veterans like Terry Pendleton and Sid Bream, and with role players like Greg Olson and Rafael Belliard, the Braves went on a remarkable run that led to an Western Division championship, a win over a highly favored and frankly, far superior Pittsburgh Pirates squad, and an epic seven-game World Series loss to that year’s other worst-to-first team, the Minnesota Twins. That year began a remarkable run in which the Braves won their division title for fourteen consecutive years. They made four more World Series appearance in the ‘90s, winning the title in 1995.

What an experience it was to have my team in the postseason every year and to have them appear in the World Series in half of the years of the 1990s! I only thought I had been interested in the Series before; now that my team was in it, I lived and died with them during every moment of every contest. But now, when the Braves are not there, which they have not been in a long time, I find myself not being very interested.

That’s only natural, I suppose, but I find it troubling. After all, baseball is a great game—the greatest game, I would argue—so I should care about it for the sake of its intrinsic beauty and grandeur, not just because I have a team in the game. I should love baseball for baseball’s sake. And I do. I just need to reclaim that first love, a love I had for the sport of baseball that rose above the fortunes of my favorite team. I need to refocus on the game at large rather than on my little corner of it; I need to appreciate and celebrate the joy that fans of other teams feel and to understand and empathize with their frustrations.

All of this has implications for how we think (or don’t think) about the Nation, the World, the Universe, and the Church—and our little pieces of them …

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Every Breath I Take

Forgive me for reflecting today on my mortality, but I have good reason.

My mother died of breast cancer at the age of 53. My father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 57.

Yesterday (September 24, 2013) I turned 55. Hoo boy. Talk about being stuck in the middle.

For years I’ve been joking about telling the Lord that if I could live to age 60, I’d count everything else as bonus. But I wasn’t joking.

On the other hand, it’s not like I’m necessarily genetically predisposed to check out early. After all, my father’s father lived to be 94 and my father’s oldest sibling, my Aunt Mary, will turn 101 in November.

But still …

Now, some of you are probably thinking, “Hey, Mike—you’re a Christian. You’re a minister. Don’t tell me you’re afraid of dying! After all, aren’t you going to a better place? Don’t you believe what you preach?”

No, I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Yes, I’m going to a better place; I hope it looks like a Caribbean resort or at least like St. Simons Island. And yes, I believe what I preach; that includes the verse that says “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.”

I confess to having been afraid in the past. When I was a child, I at times did not want to go to sleep for fear I would not wake up. My mother would say, “Son, what are you afraid of?” I would say, “I’m afraid I’m going to die.” She would respond, “Don’t be silly; you’re not going to die.” And I would think, “Liar!” In hindsight, though, I have to cut her some slack; how do you tell your neurotic nine-year-old, “Oh, Son, odds are pretty good that you won’t die tonight, although I guess, now that you mention it, you could. I mean, the house could burn down or something. You never know. Sleep tight, now.”

I was also afraid that my parents would die. When they left me with my grandparents to go somewhere, I would fret over the possibility that they would not return. My father would say, “Son, what are you afraid of?” I would say, “I’m afraid that you’re going to die.” He would respond, “Don’t be silly; we’re not going to die.”

It wasn’t too many years after he spoke those words that they died. They each left one day and never came back.

And so fear set in, only it was worse than fear; it was fear compounded by a sense of abandonment and betrayal and by an inability to articulate the terror that was churning in me. The result was that I became a rather anemic-looking Hulk; it was anger that triggered the internal forces that in turn transformed mild-mannered Bruce Banner into the raging Incredible Hulk but it was any threat to my sense of security that triggered the fear in me to transform me into a raging coward.

Under those circumstances, life felt like as much of a threat as death did.

It was at times hard to breathe.

One day when I was a boy I was enjoying a tire swing in the back yard of Granny and Papa’s house. I was swinging pretty high when the dry-rotted rope snapped and I came down flat on my back. It was my first experience at having the wind knocked out of me. I remember how desperate I felt as I lay there, gasping for air.

There were lots of times after the deaths of my parents that, when some perceived threat would knock the wind out of me, I would struggle to breathe. My breath would come in great gulps; something in me wanted the air and something in me didn’t. I was afraid of the unknown and of the known; I was afraid of death and of life; I was afraid of not having and of having; I was afraid of losing and of gaining; I was afraid of not loving and of loving; I was afraid of not being loved and of being loved.

Things, I am glad to be able to say, have changed over the years. Oh, I’m still afraid sometimes, but I tend not to live in fear; I still feel an anxious pang sometimes, but I tend not to be overwhelmed by panic; my breathing still gets a little labored at times but I can barely remember the last time that I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.

What has made the difference?

Grace, mainly.

The grace of God, certainly; I have struggled since 1977 when Dr. Robert Otto assigned our “Introduction to Christian Thought” class at Mercer University to read Living by Grace by William Hordern to overcome my tendency to find it hard to believe that God loves me just as I am and that such a God will care for me all the way through life and into death. At long last, I can say that God’s grace has largely won out over my fears; I have found it possible to rest in God’s love and to trust in God’s grace. When I fail to trust, I find myself relying on God’s grace to make that all right, too.

The grace of my good wife has made a huge difference, too. I will not embarrass her by saying much more about that, but it is a fact that for years she was the embodiment of God’s grace that kept me sane by giving me hope through her unconditional love.

The grace of experience has helped as well. By God’s grace I have lived long enough to live through enough, to learn enough, and to grow enough that I’ve been able to give up some of my childish ways. It has felt good over the last few years to be, at long last, an adult.

I am told that on average a human being breathes 5,256,000 times per year which means that since Dr. Henry slapped me into action on September 24, 1958 at the Lamar County (GA) Maternity Shelter I have drawn some 289,000,000 (that’s 289 billion) breaths. I now regard each and every one of those breaths as a great gift.
I can remember some times when I was very aware of each breath because I was struggling to take it. Now, I am trying to be aware of each breath in a different way—I regard each breath as an opportunity to pray.

This is my practice: when I am in a position to be able to think about it, with each breath in I pray “God, thank you” and with each breath out I pray “God, help me.” My hope is that this practice will lead me to a point where each and every breath will be, either consciously or sub-consciously, such a prayer.

One day I will draw my last breath. I wonder if my last prayer will be “God, thank you” or “God, help me”?

While either one would be appropriate, I think it will be both …

A Prayer of Thanks As I Turn 55

O God,

On this, the 55th anniversary of my birth, I give you thanks.

Thank you for …

…Champ and Sara Ruffin who loved each other and through whose love you created and nurtured me;

…Dr. George Henry who helped make sure that I got here safe and sound;

…the good people of the Midway Baptist Church, located outside of Barnesville, Georgia on City Pond Road, who showed me how to love you and to love others;

…those teachers at Gordon Grammar School and Lamar County High School who gave me a lifelong love of learning;

…the professors at Mercer University who prepared me for life and at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who prepared me for ministry;

…Dr. & Mrs. Howard P. Giddens who became my parents after my parents had to go;

…all of the friends I’ve had along the way who came into my life and who have allowed me to enter theirs;

…the medical professionals who have helped to maintain my health and, when necessary, to restore it;

...the people of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Belmont University, The Hill Baptist Church of Augusta, and the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald who have honored me by allowing me to serve alongside them;

…Debra Kay Johnson Ruffin who has loved me unconditionally for so long;

…Joshua Lee Ruffin and Sara Katherine Ruffin to whom I am Daddy and of whom I am so very proud;

…the late-arriving but much appreciated lifeline of guitar playing and songwriting;

…the grace that has given me every moment I have had and every moment I ever will have; and

…the sense that has never left me—although it has been stronger at some times than at others—that you are with me, that you care about me, and that you are guiding me.

Amen.

Friday, August 23, 2013

He Had a Nightmare that Day

On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, he watched and listened as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to those participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

He had a nightmare that day.

He had a nightmare that society was changing in ways that were irreversible.

He had a nightmare that little black children would be going to school with little white children.

He had a nightmare that there would be no more places and privileges reserved for white folks.

He had a nightmare that day.

He had a nightmare that he would not be guaranteed higher standing because of the color of his skin.

He had a nightmare that there would no longer be people on whom he was assumed to have the right to look down.

He had a nightmare that all people would be regarded as people.

He had a nightmare that day.

He had a nightmare that “one nation” meant “one” and that “liberty and justice for all” really meant “for all.”

He had a nightmare that every person really was God’s child.

He had a nightmare that for others to have a larger piece of the pie could mean that he would have a smaller piece.

He had a nightmare that day.

He had a nightmare that people of different races might start marrying each other and producing children.

He had a nightmare that his assumptions would be proven wrong and his prejudices would be exposed as sinful.

He had a nightmare that people who were on a lower rung than he was on the socio-economic ladder would be able to climb as high as him and maybe even climb past him.

He had a nightmare that day.

He had a nightmare that he would be judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.

He had a nightmare that his church might no longer be a gathering of only people who looked and thought like he did.

He had a nightmare that a quality education might cause some folks to think they were smarter than he was.

He had a nightmare that day.

He had a nightmare that somebody he regarded as beneath him might become his boss.

He had a nightmare that black and brown folks might want to live in a house as nice as his and maybe even in his neighborhood.

He had a nightmare that one of them might even get to live in the big White House.

He had a nightmare that day.

He had a nightmare that fifty years from that day, his children and grandchildren would not fear what he feared.

He had a nightmare that fifty years from that day, progress toward justice, freedom, and equality would have been made.

He had a nightmare that fifty years from that day, Christians would have come to live up to the ultimate meaning of their Scriptures and Americans to the ultimate meaning of their founding documents.

He had a nightmare that day …

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Are You a Fragment of the Cross?

A few days ago, archaeologists announced that they had made a significant find in the ruins of a church that had been built in the year 660 in present-day Turkey: a small stone coffin containing a wood fragment that was in the past venerated as coming from the cross of Jesus Christ.

That such an object was so venerated is not unusual; fragments that supposedly come from Jesus’ cross are still around today, including at the Shrine of the True Cross in Dickinson, Texas. According to legend, in the fourth century Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, traveled to Jerusalem, located the cross of Jesus, and had pieces of it kept in Jerusalem and distributed to Constantinople and Rome. Fragments then made their way to locations throughout the world.

There is no way to know whether the fragment found in Turkey, or any of the other fragments or any other relic—think of the Shroud of Turin--for that matter, are in fact what some of the faithful believe them to be.

When I read the story about the find in Turkey, though, I couldn’t help but imagine the folks in the lab on CSI or Bones or NCIS—it would be a real kick watching Abby from NCIS deal with it—checking the fragment to see if it contained some of Jesus’ DNA. The problem would be that we don’t have any known examples of Jesus’ DNA or any known physical descendants of Jesus—Dan Brown’s entertaining fantasy in The Da Vinci Code notwithstanding—to which the experts could compare what they found on the cross fragments.

When you stop and think about it, though, Jesus does have close kin who are alive right here and right now; that would be you and me and all others who are his sisters and brothers. We share his spiritual DNA—we are members of his family and he of ours; God dwells in the Church and the Church dwells in God.

Here’s the hard question: if Abby from NCIS could conduct a test on us to determine how close kin to Jesus we really are, what would it show? How many markers—how much love, how much mercy, how much grace, how much forgiveness, how much service, how much sacrifice, how much humility, for examples—would we share in common with Jesus? The good news is that by the grace of God, by the work of the Spirit, and by the practice of Christian disciplines like worship, solitude, prayer, and study we can continuously grow in those characteristics that define a brother or sister of Jesus.

Physical DNA test results are what they are; spiritual ones can improve.

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mustard Evangelism

[This is my church newsletter column for this week.]


July 21 was National Ice Cream Day. Today, July 23, is National Hot Dog Day. The first Saturday in August, which this year falls on the 3rd, is National Mustard Day.

You have to love summer.

I propose we have a day when we eat hot dogs with mustard followed by ice cream! And there’s no day like today …

Speaking of National Mustard Day—it was established in 1991 by the National Mustard Museum which was at the time located in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin but which you can now visit in beautiful Middleton, Wisconsin, which just happens to be where our son Joshua and his wife Michelle live. We’ve been to Middleton three times and each time we have made a pilgrimage to the Mustard Museum.

It’s a cool place.

The museum is downstairs; there you can enjoy all sorts of exhibits about the history of mustard and view over 5500 types of prepared mustard from all fifty states and more than seventy countries. You can even watch a film about mustard in the MustardPiece Theatre! They have a great store upstairs where you can sample and purchase hundreds of different mustard products—my favorite of the dozens I’ve sampled is Wisconsin’s own Lakeside’s Horseradish Mustard.

As I have matured in my condiment understanding, I have come to understand, along with the good people of Chicago (where I once spent three days) that mustard is the perfect condiment for a hot dog but that ketchup has no place on one. Of course, you may like ketchup on your hot dog and that is fine; we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

There’s probably a lesson in that about how we should think about the disagreements we have with the way that someone else experiences and expresses her or his faith.

Anyway, if you’re ever in the Madison, Wisconsin area, I really hope you’ll visit the National Mustard Museum. I like it and I like you and I think you would like it.

And I hope you will, as we are encouraging you to do, invite someone to come to church. After all, you love the Lord and you love your friends and you are sure that they would love the Lord, too. So invite them because you love them …

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

35 Years (and Counting)

When compared to the span of time that constitutes human history, thirty-five years is not a long time. It is, however, a mighty large chunk of my life.

I bring this up because in the next few days I will mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of two of the most significant events in my life: my graduation from Mercer University on June 4, 1978 and my marriage to Debra Kay Johnson six days later on June 10. My college experience and my marriage experience have been among the most formative ones of my life.

I entered Mercer unaware of what the college experience would be like and unprepared for much of what would face me there. I had set foot on exactly two other college campuses besides Mercer’s and I had spent about half a day at each participating in literary competitions (Gordon College in Barnesville still owes me a free semester that I won with my second place finish in a history competition). So far as I know, my generation was the first one on either side of my family to see its members attend college.

I had performed well academically at a high school that was not, despite the best efforts of a few capable and committed teachers, academically strong. I also began my college career broken and bleeding because of my mother’s death three months earlier, although I had managed to cover the gaping wounds with children’s bandages that were not designed to withstand the pressures of growing up—and would not.

But thanks be to God, to Dr. Howard P. Giddens and other great teachers and mentors, to good friends, and to a girl from Leary I not only made it through but, I realize now in looking back on those years, thrived. Mercer taught me a lot of things but the main thing I learned there was how to love the Lord my God with all of my mind as well as with all of my heart, soul, and strength. I had always made good grades but Mercer opened the world of books up to me and made a scholar out of me and for that I will be always be grateful.

I did have to work for it, though.

What I really needed was grace. I needed someone to show me that God loved and accepted me just like I was, with all my faults, doubts, fears, and questions along with my strengths, faith, hopes, and dreams. Down deep I really believed that God did but I needed someone to embody that kind of love and grace for me. And God answered prayers that were too deep for me to articulate when he gave me Debra. Sir Elton still sings it better than I can say it:

So excuse me forgetting, but these things I do; you see I've forgotten if they're green or they're blue. Anyway the thing is what I really mean--yours are the sweetest eyes I've ever seen.

I hope to get to look into them for thirty-five more years.

For two-thirds of my life now I have been a graduate of Mercer University and the husband of Debra Ruffin. Thanks be to God …

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Where You There?

Where were you on Monday, April 8, 1974, at 9:07 p.m.?

I was on the Midway Baptist Church bus—I wanted to paint the words Heaven Bound on the front but Preacher Bill said “No”--with the rest of our youth choir; we were pulling back into Barnesville on our return trip from the Liberty Baptist Church near Jackson, Georgia where we had just finished another dazzling performance of such contemporary classics as “Here Comes Jesus (See Him Walking on the Water)” and “Put Your Hand in the Hand (of the Man Who Stilled the Water).” Being Baptists, we had this thing about water, I guess.

It turned out to be yet one more experience of my missing something of great historical significance because I was at church. When the Beatles had first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was at church. When Hee-Haw was moved from Saturday at 7:00 p.m. to Sunday at 7:00, I was at church.

And, while I was coming back from church rather than sitting in church at 9:07 p.m. on Monday, April 8, 1974, it was nonetheless because of church that I missed Hank Aaron hitting his 715th career home run, thereby breaking Babe Ruth’s long-standing record.



I wasn’t at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. I didn’t see it on television. I didn’t even hear Milo Hamilton’s call on the Braves Radio Network.

I thereby proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was willing to give up more to follow Jesus than anyone had ever given up before or has given up since.

Not that it was necessarily up to me; the way my parents saw things, if seeing Jesus come back would have meant my missing church, I just wouldn’t have been able to see Jesus come back.

Since I’m a pastor I know that some folks will be shocked to hear me say it, but there are things in life that are worth missing church for. On the other hand, though, there aren’t enough things worth missing church for to explain the high volume of absences some worshippers of God pile up.

Given that I wasn’t there the night that Hammerin’ Hank broke the record, you might wonder why I have a certificate hanging in my study that says, “I was there when Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run to pass Babe Ruth as the top home run hitter in the history of Baseball.” The reason is that my mentor Dr. Howard Giddens was there and, when he passed away, his certificate was passed along to me. In a way, then, I inherited not only the certificate but the experience from Dr. Giddens.

Sometime before Aaron broke the record, the late great Braves’ Hall of Fame third baseman and long-time Aaron teammate Eddie Mathews said, "I don't know where Hank Aaron will break Ruth's record but I can tell you one thing - ten years from the day he hits it three million people will say they were there." Mathew’s estimate was probably conservative.

In a way, though, I feel like I was there, and I don’t think it’s just because of the hundreds of times I’ve watched the replay or the numerous articles I’ve read about the event. Aaron’s breaking of Ruth’s record was a community event; it was a happening that was and always will be celebrated by all who belong to the family of Baseball—even those who were not there, even those who were not yet born, and even those who have not yet been born. Henry Aaron belongs to all of us and we will all always remember the glorious night that he broke the Babe’s record.

We in the church are also heirs of a great tradition.

Jesus said to Thomas on the Sunday after Easter Sunday, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). One of the main reasons we are able to believe without seeing is that those who did see Jesus were faithful to pass on with their words and their lives who Jesus was, what he did, what he said, and, most importantly, the fact that he lives. No, we weren’t there, not literally, but we are among the millions and millions of people for whom the experience of Jesus is so vivid that we might as well have been—and that is in large part because of the way in which it has been, thanks be to God, passed down to us.

I think often about the scene in the book of Deuteronomy in which Moses led the first post-exodus generation, those who, after the first generation had passed on during the sojourn in the wilderness, were about to enter the Promised Land, in a covenant renewal ceremony. He said to them, “Not with our ancestors did the LORD make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive here today” (Deuteronomy 5:3). The fact was that the vast, vast majority of his audience on that day had not been there forty years earlier when God had established the covenant with Israel. And yet Moses assured them that they had been. And so they had, because the traditions that are handed down are that alive and that enduring. But even more—the God who established the covenant was still alive and the relationship God established with God’s people was enduring.

Was I there when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record? No, I wasn’t. And of course I was.

Was I there when God established God’s covenant with God’s people? No, I wasn’t. And of course I was.

Was I there when the disciples saw the resurrected Lord? No, I wasn’t. And of course I was.

And I still am …

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Easter Changes Everything

The Church Council that met in 325 C.E. in Nicaea, a city in northwest Asia Minor, determined that Easter Sunday would be observed on the first Sunday after the full moon that falls on or after March 21. That means that Easter cannot occur before March 22 or after April 25. Thankfully, calendar makers keep up with the date so we don’t have to calculate it every year. This year Easter falls on March 31, in 2014 on April 20, and in 2015 on April 5.

For years I have said, “I wish that Easter was on the same Sunday every year.” I have felt that way because it would make planning a lot easier; when it comes to worship—not to mention family dinners and egg hunts— we wouldn’t have to deal with a different calendar each year.

I testify to you today that I have changed my mind about that. Why? Because we need to be reminded that everything depends on Easter and Easter’s movable date imposes such a reminder on us.

The date on which Easter falls determines the date on which many of our other Christian observances occur. So Ash Wednesday falls forty-six days before Easter because Lent, of which Ash Wednesday is the first day, is made up of the forty days plus the six Sundays immediately preceding Easter Sunday. Pentecost, on which we celebrate the falling of the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus and thus the beginning of the Church, occurs fifty days after Easter. So Easter, the most important day on the Christian calendar, determines when most of the other important days will be observed.

The movability of Easter, then, reminds us that Easter is the controlling event for other days. Indeed, Easter is the controlling event for all the days of our lives; the resurrection of Jesus determines the meaning of all of our days. Just as the date of Easter determines so much of our Christian year, so does the reality of Easter fill all of our days with life.

The movability of Easter also keeps us a little bit off balance; most of us probably don’t give too much thought to the date of Easter until we get into February or even early March and then we often find ourselves saying, “I can’t believe Easter is so early” or “I can’t believe Easter is so late.” We don’t control Easter; it happens when it happens. Once we do learn when it is going to occur, though, it controls us; it controls when a lot of church and family events are going to happen and, for those who follow the Christian calendar, it controls our pattern of Christian worship and our practice of Christian disciplines.

Easter can and should also control the ways we view and live our lives.

Easter can and should, for one thing, cause us to believe in life more than we believe in death. That’s a challenge because we are surrounded by death, both literal death—people die all the time—and figurative death—we all go through crises that make us feel like we are going to die. Easter means, though, that God’s way is that life wins out in the end. Jesus lay dead in his tomb on Saturday but on Sunday his life burst back into the world with a power that is transforming many of us from death to life and that one day will transform all of creation from death to life.

Meanwhile, we face the challenge of thinking, believing, and behaving in ways that affirm life rather than death.

Easter can and should, for another thing, cause us to believe that God’s ways are right and will be vindicated. Jesus not only taught love, mercy, and peace with his words; he also demonstrated love, mercy, and peace with his life. He not only told us to pray for our enemies, to forgive those who hurt us, and to turn the other cheek; he actually lived in all of those ways. Living in those ways led to his crucifixion and we have no reason to believe that living in those ways, if we were actually to live in those ways, would not lead to pain and suffering for us. But on the other side of crucifixion was, is, and will be resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus vindicated Jesus’ way of living out God’s way in the world; it also invalidated the way of responding to God’s way through manipulation, violence, and death. Our resurrection will, provided we by the grace of God and the power of God’s spirit live in God’s way, continue to vindicate God’s way as it seen in our lives.

Meanwhile, we face the challenge of thinking, believing, and behaving in ways that affirm God’s love, grace, and peace rather than the world’s hate, selfishness, and discord.

As Easter 2013 approaches, let’s be mindful of the centrality of the Easter event in our lives, in our world, and in history. The way it moves around may confuse us, but it also reminds us of what—and Who—matter most.

And I would suggest that we be ready to be surprised, but I guess that’s an oxymoron. Instead, I’ll just say let’s be open to however God chooses to make the new life in Christ evident to us, even if it does shake us up—which it will …

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Bomb in Gilead?

[This is my church newsletter column for this week.]

I was raised attending a church that knew nothing of such innovations as Extended Session and Children’s Church. If you were a child at the Midway Baptist Church located four miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia on City Pond Road (County Maintained) you were promoted straight from the nursery to the worship service.

I learned to count by trying to find the page numbers that my song leader father called out; I think that’s one reason that I was ahead of most of my peers on working with large numbers—I was navigating three-digit hymn numbers before I started kindergarten.

I was also hearing and singing hymns long before I could read the words, which meant that I heard and sang some interesting things.

For example, I heard and sang “Whosoever Shirley meaneth me” which left me wondering who “Shirley” was—there was no Shirley in our church—and why she wanted to be mean to me.

I also heard and sang “there my bird and soul found liberty” which left me confused because, while I was already pretty sure that I had a soul, I had no bird—not a parrot, not a parakeet, not a cockatoo, not even a Wild Chicken—that I could set free. Why did our songs challenge me with impossibilities?

I also heard and sang “There is a bomb in Gilead,” as in “There is a bomb in Gilead to make the wounded whole; there is a bomb in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” And I wondered how in the world a bomb could bring about healing and wholeness. The answer, of course, is that it can’t.

What the old spiritual actually says is,

Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.
There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.


The song is based on Jeremiah 8:22: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” A balm in Jeremiah’s day was a resin used for medicinal purposes; we use the term “lip balm” in our everyday language. So the prophet (and God through the prophet) was asking why the people would not turn in their hurt and brokenness to what God offered for their healing and wholeness.

The Lord through God’s Word and Spirit asks us the same thing.

While my child’s ears did not hear what the songwriter meant nor what the Lord in fact offers they did hear what we sometimes do to ourselves: where the Lord offers a balm—grace, peace, love, forgiveness, and hope—for our healing, we will instead in our hurt and brokenness reach out to what we can find for ourselves and thereby end up blowing ourselves, our situations, and our relationships sky high.

When we are as individuals or as a community hurting, we can choose between the Lord’s balm and our bombs.

Balm is better.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Lent Devotion

[Note: our church produced a Lent devotional guide with devotions written by members of our church family. This is the devotion I wrote for Friday, February 15.]


Psalm 31

I once locked myself in the trunk of my father’s car. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

What happened was this: my father was doing some work in the yard and for some reason he had the trunk of his car open. My seven-year-old brain thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I hid in the trunk and then, when Daddy opens it back up, he’ll be surprised to see me, and I’ll jump into his arms, and we’ll have a good laugh about it.”

My seven-year-old brain did not think about the fact that it would be, once I closed the lid, dark in there—but it was. So as soon as the lid latched and the darkness enveloped me, I began to flail, kick, and scream for Daddy to come let me out of that dark, scary place in which I had placed myself.

Daddy came quickly and when he opened the trunk I did in fact jump into his arms and he did in fact have a good laugh about it. As for me, I had a good cry.

Once he stopped laughing he continued to hold me and asked, “Son, why did you close yourself up in the trunk?”

“I…(sniff)...don’t…(sniff)...know.”

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t do that again.”

“I…(whimper)...won’t.”

He set me down and that was that.

Upon reflection, I realized that I had done a foolish and maybe even a dangerous thing. Upon further reflection, I realized that while I was wrong in my actions, I was right in my expectations: my father would come for me, would hold me, would help me, would correct me, and would love me. I could count on my father, I knew, because he had always been there before and had always come through before.

I never locked myself in a car trunk again, but I have over the years done many a foolish and even dangerous thing. In every case, my Father—my God—has come for me, has held me, has helped me, has corrected me, and has loved me.

God has always been there, even when I was afraid that I had put myself beyond his reach. God has always loved me, even when I was afraid that I had become too foolish to love.

Lent is a time to reflect on our sins and repent of them. It is also a time to remember the steadfast love of God who loves neither because of nor in spite of who we are, but because of who God is—and God is love.

Opportunity

[Note: I, like many pastors, write a regular column for our church's weekly newsletter. This Sunday evening, the Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA will discuss and vote on a recommendation to change our by-laws so as to remove our present restriction of our Deacon ministry to men and thus open such service up to women. What follows is the column I wrote for this week's newsletter, the last one before the Church Conference at which we will consider this important matter.]

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As you know, we will at our Church Conference this Sunday evening discuss and vote on a proposed by-law change that would change our church’s policy of restricting Deacon service to men and thus make it possible for women to serve as Deacons. One good thing that comes from such a discussion is that we all become even more interested than usual in what the Bible says.

A couple of passages from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians have been on my mind as we have prayed, talked, and walked together through our consideration of this matter.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

Another good thing that can come from a discussion like this one is that it can provide an opportunity for the church family to show that it is indeed a family that speaks and acts in ways that show that we are growing in unity, in peace, in hope, in faith, and especially in love. As your Pastor I want you to know how proud I have been of the Christian love and grace that you have displayed toward each other as we have moved toward a decision on this important matter. The Spirit, love, and grace of Christ that are in us have been evident and I am sure they will continue to be evident as we discuss and vote on the proposal Sunday evening and as we move forward to live, love, and serve in light of our decision.

Yet another good thing that can from a discussion like this one is that we all spend extra time praying. As we continue to pray, let’s remember the prayer that Jesus prayed for us:

I ask…that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)

Your Pastor,

Mike

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Keys

As she moves into her new place in Augusta, Sara decided to make use of an old jewelry box that once belonged to Old Juanita. Old Juanita was my aunt, the wife of my father’s older brother Jack. Uncle Jack always called her “Old Juanita,” as in “Me and Old Juanita were talkin’ the other day and she said…” I always called her “Aunt Juanita.”

Anyway, after both Uncle Jack and Aunt Juanita died, Sara came into possession of the jewelry box. She has had it for a few years but just now is putting it to use. When she set about cleaning it out she discovered some interesting things.

For one thing, she found some calling cards with my father’s name on them. “Champ Lee Ruffin”—that’s all they said. Why did Daddy have calling cards? Why were they in Aunt Juanita’s jewelry box? It is a mystery.

For another thing, she found Uncle Jack’s military medals. He served with the Army Air Corps in Europe during World War II. I don’t know what I’ll ever do with those medals, but I do know I’ll keep them since Uncle Jack and Aunt Juanita had no children to whom I can pass them along.

She also found keys—lots of keys.

I put all the detecting skills that I have acquired by watching hundreds of episodes of crime dramas and by reading dozens of crime novels (I am a fan of the “noir” genre) to detect that some of the keys were for suitcases. The word “Samsonite” on them was my first clue. Since those particular suitcases are long gone, I threw those keys away.

I threw all the other keys away, too, most of which appeared to be house keys. But those keys got me to thinking.

There was a time when those keys opened doors, probably doors to Aunt Juanita and Uncle Jack’s house in East Point or later to the Ruffin home place in Yatesville after they retired and moved back there. There was a time when those keys let them into the places where they felt safe and secure and at home. There was a time when those keys were very significant, very meaningful, and very necessary.

That time has passed; other people now live in those houses and other keys open those doors. The doors are still important but the keys that open them have changed.

I threw all the keys away because there is no reason to hold on to them. I could have held on to them for nostalgic reasons like I am holding on to Uncle Jack’s medals, but there are things that should be discarded as life progresses and circumstances change.

Sometimes, if you want to keep opening the doors, you have to use the new key, even if you’ve had the old one for a long, long time…