Monday, December 29, 2014

A Barnesville Christmas, Circa 1967

My family had Christmas Eve and Christmas Day rituals during my childhood in Barnesville, Georgia.

Interestingly, though, even though my parents were the kind of Christians who were at the church every time the doors were opened, none of our rituals involved the worship of God for the sending of Jesus into the world. That was because our Baptist church provided no opportunities for such worship unless Christmas Eve or Day happened to fall on a Sunday. Our church rituals were two: (1) a Christmas play held on a Sunday night a week or two before Christmas Day; while it was not exactly a pageant they did manage to work a nativity scene into it somehow, usually in a dream sequence, and (2) the coming of Santa Claus to the sanctuary on the Wednesday night immediately preceding the big day; we had the most awful-looking Christmas tree you have ever seen (actually, the tree was fine—the decorations were awful; we even had those lights with bubbling water in them) right there in front of the altar (the closest thing Baptists had to a Holy of Holies) and everybody got a bag filled with fruit and nuts.

We live in better days when even we Baptists have discovered the value of such high church practices as Advent and Christmas Eve worship; some of us are even paying some attention to the Twelve Days of Christmas, attention which is really helpful since during the days between Christmas Day and Epiphany we’re finished with Santa Claus and presents and can give our full attention to Jesus.

Well, to Jesus and to college football bowl games.

Still, like I said, my family, which consisted of Mama and Daddy and me, did have our traditions. Christmas morning in particular followed a set pattern. I would arise at the break of dawn and slip into my parents’ bedroom to wake them up. I was not allowed to enter the living room where the Christmas tree was located until preparations had been made: Mama would go in to “see if Santa Claus has come” and to turn on the Christmas tree lights while Daddy fired up his Brownie 8mm movie camera with its attached bank of spotlights. Then and only then was I allowed to make my entrance, bathed in the glow of the spotlights and of the generosity of Santa.

After I had seen, identified, analyzed, critiqued, and played with my many new toys, Mama and Daddy would open their gifts from each other. Daddy would thank Mama for his pajamas or shirt or tie or whatever. Mama would then open her beautifully wrapped gift, open the box, unfold the tissue paper, look at the gorgeous dress, and say, “That is so pretty. I’ll take it back.”

Then they would kiss and all would be right with the world.

Mama’s beautiful dress that she never kept always came from Deraney’s Department Store. Every year a few days before Christmas Daddy would go visit Mrs. Mable Deraney and they would spend an hour or so looking at dresses. He would finally go with one of Mrs. Deraney’s recommendations and she would wrap it up and send him and his gift on their way. Daddy would proudly give it to Mama on Christmas morning and she would be so pleased to get it and even more pleased to return it.

I sort of wondered about it all but was too busy playing with my new G. I. Joes to give it too much thought. The truth was that Mrs. Deraney and my mother just had different tastes; one was not better than the other, rather, one was just different than the other.

I thought about those long ago Christmas mornings when I learned of Mable Deraney’s recent passing. I thought about some other ways in which Mrs. Deraney was different than my mother and in which the Deraney family was different than my family. One major difference was that the Deraneys were Catholic while my family was Baptist. As a matter of fact, so far as I can remember, during my growing up years the Deraneys were the only Catholic family I knew and the Wisebrams were the only Jewish family I knew. Back in the day, downtown Barnesville was the center of Lamar County’s ecumenical relationships! I wish that I had spent some time and effort really getting to know those families; it would have done me good to have my very limited childhood worldview expanded.

Mrs. Mable and Mr. Joe always struck me as being a bit exotic—and, believe it or not, we didn’t have a lot of exotic in Lamar County back then! Now, five decades later, I look back with gratitude for the flavor that Mable Deraney and others added to the mix that was my hometown.

Oh, remind me to tell you sometime about that time that I tried on a pair of bell-bottom jeans that dragged the floor and Mr. Elijah Wisebram offered to cut them off to “make them fit …”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

As Slow as Christmas

It was late on Christmas Day; the sun had set and my parents and I were somewhere between Yatesville and Barnesville on our way back home after the day-long celebration of Christ’s birth through the eating of food and the exchanging of gifts. Into the quietness of the moment broke my father’s voice; he said, “Well, that’s that for another 365 days!” And my ten-year-old heart sank. How on earth and under heaven could I wait 365 days for next Christmas to arrive?

At that age the phrase “as slow as Christmas” was still packed with meaning for me. The period from one Christmas to the next seemed to stretch on for a decade. The closer Christmas got, the slower time seemed to move; during the last few days before the big day the second hand on my Timex watch appeared to tick once every ten seconds. “Hurry Christmas, hurry fast,” the Chipmunks sang, but it never did; “Christmas, don’t be late,” they also sang, but it always was.

I confess that to my child’s mind it was the Santa Claus aspect of Christmas—an aspect that is filled with its own special brand of wonder mixed with anxiety—that made time move so slowly for me. Looking back, though, I realize that there was a great benefit to the mysterious, if imaginary, slowing down of time in the days leading up to Christmas: it created space in which I could experience the real mystery and wonder of the season. In that space I could and did marvel over what God had done in Christ.

Another reason that time seemed to slow to a crawl for me back then was that once school let out for the holidays I had nothing to do until Christmas Day arrived. That has changed, too; I have not had “nothing to do” since 1975.

That’s not all that has changed. Now the phrase “as slow as Christmas” mocks me and my lifestyle; now 365 days go by as if they are 36.5 days. It seems as if we celebrated Christmas just a few months ago. Whereas pre-Christmas time slowed down of its own accord during my childhood, now I have to take intentional steps to create space in which I can experience the mystery and wonder of the great act of love and grace that was carried out by Almighty God in the birth of Jesus Christ.

That’s why I am so grateful that somewhere along the way I became aware of the Christian practice of observing the Season of Advent; it gives some structure and meaning to this time of waiting for the coming of Christ at Christmas. It also provides some incentive and some reminders for me to take some time out during these days to think about and to pray over the great love of God—a love that we can never fathom but can grow to appreciate more and more and to live in light of more and more.

Time did not really slow down when I was a child; it just seemed like it.

We cannot really slow time down now; we can, however, set some time aside to read about, to reflect upon, and to marvel at the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

It would be a good thing, too, if the practice of slowing down and being present with the God who loves us enough to come to us would carry over into the rest of our year and into the rest of our life …

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m White

On October 3, 1995, a jury found O. J. Simpson not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Watching the news that evening I saw film of a group of young African-Americans—I think they were college students—bursting out in cheers and applause when they heard the verdict.

I was puzzled by their reaction; it seemed to me that they were celebrating a miscarriage of justice. I wondered how anyone could cheer when two people had been brutally murdered and their likely killer had been set free. I had not viewed the trial as “the case of a famous black man who had allegedly killed his white ex-wife and her white friend” but rather as the trial of a man who had allegedly murdered two human beings.

Clearly that group of young people saw it differently.

I suspect that their celebration was not fueled by a belief that Simpson had not committed the crimes and thus an innocent man had been freed. I am certain that they did not think that a person who killed two other people should not be held accountable for his crimes.

I think maybe they were celebrating because the legal system that had in so many cases failed to provide justice to African-Americans had, in a very public way, worked in favor of a black person. Perhaps, while I’m sure those celebrating held no animosity toward the victims and probably felt sympathy for their families, there was even a wry pleasure taken in the very real possibility that Simpson had actually done the deed; after all, how many times had African-Americans been victimized—suspected of, charged with, and even convicted of crimes they did not commit— by the justice system? How many times had it seemed that whites had been unfairly acquitted of crimes against blacks (the trial of the officers accused of beating Rodney King had just occurred in 1992)?

But I’m not black. So I’m hesitant to draw conclusions about what those students were thinking and feeling. I’m admittedly guessing and that’s dangerous.

What I am is a white man who has always lived in a predominantly white culture and so I have difficulty putting myself in the place of someone living as a member of a minority in that culture and dealing with systems of power that seem not to offer justice to me and my kind.

I have listened to African-American commentators talk during the coverage of the Ferguson, Missouri situation—and these are very accomplished, professional people—about how they had to teach their children, and especially their sons, how to act when confronted by a police officer; they offered such advice as “Keep your hands in plain sight” and “Don’t talk back.” The shocking thing to me was that they had to assume that their sons would be so confronted, and probably confronted many times, whether or not they had done anything wrong.

My father never had such a conversation with me. The assumption in our house was that police officers (and all people in authority, for that matter) were our friends who were there to protect us. The further assumption was that if a police officer stopped me he would have a very good reason for doing so and that I’d probably be safer in jail than I would be at home under such circumstances.

So now we have the Ferguson crisis before us. I do not know what actually happened that led to the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. I do not know if justice was or was not done in the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Wilson. I do know that there are serious systemic issues in Ferguson that hopefully its citizens will work together on improving. I also know that the rioting and looting hurt and don’t help the situation. I know that I have serious questions about the increasing militarization of our law enforcement entities and the possible role it plays in exacerbating such situations.

But I don’t know how black people in Ferguson, Missouri feel. Shoot, I don’t know how black people anywhere feel. How could I? I’m a white man in Fitzgerald, Georgia.

Truth be told, I have to admit that I don’t know how other white people feel, either. Sometimes some of them say and do things that puzzle me just as much as did the reaction of that group of black students to the Simpson verdict. As a matter of fact, I don’t know how anybody else feels. And sometimes I’m not real sure that I really know how I feel.

It seems to me that one key to improving race relations and other kinds of relations in this country is for each one of us to face up to who we are and to how our individual identity is shaped by such factors as race, economic status, education, sexuality, religion, genetics, and community. We need to understand and accept who we are, insofar as we are able to see who we are, so that we can analyze the place from which we begin to deal with situations that challenge our societal relationships and with the people involved in those situations and relationships.

As for me, I’m a white straight middle-class professional Protestant Southern male who is respected in my community so that the assumption about me of those in power is that I am not in any way a threat to anybody. While I would not go so far as to say that I’m treated with deference, I would go so far as to say that I am always given the benefit of the doubt. If it’s a close call, I can live comfortably in the knowledge that it’s probably going to go my way.

In other words, I have it made; the only way I could have it more made in this country, or at least in my part of it, would be to have more money.

It is very helpful for me and my kind to remember that before we claim to know too much and before we talk too much about the experiences and reactions of people who don’t have the privilege of having it made.

Oh, I forgot to mention that I’m a follower of Jesus Christ. It seems to me that that reality really ought to have a good bit of impact on how I feel about, think about, pray about, and treat other people, even those that I don’t understand.

Which is, after all, everybody …

Monday, November 24, 2014

So Very Kind of Pretty Much Thankful

On the one hand, I have an easy time giving thanks.

On the other hand, I have a difficult time giving thanks.

Let me try to explain.

Giving thanks comes easy to me because I have so very much for which to be thankful.

I am thankful for my family. My Good Wife and I have been married now for going on thirty-seven years; I am thankful for the love, grace, commitment, tenacity, and joy that have characterized our relationship so that it has been fulfilling as well as enduring. Our two children are grown, educated, employed, out of our house, and happily married. I am so thankful.

I am thankful for my career. I sensed God calling me to the ministry over four decades ago and I have been privileged to pursue and to live out that calling ever since. While my ministry has taken various forms and my career has careened down some interesting paths, I have had and still have a career that intrigues and challenges me and hopefully does some good in the lives of some folks. I am so thankful.

I am thankful for my growing wholeness. I can honestly testify that at this point, after almost six decades of living, I am relatively sound in my spirit. Given the struggle that it has always been for me to have a sense of peace, I am most grateful to be at the place I am. I do not think that I am as whole and sound as I will become; I also know that things will happen that will challenge even the level of wholeness and soundness at which I think I have arrived. Life is, after all, a journey. Still, because of the grace shown to me by the Lord in allowing me to learn some ways to approach proactively the development of our relationship, I am spiritually healthier than I have ever been. I am so thankful.

Yes, I am truly thankful. And yet I have difficulty expressing whole-hearted thanks. Why is that?

I think—I hope—it’s because of my love for other people, a love that has grown as my sense of being loved by God and as my love for God have grown.

So while I am thankful for my family I am also mindful of people who have no family, whose families are busted and broken, and whose families are characterized by manipulation and by abuse.

So while I am thankful for my career, I am also mindful of those who are unemployed, who are underemployed, who are in unsatisfying careers, or who find no meaning in their work other than the making of money.

So while I am thankful for my increased and increasing wholeness, I am also mindful of those who are struggling, who see no light at the end of their particular tunnel, and who would give anything to believe that there is a God who loves and cares for them.

I think—I hope— that it is my growing and developing Christian faith that causes me simultaneously to be thankful and not thankful. On the one hand, I am so thankful to God for all the blessings that are mine. On the other hand, how can I be truly thankful so long as so many others are struggling to find the blessings for which I am so thankful in my own life?

So during this Thanksgiving week as I give thanks to God for all of my blessings I am also asking God to bless those who are struggling to know blessing—and to show me how to help them and thereby bless them.

Perhaps you will join me in such prayers …

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Top 10 Reasons that Baptists Should Attend Their Church's Business Meetings

#10: Because it’s when we decide how the money we give is going to be spent (so if you're not there we assume you don't give anything or don't give enough to care what we do with it).

#9: Because there’s no sermon.

#8: Because it’s an exercise in Baptist thinking and practice; we take that priesthood of the believer, soul competency, and church autonomy stuff so seriously that we actually let anyone talk and everyone vote and we live by the decisions that we make.

#7: Because since anyone can bring up anything they want and can say anything they want you sometimes hear some really interesting and even entertaining things.

#6: Because decisions affecting the life, ministry, and witness of the whole church are made and so it’s important that the entire church be represented.

#5: Because you get to experience the dynamics and discussion firsthand and so when folks are talking to you in the days following the meeting about what happened in the meeting you’ll be able to be a well-informed participant in the conversations rather than have to accept what you hear second or third or fourth or fifth hand.

#4: Because it’s great practice at speaking the truth in love.

#3: Because it’s an expression of our joint commitment as Christians to worshiping God, to following Jesus, to serving our community and our world, and to loving each other with the love of Christ.

#2: Because it's one way that we demonstrate that we take seriously our responsibility as members of Christ’s Church.

And the #1 reason that you should attend your church's business meetings: You never know what will happen. You just never know

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Three Weddings (and Some Funerals)

I don’t know how much of it was legitimate wondering and how much was adolescent neurosis, but there was a time when I wondered if I would experience the blessing and privilege of being happy in life.

There were real barriers, I thought, between me and happiness. I was skinny. I was a nerd (but not a geek; there’s a difference). I wore thick glasses. I was socially awkward. I was an introvert. I was insecure.

My strongest points were that I was a good student and a nice guy. So there you go.

To me, happiness meant having a good and strong family of which to be a part. An only child, I did not mind being alone. But I did not want to spend my life alone.

I had a good and strong family with my parents but when my mother died toward the end of my sixteenth year the walls of that fortress began to be breached. A year and a half following that event the good Lord sent Debra Kay Johnson my way. Full of grace, she loved me as I was. On June 10, 1978, she married me. A year later, my father died.

It would be presumptuous of me to claim that the Lord sent Debra to me so that I would not have to bear my burdens alone. But the fact is that she was there so I did not have to bear my burdens alone. And for that I give thanks to God.

Along the way we were blessed with Joshua on February 21, 1984 and with Sara on March 30, 1987. They have been and continue to be our greatest joy.

There have been other funerals along the way, most significantly those of both of Debra’s parents in 1996 and of her two oldest siblings. It was not lost on me that my children had no grandparents to be seated at their weddings.

But still—our children have had weddings!

Joshua Ruffin and Michelle Richards were married in the Senate Parlor Room of the Wisconsin State Capitol building on December 2, 2012. They are doing well.

Sara Ruffin and Benjamin Gunter were married at RoseMott Vineyards at Gin Creek Plantation in Hartsfield, Georgia on October 25, 2014. They will do well.

I am happy.

There was a time when I feared I might never be happy. But today I am. That is my testimony and I gladly offer it.

I have everything I ever dreamed of and feared that I would never have. Debra and I have been married for thirty-six years and we have, by the grace of God and with a good bit of effort, a good and strong marriage. Both of our children are grown, are educated, are employed, and are married to excellent partners.

I am not na├»ve. There are more losses to come and when they do come I will still know the joy of the Lord even if my happiness has to go away for a while. But I’m not thinking about that today. Today I am celebrating the blessing of family and testifying to the truth that by the grace of God I am a happy man.

I am happy because of my family; I am happy because of Debra, Joshua, Sara, Michelle, and Benjamin.

Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

And It Stoned Me

The wedding ceremony of our daughter Sara to Benjamin Gunter will take place this Saturday. Anticipated and planned for months, its occurrence will be an opportunity for great celebration—and not a little relief—for all involved, but especially for the bride and groom.

I confess that I want everything to be just like my little girl wants it be; she has a dream for her wedding ceremony and I very much want her dream to come true.

Things get in the way, though.

It’s an outdoor ceremony which makes weather a possible complicating factor. Ten days out, the forecast called for nine consecutive sunny days with an 80% chance of rain on the tenth day—on the wedding day. The next day the chance of rain was removed for the forecast. The day after that it was back, albeit at only 60%.

On the following day during my prayer time I asked the good Lord if it was wrong to pray for good weather on our daughter’s wedding day. I received no clear answer. The impression I got, though, was that while it was ok to hope that the weather would be good and that if I wanted to mention it to God while I was talking to God about other matters, that was fine, but that I should probably remember that pretty weather on a wedding day didn’t register very highly on the cosmic concerns meter.

“I understand,” I thought/prayed, “but it’s our baby we’re talking about here.”

Anyway, as of today, three days before the wedding, the forecast calls for a mostly sunny day with a high of 77°. Unless something really strange happens, when the wedding begins at 6:00 the weather should be just about perfect. I’m glad. And I doubt seriously that my prayers had anything to do with it.

If they did, then I should feel very guilty about not praying away a few tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes.

The wedding venue offers a choice of two classy ways for the bride (and her father) to appear at the wedding ceremony: a Rolls Royce or a horse-drawn carriage. Our unpretentious Princess (that’s what her name means—look it up!) chose the carriage. Ever since making that decision, she has envisioned herself riding up to the ceremony on the carriage, surveying the entire scene and hearing the music that she so carefully chose for that moment.

So early this week we got word that the horse, whose name is Forde, has an abscessed hoof and might not be able to work this Saturday. This was very disappointing news. The Rolls, Sara said, would not offer her the panoramic view and the auditory access of which she had dreamed. Plus, she said, it would look snooty.

So the next morning during my prayer time I asked the good Lord if it was ok for me to pray for the health of Forde. The response pretty much paralleled the one I got when I asked about the weather.

As of this writing, we have no further word on Forde’s availability.

Yesterday (the Tuesday before the wedding), we had plans to run some wedding-related errands. When Sara got up, she had a severe pain in her right side and was nauseated. It was the sickest I had seen her in her twenty-seven years and so I set out to find a doctor that could see her right away. Thankfully, local family physician Dr. Mann said we could come immediately. When we got there, I made sure they knew Sara was getting married on Saturday. After examining her, Dr. Mann said that she needed to go to the Emergency Room to receive the medications and to have the tests that she needed.

I didn’t bother to ask the good Lord if it was ok to pray that nothing serious be wrong with our daughter. I just started praying. (I did throw in a brief mention of the upcoming wedding.)

So we went to the ER of our local hospital, the Dorminy Medical Center. As soon as we got there, I made sure they knew Sara was getting married on Saturday. She was given wonderful care under the direction of Dr. Brulte. Medicines eased her pain and nausea and a CT scan revealed that she had a kidney stone that had made its way to the place where the urethra connects to the bladder.

Dr. Brulte called the urology office of Drs. Anderson and Peters in Tifton to see if they could see her and they said to be there at 1:30. It was 12:30. I didn’t go back with Sara (Mama was with us now) so I couldn’t announce the impending nuptials but I’m sure someone did. Dr. Anderson said there was a 50/50 chance that Sara would pass the stone but that he would schedule an extraction procedure for the following day just in case. After going through pre-op, Sara went to the restroom in the Surgery Center and passed the kidney stone.

Today (Wednesday before the wedding) she feels fit as a fiddle.

We are so thankful that Sara is all right and we are so grateful for the wonderful job that the medical professionals did in helping her.

And while I am grateful for the good wedding weather it seems we are going to have and while I hope for good health for Forde the horse, I frankly don’t care anymore if the bottom falls out and if she has to ride up on a golf cart …

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Nit-Picking

The first zoo I ever visited was the one in Memphis, Tennessee. I was maybe eight years old and my parents were visiting their friends Ed and Melba Baldwin. They had stuff in Memphis that we didn’t have in Barnesville and so we went to see some of it—the gates of Graceland (Elvis was still living there then), the Lakeland amusement park, and the Memphis Zoo.

I’m sure that we saw lots of interesting and exotic animals at the zoo. But the picture that I have carried around in my head for fifty years now is of the monkey exhibit—I think they called it Monkey Mountain. There were goats—mountain goats, maybe—that were in there with the monkeys. And the monkeys were sitting on the goats’ backs, leisurely picking things off of them and eating whatever they were picking. I stood for the longest time, fascinated by those nit-picking monkeys, wondering what they were picking and eating.

Lice. They were picking and eating lice. And lice eggs. And fleas and ticks. And probably some dead skin and other stuff.

It’s called allogrooming when animals groom one another and autogrooming when an animal grooms itself. Research indicates that the practice of allogrooming serves both a hygienic and a social purpose; animals help each other stay clean and they establish a relationship through the practice of picking nits. From a hygienic standpoint, the practice is helpful because there are some places an animal just can’t get to on its own. From a social standpoint, the practice obviously requires closeness.

We humans are well-served by sticking mainly to grooming ourselves, especially when it comes to our moral and ethical practices. After all, my primary task when it comes to self-maintenance is tending to my own spirit to be sure that I am constantly growing into the person that I am meant to be—and no one can see my spirit but God and me. Well, only God can see it fully, but I can see mine a whole lot better than you can—and you can see yours a whole lot better than I can.

Still, we all have blind spots; we all have places in our perspectives, in our assumptions, in our motivations, and in our actions that we just can’t see and that we just can’t reach. If those places are going to be dealt with, we’re going to need someone to deal with them for us. We need people in our lives who can pick our nits that we can’t pick ourselves.

There is great difficulty in such living, though, because our egos get in the way. The person needing a nit picked may not want to admit it and may feel that the person offering to help has no standing to do so. On the other hand, a person wanting to pick someone’s nit may come at the task from a feeling of superiority and self-righteousness.

We find these words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” -–Matthew 7:1-5

It’s interesting that Jesus did not say that we were not to take the speck (the nit!) out of our neighbor’s eye; he said that we are to do so only after dealing with the log in our own eye. That is, we should take care of our own problems—problems that should be obvious to us but to which we are often willfully blind—before trying to help someone else with theirs. I also find it intriguing that Jesus did not say that we had to deal with a speck in our own eye—with our own nit—before helping someone else with theirs. Perhaps that’s a tacit admission that we all have them and that if we wait until they’re gone to help each other we’ll never help each other. The truth is that we’re all nit-bearers trying to help bear one another’s nits.

There’s an art to such living that is fueled by love and grace that come to us only by the Spirit of God. Such living requires a dedication to mutuality, to vulnerability, to humility, and, most of all, to love. We won’t always get it right because our ability to receive gentle correction and to offer gentle correction will sometimes be limited by our pride.

But we owe it to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ to be as helpful to one another as we can be. Insofar as we are able, let’s pick our own nits. But insofar as we need it, let’s be open to the loving nit-picking of our sisters and brothers …

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Fear Itself

I’m afraid that fear is going to be our downfall because when our decisions and actions are motivated by fear we end up with more of which to be afraid and then we make more decisions and take more actions that are motivated by fear that result in our having more of which to be afraid—and so on and so on ...

So, for example, we fear crime and criminals and therefore we incarcerate more and more people.

When one examines the statistics, it is hard to escape the conclusion that our primary motivation in imprisoning so many people is a desire to lock them safely away from us. In an April 3, 2014 article at Mic.com, Laura Dimon shared some very troubling statistics. For instance, while the United States has 5% of the world’s population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners. Also, there are 2.4 million incarcerated persons in the U.S.; that’s a 500% increase over the last thirty years. Furthermore, one in every 108 American adults was in jail or prison in 2012 and one in every 28 American children has an incarcerated parent. Moreover, according to Statista.com, as of June 2014, the U.S. ranked behind only the Seychelles (which has a total population of only around 90,000) in having the largest number of prisoners per 100,000 population; our rate of 707 prisoners per 100,000 populations puts us far ahead of Cuba (510), Russia (471), and El Salvador (424).

Why do we have so many prisoners? Could it be because we are so afraid?

Also, we fear terror and terrorists and so we engage in continuous wars.

We have been at war in South Asia and/or the Middle East ever since Al Qaeda’s attacks on our country in 2001; now, just when it seemed that we were close to extricating most of our forces from that area, we find ourselves ramping up our efforts again. Those who believe that we should not have gone into Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks are few and far between since the Taliban had given aid and comfort to Al Qaeda; our subsequent efforts at nation-building in Afghanistan have been, to say the least, problematic, and likely will remain so. Whether we should have gone into Iraq is more up for debate; I will always be troubled by the fact that we went in under false pretenses.

Regardless, it is what it is and we are where we are and it is clear that the destabilization of Iraq, the events of the Arab Spring (especially in the ongoing impact of those events in Syria), and the bloodthirsty fervor of the ISIS militants have combined to create a terribly volatile and dangerous situation. Perhaps we and our allies have little choice but to intervene. Still, does anyone else feel like we’re starting to live in the perpetual state of war imagined by George Orwell in 1984? And does anyone doubt that if our primary response to the threat of terrorism continues to be a military one then we will likely be at war for generations?

Why are we always at war? Could it be because we are so afraid?

Finally, we fear each other and so we arm ourselves.

According to the Brady Campaign,

--On average, 32 Americans are murdered with guns every day and 140 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room.
--Every day on average, 51 people kill themselves with a firearm, and 45 people are shot or killed in an accident with a gun.
--The U.S. firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.
--A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used to kill or injure in a domestic homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense.


The last statistic is most pertinent to my point. Writing in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine in 2011, Dr. David Hemenway concluded that

for most contemporary Americans, the scientific studies suggest that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit. There are no credible studies that indicate otherwise. The evidence is overwhelming that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes, and it appears that a gun in the home may more likely be used to threaten intimates than to protect against intruders. On the potential benefit side, there is no good evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in.

Why do so many of us arm ourselves? Could it be because we are so afraid?

Ironically, our fearful reactions give us more to fear and our efforts to feel safe make us less safe. Our incarceration of such a high percentage of our citizenry makes it more likely that those imprisoned will become hardened criminals and makes it more likely that the criminalization of a large segment of our population will continue in generations to come. Our perpetual waging of war makes is more likely that the conditions that lead to war will continue and worsen and thus lead to more war. Our arming of ourselves to protect ourselves against others actually makes it more likely that we or someone else in our home will be killed or wounded by our own guns.

It seems clear that the main thing we have to fear is fear itself; it seems clear that we need to rein in our fear so that we will stop taking actions based on fear that serve only to give us more to fear.

Apparently, such fear leads to insanity, if insanity is indeed, as is so often said, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If we are going to stop the insanity, we need to stop the fear …

(Please note: a future post will propose an alternative mindset and some alternative actions.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Home

My Good Wife Debra was born in 1957 in the town of Colquitt in Miller County, Georgia (for the uninitiated, it’s located in deep southwest Georgia not too far north of Florida and not too far east of Alabama); she was the last of the six children born to her parents. When she was two her family moved to the nearby county of Calhoun and it was there that she spent the remainder of her growing up years; when she and I met (thank God!) in 1976 as students at Mercer University her parents lived in the country about half-way between the cities of Leary and Morgan, Georgia. When her father retired, they moved back to Colquitt and it was there that they were residing when they passed away five months apart in 1996.

Debra’s oldest sister Jean (Debra’s mother was pregnant with Debra when Jean got married so there is a nineteen year difference in age between Jean and Debra) married a man from Colquitt named Robert Tully and they lived together there until he died a few years ago and she continued to live there until her death last Saturday. She was the only one of Debra’s siblings that lived in Colquitt and so she was the last reason that my wife had for returning to her hometown. And you pretty much have to mean to go to Colquitt.

Debra has never thought of Colquitt as her hometown; Leary carries that honor for her--but we never go there, either—it’s hardly on the road regularly travelled and even the house where she lived is long gone. I share this reality with her since I am the only child of parents who died long, long ago in what feels like a galaxy far, far away—and no, I don’t have a long-lost sister who was taken away to keep her safe from the evil empire (although that would be cool).

In a very real sense, then, we can’t go home again. And that matters. It matters because those places and especially the people in those places helped to form and shape us into the people that we are. It matters because we will always carry with us those places and those people to whom we cannot return.

But in an even more real sense, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because, in the words of the philosopher Buckaroo Banzai, “No matter where you go, there you are.” And my Good Wife and I have made our home wherever we have happened to be at the time because no matter where we are, so long as we are together and the Lord is with us, we are home.

“Home is where the heart is,” they say. Yes, but home is also where the commitment is, where the sense of mutual calling is, and where the shared purpose is. Home is where sorrows are halved and joys are doubled. Home is where burdens are shared and blessings are celebrated.

Yes, home is where we come from but home is also where we are—and home is where we are headed. Home is where we have been but home is also where we live now—and where we will be one day. There is room in our lives to look back at where we came from and there is room in our lives to look ahead to where we are going. Such looking back and looking forward can give us a helpful perspective on life. But we live right here and right now and it is right here and right now that we need to be at home. We should beware lest our looking back or our looking ahead stop being incentive for living and become distractions from living.

In the classic 1978 made for television movie “Rescue from Gilligan’s Island,” the seven castaways are finally—well, rescued from the island after many years of being stranded. Their long hoped for return to civilization does not go well since nothing is as it was when they left. While the castaways are taking a reunion cruise, the new S.S. Minnow is caught in another storm and the passengers and crew are again shipwrecked. Gilligan finds a piece of the original Minnow and announces, “We’re home!”

We can use up our time and energy trying to go back home or trying to go on home. We are better served to live in light of the fact that we are home.

I have this scene running through my head in which I get to heaven and with great relief say, “I’m home!” And the good Lord replies, “And when were you not?”

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Brothers and Sisters

One of the first quality records (if not the first one) I purchased was Brothers and Sisters by the Allman Brothers Band which was released in August of 1973, a month before I turned fifteen. I bought it because I loved the single “Ramblin’ Man” but I quickly became enamored of the entire album. “Wasted Words.” “Jelly Jelly.” “Southbound.” “Pony Boy.” “Jessica.” “Come and Go Blues.” What’s not to love?

I also quickly became captivated by the picture on the inside of the album cover. (As an aside, let me say that we really lost something when with the advent of the 8-track tape, the cassette, the compact disc, and digital music we lost the great artwork and photography that came with a vinyl record album.) When you opened up the album cover, spread before you was a photograph of the band members with their extended family—wives, girlfriends, children, crew members, and a couple of dogs. They were all sitting or standing on the porch of the house at the Allman Brothers’ farm in Juliette, Georgia, which wasn’t far from my hometown of Barnesville, although, as I have whined about elsewhere, I never went there.

I confess to having had some adolescent wonderings about what it would be like to be part of such a collective. What I didn’t know then but know very well now is that a couple of very significant individuals were missing from that picture. Duane Allman, one of the two brothers whose name the band wore, had been killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon in 1971. Bass player Berry Oakley had died under eerily similar circumstances in 1972. Brothers and Sisters was the first complete album the Allmans had made since Duane’s death (some of 1972’s Eat a Peach had been recorded before Duane died) and Oakley played on just the first three tracks of the new album before he died.

When I look at that photograph now, I am reminded of what happens in and to families (while in no way asserting that the Allman Brothers Band family was “typical”). People live; people die. People come; people go. When they go, they leave a space that cannot be filled while also creating a space where others can come and grow and develop. All of life is about change and about adapting to change; it is about mourning our losses while celebrating life and moving with hope and trust into the future.

Duane was the heart and soul of the Allman Brothers Band; there is no way they should have survived without him. And yet here in 2014, forty-five years after they started, the band is still going; they will play the last concerts of what has been billed as their final tour next month at the Beacon Theatre (where they have played, amazingly, around 300 shows in their career) in New York City. The band has been through a lot, much of it admittedly self-inflicted, but they have hung in there. Not all the relationships survived; I doubt that, except for Chuck and Rose Lane Leavell (who have been married for 41 years), any of the couples pictured in that photograph are still together and some band members have departed while others have been added. But they are still the Allman Brothers Band.

I’m writing these words on the eve of my 56th birthday; during this life I’ve had a lot of people come and go but the only sibling I ever had—the brother I almost had—died before I met him and when I was too young to know that he had even existed. Right now my Good Wife, who was blessed with three older brothers (one of whom died a few years ago) and two older sisters, is with her family in Dothan, Alabama where her oldest sister is hospitalized with a serious illness. Having no personal experience with sibling relationships, I am grateful for the ways in which they love and relate to one another. In recent weeks I have participated in the funerals of two of my childhood friends. On the other hand, a month from now we will be celebrating our only daughter’s marriage. People go; people come. People leave; people stay. People cry; people laugh. People mourn; people celebrate. It is the way of the world.

We are most blessed, I think, by those who, given the choice, hang in there with us for the long haul and we are most a blessing to those with whom we hang in there for the long haul. That’s the case whether we are talking about our family, about our family of friends, about our community family, or about our family of faith.

Gregg Allman has a song in which he affirms, “I’m no angel.” He sure isn’t (I’ve read his book). But neither are you. Neither am I.

But when you’ve fought and tried and failed and succeeded and won and lost and helped and hurt and struggled and survived and the smoke clears and the blood dries and you pull yourself up to take a look around, those who are still there with you are your true brothers and sisters.

Even if you only see one or two, be grateful. Be very grateful …

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stop Making Sense

When I was a child, little made sense to me.

I did not understand the purpose of life. I did not understand the meaning of my life. I did not understand the power and fragility of intimacy. I did not understand the value of vocation. I did not understand the cruelty of disease. I did not understand the experience of death. I did not understand the varieties of cultures. I did not understand the uniqueness of individuals. I did not understand hate and cruelty. I did not understand love and compassion. I did not understand God.

Sometimes I would ask a grown-up person to explain something to me and those I asked generally obliged. Their explanations made no sense to me but they seemed to make sense to them.

I looked forward to becoming an adult so I could understand and so I could explain things to children who did not understand.

As I grew, things seemed to start making more sense to me. I began to figure out how life went and how things worked. I set about diligently constructing systems that helped me to organize my reality. I determined what belonged where and put everything in its place. Before I knew it I had it all figured out.

I was grown. I understood. And it was good.

I’m not sure how many days that situation lasted but it wasn’t many. What happened? Life happened. I had to live a real life in the real world confronted with real people and with real problems. I had to live in a world in which chaos existed alongside order, suffering existed alongside ecstasy, provision existed alongside neglect, plenty existed alongside poverty, and hope existed alongside despair.

As I have grown older (I’ll soon turn 56) and as I have hopefully grown more mature, I have come more and more to understand that life doesn’t make sense and that it is childish to think that it ever will. I have arrived at the provisional conclusion that it isn’t supposed to make sense and that to insist that it should and to try to make it do so is to be childish in my approach to life and to rob myself of much of the wonder and joy that life in fact (as opposed to in fantasy) offers.

Our systems bracket out too much of the reality of life. Our conclusions close us off from the wide range of possibilities. Our security shields us from the thrill of risk-taking. Our tunnel vision blinds us to the wonders lurking in the periphery. Our compartments inhibit the free flow of experience and understanding. Our categories fuel our prejudices and inhibit our acceptance of other people.

When I was a child, I looked forward to things making sense.

Now that I am an adult, I accept that things don’t make sense.

What does God have to do with this? Only everything. While I have stopped expecting things to make sense to me, I assume that they make sense to God. God can be certain and maintain God’s integrity; I can only maintain my integrity by affirming my uncertainty. But that’s all right because I am meant to live life with faith, not with certainty.

So I have abandoned my childish dream of having life make sense and have adopted a new, more adult goal of living gratefully, faithfully, hopefully, boldly, and even a little recklessly this life that does not make sense precisely because it is not meant to do so.

Thanks be to God!

Now bring it on …

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Broad Life in a Big World

I have been thinking a lot lately about the beginning of life, the end of life, and the life that is lived in between the beginning and the end.

Before we are born we spend several months safe and secure in our mother’s womb; it is a small space that provides very little room to move (although all mothers can testify to how hard we try). Then, when the time has come, we squeeze through the even narrower confines of the birth canal. It takes a while but all of a sudden we emerge into the wide open spaces of the big, big world. We take our first breath, we cry our first cry, and we’re off.

For the rest of our lives we fight the temptation to try to return to the womb rather than to live fully in the world. While we can’t literally return to the womb, we do try to find a place where we can feel a sense of safety and security; we seek a place where we can stay put and stay protected from everything in the world.

Here’s the thing, though: while we know that we were safe when we were in the womb, we don’t remember being safe; we were in fact completely unaware. It may be that the only way to feel completely safe is to be utterly unaware—but what kind of life would that be?

And yet too many of us too often seek a safe place where we can be as unaware as possible—or at least where we are aware only of that of which we want to be aware and remain unaware of that which would challenge or stretch us. So we settle into a particular community, into a particular group, into a particular region, into a particular mindset, into a particular worldview, or into a particular culture and never make forays into the wider world where our thinking can be challenged and our understanding enlarged. While there is nothing wrong and much right about having a community to which we belong and where we feel at home, there is much wrong and not much right about turning our community into a fortress of solitude in which we try to close ourselves off from the wider world and from which we lob rocks at members of other communities and at ideas and ways of life that we have never encountered and thus cannot understand.

We live life best when we continue to live it in the way that we started it; at the beginning we emerged from the womb into the wide world and we should keep moving out into that wide world. The more we move into it the wider it becomes. The more places we go, the more books we read, the more areas we study, the more ideas we consider, the more people we meet, the more cultures we encounter, and the more worldviews we engage the broader our lives will become. In such a wide, wide world there is no excuse for not living a broad, broad life.

Benjamin Franklin said, “Many people die at twenty five and aren't buried until they are seventy five.” It should not be that way for us. We must not let it be that way for us. We must keep on going, keep on learning, keep on growing, keep on thinking, keep on changing, and keep on evolving.

One of these days we’ll close our eyes and our life on Earth will come to an end. When we open our eyes again, we will have the entire universe, all of reality, and all of heaven spread out before us and we will have all of eternity to explore it. What a broad, broad life will be ours to enjoy in the wide, wide heavens.

So at the beginning we emerge from the confines of the womb into the wide world and at the end we emerge from the confines of physical life into the vast heavens.

What sense does it make, then, for us to spend our time on Earth trying to stay in some confined place in the misplaced effort to find a kind of security that we are not meant to have and that drains our lives of wonder and adventure? How much better our lives are if we live them for all they’re worth with the constant goal of living a broad, broad life in this wide, wide world …

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Deals

The other day my Good Wife and I were in a department store that was having a clearance sale. She bought three tops and I bought four shirts; all of our purchases were on clearance. Her purchase came to $22; as the cashier handed her receipt to her she said, “You saved $113!” My total was $27 (hey, I bought one more item than she did!); as the cashier gave me my receipt she said, “You saved $118!” and so I said, “I win!” Of course, as some wise person once pointed out, “You save 100% of the money you don’t spend.”

The good thing is that, by a broad definition of “need,” we needed the items that we bought. In my case, I’ve been wearing some of my polo shirts for years and they “needed” to be replaced, especially when I could get such nice shirts at such a good price. My old shirts are still good enough for someone to wear, though, so they’ll end up at a thrift store; like I said, we’re going with a broad definition of “need” here.

I’m wearing one of my new shirts today. Out of curiosity, I checked the label to see where it was made and found that it was manufactured in Lesotho, which I confess I had to look up. Lesotho is a small mountainous nation that is completely surrounded by the country of South Africa. According to an article I read, Lesotho is making an effort to insure better working conditions for its garment workers than those that are found in nations where unsafe conditions, child labor, and forced labor are far too prevalent. But that same article told me that Lesotho has a long way to go in consistently providing safe working conditions.

I hope no one suffered in order to make my new shirt. Regardless, chances are excellent that the needs of the textile workers in Lesotho and other places are much more real than my “needs.”

It would be good, I believe, if we thought about the meaning--and even the appropriateness--of the words we use. Sure, I “saved” a good bit of money on my purchase; but there are people making such items who are trying to save their lives and the lives of their families. Sure, I “need” some new clothes every now and then, but there are lots of people out there who just need some clothes, not to mention some decent shelter and enough food.

Maybe if we start paying more attention to our words we’ll also start paying more attention to our motivations and our thoughts and if we start paying more attention to our motivations and our thoughts maybe—just maybe—we’ll start paying more attention to our actions and to our choices.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take advantage of a good deal.

I’m just saying that as Christians—not to mention as decent human beings—we should be more concerned about those who are getting a raw deal.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Every Day is Dog Day

Whenever Mother’s Day and Father’s roll around children ask, “Why isn’t there a Kid’s Day?” to which every mother and father who is asked that question replies, “Because every day is Kid’s Day!”

I thought about that when I found out that August 26 is National Dog Day, a day when we are to celebrate the companionship and loyalty given to us by our canine friends. But here’s the thing: at our house, as at the house of every dog owner and lover, every day is Dog Day. We have three dogs.

There is Jack, the ten-year-old nine-pounds-or-so black and white Papillon mix who was found wandering alongside a busy road in Augusta when he was a puppy. Debra brought him home and said it was up to me if we kept him to which I answered, “Right.” Jack is a house dog. Jack is a spoiled dog. Jack is a smart dog. Jack is the dog who sleeps with us. Jack has been a great companion for a long time.

Then there is Rainey, the three-year-old fifty-pound black and white Blue Heeler mix that we adopted from the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Humane Society. Being a heeler, she will nip at your heels to try to get you to go where she thinks you should go. Rainey loves people and wants to show it by jumping on them, by licking them, and, given the opportunity, by chewing gently on their arm. Rainey loves hard. Rainey lives in the back yard.

Joining Rainey in the back yard is Stevie, the two-year-old fifty-pound brown (and I mean brown—his coat is brown, his eyes are brown, and his nails are brown) Shepherd mix. When we set out to find a companion for Rainey we found Stevie at the All About Animals shelter in Macon where he had lived for the first year of his life. Because of his upbringing, Stevie can be a little skittish but when he warms up to you he is a very sweet dog. He is also a very smart dog—when it’s time to go into the pen for the night he won’t always come to me but he will always come to Debra. He runs like a deer.

All three of our dogs are rescues (as are all of the five cats divided between our home and our children’s homes). As I pondered that fact, I thought of the closing scene in my wife’s favorite movie, “Pretty Woman.” Earlier in the film, Vivian (Julia Roberts) tells Edward (Richard Gere) about how when she was a little girl and her mother would lock her in the attic for being bad she would pretend she was “a princess trapped in a tower by a wicked queen. And then suddenly this knight... on a white horse with these colors flying would come charging up and draw his sword. And I would wave. And he would climb up the tower and rescue me.” At the end of the movie, Edward, after overcoming his fear of heights enough to climb a fire escape to get to Vivian, asks her, “So what happened after he climbed up the tower and rescued her?” And Vivian replies, “She rescues him right back.”

That’s the way it is with rescue dogs and us.

When you stop and think about it, that’s the way it ought to be with us in our relationships as sisters and brothers in the human family and as sisters and brothers in Christ: you rescue me and I rescue you right back--and vice versa ...

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Close Call = A Wake Up Call

We had planned a three-part adventure that would take place over ten days. Part 1 was a First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald work project on the campus of Morningstar Children and Family Services near Brunswick; that went well and according to plan. Part 2 was participation in the 2014 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta; that also went well and according to plan. Part 3 was a brief vacation at Legacy Lodge at Lake Lanier Islands which is located about an hour north of Atlanta; that went not so well and not quite according to plan. And so there came an unplanned and unwelcomed Part 4.

Last Saturday morning as we were leaving Atlanta to head toward Lake Lanier, Debra started having chills. She took some over-the-counter medication and tried to tough it out. We took it easy; we lay beside the pool, ate some good food that she couldn’t taste, and had dinner on Sunday with some good friends. We were scheduled to check out on Tuesday but on Monday morning she said that she’d like to go home so we checked out early and headed for Fitzgerald.

Debra went to bed Monday night, woke up around 8:00 on Tuesday morning, took some more medicine, and slept until noon. I figured and hoped that she was sleeping off whatever was ailing her; she had said the day before that she felt like if she could sleep for twenty four hours she’d feel better. I was in the study when I heard her in the kitchen; I went to see how she was feeling.

She was standing at the kitchen counter cutting up a peach; she said something about being hungry. Suddenly her hands drooped and her knees gave way; I cradled her down to the floor. “Debra!” I said, but she said nothing in reply. I checked to make sure she was breathing as I tried to remember what I had learned in that CPR course that I took seven or eight years ago. Thankfully, she was breathing. After twenty or thirty seconds she opened her eyes and looked at me. “I love you,” I said, and she said, “I love you, too.” Then she said, “What happened?” “You passed out. I’m calling 911.” She looked at me suspiciously. “If you don’t need to go to the hospital it won’t cost anything,” I said. “OK,” she said.

When the EMTs arrived, they got her off the floor (I had been afraid to move her) and put her in a chair. Her vital signs were good but her hands were numb and her speech was slow. The EMTs speculated that she may have passed out because of her fever but, they said, they really couldn’t tell why she fainted. When they asked her whether she wanted to go to the hospital or call her doctor, she naturally said she’d call the doctor. They turned to go back to the ambulance; as soon as they left the kitchen Debra went rigid and her eyes rolled back in her head. “Wait!” I called. “I don’t think I can get her to the doctor. Please take her to the hospital.” So they picked her up and took her out the ambulance. Our neighbor Sharon came over at that moment to see if she could help. Debra wasn’t able to talk.

I tried to get myself together to go to the hospital. One of the EMTs came back in and said, “Because this now looks neurological, she’s going to be transported by helicopter to either Albany or Macon so a neurologist can check her out.” “I’d much prefer Macon,” I said. “We’ll see what we can do,” they said. “May I ride with her?” I asked. “No,” they said. “Will the helicopter land at the hospital?” I asked. “No, at the airport. We’ll call you as soon as we know where she’s going.” And they drove off.

She had not unpacked from our previous trip so I threw a few more items in her bag, trying hard to think of what she’d want: undergarments, her favorite hair brush, the hair dryer, her telephone, her IPad, the chargers for the telephone and IPad, her toiletry bag (which she thankfully had also not unpacked). I grabbed my toiletry bag and packed a few clothes; I packed my computer, my IPad, and some books. I went outside to see the dogs and to give them some fresh water. I wondered what else I should do. There were dirty dishes in the sink. I didn’t want her to come home to a sink full of dirty dishes so I washed them. I started to make the bed when I said to myself, “You have to stop. Go now.” While I had been doing all of those things I had been imploring and lamenting, cursing and praying, trusting and doubting, hoping and begging.

Finally I left. As I made the two hour drive to Macon, I continued to intercede and to complain between the many telephone calls that I needed to make to family members and friends. People needed to know; people needed to pray.

I had been through such an experience several times before and my mind quickly went back over all of them.

There was the time in 1975 when the hospital called to say that my cancer-riddled mother had taken a turn for the worse. I hoped hard that she would live. Two days later she was dead.

There was the time in 1979 when a co-worker of my father called to say that he had suffered a heart attack and that I needed to get to the hospital as quickly as I could. I assumed that he would die. Three days later he did.

There was the time in 2007 when our twenty-year-old daughter called us in Augusta from Rome, Georgia to say that one of her legs was swollen and that she going to the emergency room. After driving four hours to get there, we walked in just as the doctor was explaining to her that she had a massive clot and that the treatment, which had a good chance to be successful, ran the risk of causing a piece of the clot to break off and go to her lung, heart, or brain, an event which could be catastrophic. I prayed so hard that she would be all right. After six days of hospitalization, three of them in ICU, she was, and she has managed her Warfarin regimen well ever since.

This time I found myself pouring it all out to God. I found myself telling God that if my Good Wife died (I tried not to consider the possibility but it was there and I refused to suppress my thoughts about it, having learned the hard way that such suppression is not a good thing; besides, she is in her fifties just like my parents were when they died—she’s exactly the age my father was when he died), we—God and I—were going to have some problems in our relationship. I doubt that God was either surprised or particularly troubled to hear me say that.

I thought about some of the hopes and dreams and plans for the next phase of our life together that Debra and I had been sharing and discussing lately and I wondered what I would do if she died or if she became incapacitated; I thought about how her mother had suffered a series of strokes during the last twenty years of her life, each one taking more and more of her away until finally a final one took all that was left. I decided quickly that I would carry on with the direction about which we had been talking but realized how sad I would be if she were unable to be a fully participating partner in our future.

Having dealt with the morbid possibilities (I went through all of those possibilities in about five minutes), I started to think about what I—what we—needed to learn from what was happening. I began to assume and to believe that everything was going to be, in one way or another, all right. I began to recommit myself to the future that God has for us, regardless of what happens to complicate or to redirect our lives.

I realized that thirty-six years with her was a greater gift than I could have ever hoped for; I realized that if she was suddenly half the person she used to be she would still be twice the person that the next best person I know is.

I began to ponder the unspeakably tremendous value of every nanosecond of life and of life together.

At the hospital they examined Debra’s brain via a CT scan, an MRI, and an EEG. There was no sign of a stroke or a tumor.

They did a lumbar puncture so they could test her spinal fluid; there was no sign of meningitis.

So the scariest possibilities that they had mentioned were ruled out.

The diagnosis was a severe infection; they had begun giving her high doses of intravenous antibiotics almost as soon as she arrived at the hospital in case she did have meningitis and they continued IV antibiotics throughout her two days in the hospital.

Debra is home now; she is tired and weak and on oral antibiotics and other medications. She is letting me take care of her which I am so glad to do; I’m usually the needy one. She is still irritated that they took her to Macon in a helicopter. I had high hopes for her recovery when I learned that she had told the EMTs, “I have a wedding to pay for this fall; I can’t afford to ride on a helicopter!”

And so she appears to be ok; we appear to be ok.

I hope she is ready for what’s going to happen when she is fully recovered.

Every nanosecond is a gift.

The future is now …

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Declaration of Independennce

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America,

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Ten Questions Arising from the Hobby Lobby Decision

1. How can the ruling be described as “narrow” when 90% of American corporations are closely held and over 50% of working Americans are employed by such companies?

2. Given that the decision revolved around the abortion issue (since Hobby Lobby’s owners said they did not, for religious reasons, want to pay for devices or medicines that could act in a way that could be perceived as abortifacient), is there any significance to the fact that the five Justices voting in the majority are all Roman Catholic while of those in the minority three are Jewish and one is Roman Catholic?

3. Is there any significance to the fact that all three female Justices were on the minority side while all five Justices on the majority side are men?

4. Will Christians who are applauding the decision as a victory for religious freedom also applaud future Supreme Court decisions, should they come, that exempt business owners of other faiths from the obligation to obey a law because they object on religious grounds?

5. Should the religious convictions of business owners trump the religious convictions (or non-religious convictions) of their employees? Or vice-versa?

6. How should we evaluate Hobby Lobby’s argument that to provide certain types of birth control would cause them to violate their Christian convictions when it has been established that they (a) do business with Chinese firms whose workers labor in conditions barely above those of a slave, (b) have significant holdings through their retirement plans in firms that manufacture the very items for which they don’t want their insurance to pay, and (c) until just before they filed the suit that ended up before the Supreme Court their insurance was paying for such medicines?

7. What is to prevent other Christians who own businesses from seeking exemption from other legal obligations based on the precedent set in this decision and based on clear teachings of Jesus (who said nothing directly about birth control)? For example, what if some Christian business owners, based on Jesus’ teachings such as “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Turn the other cheek” ask not to pay that part of their taxes that goes toward military spending?
8. Does this decision that seems to come down on the side of the free exercise of religion go too far toward the establishment of religion or at least of a particular religious perspective? Will the religious convictions of business owners of other faiths be accorded the same status as those of Christian business owners? And if not, has not the Supreme Court taken a large step toward government establishment of the Christian religion?

9. Would not a boycott of Hobby Lobby, for which some people are calling in light of this decision, likely hurt the same employees that those calling for a boycott see themselves as supporting?

10. Does the Supreme Court’s willingness to allow the religious beliefs of (at least) Christian business owners to be a factor in the implementation of public health policy lend support to a move away from employment-based health insurance and even a move toward a single-payer system?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

I Sing Because I’m Happy (or Because I’m Not)

Alama Kante is a thirty-one year old professional singer from Guinea. A couple of months ago she underwent surgery in France to remove her thyroid gland, a procedure that is ordinarily done under anesthesia. Because of the possibility of damage during the surgery to her vocal chords and vital nerves, the procedure was done while she was under hypnosis rather than under anesthesia so that she was able to respond to instructions to sing. That way the doctors could be sure they were not harming her vocal chords and thus damaging her singing voice.

That’s right—she sang during her surgery!

There’s something to be said for singing no matter what you’re going through.

Over the Father’s Day weekend I was remembering how my father, the late great Champ Ruffin (1921-1979), long-time non-music reading song leader of the Midway Baptist Church (located several miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia on City Pond Road) often sang the chorus to the gospel song “On the Jericho Road” as he was going about his daily routines:

On the Jericho Road there's room for just two
No more and no less just Jesus and you
Each burden he'll bear each sorrow he'll share
There's never a care for Jesus is there.


I can remember him singing that song in good times and bad, in happy times and sad; I suspect it was helpful to him to remind himself that Jesus was always there for him.

There’s something to be said for singing no matter what is going on in your life. As the great Neil Diamond sang,

Song sung blue, everybody knows one.
Song sung blue, every garden grows one.
Me and you are subject to the blues now and then;
but when you take the blues and make a song,
you sing ‘em out again …


Read the Psalms and you’ll find that there are more laments—the Hebrew version of the blues—than any other type of psalm. In their laments the Hebrews sang out their pain to God and sang out their trust in God. If it was good enough for them, it’s bound to be good enough for us.

A while back I was going through a low time in my life. One day, my Good Wife said, “I’m glad you’re feeling better.” “Thanks,” I said, “but how did you know?” “Because you’re whistling again,” she replied. Maybe if I had kept on whistling I would have felt better sooner.

As the old hymn reminds us,

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.


Yes, keep singing (or whistling) no matter what you’re going through. Sing like you’re happy even when you feel sad; sing like you’re free even you feel captive. It’s how you get the blues out of you. And it’s how you keep your voice, which people need to keep hearing …

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Wedding (and Worship) Gnats

I’m writing these words on June 10, the thirty-sixth anniversary of the wedding ceremony that marked the beginning of the marriage of Debra Kay Johnson and me, an occasion that reminds me of how blessed I am and of how gracious she is.

Many members of both of our families were present at the ceremony that took place at 4:00 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon in Debra’s home church, the Leary Baptist Church. Leary, as some of you know, is located about twenty-five miles southwest of Albany, and is thus embedded deep among the peanut fields of southwest Georgia.

It is also well below the gnat line. Our wedding being a June South Georgia wedding, the gnats were uninvited but not unexpected guests.
I mention that fact because while all of my family members who attended the wedding lived in Georgia, they lived above the gnat line. (For the inexperienced and uninformed, the gnat line runs more or less from Columbus in the west to Savannah in the east; the part of Georgia above that line is sparsely populated with gnats, that part below the line is densely populated with them. I don’t how they know where the line is.) Now, thirty-six years later, if the subject of our wedding ever comes up in a conversation with some members of my family, I still hear “I will never forget those gnats!” One of my aunts, the first time I saw her after the wedding, didn’t say “What a nice ceremony!” or “I hope you will be so happy!”; no, she said, “I couldn’t believe those gnats!” “But it was a nice ceremony,” I responded. “I wouldn’t know,” she said, “all I remember is those gnats!”

It was, in fact, a very nice ceremony. It’s too bad that so many of my folks can’t remember it because all they could pay attention to was the gnats.

The funny thing is that I didn’t notice a single gnat that day and have no memory of any gnats being present in the sanctuary. And while I had spent some time below the gnat line since I started going home with Debra, I certainly wasn’t a native and had not become acclimated to the little pests. It’s hard to believe that the gnats were just polite and so chose not to bother the bride and groom.

The difference in my experience and that of my family members, I think, was that I had more invested in the ceremony than they did and, being so invested, I noticed nothing other than the experience of marrying Debra. I’m not sure I would have noticed if the roof had caved in. I was there to marry Debra and nothing was going to distract me from that experience.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here about the ways in which we do or don’t experience God when we come to a worship service and about the ways in which we are or aren’t distracted by whatever little irritants circumstances or people or life send to visit us …