Wednesday, December 23, 2015

It’s a Wonderful Life

For as long as I can remember, our family has followed the same routine on the night before Christmas.

First, we participate in a Christmas Eve worship service. We then return home and enjoy a meal of sandwiches and potato soup. Next, we empty our Christmas stockings, thank each other for the contributions made to said stockings, laugh over the gag items, and eat some of the candy, especially, in my case, the Reese’s Christmas Trees (I don’t care what some Scrooges say they look like. If the shape bothers you, bring them to me!). Last, we watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Again.

Every year, I promise myself I won’t tear up at the end of the movie. Every year, I let myself down.

You hopefully know the plot, but I’ll summarize it, just in cases (that’s a reference to another of my favorite holiday films. Extra credit if you know which one.). George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) is a young man living in Bedford Falls, New York. He runs his family’s Building and Loan Company but wants nothing more than to leave town and see the world, which he never does. We get to see him develop relationships with his family and friends. Then, through no fault of his own, George finds himself facing financial ruin and criminal charges. Frustrated and discouraged, he tells his guardian angel Clarence (yes, he has a guardian angel named Clarence. What of it?) that everyone would be better off had he never been born. Clarence makes it so (he’s an angel, after all). George gets to see what everybody’s lives would have been like had he not been around. Spoiler alert: they wouldn’t have been good. Then George comes back to reality, there’s a happy ending, and I cry.

At one point during the “vision of how things would have been without George in the world,” Clarence tells him, “You see, George, you really had a wonderful life.”

I have a wonderful life. And sometimes, when I think about all of the suffering that goes on in the world, I feel a little guilty about it. So many folks live in poverty and in hunger. So many nations are perpetual battlefields. So many families are dysfunctional. So many people think that the answer to violence is more violence.

For a lot of people, it’s not a wonderful life. Yet here we are, about to celebrate for the 2,000th or so time the birth of the Prince of Peace. On the night Jesus was born, the angels sang to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14 KJV). For two millennia now, lots of people have been claiming to follow the One who came to bring peace and good will to the Earth, and yet—well, you know as well as I do how well we’re doing with that.

If they issued memberships in the Idealist Club, I’d be carrying a card. I believe that one of these days, God will make all things as they should be (I also believe that a lot of us are going to be mighty surprised when we find out how God thinks they should be). But I also believe that, in the meantime, God expects us to do a lot better job than we’re doing of making things better than they are. And I believe that if Christians really took the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus seriously, it would be a better world. After all, Jesus showed us that God loves and cares about everybody and is willing to go to extremes to help them, didn’t he?

My favorite writer Frederick Buechner once said, “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It's the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ”

Jesus also shows us, though, that trying to bring peace and good will to this old world is dangerous business. So just in case you think we Christians might be doing enough to bring about the peace that Jesus came to give, I offer you these words from the prophet Jackson Browne’s song The Rebel Jesus:

We guard our world with locks and guns
and we guard our fine possessions.
And once a year when Christmas comes
we give to our relations.
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
if the generosity should seize us.
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus
.

It really is a wonderful life. But if we Christians would be about living the lives that Jesus lived, died, and rose that we might live, it’d be a wonderful life for a lot more people.

And then it’d be an even more wonderful—if more challenging and dangerous—life for us.

So Merry Christmas!

And peace …

Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas Time

If you’re reading this on Friday, December 18, then you’re reading it on the same day that I’m scheduled to see the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens.

The new film is episode seven in the Star Wars saga. You’d think that would mean that the first six episodes had come out in this order: Episode one, then two, then three, then four, then five, and then six, because that’s how things work. But, as you probably know, that’s not the case.

First we had the original trilogy (Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi), which you would figure would be episodes one, two, and three.

But no. The next three movies in the series were prequels to the first three. So the prequels were dubbed episodes one (The Phantom Menace), two (Attack of the Clones), and three (Revenge of the Sith). The original three thus became episodes four, five, and six. As I understand it, episode seven will pick up some thirty years after episode six.

So to sum up: the first three films showed us (from the point of view of the narrative) what is, the next three what was, and the new one (plus the two that will follow it) what will be.

It sounds like the way Christmas time works.

When I was a child, I was very confused by the tense of the verb “to be” used in the Christmas hymn “O Come All Ye Faithful.” We’d sing, “With angelic hosts proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem!” I wondered why we didn’t sing “Christ was born in Bethlehem.” Now that I’ve put away childish things (and learned how to read), I realize that the song is sung as if we are there, listening to the angels sing. So in the context of the song, the birth of Christ is a present happening.

But then there’s that other Christmas hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which includes the words, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.” A logical mind asks, “What does that mean? Jesus has already been born. What do you mean, ‘Be born in us today’?”

That’s the way it is with Christmas time. It starts for us with Christ being born in us today. Once he comes to us and we start getting to know him, then we can look back to his birth two millennia ago to better understand who he is and what it means for him to live in us. Once we experience Jesus in our here and now, we’re ready to watch the prequels.

And we’re ready to look forward to the sequels. Who knows how many installments there will be? But we can look forward to all that God will do in Christ from now on until Jesus returns in that great future event when God will make everything as it supposed to be.

You see, that’s the way Christmas time works. Christ is come—he is with us right here and right now. Christ has come—he was born in Bethlehem all those years ago. Christ will come—he will keep coming to us until he comes in a final way one of these days.

In a way, then, it’s always Christmas time.

Maybe we can talk about Easter time next spring. After all, Christ the Lord is risen today . . .

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Telling the Truth

I’ve been thinking about truth telling.

Our son is a writer. He’s also a cicerone. A cicerone is to beer as a sommelier is to wine. So Joshua is a certified, card-carrying beer expert. When it comes to beer, he really knows his stuff. To sum up, our son is a writing cicerone (Google “Josh Ruffin Paste” to read some of his beer articles. You’ll be entertained, even if you don’t drink beer.)

Joshua once wrote an article about a particular challenge he faces as a cicerone who works in an establishment that sells a lot of different beers. He said that he has to walk a line between his responsibility as a cicerone to educate people about beer and his responsibility as a customer service person to accept it if someone wants to restrict their choice to what she’s always drunk. He must balance his calling to expand people’s beer perspective and experience with the requirement that he give the customer what he wants. He wants to give folks the wide, wide world of beer, but he has to respect their choice to stay in their little lager corner.

Joshua said he faces another, more personal challenge on top of that one: he really doesn’t want to come across as a know-it-all, which is hard to do, given that he is likely to know more about beer than anybody else in the room, unless he happens to be at a cicerone convention. The challenge, then, is one of truth-telling. If someone says that Budweiser is the best beer in the world, he knows that’s not true and he needs to say so. But, if that person’s experience and worldview keeps them locked into that opinion, he has to be wise enough to back off, or at least to present his counter-arguments with tact and subtlety.

I have a similar struggle in trying to tell the truth about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, and about Christianity.

I’m an expert, you see.

I’ve been a Christian minister for forty years. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Religion from a fine university. I earned a Master of Divinity degree and a Doctor of Philosophy Degree from an excellent seminary. I have worked as a scholar for thirty years in various roles: pastor, professor, writer, and editor. The study of the Bible and the practice of the Christian faith have consumed me for most of my life.

So most of the time, I know more about the Bible and about the Christian faith than anyone else in the room. That’s no brag. It’s just fact.

I find myself facing the same challenges with the Christian faith that Joshua does with beer. I know the difference between good Christian practice and bad Christian practice and between good biblical interpretation and bad biblical interpretation. I know there are better ways to live out the Christian faith and to read the Bible than the ways lots of Christians are following. But people know what they know, they’ve experienced what they’ve experienced, they’re accustomed to what they’re accustomed to, and they like what they like.

On the one hand, my reflex is to leave people alone and not upset their spiritual equilibrium. On the other hand, I have a responsibility to bear witness to the best truth I know.

I don’t want to come across as a know-it-all. I do not in fact know it all. But I have the privilege of knowing quite a lot about the Bible and about Christian faith and practice. All these years of study have been a great blessing from God of which I’ve taken advantage as best I can. I don’t believe that God gave me that gift just for my benefit. What’s the point in knowing stuff if I don’t share it?

I remember what my seminary professor the late Dr. Page Kelley told me one day in his office. We were discussing some of the struggles over the Bible that were then taking place in the Southern Baptist Convention. He told me that much of the blame had to be laid at the feet of seminary graduates who accepted what they learned about the Bible but who then didn’t tell the churches they served what they had learned.

Don’t I have an obligation to tell the truth that I know?

When I was a young minister, I heard about a pastor who said that people should look to their pastor like they look to other professionals in their life. So, if they have a medical issue, they consult and listen to their doctor. If they have a legal issue, they follow the advice of their lawyer. And, he said, if they have a spiritual issue, they should seek and follow the advice of their pastor.

I recoiled at what he said. After all, I took seriously the priesthood of every believer. I believed in deciding by consensus because we all have access to the Spirit of God.

I still believe that.

As time went by, however, there were many times when I wished that people would just listen to me. There were times when folks were just wrong in the way they read the Bible. What I ran into most often was a failure to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. So many people follow what my mentor the late Dr. Howard Giddens called the “flat Bible approach,” by which he meant that they gave Leviticus the same weight as John. My particular spin on that is that all of the Bible should be read through the witness of Jesus. Proof-texting is therefore out. As Christians, we need to read the whole Bible in light of God’s ultimate revelation in Jesus. So, for example, while there are places in the Bible that advocate an eye for an eye, I must see those verses in light of the Savior who told me to turn the other cheek and who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” as they were crucifying him.

There is this, though: one does not have to be formally educated in holy things to know God. I have known some people in my life who, while they had none of the academic training that I have, knew God much better than I did. That’s a fact.

But that doesn’t change the facts that I know what I know and that I often—usually, even—know more about the Bible and Christian practice than anyone else in the conversation.

I want to share it. I want people to hear it.

Mainly, though, I want to say what I say with grace and in love. And I want to be heard in the same way.

I know you like Pabst Blue Ribbon.

But look, I have this really nice Sweetwater ...

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Of Football Coaches and Pastors

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or keeping up with the crazy things that presidential candidates say (which would leave you no time to keep up with anything else), you know that Mark Richt is no longer the head football coach at the University of Georgia. I understand the move, but I also hate that it happened. Based on what I’ve read, even most people who are glad that Richt is gone agree that he’s a good guy. Perhaps the columnist who said that Richt was a good coach but a great man had it right.

So far as I can tell, Coach Richt did almost everything right at UGA. He ran a major college football program for fifteen years with no major NCAA violations. He genuinely cared about his players. He coached so as to shape lives and not just to develop athletes. He did his work with integrity. He lived out his Christian ethic in his workplace.

But in the world of major college football, none of that is what’s regarded as most important. What’s most important is winning. Now, Coach Richt won. His teams regularly won nine or ten games a year. Lately, though, his teams have also lost a lot of big games on a big stage to big rivals. Georgia hasn’t won an SEC championship in ten years. The Dawgs haven’t won a national championship since the Herschel Walker era.

I suspect that if Georgia had won some conference crowns and a national championship in the last few years, Richt would still be their coach today, even if he had consistently run afoul of the NCAA, had berated and belittled his players, had seen 2% of his players graduate, and had been a goat-sacrificing pagan.

All of this naturally leads me to talk about church.

It seems to me that some pastors experience something like what Coach Richt has gone through. They do most things right. They maintain a strong personal relationship with the Lord, they show their love for their people through consistent pastoral care, they preach what they believe to be the truth and not just what people want to hear, and they try to get the church to take seriously its role in the world. But, for whatever reasons, the churches they pastor don’t grow numerically. And all too often, no matter how much legitimacy and integrity they display, such pastors are talked about and sometimes driven away by folks who see only the bottom lines of “membership” and attendance.

Meanwhile, some pastors stay on and revel in the adulation of their congregations because their numbers are way up, even if the spirit, character, and methods of the pastor (and of the church) don’t quite rise to the level of Christlikeness that they should.

People love a winner. Too many of them don’t care how the winning happens.

Some of Jesus’ words haunt me.

“For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26)

When Coach Richt appeared at his farewell press conference on the day after he was fired, he sat there at peace and with his head held high because he had done things the right way, even if he didn’t win enough to suit the crowd.

When we pastors appear before the Lord when our time here is over, I wonder what our posture will be like . . .

(First appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on Dec. 8, 2015)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Don't Say "Merry Christmas"--Yet

In the church of my childhood, the days leading up to Christmas included such activities as a Christmas play (my late great father, who was a ham, was often involved) and a visit by Santa Claus. Such activities weren’t very worshipful. But they were fun, and fun is a good thing to have in this old world. I guess our pastor would preach a Christmas sermon on the Sunday closest to the big day, but I really don’t remember. I do remember that once Christmas Day arrived, that was it. There was no more mention of the birth of Jesus until the next Christmas.

My Good Wife and I moved to Louisville, Kentucky in 1979 so I could attend seminary. The uptown Baptist church that we attended there did something on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas Day that I had never seen: they observed the season of Advent. They had a wreath down front in which were placed three purple candles, one pink candle, and a large white one in the center. Each Sunday they’d light another candle. They lit the white one, the Christ candle, on Christmas Eve. It was kind of a countdown to Christmas. I found it very meaningful.

The word “advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” So the season of Advent is a time to anticipate the coming of Christ. The season encompasses the four weeks leading up to Christmas, so naturally we focus on the coming of the baby Jesus to our world two millennia ago. But we also look toward the second coming of Jesus. In addition, we think about ways in which Jesus may want to come to us here and now.

Usually, Advent worship culminates in a Christmas Eve service at which the Christ candle is lit. Then, Christmas starts on December 25.

Yes, Christmas starts on December 25. You probably know the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” but you may not know that there actually are twelve days of Christmas. The Christmas season begins on December 25 and ends on January 5, the day before Epiphany, when we remember the visit of the Wise Men and the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles.

We’re all aware of the brouhaha that breaks out every year about whether customer service folks are saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.” Well, from the perspective of the church calendar, we Christians really shouldn’t say “Merry Christmas” until December 25, and we should keep on saying it until January 5. Up until then, “Happy Holidays” works just fine, unless you want to say “Joyous Advent,” which will really get people wondering about you.

I have to admit that I’m trying to convince you of something at which I had little to no success convincing the churches I served as pastor over the past thirty years. Oh, we’d keep the Christmas decorations in the sanctuary and we’d keep the candles burning on the Advent wreath until Epiphany, but I could never get folks to see what a great opportunity we had to offer a needed witness to our community by observing the Twelve Days of Christmas.

We Christians tend to moan and groan about the materialism and commercialism associated with Christmas, even as we participate in it. As the comedian John Fugelsang said, “Black Friday is when we buy material things to celebrate the birthday of a guy who said give up material things.”

Here’s the thing, though: the “secular” aspects of Christmas are fun. My father told me that if I ever stopped believing in Santa Claus, I’d lose much of the joy of Christmas. So I still believe. The gift-giving and other aspects of the “Santa” side of Christmas are most enjoyable. I see no reason not to participate (in moderation) and I see no point in trying to convince folks that they shouldn’t.

But look at it this way: once Christmas Day arrives, Santa goes back to the North Pole and stays there until next Thanksgiving (or whenever he shows up at the malls). If we observe the Twelve Days of Christmas to which the Christian calendar summons us, we can give the celebration of the coming of Jesus to our world our full and undivided attention.

And, if we say “Merry Christmas” until January 5, people will think we’re strange (which we are).

But if they ask us why we’re doing that, we’ll get a chance to tell them about Jesus.

So for now, “Happy Holidays!” and “Joyous Advent!”

If you want to hear me say “Merry Christmas,” come see me between December 25 and January 5 . . .

(First appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Thomaston (GA) Times on December 4, 2015)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Mixed Blessings

This is the time of year that we give some attention to offering thanks for the blessings in our lives. Some folks thank the stars, some thank the fates, and some thank themselves. I’m numbered among those who thank God, which frankly complicates things a bit.

Think about it. If I think my life is controlled by the stars, when life falls apart I can figure that once the heavens realign I’ll be ok and I can move on. If I think that whatever happens to me is due to fate, when something bad happens, I can chalk it up to the randomness of life and move on. If I give credit to myself for whatever happens, then I can blame myself when something goes wrong and move on.

It’s different when I have to take God into account. Now, if I just believed in a God who is the Prime Mover or the First Cause—in the words of the late Andrae Crouch, a “God who didn’t care, who lives away up there”—things wouldn’t be so complicated. I could just think about such a God like other folks think about fate or luck.

But I believe in a personal God. I believe in a God who has chosen to interact with us in the here and now of our lives. I believe in a God who knows every hair on my head (which, regrettably, isn’t as great a challenge as it once was). I believe in a God who loves me. I believe in a God who entered this world in Jesus Christ to live and die as one of us. I believe in a God who is with me every moment of every day. I believe in a God who cares about what happens to me, who hurts when I hurt, and who grieves when I grieve.

Yet I can’t believe in a God who doesn’t allow bad things to happen to me and to everybody else. So far as I can tell, there is no such God. I guess there is a sense in which I have come to accept that there is in fact randomness, or at least unpredictability, to life. Things happen that make no sense. To try to make sense of them is to risk going insane. Sometimes, asking “Why?” just doesn’t get us anywhere.

I used to spend a lot of mental, emotional, and spiritual energy wondering why my mother died when I was sixteen and my father when I was twenty. After all, I reasoned, they were good people, and I wasn’t a particularly bad fellow. So why did this happen to them? Why did it happen to us? Why did my mother suffer with cancer for the last seven years of her life? Why did my father suffer a massive heart attack while working at Thomaston Mills?

I find no comfort in the thought that there is always someone worse off than me. Yes, many children are orphaned at a much younger age than I was. Yes, I’d rather have had good parents for a short time than sorry ones for a long time. The truth is, no matter how I tried to reason it all out, none of it made any sense to me. It still doesn’t.

Life is filled with mixed blessings. That’s because every blessing has two sides. On one side is what we have. On the other side is what we can lose. I think that happiness comes from (1) choosing to be grateful both for what we have and for what we had that we’ve lost and (2) choosing to be grateful for what we have, knowing that we might lose it, but not fearing that possibility.

Life is a mixed blessing. The prayer of thanksgiving that I find myself praying often these days is, “Thank you, God, for all of it.” I try really hard to mean that prayer when I pray it. “Thank you, God, for all of it. Thank you for the gains and the losses, for the joys and the sorrows, for the highs and lows, and for the successes and failures.”

After all, that’s life.

And life is what I’m grateful to God for . . .

(First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Thomaston Times on November 20, 2015)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Saints and Ain’ts

November 1 was All Saints’ Day. The observance started off in the early church as a way to remember and celebrate the martyrs, those who were faithful to the Lord at the cost of their lives. It eventually evolved into a day to honor all of the Lord’s saints who have made it home. Many churches observe All Saints’ Day by recalling the lives of those members who have died during the preceding twelve months. We did that in the last couple of churches I served as pastor.

Yes, there are Baptist churches that do such things.

I always found it a very meaningful experience. We had already remembered those folks when we held their funeral or memorial services, but we focused on them then as individuals. All Saints’ Day reminded us that our departed sisters and brothers were and are a part of our church family. It also reminded us that all of those who have gone before us constitute that great cloud—and after all these years it truly is a great cloud—of witnesses that surrounds us. You can’t be a saint without being among the saints. It’s the saints that come marching in, not the saint.

A saint is someone who’s been sanctified, which means it’s someone who’s been made holy. The thing is, it’s hard for us to know who’s holy and who’s not. Sister Bertha Better Than You (thanks, Ray Stevens) thinks she’s holy, but she’s actually holier-than-thou, which isn’t the same thing. She’s holy, to paraphrase, Mark Twain, in the worst sense of the word. Some people who think they’re saints give saints a bad name. Some people think that the most ludicrous thing you could call them is “saints,” which is in fact evidence that that’s what they are. Some of the people that we judge to be holy really aren’t. Some of those that we judge not to be holy actually are. We have low and shallow standards. We think not being bad is the same as being good. We judge a book by its cover.

We don’t know what we’re talking about. The truth is that only God really knows who’s a saint and who isn’t. I’ll give you one little rhyme to keep in mind, though: if you think you’re a saint, you most likely ain’t.

The Gospel of Luke contains a couple of stories that should make us stop and think about what it means to be holy, or at least to be on the way to being holy. In the first (Luke 18:18-25), a rich ruler comes to Jesus wanting to know how he can inherit eternal life. He calls Jesus “Good Teacher,” to which Jesus responds with “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” You might want to keep that in mind when you get to thinking that hey, maybe you are good after all.

Anyway, Jesus tells the man that he knows the commandments and the ruler says that he sure does. Why, he’s kept all of them since he was just a little rich ruler. Jesus doesn’t argue the point. I imagine the fellow really was good at not doing what he wasn’t supposed to do. Instead, Jesus told him, “You lack one thing. Go sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor. That way you’ll have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The man went away with his possessions intact and his heart broken.

Everybody would have told you that man was saint. But he wasn’t.

Then there’s that famous wee little man, Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). Zacchaeus was rich, too, but he padded his portfolio by cheating the taxpayers out of their hard-earned money. He worked with the hated Roman occupiers of Israel. Everybody would have told you that he not only wasn’t a saint but had no possibility of ever being one.

But when Jesus came to town, Zacchaeus wanted to see him. I guess he had heard that Jesus was a friend of sinners and if there was anything Zacchaeus knew about himself, it was that he was a sinner in need of a friend. He was so determined to see Jesus that he tossed his pride aside and went running down the road to get ahead of the crowd. Finding a climbable tree, he climbed it. You can imagine his neighbors pointing up and laughing at him. You can also imagine him not caring. When Jesus saw him up there, he told Zacchaeus to come on down because he just had to spend some time with him.

It had probably been years since anybody except other shady outcasts had shared a meal with Zacchaeus. But Jesus did. And Zacchaeus was glad to have him. As soon as Jesus accepted Zacchaeus and Zacchaeus accepted Jesus, the little big man started throwing his money out to anybody who would take it. “I’ll give half of my stuff to the poor. If I’ve cheated anybody, I’ll pay them back four times what I bilked them out of.”

You see the difference between Zacchaeus and the rich ruler, don’t you? When Jesus challenged the ruler to sell his stuff and help out the poor, he couldn’t and wouldn’t do it. Zacchaeus, on the other hand, didn’t have to be challenged. He just started sharing.

That’s what love and grace will do to you.

My point here, though, is that everybody would have said the rich ruler was a saint. He kept his nose clean, he had a sterling reputation, and he was an upstanding citizen. But his heart was cold. His wealth (and no doubt the power that came with it) was more important to him than anything else, including God and people. Everybody would also have said that Zacchaeus was an irredeemable scoundrel. But when the love of Jesus sparked his heart, it erupted in a blaze of generosity and reconciliation.

So the next time you get to thinking that somebody’s a saint or that somebody isn’t, you might want to just go think about something else and leave that one to the good Lord.

When I was just starting out as a preacher, my father, the late, great Champ Ruffin, advised me, “Son, when you start doing funerals, don’t feel like you have to preach everybody into heaven, ‘cause everybody ain’t going.” I’ve since presided over hundreds of funerals. I’ve treated some of the deceased as if they were saints and I’ve hedged my bets on quite a few. Still, I once had a friend say to me, “Mike, I’m Methodist and you’re Baptist, but I want you to preach my funeral. You can find something good to say about anybody.”

I guess I can.

But saying it doesn’t make it so . . .

(First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on November 10, 2015)

Monday, November 9, 2015

Four Evers

I heard about a student who turned in his exam paper without answering any of the questions. The professor said, “Son, don’t you know anything?” The student replied, “Professor, I don’t even suspect anything!”

At least the student was honest. How often do we pretend to know what we don’t even suspect?

You may have heard the saying, “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell God about your plans.” If that’s true, I’ve given the Almighty many a chuckle over the years. You probably have, too.

There was a time in my life when my faith in God was all about forever—that is, I thought that the main point of being saved was to be able to live forever. These days, while I still look forward to going to heaven, which I strongly suspect is real, I understand better that the life I have now is the only life I ever will have. Jesus said that eternal life is to know God and the Son whom God has sent. To be saved is to have a personal relationship with God. So, if I am saved in this life, which means I know God in this life, then I am already living the eternal life. It doesn’t just start when I die. It’s going on now. My life in heaven will, in some very significant ways, be a continuation of the life I’m living now.

Here’s the thing, though: I have no way of knowing what’s going to happen in this life. Oh, I may suspect some things. There are developments that I expect and for which I try to prepare. Still, beyond this second in which I am taking my current breath, I have no idea what will happen. I believe, though, that it matters very much how I deal what happens.

I’ve come to realize that the Christian life is about forever, but it is not just about forever; it’s also about four “evers.”

The Christian life is about whatever. It’s about accepting whatever comes with grace (in God, everything is all right), peace (with God, I am all right), and hope (by God, everything is going to be all right). It’s about understanding that no one is immune from anything. Good and bad come into the lives of all human beings. To quote the theologian Clint Eastwood, “Deserving’s got nothing to do with it.” The difference that faith makes is that somehow, it all means something. We may not know what it means, but we live in trust that it means something. So we don’t shy away from any of it. We accept it, we take it on, we grapple with it, and we live through it and beyond it. As the writer Frederick Buechner said, “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

The Christian life is about whoever. Some 7.3 billion people live on this planet. No matter how many people you and I know, we know just a very small fraction of the world’s population. A lot of us try not to get out and about among them too much. I for one will do my Black Friday shopping in my chair via my iPad. And I suppose that once Amazon and Walmart get those drone deliveries going, we may not have to leave home at all. Nonetheless, people of faith have a responsibility to other people. We are responsible to the people that we meet as we live our lives. We should treat them with understanding, compassion, and kindness. We also have a responsibility toward the people that we will never meet. We are responsible for not thinking and speaking of them as stereotypes and caricatures. Whoever is out there, we need to pray for them, to be concerned for them, and to love them—even if they are our enemies (Jesus said that, you know).

The Christian life is about wherever. There is a sense in which we’re on our way to God. That’s why we talk about heaven. At the end of sojourn on Earth, we’ll know as we are known, as the Apostle Paul once put it. We’ll be in God’s presence with none of the stuff between us that gets in the way down here. But we are already in God’s presence. Sure, one day we’ll make our home with God, but God has already made God’s home with us. They’re already playing Christmas music in the stores and the Christmas decorations have been for sale since Labor Day, so I guess it’s not too early (yes it is, but I’ll do it anyway) to mention what Christmas is about. It is about Immanuel—“God with us.” Jesus was God with us and the Holy Spirit is God with us. So wherever we are on Earth, wherever we are in our life, wherever we are in our journey with God, God is with us.

The Christian life is about whenever. When I was a teenager, someone handed me a round wooden object about the size of a silver dollar. On one side it said “Tuit.” On the other side it said, “Remember all those times you said you’d put God first in your life when you got around to it? Well, here’s a round tuit.” It was silly, but it made its point. The old saying “There’s no time like the present” is applicable here, although I’d change it to “There’s no time but the present.” For now, now is the only time that we have. So whenever we have the opportunity to share God’s love, grace, and mercy, we need to take advantage of the opportunity. Whenever we can, we should.

So yes, the Christian life is about forever. But it’s also about four “evers”: whatever, whoever, wherever, and whenever. And it will be until forever gets here …

[First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Thomaston Times on Friday, November 6, 2015]

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Gone If It’s Fair

It was very late on Tuesday, October 21. The Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox were locked in the titanic struggle at Fenway Park that was game six of the 1975 World Series. Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk strode to the plate in the bottom of the twelfth inning. The score was tied 6-6. Pat Darcy, the Red’s eighth pitcher of the game, threw a pitch that Fisk lifted high and deep down the left field line. Fisk hopped down toward first base, waving his arms to the right, trying with all his might to convince the ball to stay fair. He leapt into the air as the ball struck the foul pole 310 feet away and just above the thirty-seven foot high left field wall known as the “Green Monster.”

Sox fans at Fenway and everywhere else erupted in celebration. I smiled as I watched the scene unfold on the thirteen inch black and white television in James and Eddie’s dorm room at the end of the hall where we lived during our freshman year at Mercer University.

It is still one of the most dramatic moments in World Series history. It happened forty years ago, and I can remember it like it was yesterday. Fisk’s solo home run allowed the Red Sox to defeat the Reds 7-6.

Fisk’s shot just barely made it out of Fenway. But if he had hit it 500 feet to straightaway center field, Boston still would have won the game by one run. That’s because a home run counts as one run no matter how far the batter hits the ball. It’s the same way in other sports. A touchdown that’s scored from one yard out counts as six points; so does one scored on a 100 yard kickoff return. A twenty yard field goal gets you three points just like a fifty-three yard one does. A soccer goal scored from midfield is worth one point just like one made from right in front of the net. (For what it’s worth, this is why I think the three point goal in basketball was an unfortunate innovation. A goal is a goal is a goal.)

Would Carlton Fisk have felt any better about his home run had he hit it way out to the deepest part of the field? No, he wouldn’t have. Plus, we wouldn’t have that iconic shot of him waving the ball fair.

If you’re anything like I am—an average person just trying by the grace of God to do a decent job at being a human being—then you have to admit that you don’t usually possess or exhibit what could, by any reasonable measure, be called “great” faith. And you may, like I do, sometimes beat yourself up over it.

My advice to you is to stop it. Stop it right now.

My further advice to you is to be glad for the faith you have and to let it do its thing in your life.

In Luke 17, Jesus tells his disciples that they have to forgive those who sin against them. He’s really serious about it, so he says that if someone commits such a sin seven times in one day and repents seven times, then a follower of Jesus must forgive that person seven times. All those sevens are Bible talk for “You must forgive someone as often as necessary.”

Quite understandably, the disciples say, “Increase our faith!” (I wonder if they said it in unison.) Then Jesus tells them that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed (which is teeny tiny), they could uproot a tree and plop it down in the ocean. Some very good scholars maintain that the construction of that sentence in Greek means that Jesus really says, “Since you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can uproot the tree and drop it in the Mediterranean.” If that’s the case, Jesus is challenging his disciples to let the faith they have, little though it may be, do its thing in their lives. And if they’ll do that, they’ll find that they can do such outlandish and spectacular things as forgiving those who trespass against them, which is a whole lot harder than using spiritual telepathy to move trees around.

I find this very encouraging because, when it comes to faith, I seldom hit a mammoth homerun. My faith usually just squeezes inside the foul pole.

But it still counts . . .

[First appeared in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on Tuesday, October 27, 2015]

Friday, October 23, 2015

Good If You Like 'Em (or, Chitlins & Church)

I will attend my first Chitlin’ Hoedown in Yatesville on October 31. So don’t bring your kids to my house later that day for trick-or-treat. If you do, they’ll get little pieces of leftover chitlins. Boo!

I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve not attended the Hoedown in previous years. After all, Yatesville is my late father’s hometown and I’ve always had family there. I’m not sure why I’ve never gone before. Until recently, I’ve lived anywhere from two to ten hours away, and I guess I just didn’t deem chitlins worth the drive.

Now that I live less than a mile from downtown Yatesville, I reckon I’ve lost that excuse. Our proximity to the happening has created some concern around my house, though. My Good Wife has a very clear childhood memory of that one time when her mother cooked chitlins. She had to leave the house because of the smell, which she describes as being somewhat unpleasant. “Stinky” is the word I think she used. My Good Wife seldom resorts to such language, so it must have been bad. Anyway, we’re concerned that the chitlin’s aroma may come wafting down the hill to our house and to our nostrils. It may set our dogs to barking.

I don’t know when I first heard the word “chitlins.” I was a child, though, and since Google wasn’t available back in the Dark Ages, I used my next best research tool: I asked my father what they were. “Pig intestines,” he answered. “And people eat them?” I inquired, my voice quavering with shock and awe. “Yes,” he said, “but they do a really good job of cleaning them first.” That struck me as a good thing.

I thought the word was spelled “chitlins,” since that’s the way we pronounced it when we used it in very clever ways, such as when we didn’t recognize the mystery meat in the school cafeteria and said, “It must be chitlins,” or when we hadn’t studied and said, “I’d rather eat chitlins than take this test,” or when we needed to return an insult with an insult and said, “Is that your face or did you just eat some chitlins and forget to wipe your mouth?”

Then, one day at about this time of year in 1972, I was sacking groceries at my new after-school job when down the conveyer belt came a frozen pail with “Chitterlings” printed on the lid. “What’s this?” I inquired of one of my more experienced colleagues. “Chitlins!” he replied. It made sense, given the way we Southerners deal with words. I mean, how do you pronounce “scuppernongs”?

The burning question for me is this: will I try the chitlins? I don’t have to; they also serve chicken at the Chitlin’ Hoedown. I like chicken. But if I do try the chitlins, will I like them? And if I like them, what then? After all, my Good Wife isn’t going to cook any for me. Not ever. They’re stinky.

If my late mother-in-law were still with us, and if I asked her if chitlins are good, I know exactly what she’d say. She’d say, “They’re good if you like ‘em!”

Now, some of you are thinking, “How could anybody not like chitlins?” And some of you are thinking, “How could anybody even think about eating chitlins?” I admit that they sound gross to me. But hey, oysters are gross, and the only problem I have with eating a dozen oysters on the half shell is that I’d rather eat three dozen, preferably with hot sauce and horseradish. I wonder if that’s a good way to eat chitlins.

“They’re good if you like ‘em.” And there’s no accounting for taste.

That’s why chitlins remind me of church.

So much of how we think about church these days comes down to matters of taste. What do we like? What don’t we like? Some of us like contemporary worship; some of us favor traditional worship. This one prefers a choir and pipe organ; that one is much more drawn to a praise band. She likes preachers who deliver their message in a conversational style; he gets more out of an animated approach. Somebody values silence and contemplation; somebody else wants to have something going on all the time.

Such things are largely a matter of taste. It’s good if you like it.

But some things about being the church and about being Christian are not a matter of taste or a matter of choice. For all of us, whether we are Protestant or Catholic, whether we are formal or informal, whether we are rural or urban, and whether we are conservative or progressive, being the church and being Christian comes down to two non-negotiable essentials: (1) we are to love the Lord our God with everything we are and (2) we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We can’t be who we are without love.

So when you join me at the Chitlin’ Hoedown in Yatesville on Saturday, October 31, eat ‘em or don’t eat ‘em and like ‘em or don’t like ‘em. But remember: even as we are divided by our stance toward chitlins, we are bound by our need to eat. We don’t have to eat chitlins, but we do have to eat food.

And ponder the truth that, even as we Christians are divided by our stance toward various practices and doctrines, we are united by the necessity to love God and to love people …

(First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Thomaston Times on Friday, October 23, 2015)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

False Profits

I’m writing these words on Wednesday, October 7, 2015—the day that some “Christian” online group that I had never heard of before they got a little publicity this week—says will be the day the world ends. You’re reading these words on or after Tuesday, October 13, 2015, which means that they got it wrong. That’s no big surprise, given that all of the other—and there have been a lot of them—individuals and groups who made such predictions before them, also got it wrong.

So hug somebody and tell them you’re glad we’re still here.

OK, I do confess to thinking that if the end could come before we have to live through this entire 2016 presidential election cycle, it would be a relief. I mean, if the good Lord is open to suggestions, I’d suggest the day before the Iowa caucuses.

Still, I have to tell you that I just don’t get it. I don’t get why people keep making such predictions. I don’t get why folks keep listening to them.

I mean, Jesus himself said that no one knows the day or the hour except the Father (Mark 13:32). Jesus said that he didn’t even know. Frankly, I don’t want to be standing anywhere near someone who claims to know more than Jesus knows. That’s why I’ve always advised the congregations who have had to listen to my preaching to get as far away as possible from anyone who says they know when Jesus is coming back. I’d give you the same advice. Don’t buy their books. Don’t watch their television programs. Don’t visit their websites. Don’t send them any money.

Just say no to cranks.

I said earlier that I don’t get why people listen to these predictors of the date of the end, but maybe I do understand a little. It seems to me that people are eaten up with fear and with the anger that is often a leading symptom of fear. I hear lots of people saying that things are worse than they’ve ever been and that they’re just going to keep on deteriorating. I don’t know. I’m reminded of what my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, used to tell me when I was a teenager: “Son, your generation is no worse than mine. You just have better weapons to work with.”

He may have been right, but I wouldn’t know; Mama wouldn’t let me have any of the weapons.

Seriously, though, people are afraid. The main thing they’re afraid of is change. So the more things change, the more afraid they become. And one of the ways that they deal with fear is by becoming angry. They then direct that anger at whomever or whatever they think is responsible for all of the change that is occurring. Or they direct it at anyone or anything that happens to be in their line of sight. They can get to the point that they are so afraid and so angry that they just want something done. And one remedy would be for Jesus to come back and fix everything or take us out of this mess.

Now, the Bible certainly teaches that the Lord is going to return. But the Bible also makes it very clear that we can’t know when that’s going to be. It’s a waste of your time to try to figure it out. It’s a waste of your life to listen to people who say they have it figured it out. Two main points can be derived from what the Bible says about the return of the Lord: (1) it will happen and (2) in the meantime, we are supposed to live our lives following Jesus and serving people. 1 Thessalonians has one of the most well-known passages about the Second Coming:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 NRSV).

But then Paul goes on to say that in the meantime, we should live our lives doing what Christians should be doing. And just a few verses later, he repeats his encouragement that we encourage each other: “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing” (5:11).

So my word to you is this: let’s do all we can to make things better, let’s trust God for the ultimate working out of all things, and let’s encourage each other.

I encourage you not to waste your time on “preachers” and “teachers” who tell you when the end is coming. Just like the rest of us, they won’t know until it gets here . . .

(First appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on October 13, 2015)

Friday, October 9, 2015

Why I Don’t Have a Cross Tattoo

I don’t have a cross tattoo.

I don’t have a cross tattoo because I don’t have any tattoos. I don’t have any tattoos for three reasons: (1) I’m afraid of the needle, (2) I don’t think one would look good on me, and (3) my Good Wife won’t let me get one.

If I were to get a tattoo, though, it would probably be a Mercer Bear, a guitar, or a book (in that list you gain further insight into why I should not get one). I would not get a cross tattoo. In fact, I would not get a tattoo of any Christian symbol. I would not get one for the same reason that I don’t wear a fish lapel pin, a cross necklace, “Christian” t-shirts, or any other such outward and artificial pronouncement that I’m a Christian.

I just don’t think they offer a meaningful witness to my following of Jesus. Put more bluntly: they don’t prove a thing. And they might even be hypocritical. I have enough of a struggle with hypocrisy; I don’t need to compound it by saying to folks, “Hey, look at me! (And I sure am glad you can’t see my heart!)”.

Really, now, what good is a cross on my body if I haven’t taken up my cross and followed Jesus? What good is a “Christian” t-shirt if my life isn’t clothed in the love of Christ? What good is “Christian” jewelry if my life isn’t adorned with the grace of God?

(Now, let me hasten to add that there are plenty of people who can wear such outward symbols of their faith with integrity. They wear them as a sincere expression of a genuine faith, and I say “More power to them.” I’m talking about those of us who struggle with their integrity and to those who should.)

There’s an old joke about the police officer who pulled a driver over. When he approached her, she angrily asked what she had done. “Well, the officer said, “I heard you blast your horn at that fellow who pulled out in front of you and I saw you make that obscene gesture at him. So when I saw the ‘Follow Me to Church’ bumper sticker on this car, I figured it must be stolen.”

Speaking of police officers and vehicles, there’s been a bit of brouhaha about some law enforcement departments putting “In God We Trust” decals on their cars. I won’t get into the whole separation of church and state issue—you know, the whole question of whether government owned vehicles should have a religious statement on them. If I did, someone would just point out that “In God We Trust” appears on our money, which actually gets back around to my point: isn’t it ironic (don’t you think?) that we use money that proclaims “In God We Trust” when, in fact, more of us trust in the money than trust in God? Or that we try to trust in both of them at once? (I’m pretty sure Jesus had something to say about that.)

But I’m talking about decals on law enforcement vehicles, not about money. Here are my two questions about them: (1) What difference do the decals make if the people riding in the car don’t actually trust in God? After all, trust in God is something you have on the inside, and if you don’t have it there, shouting it from the rooftops (or from the back of your car) won’t make any difference. (2) What difference do the decals make if the people riding in the car do actually trust in God? After all, trust in God is something you have on the inside, and if you have it there, shouting it from the rooftops (or from the back of your car) won’t make any difference.

I recently moved to Upson County and I celebrated my birthday last month so, when it was time to renew my car’s registration, I came to Thomaston to do it. (Let me insert here that all of the ladies working in the office were very nice and professional in their dealings with me.) When the very nice lady helping me asked me if I wanted an Upson County sticker or did I have an “In God We Trust” sticker, I heard myself saying, “Well, I trust in God, but I’ll take the Upson County sticker.” I have three reasons for making that choice. First, I like to know what county cars are from and I like folks to know which county I’m from. I think it’s interesting. Second, my non-scientific research indicates that folks with the “In God We Trust” sticker on their car tag drive much faster than those with their county sticker. I don’t need to be tempted to be so presumptuous of God’s favor. I’ve already given you my third reason: I am aware of my hypocrisy. I know that I don’t trust God like I should. It makes me nervous to proclaim otherwise.

I have for a long time been intrigued by the fact that Jesus says two seemingly opposite things in the Sermon on the Mount. He says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others, in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). He goes on to say that we who follow him should give our offerings and offer our prayers in secret. “Don’t do those good things in ways that let other people see you doing them,” Jesus says.

But elsewhere in the sermon, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A city build on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

So which way is it, Jesus? Do you want my faith to be seen or unseen? Do you want it to be visible or invisible? Do you want me to trumpet my faith in you through “Christian” t-shirts, “Christian” jewelry, “In God We Trust” stickers, or even cross tattoos?

Or—and I really think this might be it—do you want me to grow so much in my following of you, in my trust in you, and in your gracious love of me that it can be seen in the ways that I talk and act, and especially in the ways that I treat other people?

Maybe all the outward decorations in the world don’t really say a thing about my faith.

Maybe all the inward realities of my relationship with you can’t help but honestly and legitimately show themselves in the ways I live . . .

[This post originally appeared in Ruffin's Renderings in the Thomaston (GA) Times on Friday, October 9, 2015]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Crooked Lines

I work as a Bible study curriculum editor in my day job. One of my responsibilities is to write an every-other-week blog post (my Assistant Editor writes the ones for the intervening weeks, thankfully) offering additional commentary on the lesson for the upcoming Sunday. In one of those coincidences that sometimes happen, last Sunday’s Scripture seemed to offer an opportunity to apply the text’s message to a current event the discussion of which has been using up a lot of newsprint, airtime, and megabytes.

The Scripture is found in Acts 5, where Jesus’ apostles, having been called on the carpet a second time for teaching in the name of Jesus, respond, “We must obey God rather than human authority” (Acts 5:29). The current event is the jailing and subsequent release of Rowan County, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis after she refused to obey a court order that she resume issuing marriage licenses, which she had stopped doing due to her objections to same-sex marriage. Davis said that she refused to issue the licenses “under God’s authority.”

The parallel between the Scripture text and that event seems, at first glance, to be strong. Appearances can be deceiving, however. Since I thought that some cautionary words were in order for the users of our curriculum, I shared them in my blog post. Now I want to share them with you. In so doing, perhaps I can offer some helpful thoughts on the danger of trying to draw a straight line between events in the Bible and events in our time. And it can indeed be dangerous.

Put simply, we should take great care in drawing direct parallels between the apostles’ predicament and Davis’s situation because many differences exist between the two scenarios. I’ll mention three.

For one thing, the apostles were not in violation of a court order, while Davis is.

Most, if not all, of us would likely agree that the apostles did the right thing in speaking in the name of Jesus, even though they had been told by the authorities not to. The difference between their situation and that of Davis is that they were not disobeying the legal authority, while she was. It was the Jewish council (the Sanhedrin), not the Roman authorities, that ordered the apostles not to preach. At that point in history, Christians were not in direct conflict with Roman law, which was the true legal authority in first century Israel. Such conflict would come, but that is not the situation in Acts 5. So the apostles were not in violation of the law of the land. They were basically being told by one religious group not to speak of their religious convictions.

Davis, on the other hand, is in violation of federal Judge David Bunning’s order that, in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, she issue marriage licenses to gay couples. As Alan Blinder and Tamar Lewin said in the New York Times, “The legal issue — that no one, whether a government or an individual engaged in civil disobedience has standing to flout a court order — is well established” (“Clerk in Kentucky Chooses Jail Over Deal on Same-Sex Marriage,” nytimes.com, September 3, 2015).

Now, that is not to say that Davis should not “obey God rather than human authority” if that is what she really believes she is doing. It is just to say that the kind of authority to which she refuses to submit is a different kind of authority than that to which the apostles would not give in. The situation in twenty-first century Kentucky is far different than the one in first century Jerusalem. Still, I suspect that most of us would agree that, if a person sees her or his religious convictions as being in conflict with secular law, religious convictions should be given first place by that person.

But—and this is the second difference I want to point out—the apostles, unlike Davis, were not elected officials who had sworn to uphold the law. The fact that Davis is an elected government official in the constitutional republic of the United States of America is important. Here is the oath of office that she took: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth, and be faithful and true to the Commonwealth of Kentucky so long as I continue a citizen thereof, and that I will faithfully execute, to the best of my ability, the office of County Clerk according to law . . .” Davis’s oath of office requires her to uphold the Constitution of both the state and the nation, not to uphold her particular religious or social convictions. Because she refuses to follow the law and to obey the court’s order, she is in violation of her oath of office. Davis asserts that, because the oath ends with “so help me God,” her obligation to uphold God’s law or moral law takes precedence over her responsibility to uphold civil law. But as constitutional law scholar Noah Feldman observes,

Whom you swear the oath by is different from what you swear to do. Officials in the U.S. definitively don’t swear to uphold God’s law. They swear to uphold the Constitution, which never mentions God at all. And they swear to uphold laws enacted under the Constitution -- which means laws that are in compliance with the establishment clause that prohibits any established or official religion (“What the Oath of Office Means to a Kentucky Clerk,” bloombergview.com, September 3, 2015).

As Feldman also notes, if Davis believes that her religious convictions prevent her from upholding the duties of her office, she has the option of resigning. He says, “Given Davis’s statement of faith that it would violate her interpretation of God’s will to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple, she should quit her position as county clerk. Indeed, she must -- or she’d be living in a position of hypocritical sin.”

So that’s another difference between the two situations: Davis took an oath to uphold the law while the apostles didn’t.

For a third and final thing, the Sanhedrin tried to bar the apostles from bearing witness to their faith, but no one has prohibited Davis from bearing witness to hers outside her role as an elected government official. As a matter of fact, she very publicly proclaimed her faith and preached her message immediately following her release from jail. No authority tried to stop her and no one tried to put her back in her cell for speaking out.

Those are the three differences between the situation in our text and the situation in Rowan County, Kentucky of which I think we need to be aware. There are others of which I have not thought. My point in raising those three is to caution us about drawing a straight line between the apostles in first century Israel and a county clerk in 2015 America. There is a lot of time, a lot of change, and a lot of difference between the apostles’ “We must obey God rather than human authority” and Kim Davis’ “On God’s authority.”

The scenario offers us an excellent opportunity to think about the ways in which we read, understand, and apply the Bible to contemporary situations. The two are connected, but the lines between them are not always straight and easy to follow . . .

[An earlier and longer version of this post appeared at Coracle, the blog of NextSunday Resources, on September 15, 2015.]

Friday, September 18, 2015

Brothers and Sisters

I’m writing these words on September 8, the date on which, in 1973, just a few days before my fifteenth birthday, the Allman Brothers Band’s Brothers and Sisters claimed the #1 spot on the Billboard album chart. It was the first and only time in their long history that the Brothers had a #1 album. It was also the first Allman Brothers album I owned, so I was a little late to the party. They had already released their eponymous debut (1969), their second album Idlewild South (1970), the now legendary live album At Fillmore East (1971), and the tragic (Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon before the album was completed) Eat a Peach (1972).

I played Brothers and Sisters so much I’m surprised I didn’t wear the grooves out. (Perhaps I should explain for my younger readers that albums once were round, had a hole in the middle, were made of vinyl, and were played on these things called “record players” that somehow extracted the sound from the record by having a needle run through the grooves.) The hit single was Dicky Betts’s song “Ramblin’ Man.” I loved it. How could a boy from Barnesville not love a song that included the line “I was born in the backseat of a Greyhound bus, rollin’ down Highway 41”? I mean, the geography of my life was defined by Highway 41, which took me north and south, and by Highway 36, which took me east and west. From “Wasted Words” to “Pony Boy,” the entire album was outstanding.

The Allman Brothers Band played what they said would be their last show on October 28, 2014 at the Beacon Theatre in New York, bringing to an end a forty-five year run of their unique style of Southern blues rock. Three founding members remained: Gregg Allman and drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. Over the years, other band members have gone and come. One of the reasons that the band was able to endure was their willingness and ability to bring in new musicians who kept the old traditions alive while putting their own spin on them. Notable in that regard are guitarists Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, who, while they did not and could not replace the late Duane or the dismissed Betts, gave of their own remarkable talents to help keep the Allman Brothers Band vital and dynamic. The Brothers were never relegated to the oldies circuit because they always kept the music fresh, alive, and evolving.

Strange as it may seem, our churches could learn something important from the Allman Brothers Band: we need to develop the ability and to embrace the opportunity to grow and to change. As with the band, so with the church: some members will die and some members will leave to pursue other projects. And new members will come in who have much to contribute to our ministry. They may put a different spin on our established ways of doing things, but that can be a good thing. The Allman Brothers matured, changed, and adapted. Our churches need to do so as well.

That’s not to say that we won’t still do and say what we’ve always done and said. You would never go to an Allman Brothers’ concert and not hear “Whippin’ Post,” “Melissa,” and “Midnight Rider.” And we’ll (hopefully) never go to church without worshiping God, reading the Bible, and learning more about following Jesus. The old, old story is the old, old story. But, if we’re willing to open our minds and our hearts, we just might hear some of the old words presented in different ways. And we just might hear a very important part of the truth that we’ve never heard before.

That’s not to say it will always be easy. Some of the changes that the Allmans went through were challenging and even traumatic. But they persevered because they were committed to being the Allman Brothers Band, because they believed that the message of their music was important, and, even though only Duane and Gregg were literally siblings, the entire band was made up of, in a very real sense, brothers.

We in the church are, to use the words of that old album title, brothers and sisters. We are in this thing together. The world needs us to be faithful together to our mission of sharing the love, grace, and mercy of Christ in every way we can.

The Allman Brothers Band’s music was based in a commitment to doing Southern blues rock and doing it right. The church’s ministry is based in a commitment to loving the Lord our God with all we are and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

However we do it and however we say it, let’s offer the Lord’s love and grace to the people around us who need it so desperately. That’s the heart of our message; that’s the heart of our music; that’s the heart of our ministry.

If we’ll remember that, we can finish up with the closing line from the first track on Brothers and Sisters, “Wasted Words”: “By the way this song’s for you. Sincerely, me.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Chance

Bobby Ross Phillips died in Adel, Georgia on August 31st. I had the privilege of speaking at his memorial service on September 3rd. Chances are pretty good that neither Bobby nor Adel mean anything to you, but they both mean a lot to me. Chances are also pretty good that you’ve had someone like Bobby and someplace like Adel in your life, by which I mean that you’ve probably had somebody and somewhere that gave you a chance and, in giving you a chance, made a huge difference in your life.

It was the summer of 1986. I had just finished my Ph.D. in Old Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky; I had three degrees and no job. Well, I was working for a ministry organization in Louisville, doing some painting and yard work for elderly folks who weren’t able to do it or pay to have it done—it was actually very rewarding work—but I wasn’t working “in my field.”

One evening our telephone rang. The fellow calling identified himself as Bobby Phillips; he said he was the Chairman of the Pastor Search Committee for the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia. He went on to say that they had my resume and wondered if I might be interested in talking with them about possibly becoming their pastor. After we chatted a while, I said, “May I ask a question?” He said I could. “Where is Adel?” I asked.

It turns out that Adel is the county seat of Cook County, way down below the gnat line on I-75 about midway between Tifton and Valdosta. That committee, led by Bobby Phillips, took a chance on me and gave me my start in full-time ministry. I will forever be grateful.

There were others before Bobby and Adel, though.

There was Preacher Bill Coleman and the good folks of my home church, the Midway Baptist Church. Preacher Bill let me preach on several Wednesday nights, the first time when I was thirteen years old. Now, Preacher Bill would let anybody speak on Wednesday night who wanted to do so –he liked to brag that he once went three years without preaching on a Wednesday night—but still, how many pastors would let a young kid speak regularly from his pulpit?

There was Mr. Ralph Pharr, who gave me my first job as a sack boy at Burnette’s Thriftown grocery store, which was in the building that now houses the Dollar General Store out on Highway 341. In my three years there, I demonstrated such responsibility that I was eventually put in charge of stocking the dog food aisle. It was the shortest aisle in the store, but it was mine.

There was Rev. William L. Key who, just before I entered Mercer University in 1975, asked me to come see him. As we sat in lawn chairs in his backyard in Milner sipping iced tea, he offered me my first church job. He wanted me to be his Associate Pastor at the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church, located somewhere out between Barnesville, Thomaston, and Meansville in the Jugtown community. Preacher Key, who had retired from the full-time ministry, had been their Interim Pastor for about five years. He talked them into letting me preach once each Sunday—he and I alternated Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings. How many seventeen year olds got to preach every Sunday? I cringe when I think about what they had to listen to me say. Bless their hearts.

They’re all gone now—Preacher Key, Mr. Ralph, Preacher Bill, and Bobby. I’m still here. And they and the organizations they represented all played a huge role in my being who I am and doing what I do.

I thank God for them all. I thank God that they gave me a chance.

Who gave you a chance? Have you thanked God for them lately? If they’re still around, maybe you should thank them, too …

(This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on September 8, 2015)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

No Brag—Just Fact

The year was 1974. George Roy Hill had just won the Academy Award for Best Director for his work on the wonderful film The Sting when he received the following letter:

Dear Mr. Hill,

Seeing that ... I have seen your fantastically entertaining and award-winning film "The Sting," starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and enjoyed it very much, it is all together fitting and proper that you should "discover" me.
Now, right away I know what you are thinking ("who is this kid?"), and I can understand your apprehensions. I am a nobody. No one outside of Skyline High School has heard of me. ... My looks are not stunning. I am not built like a Greek God, and I can't even grow a mustache, but I figure if people will pay to see certain films ... they will pay to see me.
Let's work out the details of my discovery. We can do it the way Lana Turner was discovered, me sitting on a soda shop stool, you walk in and notice me and — BANGO — I am a star.
Or maybe we can do it this way. I stumble into your office one day and beg for a job. To get rid of me, you give me a stand-in part in your next film. While shooting the film, the star breaks his leg in the dressing room, and, because you are behind schedule already, you arbitrarily place me in his part and — BANGO — I am a star.
All of these plans are fine with me, or we could do it any way you would like, it makes no difference to me! But let's get one thing straight. Mr. Hill, I do not want to be some bigtime, Hollywood superstar with girls crawling all over me, just a hometown American boy who has hit the big-time, owns a Porsche, and calls Robert Redford "Bob".

Respectfully submitted,

Your Pal Forever,
Thomas J. Hanks
Alameda, California


Yep, the writer of the letter was Tom Hanks—that Tom Hanks—who was at the time an eighteen-year old high school senior. I don’t know how he actually was discovered, but he was, and the rest, as they say, is history; he has starred in Forrest Gump, Castaway, Captain Phillips, Big, Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, Sleepless in Seattle, Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code, and, in the television role that made him a star, Bosom Buddies. The kid had chutzpah, a Yiddish word that, translated into Southern, means “That’s who I am, and y’all can like it or lump it!”

As my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, never tired of saying, “He that tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooteth for him!” Clearly, Hanks had something to toot about. As Walter Brennan’s character in the 1960s Western series The Guns of Will Sonnett, would say after describing his skill with a gun, it was “No brag—just fact!”

Strength of character and self-esteem are desirable traits in a person. It’s good to be self-aware enough to know who you are and self-confident enough to put yourself out there.

But it’s also good to be self-critical enough to understand your limitations and self-effacing enough to be willing to be in the background and not in the spotlight. Tom Hanks is a star, but I think he would tell you that he couldn’t do what he does without all the people who work behind the scenes to make a film.

To be a Christian requires a great deal of humility. After all, to put your trust in God is to confess that you can’t make it on your own and that you must have the help of someone who is better and stronger than you’ll ever be. Paradoxically, to grow as a Christian is to become simultaneously more confident and more humble. As we come to know Christ better and as we grow to know ourselves better, we become stronger and stronger. But that strength leads us to become weaker and weaker; that is, our strength in Christ becomes a basis from which we choose to give ourselves away, to serve, and to love. We know that God loves us and that our calling is to give that love away.

It may be that too many of us are afflicted by Ken-L Ration Syndrome. Do you remember those commercials? “My dog’s better than your dog, my dog’s better than yours. My dog’s better ‘cause he eats Ken-L Ration; my dog’s better than yours!” Maybe too many of us sing that song but substitute “my church” or “my faith” for “my dog” and “’cause we/I follow Jesus better …”

It’s natural for us to want to be discovered. It’s human for us to want to be successful.

But we’ve already been discovered by God. We’ve already been found by Jesus. We’ve already been blessed by God’s love and grace.

We become who we’re supposed to be when we discover how much God loves everybody else and when we discover how much we have to give.

If we would humble ourselves before God and before each other, we could do a lot more good than we’re doing.

That’s no brag. It’s just fact.

(First appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on August 25, 2015)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

You Never Know

Two men who were very important to me during my growing up years died on Monday, July 20, 2015.

During my growing up years, though, I didn’t know that either of them even existed. I first learned the name of one of them a couple of years ago. I never heard of the other one until his death was announced.

Despite their anonymity to me, they helped to form and shape my life.

Allow me to explain.

The first episode of American Bandstand that I remember watching was either at the end of 1967 or the beginning of 1968. Whichever it was, I was nine years old. The Top Ten countdown was a regular feature of the show. On this particular Saturday, Dick Clark was counting down the Top Ten songs of 1967. When he pulled that piece of cardboard away to reveal the #1 song of 1967, the one he uncovered was “The Letter” by the Box Tops. They played it, and the kids danced.

“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane; ain’t got time to catch a fast train. Lonely days are gone; I’m a-goin’ home. My baby just-a wrote me a letter.”

I was mesmerized. One day many, many years later I heard somewhere that the lead singer for the Box Tops was only sixteen when they recorded the song. Curious, I Googled the band and found out that the singer’s name was Alex Chilton, who later was a founding member of Big Star, one of the most influential rock bands of which you’ve probably never heard.

Chilton died a few years ago. It was the man who wrote the song who died on July 20 of this year. His name was Wayne Carson. Carson not only wrote “The Letter,” which was one of the first rock and roll songs to grab my attention; he also wrote two other hits for the Box Tops, “Neon Rainbow” and “Soul Deep,” the latter of which has in my later years become my favorite Box Tops song.

Country music fans will know one of his other songs, a little number called “Always on My Mind” that’s been recorded by singers ranging from Brenda Lee to Elvis to Pet Shop Boys. The best known version, though, is Willie Nelson’s 1982 rendition, a beautiful record that won Carson Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Country Song.

I discovered comic books before I found rock music. My favorite was Spider-Man, but when I wanted to fantasize about what it would be like to be a teenager, I read the Archie comics. Archie Andrews was a cool teenager who hung out with his cool teenage friends Jughead, Veronica, Betty, and Reggie. As I followed the adventures of Archie and his pals, I imagined myself having the same kind of fun that they had. “Who knows,” I thought, “I might even be in a band as good as The Archies.”

Well, it didn’t work out exactly that way, but Archie and his friends gave me hope, which is something a boy entering puberty really needs.
One of the main artists responsible for the Archie comics was Tom Moore, who also died on July 20 of this year. Moore worked on them off and on from the 1950s until he retired in the 1980s. I didn’t know who he was until I heard a news report about him after he died.

Wayne Carson and Tom Moore didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. They never knew I existed and I barely knew they did. And yet they were instrumental in helping me navigate my late childhood and early adolescence. I knew the Box Tops and Archie spoke to me. I didn’t know that Wayne Carson and Tom Moore were speaking through them.

I’m glad I know their names now so I can give thanks to God for them, because I believe that God worked through them to help me and lots of other kids survive the trials of growing up.

You never know how someone you don’t even know is helping you.

You never know how you might be helping someone you don’t even know.

People of faith should assume that God is working through us to help others, whether we are aware of it or not. It stands to reason, then, that we should do the best we can do at what we do. Something we do or say or make just might stay with someone for the rest of her or his life.
As for me, after all these years, my love is still a river running soul deep.

And everything’s still Archie …

(This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Thomaston (GA) Times on August 14, 2015)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Top Ten Slogans for a Pecan National Advertising Campaign

I heard a Georgia Public Broadcasting story on August 12 about pecan growers wanting a national advertising campaign. They said they needed a slogan. So I'd like to offer the following suggestions.

Top Ten Slogans for a Pecan National Advertising Campaign

10. Pecans—neither a pea nor a can.

9. Pecans—their taste is piquant!

8. Pecans—the only nut with three pronunciations.

7. Pecans—because who ever heard of a peanut pie?

6. Pecans—it’s the other other white meat.

5. Pecans—because almonds come from California.

4. Pecans—squirrels eat ‘em; why don’t you?

3. Pecans—Donald Trump loves ‘em!

2. Pecans—they taste great, unless some of that stuff that separates the two pieces of meat inside the shell gets mixed in with them, which tastes real bitter and ruins the experience. So don’t do that. And don't blame us if you do.

1. Pecans—don't say "Pecan't." Say "Pecan!"

Come Together

Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the graduation of my class at Lamar County High School in Barnesville, Georgia, the Class of 1976. 1975-76 was the first year classes were held at the “new” high school, so we were the first class to graduate from there.

I wasn’t there, though. Well, I was there for our graduation, but I wasn’t there for our senior year.

To explain why I skipped my senior year would take way too many words. The short version is that I only needed three classes to graduate, LCHS agreed to give me credit for my first three college courses (am I the only person ever to graduate from there with credit for Greek and Introduction to the Old Testament?), and Mercer University welcomed me with open arms. So off I went.

But I came back to graduate with my class. I was the Valedictorian. It was kind of awkward.

So far as I know, our class has never held a reunion. I think that’s sad. Or maybe we’ve had reunions but I’ve never been invited. That would be sadder.

It’s not hard to understand why we’ve never had a reunion. We never really meshed.

The integration and consolidation of the Lamar County Schools happened in 1970. I had spent my first six years of formal education attending Gordon Grammar School. When our schools were integrated racially, they were segregated by gender. So we seventh grade boys were sent to what had been the Booker T. Washington School while the seventh grade girls were sent to Milner. Several of my Gordon Grammar classmates, most of whom I had gone to school with for all of those first six years, went to private schools. I never saw some of them again.

So there we were, a bunch of boys thrown together in one place and a bunch of girls thrown together in another place. And it wasn’t just that the black kids and white kids didn’t know each other; it was also that we white kids from Gordon (there had been a few African-American kids at Gordon; I remember Faye Barrett and Mike Wimbish from my class with much fondness) and the white kids who had attended the schools at Aldora and Milner didn’t know each other.

Well, things were like that through my class’s tenth grade year. Meanwhile, a bond issue had been approved and a new high school—one that would house boys and girls, hallelujah—was scheduled to open in 1975. So they decided to put the boys and girls back together in 1974. I guess they wanted us to deal with the hormonal and social trauma before we moved to the new school. So for one year we were all together at the Forsyth Road School (how nostalgic does that sound? I wish they had kept the Booker name) and then for one year they—like I said, I was gone—spent a year together out at 1 Trojan Way.

So you can see why we didn’t mesh too well.

I’d like to see us have a forty year reunion. I’d go. Maybe we’d mesh now. Better late than never, you know.

Had we known then what we know now, maybe we’d have done better together. We could have learned so much from each other. We could have celebrated our common humanity while still appreciating our cultural and personal differences. We could have been interested in each other rather than suspicious of each other. We could have been friends rather than acquaintances. We could have celebrated that we were now all Trojans while appreciating that we were once Bulldogs and Falcons and Tigers.

Church folks could learn from all of this. I guess denominations are necessary; I know that there are historical, theological, and social reasons that so many of them exist. It’s still troublesome, though, that our churches are pretty much segregated by race (we have “black churches” and “white churches”), by economic status (“blue collar” and “white collar”), and by mindset (“conservative,” “liberal,” “moderate,” and “fundamentalist”).

“Has Christ been divided?” the Apostle Paul once asked (1 Corinthians 1:13). His answer was “No”; evidently ours is “Yes,” given that the Church, which is the body of Christ in the world, has so many divisions.

There’s an old joke about a man dying and going to heaven. St. Peter is giving him the tour. They walk by one room from which loud singing and praising is coming. When the man asks Peter who’s in there, he replies, “That’s the Pentecostals.” They walk by another room from which they hear much reading in unison. “That’s the Catholics,” Peter explains. Then he says, “Now, let’s be very quiet walking by this next room. The Baptists are in there, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

I appreciate my Baptist heritage. But I appreciate even more the unity that all Christians have in Christ. I consider myself a Christian minister operating in the Baptist tradition. I am grateful that I was baptized at the Midway Baptist Church, but I am even more grateful that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).

When we all get to heaven, we’ll all be in heaven. We might as well come together down here. We need the practice.

(This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on August 11, 2015)