Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Going to Church with Dusty Rhodes

I would have liked to have gone to church with Dusty Rhodes.

I never have, though, and now I never will. Dusty died on June 11 at age 69.

I stopped watching professional wrestling a good many years ago when I realized there was better fiction available elsewhere. But during my growing up years I stayed up late on Saturday nights to watch Georgia Championship Wrestling on Atlanta’s Channel 11. And if at all possible I was also in front of our 19 inch black and white television on Saturday afternoons to watch the card that was beamed to us from Columbus; I can still hear promoter Fred Ward telling shut-ins that he hoped they would be “up and at ‘em real, real soon.” My favorite wrestlers during those years were Joe Scarpa, who later became known as Chief Jay Strongbow (and who also died recently) and El Mongol, who was billed as being from Mongolia but was actually Mexican. I guess El Mexol wouldn’t have sounded right.

But the Golden Age of professional wrestling, as far as I’m concerned, was the 1980s, when Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair were in their prime and were fierce rivals in the NWA/WCW whose flagship program was on WTBS in Atlanta. The two showmen couldn’t have been more different; Flair, the “Nature Boy,” was the self-described “stylin', profilin', limousine riding, jet flying, kiss-stealing, wheelin' n' dealin' son of a gun,” while Rhodes, “the plumber’s son,” was a common man in his blue jeans, cowboy boots, and trucker’s cap.

Rhodes seemed more like one of us than a lot of the other characters who populated the pro wrestling roster. While he had tremendous athletic skills, he didn’t have the chiseled physique that many wrestlers possessed. Rhodes looked like a guy who had eaten a lot of barbecue and had drunk a lot of beer. His self-descriptions to the contrary, he wasn’t pretty; in fact, his forehead was a mass of scar tissue resulting from the many times he had been cut in the ring. His willingness to bleed for the sake of the show was another reason that we related to him; in the real world, we also bled, if metaphorically, in order to do our jobs and to earn our place in the world.

To put it simply, Dusty Rhodes was real. His character seemed to draw on who he really was. He was flawed and imperfect but he persevered until he made it to the top, ultimately becoming a three-time world champion. And he seemed to understand what it was to be a real, struggling, working American. That empathy came through in the legendary 1985 “Hard Times” promotion for the upcoming event Starrcade ’85, an interview in which Dusty talked about Flair, who had inflicted an injury on him that had put him out of commission for a while.

He put hard times on Dusty Rhodes and his family. You don’t know what hard times are, daddy. Hard times are when the textile workers around this country are out of work, they got 4 or 5 kids and can’t pay their wages, can’t buy their food. Hard times are when the auto workers are out of work and they tell ‘em to go home. And hard times are when a man has worked at a job for thirty years, thirty years, and they give him a watch, kick him in the butt and say “hey a computer took your place, daddy,” that’s hard times!

Dusty Rhodes was the American Dream because he personified that dream. He made us believe that those who worked in textile mills or in other blue collar places of employment—or who were the children of blue collar workers (I was one of those)—could make it, too. And he made us believe it by being himself.

One of my classmates at Gordon Grammar School in the late ‘60s was a pretty blonde named Tammy Murphy—whatever happened to her?—and Tammy could sing. Sometimes Mrs. Tenney and Mrs. Fambro would make her—I put it that way because it looked to me like she wasn’t crazy about doing it—stand in the doorway that connected their fourth grade classrooms and sing for us. When we’d go on field trips, they’d compel her to lead us in singing a call and response song where we’d repeat what she sang.

Oh, you can’t get to heaven (oh, you can’t get to heaven)
On powder and paint (on powder and paint)
‘Cause the Lord don’t want (‘cause the Lord don’t want)
You like you ain’t (you like you ain’t).

Lord knows, though, that a lot of us spend a lot of time trying to be who we ain’t.

Dusty didn’t try to be who he wasn’t. He was just who he was.

And that’s why I wish I could have gone to church with him.

A friend of mine who has been facing some problems told me the other day that he needed a church where people would just be who they really are, with all of their hurts, faults, and struggles. He said that he had an issue with the way that church folks try to mask their true selves and pretend that they’re better than they are. He needed them to be genuine, he said, “because I need to be able to be myself at church.”

Maybe having Dusty sitting in the pew would have helped us to remember that.

After all—and Dusty didn’t say this, although it sounds like something he might have said—church is not about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; it’s about helping us be the best sow’s ears we can be.

(This article first appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette on June 23, 2015)

Monday, June 22, 2015


On the one hand, I live in Yatesville, Georgia, and so I live in the country. On the other hand, I live on Highway 74, which is a pretty busy road. Big trucks are especially fond of travelling on it; I’m told that most of them are on their way to or from the ports on the Georgia coast.

Cars and trucks zoom by frequently and some of them are pretty loud. But after a month and a half of living there, I hardly hear them anymore.
There’s a psychological term for that phenomenon—it’s called “habituation.” Habituation occurs when you develop a decreased response to a regularly occurring stimulus. In other words, you get used to it. I don’t hear the trucks because my brain has adjusted to the regularity of their roars. The sound is still there; it’s just that for me, it’s become background noise. It’s a helpful adaptation that allows you to concentrate on what’s important without being distracted.

But habituation can be a hurtful development in some areas of our life, particularly if we are unaware that we have become habituated. And sometimes we become habituated to things to which we really ought not become habituated.

So, for example, habituation can harm our relationships. It’s especially true of the ones we have with our family members and it’s extra especially true of the ones we have with those family members with whom we share a home. We see them every day and so we grow accustomed to their presence. If we’re not careful, they’ll become like the furniture—they’re there and they play a useful purpose, but that’s about it. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but it sure can produce apathy. Sadly, many of us have become so habituated to our family members that we take them for granted.

We need to work at keeping our family members in the foreground of our consciousness. We should engage them in regular conversation; we should find out what they think and feel and then take their thoughts and feelings seriously. It is a rare privilege to get to know someone personally and intimately; we need to take full advantage of the opportunity.

Habituation can also lessen our compassion. Our world is filled with people who have tremendous needs. Some of those people are on the other side of the world, some on the other side of the country, some on the other side of town, and some on the other side of the room. But we’ve heard so much about all the problems in the world that it’s easy for us to regard such reports as background noise; it’s always there and so we learn to tune it out so we can concentrate on whatever we regard as more pressing. Besides, we all have our own problems, too, and sometimes we don’t pay attention to other people’s pain because it’s all we can do, we tell ourselves, to bear our own.

Think, though, of how much healthier and stronger the world could be if we all cared about each other’s struggles and suffering. Think about how much lighter everyone’s burden would be if we joined together in carrying them rather than letting everybody sink or swim on their own. The first step, though, is to let the needs of the world move to the front of our consciousness. Once we look and listen, then we can do what we can to help. We become less than human when we stop paying attention to each other’s needs.

Habituation can also stunt our spirituality. Many of us have heard about God for our whole lives; some of us have gone to church from the time we were infants. But have talk about God and the worship of God become background noise to us? Worse—and it is much worse if it is the case—have we become habituated to the whispering of God’s Spirit in our spirits and to the prodding of God’s love in our hearts? Have we come to take God for granted?

If we are going to have a growing relationship with God, we must keep our lives open to the presence of God. How do we do that? Well, the first thing we need to do is to take God seriously. And we take God seriously by keeping God first and foremost in our consciousness; we take God seriously by actively and purposefully thinking about God. But we need to go deeper than thinking; we need to engage in communion and communication with God. We do that by praying, by pouring our hearts out to God and by opening our hearts up to whatever God wants to say to us.

Let’s not let habituation stop us from relating fully and freely to our loved ones, to our fellow people, and to our God. They deserve our full attention.

(First appeared in "Ruffin's Renderings" in the Thomaston (GA) Times on June 19, 2015)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Last Time I Saw Dallas

I’ll be going to Dallas, Texas next week to represent Smyth & Helwys Publishing at the General Assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). I’m looking forward to it. They’re my people.

The upcoming trip has put me in mind of the last time I saw Dallas.

It was June, 1984. I was attending my first Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) meeting. Had I had any sense, it would have been my last. I didn’t, though, and so it wasn’t. I toughed it out until 1991 (which was longer than most of my like-minded sisters and brothers) at which time I said, “If I want to feel like that I can call up Don Rickles and ask him to tell me what he thinks of me.” At least that would have been funny as well as painful.

The 1984 convention was the one at which I was joined by 45,000 of my closest friends, or, more accurately, about 22,000 of my closest friends and 23,000 of my bitterest enemies. (I didn’t want them to be my enemies, but they wanted me and those who thought kinda sorta like me to be theirs, so there you go.)

It was also the meeting at which one of the oddest (not to mention most desperate and cynical) parliamentary decisions I ever saw made was made. We had voted to do something late on Wednesday afternoon; “our side” had actually prevailed in the vote. When we came back after supper, the President (who was on “their side”) ruled that we couldn’t do what we had done and since we couldn’t do what we had done, we hadn’t done it. Folks were hollering “Point of Order” so loud that people in Arlington must have heard them, but it didn’t matter. The President had spoken.

I got to Dallas on a bus that was provided by the good folks at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where I was two years into my work on a Ph.D. in Old Testament. Now, don’t hear that wrong; we had to pay to ride but the seminary made the arrangements. I made my reservation in the office of a young assistant to the President of the Seminary. That assistant, rather ironically, later became and remains a shining light on “their side.” Go figure.

For the price of admission, I got to ride on a crowded charter bus and to sleep in a small motel room with four other seminary students that I barely knew, and to ride the bus between the motel and the convention center.

A fun time was had by all.

But that’s not what I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about the Yellow Roses of Kentucky.

I was in Dallas on June 10, and June 10, 1984 was the sixth anniversary of my marriage to Debra Kay Johnson. Our son Joshua, our first child, had been born on February 21 of that year. So there I was, miserable, irritated, frustrated, and just generally fed up, and also 800+ miles away from my wife on our wedding anniversary.

Then I had an idea. How cool would it be to send Debra a dozen yellow roses (her favorite) from Dallas, Texas? They’d be Yellow Roses of Texas! I mean, how much more romantic could one nerdy graduate student get?

So I went to a pay phone, called up a local florist, and placed my order. “That’ll be $45.00,” the nice lady said.

I swallowed hard. We weren’t exactly rolling in money in those days. But I gave her my credit card number and hung up the phone, wondering whether Debra’s response would be weighted more on the “You’re so sweet!” or the “I can’t believe you spent that much money!” side.

Later—I don’t know how much later—it dawned on me that the Dallas florist called a Louisville florist and had them deliver the flowers.

So for our sixth wedding anniversary, my Good Wife received a dozen Yellow Roses of Kentucky.

I guess it’s the thought that counts.

Besides, I got a lot more for that $45.00 than I did out of whatever I paid to ride that bus . . .

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

For the Team

It was the summer of 1971 and the Thomaston Little League All-Stars were playing the Barnesville Little League All-Stars in the first round of the regional tournament in Griffin. It had been a good year for me—the only good year I ever had in my very limited athletic career. I had played on a good team with good friends and I had won the Barnesville league’s batting championship. I still have that trophy even though the inscription says that I had the Best Batting Avenue—they used “Ave.” rather than “Avg.” as the abbreviation for “Average.”

So there I was, starting in right field for the Barnesville All-Stars and feeling mighty nervous about it. One reason I was nervous was that I wasn’t a very good outfielder. I had been the first baseman for the Mets during the regular season but our All-Star team manager, who was the manager of our rivals the Cardinals, decided early on during our practices to play their first baseman there. On the day that I realized that the decision had been made, I complained to my father about it, expecting him to support me, maybe even to the point of speaking to our manager about it. But instead he just looked at me kind of sideways and said, “It looks to me like you ought to be grateful to be playing right field.”

I was also nervous because I assumed that the Thomaston team was of a higher quality than our team. I was right about that. Going into the sixth and final inning they had the game well in hand, leading us 9-0.

So I found myself in a pretty hopeless situation as I stepped into the batter’s box in the last inning with nobody on and nobody out. I was 0 for 1 at that point with a weak line out to the pitcher and a walk to show for my offensive efforts. The pitcher threw a fastball that came in just below my knees; I found it hard to lay off such pitches and I had no luck doing so that time. I went down and got it, immediately realizing that I had gotten under it and had hit it high in the air. I figured it was a popup to the second baseman but I wasn’t sure so I put my head down and started running like I was supposed to do.

Then I heard cheers. I looked up just in time to see the ball land several feet beyond the centerfield fence. I—scrawny, bespectacled, and nerdy Mike Ruffin—had hit a home run for the Barnesville Little League against the Thomaston All-Stars in the regional tournament! I trotted around the bases feeling pretty good about myself.

Later, my mother would tell me that someone sitting behind her said, “Look at him grinning!” What can I say? I was happy. After all, I had imagined myself hitting a home run in such a setting for a long time. But when I imagined it, my team was trailing by three runs and I hit a walk-off grand slam to give us a miraculous win.

We didn’t come all the way back against Thomaston, though. Our next batter also hit a home run but that was all we got; we lost the game 9-2.

I don’t regret the grin I wore as I circled the bases. After all, it’s not like I pumped my fist or showed off in some other inappropriate way; besides, I was twelve years old. But we all know that it’s nice to do well as an individual. It’s perfectly fine to feel good about yourself when you accomplish something worthwhile in an honorable way and it’s perfectly fine to celebrate such an accomplishment. I believe that God celebrates with us when we make good use of the abilities that God has given us.

Still, I would have enjoyed it so much more had my home run contributed to a win by our team. It’s great to do well as an individual, but it’s even better to do well as a team. I believe that God is especially pleased when we use our gifts and abilities for the sake of and for the good of the team and when we all work together toward a common goal for the common good.

Think of how much better off our various communities—our family communities, our faith communities, our neighborhood communities, and our work communities—would be if we would all put more emphasis on the team and less on ourselves.

To be fair, though, I think that my Barnesville Little League team did its best on that day in 1971.

The boys from Thomaston were just better.

[This post first appeared as a column in the Thomaston Times, which is publishing my bi-monthly religion column "Ruffin's Renderings."]