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)