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]