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]