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)