Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sing We Now of Christmas

Today is the fourth day of Christmas. Did you receive four calling birds? If not, you might want to consider just how true your “true love” is.

If you’re like me (admit it: you just said, “Not likely!), you were a grown human being before you learned that there really are twelve days of Christmas. For the first two decades of my life, I thought it was just one of the worst Christmas songs ever written.

It’s not the worst one, though, not by a long shot.

The worst Christmas song of all time is (with all due respect to the recently deceased and greatly lamented George Michael) “Last Christmas” by Wham!. Every time I hear it, I want to wham, bam, and slam the radio. The lyrics don’t make sense. “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart. The very next day, you gave it away.” Please. Everybody knows that you don’t give away a gift on the day after Christmas day. You go stand in a long customer service line to exchange it.

By the way, just in case you’re wondering, the second worst Christmas song of all time is “Step into Christmas” by Elton John. It makes me want to step away from Christmas, and from whatever device is inflicting that silly song on me. 

The third worst Christmas song—and it really pains me to say this, because I respect him so much—is “Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney. Luckily, “horrible” has the same number of syllables as “wonderful,” so I can sing it in a way that fits the mood it puts me in.

(I should note that I recently read two articles that explained why “Last Christmas” and “Wonderful Christmas Time” are great Christmas songs. The authors know much more about such things than I do. They’re also wrong.)

I like all of the church’s Christmas songs. I do think one of them is misleading, though. I mean, think about it. “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes; but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Come on, tell the truth. We should sing, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes; and little Lord Jesus screams his little head off until he gets changed and fed, because he was a real baby, and that’s what real babies do.”

Besides, he’s in a stable. With smelly animals. I’m telling you, he made some crying.

But enough with the negativity. Let me tell you about my favorite Christmas song: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the words during the War Between the States. They speak to my spirit every year.

It begins,

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

This Christmas, I confess to spending considerable time giving in to the mood of the next-to-last stanza:

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

But I also affirm that I believe in the affirmation of the final verse:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Let it be, dear Lord. Let it be …

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Back to Egypt

After a few centuries of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were free.

They were in the wilderness, but they were free.

They were hungry and thirsty, but they were free.

They weren’t sure what the future held, but they were free.

They had many obstacles to overcome, but they were free.

They had a lot to work out and a lot to work on, but they were free.

It was worth it all, because they were free.

It was worth it all, that is, until it wasn’t.

So one day they said to Moses, “We want to go back to Egypt.” They said it because they had decided, after a very brief experiment in freedom, that slavery was easier.

They had decided that going backward was easier than going forward.

They had decided that the security of despotism was easier than the risk of liberty.

But they didn’t get to go back. That wasn’t possible. And they didn’t get to go forward, either.

They had to stay stuck where they were, until their fearful hearts gave out and their regressive minds shut down.

The only ones who got to go forward were those who believed in the possibilities of the future so much that they didn't allow the obstacles of the present to cause them to remember the past with a fondness it didn't deserve. 

Oh, and the children—the children of those who wanted to go back got to go forward, too. They got to experience the good future that their parents wanted to run away from. Their parents could have led them in, but they had too little hope, too little trust, and too little imagination.

Oh well. It’s just an old Bible story …

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Very Merry (and Mature) Christmas

When I was a boy, Christmas morning was fantastic.

It was also fantastically confusing. 

It was fantastic because I’d get just about everything on my list. I think the only reason I didn’t get everything is that it was an embarrassingly long list. Santa Claus was better to me than he should have been. But hey, it wasn’t my fault that I was an only child.

So I’d get a lot of stuff. It was fantastic.

My parents enjoyed watching me enjoying my haul. They’d also give each other a present. They’d give each other one present. And they’d seem so happy.

That was what I found fantastically confusing. Mama and Daddy would get so little, and yet they’d be so happy. It befuddled me.

I eventually asked Daddy why they didn’t get more for Christmas. “Oh,” he said, “you get to a place in life where it means more to you to give than it does to get.” Then he added, “You’ll understand one day.”

My parents were always saying things like that. I confess that I doubted them when they did. How could I expect to understand something that made no sense? How could a person ever get more pleasure out of giving than out of getting?

I’m not sure when it happened—my guess would be it was when my Good Wife and I had children— but at some point, I stopped caring much about what I was going to get for Christmas. At some later point, I stopped caring about getting anything for Christmas.

Now, don’t hear that wrong. I am very grateful for the gifts my loved ones bestow on me, mainly because I know they give them to me because they love me. Still, if for some reason I didn’t get anything for Christmas, it wouldn’t matter.

But if I couldn’t give my wife and children and children-in-law anything, that would break my heart. 

I reckon it has something to do with maturity. I guess you finally grow up enough that you’d rather give than receive.

I reckon that also explains why people who have been Christians for decades and who have been growing in the grace and love of the Lord for just about all their lives are always the least selfish and most selfless people you ever encounter. I suppose that’s why they always think about others first and about themselves last. I guess that’s why they’d rather stand up for others than defend themselves.

It all comes with maturity.

I reckon …

Thursday, December 1, 2016

When a Miracle Needs a Hand

When I was a boy, I considered CBS’s broadcast of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer to be the official kickoff of the Christmas season. I loved watching it, emotional roller coaster though it was. 

Tears filled my eyes when Rudolph’s fake nose, which his father, Donner—who was a disgrace to fatherhood—forced him to wear, came off and the other reindeer kids laughed at his shiny sniffer. Righteous indignation stirred my spirit when Comet—who was a disgrace to the coaching profession— announced that Rudolph, just because he was different, wouldn’t be allowed to join in any reindeer games. Hope washed over bucktoothed, near-sighted, scrawny me when Clarice said she thought Rudolph had a handsome nose. 

And don’t get me started on the resurrection of Yukon Cornelius or on Santa having to ask Rudolph to save Christmas—speaking of which, Rudy is a much-needed model of how to be a gracious winner. 

But I don’t want to talk about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

I want to talk about ’Twas the Night before Christmas—not the poem, but the 1974 Rankin-Bass cartoon. 

That Christmas classic, set in the town of Junctionville, New York, tells the tale of a brilliant young mouse named Albert who, by writing an anonymous letter to the local paper saying that everyone knows there’s no Santa Claus, causes the jolly old elf to mark the town off his Christmas Eve itinerary. The townspeople are naturally desperate to get Santa to change his mind. The town’s clockmaker, Joshua Trundle, to whom Albert’s father (Father Mouse, naturally) serves as a mouse assistant—because of course he does—comes up with a plan to build a clock that will play a special song for Santa so that, when he flies by and hears it, he’ll know the town has repented and will bring the gifts.

But Albert—remember Albert?—curious to see how the clock works, ends up breaking it. All seems lost. Albert sets himself to repairing the clock. At this point, Albert sings a song to his father. It goes like this:

Miracles happen most ev'ry day
To people like you and me,
But don't expect a miracle
Unless you help make it to be, so...

You hope and I'll hurry,
You pray and I'll plan
We'll do what's necessary 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand

You love and I'll labor,
You sit and I'll stand
Get help from our next-door neighbor 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand

We'll help our Maker to make our dreams come true,
But I can't do it alone, so here's what we're gonna do

You hope and I'll hurry,
You pray and I'll plan
We'll do what's necessary 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand

We'll help our Maker to make our dreams come true,
But we can't do it alone, so what are we gonna do?

You wish and I'll whittle
You drip while I dry
Let's all try to help a little 'cause
Even a miracle needs a hand.

Even a miracle needs a hand.

I thought about those words during the recent presidential election, during which I felt compelled to speak out against one of the candidates. Some of my Christian friends, concerned for me because of the amount of concern I was exhibiting about the election, reminded me that, no matter what happened, God would still be on God’s throne. 

I certainly affirm that. Remembering it provides proper perspective. We have to have faith.

But on the other hand, as the Bible says, God helps those who help themselves (Hezekiah 3:2). 

Okay, that’s not in the Bible, but there’s still some truth to it. Biblically speaking, there’s more truth to the statement, “God helps those who can’t help themselves.” Often, when there’s nothing else we can do, we find God doing something. It’s called grace.

Still, God does choose to work through people. God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt, but God used Moses to do it. The Son of God came into the world, but he came through Mary. God saved me, but God worked through the good people of the Midway Baptist Church to move me in that direction.

Is it saying too much to say that God needs us? Maybe. I’m not sure. But I am sure that God chooses to work with and through us to accomplish God’s will and to fulfill God’s purposes.

Sometimes, even a miracle needs a hand.

Sometimes, our cooperation and participation amount to a miracle.

I was pastor of a small rural church in Kentucky during my seminary years. One Sunday, after I preached on John’s version of the story about Jesus feeding the multitude (John 6:1-14)—that’s the version that has the boy share his five loaves and two fish—a church member said, “Do you know what one of our former pastors said about that story?” Now, that church had used seminary students as pastors for decades, so they had been subjected to all sorts of experiments. “What did he say?” I asked. “He said he believed that what happened was that when that boy shared his lunch, it inspired lots of other people in the crowd to share theirs, and that’s how Jesus fed everybody in the crowd.”

Now, that’s not what the story says. But I kind of wish it was.

I mean, getting people to share freely with those who are in need? That’d be a bigger miracle than the one Jesus pulled off.

So, when we ask God to help the poor, the hungry, the outcast, the marginalized, and the vulnerable—and we do, don’t we?—we need to listen for what God wants us to do.

After all, sometimes, even a miracle needs a hand. Or maybe even many hands …

Monday, November 28, 2016

No One Wants to Know

I like to cite the great prophets, among whom Kris Kristofferson is included.

Lately—I think out of desperation—I’ve been drawn back to his song “To Beat the Devil.” 

It tells of a down-on-his-luck Nashville troubadour who, thirsty for whiskey and hungry for beans, carries his guitar into a Music Row tavern, where he encounters an old man sitting at the bar. After observing that the singer has chosen a tough life, the old guy sings him a song:

If you waste your time a talking 
to the people who don't listen
to the things that you are saying
who do you think’s gonna hear?
And if you should die explaining how
the things that they complain about
are things they could be changing
who do you think’s gonna care?
There were other lonely singers
in a world turned deaf and blind
who were crucified for what they tried to show.
And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time
‘cause the truth remains that no one wants to know.

One might say that the old man’s words were less than encouraging. Is it really true that no one wants to know? I sometimes wonder.

I’ve been privileged to study, teach, preach, write about, and try to follow the ways of Jesus Christ for a long time. Sometimes I get discouraged, because it seems that no one wants to know. It’s not surprising that non-Christians don’t want to know, but it’s downright shocking that so many Christians seem not to want to know. 

Maybe it’s because the world has had more influence on us than we’ve had on the world. Maybe it’s because we’re more committed to capitalism than we are to Christianity. Maybe it’s because we put more stock in what the talking heads or Internet “news” sites say than we do in what Jesus says. Maybe it’s because we judge Jesus’ way to be too hard. Maybe it’s because we’ve heard so much non-Christian stuff presented under the “Christian” banner that we don’t recognize the real thing when we hear it.

What’s one to do? Let’s start by going back to Kristofferson’s song.

At the end of “To Beat the Devil,” the troubadour takes the words of the old man, whom he has labeled “the devil,” and turns them upside down:

And you still can hear me singing
to the people who don't listen
to the things that I am saying
praying someone's gonna hear.
And I guess I'll die explaining how
the things that they complain about
are things they could be changing
hoping someone's gonna care.
I was born a lonely singer
and I'm bound to die the same
but I've gotta feed the hunger in my soul.
And if I never have a nickel
I won't ever die ashamed
‘cause I don't believe that no one wants to know.

Amen, Brother Kris. I don’t believe it, either.

You kept on singing.

I reckon I—and many more like me—will keep on talking …

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Blocking Shelves

My first job was at Burnette’s Thriftown grocery store, which was located on the outskirts of my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, in a building that now houses a Dollar General. I worked there, sacking groceries and stocking shelves, from the time I turned fourteen in 1972 until I left for college in 1975. If you’re a little older than I am, and if you lived in Lamar County back then, I probably took your groceries to your car for you.

If you tipped me, thank you. If you didn’t, I forgive you. I’ll forgive you more if you make up for it by sending a check.

When things were slow at the store, one of the things we’d do was block the shelves. We’d pull cans, jars, and boxes to the front and arrange them so that it appeared that the section was fully stocked. It gave the aisles a neat and appealing appearance, no doubt enhancing our customers’ shopping experience.

(As an aside, I’d like to say you haven’t lived until you’ve blocked the shelves on the baby food aisle. All those little jars …)

My current job—and I hope my last one—is at Smyth & Helwys Publishing, where I work as an editor. Most days, I edit. That means I sit in front of a computer, reading and editing (and sometimes rewriting) what writers have submitted.

They do let me out a few times a year, though. We exhibit our products at various meetings, and someone has to be there to talk about and sell our books. Sometimes, I’m one of the ones that get to go.

When we have no customers, we straighten the book stacks. That’s right—forty years, three degrees, and tons of experience after I left Thriftown, and I’m blocking shelves again.

Do you know who messed up the products on our shelves? Do you know who messes up the books on our tables?

People, that’s who!

People came along and took cans, jars, boxes, and bags off the Thriftown shelves and fouled up our beautiful arrangements. People come along and take books off our Smyth & Helwys tables and misalign our carefully aligned stacks.

Don’t even get me started on the people who pick something up, decide not to buy it, and then put it back someplace other than where they found it.

Monsters! Barbarians!

Anyway, in life, as in shelves, everything is nice, orderly, and pretty—until people come along.

And, as the late, great Mr. C. E. Julian never tired of reminding us in our high school history classes, “It’s been that way ever since Adam and Eve came out of the garden.”
Actually, now that I think about it, those two messed the garden up while they were still in it.

When it comes to life, I’ve given up on keeping the shelves straight. I mean, I still try to keep things together and to do what I can to contribute to an orderly world, but I’ve accepted the fact that life is about being with, knowing, and loving people.

And people, God love ‘em, make messes. Sometimes they make big messes.

But you know, Thriftown’s purpose wasn’t to have pristine shelves; it was to sell groceries. And Smyth & Helwys’s purpose isn’t to have orderly stacks; it’s to sell books.

The goal wasn’t and isn’t to build a monument; it was and is to run a business. In a business, stuff comes and stuff goes. And without people—glorious, messy, confounding, irritating, marvelous, interesting people—nothing happens, and it all goes away.


So, whether it’s in our businesses, our faith communities, or our nation, if we value blocking shelves over serving people, we’re done for …

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Institutions of Fall

There was a time when I really looked forward to the World Series.

I’ve been a Braves fan ever since they moved to Atlanta in 1966. From that year until 1990, my team never played in the Series. Oh, they won their division a couple of times and so had a shot, but they never made it. It was all right; I didn’t expect them to win the National League championship and earn a spot in the Fall Classic, so I was never disappointed.

Besides, I was a baseball fan. I watched the World Series because it was baseball’s pinnacle. Great baseball was always played; high drama was always provided. I loved baseball, so I loved the World Series.

Then something strange and wonderful happened. The Braves started winning. They started winning big. They started winning every year. Beginning with their worst-to-first season in 1991, they won fourteen consecutive division titles. They played in the World Series five times, winning it in 1995.

And I became spoiled. I found out what it was like to have MY team play in the World Series. I experienced the exhilaration and heartbreak that come from feeling like everything in the universe is riding on every pitch. When the Braves didn’t make it, the experience wasn’t the same. It wasn’t as exciting or as fulfilling.

Lately, there have been some years that I’ve hardly watched the World Series at all.

I’m watching this year. It’s a historic Series; either the Cubs will win their first one since 1908 or the Indians will win their first since 1948. I’m pulling for the Cubs, mainly because our daughter-in-law Michelle and her family, who live in Madison, Wisconsin, are long-time Cubs fans. Plus, I’m tired of hearing about that Billy goat curse (look it up).

I’d be more excited if the Braves were in it. But hey, it’s baseball. It’s the World Series. I’m a baseball fan. I need to participate. It’d be wrong not to.

That brings me to the November 8 election.

Maybe you have a candidate you’re really excited about. Maybe you can’t wait (or couldn’t wait, if you voted early), to vote for your gal or guy. Maybe you’ve waited all your life to be able to vote for the person you’re voting for this year.

Or maybe not.

But hey, it’s an election. It’s important. Our participation is vital to our democracy and to our way of life.

So vote.

And be very, very glad, that of these two great fall institutions, the World Series is the one that happens every year.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

“Peace, Peace” When There Is No Peace (Or, I Had to Take a Stand)

I’ve long kept a prayer journal. I write in it as a part of my morning prayer discipline. The written prayer has developed a set form over the years.

First, I write down three prayer sentences.

The first one is a traditional entreaty known as “The Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The second is a line from the Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.” The third is what I call my “Gethsemane Prayer”: “Lord, our lives are in your hands. Not our will, but your will be done.”

Then, I write down the day’s praises and petitions.

Finally, I write down another prayer sentence that’s lifted straight out of the Bible and that I call my “Reality Prayer”: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

Lately, I’ve had some problems praying the line from St. Francis’s prayer. I guess I’ve been pondering my possible hypocrisy.

I’m not sure I’ve been an instrument of God’s peace during this election cycle.

Some of my friends and acquaintances have been surprised to see me take a stand on social media in opposition to Donald Trump’s campaign for President of the United States. The matter came to a head for me when my Good Wife expressed disappointment at some very negative words I used in a blog post to describe Trump. She’s my biggest encourager, but she’s also second on my list of moral compasses, trailing only the Lord Jesus Christ. So when she expressed concern, I took notice. I also toned down the blog post.

“I’m just not accustomed to you being so political,” she said.

And I have been much more open with my opinion this year than in any election since 1980, when I drove around with a Carter-Mondale bumper sticker.

I think one reason I’ve felt freer to express my views this time around is that I’m no longer identified primarily as a local church’s pastor. During the three decades that “pastor” was my main vocational identity, I tried to be sensitive to the fact that people might interpret my political endorsement as the church’s, try as I might to insist that I was speaking only for myself. Besides, my electoral preference was always different than that of the vast majority of the members of the churches I served, so I couldn’t speak for them, anyway.

The Lord works in mysterious, and sometimes frustrating, ways.

I was also, despite what many others in my denominational family thought of me, a committed Baptist, and a commitment to the separation of church and state is, also despite what many in my denominational family think, a hallmark of the Baptist tradition. I really believed that churches and their pastors should not endorse candidates for public office. I know the IRS can take away the tax-exempt status of a church that does so, but that didn’t matter to me nearly as much as the principle did.

I’ve even preached sermons about how churches and pastors shouldn’t take sides in political campaigns. When I preached such sermons, though, I’d sometimes say that I could imagine a scenario in which I’d be forced to take a stand. I’d say something like, “If a candidate ever comes along whose ideas, policies, words, and actions are so opposed to and so potentially detrimental to the foundations of American life and to the pursuit of peace that his or her election would pose a danger to the nation, I hope I’ll have the courage to say so.”

I’d like to think that, were I still a full-time pastor, I’d have risen to that challenge this time around. I can’t know for sure.

As it happens, I’m doing different things with my life. I’m still a Christian, a Baptist, and a minister, but writing and editing are my main jobs now. So I’ve written and shared lots of words about why I believe Donald Trump shouldn’t be the next President of the United States.

To say so can make me appear divisive. It can make it appear that I don’t value peace in my personal relationships or in our community relationships.

That’s why I said earlier that I wasn’t sure I’ve been an instrument of God’s peace during this election cycle.

But I’m also not sure I haven’t been.

You see, sometimes a quest for short-term peace can be short-sighted. And sometimes a quest for long-term peace can result in a short-term lack of peace. I believe that, at this point in our history, it’s worth sacrificing some short-term peace for the sake of long-term peace.

During the build-up to the Babylonian conquest of Judah, the prophet Jeremiah chastised the prophets and priests who declared “’Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer 6:14). They told the people that everything was fine when it wasn’t.

Now, the fact is that many of my family members and friends are Trump supporters (and/or Hillary despisers). And many of them have been quite vocal on social media about their opinions. I suppose that one could make a case that, in the interest of peace and for the sake of love, I should have kept my opinions to myself. But the fact is that I believe that Trump’s election would be an unparalleled political disaster for my friends and family members.

So it is precisely because I love my family members, my friends, and my country that I have been willing to endure (and even create) some conflict for a while for the sake of what I pray will be a chance for greater peace in the future.

I am truly sorry for any offense I may have caused, particularly to my loved ones.

But I am truly not sorry for sounding the alarm I believe needs to be sounded.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Chapter 5: Lonely Boy

One of my earliest memories is of accompanying my mother to visit Greenwood Cemetery.

“Come on, let’s go visit Stan’s grave,” she’d say.

She’d drive through the narrow lanes—I remember one time when the car’s rear bumper caught the corner of a wrought iron fence that enclosed a group of graves—to the back of the cemetery. I’d wander around the headstones while she pulled grass from around a solitary marble marker and then stood there, quiet and still, for a few minutes.

Eventually, when I was able to form the question, I asked her whose grave it was.

“Your brother’s,” she replied.

When I was later able to form the question of what happened to him, she said, “He was born with a cleft palate.”

She didn’t offer to explain what that was, either at that time or any other time. I eventually learned that Stanley Abbott Ruffin was born and died on October 15, 1960, two years and three weeks after I came into the world. Mama had been thirty-seven when I, her first child, was born, so she was thirty-nine when she delivered Stan. He had been my parents’ one and only shot at giving me a sibling.

Somewhere along the way I asked Granny what was wrong with Stan and she said, “He had really bad birth defects. He was born with some of his organs outside of his body.”

“Mama said he had a cleft palate,” I said.

Granny looked at me kind of funny and said, “Yeah, he had that, too.”

Stan’s gravestone has a little lamb on each of the two bottom corners and one date, October 15, 1960, right in the middle.

His parents’ gravestones are to his right. I won’t be joining them.

I’m going to be cremated. I don’t see any point in taking up any space after I’m gone.

I wonder how my life would have been different had Stan lived and had we grown up together in the little house on Memorial Drive. I wonder if I would have developed differently. For instance, if I’d had a brother with whom to bounce around my thoughts and doubts, perhaps I would have become less introspective. If I’d had a brother with whom to share my grief, perhaps that grief would have been less of a burden. This much I know: if I’d had a brother with whom to share my small bedroom, I would have developed a much smaller sense of bashfulness.

I wonder if I would have learned earlier about the challenging nature of life. While I don’t know all the details about Stan’s birth and death, I do know that he was born with severe birth defects. Had those defects not been severe enough to take his life, he and we as his family members would have faced tremendous challenges from the moment of his birth— he would have been a “special-needs” child. Perhaps his situation would have given me a different perspective on my buckteeth, my nearsightedness, and my scrawny frame, all of which I regarded as severe afflictions in my childhood. I assume I would have had some responsibility for his care, and maybe that would have caused me not to focus so much on my trivial and, by comparison, utterly manageable difficulties.

No doubt I would have learned those amazing lessons that family members of special-needs children seem to grasp—lessons about gifts and grace and love that most people seem to struggle so much to learn. Maybe, armed with what I would have learned from Stan about the challenging nature of life, I would not have been so overwhelmed when I was confronted with other challenges later.

As things turned out, I probably would have assumed primary responsibility for Stan when I was very young. I wonder what that would have been like. Would I have learned the lessons that I know my parents would have taught me about unconditional love? Would I have been there for him as they would have been there for him? Now, all these years later, would I still be caring for him? Or would I have learned that, in ways that matter most, he was always caring for me?

Maybe we would have shared laughter. Maybe we would have shared hobbies. Maybe we would have shared the Atlanta Braves. Maybe we would have shared church. Maybe we would have shared faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe we would have shared G.I. Joes and baseball cards and Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Doonesbury. Maybe we would have shared stories, both by living them and by telling them.

Maybe we wouldn’t have gotten along at all. Maybe one or both of us would have turned out to be a jerk. Maybe we would have become estranged.

Maybe, even if he hadn’t died on the day he was born, he would have died young. That seemed to me to be the way of things for people who were my close kin.

Had he lived, maybe I would have mattered even less than it sometimes seemed I did. My mother’s cancer took so much of my parents’ time and energy that there were moments when they didn’t have much left for me.

But it would have been good, I think, to have a sibling, mixed blessing though I’ve heard that can be.

--Excerpted from Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death and Life. ©2016 Michael L. Ruffin. All rights reserved. Available in print and Kindle editions.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

I Pledge Allegiance …

Once upon a time, Vacation Bible School lasted a week, took place in the morning, and featured a highly structured opening assembly. During the assembly, the pianist would play a “stand up chord” and a “sit down chord” to signal us when we were to—well, to stand up or sit down.

Early in the ceremony, the pianist would play the stand up chord and we’d rise for the pledges. We said three. We’d pledge allegiance to the Christian flag. You may not know there is a Christian flag, much less a pledge to it, so, as a public service, here are the words to the pledge:

I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands, one brotherhood uniting all mankind in service and love.

That’s the version I learned. Sometime during my childhood, our Southern Baptist VBS guide led us to stop saying “mankind.” “Good,” you might be thinking. “’Humankind’ is less sexist.” Well, no, that’s not why we changed it. In fact, we kept right on saying “brotherhood.” We changed “mankind” to “Christians.” I reckon we were more concerned about flirting with universalism than we were with engendering sexism.

We’d also pledge allegiance to the Bible. That pledge went like this:

I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's holy word, and will make it a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path, and hide its words in my heart that I may not sin against God.

Over the fifty or so years that I’ve lived since those days, I’ve encountered lots of adults who pledge allegiance to the Bible, but who seem to have little allegiance to—or even awareness of—what it says, and especially of what it means.

I’ve seen lots of people who will, with great passion bordering on glee, beat you up if you won’t join them in swearing allegiance to the Bible.

I’ve seen many people whose lives reflect the Savior who shows us what the words of the Bible mean but who won’t, out of their commitment as Christians, swear allegiance to Bible, vilified by people who swear such allegiance but whose lives exhibit little to none of the love and grace of Jesus.

We also pledged allegiance to United States flag.

I think I’ve heard some discussion lately about how some people respond to that flag and how other people respond to those who respond.

Those that have ears to hear, let them hear …

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Milestone

I’ll mark a major milestone this Saturday, September 24, 2016, when I celebrate my fifty-eighth birthday.

Ordinarily, the fifty-eighth anniversary of one’s birth wouldn’t be regarded as significant. It’s not like turning fifty or sixty or a hundred. Fifty-eight is to birthdays as Tuesday is to weeks: shrug-worthy.

It’s important to me, though.

When it comes to my immediate family, I’ve long been the last one standing. My only sibling, a brother named Stanley, was born two years after me and died twelve hours after his life began. My mother died in 1975 after a seven-year struggle with cancer. She was fifty-three. My father died of a massive heart attack in 1979. He was fifty-seven.

So as of Saturday, I’ll not only have outlived all of my immediate family members; I’ll also have lived to a greater age than any of them managed to reach.

I’m thankful.

I’ve come to realize, though, that the true measure of life is its depth, not its length. The quality of a life is especially seen in the love that is experienced in it.

Let it be noted that I have lived as one of the most blessed human beings that ever walked this globe.

I have known the love of Debra, who has been light in my times of darkness, hope in my moments of despair, and faith in my periods of doubt. And during the other thirty-eight years of the thirty-eight years and three months that we’ve been married, she has multiplied my joy.

I have known the love of our children Joshua and Sara, who have amazed me with their love for life, their embrace of the world, their quest for knowledge, their depth of understanding, their sense of humor, and their commitment to their beloveds.  

I have known the love of the Lord. I really have.

It’s all been grace.

Thank you, Debra.

Thank you, Joshua.

Thank you, Sara.

Thank you, Lord.

There have been many others whom I have known and loved and who have known and loved me.

Thank you, too.

A lot of love has been packed into these fifty-eight years.

I am grateful ...

Monday, September 19, 2016

Obviously

I have come to dislike certain words during the sixteen months that I’ve been working as an editor.

One word that has earned my great disdain is “obviously.” When I come upon it, I delete it, because if something is obvious, you don’t need to point out that it’s obvious, because it’s obvious. Once I’ve deleted the word, I often delete the entire sentence, because if something is obvious, there’s no need to say it, which should be obvious.

There’s another problem with the word: one person’s “obviously” is another person’s “you’ve got to be kidding me.”

That observation brings me around, unfortunately, to the presidential election.

There are in my circle of relationships many people who say, “Obviously, we can’t let Donald Trump become president.” In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I say that, too. We find it ludicrous that anyone would even consider voting for him.

To me and to others, it’s obvious that Hillary Clinton is much to be preferred to Donald Trump.

But it’s not obvious to lots of other people, including many that I know, respect, and love. They say, “Obviously, we can’t let Hillary Clinton become president.” They are confounded that anyone would choose to vote for her.

From my perspective, the criticisms of Trump are accurate while those of Hillary are overblown. 

But that's not my point.

From my point of view, those who think like I do are right, while those who don’t are wrong.

But that’s not my point, either.

My point is that what’s as plain as the nose on your face to some people is as incomprehensible as dark matter to others.

I wonder why that is.

Sometimes I think that it’s because of differing backgrounds and experiences. While I do think that can have a lot to do with it, I’m also aware that many people whose backgrounds and experiences are similar to mine have a different sense of the obvious than I do. 

So I don't know why what's obvious to you isn't obvious to me, and vice-versa.

It seems to me that, for those of us to whom the choice is obvious, regardless of which option is obvious to us, the die is cast.

We’re going to vote for Hillary.

You’re going to vote for Trump.

That’s just the way it is. We may as well stop yelling at each other. We’re not going to change your minds, and you’re not going to change ours.

We can better use our time and energy trying to figure out how we’re going to proceed after the inauguration next January, because no matter who gets elected, she or he is going to preside over a badly divided nation in a horribly conflicted world.

We're going to have to find a way to work together, or we've had it.

Obviously .

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I Used to Be Mike Ruffin

I was speaking at a family member’s funeral a while back. The service took place at a church that many of my family members and friends either attend or have attended. Many of them were present.

When I stood to speak, I said, “Good afternoon. I used to be Mike Ruffin.”

And all the people laughed.

But I’ve come to realize how accurate a statement that is, especially from the perspective of the people who knew me way back when.

I was born and raised in Barnesville, Georgia, a small town more or less halfway between Macon and Atlanta. I attended Gordon Grammar School. I graduated from Lamar County High School. I worshiped with the folks at Midway Baptist Church. I played on the Barnesville Little League Mets. I worked at Burnette’s Thriftown grocery store. After I decided to become a minister, I preached at a good many churches in the greater metropolitan Barnesville area.

And then I left. I went away with the blessings of my family, my community, and my church to pursue an education in preparation for a career in the ministry. My family and friends were proud of their preacher boy.

I guess some of them still are.

I moved back to my home territory last year after four decades away. 

Things happened over those forty years, and because those things happened, I’m not the same Mike Ruffin I was way back then. That surprises and bothers some people. But how sad would it be had I done all of this living and not changed?

What happened?

Education happened. College and seminary introduced me to books, thinkers, and ideas that challenged my thinking and shifted my worldview. My educational journey fertilized my existing love for books and learning. One of the best things my schools did for me was to turn me into a lifelong learner with knowledge of where to find what I needed and wanted to learn.

Experience happened. Through forty years of being involved in people’s lives, I learned that simple answers, neat categories, rigid systems, and arrogant pontification aren’t helpful. I also learned that presence, acceptance, understanding, humility, and empathy are invaluable. I learned that being human means being breakable and vulnerable, and so kindness and compassion should be cultivated.

Faith happened. The faith I had borrowed from my parents, my church, my region, and my tradition gave way to my faith. Years of struggling to believe have led me to the place where I now stand: all I can do is try to follow Jesus. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like I think my way of looking at things is better than some other folks’ ways. I really don’t want to sound like that. But my experience with Jesus has led me to believe that I must view people and situations through the lens of grace, love, and mercy. To feel, think, talk, and live any other way is to deny my faith.

That’s what life has taught me. That’s what I know. But life has also taught me that there is so much I don’t know. For me, faith and humility must live together.

I used to be Mike Ruffin.

I still am Mike Ruffin.

But I’m a different Mike Ruffin than I used to be.

What happened to the preacher boy they knew four decades ago?

By the grace of God, the boy became a man.

By the grace of God, the preacher became a human being …

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Living Parables

Last Sunday, I was preaching about Jesus again. I seem to be stuck on that subject.

Anyway, the text was Matthew 13:1-23. In the first few verses, Jesus tells a crowd what is usually called the parable of the sower (although a better name is the parable of the soils). He just tells the story and leaves it hanging there. He offers no explanation or interpretation.

It’s easy to imagine the people asking each other what that was all about.

When Jesus and his disciples are alone, they ask him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” They wonder why Jesus doesn’t come right out and say what he means instead of telling stories that people have to figure out for themselves. Jesus answers. “The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”

I think Jesus understood that if you offer propositions and arguments to people who are predisposed to reject what you’re saying, they’ll just say “No” and be done with it (and you), but if you tell them an intriguing but puzzling story, they’ll become—and perhaps remain—engaged with it (and you).

As I was preaching, a thought leapt into my mind: perhaps Christians would do well to think of our lives as parables. 

Jesus told compelling and confounding stories. His parables caused his listeners to consider counterintuitive and countercultural possibilities. His stories, like all good stories, drew his hearers in and, once they were in, held them there.

It’s easy to imagine the people who heard Jesus’ parables continuing to think and talk about them for a long time.

What would it mean for our lives to be parables? How could our lives affect people so that they become and remain engaged with the possibilities that our ways of life present?

Our lives are parables when they involve ways of living that confuse and confound people. They are parables when they make people wonder and ponder. They are parables when they demonstrate the ways of Christ in a world that seems to want none of them.

We Christians offer our best witness to the crowds when we demonstrate radical love, radical grace, radical understanding, radical generosity, and radical forgiveness.

They’ll wonder what that’s all about. They’ll wonder why we’re so weird.

They’ll think. They’ll ponder.

They may come around to Jesus. They may not.

But they’re more likely to eventually respond to the witness of a living parable than they are to a “Christian witness” that comes down to self-righteous judgmentalism.

So let’s be Jesus’ parables. Let’s be the story of God’s love, grace, and mercy . . . 

Monday, August 29, 2016

When Christians Read the Bible

In my day job, I edit Bible study materials for adults. I recruit writers and shape their efforts into a form that’s suitable for publication. Hundreds of churches and thousands of people depend on our company to provide dependable materials to assist them in studying the Bible and following Jesus. I reckon it’s work worth doing.

Every great once in a while, a writer fails to come through and I have to write the lessons myself. In fact, I just finished writing five lessons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew 5­­-7.

As I worked on those lessons, I was reminded again of how Christians are supposed to read the Bible.

I need to make a few preliminary comments before I get into that subject further.

First, Christians should actually read the Bible. We shouldn’t just accept somebody else’s words—not even those of an erudite columnist—about what it says. We should read it for ourselves.

Second, if we’re Christians, then we should read the Bible as Christians. We aren’t Biblians; that is, we’re not saved by a personal relationship with a book. As the old hymn “Break Thou the Bread of Life” puts it, “Beyond the sacred page, I seek thee, Lord.” We’re saved by a personal relationship with the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.  So we do everything, including reading the Bible, in light of our relationship with Jesus.

Third, there’s more than one way to read the Bible. What I’m talking about is how the Bible itself directs those who follow Jesus to read it.

Christians should read the Bible in light of the fact that Jesus is our ultimate authority. How do I know? The Bible tells me that Jesus tells me so.

Early in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Mt 5:17-18). Christians believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah. That means, among many, many other things, that the law and the prophets point to and are fulfilled in Jesus. 

Jesus fulfills Scripture.

That’s why Jesus can say, as he says six times in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said,” then quote something from the Old Testament law, and then say, “But I say unto you …” As he earlier said, he doesn’t abolish the law; he fulfills it. He completes it. He gives it its fullest meaning. And, since he is our Lord and Savior who has ultimate authority in all things, we listen to him. 

The Bible is important, but Jesus is more important. The Bible is authoritative, but Jesus is more authoritative.

Jesus is Christians’ ultimate, absolute authority.

Christians, therefore, read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Our reading and interpretation take the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus into account. 

A person can read the Bible in other ways and still be a Christian. But a person can’t read the Bible any other way and call it a Christian reading.

Reading the Bible as a Christian is challenging. That’s because Jesus didn’t offer his own interpretation of everything in the Old Testament. That’s a good thing, because if he had, the Sermon on the Mount would be 3000 chapters long instead of just three, and few enough people read it as it is. But he gave us enough examples to guide us in reading the Bible through his lens.

Let’s look at just one example.  

In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

The law stated the principle “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” three times: in Exodus 21:23-24, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. It’s right there in the Bible, so, as Christians, we’re obligated to live by it, right?

Wrong.

As a matter of fact, Christians are obligated not to live by that principle that is stated three times in the Bible. We are obligated not to because Jesus points us to another, greater, more demanding way to live. We are not to seek “an eye for an eye”; we are rather to turn the other cheek. We are not to refuse to give up what someone wants to take from us; we are rather to share graciously, to the point of ridiculously.

Jesus has the authority to say, “You have heard it said … but I say to you” because he is the Son of God, the Savior, the living Word, and the Messiah. As followers of Jesus, we’re not bound by “you have heard it said”—even if we heard it said in the Bible. Because we are Christians, we’re bound by “but I say unto you.” Jesus is our ultimate authority, and Jesus tells us how to read the Bible. Since Jesus fulfills Scripture and thus is our ultimate authority in all things, the only way to take the authority of the Bible seriously is to read it in light of Jesus.

How does reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus change our understanding of it? Well, that’s the hard part. We have to find our way, bathing our reading in prayer, submitting to the guidance of the Spirit, and checking every possible interpretation and application against Jesus’ teachings and example.

But based on this one example in the Sermon on the Mount (and I encourage you to read Jesus’ other “You have heard it said … but I say to you” sayings in Matthew 5), it’s pretty clear that our motives and attitudes, especially the ways that we think and feel about other people, even (and maybe especially) those that we regard (or that regard us) as enemies, matter a whole lot.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus really expects us to take all that love and grace stuff as seriously as he did …

Friday, August 19, 2016

Remember the Library

When I was a third grader at Gordon Grammar School in Barnesville, Georgia, I became interested in the Battle of the Alamo. I don’t remember why, but I did.

I thought about Googling it, but then I remembered that the Internet hadn’t been invented yet. So I asked my mother to take me to the Carnegie Library to get a book about it.

After checking to see if they had any new Hardy Boys mysteries, which they didn’t (they always had the same two that I’d already read and, no matter how much I begged, they never got any others), I looked around and found a book about the Alamo that looked interesting. It was a pretty hefty volume, but I managed to tote it to the desk and set it before the lady working there. I don’t know if she was a librarian, a volunteer, or Andrew Carnegie’s great-great-niece, but I remember what she said.

“You can’t read that. It’s too advanced for you.”

Then she walked off. A minute later, she returned with another book and handed it to me. “That’s more on your level,” she said. It wasn’t a pop-up book, but it might as well have been. Anybody who’d spent a year at Miss Sylvia’s Kindergarten (shout-out to my fellow alumni!) could have read that thing in twenty minutes while watching the Officer Don Show and playing “Operation” (although I admit to always having trouble removing the funny bone, even when giving it my full concentration).

I’d never been so insulted in all my eight years.

Amazingly, given that I was a remarkably meek and mild kid, I stood up for myself. “I don’t want that one. I want the other one,” I said. When the nice lady protested again, my mother said, “Let him get the one he wants.” They probably rolled their eyes at each other.

Sighing, the library lady picked the book up and stamped the due date in it so hard that I thought she might have left a dent in the desk. “It’s due in two weeks,” she announced, which translated meant, “I’ll see you when you come crawling back asking for the kiddie book I said you should get.”

I brought it back a week later. I’d finished it. I’d even understood it. I could have written an insightful book report on it.

As I remember it, I marched up to the desk, slammed the book down, and said to that library lady, “Boom!”

Actually, I probably just deposited it in the after-hours book return slot.

There are four morals to this story.

First, never tell a kid what she or he can’t do. You don’t know. Neither do they, until they try.

Second, let ‘em read. Books are a window to a wonderful world.

Third, support your local library. It’s an incredibly valuable resource.

Fourth, remember the Alamo! Otherwise, you might be doomed to repeat it ...

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

When I Don’t Feel Your Pain

Have you taken acetaminophen lately? It’s not surprising if you have, since 23% of Americans do so regularly. You may take it without realizing it, since it’s an ingredient in over 600 medicines.

I ask because I’m concerned about the seeming lack of empathy I perceive in many of us. Empathy is the ability to understand and share in someone else’s pain because you can imagine what their experience is like.

Evidently, acetaminophen may be partly to blame for our failure to empathize.

The results of a recent study conducted at Ohio State University seem to indicate that acetaminophen may reduce our ability to feel empathy. Basically, the study seems to show that people who take the drug have a reduced capacity to relate to someone else’s pain. Previous studies have shown that our experience of our own pain and of someone else’s pain affects the same part of the brain. So, if acetaminophen reduces our brain’s perception of our own pain, it stands to reason that it would also reduce our perception of someone else’s pain.

Acetaminophen isn’t the only culprit, though. Other factors can reduce our capacity for empathy. I’d like to mention only one possibility from a very long list: our unwillingness even to acknowledge, much less imagine, someone else’s experience.

There are about 7.3 billion people in the world, a number that’s expected to hit nine billion by 2050. There are 162 nations on the planet. While no one can say for sure how many ethnic groups there are, a good estimate is fifteen to twenty thousand. There are around seven thousand languages spoken around the world. There are just too many people, too many cultures, too many religions, too many histories, and too many experiences for us to know about, much less comprehend, them all.

On top of that, we all have the same handicap: we can have only our experience, and so we tend to see things only from our perspective. That’s just the way it is. Problems develop, though, when we let ourselves think, talk, and act as if our experience is normative—that all other experiences can and should be judged by it.

Take me, for example. I’m male, white, heterosexual, married, middle class, American, Southern, Christian, and educated. Everybody, thank God, isn’t the same as me. I mean, every other person who shares all of those characteristics with me has different life experiences than I do. There are different kinds of Christians and different kinds of education, for example.

So it’s not particularly surprising that I can neither relate to nor understand the experiences of someone who is black or Asian or Latino or female or single or homosexual or transgender or Iranian or single or poor or rich or Northern or Muslim or uneducated. We’re just different. That’s just the way it is.

Again, the problem comes when we judge all other experiences by ours. The problem becomes serious when we refuse even to acknowledge the validity of someone else’s experience. How can we move toward empathizing with their pain if we can’t even let ourselves admit that their experiences are just as real and legitimate—that they are just as human—as ours are?

We could use a little more empathy in this old world.

I’m not saying that we should stop taking acetaminophen.

And I’m not saying that we should stop being who we are—as if that’s even possible.

What I am saying is that we can better empathize with each other when we’re willing to see the validity of each other’s experience.

You’re not me and I’m not you.

But we are us …

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Let's Educate the Crap Out of This

I was a member of the Lamar County (Georgia) High School class of 1976, the first class to graduate from the new high school.

Yep, I still call a school building constructed in the mid-1970s “the new high school.”

Well, take me to dinner and call me dated!

I didn’t actually attend the new high school, though. I entered Mercer University after my junior year. But I did come back to graduate as the Valedictorian of my class. I don’t know how they felt about it. I was afraid to ask.

I’m glad they tolerated me.

During the first few years of desegregation, which began in Lamar County with the 1970-71 school year (seventh grade for me), racial integration gave way to gender segregation. The stated reason for that was, as I recall, that there was no facility large enough to house a coed high school. Interestingly, though, they put boys and girls back together in the 1974-75 school year, which was the year before the new high school opened. All of a sudden, the Forsyth Road School (formerly Booker T. Washington School) was large enough to hold not only a coed high school, but the middle school grades as well.

One wonders if there was another agenda in keeping the girls and boys separate, doesn’t one?

I don’t remember when I first heard that plans were being made to build a new high school. I do remember that the vote on the bond referendum to fund its construction was controversial. I remember hoping and praying that it would pass, because I knew we needed a new facility.

My father, the late great Champ Ruffin, was back then a member of the now defunct Lamar Civic League. One night he returned from a meeting visibly upset.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked.

“Oh, somebody did a program about how we ought to oppose the school bond referendum. When he finished, I pointed out that I had a child in the school system and he didn’t, and that I resented his program. Nobody backed me up, so I told them they could have their club, and I walked out.”

“Champ, you didn’t.”

That little smile that indicated he knew that he might have done wrong, but was glad he’d done it anyway, crept onto his face.

“Yeah, I did.”

And he never went back.

My education, and the education of all the other children in Lamar County, was important to my father. Thankfully, it was important to lots of other people, too, and so the bond referendum passed.'

I also believe in education. I especially believe in public education. I believe that education is the best way out of the various messes our nation and our world find ourselves in.

To be more precise, I believe that we need broad, sweeping, excellent, amazing, world-encompassing education.

I mean, think about it. Ignorance and misunderstanding lie beneath and behind most of the problems and tensions with which we deal in this nation and on this planet. We need to make sure that American young people learn all the science and math they possibly can so we’ll be able to keep moving forward technologically. We also need to make sure they learn all they can about history, literature, religion, and culture—those of America and those of other people and places, including non-Western societies.

The more we grow in our understanding of each other, the more likely we are to develop and maintain peaceful, helpful, and productive relationships. The more we know, the better off we’ll be.

That’s why we all need to champion education here at home and around the world.

I believe that we should do everything we can do to provide a college education to as many of our people as we possibly can. I furthermore believe that we should do everything we can to do expose our people to as many other cultures as we can, and that we should do everything we can to bring students from other nations to our country to learn about our cultures.

The more we know about each other, the more we’ll understand each other, and the more we understand each other, the less likely we are to want to kill each other.

Shoot, we might even find out we like each other.

In the film The Martian, when Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) realizes he’s been stranded on Mars, he says, “I’m gonna have to science the [crap] out of this.”

When I look at the nation and the world, I say, “We’re gonna have to educate the crap out of this.”

So let’s get to it …