Friday, January 29, 2016

A Good Life

I’ve been thinking about what makes for a good life.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about what constitutes a good life in this vast, diverse, and fascinating world in which we live.

I’m well into the sixth decade of my life. I don’t presume that I’ll have another thirty years to live after I hit sixty, Lord willing, in 2018. I do, though, find myself thinking of my life falling into three sets of thirty years. My first thirty years were about trying to grow up, getting an education, getting married, having children, and beginning my career. My second thirty years have been about developing my career, raising our children, and seeing, reading, and experiencing everything I possibly could, given the constraints of time and money.

When I think about the next thirty years, I think about expanding my horizons. I’d like to see much more of the world, to read hundreds of books, to watch lots of films, and to see dozens of plays. I’d like to write many books and essays about things that matter. I’d like to have someone—anyone—record a song I’ve written. I’d like to get to know more people whose background and life experience are different than mine.

I’m a white, AARP-eligible, Christian, straight, middle-class, professional, right-handed, Southern man. In my social environment, I’m about as average as one can get. But lots of folks in my milieu perceive me, and rightly so, as being much less conservative than they are. In fact, some of them consider me downright liberal. I have no problem with that, although I prefer to think of myself as progressive, by which I mean that I count myself among those who believe that we can and should do everything we can to make progress in this old world, especially in human rights.

That’s why I applaud efforts to embrace and celebrate diversity. That’s why I appreciate increased diplomacy and more discussion between nations. That’s why I value education.

That’s why I refuse to regard people of a different nation, culture, ethnicity, or religion as my enemies. And, if some people consider themselves to be my enemies, I will, by the grace of God, try to love them as Jesus told me to do. I will pray for them, as Jesus also told me to do.

(My Christian faith contributes to my thinking about living a good life. How could it not, if I am a Christian?)

A good life in this vast, fascinating, diverse world in which we live, then, is a life in which we embrace the vastness, fascination, and diversity of that world. I’m happy to be who I am. I’m happy to be identified with the groups, some by birth and some by choice, with which I’m identified. But I want to know who others are. I want to embrace them and to be embraced by them. I don’t want to stand in judgment of them and I don’t want them to stand in judgment of me.

Are there evil people who claim to be Muslim? Yes. Are there evil people who claim to be Christian? Yes. Are there evil Russians? Yes. Are there evil Americans? Yes.

But there are many, many more Christians, Muslims, Americans and Russians who have good intentions, who are doing the best they can, who are just trying to get by, who love their families and friends, and who want to know and be known. I’m all in favor of our learning together—all of us, or at least as many of us as are willing—not just to get along, but to be friends and neighbors whose default setting is genuine respect for each other as human beings.

It’s hard, though. It’s such a big world. There are so many people. There are so many nationalities, ethnicities, languages, religions, groups, and sub-groups.

That’s why it’s wise to remember that, like so many things, living a good life begins at home. We should love our families deeply. We should create homes where every member of the family is not just accepted and tolerated, but valued and treasured. We should talk and listen to each other. We should appreciate our similarities and respect our differences. We should remember that no two people are exactly alike and that differentiation makes life interesting.

It takes a lot of energy to build and maintain that kind of family life. So it’s not hard to understand that many of us don’t think too much about the world beyond our little piece of it. And, if you have to choose between building a good family and helping to build a better world, I’ll be the first to say that you should choose your family.

Besides, maybe in building a home where everyone is welcomed, cherished, and respected, we are helping to build a better world. Perhaps our children and grandchildren will absorb their family experience and go live it out in the world. Maybe one of them will be one of the ones to make a big difference in the big picture.

I hope that, in whatever years the good Lord gives me, I’ll keep trying to live a good life, both at home and in the world. I’m grateful for all those who are trying to do the same.

I hope more will join us . . .

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Live Forever

Hank Williams died in 1953, Buddy Holly in 1959, Patsy Cline in 1963, Sam Cooke in 1964, Otis Redding in 1967, Janis Joplin in 1970, Jim Croce in 1973, Elvis in 1977, and John Lennon in 1980. They were all popular singers who died at a relatively young age. Some of them were also fine songwriters. Many other popular musicians have died young. I’m sure I left out some of your favorites. I left out some of mine, too.

Now Glenn Frey is gone. He was sixty-seven when he died on January 18. There was a time when I wouldn’t have thought of sixty-seven as young, but now that I can see it just ten years over yonder way, I do.

This one hurts.

Frey was a founding member of the Eagles. Don Henley and he were the two constants in the band that provided much of the soundtrack for my high school and college years. From “Take It Easy” (1972) to “Long Run” (1979), the Eagles’ songs played in the background as my friends and I tried to navigate adolescence and move into adulthood. Those records were good companions.

Here’s a very partial list of the songs that Frey co-wrote: “The Best of My Love,” “Desperado,” “Hotel California,” “I Can’t Tell You Why,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Long Run,” “Lyin’ Eyes,” “New Kid in Town,” “One of These Nights,” “Take It Easy,” “Take It to the Limit,” and “Tequila Sunrise.” They’re all great songs. “New Kid in Town,” which Frey co-wrote with Henley and J. D. Souther, may be the closest thing to a perfect pop/rock song ever produced.

My favorite Eagles’ song is “After the Thrill is Gone,” which is on their 1975 album One of These Nights. Frey sang lead on the track, which seems at first listen to be about a dying love, but which also reflects the tensions that success was breeding in the band. Even as a teenager, I heard it as a song about the frustration that accompanies living: “What can you do when your dreams come true, and it’s not quite like you planned?” the song asks. It ends with these words:

Same dances in the same old shoes;
you get too careful with the steps you choose.
You don't care about winning but you don't want to lose,
after the thrill is gone, after the thrill is gone.

I’ve always heard the song as a caution against allowing life to become stale and dull. So I haven’t.

I suspect that if classic rock stations still exist in a hundred years, they’ll still be playing the songs that Glenn Frey co-wrote and on which he played and sang. I know that if I have any memory in my geriatric years, I’ll be rocking (double meaning intended) to the songs of Glenn Frey and the Eagles.

Glenn Frey will live for as long as the world continues. That’s because he will live on in his songs.

Now, before some of y’all get your halos twisted in a knot, let me say that I do believe in everlasting life. I believe in heaven. I’m just saying that there are also other ways to live on, and one of those ways is through the contributions we make to people’s lives.

I’m grateful for the contributions Glenn Frey made to mine. As long as I and many others can remember, listen, and think, he’ll live on.

We can’t all be successful singers and songwriters. But we can all make a contribution to the lives of our families, our friends, and our community. We can all share our love.

How will you live forever?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

I’m Certifiably Humble

I was once awarded a Certificate of Humility.

I’ll bet you can’t say that. In fact, I may well be the only person on the face of the planet to have one.

You probably wonder how one earns a Certificate of Humility. So let me, with all humility, tell you how I earned mine.

A long time ago, in a Georgia far, far away, I was one participant in a group of six pastors who met from time to time. This was during a time when the Georgia Baptist Convention, of which all the churches we pastored were members, was undergoing either a “conservative resurgence” or a “fundamentalist takeover” (which it was depended on your vantage point. It was the latter, but I digress).

Baptist pastor meetings weren’t unusual during those days. Pastors from both “sides” would meet to pray for the future of the convention, which they left in God’s hands—right after they had done all of the plotting and planning they could do to ensure their side had more votes at the next annual meeting than the other side did—you know, just to help God out. I confess to having participated in a meeting or two of that sort before some pretty serious spiritual nausea got in the way.

The group of six about which I’m telling you was different. We saw it as our mission to try to find ways to help the convention develop and maintain a more Christian approach to the matters at hand. We wanted to lead the convention to be more Christ-like in our attitudes and actions. We called ourselves the “Guardians of Humility.”

In our pursuit of humility, we maintained a sense of humor.

As I was preparing to leave Georgia in the summer of 1993 to become a college professor (at a cut in salary, I might add, thereby further proving my humility), I met with the Guardians one last time. It was at that farewell session that my fellow Guardians presented me with my Certificate of Humility. My humility won’t allow me to share with you everything the certificate says about me. I will tell you that it describes me as “a modest, though faithful, peaceful, though assertive, gentle, though aggressive, modest, though clever, humble servant of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

My reception of a Certificate of Humility presented me with a dilemma. How could I display a certificate that honored me for my humility and still maintain said humility? After all, Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others, in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). My brothers had honored me by recognizing my humility, but if I publicly displayed their acknowledgement—of which I was, with all due humility, rather proud—then I would be swapping the reward of God for the praise of people. And given the fact that as a pastor, a professor, and then a pastor again, people were always in my office, to hang it on the wall was to want it to be seen by them.

As Brother Johnny Cash sang in his hymn “A Boy Named Sue,” “What could I do? What could I do?”

So I did the only thing I could do. I kept my Certificate of Humility, my unique prize, hidden away in drawers and boxes for the next twenty-two years.

Now I have given up the spotlight of the pastorate and all the adulation that comes with it. I have traded all of that power and fame for the lonely, quiet, monk-like life of an editor whose only job is to work my mind, spirit, and fingers to the point of exhaustion to provide quality Bible study materials for thousands of people, most of whom I’ll never meet. (You know, when you stop and think about it, it was really a rather humble thing to do.)

And I have hung my Certificate of Humility on the wall of my little office.

It’s ok, though. Nobody but my coworkers ever comes in here anyway. They already know how humble I am, and they’re proud of me for it . . .

Friday, January 8, 2016

My Gun

I’ve never bought a gun. I do, however, have one that I’d rather President Obama not come take away from me.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say right up front that I own two guns. One of them is a .22 caliber rifle. Sometime around 1970, my father and I went into my Uncle Cuz’s liquor store in downtown Macon and, for some reason, he gave Daddy that rifle. He said that someone had pawned it and never came back for it. Somewhere along the way I lost its seven-round clip. I need to get another one for it. My cousin’s son recently reconditioned the gun for me and it’s very nice.

But I have no real attachment to it. So if the President wants it badly enough, he can send someone to get it. It’d be good for shooting mice around the Smithsonian or something, I guess. If the President wants to come get it himself, we’d love to have him stay for dinner. We’ll serve him pork and give him a beer, and he’ll eat it and drink it, because if he’s a Muslim, he’s the worst one ever.

I do wish they’d let me know if they want it before I spend my money on a replacement clip. The government can afford it better than I can. They can take it out of Wayne LaPierre’s taxes.

But my other gun, my Stevens 311 double-barrel 16 gauge shotgun—well, now, I really want to hang on to that one. It’s the one that I consider to be my real inheritance from my father.

I don’t remember a time when that shotgun wasn’t around, so I reckon it’s older than I am, and I was born in 1958. I didn’t actually see it very often, since Daddy kept it in Mama’s and his bedroom closet except when he went hunting, which he very seldom did. I guess he didn’t have time, given that he worked a lot and spent way too much of his off time at the church. Plus, Mama had cancer for a long time.

I went quail hunting exactly two times in my young life, and that’s all the hunting I’ve ever done. Both times, Daddy and I went with Preacher Bill, the beloved pastor of my growing up years, and some other men. I liked following the dogs around. I could take or leave the rest of it. It seemed like a lot of trouble when chickens had more white meat and you could get all you wanted at the grocery store or the Big Chic restaurant (although at that time, I much preferred the broasted chicken at the Dari Delite).

On my first hunting trip, the men said that they wanted me to take the first shot of the day. So when the dogs flushed the first covey (that’s quail hunter talk), I swung my gun around to shoot. Everybody hit the dirt. On my second trip, I fired into a just-flushed covey along with everybody else. Several birds fell, and Preacher Bill proclaimed, “Mike killed two with one shot!” I don’t know how he could tell which ones, if any, I killed. If I did in fact kill two, they were the only two things I ever killed while hunting.

On that second trip, they let me take a shot at a rabbit. I was glad I missed. I felt like Elmer Fudd.

On both of those hunting trips, Daddy’s Stevens 311 double-barrel 16 gauge shotgun was the gun I used. He borrowed one of Preacher Bill’s many guns.

It became my gun when Daddy died in 1979. It’s been moving around with me ever since.

And it hasn’t been fired once in all those years. You see, I don’t hunt. Now, I have nothing against hunting, especially if you’re going to eat what you kill. I have eaten venison that hunters have given me. Why, just the other day I had some Brunswick stew that had venison in it. Come to think of it, I’d love to have a mess of grits and fried quail.

I just don’t like killing things. Go ahead and point out the hypocrisy of my eating meat; I realize that it comes from slaughtered animals. (By the way, I could provide you with much worse examples of my hypocrisy, if you really want to go after me.) But I have no desire to get a living thing in my sights, pull the trigger, and watch it fall. Lots of people do. I don’t.

Truth be told, in all the years I’ve had Daddy’s shotgun, I’ve not had any shells for it.

That changed recently. We moved to the country last July. I’m told that there are rattlesnakes and copperheads around us. I know there are coyotes, because sometimes in the middle of the night, they sound like a bunch of wild preschool children engaged in a cage match. We don’t live all that far from Senoia, so there may be zombies, for all I know. One morning around 2:30 some genius drove from the field behind our house and down our driveway, just like it was a public thoroughfare, which it’s not. Only Ruffins are allowed, and there are plenty of them. I neither need nor want anybody else coming through.

So I bought a box of shotgun shells. I’m ready.

I hope I never have cause to shoot that gun. I’m happy just to know that it belonged to my father and that now it belongs to me. It would make me very, very happy to go another thirty-seven years without shooting it, by which time I’ll be ninety-three and probably shouldn’t be handling a loaded gun, anyway.

My gun means something to me because it was Daddy’s gun. Other than that, it’s just a tool to keep around in case I happen to need it, although I hope I never will. You know, like a toilet wrench.

I do have a bit of an attachment to my gun. But it’s nothing like the one a lot of people evidently have. The way they obsess over their guns, you’d think they were their children. The way they respond to any effort to regulate the sale of guns, you’d think somebody was trying to take away their right to breath. Some folks seem to have more loyalty to the NRA than they do to their church. Sometimes I think that if some folks were playing the Jeopardy category "Three Letter Words Beginning with 'G'" and the clue was "What You Place Your Ultimate Trust In," "Who is God?" wouldn't be their first response.

As for me, I don’t want anybody to take my gun (remember, I have two, but they can have the other one if they want it) away from me. It was Daddy’s. And if a rattlesnake comes in my yard, it’ll be the last yard it comes into, assuming I can hit it.

But it suits me just fine if the government does everything they can do to require universal background checks. It suits me just fine if the government places restrictions on assault weapons and on other weapons of mass destruction. It suits me just fine if I have to obey laws that remind me that my right to swing my fist ends just short of where it meets somebody else’s chin. Frankly, the fact that we have so many armed people running around makes me a lot more nervous than the thought that I might not be able to purchase an assault rifle (which I admittedly don’t want to do, anyway).

I’m all in favor of the second amendment, by the way. So if the feds ever try to disarm our well-regulated militia—the Georgia National Guard—I’ll oppose that move.

So that’s my gun story.

Now if it only had a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time . . .