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?
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 …