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.