Tuesday, September 20, 2016


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


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 . . .