Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Power of Sacrifice

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Yep, it’s baseball season.

If you took a survey to find out what people think the most exciting play in baseball is, I imagine a home run would be the winner. They might even specify a bases-loaded homer (what we experts call a “grand slam.” Sometimes you’ll hear someone call it a “grand salami.” If you do, pay no further attention to them). 

Incidentally, the late George Scott—not the actor, but the power-hitting first baseman of the Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers—is credited with coining the term “tater” for a home run in the late 1960s. 

One theory of where that came from goes something like this: a batter hits a long home run, somebody says “He really mashed that one,” and someone else says, “Yep, like a tater.”

I hope that’s how it happened.

In my opinion, an inside-the-park home run is as thrilling as it gets.

Thrills aside, the plays I appreciate the most are those that are less exciting but no less important. They’re the ones that require the batter to give himself up: laying down a sacrifice bunt and hitting behind the runner.

Allow me to explain a sacrifice bunt. 

Let’s say a runner is or runners are on first and/or second base with less than two outs. The batter squares around to bunt. That means he faces the pitcher while extending the bat over the plate. The idea is to let the ball hit the bat. The best bunts happen when the bat sort of receives the ball, almost gently. Ideally, the ball will then travel a short distance in front of the plate. The base runner has or the base runners have seen the third base coach’s bunt sign, so he knows or they know what’s coming and is or are ready to advance to the next base.

Here’s the important thing: the batter isn’t trying to get a hit. He’s just wants to get the runners to the next base, from where they are more likely to be able to score—thus into what we experts call “scoring position.”

It’s called a “sacrifice” bunt because the batter has sacrificed himself—he has intentionally made an out—in order to help the team. Baseball’s scoring rules acknowledge the value of the act by not considering an at-bat that results in a sacrifice bunt “official,” so it doesn’t hurt the hitter’s batting average.

Hitting behind the runner is even more sacrificial than a sacrifice bunt. Let me explain how that works. 

Again, we have a runner or runners on base with less than two outs. The batter tries to hit the ball to the right side of the infield. He does this so the base runner(s) will have a better chance of advancing. He also does this knowing that he is more likely to be thrown out at first. This is considered a “productive out,” particularly if it gets a runner to third with one out, from where he might score in any number of ways.

Hitting behind the runner isn’t called a sacrifice, but it’s more sacrificial than a sacrifice bunt, because it counts as an official at-bat and thus the out hurts the hitter’s batting average.

When a batter successfully hits behind the runner and the camera follows him into the dugout, you’ll see other players congratulating him. The announcer will say, “The players know.”

Sometimes somebody around us hits a home run. They may even hit a grand slam. They may even hit an inside-the-park grand slam. When they do, they’ll get noticed. They’ll be praised.

And sometimes somebody just lays down a sacrifice bunt or hits behind the runner.

Pat them on the back. Shake their hand. Thank them.

Let them know you know.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Dust in the Wind

Debra and I enjoy going to concerts. We have to pace ourselves, given constraints on time and money. There are many artists we want to see while they’re still able to sing and we’re still able to hear.

Over the last few years, we’ve attended live performances of some of our favorites like James Taylor, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, Van Morrison, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Debra’s had to rein me in some during my fifty-seventh year.

It’s as if I’m determined to mark everything I can off the bucket list.

I also find myself wanting to write everything I’ve ever thought about writing.

I guess that somewhere down deep, I’m still afraid of not living my life before I die. So I have to be careful not to let myself get in too big a hurry.

Speaking of being in a hurry—when I die, I’ll be cremated, because I figure if we really do return to ashes, there’s no point lying around in a box waiting for it to happen.

I’m told that the cremation of a human body usually produces somewhere between three and nine pounds of ash. If you’re buried rather than cremated, it’ll take a good bit longer for you to get back to basics. Either way, though, our ashes will eventually join their cousins, the ashes of the earth, and our dust will float away in the breeze.

God said to the first man in the biblical narrative, and by extension to all participants in the human story, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). Admittedly, those words have a certain spirit about them; “You work hard all your life and then you die.” They leave us saying, “Surely there’s more to it all than that!”

Indeed there is.

Almost six decades of reflection on my mortality—and, by extension, on our mortality—has led me to the startling conclusion that we are mortal.

We shouldn’t forget it. We should remember that we are created and that we are temporary. We should maintain a sense of humility, and even a sense of humor, about ourselves. We should remember that as surely as we were born, we will die.

It’s helpful to remember that, being made of stuff, we are prone to do stuff, and some of the stuff we do is not worth doing, or is stuff we shouldn’t have done to begin with. We call some of this stuff “silly” and some of it “sin.” Some of it we do because we’re willful, some of it because we’re prideful, and some of it because we’re weak, frail, and frightened.

But, regardless of why we do it, we do it. In our honest moments, we know we do it and we’re willing to confess that we do it.

I think about mortality every day, but I especially think about it on Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday is an annual opportunity to contemplate our dustiness. It gives us a chance to confront our humanity, our frailty, and our impermanence, to acknowledge and repent of our sins, and to remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

But we should also take advantage of the opportunity it gives us to live more in light of the fact that we are sentient dust. We are thinking, self-aware dust. We are responsible for what we do in and with our dustiness.

So Ash Wednesday reminds us of the need to face up to our humanity—“we are dust”—and to our mortality—“to dust we shall return.” But it can also remind us to face up to our possibilities: as long as we are conscious, self-aware, spirit-fueled dust, we can become more and more capable of loving God, loving ourselves, and loving others.

Guided by the thoughts of the French monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), we can think of it this way: as sentient ashes, we can move from loving God for our own sake, to loving God for God’s sake, to loving self for God’s sake, and finally to loving others for God’s sake. As we grow in these earthy bodies to love God more and more only for the sake of loving God because God is, because God is love, and because God incites love, we will grow more and more to love ourselves out of God’s love and to love others out of God’s love.

And if we can truly grow in our ability to reach out in love to each other, it will give us another and most helpful way to think about the meaning of “ashes to ashes.” One day, all of our ashes will be joined.

We might as well let them mingle now.

(Excerpted from my book Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death and Life)

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

I Want to Understand

I want to understand people. I want to understand why people—all people—are who they are, why they think the way they think, why they believe what they believe, why they say what they say, and why they do what they do. What would such understanding require?

It would require that I be Muslim.
It would require that I be an immigrant.
It would require that I be a woman.
It would require that I be poor.
It would require that I be black.
It would require that I be Russian.
It would require that I be Jewish.
It would require that I be unemployed.
It would require that I be a high school dropout.
It would require that I be a factory worker.
It would require that I be an inner city resident.

I’m not any of those things. I’m a Christian, native-born, male, middle-class, white, American, educated, employed, white-collar worker who lives in the rural South. And I’m happy to be what I am. I don’t want to give those things up.

But if I am really to understand all people, it would require that I be everything I’m not, in addition to what I am.

And if I really want to understand everybody, I guess it would even require that I be a bigoted, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, jingoistic science-denier—you know, things I really, really, really don’t want to be.

I really do want to understand people. I want to understand them fully, completely, and totally. I want to understand them comprehensively.

When I started thinking about this, I thought about saying it would be helpful to be a Muslim for a day, an immigrant for a day, and so forth. But that wouldn’t go far enough. You know the old saying, “Walk a mile in my shoes”? A mile-long walk isn’t an adequate experience. I’d have to live someone’s entire life, have their entire background, and their entire experience if I’m really going to understand them.

And I couldn’t do it by groups or by categories. I’d have to do it person-by-person. I’d have to share the experience of every individual in the world. After all, every person’s experience is different. For example, there are different branches of Islam, one could be born a Muslim in a large number of differing contexts, and it matters what family you’re part of. And there are all sorts of genetic, developmental, cultural, and social factors that could influence you. Each Muslim, like each Christian or Buddhist or atheist, is different from each other one.

Everybody’s unique. So to truly understand humanity in its totality, I’d have to have the life experiences of every person in the world. Since there are about 7.4 billion people in the world, it would be hard to do. And since there are around 250 births per minute world-wide (or about 360,000 per day), it would also be pretty hard to keep up.

See, here’s the thing: experience produces perspectives and assumptions. Because of who I am, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, what I’ve studied, and who has influenced me, I have certain ways of looking at and thinking about things. Because of who I am, I tend to respond in particular ways to situations, issues, and people.

I wish I could have everybody else’s experiences, perspectives, and assumptions. But I can’t, so I will go through life being very limited in my ability to really understand other people. So what can I do?

I can do the next best things: I can learn all I can about what makes other people who they are. I can refuse to dismiss other people’s experience. I can study history. I can read literature from other cultures. I can view films made from other points of view. And I can get to know people other than those who share most of my defining characteristics.

If I can’t have everybody else’s experiences and see things from their point of view, at least I can try to move beyond my default setting that prompts me to value my experiences and perspectives above all others.

Our world, our nation, and our communities would be much better off if we’d all at least try …

Thursday, February 23, 2017

L. Q. C. Lamar

It was the late great Mr. C. E. Julian, esteemed teacher of history at Lamar County (GA) High School, who taught me that my home county was named for a man named L. Q. C. Lamar. I don’t think he told us that “L. Q. C.” stood for “Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus”—but it did.

(By the way, he was actually L.Q.C. II—yep, they actually named him after his father, who was already saddled with that name that sounded like a law firm in a gladiator movie. Also by the way, I once asked my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, why he didn’t name me after him. He said, “You must be kidding. Would you really want to go through life being called ‘Little Champ’?”)

I also don’t think Mr. Julian told us that John F. Kennedy devoted a chapter to L. Q. C. Lamar in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage (1955)—but he did.

So who was Lucius (as his friends called him) Lamar?

Well, he was born in Putnam County in 1825 and educated at Emory College, then located in Oxford, Georgia. He married the daughter of Emory’s president. He practiced law and was elected to the Georgia legislature. When his father-in-law became president of the University of Mississippi, Lamar moved his family to Oxford (the one in Mississippi). He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1857, but he resigned in 1860 in order to become a member of Mississippi’s secession convention. He wrote the state’s ordinance of secession. He was one of those leaders who were so enthusiastic about secession they were referred to as “fire-eaters.” He served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Confederate army in the early years of the war and as a diplomat for the Confederacy during its later years.

Lamar again served as a Congressman from Mississippi from 1873 until 1877, when he was elected to the United States Senate. He later served as Secretary of the Interior. He wound up his career of public service as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from 1888 until his death in 1893.

President Kennedy considered Lamar a “profile in courage” because of his actions as a U.S. Senator. At least three times he acted in ways that were contrary to the clear wishes of his constituents. In those days, it was standard procedure for a state legislature to issue instructions to their national representatives on how they should vote on an issue. On one major issue, Lamar defied the instructions of the Mississippi legislature.

In 1878, while under tremendous pressure from the citizens of his home state, he said,

The liberty of this country and its great interests will never be secure if its public men become mere menials to do the biddings of their constituents instead of being representatives in the true sense of the word, looking to the lasting prosperity and future interests of the whole country.

Imagine—an elected national figure with so much courage and integrity, and with so much devotion to the welfare of the entire nation, that he did what his conscience told him was right, no matter the consequences to his career.

Lamar County should be very proud to carry the name of such a person.

Everybody figured Lamar’s political career was over, since his votes were condemned by almost all of Mississippi’s voters. But a funny thing happened on Lamar’s way to political oblivion. He traveled around the state, explaining why he did what he did. And people were so moved by his integrity and sincerity, they reelected him.

Imagine—voters who are willing to listen to a politician, willing to realize that, even if they don’t agree with him, he has the country’s best interests at heart, and willing to reelect him because of his integrity and courage.

Oh, and I have to say it one more time: imagine a national elected official being more interested in doing what is right and best than in protecting his or her place in office.

I mean, just imagine …

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Name in Vain

The dialogue in lots of good movies and television shows contains profanity. I don’t always mind. In fact, as one who works in words, I can even appreciate the occasional well-placed curse word, especially if it fits the character speaking it and if it helps to communicate true feelings.

I mean, let’s face it: if Rhett Butler had said, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot,” the line wouldn’t have gone down in history. And it would have sounded silly.

That being said, I find some scripts insulting. My Good Wife and I recently watched the first episode of an acclaimed new series on a popular streaming service. I doubt we’ll watch any more episodes. They should have called the show “F Troop,” because I think the “F word” occurred more than “the,” “a,” and “is” combined. Very few sentences omitted it, and sometimes a character would use it three or four times in one line. 

It was ridiculous and distracting. It sounded silly. And stupid.

Maybe some of you talk like that. If so, my advice is to undertake a program of radical vocabulary enhancement.

But as bad as that word is—“the mother of all curse words,” as adult Ralphie the narrator says in A Christmas Story—it’s not the profane term that bothers me most to hear an actress or actor utter. I’m most bothered when someone uses the Lord’s name in a curse, which is what we usually think of when we hear the phrase “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

It’s one of the Big 10: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). To take the Lord’s name “in vain” is to treat it as if it is empty or meaningless, so there are ways to do it besides using it in a curse. For example, a professor friend of mine would tell his students that if they asked God to help them on a test they didn’t study for, they were taking the Lord’s name in vain, since they were basically treating the Lord as a rabbit’s foot or a four-leaf clover.

Then there’s praying, speaking, or acting “in Jesus’ name.” 

In the Bible, someone’s name summarized his or her character. So to speak, pray, or act in Jesus’ name is to do so in ways that reflect who Jesus is, what he said, and what he did. If you pray for vengeance on your enemies in the name of the One who said, “Love your enemies,” and who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain. If you, in the name of the One who said that those who will enter the kingdom are the ones who visit the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25) harbor attitudes, speak words, undertake actions, and support policies that hurt the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the stranger, you’re taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC. Around 609, or about two decades before the Babylonians overran Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, the Lord told him to go the temple in Jerusalem and preach a sermon. Here’s some of what he said:

Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.

Jeremiah said that the people could go to the temple and call on the Lord all they wanted to, but they needed to understand that truly to speak and act in God’s name meant to “truly act justly with one another” and not to “oppress the alien, the orphan, the widow.” We all know what an “orphan” and a “widow” are. Do we know what an “alien” is?

An “alien” is an immigrant.

So when we hear our leaders invoke the name of the Lord, we might do well to consider that they might be taking that name in vain, and that if we invoke the name of the Lord in supporting them, we might be, too.

After all, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

As for what the Father’s will is—well, see above on widows and orphans.

And aliens …

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Speed of Light

Light travels at 186 thousand miles per second. That means it travels about six trillion miles in a year, so that’s the distance in a light year.

The sun is “only” about 0.000016 of a light year (93 million miles) from Earth; its light reaches us in about eight minutes twenty seconds. After the sun, the next nearest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri, which is about four light years away, so its light takes about four years to reach us.

Light from Polaris (the North Star) travels 680 years before reaching Earth.

That’s about how many years passed between the times in which Isaiah and Jesus preached. Isaiah lived in a time when the darkness of empire—the Assyrian empire, in the case of eighth-century Judah—was creeping into the land. He looked forward to a time when the Lord’s light would drive the darkness away.

Isaiah said,

In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined (9:1b-2).

Matthew says about Jesus,

He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (4:14-17).

Isaiah’s hopes for the coming light were fulfilled in other ways through the years—the people returning from Babylonian exile in the late sixth century no doubt saw that event as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words, for example—but for Matthew and the early church, Jesus’ ministry was their most complete fulfillment. In Jesus, the light for which Isaiah looked had come.

Some stars that are visible to the naked eye are as far as two thousand light years away, so it’s taken two thousand years for their light to get to us. Here we are, living two thousand years after Jesus. Do you ever wonder how much of Jesus’ light has made it to us? How can we let our lives be more open to the light of Jesus’ love and grace so it will drive away the darkness of pride and power that sows dissension and disunity?

It didn’t take two thousand years for such issues to develop. Jesus’ original disciples dealt with the darkness that accompanies the quest for power with its accompanying pride and jealousy. And it was only about twenty years after Jesus lived that Paul was imploring the church at Corinth to overcome its divisions (1 Cor 1:10-18). So it’s not surprising that we still have trouble letting the light drive away our darkness.

But light is stubborn. It keeps going. It keeps coming.

Today’s powerful telescopes can detect the light from objects as far as 10-15 billion light years away. When scientists see the light from those objects, they see light that has been traveling for ten to fifteen billion years.

If humans still exist somewhere ten to fifteen billion years from now (it’ll have to be somewhere other than Earth, since our sun will die in around five billion years), God’s light of love and grace, which is most fully revealed in Jesus, will still be trying to reach us ...

This post first appeared in a slightly different form on Coracle, the blog of NextSunday Resources.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Tale of Two Banquets

The Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell the story about Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand right after telling the story of King Herod’s birthday bash. You can read it all in Mark 6:17-44 and Matthew 14:1-21.

It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting culinary events.

Herod throws himself a birthday party (which makes you wonder if anybody else would have thrown it for him). His yes-men and hangers-on are there, as are the rich and powerful folks. It’s not hard to imagine the opulence and decadence of the celebration. No doubt the food was excellent and the wine abundant.

The party has a backstory. 

Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, whose name was Herodias. John the Baptist had criticized their behavior, and had for his trouble been thrown into prison, which can happen when someone speaks truth to power. During the festivities, Herodias’s daughter dances for Herod and his guests. Herod is so pleased with her performance that he tells her he’ll give her anything she asks for. Prompted by her mother, who was evidently quite unhappy with John’s observations about her and Herod’s ethical practices, she requests that the preacher’s head be served up on a platter (which, thankfully, usually only happens to us figuratively these days).

Herod doesn’t want to do it, but he has promised right out loud to give the girl anything she wants. He has his reputation to consider and his power to maintain. So he gives the order, and the deed is done.

Hearing about John’s death, Jesus wants to go away for a while. So he gets into a boat and sails across the Sea of Galilee to what he expects will be a deserted place. But when he disembarks, a large crowd is waiting for him. Jesus has compassion for them and heals the sick among them.

As evening approaches, the disciples point out that the people will need food. They suggest that Jesus send them away so they can buy some in the nearby towns. When Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people themselves, they point out that they have only five loaves of bread and two fish, which isn’t nearly enough to feed the crowd. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to distribute.

After everyone has eaten, twelve baskets full of leftovers are gathered. The Jesus-blessed and disciple-distributed bread has fed five thousand men, plus the women and children who are there.

These two stories offer two different portraits of leadership.

On the one hand is the leadership of Herod, whose desire for power inspires him to share out of his abundance with people who already have more than they need, and whose need for validation leads him to harm someone whose only crime is standing up for what he believes is right.

On the other hand is the leadership of Jesus, whose compassion inspires him to use his power to heal the sick and to feed the hungry.

I reckon each of us has to decide which kind of leadership we think is best. 

I further reckon that we’ll reveal which kind we prefer in the ways we think, choose, talk, and act.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Utopian Christians in a Dystopian World

The Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle is loosely based on a novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick. My Good Wife and I have recently finished watching the second season. It’s a fascinating and troubling show. 

I’m glad there will be a Season 3. I evidently enjoy being fascinated and troubled.

The premise of the series, which is set in 1962, is that the Axis powers won World War II. The Nazis control the Atlantic side of the United States, while the Japanese occupy the Pacific side. A neutral zone in the Rocky Mountains region separates the rival empires. 

The freedoms Americans take for granted no longer exist. Their overlords treat them as second-rate humans. Some Americans collaborate with the occupying forces and some actively resist them, but most just try to survive.

The Man in the High Castle imagines a dystopian future, that is, a future in which things are about as bad as they can be. It’s hardly the first such narrative. Classic dystopian works include George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. More recent examples of the genre include The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin.

When you read or watch dystopian stories, you hope things will get better. You hope that people will become able to pursue life through the exercise of risky freedom, which is the only way to really live.
 
You also have such hopes when you ponder the possibility of a real, rather than literary or cinematic, dystopian future.

Dystopian works of fiction usually feature people who resist the dehumanization that characterizes their world. They imagine something better and work toward bringing it about. Their efforts always prove costly. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. There’s a lot of nuance to the characters in The Man in the High Castle, but when you get down to it, the resisters are the heroes; the future of the nation, and maybe of the world, lies in their hands.

The opposite of dystopia is utopia. A utopian future is one in which everything is as it should be. The Christian view of the future is utopian. Christians believe that God is working God’s purposes out in creation and history so that, when all is said and done, everything will be renewed through Jesus Christ. The last part of the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, presents a utopian view of the future.

But Revelation recognizes that things aren’t yet what they will be. In fact, it was written to and for Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. The main goal of the book was to encourage them to be faithful in their Christian witness, no matter how bad things were or became. They were to resist the dystopian present by living in light of their utopian future. They were to resist by being faithful to Jesus.

That’s still how Christians resist.

Christians resist dehumanization, division, and despair by practicing grace, faith, hope, mercy, and love. We resist selfish power by thinking of others first and of self last. We resist pride and arrogance by giving ourselves away.

We do all of that because we follow Jesus Christ, whose way is the way of the cross.

Christians believe in the utopian future that God will bring about. We do what we can to make things better now. And as necessary, we subvert dystopian trends and developments through the amazing grace and self-emptying love that are ours in Jesus Christ.