Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thoughts and Prayers

When a mass shooting occurs in the United States—and it happens all too often, doesn’t it?—lots of politicians will say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” or something like that.

This practice has become controversial in some quarters, which raises the question, “What’s wrong with thinking about and praying for victims, communities, and families in the wake of a massacre?” 

And the answer is, “Nothing.” Anybody with half a heart is going to think about the people affected by such a tragedy. Anybody with a smidgen of faith is going to pray for them.

I’d go so far as to say that if you don’t give the victims any thought, you need to go on a quest for some compassion.

So can offering up thoughts and prayers be problematic?

For some guidance, let’s turn to the book of James in the New Testament. The author is famous for his insistence that “faith without works is dead.” What he means is that if you have faith it’ll change the way you live. Trusting in Jesus leads you to do something about it. As he develops this thought he says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill,’ and you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16).

It’s good to think kind thoughts and to say good words. But the thoughts and words mean little to nothing if you don’t do what you can do to help, James says.

Now, some folks who criticize or mock politicians for offering up thoughts and prayers after the latest rampage really don’t think that prayer does any good. You probably know better than that. I know better than that. The good Lord can and will offer strength and hope to people who are going through unimaginable pain and loss. So I say, “Pray on!”

But—and this is an important ‘but’—you should do what you can do.

This is where some of our political leaders deserve critique.

Let me address them by paraphrasing James: “If your brothers, sisters, and little children keep getting slaughtered, and you say, ‘My thoughts and prayers are with you,’ but you do not use the power and authority you have to do something to try to help keep such tragedies from happening again, what is the good of that?”

You’ve probably heard the story that preachers have been telling for decades. A flood had struck a community. The water was beginning to fill the streets. A fellow was on his front porch when someone came by on an ATV and offered him a ride. “No,” he said, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” The waters continued to rise. The man went to the second floor of his house and stood at a window. Some folks came by in a boat and offered him a ride. “No,” he said, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” A few hours later the man was on his roof as the waters continued to rise. A helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a ladder down to him. “No,” he shouted, “I’ve prayed and the Lord has promised to rescue me.” The water continued to rise. The man drowned.

When he got to heaven he said to the Lord, “Lord, I don’t understand. You promised to rescue me. Why didn’t you?”

And the Lord answered, “Give me a break. I sent an ATV, a boat, and a helicopter.”

Maybe when our leaders pray about these mass shootings, the Lord gives them some ideas. Maybe God expects them to be part of the answer to their prayers. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Pledges

Once upon a time, Vacation Bible School (VBS) lasted a week, took place in the morning, and featured a highly structured opening assembly. During the assembly, the pianist would play a “stand up chord” (a major lift) and a “sit down chord” (a minor fall) to signal us when we were to—well, to stand up or sit down.

Early in the ceremony, the pianist would play the stand up chord and we’d rise for the pledges. We said three. We’d pledge allegiance to the Christian flag. You may not know there is a Christian flag, much less a pledge to it, so, as a public service, here are the words to the pledge:

I pledge Allegiance to the Christian Flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands, one brotherhood uniting all mankind in service and love.

That’s the version I learned. Sometime during my childhood, our Southern Baptist VBS guide led us to stop saying “mankind.” “Good,” you might be thinking. “’Humankind’ is less sexist.” Well, no, that’s not what changed; in fact, we kept right on saying “brotherhood.” We changed “mankind” to “Christians.” I reckon we were more concerned about flirting with universalism than we were with engendering sexism.

We’d also pledge allegiance to the Bible. That pledge went like this:

I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's holy word, and will make it a lamp unto my feet, a light unto my path, and hide its words in my heart that I may not sin against God.

Over the fifty or so years that I’ve lived since those days, I’ve encountered lots of adults who pledge allegiance to the Bible, but who seem to have little allegiance to—or even awareness of—what it says, and especially of what it means.

I’ve seen lots of people who profess to be Christians who will, with great passion bordering on glee, beat you about the head with the Bible if you won’t join them in swearing allegiance to it.

I’ve seen many people whose lives reflect the Savior who shows us what the words of the Bible mean but who won’t, out of their commitment as Christians, swear allegiance to the Bible, be vilified by people who swear such allegiance but whose lives exhibit little to none of the love and grace of Jesus.

Sometimes people who swear allegiance to the Bible embody its teachings much less than others who won’t swear allegiance to it.

It’s hard to accept that someone is loyal to the Bible when he or she exhibits hate instead of love, prefers conflict over reconciliation, and utters falsehoods rather than truth. It’s easier to believe that someone who exhibits love, seeks reconciliation, and speaks truth believes the Bible, even if she or he won’t swear allegiance to it.

It’s ironic, isn’t it?

We also pledged allegiance to United States flag in our VBS assembly.

I think I’ve heard some talk lately about how some people respond to that flag and how other people respond to those who respond. Maybe you’ve heard it too.

Sometimes it seems that people who say they take the flag seriously may not take that “liberty and justice for all” line quite as seriously. And sometimes it seems that people who have some reservations about pledging allegiance to the flag have more allegiance to “liberty and justice for all” than those who criticize them.

It’s ironic, isn’t it?

As for me—well, I’ll pledge allegiance to the flag. I’ll also stand for the National Anthem.  In doing so, I’m pledging allegiance to the republic whose goal is to make liberty and justice available to all and to be a land where all are free to strive for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I do so recognizing that some who choose to act differently than I do may be doing so to help us think about just how far we have to go in becoming “the land of the free” where “liberty and justice” are truly “for all.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

Some Brief Observations on Judeo-Christian Values

We hear the phrase “Judeo-Christian values” from time to time, often from the mouths of politicians seeking to curry favor with some gullible or misguided audience.

It might set you to wondering what those values are.

Based on what some of those audiences promote and cheer, we might conclude that they think that Judeo-Christian values involve protecting your right to say “Merry Christmas” while refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding while advocating for a nuclear attack on North Korea.

I have a different sense of what Judeo-Christian values involve.

Let’s hear from some experts on the subject.

Rabbi Hillel was one of the most important teachers of Judaism. He was active from around 30 BCE until about 10 CE. One day a man told Hillel that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi could teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

When someone asked Jesus what the greatest commandment is, Jesus replied, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:30-31).

The Apostle Paul said, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14).

To conclude: if your Judeo-Christian values aren’t based on doing right by other people and wanting what’s best for them, they may be values, but they aren’t Judeo-Christian.


Thursday, October 5, 2017

Fifty-Nine and Not Holding

Now hear this: I turned fifty-nine a few days ago. Math was never my strong suit, but I’m pretty sure that’s one less than sixty. I’ll hit that milestone next year, Lord willing.

I’ve reached the point in life at which many folks start slowing down as they move toward retirement.

Not me. I’m just getting cranked up.

Before I say anything else about that, let me state that if it all ends tomorrow, I’ve already had a better life than I ever hoped or dreamed I’d have. I have a good wife, remarkable children, and a fine grandson. I’ve had a fulfilling and varied career and I love the job and side projects I have now. I’ve had and have many good friends. I’ve seen a lot of places. I’ve had a lot of experiences, some bad and most good. I have no complaints. It’s been a full life and I’m grateful for every second of it.

But if the Lord gives me more years and at least moderately good health, I have no intention of throttling back. There’s just too much to do, too much to learn, and too much to be.

I’m going to keep growing until I draw my last breath.

I want to learn to speak at least one more language (I’m torn between Spanish and Arabic. I may do both). I want to fill in the gaps in my education, especially in science. I want to read five thousand more books. I want to see more of the world.

I want to write a novel. I want to write the lyrics to one song that at least one person records. I want to write one poem that gets published. I’ve written one memoir, but I want to write another one.

I’m privileged to teach two groups of freshmen at Gordon State College. They’re forty years younger than I am. When I look at them, I think about how they have so many years ahead of them. I remember how, when I was their age, life seemed to stretch out so far ahead of me I could scarcely imagine that the road had an end.

Now I realize there’s a stop sign up ahead that I can’t avoid. But I can and will ignore the yield signs that I’ll encounter along the way.

I admit to some frustration. I know I won’t get everything done I want to do. I know some of my goals will remain unmet and some of my dreams will go unfulfilled.

But I’ll tell you this:  I’m going to have a good time trying. And when it’s all over, no one will be able to say I wasted my time.

I don’t know what I’ll die of, but it won’t be boredom.

And I don’t know what I’ll die with, but it won’t be regret.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Loving Our Neighbors

I’ve been thinking about what it means to love someone.

Jesus said that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. So I reckon if we’re going to love somebody that way, we need to know how we love ourselves.

To love myself means that I want what’s best for me. I want to be the best version of me that I can possibly be. Because I love myself, I want to build on my strengths and I want to strengthen my weaknesses. I want to face my mistakes, failures, and insufficiencies so I can become a better person. I want to live up to my potential. I want to live out my ideals.

So if I love my neighbors as I love myself, I want what’s best for them. I want them to be all they can be. I want them to succeed and even to thrive. I want them to be the best possible versions of themselves. And I want all of that for them as much as I want it for me. I want the fullest life I can have and I want them to have the fullest lives they can have.

There’s a point at which this gets a little dicey, though.

It’s one thing for me to call myself out on my mistakes and failings and to challenge myself to be and do better. It’s another thing for me to call my neighbors out on theirs and to challenge them. They may dare to think that it’s none of my business.

But living in community requires that we take a certain amount of responsibility for each other. To want the best for others requires that we try to help each other understand the ways in which we are not living up to our potential so we can try to do better.

With all of that in mind, how should we show our love for our country, for our communities of faith, and for our families? If we adopt the stance that loving them means believing they can do no wrong, we don’t really love them. But if we want them to face up to their shortcomings so they can move toward being the best version of themselves they can be, then we really do love them.

To love ourselves means that we want what’s best for us. It also means that we’ll do what we need to do to achieve that goal. To love our neighbors as we love ourselves means that we want what’s best for them. It also means that we’ll do what we need to do to help them achieve that goal.

Whether we stand or kneel, whether we resist or support, and whether we speak out or remain silent, our motivation matters. It is possible for love or something far less than love to motivate someone to take the stand she or he takes. If someone’s heartfelt desire is to help the nation be the best nation it can be, then their motivation is sound. It is always possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason. It is even possible to do the wrong thing for the right reason. We also will do well to evaluate our own motivation before we go judging someone else’s.

As the Apostle Paul said, no matter what great things I do, if I don’t have love, “I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).

If we are motivated by love, then we do whatever we do because we want to help our neighbors realize and pursue their ideals so they can be the best Americans, the best people of faith, or the best family members they can be. That effort might involve the hard and painful work of pointing out how we don’t live up to our ideals.

How would things be different if love, defined as wanting the best for our neighbors just as we want it for ourselves, motivated our perspectives on, opinions of, and actions toward our fellow Americans?

How would things be different if that same kind of love motivated our leaders? What might they do if they love the people they are elected to represent?

How would love respond to people’s need for quality affordable health care?

How would love respond to the epidemic of mass murder in our society?

How would love respond to the danger posed to people because of ongoing damage to the environment?

How would love respond to the injustice experienced by far too many people?

Motives matter. 

I challenge you to love your neighbors as you love yourself. I challenge you to want the best for them just as you want it for yourself.

I challenge our leaders to love the American people more than you love your egos, your political parties, your dogmas, your ability to stay in office, and your corporate benefactors.

Folks, if our leaders don’t try to work together to do what is best for us and what will give us greater freedom to pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, then they don’t love us.

And next election, we should replace them with people who do.

Do it because you love yourself.

Do it because you love your neighbors as you love yourself.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Forty Years of Rings

It was about this time of year in 1977 that I returned to Mercer University for my senior year. A girl named Debra Johnson returned for her junior year. She came back to Macon wearing the engagement ring I’d given her the month before as we’d stood beside the Towaliga River below High Falls.

I’m not being arrogant when I say I wasn’t concerned about whether she’d accept the ring. After all, she’d picked it out. Even though there was no mystery surrounding the proposal, there was much mystery surrounding the future. Nobody really knows what lies ahead, do they?

We had nothing but good intentions. We truly believed we were supposed to be together. I’d go so far as to say we believed God was calling us together. But lots of our friends believed that too, many of whom are long since divorced. By God’s grace we are still married. We also still love each other. We even still like each other!

Somewhere along the way we had the setting on Debra’s ring grafted onto a different band. One day a few years later, she realized the diamond had gone missing from the setting. Finding a large diamond would be hard, so finding this one was impossible. I kept saying, “We need to get you another ring.” She kept saying, “We’ll see."

Eventually she made a decision. She said, “I’d like to have your mother’s rings resized so I can wear them.”

My mother died before I met Debra. It’s a shame. They would have done a good job ganging up on me. But I thought Debra’s choice to wear Mama’s rings was sweet. I also confess to being pleased that it was inexpensive.

Debra had for years hinted around about something she wished I’d give her. Not being a mind-reader, I’d more than once asked her to just tell me what it was. She’d say, “It won’t mean as much if you don’t think of it yourself.” Did I mention I’m not a mind-reader?

When we picked up Mama’s resized rings and Debra put them on, she said, “You know that thing I’ve wanted you to think of giving me? This is it.”

Oh well.

Eventually I decided that Debra should have a new ring of her own. So I put one on layaway at a local jewelry store and paid it off over a couple of years. I gave it to her while we were spending a weekend at Callaway Gardens, where we had gone on our honeymoon twenty-four years before. It was in August, around the twenty-fifth anniversary of my giving her the original ring. As we sat beside the lake, I tried to tell her what she means to me. She cried a little. We had a very nice seafood dinner that night.

She’s been wearing that ring for fifteen years. Maybe it’s the last one. Maybe not.

As for me—well, I’m still wearing the simple gold band she slipped on my finger on June 10, 1978 as we stood at the altar of the Baptist church in Leary, Georgia.

I don’t remember what the preachers (we used two, because we wanted to make sure it stuck) said that day. Over the years I’ve presided over a lot of wedding ceremonies. At each of them I’ve held up the groom’s ring and said something like this: “The wedding band is a circle, which symbolizes the unending nature of the marriage relationship.”

We went into our marriage believing that. We still do.

No, you can’t know what the future holds. When I gave Debra her engagement ring forty years ago, we had lots of hopes and dreams and absolutely no assurances. But we went into it in faith, trusting that God would help us keep growing, learning, and loving.

We still don’t know what the future holds. But I am so grateful for all we have experienced together for the last four decades. And I am glad that, whatever comes, we’ll face it, as we always have, together.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Big Bang, Big Crunch, Big Bang

(A sermon based on 51:1-6; Matthew 16:13-20. Preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Macon, GA on August 27, 2017)

Our whole universe was in a hot, dense state
Then nearly fourteen billion years ago expansion started, wait …
It all started with a big bang! Bang!

We’d add a line before those that says, “And God said, ‘Let there be …’”

Still, the best we can tell, that’s the way God did it. It all started with this tremendously dense dot (scientists call it a “singularity”) that banged, and when it banged, boy howdy. The resulting universe is still expanding. Some experts think it will just keep on keeping on.

That’s also how God made the people that came to be known as Israel. There was this tremendously dense pair of dots—a “duality,” it you will—named Sarah and Abraham, and when they started expanding—well, actually, not much happened at first. It was all they could do to have Isaac. But eventually things took off, and boy howdy. Next thing they knew they were a multitude living in a relatively prosperous place under relatively successful monarchs named David and Solomon. God had told Abraham that he’d have descendants in numbers like the sands on the seashore and the stars in the sky, and, if we allow for a little divine hyperbole, he did.

But something—lots of things, actually—went wrong. Maybe one of the things that went wrong was that Abraham’s descendants never quite got, or never quite accepted, or never quite wanted to accept, that little detail in the promise to Abraham about how they were to bless other people. But differently, maybe it all became too much about their privilege and too little about their responsibility (that was in fact part of their privilege). In short, maybe it became a little too much about them and not enough about other folks.

So when the prophet whose words we find in Isaiah 40-55 told his listeners, “Look to the rock from which you are hewn” and identified that rock as Abraham and Sarah, the irony hurt. Abraham and Sarah had left Mesopotamia, gone to Canaan, and become many. Now their descendants were in exile in Mesopotamia, were exiled from Canaan, and had become few.

I mentioned earlier that some experts think the universe will expand forever. But others think that eventually gravity will take over and the universe will start contracting. They also think that it will contract until it becomes another singularity where all the matter in the universe will again be smaller than a subatomic particle.

So why are we here anyway? I don’t mean why are we here in the universe; I mean why are we here in church, worshiping God and trying to follow Jesus?

We’re here because somewhere along the way we began to realize who Jesus is. Maybe it happened in a flash; maybe it happened over time; maybe we just kind of always sort of knew. Simon Peter and the other disciples had been following Jesus around for a while, watching what he did and listening to what he said. So one day when Jesus asked them who they thought he was, Peter piped right up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus told Peter that he knew that because heaven had revealed it to him, that he was going to build his church on the rock of such heavenly insight, and that having such insight would give Peter important responsibilities indeed.

“And just think,” Peter might have said to himself, “we’re right here with you. I’m right here with you.”

You and us, Jesus. You and me, Jesus. It’s going to be great. We’re going to be great. I’m going to be great.

It’s understandable. It’s even good. We should spend as much time with Jesus as we can. We should get to know him as well as we can. We should develop that relationship as much as we can.

But think of the energy being with Jesus produces. What will happen if we keep on focusing it inward, if we let it all be about us, about me?

A big crunch will happens. And if we stay that way, we and the world will be the poorer for it.

A big bang needs to happen. All of that spiritual energy that is compressed in our relationship with Jesus needs to be turned outward.

And so after Peter said the right words about Jesus (“you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”), Jesus started telling the disciples what that meant.

He told them that he was going to suffer, die, and rise again. Peter didn’t like that. He said it couldn’t be. And then, when Jesus said that to follow him meant to lose your life, it probably dawned on Peter that what he was afraid of was true: it wasn’t just about Jesus and him. It was about Jesus and him and the world and everybody in it. It was about giving yourself away and taking others’ pain onto yourself. It was about loving your neighbor as yourself as well as loving the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

It’s about turning the energy of our relationship with Jesus outward.

Some experts believe that the big bang that produced our universe is just one of a series. They say that every trillion years or so, a big crunch happens followed by another big bang.

Maybe every once in a while we need to go into big crunch mode: you know, let it just be about Jesus and us or Jesus and me for a while.

But it can’t stay that way, not for long.

There’s just too much love, grace, mercy, and peace to spread around.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Random Thoughts After Charlottesville

             1.  "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8).

      2.  Legend has it that a relative of mine named Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. I visited there last summer and there are exhibits that support the claim. So a Ruffin may have fired the shot that started the Civil War. I’m not ashamed. But I’m certainly not proud.

3.       Sometime during my boyhood, I was telling a friend how proud I was that our country had never lost a war. He said, “Well actually, Georgia was one of the Confederate states, so we lost the Civil War.” This upset me, since all children think it’s possible to win all the time. So I asked my father if the South in fact lost the Civil War. He gave me that sideways look and said, “Yes, and be glad we did.”

4.       Once a dear lady in a church I served placed a new headstone on the grave of her Confederate Army veteran grandfather. She told me she was going to hold a dedication service and asked me if I’d pray. So my Good Wife and I went to the cemetery at the appointed time. The program called for the saying of the pledge to the flag of the Confederate States of America before the saying of the pledge to the flag of the United States of America. My Good Wife asked me if I was going to say the pledge to the Confederate flag. I replied, “No, because I am not now, nor have I ever been, a citizen of the Confederate States of America.” Neither has anyone else who is alive today.

5.       The first sermon by an African-American preacher I ever heard was in a Mercer University chapel service around 1977. I don’t remember his name, but I remember something he said. He was preaching on the text in Genesis 2 about God forming a man from the dust of the earth. He said, “It’s hard to understand how one speck of dust can think it’s better than another speck just because it’s a different hue.” That made sense to me. It still does.

6.       General Robert E. Lee said this about putting up monuments after the Civil War: “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” We should have heeded his advice.

7.       The “alt-right” is all wrong.

8.       It’s a strange kind of Christianity that condones hate, much less honors and promotes it.

9.       Some of those white nationalists marching in Charlottesville on Saturday were probably raised in church. What on earth did they hear? Some of them probably went to church on the Sunday after they marched. What did their fellow parishioners say to them?

10.   Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (using the words of the nineteenth century minister and philosopher Theodore Parker) famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Indeed it does.

11.   I am completely befuddled that any American can see swastikas on our streets and not be filled with indignation and sorrow.

12.   Heather Heyer cared deeply about people and tried to help the oppressed and disenfranchised. She was going to join those protesting against the Klan and Nazi marchers in Charlottesville when the car crashed into the crowd. She was killed. She was thirty-two years old. She is a hero.

13.   I understand dislike, irritation, and misunderstanding. But I can’t understand hate.

14.   “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” (Nelson Mandela)

      15.  "All you need is love. Love is all you need." (John Lennon)
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Friday, August 11, 2017

Knee-Jerk Reactions

I was recently working on a story in the Gospel of Matthew (14:13-21). Jesus has just learned of the execution of John the Baptist, his kinsman and forerunner. He understandably wants to be alone, so he gets into a boat to travel to a deserted place. But when he arrives, the place isn’t deserted. A large crowd is waiting for him because they have needs they believe Jesus can meet.

Here’s the line that jumped out at me from the story: “When [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (v. 14). When he saw the crowd with their needs, “he had compassion for them.” He saw them and he had compassion on them. That was his knee-jerk, immediate, gut-level reaction. Then he acted in light of his compassion.

Later in the story, Jesus’ disciples realize that the crowd is still in need: they have no food and there is nowhere nearby to get any. So they suggest to Jesus that he send the people away so they can buy food. Jesus has another idea that involves turning five loaves of bread and two fish into more than enough provisions for the crowd. The disciples don’t think they have sufficient resources to feed a large hungry crowd, but they learn that Jesus’ power could turn their little into a lot.

But here’s the question I want to ask: how do we react at the moment we see people in need? What is our knee-jerk reaction when we see the sick, the poor, the refugee, the marginalized, and the oppressed? What is our immediate, automatic, gut-level response?

Over the years I’ve had a hard time understanding people who profess to follow Jesus but whose knee-jerk reaction to people in need is apathy (“Not my problem”), selfishness (“Not with my money”), or even disdain (“We don’t need their kind”). Sadly, I’ve known a lot of people in the church with those reactions. I’m sure other folks have such reactions too, but I find them particularly troubling in people who carry the name “Christian.”

Now, I’m not claiming that my first reaction is always compassion. But I can testify that I want it to be and that it bothers me when it isn’t.

We can’t expect all Christians to agree on the best approach to meeting people’s needs. But we can and should expect all Christians to always be growing toward having the same knee-jerk reaction to human needs. And our appropriate knee-jerk reaction is compassion.

How do I know? Because that was Jesus’ knee-jerk reaction.

Christians follow Jesus. We should always be growing in his grace and love. We want our lives to reflect his ways.

When Jesus saw people in need, the first thing he felt was compassion.

Until that’s our knee-jerk reaction, we have a long way to go.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

A Letter to Our Grandson

Dear Sullivan,

Welcome to the world! I am so glad you are here.

I hope you will be free to become the best possible version of who you are meant to be and of who you want to be. You can rest assured that we will always love, embrace, and support you. I also hope the world in which you will grow up and live will progress toward being an even better world than the one into which you have been born. I hope you will join with people of good will to contribute to that progress.

I hope you will help your world become more sensible. Right now we’re not displaying much sense and much of what we are displaying is bad. We do things that are counter-productive, harmful, and hateful. I hope the world you help build will have a better grasp on reality than the one into which you have been born has. I especially hope it will grow in realizing that all of us on Earth are in this together. In the words of one of your grandfather’s favorite bands, “There is no more new frontier. We have got to make it here.” Any other way of looking at it doesn’t make sense.

I hope you will help your world become more knowledgeable. Too many people in the world in which you have arrived are against knowledge; they reveal that by valuing their opinions over demonstrated facts. My parents (your great-grandparents) didn’t go to college but they taught me that doing so was crucial to having a good life and to helping others find a better life. Your grandparents taught your parents the same thing. No matter what career you end up choosing and what kind of training it requires, it is vital that you continually pursue knowledge, that you develop varied interests, that you read widely, and that you travel to other regions of the world as much as you can. It is also crucial that you respect and listen to those who know more than you do about particular areas. Don’t disparage those who possess greater knowledge than you have. Listen to them and learn from them.
I hope you will help your world become more aware. Specifically, I hope you will help it become more aware that the real is not limited to the physical and that the true goes beyond the literal. I meant what I said about seeking, embracing, and appreciating knowledge, but too many people limit knowledge to what can be seen with the eye, touched with the hand, or tested in the laboratory. There is much more to life than that. I hope you’ll help your world do better at taking the spiritual into account. That’s where understanding that not all that is true is literal and not all that is literal is true becomes important. Learn the power of metaphor and symbolism. Help your world embrace that power.
I hope you will help your world become more humble. Arrogance is way too prevalent in this one. Too many people believe their experience is normative, assume their perspective is right, and put their own wants and needs ahead of everybody else’s. I want you to develop a clear sense of self and to have the courage of your convictions. But I also want you always to remember that you are one of 7.5 billion people (and by 2050 you’ll be one of 9.6 billion people) who live on this planet. In our eyes you are one of the most important ones, but in fact you are not. Remember that the same God made all of us and that you and every other human being have 99.5% of your DNA in common. (By the way, if you really want to enhance your humility, always remember that a chimpanzee has 98.8% of the DNA you have.) At the same time, remember that you are unique. There is only one you. You differ from other people in only .5% of your DNA, but that little bit is crucial. Take pride in who you are, but don’t be arrogant about it. And always be willing to change.

I hope you will help your world become more loving. From a Christian perspective, to love means to put others ahead of self and to give self up for others’ sake. Not everyone in the world is a Christian. Furthermore, not everyone who claims to be Christian is and not all Christians practice Christian love (I know how strange that must sound). Still, you can think, talk, and act in ways that will help people see the value of service and sacrifice. If enough of them can grow into wanting to help more than to be helped and to serve rather than to be served, this world will finally be ready to begin being a better place.

Sullivan, I realize that it will be a few weeks before you can read this letter for yourself. I also realize that it lays some lofty expectations on you. It is not a burden you can or should bear alone. Surround yourself with people who want to journey with you on the road to a better world. Build a community that wants to help make the world an even more wonderful place to be. I pledge to you that I will help you in whatever ways I can for as long as I am here.

Know that you are loved.

Know that your love for other people can make all the difference.

Your Grandfather,

Duke


Mike and Debra Ruffin are celebrating the arrival of their first grandchild, Sullivan Nash Gunter, on July 12. Mike’s professor, mentor, and second father, Dr. Howard P. Giddens, was known by the nickname “Duke,” so he has taken that as his grandfather name.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Perfect Mistakes

The other day I was listening to the excellent Georgia Public Broadcasting program On Second Thought. As Athens-based singer/songwriter T. Hardy Morris talked about the 1959 song “Try Me” by James Brown and the Famous Flames, he praised the “perfect mistakes” in Brown’s vocals. Morris was talking about the cracks in Brown’s voice that communicate the song’s emotion.

The phrase “perfect mistake” intrigues me. I wonder if I’ve ever made one. I wonder if anyone has.

Maybe there’s no such thing. But even if there isn’t, there are certainly good mistakes and bad mistakes. The motives behind the actions that lead to the mistakes differentiate good ones from bad ones. Everybody makes mistakes, but what we’re trying to accomplish when we make them matters. 

That’s why every morning we should ask ourselves what we intend to do.  

What are we trying to accomplish through what we think, say, and do? Do we set out to help people or to hurt them? Do we set out to unite people or to divide them? Do we set out to understand people or to judge them? Do we set out to accept people or to reject them? Do we set out to work with people or to manipulate them? Do we set out to build community or to tear it down?

What are our lives about? What developments do we want them to contribute to? What kind of world are we trying to help build?

I read something in a pastor’s church newsletter column almost four decades ago that I never forgot. He was talking about trying to navigate some of the controversies of the time. He said, “I will make mistakes. I choose to make my mistakes on the side of love.”

I’ve tried to live by that. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I hope I made most of them because I was trying to practice love, which from a Christian perspective means to give yourself up for the sake of others and to put others’ needs ahead of yours.

I know that all of our nation’s leaders aren’t Christians. It’s even possible that some who claim to be in fact aren’t. But when I think about what they say and do, I find myself more willing to accept the mistakes they make if I’m convinced they’re trying to help folks and not to hurt them. I find myself less willing to accept those made by leaders who seem not to care if millions of people get hurt.

If you want to witness a perfect mistake, you can try listening to the man known as the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, and Soul Brother Number One.

If you want to see political leaders make good mistakes, look for the ones who are trying to do something good and helpful. If you want to see the ones who make bad mistakes, look for the ones who aren’t..  

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

We and They

We ain’t going anywhere. Neither are they.

“Who is ‘we’ and ‘they’ in those statements?” you might be asking.

Well, “we” is whoever we are and “they” is whoever they are. “We” is those who are like we are and “they” is those who are different than we are. “We” refers to our kind and “they” to their kind.

I would tell you to fill in the blanks in the sentence “We are ___________ and they are __________ ,” but your attitudes, thoughts, opinions, words, and actions indicate that you already have. And how you fill in the blanks depends on the answers to lots of questions, like: (1) Who’s your mama and daddy? (2) Where do you hail from? (3) Where’ve you been? (4) What’d you learn in school and in what schools did you learn it? (5) Do you only know and talk to your kind or do you know and talk to other kinds? (6) Where do you get your news? (7) How much do you read and what do you read? (8) How have you experienced life? (9) How aware are you that other people haven’t had the same life experiences as you? (10) How willing are you to expand your knowledge and worldview while simultaneously acknowledging that no matter how much you know, it’s a very small fraction of all there is to know?

People who would answer those questions differently than you do would fill in the blanks differently than you would. And there are lots more people who are different than you who are like you.

Like I said, we aren’t going anywhere and neither are they. Some of us and some of them think that’s not the case, but they’re wrong. Some of us think we can eradicate them and some of them think they can eradicate us, but we and they are wrong, because there’s no way to do that without destroying us all. Some of us think we can carve out an enclave made up of people like we are and some of them think they can carve out an enclave made up of people like they are, but we and they are wrong, because there’s no way to do that without destroying ourselves or themselves. Some of us and some of them think the world would be a better place if everyone was like we or they are, but we and they are wrong, because, people being people, it wouldn’t stay that way for long—and life would be incredibly boring if it did.

The great theologian Sly Stone summed up what I’m trying to say way back in 1969 when he sang, “We got to live together.” That’s not easy. In fact, it may be much more difficult than trying to stay apart or to beat each other into submission. It’ll take people of good will from all places and all persuasions committing themselves to peace and progress with the same fervor that radicals do to conflict and regress.

It’ll require the vast majority of us coming to think in terms of “all” rather than “us” and ‘them.”

And I mean “all,” not “all us” and “all y’all.”

Thursday, June 1, 2017

America Is Already Great

I recently spent a week in San Antonio, Texas. I was there to represent the publishing company I work for at a preaching conference.

I had a good time.

I had a good time before I even left for San Antonio. The Atlanta airport is a fascinating place. There, all kinds of people wait to board their flights for all kinds of places. They are young, old, and middle-aged. They are families traveling with children and people traveling alone. They are of various sexual orientations. They have varying financial situations. They are sick and well. They are of many different races, ethnicities, nationalities, cultures, and religions. I got a kick out of observing them
.
(The most amazingly diverse collection of people with which I ever awaited a flight was in Nairobi, Kenya back in 2010. The colors, the clothes, the languages—I was amazed at humanity’s beautiful variety, which was packed tightly together in one waiting area.)

One reason I had a good time after I got to San Antonio is that it is a great place to eat. One night I had the best brisket I’ve ever tasted. Another night I had the best chili relleno (my favorite Mexican dish) I’ve ever eaten. I also had a couple of good steaks (although I must admit I’ve had better. In fact, I’ve grilled better ones myself).

Another reason I had a good time is that the preachers who assemble for this particular annual conference are a delightful bunch. They come from churches in denominations that are often referred to as “mainline.” I talked with pastors from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the United Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and the Alliance of Baptists. They came from every region of the United States and from many places in Canada. I talked with one pastor from Australia. They were women and men. They were brown, black, and white. They are committed to their calling and craft.

One day, I stopped in a German-themed establishment on the River Walk (a shopping, dining, and lodging development along the San Antonio River, which runs through the heart of the city). The waitresses were lovely Latinas dressed in German garb. A two-man band was playing German songs; one of them wore a Jamaican dreadlocks wig.

As I marveled at the sight, it dawned on me: America is already great. 

And America will become even greater as we more fully embrace our ever-increasing diversity as the great gift it is.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Covfefe (a poem)

Your demagoguery and arrogance,
your shallowness and ignorance;
there’s a word that sums it up:
Covfefe.

Help the rich, hurt the needy.
Withdraw from the climate treaty.
Tweet a lot of crazy stuff.
Covfefe.

Embrace our foes, repel our friends.
Propel us closer to the end.
Ride a cart, don’t huff and puff.
Covfefe.

Admire the dictators and the killers.
Disregard our nation’s pillars.
Lie when it’s easy, lie when it’s tough.
Covfefe.

Cry “fake news” when reporting bites you.
Call them losers when patriots fight you.
If it helps regular folks, make sure it gets snuffed.
Covfefe.

Half your Twitter followers are bots.
You and yours are pocketing lots.
Most rational folks have had enough.
Covfefe.

Put people in charge of what they hate.
Destroy America to make it great.
It’s the opposite of compassion and love.
Covfefe.

When you’re impeached or when you quit
and you’re looking for people to blame for it,
know it’s because you’re guilty of

Covfefe.

© 2017 Michael L. Ruffin


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Puttin’ on the Ritz

Since my Good Wife and I moved a couple of years ago to the farm outside of Yatesville, Georgia, where my father, the late great Champ Ruffin, was born and raised, we’d gone to the movies in Macon, Griffin, and McDonough. We’d never visited the Ritz Theater in Thomaston, the Upson County seat that is a fifteen-minute drive from our house.

That changed last week. We drove over to watch the new Guardians of the Galaxy film. The movie is a lot of fun. I recommend it.

The Ritz is great. It’s a single-screen, downtown movie house. The picture and sound quality is fine. A ticket costs $6.00. The concessions are reasonably priced. As folks would have said back in the Ritz’s heyday, it’s neat.

As I sat in Thomaston’s Ritz Theater, my mind wandered off to sit for a spell in the Ritz Theater in my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia. Some of us spent many a pleasant hour there back in the day.

The first movie I ever saw at the Barnesville Ritz—actually, the first movie I ever saw at any theatre—was the 1965 James Bond adventure Thunderball. I was with my cousins Rhonda and Denise. I can still see the climactic underwater battle (although that’s at least partly because I’ve watched the movie several more times since then). I was seven years old at the time.

One of the most memorable movie-watching experiences I had at the Ritz was seeing Beach Red. The 1967 film was directed by Cornel Wilde, who also starred in it. It’s about a Marine invasion of a Japanese-held Pacific island during World War II. The beach landing scene, which some regard as one of the most realistic ever filmed, is said to have influenced the one in Saving Private Ryan. The fascinating aspect of the movie was its effort to depict the hopes and fears of the combatants on both sides.

The last movie I saw at the Barnesville Ritz was The Green Berets (1968). It was also the first movie that I saw with my parents, which may be one of the reasons it was the last one I saw there. My folks liked to tell me (I don’t know why) that the last movie they had gone to the theater to see was The Ten Commandments (1956). I assume they saw it at the Ritz. I imagine they broke their twelve-year movie fast for two reasons: (1) their nephew and my cousin Charles was a Green Beret who was wounded in Vietnam and (2) they were probably glad that John Wayne had developed a movie that took a pro-American involvement in Vietnam stance to counter the growing anti-war movement in the country. I’m not saying they thought the war was a great idea; it’s just that they were the sort of folks who were nervous about the upheaval of the 1960s. There’s really no other explanation for the fact that they voted for George Wallace for president in 1968.

Mentioning Wallace tempts me to say a few words about the danger in putting a culturally, historically, morally, and intellectually challenged demagogue in charge of the whole country, but I won’t, since we didn’t. That time.

Instead, I want to advocate for the value of the small. I’ve been to those huge theaters with their twenty-four screens and miles of neon lights. They have their place. Choice is good, although it’s not unusual for the sixteen-screen theater located right around the corner from my office not to be showing even one film I want to see. But there’s something comforting about going to a small theater. It feels like home. And, while you’re not likely to know everybody there, you could.

You could say the same kinds of things about small towns, small churches, and small schools. What I said about big theaters applies to big cities, big churches, and big schools: they have their place. But I hope those of us who live, worship, and study in smaller places appreciate the wonders and blessings of our small, close communities. It’s nice to know and to be known.

By the way, I understand they sometimes show outdoor movies in the place where the Barnesville Ritz used to be. I think that’s neat.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Black Holes

In a few months, we may see the first image of a black hole. This is exciting!

Scientists trained the radio telescopes of eight observatories ranging from Antarctica to Hawaii to Spain on two black holes, one located at the center of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and another in a galaxy known as M87. Supercomputers will analyze the data and, if all goes according to plan, we’ll get to see a picture of a black hole for the first time.

The telescope array that undertook this mission is called the Event Horizon Telescope, because an event horizon is what the project is designed to detect. A black hole, which occurs when a star collapses in on itself until all of its mass is compressed into what is called a gravitational or space-time singularity, is super-dense.

The gravity in a black hole is, to say the least, strong. It is so strong that something would have to travel faster than the speed of light to escape. Since, so far as we are aware, nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light, nothing, including light, can escape a black hole.

The event horizon, which is the boundary of a black hole, is the point of no return; once an object—an asteroid, say—gets past that point, there’s no escaping. The extreme gravity of the black hole sucks it in, and that’s that.

Sagittarius A, as the black hole at the center of the Milky Way is known (it’s located in the constellation Sagittarius), is 26,000 light years away. A light year is the distance light travels in a year. Light travels 186,000 miles per second. So how far away is Sagittarius A? You do the math (because I can’t). 

It’s a far piece. It’s farther than over yonder.

But it seems to me that we have some black holes right here among us: fear, hate, prejudice, and ignorance. All too often, all four of them combine in the black hole to end all black holes. We don’t have to wait for a picture. We’ve all seen it.

Some of us are in such a black hole.

I’m not sure how people get there, but they do. And some of us are getting dangerously close to the event horizon. We’re getting very close to the point where we cross over into the black hole where the combination of fear, hate, prejudice, and ignorance sucks us in.

If you get in your spaceship, kick it into warp drive, and cross a black hole’s event horizon, that’s that. You’ll never get out. As I understand it, that’s how the physics work. Oh, and science suggests that the force inside the black hole would quickly tear you to shreds.

Our spiritual and social black holes will suck you in, and once you’re there, they’ll tear your mind, heart, and spirit to shreds. But I don’t believe that, once you’ve crossed the event horizon into the black hole of fear, hate, prejudice, and ignorance, you’re doomed to stay there.

I say that because, while the gravity of a black hole may be the strongest force in the universe, it’s nothing compared to grace and love.

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 …