EDITOR’S NOTE: Ed Grisamore talked with the Rev. Michael Ruffin, pastor at First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald and author of the book “Prayer 365.”
QUESTION: Who were your spiritual role models when you were growing up? Was the ministry an early calling for you?
ANSWER: My parents, Champ and Sara Ruffin, were my first spiritual role models. They were pillars of the Midway Baptist Church (located in Lamar County several miles outside of Barnesville on City Pond Road) who were there for every Sunday morning and evening worship service and every Wednesday night prayer meeting and if we had a week-long revival, they were there for every service of that, too.
They were both high school-educated textile mill workers who demonstrated the exercise of faith and hope in the real struggles of the real world. I was especially influenced by the ways in which their faith helped them to deal with my mother’s cancer with which she was diagnosed when she was 46 and I was 9.
She died when she was 53 and I was 16. Mama really seemed to believe that everything was somehow going to be all right and Daddy really seemed to believe that somehow he was going to make it through no matter what happened. They never stopped trusting and trying.
I have tried to follow their example and to help other people see the value in such living. I was 14 when I announced to my home church that I had been called to the ministry. That’s pretty early, I guess.
QUESTION: How did your educational experiences at Mercer University and Southern Seminary in Louisville shape you as a young minister?
ANSWER: Mercer University had the most lasting influence on me of any institution with which I have been associated. I left Lamar County High School after my junior year to enter Mercer in the fall of 1975. I was as ready academically as I would ever be, but I was not prepared spiritually or emotionally.
Professor of Christianity Howard P. Giddens made a huge difference in my life by becoming my teacher and mentor and, when my father died a year after I graduated from Mercer, my father. Giddens showed me through his own life how it was possible to love the Lord and to read the Bible in a way that had both spiritual and intellectual depth. Through him and other professors I acquired an approach to life and ministry that has stood me in good stead for almost 40 years.
During the seven years (1979-1986) that I spent at Southern Seminary earning two degrees, my professors taught me three important things: One, how to develop the life of prayer and study that is necessary to life in the ministry. Two, how graciously to maintain Christian integrity and character under great pressure (during my years at Southern, the school and its professors were under much pressure due to convention politics). And three, how to understand and appreciate the best of my denominational heritage.
QUESTION: What churches did you serve prior to becoming the pastor at FBC Fitzgerald and what were some of your experiences that helped you grow as a pastor?
ANSWER: I served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel and as pastor of the Hill Baptist Church in Augusta. I also spent a few years as a professor at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.
Every experience that helped me to grow as a pastor involved a crisis in which human experiences and divine presence converged.
Whether it was someone’s crisis of faith, of health, of vocation or of relationship, when it happened -- and it did not always happen -- that they and I came to realize and believe that God really was present in what was happening, we all grew. What growing I did (and do) as a pastor I did (and do) in partnership with God and other people.
QUESTION: What is it like being a pastor in a town where wild chickens roam freely through the downtown area? Has that inspired any sermons?
ANSWER: It gives us a little notoriety. When I introduce myself to someone as being from Fitzgerald, if they know only one thing about our city, it’s probably going to be that we have wild chickens in town.
The chickens have come to function metaphorically in my thinking. People in our town generally fall into two camps, wild chicken-wise: they either love ’em or hate ’em. Being a moderate, I can see both sides. But people do tend to separate into opposing camps on most things, don’t they?
The chickens haven’t inspired any sermons by me, probably because one hasn’t wandered into a worship service. Remind me to tell you sometime about the Sunday morning that the squirrel went berserk in the Fitzgerald First Baptist Church, though.
QUESTION: You have described your religious views as “clinging to grace.” What do you mean by that?
ANSWER: Well, at the end of the day, or at the end of a life, what else is there to cling to? I believe that God is for us and if that is the case, what other explanation is there for it except grace? I mean, we’re talking about Almighty God here, the creator and sustainer of all that is. If Almighty God gives us any thought at all, it is only by grace. And the Gospel message is that not only does Almighty God think about us, but he actually loves us.
I read an article over 30 years ago in which the pastor writing it said that he had decided, whenever he had choices to make, that he would err on the side of grace. I try to live that way, too.
QUESTION: You are certainly social media savvy. You have a website (www.michaelruffin.com), write two blogs (“On the Jericho Road” and “This Preaching Thing”) and are tapped into both Facebook and Twitter. You also blast a daily prayer to hundreds of folks by email. How does all this help you spread your message?
ANSWER: My website is the heart of my online presence. There, folks can access all of my blogs (there is actually a third one called “Prayer 365” where my daily prayers can be read), connect with me via Twitter and Facebook, contact me about having me lead a Bible study or Christian spirituality conference for your church or organization, or purchase my books. I also plan in the near future to begin offering some online courses through the website. Also, before long it will have a section dealing with my song writing (I write songs at night).
Faith development involves having conversations with people and with God. Sharing my thoughts through social media helps me and others -- including people who I will never actually meet -- have such conversations.
QUESTION: On the flip side of that, in what ways are you an old-fashioned preacher?
ANSWER: There is no substitute for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ in the context of the worship of God with the people of God and I still love doing that. Christian preaching keeps Christ at the center. “Biblical preaching” is Christian preaching only insofar as the Bible is read, interpreted and preached through the lens of Jesus and only insofar as Christ is proclaimed. I still believe in that kind of preaching.
Also, when it comes to being a pastor, I am a parson at heart. Much of the challenge and joy of being a pastor comes from living among and with a particular group of people day in and day out, in the good times and the bad, sharing life together. I still try to be that kind of pastor.
QUESTION: America recently celebrated National Prayer Day on May 1. You published a book, “Prayer 365,” in May 2012. It’s a collection of prayers covering one year. Describe the book and what is about.
ANSWER: “Prayer 365” shares the record of the prayer life of one follower of Jesus in the hope that, because of our common humanity, his prayers will prove helpful in helping others to think about their own lives and pray their own prayers.
QUESTION: What is your definition of a perfect Sunday?
ANSWER: A morning service in which we worship God in as much harmony and with as much sincerity as we can realistically muster, an afternoon and evening that involves some reading, some guitar playing, a nap and a Braves’ win, topped off by a new episode of the best-written show on network television, “The Good Wife.”
QUESTION: You earned your only sports trophy when you won the batting title for the Barnesville-Lamar County Little League when you were 12 years old. How are sports a metaphor for life?
ANSWER: I still have that trophy, by the way. So I guess that sports can teach us that a victory, no matter how small in the great scheme of things, can remind us of what we can do and can thus give us hope.
QUESTION: You once said you believe “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” is the greatest movie of all time. You probably have some explaining to do.
ANSWER: I don’t see why. It seems obvious to me. The 1984 classic has everything -- action, romance, inter-dimensional travel, aliens, rock music and Ellen Barkin. The title character, Buckaroo Banzai, is a neurosurgeon, secret agent, rock star, adventurer and physicist, so I can relate to him. I want to be a preacher, teacher, writer, songwriter and adventurer (being a pastor qualifies as being an adventurer).
Besides, the film has given me the three sayings I want on my headstone: “No matter where you go, there you are”; “Let’s-a go home”; and “So what? Big deal!” Incidentally, at the conclusion of the movie we are told to watch for the sequel “Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League,” which has still not been made. It is one of the great gaps in our culture.
QUESTION: What is your favorite scripture and story from the Bible and why?
ANSWER: The story of the Prodigal Son, better called the story of the Gracious Father, in Luke 15. Because I am clinging to grace.
QUESTION: What is your favorite hymn? Do you want it sung at your funeral?
ANSWER: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Yes, accompanied by a brass band.
QUESTION: If you had one tweet (140 characters or less) to change the world, what would it be? Hashtags are acceptable.
ANSWER: Cling to grace. Do something to help. Visit www.MichaelRuffin.com. Listen for songs written by #MichaelLeeRuffinSongwriter
Contact Ed Grisamore at 478-744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.