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Archive | Keeping the Faith

Love is the final word

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Rabbi Irwin Kula collected an assembly of audio recordings in the days after the September 11th terrorist attacks; final conversations of those in the towers as they called home, spouses, parents, partners, friends, and left voice mails.

What he discovered was this: All the final conversations he had in his collection were about love. Not a single person used his or her last breathe to say, “Kill [them] for what they have done…Be sure to get revenge…I hate them for what they did to me…Avenge my memory.” Every last word was an “I love you” of some variety.

Rabbi Kula said, “Then I recognized what the real experience behind religion is…it is about love…and it’s no more complicated than that. As a rabbi, and I think priests, ministers, and monks, we’ve made it a lot more complicated than it is. When you make it more complicated than it is, you lose the experience.”

As I understand the Bible, particularly as I read it through the lens of Jesus of Nazareth, God isn’t much into religion. He’s not interested in carving up the world along tribal or cultic lines. He’s not officiating a spiritual contest, declaring winners and losers in who can most strongly declare how right they are. That’s all much too complicated.

Rather, Jesus came to reveal God’s love to us, to draw it out of us, to show us that love is the beginning, the means, the path, and the end; it’s the only road to travel. I suppose this makes me an “exclusivist;” one who denies that all religious paths are equal and simply have their own unique twists and turns along the way.

No, I do not believe such a thing, for the morbid irony is that religion brought down those iconic towers more than a decade ago. Hard. Inflexible. Dogmatic. Immovable religion (and such religion can be perpetuated as easily by we who are “Christian” as any other group).

God surely can’t be associated with anything of the sort, no matter what name it is called or however right and correct it purports to be. God must be—absolutely must be—in what is loving, absolving, and just, not destructive. For love is what saves us. It is what gives us life. It is the only thing that overcomes hate and injustice. It is the final word.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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Stay in School

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

The Buddha said, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Well, ready or not kids, your teachers are showing up in classrooms everywhere. It’s time to crack open the books, slip the surly bonds of summer, and head back to school.

My counsel is to stay in school as long as you can; not to avoid the employment line or devour your parents’ purse but to learn all you can, and to learn to become a learner. For when you stop learning, the proverb goes, you’ve stopped living.

This applies even to those who have the parchment hanging on the wall, those in well-established careers, and to those who haven’t set foot onto a schoolyard in decades. We are always in school, or at least we should be, and those who feel they have matriculated to the point, in life or faith, where we think we know it all, or at least we know enough, we haven’t graduated. We have quit.

When we refuse to learn anything more, we become fixated, immature masters of minutia, nothing more, and life grows incredibly small—looking like old men and women stuffed into preschoolers’ chairs. Mystery is murdered, discoveries dry up, and gone is the joy and excitement of new, daily revelation.

How many treasures are forfeited by those who “know that they know what they know,” but they have learned nothing new in decades? Their minds and hearts are as closed as a freshman’s Algebra book. In the words of Russian giant Leo Tolstoy, “Even the strongest current of water cannot add a drop to a cup which is already full.”

Maybe the always returning school year is an act of redemption, really, for we get another chance to learn our lessons; to take the same course, again and again if necessary, so we can get it right; to pick up the material that we have not yet mastered or refused to heed, and to go deeper.

Still, I suppose that every student, from the Kindergartener beginning to read to the old man learning new tricks, feels like he is being crushed by the repetition of the classroom. But God’s classroom isn’t a form of punishment. The lessons must be learned for our own maturation and well-being and the Teacher knows this. He is giving us every opportunity to succeed—if only we will.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

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Keep it simple

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

The Old Testament Law contains 613 individual commandments. Such a corpus of legal code is incredibly lengthy. Yet, the oral tradition that supplements the Law is also extensive. Translated into English, it is a multi-volume set of more than seven thousand pages.
So it’s no surprise that Jesus was once asked this pertinent question: “Which is the most important commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. He then added, “The second most important is similar: Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” If only practical faith could stay on this level of holy simplicity.
Christians are a verbose group. We always have something to say, prove, defend, attack, clarify, protect, or explain. As if elaborate statements of faith will improve upon our Founder’s humble words. Complication and baggage just seem to naturally collect like barnacles attaching themselves to a ship.
It requires vigilance—the closest, most careful attention—to keep faith concentrated along the lines of which Jesus spoke. To do otherwise, to let faith go where it will, seems to lead to more words, more demands and commands, and more impediments to actually practicing the way of Christ.
I like the personal story told by Jim Wallis when he was a teenager. Young Jim picked up a girlfriend to take to a movie, an act strictly forbidden in the church culture of his youth. As Jim and his date prepared to leave the house, the girl’s father stood in the doorway blocking their exit. He said to the couple, tears in his eyes, “If you go to this film, you’ll be trampling on everything that we’ve taught you to believe.”
While the shaming was over the top, the man’s conviction is honorable, in a curious sort of way. He was begging those he loved to stay true to the path. I have similar convictions when it comes to simplicity. Thus, I have lost count of the times over the years when people wanted more—more words, more dogma, more doctrine, and more rules. At such times, I firmly grip the doorframe and say, “No, let’s keep it simple.”
If we can learn to love God and love our neighbors (no easy task), it will be enough. It will be more than enough. For “shattering and disarming simplicity,” said the great C.S. Lewis, “is the real answer.”
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

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Wise up

 

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

When a mother giraffe gives birth, she does so standing up. So her calf’s first act is to fall six feet to the ground, crash landing on his face. Then, as if such an arrival wasn’t harsh enough, the youngling’s mother will continually knock him down when he attempts to stand.

This isn’t cruelty. It is the youngster’s primal lesson: If you are going to stay alive in a world of apex predators, you better learn to stand on your own feet. You better wise up as quickly as possible.

Yes, if we are going to survive, we need to learn our lessons well. And since none of our mothers hatched us in the Serengeti, immediately kicked us in the head, or thumped us like a drum in the hospital nursery, we can’t rely upon nature’s classroom. We have to find a different way. That way is wisdom.

Wisdom, at its most basic, is the skillful application of knowledge and experience. And maybe no greater commodity is more needed in today’s world. But beyond dropping all the idiots of the world on their heads and kicking them around for a while (a nice image I like to daydream about, but an image spoiled once I realize that I’m as big a moron as the people I criticize), what can we do on a planet with so little wisdom?

The Apostle James answers: “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone.”

Wisdom, by all practical appearances, is there for the taking. God will give those who request it, the insight and understanding that they need. God can save us from foolish and reckless living, if—and this is a colossal if—we will trust him for these things and not ourselves.

And that’s the rub, the very definition of our absurdity. We do not trust God to show us the way of wisdom. We waver, follow our own hearts, and then fall victim to our own lunacy. By trusting ourselves, we land in the dust over and over again. Yes, I know it’s hard to “let go and let God.” But his way is the only path to true wisdom, and it’s a path far less painful than constantly falling on your face.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

 

 

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The Man behind the curtain

 

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

What do Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, have in common? Seventy-five years ago this week, these towns hosted the first public release for one of the greatest films ever—The Wizard of Oz.

I love the scene where Dorothy and her friends return to Oz’s throne room with the Witch’s broomstick, confirming that their assignment is complete. But the Wizard rebuffs them. He is about to renege on the handing out of home, brains, hearts, and courage.

Then, in the midst of booming voices, thunderclaps, and lightning bolts, Toto scurries over to a mystical shower stall and pulls back the curtain. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” the Wizard warns. But the game is over. There is no great and powerful Oz. There is only Oscar Zoroaster Diggs from Omaha, Nebraska.

This scene reveals the truth on so many levels. There is nothing to be afraid of—especially when it comes to God. We have been told that God, the “Wizard,” is more terrifying than all the dangers of the world. We know we need God and all that he offers, but we might as soon throw ourselves out his palace window to escape his terrors than to remain in his presence.

Yet, this is all smoke, mirrors, curtains, and megaphones, for Jesus has done something even the legendary Toto could not accomplish. He doesn’t just pull the curtain back, he tears it asunder, showing us a God who isn’t playing games or hiding his true identity.

God is a compassionate, loving, heart-sick parent who refused to keep his distance from us, who decided he would no longer allow his name or reputation to be misrepresented, but would present himself as a mere mortal, that he might enter our sufferings and undo the chaos of his creation.

The coming of Jesus into the world was the coming of God into the world. And the cross of Jesus, in all of its foolish glory, did not change God—he has always been in love with humanity—it changes us. With no heavy curtain obscuring our perspective, we see that God is more gracious, more wonderful, more welcoming, and more loving than we previously imagined; there is no reason to be afraid of him. This is not a fanciful measure of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” It is the place we call home, and there’s no place like it.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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The Man Behind the Curtain

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

What do Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, have in common? Seventy-five years ago this week, these towns hosted the first public release for one of the greatest films ever. “The Wizard of Oz.”

I love the scene where Dorothy and her friends return to Oz’s throne room with the Witch’s broomstick, confirming that their assignment is complete. But the Wizard rebuffs them. He is about to renege on the handing out of home, brains, hearts, and courage.

Then, in the midst of booming voices, thunderclaps, and lightning bolts, Toto scurries over to a mystical shower stall and pulls back the curtain. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” the Wizard warns. But the game is over. There is no great and powerful Oz. There is only Oscar Zoroaster Diggs from Omaha, Nebraska.

This scene reveals the truth on so many levels. There is nothing to be afraid of – especially when it comes to God. We have been told that God, the “Wizard,” is more terrifying than all the dangers of the world. We know we need God and all that he offers, but we might as soon throw ourselves out his palace window to escape his terrors than to remain in his presence.

Yet, this is all smoke, mirrors, curtains, and megaphones, for Jesus has done something even the legendary Toto could not accomplish. He doesn’t just pull the curtain back, he tears it asunder, showing us a God who isn’t playing games or hiding his true identity.

God is a compassionate, loving, heart-sick parent who refused to keep his distance from us, who decided he would no longer allow his name or reputation to be misrepresented, but would present himself as a mere mortal, that he might enter our sufferings and undo the chaos of his creation.

The coming of Jesus into the world was the coming of God into the world. And the cross of Jesus, in all of its foolish glory, did not change God – he has always been in love with humanity – it changes us. With no heavy curtain obscuring our perspective, we see that God is more gracious, more wonderful, more welcoming, and more loving than we previously imagined; there is no reason to be afraid of him. This is not a fanciful measure of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” It is the place we call home, and there’s no place like it.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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What a Wonderful World

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

This coming week marks the birthday of a man who Bing Crosby called, “the beginning and the end of music in America.” Born in the sweltering heat of a New Orleans’ August, the grandson of former slaves, and suffering abject poverty, that man was Louis Armstrong.

Most people, even those who could not recognize Armstrong’s face or his contribution to Americana, can still sing along to his most iconic song: “What a wonderful world.”

Louis recorded and released “What a Wonderful World” in 1967. The southern states were fighting desegregation, and the U.S. Army was fighting in Southeast Asia. The Apollo 1 spacecraft was burning on the launch pad, and the Cold War was burning in Eastern Europe.

The Israelis were at war with their Arab neighbors, and police departments were at war with African Americans in Detroit, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and DC. JFK was already dead, and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. would both be assassinated the following year. How could Louis Armstrong sing this song about rainbows and unicorns when the world looked like it was going to hell in a hand basket; when the world looked so un-wonderful (as it still does today)?

Armstrong answers that question. He said, “It seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it. All I’m saying is: See what a wonderful world it would be, if only we’d give it a chance.”

That conclusion hints of Scripture. God created this wonderful world and called it “good.” So what went wrong? We did. As crowning achievements of his creative project, humanity was to serve as the steward and curator of God’s world. It was, it is, and it will always remain humanity’s role to be creation’s protector; to maintain the goodness of God’s world. We have largely shirked that responsibility.

Yet, this blue ball hanging in the vast expanse of space that miraculously incubates all that is, must mean something to God, because God wants it to be wonderfully “good.” Thus, We throw ourselves into the fray of this fractured world—healing the sick, making peace among enemies, feeding the hungry, working for justice, protecting and sustaining resources, creating harmony—because we believe “it ain’t the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it.” God’s intent and Armstrong’s words are tuned to the same melody: Let’s give the Wonderful World a chance.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

 

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Let go or be dragged

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

A friend who has some experience with rodeo horses sent me a most picturesque proverb: “Let go or be dragged.” Whether this phrase was first spoken by a Zen master who had achieved enlightenment, or by a battered cowboy pulling cacti from his backside, it is the unmistakable truth.

Take my friend’s horses as an example. Training such animals requires lassoing, roping, and haltering. Incredible strength, patience, and stamina are needed to match a horse. But sometimes, as the proverb goes, the breaker becomes the broken. A point is reached where the trainer must regroup, or risk being ground into the corral’s dust.

Think of the little one who refuses to leave the playground. Haven’t you seen mothers and fathers, quite literally, hauling the kicking and screaming child to the car? What about the dog that finally catches the school bus he has been chasing for years? Now what does he do? Victoriously sink his teeth into the bumper like it’s a chew toy?

This much is certain: We all will face situations, diseases, circumstances, relationships, people, challenges and conditions that are larger, stronger, and longer-lasting than we are. We have two options and only two options in such encounters. We can keep fighting an unwinnable war, and whatever we have dug our claws into will drag us into a bloody pulp.

Or, we can accept our limitations and admit that we are not omnipotent. We can accept life for how it is, even when life isn’t fair (when is it really fair, anyway?). We can let go. And in this surrender—this little act of dying—we stop our suffering. We get to live again. For this is the counterintuitive way of the cross; the paradoxical power of Christ: We only live once we have died. We only gain by giving up. We only win if we surrender—let go or be dragged.

At first blush this sounds something like “Christianity for Weaklings,” and some will find it intolerable. “Give up? Surrender is for cowards and quitters!” Such objections ignore the fact that there are some things that cannot be changed by brute strength.

Further, such objections belittle the way of the cross. Read again those familiar crucifixion accounts of Jesus, and there you will see that letting go requires more than a noble struggle, more than hanging on – infinitely more. It requires everything. Let go, or be dragged.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

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Hitting the Road

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

Summer: Vacation days are being redeemed and picnic baskets are being packed. Barbecues are firing, pools are splashing, and ice cream trucks are rolling. Meanwhile, millions are taking to the great American highway.

We love to feel the breeze on our faces and the road beneath our wheels. We can’t stop ourselves from being a traveling people. We always have been. We keep moving, rolling, and running, so that the theme song of human history might well be Willie Nelson’s, “On the Road Again.”

True to form, Christianity is a fluid faith for a pilgrim people. It is a spirituality of movement. But we don’t always understand faith this way. Look at how we have structured it, however, and it is easy to see why we most often view Christianity as an incorrigible, fixated fortress rather than a living, dynamic journey.

Our doctrines, constructed and accumulated over thousands of years, stack up like immovable stones. The buildings that contain our worship services are almost always built of rock, granite, or the hardest and heaviest material we can find. Or try being an idealistic reformer who seeks to change a church’s policy or its strategy to meet the world where it now is. If you’re not taken out behind the vestry and quietly crucified, you will find that change in the church usually moves with all the terrifying speed of a melting glacier.

This betrays our roots and the trajectory set for our faith from its beginning. Before his death, Jesus described himself and faith in him like this: “I am the true and living way.” This had such a profound effect on the first followers of Jesus that the earliest self-description of Christianity was “The Way.” It was the Path. The Road. It was the constantly evolving, winding, opening arc that took this “band of gypsies down the highway.”

So it doesn’t appear that Jesus came to establish an inflexible, competitive religion that would be pitted against other belief systems. No, he came to show us how to live the life of redeeming love, love for God and for others. There’s nothing about love that should be turned into coldblooded institutionalism or be used to exclude, marginalize, or separate. This Way can only take us further down the road and deeper into the heart of God. And while love is often “a road less traveled,” it is the worthiest of journeys.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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Fight like a Butterfly

 

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

Muhammad Ali once claimed he would “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Well, “The Greatest” did exactly that. And while I’m not one to tug on Superman’s cape, I’d like to slightly amend his most famous of phrases. I believe that before one can “float like a butterfly,” he or she must fight like one.

You might know the story of a boy who came upon a cocoon. He took it home and watched it carefully. One day a small tear in the chrysalis appeared, and the butterfly began to emerge. It was a struggle. The slit was tiny, the butterfly was big, and the boy was worried about his new little friend. So, he decided to help.

With scissors he carefully cut the cocoon open to rescue the beautiful butterfly. But it wasn’t beautiful; it was fat and swollen. Its wings were wilted. It never learned to fly. It could only crawl around in a shoebox, a jar, or wherever the boy placed it.

When the boy told his science teacher this tale, he was taught an invaluable lesson: The butterfly had to struggle. It had to face oppositional forces. The butterfly’s laborious effort to emerge was nature’s way of circulating dormant blood and strengthening new wings. The butterfly’s fight to get out of the cocoon was not an impediment, but preparation, and the boy’s “help” actually turned out to be hurtful.

What is true in nature is true of human nature: Some suffering is necessary. We have to struggle—we must—if we will ever gain the strength we need to fly. This is anathema to our North American ears, however, because we have constructed a society with a monumentally low threshold for pain. Pain-aversion is rampant, extending from playrooms and boardrooms to State Houses and fraternity houses, from helicopter-parenting to fiscal irresponsibility.

Yet, there is a consummate spiritual principle: There is no resurrection without a cross, no greatness without grief, and no strength apart from suffering. The struggle is a necessary process in maturation.

When we avoid suffering at all costs, we fail to see that such behavior will cost us everything, for if we cannot tolerate anything that hurts or discomforts us now, we will never become people of faith, character, or maturity later. With apologies to Ali, we will never “float like a butterfly” until we have learned to fight like one.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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