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Archive | Keeping the Faith

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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Who you really are

 By Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

I received a mystery package recently and discovered a popular appetite suppressant inside. Sprinkle this magic powder on your food, and allegedly it would cooperate with your sense of smell to curb your cravings. And here it was in my hands—a whole box of the stuff. But I didn’t order it.

Shortly thereafter I received a second package. This time it was a set of CDs: “Quick and Simple Japanese; Learn to Speak the Language in 10 Days.” With the box still in my hands, and as I wondered about it all, a third package arrived at my door. It was a box of those super-absorbent hand towels sold on late night infomercials.

Then I knew what was going on. Someone had stolen my credit card information and was having his way with my account. We have a unique 21st century name for this type of crime: Identity theft. What a strange phrase that is; surely there is much more to personal identity than the digits on a piece of magnetic plastic. Of course, but most times we are content with the shallowness of it all, because most of us have no real sense of who we genuinely are.

See, we are made to be as Christ—as Paul put it so succinctly: “I have been crucified with Christ so I no longer exist. It is Christ who lives in and through me.” Yet, so few of us know that Christ-shaped self, the real person that Jesus would create in each of us. Instead, we have this edifice, this outer image we portray to others and protect at almost any cost. But it’s just that—a shell. We lack substance. We are just names and numbers without any real identity. We haven’t let the Christ-life be fashioned within us.

The short of it is this: We are un-crucified (if such a word exists). For when the weight of the cross, the cross that would crush and remake us, falls heavy on our shoulders, we crawl from beneath the load before it finishes its work. Yet, the forging of faith and the making of lasting Christ-centered identity is only accomplished by means of execution. By loss. By the death of the false self.

So as long as you protect what you think is yours, so long as you struggle to avoid all necessary suffering, so long as you refuse to relinquish the identity you have constructed, you will never become who Christ would make you—the real you—the you that can never be stolen.

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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Praying for Rain

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

There’s an old story that circulates in my family about my great-great grandfather, a fiery circuit-riding preacher named John Martin McBrayer. It was the early 1900s and drought was smothering the Georgia countryside. So a Saturday prayer meeting was called, a meeting to pray for rain.

The community gathered, and in time, John Martin came riding up on his pony. It took him a while to get inside, but when he did, he was carrying his saddle. “Well Preacher,” one man asked, “Why’d you bring your saddle in? You stayin’ the night?” Everyone laughed. John Martin gave a mischievous chuckle himself and answered, “No, I thought we’d be prayin’ for rain? I believe the rest of you will be ridin’ home wet.” Sure enough, that afternoon the rains came. And just as sure, most folks left on wet saddles and in drenched wagons (all while old John trotted home as dry as dust).

I often tell this story, not as a means of convincing people that they will always get what they pray for, but as an illustration of what faith looks like: Faith in God, not faith in a specific, pre-calculated outcome. This is reminiscent of an even older story found in the book of Daniel, the story of the “Three Hebrew Children”–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

These boys were ordered to bow and worship an idol, a false god. This was sacrilege beyond the pale, so they refused. For their noncompliance the boys were to be burned alive in a fiery furnace. But before the sentence was carried out they were given a final opportunity to acquiesce. Their response is one of defiant faith: “God will rescue us from your power. But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you that we will never bow.”

Mature faith is far more than a cheerful “happily ever after” post-scripted to every story we tell. It is trust in the God behind all outcomes. Enough of this faith that professes only the ability to change our circumstances; such faith is little more than a lucky rabbit’s foot.

Instead, we need a faith that gives us resiliency, faith that strengthens our souls. We need faith that serves, not as a payoff for our prayers, but as growing confidence in a Person. We need that faith that sustains us, if the hoped-for rescue or drought-breaking rains come or not.

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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Not slaves, but sons and daughters

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

There are some two million adopted children living in United States’ households today. These children arrive in their homes in a myriad of ways. Some are abandoned, are surrendered to children’s services, or have biological parents who are in no condition to provide a home.

Some are from the States; some from overseas; some come out of foster care; some come from an adoption agency; and some come from out of nowhere, it seems. But most all have this in common: They are loved. The adoptive parents want to provide a loving home for these children.

Two of those two million adopted children live under my own roof. When they were younger, and I suppose they need to hear it even more as they move toward adulthood, I would tell them, “Everyone is born, you know. But not everyone is chosen. Not everyone has the honor of being selected; but you were.”

Granted, this doesn’t settle all of their anxieties, and now in adolescence, they have all the existential anxieties of their peers – “Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I in the world? How do I fit in? What is my identity?” But those who are adopted often have these questions on steroids.

Some questions, I tell my growing young men, will be answered now. Some answers will come in adulthood. But some questions may never be answered. Yet, they cannot let all the unanswerable questions of their existence rob them of this essential fact: They are chosen and loved.

One of the New Testament’s more powerful images, as it describes God’s concern for humanity, is, fittingly, adoption. “By his great love,” the Apostle Paul said, “we were chosen for adoption into God’s family. You are not his slaves. You are his children.”

God’s choosing love might not squelch all anxieties or address all of our identity issues, but it’s a good place to start. For if we know that God loves us, then we can make allowance for the things that we don’t know; if we understand that we are chosen, then we can live with those things that can’t be understood; when we are certain of our acceptance, then we can accept other uncertainties.

I pray that these facts will serve as a grounding, stabilizing force for my sons as they grow into life. And yes, I pray the same for all of us.

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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Your life will outlive you

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

Rifling through old family records I discovered the obituary of my great-grandmother. Her name was Ola Whitfield, a simple woman born in the 19th century, and so much like the other sharecroppers in the Deep South at the time. She worked hard, was sparsely educated, remained anonymous to the greater world, birthed a farmhouse full of children, and died young. She lived only 36 years.

That obituary, written in the vibrant language of the time, captures her simple faith so well. It reads, “Oh, it was so hard to give her up but she left a true evidence of her faith: She called her husband to her side and told him that if it had been the Lord’s will she would have loved to stay with him and help raise the children. She told him to carry the children to church and Sunday School and raise them right. Such a consolation to us all to hear such words as she gives us to do the will of our Father.”

Granted, raising children “right,” (a Southern colloquialism for instilling proper social manners, respect for elders, and weekly church attendance) is no guarantee that said children will turn out well. They just might become ungodly little monsters. That wasn’t dear Ola’s point. In her unpretentious way, she understood the profound truth that she would live on in those who followed her. So she was being intentional, planning for her life to outlive her.

In our “what have you done for me lately world,” where time is measured by quarterly dividend reports or in two-year election cycles, we forget that the fruit of one’s life may reach maturity only after many years, decades, or even centuries. It could be that those whom we will never meet, those who will walk in our footsteps generations from now, will be the ones to gain the most from our lives.

So when I read my great-grandmother’s obituary, I am thankful; thankful for her and the ones who have gone before me. I am grateful that those who never dreamed of me, or my children, made decisions and lived in a way that bettered our future. And all this reminds me, challenges me, and humbles me that as the generations proceed, whether I like it or not, others will rely upon me and you for the same. Your life will outlive you. Make it a good 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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Love saves the world from death

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

I pulled from my bookshelf a few systematic theology books that I had not opened for a long time. I blew off the dust, cracked the stiff binding, and dove into the hundreds of pages filled with declarations about the attributes and characteristics of God. As I skimmed the pages I was made freshly aware of how distracted we have become.

For all of Christianity’s theoretical words and defenses, the Apostle John was simple and winsome with his definition of God: “God is love,” he said. If Christians daily practiced this definition instead of declaring and defending how right we are, I imagine the world would be a much different place.

Granted, love-talk is about all it is—just talk. The late George Carlin said, “Love is incredibly powerful…But love can’t change the world. It’s nice. It’s pleasant. It’s better than hate. But it has no special power.”

I’m not yet ready to agree. Instead, I’m going to take John at his word: Love is God’s nature and love comes from God. Once this love gets planted in our hearts, it spills out to others, resulting in transformation; it changes the world, one person at a time.

To that end, there was a rabbi who became friends with a Persian fortuneteller. Every morning the two sat together and watched people head out of the village to work. As a man walked by, the fortuneteller said, “I foresee that this man will not come back. He will be bitten by a snake and die.”

But at evening they saw the condemned man re-enter the village! The Persian ran at once to him, grabbed his backpack, and emptied it on the ground. An enormous snake spilled out of the bag; a snake very much dead. So the rabbi asked the man, “What did you do today to avoid misfortune?”

The man answered, “I cut trees in the forest. Every day at lunch the workers place our food in a common basket and eat together. Today, one of us had no bread and was ashamed. So I told my friends, ‘Let me collect the food.’ When I came to him I pretended to take bread from him, so that he would not be embarrassed.”

To this the rabbi burst out laughing. He said, “My son, today you obeyed God’s commandment to love! You saved your coworker and also saved yourself!” And turning to his fortuneteller friend, the rabbi said, “When one loves from his heart, he changes the fates. Love saves the world from death.” Indeed, it does.

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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An Empty Tomb is not an Empty Promise

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

“The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vault” aired almost three decades ago this week, and at the time, it was the most watched syndicated television show in history. The charismatic host of the show that evening promised the unveiling of long-kept secrets, the unknotting of historical mystery, and priceless artifacts from where Capone once lived. That host was Geraldo Rivera.

Yes, before he had his nose broken on daytime television; before he had fat sucked from his buttocks and shot into his forehead; before he was sent packing from Afghanistan for disclosing the location of US troops; and before that viral shirtless selfie on Twitter, Rivera had long ago revealed how ill-advised some of his decisions could be.

With 30 million people watching to see mysteries solved and questions answered, the vault was opened revealing nothing—unless you consider an empty gin bottle to be of historical importance. The opening of Capone’s treasures was a story as empty as the vault.

I must confess that Easter can sometimes leave us feeling like Geraldo. On Resurrection Sunday we gather with the sold-out crowd and hear the report of Jesus coming back to life. “He is risen!” we are told, and his resurrection gives “hope for ourselves, for the world, and for the future.”

But is this a publicity stunt? How can one man’s resurrection centuries ago make any real difference within the scope of eternity? Isn’t this a metaphysical fraud used to boost Christianity’s ratings? Answering similar objections, the Apostle Paul wrote, “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our faith is worthless.”

Unafraid to soften his words, Paul goes on to say that without Easter, Christianity is a farce; eternal life is a promise built on overhyped lies; God’s grace has been misrepresented; and those who adhere to the faith are as pitiful as Geraldo in a warzone (that line is not a quote from Paul, though he might have appreciated it).

Nonetheless, in rising from the dead, Jesus signaled that he would redeem humanity by overcoming all enemies, even death, and return the universe to wholeness. He will bring all of God’s creation back to life, making “life worth the living,” as the old song goes, “just because he lives.” So we confess this hope: “Jesus Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” An ambitious confession? Yes, but confession that the tomb is empty is far more than an empty promise.

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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Kingdom curriculum

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

Once upon a time the animals organized a school. They adopted a curriculum of running, climbing, swimming, and flying. The duck was excellent in swimming and flying, but was extremely poor at running, so he had to drop swimming and stay after school for additional practice. This gave the duck’s poor, webbed feet calluses, so he became only average at swimming.

Meanwhile, the rabbit started at the top of the class in running, but had a complete mental breakdown because of so much make-up work in swimming. The squirrel was excellent in climbing, but when her flying teacher made her start from the ground rather than from the treetops, her grades in all subjects plummeted.

The maverick in the school was the eagle. He was stubborn, independent, hardly a team player, and gloated in climbing class that he could beat everyone else to the top of the tree, but he always used his own way to get there. The prairie dogs stayed out of the school altogether because the administration would not add digging to the curriculum.

At the end of the year, none of the animals did very well. An unusual eel that was an exceedingly good swimmer, but that could also run, climb and fly just a little, had the highest cumulative score. He was selected as the valedictorian though his grades were barely above average.

I love that story. Always have. It teaches a lesson so easily forgotten or ignored: Nobody can be great at everything. But everybody can do something exceptionally well. Every person has his or her gift, his or her calling, his or her God-given ability. When it is properly employed, it works like magic. When it is not, or when we all try to do everything, it’s a disaster.

My experience in the church is that we often force individuals “to be something they aren’t,” demanding that everyone do everything. We create fine “animal schools” that foster frustration, shame, and false competition. Everyone ends up tepidly average, and we fail to allow individuals to develop their unique gifts and callings.

We are all gifted differently and radically so; and people must be allowed to explore, expand, and enhance their distinct talents. People must be given space and place to “to their part,” whatever part that is. It’s a principle that works, not only in the animal kingdom, but also in the kingdom of God.

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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