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Archive | Keeping the Faith

Dancing, not marching

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

There is a story about two monks walking along the road when they come to a river. A beautiful woman is standing there. She can’t figure out how to continue her journey. So one of the monks picks her up in his arms—something he was absolutely forbidden to do, for touching a woman was against his vows—and he carries her across to the other side. Then, all parties continued on their journey.

After a few hours, the second monk was unable to remain silent about this misconduct. He blurts out, “How could you pick up that woman? It was against the rules!” The first monk replied, “Are you still carrying her around? I put her down hours ago.”

This is an instructive tale about two different approaches to spirituality. One can be mastered by a tightly controlled list of “dos and don’ts,” or one can move with the spirit. While the latter is not without its pitfalls, the former is certainly rife with peril. Managing our spiritual lists becomes a heavy, taxing burden.

Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible called “The Message,” gets right at this by casting new light on Jesus’ words from Matthew 11: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. You’ll recover your life…Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

The “unforced rhythms of grace.” I don’t think there is a more incomparable phrase, and nothing any higher to which anyone could aspire: to express the life of faith with freedom, harmony, and loving kindness. What liberation; and I’m speaking not simply of Peterson’s translation but the Christ-infused spirit behind the words.

For the way of Jesus is indeed effusive and free-flowing. Nothing about it is coercive, heavy, or manipulative. Jesus does not require the imposition of shame, false guilt, “sacred” extortion, or browbeating to keep people on the path. Maybe that is why “rhythm” is such an appropriate word; because following Jesus is much more like dancing than it is marching.

Do you want to live the free and gracious life? Partner with Jesus. Move with him. Stay in step with him. When the music of mercy plays, follow his lead, and you’ll find yourself enjoying faith rather than enduring it. Following Jesus leads to recovery, not religion; to empowerment, not exhaustion; it leads to the laying down of our burdens. It leads to grace.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.  

 

 

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Hard of hearing

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

A husband and wife had been married for many years when the husband began to fear that his wife was going deaf. He implemented an informal exam. With his wife in the kitchen, the husband asked from the den, “What’s for dinner?” She didn’t answer. He repeated the question over and over, each time moving closer, and each time received no response.

Finally, he was directly behind her asking his question. His wife whirled on her heels and shouted, “George, for the hundredth time, I said we’re having chicken!” Often, others listen just fine; we are the ones who are hard of hearing, especially when it comes to describe deafness to the Spirit.

Maybe God used to speak to you, he once whispered in your ear, or stirred in your soul; or maybe you have never had such a sensation of God speaking at all. Regardless, now you’re stone deaf, but might be thinking it’s God with a hearing problem.

The troubling thing is, when someone’s hearing begins to erode, his or her life gets louder, only magnifying the problem. The TV volume is cranked up to the decibels of a jet fighter. Warning bells and alarms are ignored. Communication becomes difficult, a game of escalating voices.

Bring that scenario into the realm of faith. While we want God to shatter his perceived silence with thunderclaps, earthquakes, and firestorms, why should he speak to us over the noise of our lives? Why would he add to the commotion? His voice will only get lost; and it does, in the dissonance that surrounds us.

My friend David Beavers says it impeccably: “Along life’s way, you lose you. Your life gets covered, buried, and numbed out with addictions, distractions, medications, and busyness of all kinds. If you don’t believe me, spend the day alone, without a phone, book, or computer. There, listen to and observe the insane, obsessive, cyclical and compulsive chatter that drives you—inside and out. It is nothing more than noise, and noise is the problem.”

So, you might not be hard of hearing at all. It could be the pandemonium within and without; the sound and fury that has been absorbed into your heart, mind, and very soul. We have to turn down the volume around us, not to hear ourselves think, but to hear anything—even the Maker of the Universe—when he gently speaks our name.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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Come to the Table

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

October 5 is World Communion Sunday. It is an annual event, the first Sunday of each October, in which Christians worldwide celebrate our oneness in Christ. At the center of these celebrations will be, aptly enough, Communion. Some call it the Eucharist; the Lord’s Supper; the Sacrament of the Altar; or the Last Supper. The terms used by Christians are varied.

But regardless of the theological technicalities involved, it’s how we come to the table that is more important, I think. We must be careful with the familiar observance not to lose the wonder and sensation that Christ has given himself for us and the world. And we must endeavor to welcome all followers of Jesus to share the elements of bread and cup, especially those followers who we consider outside our particular tradition. All should be welcomed.

I was reminded of this when I recently attended an Episcopal service where a dear friend is the minister. It was a magnificent experience of sights, sounds, and beautifully orchestrated liturgy; so much unlike anything of my own Christian tradition, and infinitely more formal than my freewheeling approach.

It took me a while to catch on and to catch up. I sluggishly stood, always a few seconds behind the crowd, and wound up standing alone, dropping to the pew after everyone else took their seat. I fumbled with the order of worship, never able to find the readings or the songs on time. After the homily, and a number of other confusions, the invitation was offered to receive Holy Communion.

Finally something I understood! But I wondered: “Will I be welcomed?” because churches have tons of rules about who can and can’t participate—even fellow believers. I gladly discovered that the invitation was for all. Even those who felt out of place had a place at the table.

As I knelt at the altar, I was joined by a young family—dad, mom, and three small children. The youngest, four or five years old, stood right beside me at the rail, too short to kneel. I looked at him and smiled. He smiled in return, wiped his wet lips with the back of his tiny hand and coarsely whispered, in a voice that could have been heard at the back of the sanctuary, “This is going to be good!” And it was, because it’s always good to be welcomed to the table.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.me. 

 

 

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The Pearl of great price

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

John Steinbeck’s literary genus is well known, but not many have read his penetrating little book called The Pearl. Steinbeck’s story begins with a poor Mexican pearl diver named Kino. He happily ekes out a living for his wife and son with a little canoe and a thatch hut on the beach.

When Kino’s child is bitten by a scorpion, his world is turned upside down, for he does not have enough money to pay a doctor to treat the child or a priest to pray for him. At this moment, Kino discovers a pearl as big as his fist: The “Pearl of the World,” the most incredible treasure the village has ever seen.

Now Kino will be rich. His son will be healed. Life will be transformed. But, things don’t work out that way. Greed takes over the village. Thieves attempt to rob him. Kino’s friends grow psychotically jealous. Kino begins to spend all his energies protecting his treasure.

In the end Kino loses everything: His home, his child, his little canoe by which he made a living, and his ability to escape to a better life. He and his wife stand on the shoreline and heave the evil pearl back into the ocean.

Steinbeck’s little story is about far more than a poor Mexican diver. It a tale of human nature; it is about getting what one wants, only to discover that the fulfillment of that desire is one’s undoing.

We all enter this world as treasure seekers. The search is intrinsic, natural, and good. Jesus spoke of it in a way that Steinbeck copied: We are searching for the “Pearl of Great Price,” that invaluable treasure of the soul worth more than all the world.

The glitch is that many of the things we seek are detrimental to us and to the world. My guess is that the majority of our suffering is the direct result of our improper and misguided searches. To quote an old country song, we go “looking for love in all the wrong places.” And when we go looking in all the wrong places, we end up with all the wrong outcomes.

But it’s never too late to find satisfaction. We just have to turn our attention to the true treasure of the soul, the Pearl of Great Price. We just have to search in the right place, and almost magically, we end up with the right results.

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 Is wrong with the world?

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” goes the French proverb credited to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s not that a society or person organization cannot be transformed. But such change is often cosmetic or superficial. Reality isn’t altered at the deeper, more profound levels.

Simply examine today’s news feeds. There is conflict in the Middle East; fresh bloodshed in Iraq; a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Africa; upheaval with Russia; political unrest at home; is it 2014, 1985, 1978, 1959, or 1913? Has nothing changed within these geopolitical situations? Of course, everything has changed.

There have been new regimes, new faces, and new promises; the old guard has passed; generations have come and gone; the young and the restless have replaced the traditional and the settled. But the root issues and causes – things like greed, selfishness, sexism, patriarchy, racism, and tribalism, remain untouched.

Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world; but no one thinks of changing himself.” Everything we see in the larger world is a reflection of the individual, human heart. So we can’t begin with the world. We have to begin with our own hearts.

One of the greatest British writers of the 20th century was G.K. Chesterton. My favorite essay of his is a tiny one written to his local newspaper, The London Times. The editors solicited responses from the paper’s readership by asking this question: “What is wrong with the world?” Hundreds of long, verbose letters poured in. Then eminent authors and leading thinkers of the day responded with essays. The shortest and most powerful response to “What is wrong with the world?” came from Chesterton.  He wrote: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

If anything about this world is going to change, it will be you, and the change cannot be cosmetic, superficial, or an artificial cover-up. Change must be at the heart, deep within, where our darkness lurks, our transgressions take shelter, and where all our spiritual neurosis is born.

So while I’m quoting Karr, Tolstoy, and Chesterton, I’ll add one more great philosopher to the list. Bob Dylan wrote, “There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’. It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls, for the times they are a changin’.” True, but the real battle is on the inside, for if the world is going to change, the change must begin right there.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. Please visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

 

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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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