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Archive | Keeping the Faith

Peace begins at home

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

 

In December of 2001, the Jews of Afghanistan celebrated their first Hanukah free of the Taliban in almost a decade. It was a small celebration, for there were only two Jews left in the entire country; and each one celebrated alone.

At separate ends of a rundown synagogue in Kabul, Ishak Levin and Zebulon Simantov lit their candles and said their prayers. Both had survived Soviet occupation, Taliban atrocities, and the American-led invasion. Both prayed for the same things to the same God, and yet they could not share the same space.

Neither of the men could accurately remember what started their feud, but it had deepened and endured. Levin said, “For thousands of years our forefathers have celebrated these nights, and now Jews all over the world are celebrating.” And then speaking of his antagonist he said, “But with him, it’s not possible.”

A decade later Levin was dead, leaving Simantov alone. He is the only known Jew left in the country, living in a single room, alienated from his neighbors, estranged from his wife and daughters, cursing former friends, and demanding money or whiskey from reporters who come to interview him. He is a bitter, old man.

Zebulon Simantov may be alone in his dilapidated Kabul synagogue, but he is not alone in his animosities, even as the celebrations of Hanukah and Christmas are upon us. Untold thousands are at war with those around them, be it the army across the border, or their neighbors across the street. These holidays of shalom and peace aren’t enough to break this hold of ill will.

Yet, it will not always be this way. I believe the day will come when such hostilities will be put to rest, when the world will be at peace. Now, “you might say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” for this is the assurance of the Jewish prophets, the very hope of Advent, and the promise of all perennial faith traditions: There will be “peace on earth and goodwill toward all.”

Yet, I cannot simply wait for that promised peace to magically arrive. No, I have to practice peace, not allowing this world’s massive levels of toxicity to embitter or isolate me from others. I have to become “an instrument of peace,” as Francis of Assisi prayed, learning to overcome evil with good, beginning, at the place I call home.

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 Gift of Mercy

 

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

I once read about Charles Brown, a World War 2 pilot on his first mission, just before Christmas, 1943. His B-17 had been shot to pieces; half his crew was wounded or dead, and he was flying alone over Germany. Then, Brown looked to his left and locked eyes with Franz Stigler, an ace German fighter pilot flying no more than a few feet off the B-17’s wing. This was the end.

Stigler saw that his enemy’s aircraft was torn to pieces, and with one hand on the trigger and another on his rosary, he couldn’t shoot. Instead, he nodded at Brown and protectively escorted the bomber to the edge of Allied airspace, saluted Brown, and peeled away.

Brown landed safely and eventually returned home. As he aged, the more he thought about that December day. He decided that he must find that German pilot. His search was showing little progress when he received an unexpected letter from Franz Stigler! The two pilots became best of friends.

Brown was forever grateful for Stigler’s gift of mercy – his whole life had been possible because of it. But the event changed Stigler’s life as well. He said, “The war cost me everything. Charles Brown was the only good thing that came out of [it]. It was the one thing I could be proud of.”

Stigler and Brown died within months of each other in 2008. A book found in Charles Brown’s library after their deaths, a gift from Stigler, had this written on the flap: “On the 20th of December, 1943, four days before Christmas, I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction…The pilot, Charles Brown, is for me, as precious as my brother.”

Few stories illustrate so well how transformational mercy can be, for it is a shared gift. When we replace vengeance with compassion; retaliation with grace; and punishment with forgiveness, then, like no other moment, we are giving life to the world.

So who in your life could best be served by the gift of mercy? That old enemy? A shystering, former business partner? A parent, child, neighbor, or sibling? There’s no shortage of offenders, just a shortage of forgiveness. Maybe it’s time to ask God for the grace to grace others, to cling to your rosary, and take your finger off the trigger. The person you save might be yourself.

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

 

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God’s Surprises

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

God loves to astonish. Just consider the Virgin Mary. What a surprise! Who could have anticipated that this little, teenage girl from Nazareth could birth of Son of God? She was a thing of wonderment and here is why.

First, she was little; that is, she was young. In the custom of her day, a woman would enter a prearranged marriage even before sitting for the SAT. So she was a novice. Second, she was a woman. Women in first century Palestine were often considered property—intended for domestic labor, sexual pleasure, and the manufacture of male heirs.

And Mary’s third issue: she was from Nazareth. To call Nazareth your home was to lay claim to one of the most rebellious and unruly regions of the Empire. It was a Jalalabad or Aleppo of the ancient world.

So when it is said, “Mary was just a little girl from Nazareth,” that is a statement loaded with surprising characteristics. She was the wrong age, the wrong gender, and from the wrong neighborhood. Yet, these liabilities became the very pathways for Mary’s future. These things kept her in a place of dependence upon and submission to God.

A man named Irenaeus was one of the first Christians who did serious thinking about Advent and its meaning. He came to the conclusion that Mary’s example of holy surrender was a pattern for us all; and he used a scintillating title for her. He said, “Mary is the undoer of knots.” Mary took the tangled mess she had been given and persistently worked it out, overcoming all her challenges in redemptive, surprising ways.

Pope Francis says the same. Speaking of that little girl from Nazareth, he says: “There are problems and struggles we face that form a tangle which gets more and more painful and difficult to undo. But even the most tangled knots are loosened by God’s grace.”

And then Francis says how: “Mary first conceived Jesus in faith when she said ‘yes’ to the message God gave her. And what took place in the Virgin Mary also takes place within us. Believing in Jesus means giving him our flesh with the humility and courage of Mary, so that he can continue to dwell in our midst. May Mary help us to say ‘yes,’ to be open to God’s surprises, for everything he gives us is a gift—even our weaknesses—so that he can become our strength.”

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

 

 

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Hope is a dangerous thing

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

“Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” So said Red Redding to Andy Dufresne in that masterpiece, “The Shawshank Redemption.” Morgan Freeman (as Red) and Tim Robbins (as Andy) have never been better.

For the uninitiated, “Shawshank” is about prison life. It is a story about guilt, innocence, friendship, love, struggle and injustice. It is a story about hope, and how hope can keep a man alive, even though Red had given up on hope long ago. Hope is a cruel joke, in his estimation, that convinced gullible people to long for something that was impossible to attain.

Old Red’s view is largely consistence with the ancient philosophers who used hope as a synonym for dashed expectations. It was nothing but starry-eyed, false anticipation. Modern philosophy hasn’t changed this view, as Red could have easily been channeling Nietzsche who thought of hope as the malevolent instrument that simply prolonged human suffering.

Still, Andy Defresne told Red that hope was “the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” In fact, that is hope’s exact definition. It is what never dies. More than human longing, more than personal aspiration, more than some head-in-the-cloud dream, it is the stuff of endurance.

Look at those who have survived the worst atrocities; the survivors always have some intangible power to bend, but not break, under the pressure. These individuals endured, persevered, and suffered the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” while taking “arms against their sea of troubles.” But when the battle had ended, they were found intact; hurt, but alive; battered, but not defeated. They had resiliency, a synonym for hope.

Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who became the first president of the Czech people after the fall of the Soviet Union, defined hope as well as Andy Dufresne. He said, “Hope is not optimism. It is the certainty that life has meaning, regardless of how it turns out…I am not an optimist, because I’m not sure everything will end well. I just carry hope in my heart.”

Yes, “hope is a dangerous thing,” but not because it can make people crazy. It is dangerous to the status quo; it gives people the tenacity to “keep on keeping on.” It gives people the power to change their world. And right now, in this world, that would be “the best of things.”

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

 

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Count your blessings

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

In the churches of my youth we sang an old hymn entitled, “Count Blessings” at every Thanksgiving service. I can still recite the first stanza from memory: “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed; when you are discouraged, thinking all is lost; count your many blessings, name them one by one; and it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.”

A Sunday School teacher once challenged my Primary Bible Class to do exactly as the song implored: “Count your blessings.” She handed out sheets of wide ruled notebook paper accompanied by fat, yellow, #2 Ticonderoga pencils. A dozen eight-year-olds went to work listing all of our heaven-sent assets.

Have you counted your blessings lately, naming them “one by one?” I know all the big things would be on the list: family, nation, shelter, food, children or grandchildren. But to list all of our blessings, even the little things, would take a considerable amount of time, longer than a brief Sunday School lesson would allow. Still, it’s worth the time to make such a list. Maybe you could start with A and work through the alphabet to Z, concentrating on the little, often assumed, godsends.

I’ll get you started: Air conditioning. Band aids. Coffee. Distilleries (particularly those in Canada). Electricity. Football. Garrison Keillor. Hamburgers. Ireland. Jackson Hole. Krispy Kreme. Live Oak trees. Music. Newspapers. Online banking. Picnics. Quinoa. Refrigeration. Smoked Almonds. Tennis. Urinals (the ones that flush automatically). Vacations. Willie Nelson. X-Rays. Yogurt. Zyrtec.

And that’s just the first list that rolled from my mind, a stream of consciousness! This list could be reproduced a thousand times over with little thought, just observation, because blessings constantly rain down upon me. God’s ever-present grace surrounds me, if only because I am fortunate enough to live at a time and in a place like this.

It’s not that complicated. Take the time to look around your life and count your blessings—one by little one—if you dare. Give thanks to God for what you have, what you have experienced, for the grace you have received, and for the people you have known.

Try to remember that Thanksgiving is more than a holiday, more than a day off, more than a circled date on a calendar. It is a way of life. Remembering this might change your perspective about things. It might change your attitude. It just might change your life.

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

 

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Truly satisfied

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

An old Quaker farmer placed a sign on his land that read, “This farm will be given to anyone who is truly satisfied.” A wealthy merchant came riding along and saw the sign. He thought to himself, “If this man is so eager to part with his land, I might as well claim it, for I have all I need.” He walked to the front porch and explained to the farmer why he was there.

“Art thou truly satisfied?” the Quaker asked. The merchant responded, “I am. I have everything I need.” The old farmer answered, “My friend, if thou art truly satisfied, then why doth thou need my land?”

It is human nature to want, search, and covet even after we have everything we need. There is this insatiable desire within us that we can’t seem to satisfy, a hunger we cannot fill. But how does satisfy the hunger of the heart that so often drags us to our undoing?

There’s no easy answer. Whole religions have been built around answering that question; and everything from self-flagellation and asceticism to quiet meditation and psychotropic drugs have been tried to free humanity from itself. Yet, the heinous rate of consumption, the constant grabbing and clutching for more, continues with happiness levels as flat as ever.

But maybe the presence of desire isn’t the real problem. It’s not that “we want,” but that we want the wrong things. What is the object of those desires; what is it that we are after that we think will make us happy? Those might be the better questions.

See, we have been duped. We think that acquisition will satisfy us. We have been fooled into thinking that a shinier car, a bigger house, a younger wife, a better neighborhood, or the newest piece of technology will make us happy. But it’s an evaporating illusion. When you are chasing after what will never ultimately please you, getting more of it, won’t get it done.

I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added to you.” He was saying, “You’re going to desire, you’re going to want; just point those cravings in the right direction. Go for what counts!” Then you discover that living a satisfying life requires very little. You will discover that the hungry life can be replaced by the happy life.

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

 

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Young and dumb

Keeping-the-Faith-RonnieMcBrayerBy Ronnie McBrayer

 

My adolescent son told me the other day that “teenagers should rule the world.” After I stopped guffawing at him, I remembered that scientists have proven that the adolescent brain is incapable of logical decision-making. Not enough physiological development has taken place, and it is impossible for a teenager to always behave or react rationally.

But I don’t think today’s teens could do much worse than today’s adults. We seem as immature as our children. Maybe science has figured out why. Researchers say that no living person, in reality, is very old; because the cellular matter in our bodies is constantly regenerating. The cells in our bodies, no matter one’s birth date, average about 15 years of age…so…we are all teenagers!

Yet, the relative youth of our bodies is no excuse for immaturity. We may not be born with the capacity to make healthy, rational decisions, but that is a virtue that can be acquired. Science, once again, has confirmed this fact as well.

In 2009, professors Dilip Jeste and Thomas Meeks published a major paper on their research into human wisdom. Among their discoveries was the fact that those who are genuinely wise have the benefit of age and experience on their side and, more often than not, bad experiences.

You have to fall on your face a few times, get caught in a self-manufactured disaster or two, and then wisdom mercifully begins to take root. Thus, the older you are, the smarter you should be, and the younger you are, the dumber you are. That too, is a scientific fact. Yes, we need what youth offers: Audacity, vision, zeal, and a healthy dose of revolutionary chaos on occasion. But like a fine wine, only time produces wisdom.

So it should be no surprise that our world is in its current condition. It is a world that values youth, childishness, and this month’s fresh face from L.A. more than it values the sense and wisdom that comes from age. It is a culture that sacrifices on the altar of youthful stupidity the wizened experience of its elders.

It does so at its own tragic expense, for a society that will not listen to the voice of history is a society that is doomed. There’s a proverb that goes, “Old age and cunning will always beat youth and exuberance.” For the sake of the world, I hope that’s true.

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 Trick to the Treats

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

That faint noise you hear is the sound of pint-sized spooks gathering on your lawn. They will soon be knocking at the door, plastic pumpkins outstretched. Spare yourself the tricks and give up the treats – the unhealthy, sweet, nougat-filled goodies in your cupboard. Keep your stinking apples, raisins, toothbrushes, and granola bars. In a few short years the tykes will have to turn in their costumes, so don’t deprive them of this rite of childhood passage.

This doesn’t mean adults don’t get in on the fun. Americans spend nearly $3 billion each Halloween, not on adorning their children for the festivities, but on themselves. Adults love to play dress-up, it would appear, and not just in October.

We all hide behind masks, masks we have worn for so long, we forget the real person who lurks beneath. We so over-identify with our dress-up characters, that is the roles we play in life, that when the roles change—and they will change—we experience miserable frustration.

One Halloween my son dressed as the cartoon spaceman Buzz Lightyear for Halloween. It was fun—“To infinity and beyond!”—and that’s how long I thought the boy would wear the costume. In his mind, this wasn’t a temporary role he was playing. Buzz Lightyear was who he really was. Every time he had to lay aside his costume, it was the proverbial end of the world with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It was as if he was losing himself, as if he couldn’t live apart from that imaginary facade. Of course the real him was beneath that rayon spacesuit—everybody knew it—except him.

This is a common affliction. We build dramatic images of ourselves, who we think we are, who we should be, what we should accomplish, and once constructed, these have to be maintained and protected. We never let a tear or a crack show in our veneer, and the mask to which we cling slowly becomes a prison. We go through life kicking and screaming every time a perceived threat begins to pull at the hem of our make-believe cape.

Here’s a better way: Fulfill the roles that God, fate, or life has assigned to you. Fulfill them with gusto. But never accept the masks you must wear as a substitute for the person you really are; that’s the trick to a sweet life.

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

 

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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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