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Archive | Keeping the Faith

Unconditional love not unconditional surrender 

 

 

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

We are a nation fond of building stone monuments to the past, and the past we are most quick to memorialize is our history of war. An index of major US monuments reads like a catalogue of conquest. Our most iconic memorial of stone is Arlington National Cemetery. Hundreds of thousands have been buried there, and in a few short decades, it will reach capacity.

It is right to honor the men and women buried in those places, but we do them a disservice if we do not remember them in such a way as to stop filling the ground with the fallen dead of war. Or, at the very least, to reduce those numbers; to learn from the cycle of history, and work furiously to end our dependence upon warfare.

On this Memorial weekend, let us fervently honor those who unselfishly gave their lives, but let us vigorously refuse to glorify the violence that took those lives. After all, “War,” as the often maligned William T. Sherman said, “is hell. It is folly, madness, a crime against civilization. And even its success is over dead and mangled bodies with anguish and lamentation.”

For me to say “war is not the answer” is to do more than quote a Marvin Gaye song. It is to confess faith in Christ as the way to peace and reject the false promises of war. War promises us that when the last battle is fought, the last bomb is dropped, the last enemy is slain, and the last soldier is put to rest in sacred soil, then we will have a world at peace. Yet, war is waged without end, and our cemeteries continue to fill.

The world we want—a world where swords are beaten into plowshares, where mercy and justice flow down like the waters, where every tear will be wiped away from our eyes, and where there will be “no more death or sorrow or crying or pain”—is the world constructed by the unconditional love of God, not the unconditional surrender of our enemies.

So let us gather at our cemeteries and memorials of stone, around the tombs of the known and unknown who gave their lives. And as people of faith, let us also gather around another stone—the stone rolled away by the power and love of Christ, the only love that will bring peace to the world.

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

 

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Pushing Stones

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

In Greek mythology, there was a treacherous king named Sisyphus. He was so irritating to the gods that they banished him to hell. But, he was such a wily character that he escaped. Nevertheless, his trickery finally caught up with him and he was condemned to an eternity of rolling a huge boulder to the top of a hill. Then, every time Sisyphus arrived with his rock at the top of the hill, it would roll back down to the bottom. Sisyphus, according to the Greeks, is still struggling with that stone today.

In issues of faith, many of us are like Sisyphus. We are always pushing that rock up the hill, only to see it slip away just as we arrive at a resting place. Proof of our effort is betrayed by words like: “I have got to do better…I must try harder…I need to give more…I should pray longer…I’m not good enough…I ought to read the Bible more often.”

Faith becomes a terribly heavy burden, and like Sisyphus, with his shoulder eternally shoved against the stone, or like the perpetual hamster on a neverending exercise wheel, we turn liberating grace into a repressive pseudo-holiness that is nothing short of a deathtrap. This concept is completely foreign to the spirituality of Jesus. Matthew 11 frames the contrast best.

I love Eugene Peterson’s translation of Jesus’ anti-Sisyphean maxim found there: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.”

We think that our spiritual journey and growth depends upon all that we can do. Many of us live—or rather exist, as we haven’t learned to really live—with the old Protestant work ethic hanging around our necks like a yoke. Boiled down to a bumper sticker mantra we think: “If it’s going to be, then it’s up to me.” That’s nothing short of sacrilege, even if it sounds resolute and brave.

Being a follower of Christ is not about being an adherent to one of the world’s great religions. God save us from enduring any more of that. No, being a follower of Christ is the discipline of being still, and learning to trust the way that leads to life.

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

 

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Minimum Protection, Maximum Support

 

 

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Walt Disney is after your mother. Exhibit A: Bambi. Before the boy can celebrate his first birthday, his mother is shot and killed. Exhibit B: Dumbo. His mother is locked away as she protects him from the jeering crowds because of those massive ears. Exhibit C: Cinderella. She must suffer humiliation at the hands of her wicked stepmother and stepsisters.

Exhibit D: Snow White, a naïve, beautiful teenager, again, at the mercy of her wicked stepmother. She runs away to the woods, moves into a fraternity house with seven men, takes candy from a stranger, and finally runs away with the first man who kisses her. If she had a mother providing appropriate instruction, none of this would have happened. Mowgli. Tarzan. Lilo. Nemo. On and on I could go.

Some have tried to explain that Walt Disney is trying to show that a traditional family (whatever that might mean) is not necessary for happiness. People like feminist Amy Richards believe that the elimination of the mother figure in so many Disney films is simply for dramatic effect. If Walt’s characters had had loving, involved, present moms in their lives, there wouldn’t be much of a plot left.

So, by this logic, Walt Disney is providing instruction for raising resilient, adaptable, successful children. People need to struggle to become strong, and protecting our kids from all adversity is not an act of kindness. It is a crime against their futures. Observe the parent who is over-involved in his or her child’s life. These parents have good intentions, but they cross all boundaries with their micromanaging and uber-protecting ways.

When parents make a child feel that he or she should never suffer pain, rejection, or be deprived of anything, it doesn’t create maturity, it creates monsters. So beware of those for whom everything has come easy; of those who have never struggled; of those who have always had someone else clean up their messes. It’s hard for such people to develop any depth of character.

To succeed, yes, we need instruction and guidance, but not so much that it ruins us. The key is “minimum protection and maximum support,” to quote the late William Sloane Coffin. When one must wrestle against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” this does more than make great movies. This makes for a great life. Do not take that away from your children.

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

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You are stuck with you

 

 

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

On a visit to my hometown, I took the time to drive by the house that had been my childhood home. It was largely unchanged except that it seemed so much smaller. Surely, the house, and what I thought had been a sprawling front yard, had shrunk over the years. But the neighborhood itself had gone to seed.

Homes were completely abandoned. Once beautiful yards were overgrown. Everywhere I looked I saw the same thing: dilapidated, deteriorating, run-down houses. So what happened? It was a failure of vigilance more than anything else. Everyone moved out or moved on, and homes that aren’t lived in break down.

The same can be said for our hearts. By “heart,” of course, I’m not speaking of the cardiovascular system, but the mysterious, inner person. The admonition from the Hebrew sage goes: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” He was addressing the spiritual center of the person, for the heart can become as overrun as an abandoned home, as fallen into disrepair as a forsaken neighborhood if one doesn’t stay with it. And I mean exactly that: you have to occupy that space, living at the center of who God has made you.

It’s tempting to run away from who you are, moving out and moving on, but at the end of the day (literally and metaphorically) you have to come home to yourself. And home will not be a very pleasant place if you haven’t taken care of the space, if you have no center—no core—if you haven’t taken care of where you live. Put bluntly, you are stuck with you; and if you have let your heart go to seed, how can you ever be happy occupying a place like that?

Chris Hurst, a young songwriter from Nashville, asks this question: “How do you break a heart?” He answers, “You abandon it. Slip out in a moment of weakness and vulnerability; when it has turned its back. Leave it lonely. A heart cannot be crushed, pierced, or gagged. It must be neglected. Then and only then will it break.”

Guard your heart and you might learn to love the person God has made you to be and the life he has given you to live. Give your heart the attention it deserves, and you just might discover a wonderful place to call home.

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

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To Die Trying

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Beginning in April of 1994, more than two decades ago this month, one million Rwandans were killed, after extremists in the majority Hutu population turned on the Tutsi minority. The movie Hotel Rwanda focuses on the 76 days in which Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager, transformed the luxury hotel, over which he was responsible, into a refuge for the terrified.

On the first day of violence, 26 people came to Paul’s home for shelter. They bet their lives on him, and it was a bet that paid off. At the end of that three-month massacre, Paul Rusesabagina had saved 1,268 people in his hotel. Somehow, Paul kept corn and beans in the kitchen; he rationed the water in the pool for drinking when militia cut the utilities; and he took all the room numbers off the doors and burned the registration records, so the roving bands of machete-welding killers would not know the identities of those under his protection.

At one point, Paul and his family were given the opportunity to escape. He packed his family’s bags. It was then the residents of his hotel came and begged him to stay. “Paul,” they said, “we know you are going to be leaving this place tomorrow. But please, if you are really leaving, tell us, because we will go to the roof of the hotel and jump. A better death would be to jump and die immediately.”

Paul said, “By that afternoon I had made the toughest decision of my life. I said to myself, ‘If you leave, and these people are killed, you will never be a free man. You will be a prisoner of your own conscience.’ I then decided to remain behind…and if I was to die, I would die helping my neighbor.”

So, who is your neighbor? That question is incidental, really, as anyone you meet along life’s way fits the definition. “Will you love your neighbor?” That is the primary question, and one we have the opportunity to answer daily.

Will we be called upon to love with the fearsome intensity of Paul Rusesabagina? It’s not likely, but I hope that when the time comes for us to leave this world, we die trying; we leave knowing we have helped and loved our neighbors. This is so much more than a story. It’s the way we save and heal the world.

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

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God Smiles

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

For two years, the world has combatted the largest Ebola epidemic in history. The current outbreak, beginning in West Africa in 2013, continues even though it has fallen off the front pages of our newspapers. Health workers have been at the forefront of combatting this disease, unselfishly submitting themselves to incredible risk in the process.

They remind me of Christ, who would walk among the diseased and infected, unafraid to touch, to heal, and to love. I heard one of these workers interviewed via radio late last year when the Ebola hysteria was at its peak. The interviewer asked: “What supplies do you need to improve your work?” The nurse gave a surprising, beautiful answer.

She said, “What we need are new biohazard suits; ones with full, clear screens so the patients can see our faces.” She spoke of how patients were scared, sick with this gruesome disease, afraid of dying, isolated from their family and friends, and were being cared for by foreigners who didn’t necessarily speak their language. She concluded: “With new suits they can see our faces…they can see us smile, and be less afraid.”

This nurse is a skilled caregiver, regardless of her technical proficiency, for she understands that the healing process requires kindness, warmth, and clarity as much as it requires antibiotics and oxygen tanks. “They can see our faces,” is simply good medicine.

Her words reminded me of the great Aaronic blessing from the Hebrew Bible: “May God bless you and protect you. May God smile on you and show you grace; look you full in the face and give you peace.” It’s good medicine for sure: to have a life that flourishes, for God to grant peace and grace, and for Providence to smile in our direction.

I don’t have to work very hard to convince you or anyone that this world is a difficult place to live. Ebola. Disappearing airplanes. Ferguson. Boundless war. The Islamic State. Extremism at every turn. And don’t forget the garden variety troubles we all have. It’s enough to blind, isolate, and paralyze us. Yet, through it all, God is smiling.

He is caring, loving, and healing, showing his face to those who will see it. And when we catch his smile, even for the briefest moment, it lets us know that he is here and that he is working to heal our hearts and our world.

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

 

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Now that’s a different story

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

The Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber told the tale of a Jewish grandfather confined to his wheelchair. The grandfather was a master storyteller and, one day, the old man’s grandchildren gathered eagerly around his chair and asked him to tell a story about his life. Happy to oblige, the grandfather began telling a story from his childhood—how his rabbi would leap and dance during his recitation of the Psalms.

The more into it the old man got, the more he seemed to incarnate his rabbi, until unexpectedly the grandfather jumped from his wheelchair! In telling the story and acting it out, it gave new life to the old man, and his grandchildren needed no further explanation. Martin Buber concludes his tale by saying: “Now, that’s the way to tell a story!” And, I would add, that’s how to live a life, particularly a life of faith.

People of faith, and I include myself in this assessment, often fall back on hardened dogma or cascading Scripture references to explain our way of life. But frozen facts and biblical sound bites do very little to inspire life or to invite others to explore faith. These do even less to heal a fractured world.

But if we become so immersed in the story of a gracious God, so connected to his powerful narrative of redemption, so skilled in incarnating Christ that we are animated and enlivened by it, then others just might be attracted to it. It just might do some good in the world. Faith just might become a story worth telling; a story worth believing; and a story worth living.

What does his story look like? It looks like Jesus. He was humble and compassionate; full of grace and truth; the epitome of sacrificial love; forgiving toward all, and welcoming to the most repugnant among us. If our reading and living of the Bible isn’t making us more like that—more like Jesus—then, simply, we are doing something wrong.

If, in reciting our favorite verses, memorizing the text, and proclaiming the truth, we only get more angry; more suspicious; more judgmental and fixed in our self-righteousness; more indifferent and apathetic toward the world; more greedy and egocentric—then we might know some religious quotes, but we haven’t yet learned to tell the story. But when we become what Christ was saying, rather than offer trite, formulaic answers, then that, is another story altogether.

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

 

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A Day to celebrate

 

 

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

On this weekend twelve years ago, what proved to be last of the McBrayer children was born. Now, as he approaches his teen years, our son will finally get something he’s wanted: his birthday to fall on Easter. He’s always thought it would be grand to share the day with Jesus, what with all the egg hunts, feasting, festivities, and snazzy clothes. I hope he enjoys it, because it will be more than a decade before he has another Easter birthday.

As you know, Easter is not a “fixed” holiday. Rather, it falls on the Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the Spring Equinox. Consequently, Easter can fall on any date between March 22 and April 25 (and on those rare occasions, even on my son’s birthday).

Mercifully, I didn’t share all these lunar details with the birthday boy, of course. I just told him that if he were lucky, he would get to celebrate his birthday alongside the resurrection of Jesus four times in his lifetime. And if he’s as sturdy as his great-grandmother Artie was, he might even get five such celebrations.

But the truth of the matter is we get to celebrate every day, not just Easter Sunday. Celebration, in fact, is the Christian vocation. Because Easter is not so much a holiday about the past as it is a way of joyful, hopeful living for today—not tomorrow or reserved for after we die.

Adding to all the explanations of Easter’s dating and its various meanings are the usual sermons and songs about Easter as the doorway to heaven, an escape hatch from the troubles of this earth, or a coping mechanism for what lies beyond the grave. That’s fine for as far as it goes, but that’s not the main point the early church made in its proclamation about Jesus’ resurrection.

Rather, the point made by the first Christians was that because of Easter, everything about life has changed—life today—in the here and now. Quoting the late Marcus Borg, who was straightforward on the matter: “Easter is not for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now.”

Indeed, Christianity is about getting in on Jesus’ gracious, revolutionary mission and experiencing life, full and running over, transforming us and the world. That’s reason to celebrate every day.

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

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More than a change of scenery

 

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

“Repent” is a religious word I’ve heard most of my life, and to this day, it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand with fright. As a child, I heard the call to repent burst from the lips of many a revival preacher.

With the evangelist’s bulging carotids, burning eyes, and angry finger pointing, I could feel the fires of hell licking at my heels. I repented every chance I got (whether I needed it or not). But for most, this kind of intensity is reserved for the sandwich-board-prophets of our time with the declaration that “The End Is Near.”

Still, we should not be robbed of a good word. But what does it mean? It means we must change our minds or turn around. It’s shorthand for starting over, to completely forsake one way of life and take up another. Repentance means our suspicion is replaced by compassion; vengeance is replaced by forgiveness; those we despised because of their race or color or gender are now accepted; and where there was greed, now is found generosity.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine went out and bought this huge, grotesque recreational vehicle that was a rolling luxury home. Satellite television; queen-sized bed; stainless steel appliances; Berber carpet; surround sound. This vehicle was a technological masterpiece, and I was scandalized.

If you’re going to go camping, go camping. Strap on a backpack. Hike a few hills and feel the burn in your thighs and in your lungs. Eat out of a can. Sit around a campfire. Sleep in a tent with a stream lulling you to sleep. Swat bugs. That’s camping. So I said to my friend, “Russ, you can go to the woods and never leave home!” He answered, “That’s the idea.”

We live our lives the same way. Yes, we need to change some things—our attitudes, our priorities, our biases. Instead, we often just rearrange the furniture, change our surroundings a bit, or adjust the landscape. We succeed in taking our dysfunction down the road with us, never experiencing anything that resembles transformation.

Repentance is not about saying a prayer or complying with the wishes of some wild-eyed preacher. It is about conversion. It is about a fundamental change in who you are, not just a change of scenery. Ultimately, it is about becoming who you were always made to be.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.

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He who has ears

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

One autumn afternoon, my twin sister and I were ripping up the soil in my grandmother’s fallow garden. My sister, in her clod-crushing zeal, miscalculated the distance between us and I was summarily whacked on top of the head with a garden hoe.

My parents were called and they arrived to whisk me away to the office of Dr. Jerry Barron, one of only three doctors in town. Dr. Barron, sadly, was a community acknowledged quack, but on this afternoon he was the only option. See, Dr. Thompson did not work on Wednesdays, and nobody really visited Doc Hill anymore, not unless it was a matter of life and death.

So, it was with great trepidation that I was dragged into an examination room, where Dr. Barron separated me from my parents, asking them to remain in his clinic lobby. He, his two nurses, and an office receptionist held me down to place a dozen stitches in my scalp.

I twisted and turned, convulsed and screamed, begging someone to explain what was happening. They continued their work, never saying a word to me. Finally, I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Will someone please talk to me!”

That was the magic phrase. Dr. Barron and his team of tormentors stopped what they were doing. He looked me in the eyes, finally explained what they were trying to do, how long it would take, and how much it would or would not hurt. I then lay perfectly still until the procedure was complete. I only needed someone to listen to me.

Listening is largely a lost art. Medical professionals run us through their offices like cattle through a chute. Politicians stubbornly ignore our voices. Our children discount our counsel. Trusted friends won’t lift a gaze from their glowing capacitive screens to look us in the eyes.

As I get older I understand more and more why Jesus often said, “He who has ears let him hear,” before uttering some mind-blowing instruction. Because for the most part, we do not use those two fleshy instruments attached to the sides of our heads.

I wonder what would happen in our homes, office cubicles, classrooms, doctor’s offices, church sanctuaries, and houses of legislation if we who have ears took the time to actually use them. We just might discover the greatest advancement in the history of human communication—the ability to not say a single word.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.

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