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Archive | Keeping the Faith

The Illusion of Control


“Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac.” So said Nicole Kidman to Tom Cruise. It was a fictional movie scene, of course, but I’m sure it’s a mantra she repeated often over the course of their decade-long marriage. Digression aside, the quote itself is absolutely the truth. Control—over others’ behavior, personal circumstances, world events, the universe—is a fantasy.

It was Dr. Ellen Langer who wrote the book on the subject. Her work is entitled,“The Illusion of Control.” She believes, and her research backs this up, that human beings have a delusional sense that they can influence the outcomes of certain events, even those events over which they have no command.

Summarizing one of her observations, Dr. Langer discovered that drivers feel that they are much less likely to be in an accident when they are driving versus sitting in the passenger’s seat. No surprise there, but here is where things get interesting: Move that front seat passenger to the back of the automobile, and that individual’s feelings of anxiety completely skyrocket!

In fact, the further removed from the driver’s seat he or she was placed, the more the test subject felt an accident was inevitable. Why? He or she was not the one in control of the situation. This is one reason why I recoil from the bumper sticker, “God Is My Co-Pilot.” Oh, for heaven’s sake.

Can any phrase in our lexicon be more descriptive of our neurotic need to be in control, and yet tip our hat to The Maker in case we get into a situation that is just a bit too much for us? Even then, we want to remain firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat; we want to remain the gods of our universe.

Critics of faith often argue that belief in God defies the evidence. God cannot be “proven,” goes the reasoning, so ceding command of life to such a hypothetical Being is simply foolish. Philosophically, I understand and appreciate this argument. Yet, I counter that we all have confidence in something, in some foundational truth or principle that guides our lives.

So, if you find faith in God to be illogical, I respect that. But, surrendering the management of the universe to a Higher Power makes a lot of sense when there is so little we can personally control. After all, control is an illusion, and the evidence on that matter is irrefutable.

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


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Living Unafraid

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

In the late 1800s, an outlaw began burglarizing the Wells Fargo stage coach line. The bandit would wait in a narrow pass, and at just the right moment, would emerge dressed in black, a hood over his head and brandishing a double-barreled shotgun. To match his appearance, he had a deep baritone voice that caused his victims to melt with fear. This terrifying gentleman bandit was nicknamed “Black Bart.”

Wells Fargo finally arrested him in an extravagant apartment in San Francisco. When they removed his dark, menacing hood, Black Bart was not seven feet tall, like some of the witnesses had claimed. He was not young and rugged. He wasn’t a bloodthirsty bandit.

He was Charles Boles, a handsome, well-educated, sixty-year-old clerk too timid to ride a horse or load his gun. Black Bart used the most effective and crippling weapon in his arsenal: Fear. But when unmasked, he was nothing people said he was. He was just an unarmed, deep, shadowy voice in a dark empty suit.

I’m not naive; the world around us is dangerous. Yet, the living Christ has shown this world for what it is: Powerless against those who are in him. This doesn’t mean the world will not hurt us. It does not mean that some of the things we fear won’t take place. It simply means that nothing in this world can finally or completely destroy us.

Imagine that your life is a chess match or a football game, if you like. There comes a point in any such game, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, where the decisive move is made. Yes, the game continues, but it might as well be over, as the final outcome has been determined.

The decisive move in God’s universe came at the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Yes, life goes on. We struggle. We suffer. We wrestle with our phobias and try to keep our fears at bay. But we have hope—not fantasies that the world isn’t the way it actually is—but assurance that Christ has overcome the world, leaving so much that would terrify us as an empty threat.

In these perilous times, we do not have to lose our heads. The power we have been given and the love we have been shown flows from the Providence who is larger than our fears, and when we live in Him, we can live unafraid.

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


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Paying for your raising


By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Have you ever heard the phrase: “Paying for your raising?” It is the parental cycle of karma, I think. All the sins of your youth and all the ways you hurt your parents, come home to roost in your own children. My father told me regularly that I was going to “pay for my raising.” I didn’t believe him, and now as the father of three teenagers, I still don’t believe him.

I read recently that a child born into a middle-income family this year, excluding the cost of college, will require nearly $250,000 to rear to adulthood. But it costs a lot more than that, believe me!

You can’t pump the serotonin you burned up back into your parents’ brains. You can’t undo all their gray hair, heartburn, and high blood pressure that you caused. Because of you, they had extensive counseling sessions, hormone therapy, and sleepless nights.

Your parents experienced guilt, law enforcement interventions, miserable teacher conferences, and gastroesophageal reflux disease. You did this to your parents! We all did; your kids will do it to you—and there’s no way to repay any of it. Thankfully, there’s no expectation to do so, because most of us would endure all these heartaches again and again for the sake of those to whom we gave life.

Such love has a name. It is the Hebrew word, “Chesed,” usually associated with God’s fatherly love for his children; a word that has no easy English equivalent. Some call it grace, mercy, or kindness, but these attempts fail. “Chesed” is all of these things and more; it is the central Hebrew virtue to which all acts of charity and goodness are attached.

One rabbi, explaining so plainly, says, “When a person works for an employer, and then he gets paid, that pay is really a recycling of his own deeds. It isn’t love. It isn’t kindness. It is earned. But an act of ‘chesed’ cannot be recycled. It is something given or granted without cause.”

Parenthood is based on this kind of unfailing, non-recyclable love. It is an act of steady, secure, unshakable, unearned, uncaused, and sometimes unappreciated compassion. That’s nothing that you or anyone else can pay back, even if you wrote your dad a big fat check for Father’s Day this weekend. He could use the money, I’m sure, but he would do it all over again for the sake of love.

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

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Trust the Coach


By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer


This year I’ve been coaching Little League baseball. It has been a lot of fun, because 12-year-olds experience the whole “Field of Dreams” mystique in a way that is lost on older players. They have learned a lot – about hitting and fielding – but also about faith.

In their natural state, these players don’t trust their coaches, evidenced by the fact that they refuse to follow our instructions. “Run!” the coach says. But they won’t budge. “Stay!” I scream, but inexplicably, they run. The admonition, “You can’t hit a fastball thrown above your hands,” is repeated for the umpteenth time, but they keep swinging as if swatting flies.

Twelve-year-olds, with minuscule experience, think they know more about playing the game than the old men who are coaching them. It all comes down to faith, for the challenge put to these players time and again is this: Trust the coach and do it his way?

That’s a lesson for everyone, not just for prepubescent boys. Life will always come down to doing things your way or God’s way. There’s nothing else. You will trust you—what you can do, what you can see, what you can predict, how far you can go—or you will trust God—in what he can do.

Sure, you can go all “Invictus” with life and be “the master of your fate and the captain of your soul.” Admittedly, it will be invigorating to face the storms alone, to navigate the waters solo, and to call your own shots; at least for a while, but eventually it’s simply exhausting. Or you can hand the responsibility for your life over to God and allow him to direct and do with it as he pleases.

Humanity has been managing its own destiny for more than a few millennia now, and while our knowledge and technical proficiency continue to grow, our measure of wisdom and common sense seems as stunted as ever. We manage only to hurt others, our planet, ourselves, and our future with greater speed and efficiency.

So the decision is left to make, a daily choice though it may be, either to continue with our destructive ways or entrust the control of life and life’s events to God, trusting him with all outcomes. If we truly believe, we will choose the latter—the life of surrender—because we are what we do, not what we say we believe.

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


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Keep moving



By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Imagine that you are on your way to a much anticipated beach vacation. After hours of hard traveling, you rub your bloodshot eyes and see a glorious sign that says, “Beaches.” You are overjoyed. But how strange would it be, if when you saw that sign you immediately stopped the car and began unloading all of your vacation wares, as if you had actually arrived at your destination?

How bizarre, if you and your family started setting up beach chairs and umbrellas, if you began unpacking coolers, baiting fish hooks, and slathering on the sun block right there beneath the sign? Would it not be false to start calling and texting everyone back home to tell them that you were safe at the beach, when in fact you were only camping at a mile marker along the way?

Of course it would, yet many people of faith do exactly this sort of thing when it comes to reading their Bibles. They see the Scriptures as the end of their spiritual journey, not the road sign along the way, pointing them to a much more magnificent destination. What exactly is the Bible pointing us toward? In a word, Jesus.

In one of the more lofty concepts of the New Testament, John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God and was God. That Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The true Word of God, by the Bible’s own testimony, is not a written document. It is a Person. It is the one we call Jesus. Thus, the Bible is always pointing to him as the supreme authority for faith. He is “The Word of God for the People of God.”

Let there be no doubt, road signs will point you in the right direction, but you can’t camp out in the median. If you do, you might get run over; distract other travelers along the way; create a good deal of confusion; and you certainly aren’t going to get anywhere. In fact, you’ll miss out on what this journey is about.

It is right to be called “People of the Book,” that is, lovers of the Bible. But let us remember that we are not Biblicists, because the Bible itself isn’t the end of our convictions. We are Christians, followers of Jesus who are always heeding his voice and moving in his direction, the author, sustainer, and perfecter of our faith.

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

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The Faith to fall 

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

There I stood, in front of the climbing wall. You know the behemoth: a slick, black wall, with colorful rubberized grips peppered across its face. The climber gets fitted with a harness and hard hat, and off he or she goes to the top to ring the bell of conquest. I tried, with my friends mostly jeering rather than cheering,  but I couldn’t do it.

Climbing wasn’t the problem. I’ve got mad monkey skills and a gorilla grip. It was the height. I have a morbid case of acrophobia, and nothing makes me pop out in hives or go looking for a toilet bowl to hug like being faced with traversing an unstable structure that is more than 10 feet high.

What made this incident all the more challenging were the last words of the attendant as I mounted the wall: “When you get to the top, you have to let go.” There was no climbing down (because of the tension on the safety rope), and there was no backing out. When you reached the terminus, wherever that was on the wall, the only way down was to free-fall. I got halfway up the wall and froze like a bug stuck to a windshield. The thought of letting go and falling, of trusting a ½-inch rope to save me, was too much for my anxious mind to overcome.

How much faith did it take to climb that wall? None. It took strength, balance, and a plan of attack; but not faith. It took faith to fall, and I didn’t have very much of that to give. As long as we can keep conquering, going, achieving, or getting better, stronger, and higher we feel like everything is okay. But what happens when our strength runs out; when all our plans for climbing higher fail? What happens when we can no longer focus? What happens when control is taken from us or when we are forced to let go? That’s when faith is required.

We have to bet on God, by falling into the grace and infinity of what cannot be proven or explained. What most of us call faith is actually nothing more than human determination. It is confidence in our own ability, and that is nothing that resembles trust in God whatsoever. It’s only when we are ready to let go that we are ready to believe.

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

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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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