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Archive | Keeping the Faith

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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Hush your mouth

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

From all reports, Juergen Peters was a bright, sweet young man. But he was often troubled, depressed, and dark. After an intense dispute at work one day he turned unusually dismal, even for him. He walked off his job and climbed to the top of a water tower with every intention of jumping to his death. As authorities rushed to the scene, a crowd of onlookers also gathered.

At some point Juergen, thankfully, was convinced to change course. He carefully began climbing to the ground. The crowd, deprived of a sensational conclusion, did not take its disappointment lying down. Someone yelled to the boy, “Jump, you coward!”

As Peters descended the tower more and more spectators began to jeer and deride him. He hesitated, looked down at the crowd, and then climbed back up. When he reached the top again, he moved out on the ledge and flung himself off.

If Juergen Peters had made it safely to the ground that day, I don’t know if he would have received the mental health intervention he so badly needed. But I do know this: The cause of death may have read “suicide,” but those in the crowd could have been detained as accomplices to the crime.

This is a tragic, dramatic story, but a necessary one: We are destroying one another with our words as hateful, spiteful rhetoric spills from all corners of society. Road rage. Bullying at school. Toxic hate speech. Political opponents locked in verbal assault. Hordes of tanked-up adults coming to blows at a Little League game. Online “comments” that are nothing but anonymous, poisonous vitriol lobbed like grenades into a crowd. The level of hostility and lack of civility in our country is nothing but destructive.

Ancient wisdom recognizes and identifies the root of this problem: “A tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire,” the Jewish sage wrote. All of us have this potential – to strike out with hellish words that act like kindling for a raging fire.

The children’s rhyme we all learned before kindergarten is wrong: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That’s a boldface lie. Words hurt. They crush, destroy, and yes, even kill. But they are not just killing others. We are burning our whole world to the ground. May God give us the grace to keep our mouths shut.

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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For Fools and Drunks

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Marvin had spent more than two weeks in the hospital trying to clear up a clogged lung. When the final test results arrived, he had more than respiratory issues. He had cancer. Marvin wasn’t surprised. I visited him as he recovered from the minor surgery that placed a plastic tube into his chest, a tube that will deliver the cancer-killing chemicals to his malignant lung.

“Let me tell you a story,” Marvin said. “I was hung over one Sunday morning when my friends came to get me to go down to the river, and like fools, we plunged in. I got caught in a vortex, and it sucked me under the water. I fought for what seemed like an hour, but I know now it was only for a few minutes. I could see daylight, but couldn’t reach it. I knew I was going to drown. It was then God spoke to me: ‘Son, go on down,’ He said. But I kept fighting. He spoke again, ‘Son, go on down.’

“Finally, I gave up and let the vortex suck me down into the river. I popped right out on the surface and just feet from the bank and lived to fight another day.” Marvin then fell silent for a long time. When he broke the silence he said, “I guess it’s true. God looks out for fools and drunks; because I’ve been both of those.”

Marvin will not be cured, but he sure is getting well. He’s healing. There is a difference between the two. A cure is a quick fix, an alleviation of suffering, an elimination of symptoms. A cure will help the body and might add days to life. But getting well, healing, being made whole—this is something different altogether. Getting well may not help the body, but it can restore the soul. And Marvin, he is getting well.

I refuse to entertain the notion that he is “terminal.” Even with a new diagnosis of cancer and difficult days of treatment ahead, he was very much alive and well. I hope I get a few more visits with Marvin before his ultimate healing. I want to hear more of his stories. I want to learn, once again, of the relentless pursuit of God’s grace. And I want to scrape together the clues of how we can all be healed. “God looks out for fools and drunks.” Amen, Marvin. He sure does.

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 going to his You Tube channel, A simple faith.

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Let the water settle

 

 

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

A desperate executive sought the counsel of an old guru who lived in a mountain cave. The executive was living a hurried life and was frustrated. The holy man listened to his guest, then retreated deep into his cave, returning shortly with a basin.

He scooped water from the muddy little stream passing by the mouth of the cave and offered it to the executive to drink. The executive rejected it, even though he was very thirsty from his journey. The water was too dirty.

After a while he offered the water again, but this time, all the silt had settled to the bottom of the basin and the water was pristine. The man drank it. The wise man then asked, “What did you do to make the water clean?” Answer: “I didn’t do anything.”

“Exactly!” said the monk. “Your life is troubled; it is disturbed and muddy because you are always allowing the water to become agitated. Only when it is calm will you have peace. Be still and let the water settle.”

I don’t have to convince you that this world is a noisy place. Talking heads, viewpoint shows, 24-hour news, analysis on every hand, opinions like armpits. Court is always being held, comments are always being made, and there is a constant eagerness to share the oh-so-correct perspective. There’s always someone bloviating about something, and the pandemonium is so saturating it seeps into our souls.

Jesus, once instructing his disciples, called the noise “babble.” It is foolish rambling, tedious chattering, words that continue to stack up, but never really mean anything. You have to get away from it. It will be good for you—not to mention how everyone else will appreciate it as well.

I have a friend who noted recently that the words “listen” and “silent” are spelled with exactly the same letters (I had never noticed this) and he thinks they mean the same thing. I could not agree more. Stillness is the quickest way to hear God and find true peace.

Learn to turn down the noise. Learn to cultivate some distance from this clamorous world, because distance is a good thing when it comes to things and people who are harmful. Learn to keep the raucous environment that is contemporary society at arm and ear’s length, and you might begin to let the water of your own soul peacefully settle.

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

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Enough really is enough

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Last summer an unfortunate woman was found dead in the basement of her Connecticut home. The first floor of her house had collapsed on her under the weight of all the stuff she had accumulated over the years. Her possessions, stacked to the ceiling with only a narrow, labyrinth-like pathway through it all, quite literally smothered her.

This is a dramatic example, of course, but accumulating those things that fall outside the realm of the necessary, will take your life just as certainly. Jesus said it like this: “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, but store your treasures in heaven. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else.” These words are directed at every packrat, collector, hoarder, attic squirrel, and garage-gatherer among us. If you aren’t using it, you don’t need it. Hang on to it, and it will take your life from you.

I’ve often said that the most deeply spiritual thing that some of us could do is have a garage sale; or sell a property, or dump a portfolio; because our spiritual lethargy is the direct result of carrying too much baggage, trying to manage too much stuff. We have too many possessions, too many obligations, and it’s a recipe for misery. When we simplify, we are doing much more than getting rid of the weight of physical possessions. We are making space to breathe, to thrive, to live.

By giving up some of the things we hoard, we aren’t losing, we are gaining; gaining freedom to pursue life. This was Henry David Thoreau’s motivation when he retreated to the woods of Walden Pond. He lived there for two years wrestling with the question, “How much is enough?” and more importantly, “How much does it actually cost a person to obtain his or her possessions?” He rightly concluded that the cost of a thing is not the financial price tag attached to it. It is the amount of one’s life it takes to get it.

Thoreau said, “Very little is actually needed to live well and to be free. Simplify, and once you have secured the necessaries, then you can confront the true problems of life with freedom.” And there Thoreau brings us to the universal human ambition: We all just want to be free and happy. But getting more won’t get it done, because more and more of what is not good for you will only smother you.

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

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Good all the time

 

 

By Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

A.W. Tozer once wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” I can hardly disagree. Our perception of God shapes our character and actions like little else.

So it’s no wonder that some people are the way they are: loving, helpful, sacrificial, kind, and giving. They think of God this way. But on the other hand, some religious people are angry, suspicious, unforgiving, and murderous. These folks, in turn, think of God in these terms and it shows.

By way of example, I have a friend whose thinking about God is sadistic. God, for her, is an always lurking bogeyman who must be continually appeased. He is vicious and eager to rub out a groveling sinner (or an entire city) if it suits him.

Thus, she lives in fear of God and inflicts her angst on everyone around her. Recently, however, I connected the dots between her thinking about God and the relationship she had with her father, when in an unguarded moment she told a forbidding story.

She was a child, and her father came home drunk, as usual. In his stupor he pulled a revolver from his pocket and called his daughter over to his lap. He cuddled her in his arms and then placed the revolver against the back of her head.

“I could blow your brains out right now,” he whispered. Then he put the gun aside and held her close again, only to return to the gun and the threat again and again over the space of the evening. One moment he was loving, and the next he had a gun barrel pushed against her skull.

This type of parenting has caused my friend all types of emotional disturbances over her lifetime, not the least of which is her thinking about God. For her, and I understand why she feels this way, God is just like her drunken father.

The moral and spiritual authority for her life is an erratic, cold-hearted bastard whose words of love are nothing more than an invitation to terror. Her God calls out for his children, takes them into his arms, and then threatens them with violence.

Such a God is unworthy of worship, incapable of being trusted, and impossible to love. Thankfully, such a God doesn’t exist, for Jesus has shown us that God is good, and he’s good all the time.

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

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