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Archive | Keeping the Faith

All means All

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

“We three kings of Orient are.” So begins a favorite carol of the Advent season about the “Wise Men” who visit the newborn Jesus. And so begins a tale that takes inaccuracy and historical revisionism to a whole new level.

First, we don’t know how many kings there were. There could have been as few as two and up to almost any number. Second, they were not “kings” from the Orient. They were, put more accurately, Magi. The Magi were astronomers – primitive by today’s standards – who were on the cutting edge of scientific and philosophical knowledge in their day. Such men called Persia home (modern day Iran), not the Far East.

Third, these men did not find the Christ child while “following yonder star.” They saw the star “in the East” or “at the rising of the sun,” but then proceeded west to Palestine. The star did not reappear until they were already in Bethlehem. And finally, the Magi, technically, do not belong in the Nativity scene at all. They were latecomers to the Christmas party, maybe as late as Jesus’ second birthday.

Still, “We Three Kings” remains one of my favorite Holiday hymns to bellow out this time of year, for the journey of the Magi is a fascinating exercise in unexpected faith. They came seeking the child who had been born king of the Jews, based almost entirely on the appearance of an enigmatic star.

While history is rampant with explanations for this phenomena, one conclusion is certain: The Magi interpreted this unusual sign in the heavens as a clear communication that something extraordinary had taken place in the world. And even more extraordinary, these Persian sages applied their interpretation to the emergence of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.

Why so astonishing? Not many people would launch out on a dangerous journey based solely on a spiritual hunch. Not many people would put their life on hold to prove their mystical intuitions true. And not many Persians (today’s Iranians) would worship at the feet (or manger) of a Jew.

Yet, in God’s way, these all belonged together. Divisions of race, religion, nationality or ethnicity did not factor into the equation. This is a foreshadowing of the Apostle Paul’s words: “You are all the same in Christ Jesus.” All are welcome into the presence of the One who will “reconcile everything – all things in heaven and on earth to himself.”

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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Never Left Hanging

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

There is a story told a hundred different ways but with the same punch line: A man falls off a cliff, and just before plunging to his death, grabs hold of the skinniest of tree branches. For the moment he is alive, but hanging thousands of feet above the ground. Stuck as he is, and with no one else to call upon, he looks heavenward and prays: “Dear God! Please help me!”

A thunderous but calming voice answers from heaven: “Okay, my son, let go and I will catch you.” The man thinks about this offer for a moment and answers: “Thanks…but is there anyone else up there who can help me?”

Sometimes – on rare and unusual occasions – God intervenes. He speaks. He acts. And when he does, it often results in more trepidation than if he had remained silent. Think of Moses, barefoot at the burning bush; Jacob in a surprise wrestling match with God’s Angel; Saul, blind and blathering on the Damascus road.

Advent, which begins this week, is no exception. God speaks – God arrives – and the world is shattered. Shepherds quake. Angels sing. Awe-inspired Magi bow. Mary trembles. Joseph, a stunned carpenter, probably wonders if someone “else up there” could deliver him from the delivery of this child.

What was it all about? All of these characters were asked to “leap” from their perches and believe that the swaddling-wrapped-manger-for-a-crib baby is indeed the Promised One of God. Are we not asked to believe the same; that God has spoken and is speaking? Yes, when one speaks of “hearing God’s voice,” it might be time to call the paddy wagon. Great lunacies have been committed by individuals convinced that they were on a divine mission. Some of these insanities have crossed over into atrocity.

But to hear God speak, deep within our hearts, is not necessarily a sign of mental illness. It can be (like finding Jesus’s image in a bag of cheese puffs or an icon of the Virgin Mary on the back of a piece of raisin toast at the Waffle House). It can also be a manipulative way to dupe the spiritually naïve (or sell a pile of books during the holiday season).

Yet, on rare and unusual occasions, God intervenes with a voice booming in our hearts, and we are called to exercise ruthless trust. But, he is trustworthy, and will never leave us hanging.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me. 

 

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Never submit

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

One of my sons has a motto by which he attempts to live his life. It is: “Never submit.” I can attest that he practices this maxim rigorously, and it serves him well in many situations, giving him grit and determination. But at the point that he cannot impose his demands upon people and situations, bending these to his liking (and he reaches this point routinely), then “Never Submit” leads to a dark and dangerous place.

Nevertheless, my boy is at least speaking the truth, because this is precisely how many of us live. We refuse to submit—not to authority, the rules, or a way of life that would make our days lighter, easier, and healthier—and not even to God. This shows up, most noticeably, when we pray.

Prayer, if you haven’t detected it for yourself, can be very self-centered. We approach God, not with a view of letting go of ourselves, to receive and live the life he has for us. We approach God with the mantra, “Never Submit.” Our prayers are scripturally-laced ransom letters, demanding the Almighty to do things our way; to meet us where we are; to comply with our plans.

Such an attitude is not unlike the act of checking into a luxurious penthouse. We want something to eat, so room service is called and the kitchen goes into full operational mode to bring us whatever we want. Our favorite shirt is dirty. No problem, send for the maid. She will quickly take it to the laundry and return it before dinner.

Do you need a cab? Ring the bell; the concierge lives to serve you. Not enough clean towels? Want your bed made twice a day? Need an extra chocolate on your pillow at bedtime? It’s easy-peasy: Pick up the phone and the management will be happy to attend to your every whim and impulse.

Does prayer really work this way? I don’t think so. Prayer is not a method for getting everything we want. Rather, it is the means by which we surrender to what God wants. It is an act of acquiescence; the letting go of our resolve, exchanged for God’s. It is not pulling God to ourselves, to our will, or to our way of seeing and doing things. It is compliance to the intentions of God, as he pulls our lives in his direction. It is submission, always.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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You ain’t no mule!

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

Clarence Jordan was born deep in the farming fields of Georgia. Growing up in the Deep South, Jordan was witness to bitter acts of racism that were as numerous as the Georgia cotton bolls – and some of the more zealous racists were prominent Christians. But Clarence, by God’s grace, refused to become a participant. He boldly embraced a humble faith and a prophet’s vocation, preaching peace, nonviolence, and reconciliation. It didn’t win him many friends.

One day a man showed up at Clarence’s farm angry that he wouldn’t fight back. Clarence answered, “You’ve got that wrong. We’ll fight.” And then he looked across the field where a mule was sticking his head out of the barn. Clarence said, “Suppose you walked by the barn and that old mule reached out and bit you in the seat of your britches? Would you bite him back?”

The man was appalled. “Of course I wouldn’t bite him back,” the man said. “I’d get a two-by-four and hit him in the head!” Clarence, with his Southern-fried wisdom answered, “See, you would fight, but you wouldn’t use that old mule’s tactics, ‘cause you ain’t no mule. You wouldn’t bite or kick him because he would win. You would choose weapons that a mule can’t compete with.”

Then Clarence delivered the clincher: “Yes sir, we will fight, but we will choose the weapons. We will fight with humility, grace, justice, and forgiveness. But we’re not going to fight with the enemy’s weapons, because if we do, the enemy will whip us.”

Clarence Jordan died in 1969, still reviled by many of his neighbors, so much so that the local coroner wouldn’t even drive to the farm to pronounce the man deceased. But the man was anything but dead. His deeds and words live on. And while he is not as well known, it is not uncommon to hear his name spoken with the likes of Gandhi, King, and Teresa of Calcutta.

His most prominent work, “The Cotton Patch Gospel” is a masterpiece of New Testament interpretation, and his vision eventually birthed the organization known as Habitat for Humanity, which has partnered with those in need to shelter more than three million people.

In the end, it appears that Clarence Jordan fought well. His life is a testimony to grace under fire and an example for all fighters to follow. Like him, let us choose our weapons carefully.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me. 

 

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Waiting for faith to be born

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

Making my usual pastoral rounds at the local hospital some time ago, I witnessed the most unusual thing. A dilapidated Buick had jumped the parking lot curb and had crash-landed in the flower garden just outside the main doors. The driver’s door was wide open, and a group of hurried and harried medical staff was doing something to someone in the driver’s seat.

I slipped out of the lobby to get a closer look. To my astonishment, a baby was being delivered right there in the car’s floorboard. Thank God I didn’t stumble upon this situation alone, for in the magnificent words of Butterfly McQueen, “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies!” Within minutes a baby boy was born, and within days mom and son left the hospital in excellent health (in that same old Buick).

Granted, this birth was not typical. Some mothers labor for hours. Some children enter the world only by surgical intervention. Some babies are born in a maternity ward, at home, with a cadre of attending physicians, and indeed, some are born in the most bizarre of environments. What they all have in common is this: When it comes to birth, every newborn needs all the help he or she can get, to be healthy.

This, as I see it, should be the calling of the church. Congregations should provide safe, welcoming environments for faith to be born within people. Churches should strive to be delivery rooms where the new in faith can grow, be nurtured, and become the people God wants them to be. Let us not forget our role as incubators of developing faith, skilled midwives who assist with spiritual birth.

In my own journey of faith, many people have helped me, people with a soft touch but strong, steady hands. Few of these helpers ever lectured me, formally discipled me, twisted my arm, force-fed me Bible verses, or beat me over the head with the latest and greatest new book guaranteed to revolutionize my life.

No, recognizing that something new was struggling to be born, they were there to gently guide, encourage, support, and coach me. They dove right in—right where they found me—skilled midwives, who let me know that life and faith are worth their struggles. And when the pain of labor has passed, the anguish gives way to joy, for faith has been born in the world.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me

 

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Replacement, not Revolution

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

Last year Denzel Washington starred in the movie “Flight,” as Captain Whip Whitaker, a pilot with the fictional South Jet Airlines. When we first meet Captain Whitaker he is in a hotel room suffering from a terrible hangover, a hangover he remedies by snorting a line of cocaine, just before climbing aboard to guide Flight 227 to Atlanta. The flight never arrives.

It crashed, not because Whitaker is drunk or jacked up on coke – though he is. The aircraft crashed because of mechanical failure, and the Captain’s efforts are regarded as heroic, as there are but a few casualties in the crash. The incident, however, pulls back the veil on Whitaker’s addiction, forming the plotline for the movie.

While it could be said that the producers of the film took creative license with the flight and crash scenes of the movie, what the producers perfectly nailed is the nature of addiction. It devours. It gobbles up a person’s well-being and uses up a person’s identity. And, of course, the condition is not limited to alcohol and cocaine. Anything that initially empowers us, in the end, can enslave us.

And in those moments of clarity, when we realize that we can’t keep living in these destructive cycles, we decide that we want something better. We want transformation; to turn over a new leaf; we want change. But our efforts to revolutionize our lives almost always fail. Our attempts at life-changing revolution wind up being exchanges of one tyranny for another; a swapping of one set of chains for another; trading one evil task master for another one.

The recognition that life must change is simply not enough. Transformation is not accomplished by giving up what is bad for you. No, the bad has to be replaced with what is good and healthy. I think this is exactly what Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was talking about when he articulated those necessary steps toward sobriety, where one must acknowledge his or her powerlessness and turn life over to a Higher Power who is the only source of health and sanity.

This isn’t mere self-help. This is Spirituality 101. This is the essence of the Christian life: Our desires, impulses, and very lives have to be crucified, as it were, so that the life God has for us can be born and lived in its place. It is replacement, not simply revolution.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me

 

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Layer Upon Layer

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

Years ago my sister returned from the Ukraine after a mission trip. She returned home with a heart full of joy, a head full of memories, and bags full of strange and wonderful souvenirs. She brought me a unique gift—a set of Matryoshka dolls, which are traditional Russian nesting dolls. When you open the first doll it has a smaller doll on the inside, so on and so forth, until you reach a tiny Weeble Wobble deep within.

The outer doll of my Matryoshka set was, entertainingly, Boris Yeltsin. When Yeltsin was opened, there was Gorbachev, then Khrushchev, then Josef Stalin, and finally Vladimir Lenin himself. I now keep all these little Communists boxed in the attic. They are much too dangerous to be let loose in the world again.

The deeper you went within the dolls, the closer you got to the essence of Soviet power, its source and beginning. As layer after layer fell away, and finally you held a tiny characterization of Lenin in your hand, you could truthfully say, “Ah, now I’ve gotten to the bottom of it all.”

Many have tried this same thing with Jesus. We try to unravel him and reduce him. We think we can get to the bottom of who he is. But there is a problem. When dealing with Jesus, we do not move to something smaller and more manageable. As the layers fall away, we move to something greater. He gets larger, more uncontrollable, inconceivable, and more wonderful. We are the ones left to weeble and wobble.

Yet, there is a seed, a core to the historical Jesus as well as the exalted Christ of our faith. It is the element of sacrifice. There at the end of it all, when the onion is peeled, is a cross. C. S. Lewis challenged us to look at the cross, not as a display of godly anger toward Jesus or the world, but as a Lover absorbing the shame and humiliation of betrayal. Lewis said, “Jesus shows on the cross that God’s love is not about violence and retaliation. The cross is the only true language of forgiveness.”

That cross shows us how far Love will go: God, humiliated and bleeding in a suffering mess, bearing up beneath the betrayal of his creation. If you can get to the bottom of that, please let me know. You’re a smarter person than most.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me. 

 

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At the Brink

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

Thirty years ago this month, life as we have known it, came perilously close to ending. It was September 1983, and the Cold War was anything but cold, as the USSR had shot down Korea Air Flight 007 when it strayed near Soviet airspace, killing all 269 civilians on board including Georgia Congressman Larry McDonald.

With passions running high in both Russia and the US, and with thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at each other, one of the greatest heroes of our time quietly went to work at a Soviet military base just outside of Moscow. His name was Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov.

It was Petrov’s duty to monitor the Soviet alert system in the event of a preemptive nuclear attack by the US. The responding protocol was to launch an immediate counterattack. At Colonel Petrov’s station on September evening, the computer alarms sounded, warning that an American missile was heading toward Moscow.

Petrov waited. He reasoned that it was a computer error. But then, a second warhead was detected; then a third; a fourth, and a fifth. Still, Petrov had a “feeling in his gut,” that the alert system was malfunctioning. Further, it was unthinkable, for him, that he would be the final reason that would end human civilization.

So, Petrov sat on the alert, overrode the system, and prevented the USSR from retaliating. Seconds passed, then minutes, and finally an hour: There were no missiles. The warning system had indeed malfunctioned with near cataclysmic consequences. Singlehandedly, Petrov had prevented nuclear war, simply by not becoming a participant in it.

The Pauline admonition is fitting upon the anniversary of Petrov’s heroics: “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.” This is redemptive counsel for us to do all that we can to protect harmony and neutralize conflict.

Not every individual skirmish has the potential to balloon into a global apocalypse. But worldwide wars are not that much different than private ones in the end. It’s the same tit for tat game. The same wounded pride demands to be assuaged. And likewise, at some point, there is an opportunity for someone to step away from the brink.

There is opportunity for someone to refuse to perpetuate the ruthless cycle of attack and counterattack; for someone to reject the established protocol of retaliation; for someone to practice peace. Let that someone be you. You might save the world.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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Take It with You

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

When I first met Father Thad I was a Baptist minister and he was the priest at the neighborhood Catholic parish. Thad was an astonishing man, a depository of mind-warping experiences, not the least of which was a personal story I loved to hear him tell.

A parish he once led desperately needed to expand its ministry. But one man in the parish absolutely resisted, always squelching prospective change by saying something like, “My grandfather gave the land for this church; my daddy cleared the trees for the building; and we’re not going to change anything.” (Catholics don’t have a monopoly on this sentiment).

Thad finally had enough. In his remarkable way, he secured a diocese blessing and obtained a piece of land on the other side of town. He called the local house builders, and had the church relocated! I have this charming picture in my mind of the church, steeple atop, rolling down the road on stilts led by a vestment-clad Father Thad, reading the gospel and splashing holy water along the way.

When I first heard that story, I told Thad, “If you were a Protestant, you could have just started another church.” His response was priceless: “Why start another church, when you can take it with you?”

Truth told, that is pretty good ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is what seminarians call the “doctrine of the church.” It answers the question: “What is the nature of the church?” After several hundred years of modernity and religious institutionalism, more and more people are recognizing that the church is not a building. The church is a people, not a place. It is a living movement, not a fixed address.

When the last homilies, sermons, songs, testimonies, and prayers are offered at your congregation or parish on Sunday morning, you don’t leave the church. You will leave a specific gathering of the church, certainly, but you take the church with you—because the church is you. You take it on the road, across town, into your workplace or university, into your living room, classroom, and boardroom: You embody the presence of Christ in the world.

We will not be defined so much by “where we go to church,” but by whether or not we will be the church once we leave the building. As Father Thad put it so accurately: “Why start another church, when you can take it with you?”

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me

 

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Let your soul catch up

by Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

The first Labor Day celebration was observed in New York City in 1882. It was a movement to honor “the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” Not many years later, it became evident that the American worker was such an exceptional and efficient creature, that work hours would soon be reduced to mere shadows of their former oppression.

For example, economist John Mayhard Keynes, in the teeth of the Great Depression, predicted that technological advancements would soon lead to a 15-hour work week. In the mid-1960s, congressional leaders boldly predicted a two-day work week by the year 2000. That prediction has apparently only rung true for congressional leaders, as the average time workers spend on the job has ballooned over the years to nearly 50 hours per week. The predictions of “less work more rest,” is a farce for today’s laborers.

In the book of Genesis, the ancient writer says that on that final day of the first week, God rested. The word for rest means “to enhance one’s soul,” or “to renew the spirit.” When we imitate God in this way, it is an act of worship.

Lettie Cowman, a devotional writer from a century ago, illustrates this with one of her stories from Africa. She wrote about an Englishman who was exploring the deepest jungles of the continent, traveling like British royalty. He had brought with him fine wines, his favorite foods, tons of books and parchments, furniture and clothing.

He had so much that he had to hire an army of strong men from the local villages to portage all this material through the jungle. On the first day of his grand safari he pushed the laborers at an exhausting, God-forsaken pace. But on the second morning, the hired Africans refused to move.

Finally, one of the young men explained that they were not especially tired. Rather, they had gone too far and too fast on the first day, and they had to “wait for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”

Ms. Cowman concluded her story (and I remind you, her words are a century old): “This whirling, rushing life which so many of us live does for us what that first march did for those poor tribesmen. But here is the difference: They knew what they needed to restore life’s balance; too often we do not.” Amen.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

 

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