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Archive | Keeping the Faith

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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The ones Jesus loves

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

“Just who do you think you are?” Now there’s a question that has been posed and pointed more than a few times. Usually it is a weaponized question of sorts, laden with accusation. Nevertheless, I think it is an essential question of spiritual identity.

Consider the writer of the New Testament book commonly known as “John.” Tradition holds that this Gospel was written by the disciple John, one of Jesus’ closest associates, though the writer, mysteriously, never identifies himself by name. He used an alias, a pen name tagged: “The one Jesus loved.”

Why such a moniker? I think he was using a literary device to force his readers to take hold of the core meaning of what it means to be in relationship with Jesus Christ. He was asking the question, “Just who do you think you are?”

John understood that his core identity was directly connected to the love Christ had for him. So much so, that he did not think of himself as a fisherman, a disciple, an apostle, a Gospel writer, or a Church Father. He was simply one who was supremely loved. Likewise, we are not defined by occupation, label, race, nationality, culture, popularity, or the ancillary chorus of the voices around us. We are simply the Ones Jesus Loves. This is who we really are.

Is this too much to understand? Probably so. But I don’t have to understand it to embrace it and live it. I don’t understand the science of how the sun can be 93 million miles away, provide life-giving light to this planet, and keep our solar system from devolving into chaos, but I believe it, and I experience its light and heat every day. I don’t understand Newton’s Law of Gravitation or Einstein’s later Theory of Relativity, but I know these things keep my feet grounded on planet earth every day, and anchor me within this time and space.

I understand very little about these things. But can’t God’s love in Christ work the same way? As a shining light, a grounding force, a sustaining atmosphere; an affection, passion, and serenity that gives us life and meaning?

No, we can only understand bits and piece of it all, but our lack of complete knowledge should not prevent us from believing and living this fact: We are unconditionally and eternally adored by God. We are indeed, the Ones Jesus Loves.

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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The Rabbi’s Gift

 

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

There is a story about a declining monastery. Once it had thrived, but now it was decimated; only a few old monks remained. Deep in the monastery woods was a little cabin where a rabbi occasionally came for retreat. No one ever spoke with him, but for as long as he was there, the monks would feel blessed by his presence.

One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi and open his heart to him. As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi in the doorway. It was as if he had been awaiting the abbot’s arrival. The two entered the hut and simply sat in the stillness. Finally, the rabbi spoke, “I know you have come to ask a teaching of me. But it is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.”

When the time came for the abbot to leave, he pressed the rabbi: “Is there nothing you can give us that would help us save our dying order?” The rabbi paused and said quietly, “Well, there is one thing: One of you is the Messiah.”

The next morning, the abbot called his monks together. He told them he had spoken to the old rabbi and said bluntly, “The rabbi said that one of us is the Messiah.” In the weeks that followed, the old monks thought about the rabbi’s words and wondered whether it could actually be true – the Messiah is one of us?

Thinking like this, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one of them just might actually be the Messiah. A gentle, warm-hearted, concern began to grow among them which was hard to describe but easy to notice.

Over time, as people visited the beautiful forest in which the monastery was home, they sensed the extraordinary respect that now began to radiate from the place. People began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, play, meditate, and pray.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk with the old monks. Then one joined them. Then another. And another. Within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and light to the community, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a gift that taught them to love others, expecting the very best.

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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No More Show-And-Tell

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

In American literature, the biggest religious pretender of all time is probably Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry. Gantry begins his career in the early 1900s at a little country church (while trying to seduce the daughter of one of the deacons). Eventually he becomes a traveling evangelist who steals from the till, chases skirts, and stays drunk most of the time; but his preaching is phenomenal, so he always has a crowd.

Granted, the evangelist type is an easy mark. Public religious figures are easily labeled as “hypocrites and charlatans.” Gantry wasn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last. But his real wickedness was not his sins. We are all made of clay. It was his two-faced dishonesty. He did what he did out of pride, ambition, and self-glory. He was performing for the audience. That is hypocrisy.

The word “hypocrite,” in its original context, is a great old word right from the Greek and Roman theaters of ancient times that means “play-actor.” A hypocrite was a person who played multiple roles on the stage. But over time, a hypocrite came to mean a person who changed his or her mask for applause. As Jesus used the word, a hypocrite was one who played to the crowd. He or she was someone who performed for the audience – like Elmer Gantry – and at points, like everyone.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said that hypocrites “receive all the reward they will ever get.” If you play for the crowd, he inferred, or if your ambition is to draw attention to yourself, then when you get it, you earned your pay. There is no further reward, benefit, or other prize. God has nothing for you but an empty hand.

Alternatively, Jesus offers a healthier way. “When you give,” he says, “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When you pray, go to a closet and shut the door. When you sacrifice for a cause, don’t broadcast it.” In other words, keep your religious activities on the quiet side; as much as possible, keep it between you and God. Otherwise, you risk corrupting what would be a good deed.

My friend Landon Saunders said it superlatively many years ago. Commenting on the religious tendencies for show-and-tell he suggested that we, “Wear our religion like we wear our underwear; make it rarely visible.” That’s good advice, indeed.

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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