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Archive | Keeping the Faith

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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Fight On

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

My friend has cancer. I have been accompanying her as she receives weekly chemotherapy. These treatments are administered in an “infusion laboratory.” The “lab” is a simple room with comfortable lounge chairs lining the walls. Each chair has an infusion pump that pushes what everyone prays is cancer-killing compounds through the body.

There are those tucked into those chairs who look well, and others who are obviously ill; those who have been making pilgrimage to the lab for years; and those who are newbies. Some are alone; some are with friends or family; some discretely hide their baldness, and others wear the rigors of treatment like a badge of honor.

And when it comes to coping, the differences are manifold as well. Some are in shock over their prognosis. Some are depressed. Some have a stoic, Zen-like acceptance. Some keep smiling no matter what, and some are as mad as hell – at life, God, physicians – at anyone who can be held responsible.

Then some patients have all these feelings simultaneously. Don’t be fooled: Coping with a major illness is not as orderly as textbooks led us to believe. It is a hot mess of total emotion when facing one’s personal mortality.  But for all the compare and contrast of these unique individuals, they are all held together by the solidarity of their battle. Through the blood, sweat, and tears they fight like gladiators in the arena, for they are desperately fighting for their lives. More so, they are fighting for what it means to be human.

Disease does more than “steal, kill, and destroy” the physique. It attempts to deprive a person of his or her dignity. It endeavors to smother the internal flame and erase the spirit of the one who suffers. So those fighting horrible illnesses are not just fighting for a few more years. They are fighting for what it means to be a human being. They are marshalling all their grit and resilience (and something that borders on elegance), not just to stay alive physically, but to guard their very souls.

Those in the arena understand that physical life may be taken from them, but by God’s grace, no disease will ever rob them of their humanity, identity, and their innate worth as creations of the Almighty. They understand that the fight may not change their prognosis, but the fight prevents the disease from changing them.

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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Take it outside

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Pastor Kyle was fresh out of the seminary—green, idealistic, and zealous. Wanting to make a difference by emphasizing the importance of world missions, Kyle invited one of his peers to be the special missionary speaker.
This peer was a young man who had been raised in Africa by missionary parents. He would soon be graduating with a missiology degree of his own, and would be returning to African soil to continue the good work. Perfect! But there was a problem. Kyle’s friend was an African. No person of color had ever stood in the pulpit of this Texas Baptist church.
Kyle pressed on with youthful enthusiasm. On the appointed day the young African arrived and spoke with passion and love for his continent. He was received well by the congregation, but not everyone was happy. At the next church business meeting, a man stood and said, “I’m tired of this preacher talking about race all the time, and I’m fixin’ to whip his #&$.”
Pastor Kyle said later, “At first the people got more upset that he said ‘#&$’ in church, than the fact that he was going to whip me!” But here the guy came, climbing over the pews like scaling a ladder toward Kyle. Just as he got to him, four big men intervened and said, “If you’re going to whip the preacher…take it outside.”
The entire congregation spilt outside and gathered in a circle to see the prize fight. Kyle had no idea what to do; but again, just as the first punch was about to be thrown, those same men intervened. “If you’re going to whip the preacher,” they said, “you’ll have to start with us.” The man backed down, never to return.
When Kyle returned to that church many years later for an anniversary service, to his jaw-dropping astonishment, half the congregation was African-American! “How could this be?” he asked a number of the “old-timers” still around from the younger days.
One man answered, “Well, preacher, after you left, the neighborhood around us began to change. And we had a decision to make: Dig in, move away, or open our doors to our neighbors. Thanks to what you taught us, we opened our doors.” Kyle’s few years at that little church in the Texas pines as an inexperienced, didn’t-know-any-better-than-to-try seminarian had really made a difference in the lives of the community – and the world.
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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Catching Up

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

“Be sure your sins will find you out.” That’s what the Good Book says, and my mother quoted those words to me a lot while I was growing up. In fact, she once arranged for the public demonstration of this proverb.

I was in the seventh grade, and someone was habitually stealing my lunch from my classroom cubby. My mother complained, vigorously. Still, the thievery continued. So, she then did something unexpected: She took matters into her own hands.

My mother made a sandwich combining dog food with that greasy potted meat compost. Then she sweetened the deal with a nicely baked brownie, Ex-lax being the main ingredient. The thought of my good Christian mother orchestrating and executing such a devious plan of revenge made my teenage heart leap with joy.

On the Day of Judgment I placed my lunch in its usual location and went to math class. Later, when I returned to fetch it – to my sinister delight – it was gone. I nearly hyperventilated with delight. I watched the absentee roll for the next several days, and discovered that Dexter Wilkey missed three days in a row. When he finally returned to school, he was still a little green around the gills. Obviously, mother and I had our man.

How is it that our wrongdoings always float to the surface? Cheat on your taxes and lo and behold that’s the one year you get audited. Cheat on your wife and that will be the inopportune time she investigates the extra charges on your Visa card. Steal from your boss and expect a pink slip. It might take a while to catch up with you, but “catch up” is coming nonetheless.

Sure, some will get away with it – but not many. Call it sin, the inescapable justice of the universe, karma, or bad juju – whatever. “It” has a way of catching up with you no matter what. So what is the solution?

Wave the white flag of surrender. Stop skimming off the till. Stay faithful to your spouse. Cut up a credit card. Be honest at work. Quit stealing little boys’ lunches (Shame on you Dexter! I thought we were friends.).

It’s never too late to do the right thing. Never. Unless of course you’ve got that brownie shoved half-way down your throat already. If that’s the case, well, Godspeed. Your sins have caught up with you after all.

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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Seeing stars

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

by Ronnie McBrayer

 

On the wall of my childhood Sunday School class was a giant, gridlined poster board that looked sort of like an Excel spreadsheet. There was a place for each child’s name, and then all of these vacant boxes running to the right, eager to be filled with shining gold stars. Did you bring an offering? Put a gilded check in the box! Are you staying for worship? A trophy is yours. Read your Bible every day this week? Another star blesses you from heaven.

I always had a shining wall full of stars, hungry as I was for that elusive divine and adult approval; and I sometimes led the class. But then there was Philip Johns, my most fierce competitor. He was a religious machine. I could only beat him a few months out of each year, and in my daily prayers I had to often repent for wishing he would get struck with the flu, chickenpox, or leprosy – anything – so that he would be sidelined just long enough for me to squeak out the winning margin.

It was that simple: Complete a religious assignment and get a star. Those with more stars were more dedicated, more spiritual, more committed, and obviously more beloved by God. Those with fewer stars, well, their faithfulness was suspect at best. When we engrain a competitive spirit into faith—a culture of public shame and reward—is it any wonder we end up with some really faith-damaged adults?

There is plenty to compete for and against in this world. But Christianity is not one of those things. Spiritual formation is not a competition. Faith is not – or at least it should not be – an instrument to humiliate those who just “can’t measure up.”

And then there are those of us who “won” the religious game, we who earned our bounteous gold stars with pride. We are committed – let there be no mistake about that – but committed to what, exactly? Obligation? Checklists? To the fawning cheers of the spectators? To seeing our name high and lifted up in heavenly constellations?

Our religious efforts and activities to please, praise, or placate God can become the very things that actually distract us from God. For if Christian faith becomes a work-based, blood-sweat-and-tears, incentive-driven, reward-acquisition staircase that compensates the winners and shames the losers, then the focus is placed on us and our rivals, not upon Christ.

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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You have to trust somebody

 

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

My family and I made a trip last summer to the Midwest. We stopped for lunch in the megalopolis of Carmi, Illinois, population 5,240. Most of these people must be scarecrows, because the only thing we saw there was a sandwich shop, a gas station, and cornfields.

While munching on sandwiches, our dog locked us out of our rental van. I tried to coax that little Shih Tzu over to the door locks for nearly an hour, but he was so enjoying the air conditioning, he wouldn’t budge. I went back inside the restaurant and told the sandwich-making lady that I needed a locksmith, knowing that one would probably have to come all the way from Peoria bearing a four-digit bill. She said, “I’ll call my friend, Rick. Trust me.” I cringed.

Rick showed up, walking out of the cornfields like Kevin Costner, and for $20 and the words, “Trust me” (There it was again!), had us in the van quicker than you can say “Carmi.” I kissed the sandwich maker, tipped Rick an extra $40, and we jumped back on the road with grateful laughter.

Then we had a tire blowout on the rental van in a place even more remote than Carmi. Our eight-hour joy drive devolved into a twenty-hour living hell, and frankly, I never want to see another Illinois cornfield again.

Still, it could have been worse. Where would my family and I have been without the sandwich maker who knew just who to call; without Rick, and his door-jimmying abilities; without the customer service rep at the rental agency who told me over the phone, “Trust me (Again!); it’s going to be okay”?

It would have been an even more rotten experience without the unknown, unnamed person who wrote the rental van manual, explaining where to find the infernal spare tire; without the young man at a tire service center in Mt. Vernon, Illinois who was the epitome of kindness; and there was the waitress, who at the diner when it was all over, seemed to understand that ice cream makes all disasters just a bit more tolerable.

All along the way I met people—honest, good people—who asked only for my confidence. That confidence was not disappointed, and I learned again that you have to trust a few people every now and then if you are going to make it safely home.

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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Multitasking Madness

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

Beware of the multitasker. He or she isn’t being honest, for anyone who claims the ability to talk on the phone, surf the web, cook dinner, send a text message, balance the checkbook, and fly a crop duster all at the same time is terribly misguided.

Neuroscientist Earl Miller says, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves.” What we humans can do, according to Miller, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. So when we think we are paying careful and skillful attention to everything around us, but this is a trick of the brain.

The stupefying effect of multitasking may have been first observed in felines, not humans. Many years ago it was observed that cats could not focus on more than one target at a time. But scientists did not make this breakthrough. Lion tamers did.

Thankfully, the lion taming business has fallen on hard times in recent years. After all, such magnificent creatures were never meant to be caged. But some of us still remember the sensational lion tamers of the great circuses who would strut into the steel cage with little more than a cracking whip in one hand and a chair in the other.

Of course, these big cat masters knew that a dining chair wouldn’t keep the lions from devouring them (nor would the whip). What they knew was that the chair would confuse the lion. The four points of the chair’s legs, bobbing about as they were, tangled the lion’s mind just enough so that the animal could not act on his carnivorous intentions.

What an apropos parallel for those of us living in a world gone mad with multifarious activity – so appropriate it barely deserves comment. Our energy is so entirely defused and our attention so thoroughly diverted, that we are essentially incapacitated. We would do well to hear the words of Jesus for ourselves as he gently but categorically rebuked a dear friend by saying, “You are so worried and distracted by many things, when only a few things are needed.”

We aren’t super-sized computers built and equipped with central processing units. We are human beings, born to laugh and to love; born to take life slowly and deeply as it comes to us; and we are born to be uncaged, set free from the madness of multitasking.

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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School’s out…say your prayers

By Ronnie McBrayer

Curtain climbers. Yard monkeys. Cherubs. Whippersnappers. Ankle biters. I don’t know what you call them, but our children have been turned loose on the world. School is out for summer (at least it ends this week here where I live). By the end of summer I’m afraid my description of these little animals will be a bit stronger. I’ll be ready for them to return to the classroom.
Still, I appreciate their euphoria. I can recall the butterflies that formed in my stomach as summer break approached each year: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” So, I still get giddy this time of year just thinking about summer. But the real happiness is found in empty classrooms where teachers are dancing with unmitigated joy. At least I know my sons’ teachers are dancing. Preachers’ kids are the worst, you know.
It’s been said that if teachers were paid like professional athletes, and athletes were paid like teachers, our society would be a much better place. Amen to that. But money is not the reason these men and women give themselves to the classroom. They teach because they love working with children or a particular subject. They teach because as a student, they themselves were greatly influenced by a teacher. In fact, influence seems to be the real reason teachers teach. Only parents and close family members have the kind of unparalleled impact on youngsters as teachers. The influence is incalculable.
Too many times we who stand behind pulpits or travel to the “mission field” (whatever that means) monopolize the market on doing God’s work. But everyone has opportunity to do the work of God. This is doubly true for teachers.
Sure, there are a few bad apples in the educational barrel; you can find these kinds of folks in all career fields. Yet, teachers are a heroic lot who deserve our support, admiration, and even our prayers. God knows if I were matched against twenty-five second graders every day, I’d want someone praying for me.
And to my sons’ middle school teachers, a final word before you slip into the rapture of a kid-less summer: My wife and I have one more son coming your way. As he has been cultured by his older brothers, he may be the most challenging one yet. So accept my apology in advance. I’ll be praying for you.
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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Choose to be Happy

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

“There is something rotten in Denmark.” That is a centuries old phrase from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” The Danish have smelled fishy ever since. But in reality, Denmark doesn’t stink at all. In fact, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Scandinavian nations of Northern Europe are officially the happiest countries in the world.

Annually, the Legatum Institute publishes its Prosperity Index that gauges the happiness level of the world’s countries. Consistently, Denmark, Norway and the Scandinavian nations are at the top of the heap. If you are curious, the United States is currently ranked 12th on the Prosperity Index. Not too bad, but our society as a whole is not as happy as it once was, and honestly I don’t think that comes as much of a surprise.

Happiness is affected by our environment. That much is true. Happiness is a product of our genetics (scientists say that an elongated 5HTT gene will make you happier on average than most). But ultimately, barring emotional or mental dysfunction, happiness is a choice we make. No, we don’t live in Scandinavia. We have no control over our chromosomal makeup. We can’t do anything about our age and very little to change our personal economics. There are simply some things we cannot change.

But, there are other things we can do something about. We can choose to live near our friends. We can decide to practice gratitude. We can do work we find fulfilling. We can opt out of the blame game, and quit holding God, life, circumstances, past lovers, ex-wives, former business partners, parents, and reality responsible for doing us in.

We can make choices that will lead us toward becoming happy, joyful people or we can make choices that will result in us becoming chronically unhappy people. Regardless, that choice belongs to each and every one of us.

It was Viktor Frankl, Jewish Holocaust survivor and Austrian psychiatrist, who best articulated the power of choice in personal happiness. Reflecting upon his time in the concentration camps he wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

If you want to be happy you don’t have to move to Scandinavia or wait for science to alter your genetics. But you do have to choose to be happy, and no one else can make that choice for you.

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 Power of Now

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

There is a Zen parable about a man who surprised a tiger while walking through the jungle. The ferocious animal pursued the man, and with the tiger tightly on his heels, the man came to a steep cliff. He saw a vine dangling over the edge, quickly grabbed it, and began shimmying down the vine narrowly escaping the teeth of the tiger who glared at him from the rim above.

This put the traveler in a predicament. He was high in the air with no place to go. The vicious tiger was overhead; jagged rocks were below; and he was clinging to a vine that was not nearly long enough to lower him to the ground. Then, as if things could not be direr, a mouse emerged from its den and began to nibble at the vine.

At this moment the traveler saw a perfect, plump strawberry within arm’s reach, growing out of the face of the cliff. He picked it, ate it, and exclaimed, “Wow!!! That is the best strawberry I’ve ever tasted in my entire life!”

The story ends there (leaving the man hanging in a lurch), but the lesson keeps going: If the man had been preoccupied with the rocks below (his possible future), or the tiger above (his past troubles), or the mouse chewing away at the vine (his vanishing present), he would have missed the strawberry within the present moment. He would have missed the joy of now.

Those of us who have fixed our eyes on the rearview mirror feel the days gone by slashing angrily at our heels with the unanswerable questions of regret. Yet, countless people live their lives in a hypothetical time machine, always worrying and fretting over a distant yet-to-come that might never materialize.

And of course there are those who are preoccupied with the future differently. They say things like: “I’ll do it one day (whatever ‘it’ is). Life will be better next week…next month…next year…next decade.” But in the end, the end comes far too soon, and all the best-laid plans never materialize.

If we are engrossed with the snarling monsters of our past, obsessed with the fearful uncertainties of tomorrow, or spend our precious few days prepping for an ethereal future, this much is certain: We give away today; we miss the now. Right now might not be your greatest moment, but now is all you have.

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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