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Archive | Keeping the Faith

Some First, Some Last, All Equal

Ronnie McBrayer

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Jesus once told a story about a landowner who hired laborers to harvest grapes from his vineyard. Some employees worked all day, others labored for part of the day, and some arrived to work only at the last hour. The landowner, inexplicably, pays those who were hired last (and worked the least), the same wage as those who were hired first and worked all day.

No matter which way you cut it, this doesn’t seem very fair: Especially for those of us raised with the good old Protestant work ethic, with entrepreneurial capitalism passed along to us in our mother’s milk.

So imagine the scene as it plays out. The tired workers form a line at the end of the day to receive their wages. When the Director of Human Resources arrives with their paychecks, regardless of the hours on the time card, everyone is paid the same! Quickly there is the threat of a labor riot or at least a lawsuit for unfair labor practices. The landowner is summoned an gives this response, “I haven’t been unfair! Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?”

It is a direct and accurate reply, for the angry workers were not enraged over injustice. They were angry because the landowner was generous and gracious to others that had not “earned” their way. The landowner gave grace—making the last first, opening the door to all—and this is what infuriated the other workers.

With this story, Jesus has dug his fingers into a very sore spot for we who are religious people. We preach grace, but we don’t always practice it. We talk about God’s mercy, but we don’t always want the people who need it most to get in on it. We say we are in the redemption business, but we are not eager to open the doors to all would-be patrons.

Landon Saunders says it like this: “Figuring out who is in and who is out is just too much work. It’s too heavy of a burden! Just try to treat every person you meet as if they will be sitting at the table with you in eternity.”

That small change of perspective would do more to advance the kingdom of God on earth than a thousand aggrieved churches that pound their pulpits, point fingers, and exclude others from the love of God and the gates of heaven.

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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Answering the Call

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

My friends Scott and Karen worked for one of the largest missions organizations in the world. Mexico, Central America, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf: Scott and Karen traversed the globe for nearly twenty years, aiding indigenous people groups and living out the love and witness of Christ. It all came to a grinding halt, however, when the mission organization for which they worked deemed their medical mission financially unsustainable, but completely for reasons other than shrinking dollars and cents.

Simply, not enough people were becoming Christians. Conversions. Baptisms. Increasing numbers of those who have “prayed the sinner’s prayer.” Public professions of faith. Churches being planted and cross-topped buildings being constructed. These were the outcomes that were required by the mission executives. When these outcomes were not forthcoming, the organization refused to keep pouring dollars into such an “unreceptive region.”

Scott and Karen pleaded with the mission’s executives to reconsider this decision. Their medical facility was serving an entire region of needy people, treating tens of thousands of patients a year. A part of the world that had been antagonistic was finding it increasingly difficult to hate those who were loving, medicating, and saving their children and elders. A mission executive responded to the pleas of Scott, Karen, and the medical staff with these words: “We have no obligation to the bodies of those whose souls are going to hell.”

Is this really the gospel? Is it “Good News” when we reduce the love of God to simple statistics or counting the numbers who pray a specific, mechanical prayer? Can we, with any integrity, disregard the crushing misery of people today, if those needs are not spiritual in nature, and say we are following the way of Jesus?

The “Good News,” as Jesus proclaimed it, is not an evacuation plan to rescue people from earth, or an insurance policy for the afterlife. Rather, it is a revolutionary strategy to redeem the sufferings of this world by putting the rule and reign of heaven inside people, something Jesus called the kingdom of God.

We have the chance, if we will take it, to become catalysts and conduits of the very real kingdom of God in today’s world, because the present – not the future – is where we follow Jesus. Today – not tomorrow – “is the day of salvation,” and the prayer “thy kingdom come” is more than words. It is our calling.

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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Some Assembly Required

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Do you know the three most frightening words in the English language? “Some assembly required.” You order something online; a toy or a bicycle for your children. Or you go to a big box store to get a grill or piece of patio furniture.

When UPS brings it to your door or you find the item you’re looking for in the store, it’s not ready to go like you saw in the online catalog or the advertisement in Sunday’s paper. “Some assembly required,” the tag on the box says.

There are buckets of screws, connectors, rods and unidentifiable small pieces of plastic that you will never use no matter what the directions say. And for the next six weeks you attempt to put this thing together.

Some assembly required: This is true of the products you buy, your relationships, the children you are raising, and the person you are becoming. We are all works in progress, even as this relates to faith. The Apostle Paul said: “Continue to work out your salvation.” We have been given this wonderful gift of grace and salvation. We have come to understand God’s love and have answered a call to a life of faith. This gift is like getting a bicycle in a box or a swing set bound by straps and smothered in Styrofoam peanuts. It’s like possessing a new piece of patio furniture but it’s in a dozen pieces, the materials scattered across the yard.

You’ve got to work it out. You’ve got to put it all together. You can’t ride the bike if it stays in the box. You can’t play on the swing set if it remains disassembled. You can’t enjoy your furniture if you don’t connect the pieces. And faith will not be what it is intended to be—what God wants it to be in your life—if you don’t work it out, if you don’t open the box and put it together. Maybe faith has become such a burden for some of us because we’re lugging around on our backs the box full of assorted spiritual materials rather than putting it all together.

So pop the bands off the box that’s waiting for you in the garage. Put on your work gloves and break out the tool chest. Call your neighbor to lend a hand. Before you know it, all the pieces might just fall into place.

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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It’s Time

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Imagine that tomorrow morning I deposit into your bank account $86,400. This money is all yours to do with as you please. Now, not only am I going to deposit this amount into your account tomorrow, I’m going to do the same thing every day next week. But I’m not finished. I’m going to make this daily deposit into your account every day for the next year. At the conclusion of twelve months you will have received more than $31.5 million.

Now, what if I told you that you have in your possession, today, something even more valuable than $31 million? You see, every day that you awake to draw air into your lungs, you receive that deposit of sorts, though it’s not measured in dollars. It’s measured in seconds.

Every day contains 86,400 seconds; every week more than 600,000; and every year more than 31 million. They are yours to spend as you please. The only catch is this: When each day is over, and after each week passes, and when the calendar turns, your “funds” expire. They have to be spent with urgency, for tomorrow your account will reset.

We seemed to have just celebrated New Year’s Day 2012. Now that year is gone. And before we can catch our breath from the race that was, we lurch forward into another January. The real danger for us all is to come around twelve months from now and be exactly where we were twelve months ago, funds unspent.

Still stuck in a job we loathe, still planning to take that big chance, still at odds with the long-estranged loved one, still tripping over the same addiction, trapped in that same poisonous relationship, and struck in the same soul-sucking routine. Time is far too short to live like this, and deep in our hearts, we know it.

Erma Bombeck provides a summary on this point: “When I am asked to give an accounting of my life to a higher court, it will be like this: ‘So, empty your pockets. What have you got left of your life? Any dreams unfulfilled? Any unused talent that we gave you that you still have left? Any unsaid compliments or bits of love that you haven’t spread around?’ And, I will answer, ‘I have nothing left to return. I spent everything you gave me. I’m as naked as the day I was born.’” 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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Get Out!

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Churches are peculiar places. I’ve had the opportunity to serve a few of them. And here is one of the many things that make churches peculiar: the most heated arguments in the church were not over our location or theology or future plans. No, the worst controversies I ever endured were over our style of worship.

Should we use hymnals or modern worship music? Should drums be allowed in the sanctuary? Is it blasphemy to move the pulpit to accommodate the children’s choir? What would happen if someone clapped or raised their hands during the solo? These are the questions that send the ulcerated pastor scurrying to his or her gastrologist.

Which style of worship is “right?” I don’t presume to know. Our form of worship will always be dictated by our traditions, culture, and context. A look at how Christians from other countries and times worship proves this point. “Which worship style is right” is, after all, the wrong question. The better questions are, “Does our worship push us out of our church sanctuaries (or wherever it is we meet) to be Christ to the world? What happens when the worship service is over?”

If our worship moves us past ourselves to the risen and redeeming Christ sent to love the world, then the worship is “right.” If our worship sends us into the community as the Father sent his own Son, then it is empowered with spirit and truth. But if our worship focuses us, on ourselves, then it is selfishness at best and sacrilege at worst. It isn’t worship at all.

The final words of the old Latin mass were, Ite missa est—loosely, “Get out!” The priests who daily invoked those words over their congregations understood worship’s purpose. When the last song is sung, the last prayer offered, and the last homily delivered, the goal of all worship is to redemptively and missionally leave the sanctuary in service to others.

So, take your pick: Sermons or liturgy; southern gospel or rock and roll; drums or pipe organs; corporate prayer or contemplation; kneeling benches or mosh pits. But if these things do not translate into loving action in the community, if these things do not force us out of the building and out to others, we aren’t being worshipful at all. Do our worship styles matter? Sure they do. But what happens afterwards matters all the more.

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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There’s no substitute for the real thing

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

There is an old story told about St. Augustine and a little boy on a beach. Augustine was writing a book on the Trinity and was walking along the seashore, deep in thought. Augustine noticed the little boy pouring seawater into a hole that had been dug in the sand. The little boy would go down to the surf, scoop up water, and quickly carry it back to the hole and dump it in. Augustine finally asked the little boy what he was doing. The boy answered, “I am pouring the sea into this hole.”

Augustine said to the boy, “You are wasting your time. You will never get all that water into that one little hole. It can’t be done.” The boy responded, “Well, you are wasting your time writing about God. You will never get all of him into that one little book.”

That little boy was right. God is bigger than our books, doctrines, belief statements, and theories about him—far bigger. I now resist even using the words “theory” or “explanation” when speaking of God, because these imply that we can figure it all out, when we can’t.

C. S. Lewis explained it like this: Suppose a man looks out at the Atlantic Ocean. Then he goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic Ocean. He has turned from something real to something less real. He has turned from actual waves and salty air to “a bit of colored paper.” The map is important, because it is based on what many people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. And, if you want to go anywhere, the map is necessary, but it’s not the real thing. Lewis concludes that our beliefs are just like that map—important, yes, but a weak representation of the genuine.

What we believe about God is not God. These are bits of colored paper. Yet, our tendency is to fall in love with the map, when God wants us to love him. We are skilled at knowing the ins-and-outs of our religious charts, but God wants us to know him. After all, we cannot have a relationship with a map. We cannot commune with a theological concept. We cannot experience creed or dogma. But we can relate to, commune with, and experience God, a God that is an ever unfolding mystery of wonder and grace, larger than the universe.

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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Where Love Begins

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

According to the Pew Research Center, a full one-fifth of Americans are now unattached to religion, and the Protestant majority is no longer that; Protestant Christians now make up less than half the population. Yet, we don’t need an exhaustive study to confirm a dwindling church. A growing population is indeed unengaged with organized religion. They aren’t necessarily atheistic or antagonistic toward faith. They are simply uninvolved.

Why? Some of it is demographic, related to the age of our transitioning generations. Some of it is the natural evolvement of Western society, and the result of an increasingly diverse nation. But frankly, and this cannot be ignored, the church has earned this decline all by its institutional self. Combine this study with the respected statistics of the Barna Research Group (which is an evangelical think tank), and the situation becomes clearer still. According to Barna, those unaffiliated with religion use several primary words to describe Christianity, words like: “Judgmental, hypocritical, and insensitive.” This has to change.

“Change,” you ask? “Are you saying we should change our beliefs just to salvage our fleeting market share?” No. Market share has nothing to do with it, but how we treat others has everything to do with it. How can we who follow the loving, open-hearted, redemptive Christ be anything but loving, open-hearted, and redemptive people?

The longer I do this kind of work, and the longer I see these kinds of recent statistics, the more strongly I feel that the last thing most communities need is just another religious institution: An institution that pounds the pulpit and its parishioners with unyielding dogma; that points fingers, condemns, and excludes others from the love of God.

No, communities don’t need more hardened, inflexible places like these; but every community needs simple, uncomplicated, receptive places. Every community needs launch pads of empowerment and liberation. Every community needs a communion of friendship, freedom, and faith that will build bridges of grace to the world, not boundaries of separation and marginalization. Simply, every community needs a place of radical hospitality and attraction that welcomes all to know a loving God.

Yes, I know, some churches are far better at being judgmental religious institutions than being living bodies of service and compassion, but my hope endures. My hope endures because where hardened institutionalism ends, love can begin, and the love of God is the most attractive force in the universe.

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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His love endures forever

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Some time ago my wife was having a very bad day. Her mood and outlook on life is constantly cheerful. But on this day, it was chilly and dark. Things at work were difficult. There were family issues—in hers and mine. There was more month than money. A co-worker was being inflexible and obnoxious. The house was a wreck. Our children were defying her, and I was ignoring her. She was reduced to tears. I went in to where she was crying, I put my arms around her, and I said, “But honey, I love you.”

In my mind I was dismounting from my white steed, my shining armor polished to a dazzling sheen, there to save the day with my strong arms, calming presence, and soothing words. But I was not received as the saving Messiah. She recoiled, pushed me away and said, “I know. But that doesn’t fix anything.” And she was right.

My love for her didn’t shut up bawling children. It didn’t magically put more money in our checking account. It didn’t turn the dunce she worked with into Mother Teresa. It didn’t even take the fish sticks off the table. But what we ultimately agreed upon, after I got over the shock of being so rebuffed, is that while love changes nothing about our circumstances, love changes us. It gives us the strength to face what is out there, even if what is out there is sideways. Love sustains us, encourages us; it gives us what we really need: The ability to keep going, even with tears on our cheeks.

That’s what God’s love does. It keeps going and keeps us going. It endures forever, and for that, we are forever grateful. We are not alone. We are not abandoned. We are not forgotten. God is with us. We are loved. If given this choice, which would you take: To have all your problems solved, all your struggles worked out, and all your troubles flushed away; or, would you choose to be deeply, unconditionally, and madly loved?

I think I know your answer. And that answer is the reason for our gratitude, even in a world turned upside down. Love produces thanksgiving – not because we will have everything we want – but because we have the one thing we were made for, the one thing we need. His love endures forever; let us give thanks.

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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For Overachievers everywhere

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

Scientists call it “Ergomania.” It is a word composed of two Latin roots. “Ergo,” meaning work, and “mania,” meaning passion. Ergomania, thusly, is a “passion for work.” In contemporary society we use a different term: The “workaholic.” The condition is not limited to corporate offices or the manufacturing plant. It thrives in houses of worship.

It’s been my experience that we religious people work very hard, often killing ourselves for God, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Why? I believe it is because we do not believe that God really loves us. Most of us are working like slaves to earn an ambivalent God’s love, unaware, it seems, that his love is already ours in abundance. That God would take us just as we are, that he loves us just as we are, is too much for us to accept.

And why should we believe it? When we were young, it was all about perfect attendance pins, achievements, and all those little check marks on our weekly reporting at Sunday School. We learned quickly that we could measure a person’s spirituality, thus their worth as an individual, by how many gold stars they had beside their name.

When we got older, the exercise continued, now measured by different gold stars. Volunteer, serve, give, teach Bible study class, lead the choir, chaperone the youth group, chair the Stewardship Committee; and the congregation will sing your praises. But the second you relent, the moment you acknowledge your exhaustion, then that familiar conditional approval will rear its ugly head.

Yet, with words that make most type-A congregational leaders cringe, Jesus said, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. Walk with me…Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

That is what we religious laborers need, because the people that Jesus most wants to set free are those of us who are eyeballs deep in religious work, we who are religious ergomaniacs. His invitation is for us to get off of the spiritual hamster wheel and to crawl out from beneath the choking yoke of religious workoholicism, and dance freely to the easy tempo of grace.

Grace will teach us to serve God, not to make him like us, but because he already adores us. It will teach us to give up our overachieving and slaving ways, and find peaceful rest for our souls.

 

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 Never Know What Will Grow

 

Ronnie McBrayer

By Ronnie McBrayer

 

Bishop Desmond Tutu celebrated his 81st birthday this past week. The accomplishments of his eight decades are well-known and many. Tony Campolo was on stage with Bishop Tutu many years ago, and he asked him how it happened that he became an Anglican priest, instead of a Baptist or a Methodist. So Tutu told Campolo this story:

“My family moved to Johannesburg when I was twelve years old. In Johannesburg, in the days of apartheid, when a black person met a white person on the sidewalk, the black person was expected to step off the pavement into the gutter to allow the white person to pass.

“One day, my mother and I were walking down the street when a tall white man, dressed in a black suit, came toward us. Before my mother and I could step off the sidewalk, as was expected of us, this man stepped off the sidewalk, and he tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to my mother!

“I was more than surprised at what had happened and I asked my mother, ‘Why did that white man do that?’ My mother explained, ‘He’s an Anglican priest. He is a man of God; that is why he did it.’”

That man’s name was Trevor Huddleston, a priest who worked in the worst slums of the city with the forgotten, marginalized, and suffering. When Tutu was later hospitalized with tuberculosis, it was Huddleston who came to visit the young boy; and it was Huddleston who would offer his own books and time to help Desmond catch up with his studies when he returned to school.

Years later, when Tutu became an adult, he transitioned his studies from education to theology. He turned to Trevor Huddleston’s Anglican Church, for he had experienced firsthand the love and service of this extraordinary man.

Trevor Huddleston’s name is almost forgotten in South Africa’s freedom story, but not forgotten by Desmond Tutu. When Tutu is asked why he doesn’t hate whites he answers, “I never learned to hate…because I was fortunate in the whites I met when I was young.”

Trevor Huddleston’s name is the first on the Bishop’s list, and a name never far away, for “Trevor” is the name of Desmond’s oldest child. So when you think the little things you do and say don’t matter, remember that sometimes there would be no Desmond Tutus without the Trevor Huddlestons.

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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