Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

Let Go… Or Be Dragged

A friend who has some experience with rodeo horses sent me a most picturesque proverb: “Let go or be dragged.” Whether this phrase was first spoken by a Zen master who had achieved enlightenment on the mountainside, or by a battered cowboy nursing his shattered bones and pulling cacti from his backside makes no difference. It is the unmistakable truth.

Take my friend’s horses as an example. Training such animals requires a great deal of lassoing, roping, and haltering. Incredible strength, patience, and stamina are needed to match a horse. But sometimes, as the proverb goes, the breaker can become the broken. A tipping point is reached where the trainer must regroup, or risk being ground into the corral’s dust. Let go or be dragged.

Think of the little one who refuses to leave the playground. Haven’t you seen mothers and fathers, quite literally, hauling the kicking and screaming child to the car? Let go or be dragged. What about the dog that finally catches the school bus he has been chasing for years? Now what does he do; sink his teeth into the bumper? No, let go or be dragged.

It’s the single handler left holding a giant Macy’s Day Parade balloon. He’s no match for 10,000 cubic feet of helium! If he hangs on, he will be pummeled against lamp posts, battered along 42nd Street, and become a spectacle in front of 40 million children watching on Thanksgiving morning. Let go or be dragged.

This much is certain: We all will face situations, diseases, circumstances, relationships, people, challenges and conditions that are larger, stronger, and longer-lasting than we are. We have two options and only two options in such encounters. We can keep fighting an unwinnable war, and whatever we have dug our claws into will drag us into a bloody pulp (and the longer we remain dug in, the longer it will hurt).

Or, we can accept our limitations and admit that we are not omnipotent. We can accept life for how it is, even when life isn’t fair (when is it really fair, anyway?). We can let go. And in this surrender – this little act of dying – we stop our suffering. We get to live again. For this is the counterintuitive way of the cross; the paradoxical power of Christ: We only live once we have died. We only gain by giving up. We only win if we surrender – let go or be dragged.

I wish there was a different way. I wish that by brute strength we could overcome everything, but it doesn’t work like that. Oh, it will for a while, but everyone loses his or her grip eventually. The quicker we get to that point, the quicker we can get to the joy of actually living.

William Law, an Anglican priest and something of a mystic from three centuries ago, discerned this power of surrender better than most. His writings, as pertinent as they were in the 1700s, are filled with phrases like, “the sweet resignation of the self,” and “the sinking down into powerlessness.” We have to give up our lives, Law inferred, to get in on the life God has for us.

He wrote, “God must do all, or all is nothing. But God cannot do all until all is expected from Him. And all is not expected from Him until by true and good despair we have humbly resigned everything to God.”

At first blush this sounds so defeatist, something like “Christianity for Weaklings.” Some will find it intolerable and object: “Give up? How can this be? Surrender is for cowardly milksops and quitters!” Such objections ignore the fact that there are some things that we cannot change, and what cannot be changed must be handed over.

Going further, such objections belittle the way of the cross. Read once again those familiar crucifixion accounts of Jesus, and there you will see that letting go requires more than a noble struggle, more than hanging on – infinitely more. It requires everything. So let go, or be dragged.

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.

 

 

“Chowder”

My friends have a new dog. His name is Chowder. Chowder is a black and white globe of fuzz and fun with one ear that points due north and another that falls like a floppy patch over his right eye. Full-grown but not even knee high, I don’t know how this charming little mutt could be any cuter. You just want to scoop him up in your arms, throw a tennis ball for him to chase, or scratch behind those mismatched ears of his. But he won’t let you; at least he won’t let me. My friends’ new pet is a rescued dog who must have suffered a terrible life of abuse before his adoption. Chowder won’t let me – or any other male for that matter – get near him. His fear is very real, and very severe.

Whenever I visit my friends, Chowder barks, howls, squeals, and eyes me as if I were carrying a loaded gun. If I get too close to him, he bristles and bares his teeth, so I keep my distance. Usually, he settles beneath the dining room table where he whimpers, chews on the chair legs, and wets himself and the floor with his terrified bladder. His owners tell me Chowder is improving, however. He used to react to them the same way. But now he greets them at the door with a wagging tail, sleeps at the foot of their bed every night, and is the overall reliant companion that makes dog “man’s best friend.”

He still cowers from them on occasion, retreating to the safety of the dining room table; especially if there is an unexpected loud noise or a quick, sudden movement. But all in all, Chowder is learning to trust his new owners. I hope one day he will learn to trust me.

I thought about my little friend Chowder after a recent talk I gave. Most of my talks pursue the same theme: Jesus came to show us how to live, how to be free, how to know God. Jesus came to save us from ourselves, not from God. After sticking with this script yet again, a person approached me as the lecture crowd was dispersing. She asked me, “Do you really believe in the kind of compassionate God you talked about tonight?” I explained that in Jesus, that is the only God I can see, not the religious images we have been sold; so yes I believe. She answered, “I really want to believe in this God – in this Jesus. I really do. But I am afraid.” I asked her, “What are you afraid of exactly?” She responded, “I am afraid this is all too good to be true, and if so, I could not stand the disappointment.”

It was then I thought of little Chowder. His experience has been our own. We have been spiritually abused. Our understanding of religion’s God has been this ugly, angry, violent being with nothing but a clenched fist and a kick off the front porch if we bark just once. We huddle under the table, afraid to get close to God or anyone who represents him. We can’t help it – it is the only experience we have. But I believe this experience has terribly damaged many of us. For this reason, among many, I find Jesus to be so liberating! Jesus shows us a different God than the one we have known; one who loves us, not abuses us; one who has painstakingly adopted us as his own, not given us reason to fear him; one who wants to care for us, not hurt us.

Can we learn to trust this God? Can we learn to believe this God really loves us? Can we come out of the dark place where we cower in fear and give him a chance to care for us? Can we give up our dread and live out our lives in his good grace? Can we? This is not too good to be true – it is far better than you can imagine. Just ask Chowder.

Hitting the Road

Here we are, deep in the throes of the rituals of summer.  School is out, vacation days are being cashed in, and picnic baskets are being packed. Barbecues are firing, pools are splashing, and ice cream trucks are rolling. Meanwhile, thousands, yea millions, are taking to the great American highway.

Seventy percent of the U.S. population will hit the road this summer – off to visit grandma, the beach, the closest roller coaster, or a national park. We just love to feel the breeze on our faces and road beneath our wheels. We can’t stop ourselves from being a traveling people. We always have been.

In prehistoric times we hoofed it, walking out of Africa scientists tell us, to every point on the globe. Then we built boats, domesticated horses, constructed wagons, engineered planes, trains, and automobiles – not to mention submersibles and space ships – so that no corner of creation has been untouched by the human foot, it seems. We keep moving, rolling, and running, so much so that the theme song of human history might well be Willie Nelson’s, “On the Road Again.”

True to form, Christianity is a fluid faith for a pilgrim people. It is a spirituality of sojourn, of “goin’ places that we’ve never been; seein’ things that we may never see again.” Yet, we don’t always understand faith this way. Look at how we have structured it, however, and it is easy to see why we most often view Christianity as an incorrigible, fixated fortress rather than a living, dynamic movement.

Our doctrines, constructed and accumulated over thousands of years, stack up like heavy stones. They are unassailable, infallible, and immovable. The buildings that contain our worship services are almost always built of rock, granite, or the hardest and heaviest material we can find – and there those buildings sit in the same place for centuries.

Then, try being an idealistic reformer who seeks to change a church’s policy or its strategy to meet the world where it now is. If you’re not taken out behind the vestry and quietly crucified, you will find that change in the church usually moves with all the terrifying speed of a melting glacier.

This betrays our roots and the trajectory set for our faith from its beginning. With his last conversation with the disciples before his death, Jesus described himself and his personal faith like this: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Put more accurately, “I am the true and living way.” This had such a profound effect on the first followers of Jesus that the earliest self-description of Christianity was “The Way.”

The term “Christian,” referenced only three times in the entire New Testament, was used by outsiders. It was a moniker attached to this cult, this sect of troublemakers. But the first “Christians” didn’t call themselves “Christian” at all. They called their life and faith, “The Way.”

It was the Path. The Road. It was the constantly evolving, winding, opening arc that took this “band of gypsies down the highway.” It was an animated, breathing ethos; certainly not hardened codices of legalistic dogma.

So it doesn’t appear that Jesus came to establish an inflexible, competitive religion that would be pitted against other belief systems. No, Jesus came to initiate a way of redemptive and gracious living. He came to show us how to live the life of redeeming love, love for God and for others. He embodied all that the Divine requires, that is, “to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

There’s nothing about walking this humble Way that should be turned into cold-blooded institutionalism. It should never be used to exclude, marginalize, or be employed as a tool of separation. This Way can only unfold and expand, taking us further down the road and deeper into the loving heart of God.

This isn’t religion. This is the true way to live. And while love is often “a road less traveled,” it is the worthiest of journeys. So let’s hit the road.

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.

 

Love Shines… But Not Always Succeeds

Love others as much as you love yourself,” Jesus told his followers. These words are considerably more than a sugary Sunday School story. For those who take these words to heart, “love others” has profound, life-altering implications, not all of which are warm and fuzzy. Consider the life of Bernard Lichtenberg, arrested seven decades ago. His crime: He loved. Lichtenberg was a Catholic priest serving in Berlin before the outbreak of World War 2. When Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power, he recognized the coming terror better than most, and made it his ambition to help the Jewish people and other persecuted groups.

Lichtenberg spoke and acted boldly in defense of the Jews, and his repeated protests quickly landed on the ears of government officials. Then, as he knew would be the case, these protests landed him in the crosshairs of a Gestapo investigation. After years of tension, Lichtenberg was finally imprisoned for his opposition. During his interrogation Lichtenberg was given the opportunity to recant his words and change his ways. He would not. Rather, he said: “I reject with my innermost the [deportation of the Jews] with all its side effects, because it is directed against the most important commandment of Christianity, ‘You shall love your neighbor as much as you love yourself’.

“However, since I cannot prevent this governmental measure, I have made up my mind to accompany the deported Jews and Christian Jews into exile, in order to give them spiritual aid. I wish to ask the Gestapo to give me this opportunity.” Considered irredeemable by the Third Reich, Lichtenberg’s appeal was granted. He was condemned and consigned to the concentration camp at Dachau. Aged, frail, and in a weakened state, Bernard Lichtenberg died while waiting to be deported in November of 1943.

It is hard to say that Father Lichtenberg, almost single-handedly opposing the Nazi war machine, was acting in a reasonable or sensible manner. How could he, as one man, ever hope to achieve “justice” for the oppressed? What could one pulpit minister do to dismantle or otherwise deter such a system of death? Not much, except to be persecuted, imprisoned, or executed. No, Bernard Lichtenberg was not being practical. He was being love. Such love can appear like madness, leading the follower of Jesus into all manner of impracticality. Loving our neighbors as ourselves means we turn the other cheek when we are assaulted, we abandon the selfishness and power-grubbing ways of this world, we refuse to repay evil with evil, and we forgive others rather than retaliate against them.

The problem is obvious: Loving and living like this will put us in vulnerable, seemingly defenseless positions. To willingly behave this way, in the “real world,” will only get us abused, maligned, taken advantage of, or worse. These “opportunities,” as Lichtenberg called them, clearly aren’t very pragmatic. Yet, pragmatism doesn’t seem to be Christ’s principal concern. We are instructed to love, following Jesus’ own example, not because it is practical, reasonable, logical, or the safest way to live in the world. We actively participate in this way of Jesus because it gives witness to the good and loving God of heaven.

Not for a minute should we think that unselfishly loving our neighbors will save the world from all hate and violence. It won’t make our membership rolls at the church grow, get more people into the pews on Sunday, or achieve justice for all society. None of these are the point. We love our neighbors as ourselves not because it always “works,” but because it witnesses. Love for others is a clear reflection of the love of God – and that is the point.

Pope John Paul recognized this decades later when he honored the martyrdom of Bernard Lichtenberg with these words. He said, “It is not the world’s applause but the faithful confession of Jesus Christ that is the sign of an authentic disciple of Christ.” This confession may not always “succeed,” but it will always shine as a light in the darkness.

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.  His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” If you’d like to have a look, visit Ronnie’s page at Amazon.

The Path of Least Resentment

Near Mpumalanga, South Africa, are the marvelous and mysterious Echo Caves. Rediscovered in the last century and turned into a tourist site, these caverns are home to a truly remarkable ecosystem. One of the more amazing species found there, is its famous and unique wild fig trees. As far as plant life goes, these fig trees appear to be normal run-of-the-mill fruit bushes. What makes them so famous is the unseen: Their roots. Researchers and spelunking scientists have followed the roots of these trees deep into Echo Caves – 400 feet deep to be precise – the deepest known root system in the world.

These trees have survived and thrived in an arid climate for decades, employing an unparalleled root system to wring hydration from the deep, rocky soil. This is more than a science lesson; it’s a lesson for life, as you probably know a person (or a few people if you are really lucky) not unlike the wild fig trees of Echo Caves. Their environment is harsh. They have endured the drought of loss, injustice, and suffering. Their circumstances have been fiery, downright oppressive. The soil that life has given them is rocky and as hard as concrete. Yet, somehow, they survive and thrive. Their roots must be incredibly deep.

But deep into what? Maybe the Apostle Paul gives the best answer in a beautiful first century prayer: “I pray your roots will grow down deep into God’s love and keep you strong.” Or as Viktor Frankl said it, “The salvation of man is through love and in love.” It seems to me that those who endure, even flourish, in the worst of conditions are those who have a very real connection to God’s goodness and grace, and refuse to blame God for every wrong that life dishes out. They have rooted themselves deeply in his love, rather than in bitterness or resentment.

Granted, bitterness is the easy route, the path of least resistance that sends shallow, malignant offshoots in all directions. Our resentment feels so justifiable, so satisfying, especially when we flip through the catalog of past hurts, past regrets, ways we have been mistreated or harmed, and the conniving, unjust treatment inflicted upon us by others. But bitterness cannot hydrate the soul. It can only poison the water and prevent love and grace from soaking in. If we are going to get on with life and blossom in the desert of our days, it won’t be because we keep going back wishing things could be different, bemoaning how life has been so unfair, or repeating and re-repeating how someone did us wrong. The only way forward is by going deeper, deeper into the love of God.

I return to the lesson taught to us by the wild fig trees at Echo Caves. Those thirsty roots, soft and pliable, are able to split rocks to get to water deep beneath the desert floor. All the root needs is the smallest indentation, the tiniest weak spot in the bedrock, or the tiniest crack. Then, groping through the dark and ever deeper into the soil, the roots find their way to what they need to survive and sustain life.

This is how it works, I think. In the smallest rift, the smallest crevice or opening in the hardness of life, that is enough to find the depth of God’s love and for that love to take root. Yes, it feels like groping along in the dark. It is slow, pulverizing growth, sometimes millimeter by tiny millimeter, but at least it is growth; and it gives us the life we want and need, life so much more satisfying than the bitter shallowness that resentment offers. I’m no Pollyanna. I know that life is hard. I know it is unfair. Our growing conditions are not always what we wished they were, and we don’t always get what we feel we deserve. Still, all we need is there, somewhere under the surface. Our survival and salvation is “through love and in love” deep beneath all that can be seen.

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.  His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” If you’d like to have a look, visit Ronnie’s page at Amazon.

 

Your Laundry is on the Line

My youngest son loves to go to the “Confession Stand.” He doesn’t want to make an appointment with the local priest, however. He wants a Slurpy and an order of onion rings. Since he first learned to put words together, the “Concession Stand” at any sporting event is referred to as the “Confession Stand.” Well “Amen” and pass the ketchup.

Actually, Confession Stands do exist, but they are not slinging cold drinks and hot food. With confession in steep decline in the traditions that employ the sacrament, some parishes now make it more readily available. You can find makeshift confessionals out and away from the steeple.

They are in shopping malls, at the food court, maybe even at a ball game. They are supplied with rotating priests who do the work of absolution in shifts. And some enterprising clergy are even offering confession online.

Yes, it is now possible for one to come clean via the internet, be pardoned by instant message, or to do penance just as soon as God answers his email. Just fill out the proper online form and wait for forgiveness to arrive in your inbox. I am as internet-friendly and as protesting a Protestant as they come, but this sounds suspicious even to me.

In my growing-up tradition confession to a priest was not required. Baptists just couldn’t bear the thought. That and I came of age out in the country where everyone had a clothes line rather than an electric dryer to dry their clothes. When your bloomers and holey socks (not holy socks) are swinging in the breeze for God and everybody to see, there’s not much left to hide. I think that is the point.

“Confess your sins one to another,” the Apostle James said, “that you may be healed.” These are hard words to practice when we have so privatized and individualized our faith that we prefer to hide our troubles, struggles, and failures from others. We keep our dirty laundry stuffed in a dark, putrid closet.

Yet, when we do not share our lives one with another – even the ugly parts – we miss out on the healing power the community of Christ can offer. I know the objection: “But I don’t want to be a burden to someone else!” Nonetheless, if we can’t burden one another with the confession of our shortcomings, then why continue to play the charade of calling each other “brother and sister?” We’re not being real.

Granted, in some communities of faith, confession will do you no good. As soon as those in the pews know what you are wrestling with in the dark night of your soul, they will have your drawers hanging on the line for everyone to see. Still, we all need someone to whom we can bare our souls, someone who will help us carry the load and point us toward grace.

In the years I have spent in Christian ministry I have heard many confessions; at hospital bedsides, in coffee shops, in the church sanctuary, in the back rooms of funeral parlors, almost everywhere. I reckon I could get a job at one of those new improvised confessionals.

Rarely have these confessions been a burden. Yes, some have come as a surprise. At times I have been struck speechless, and many admissions have left me so broken-hearted I thought I would need a priest to administer last rites for myself. But the overwhelming sensation I experience when someone pours out their pain is privilege.

See, when someone truly confesses their burdens to you, it is an honor that they would unlock their padlocked secrets and ask for help in carrying them. This is why confession is so healing: It graces everyone involved.

For those who bear their souls, they find relief and liberation, and for those who hear and respond in love, they participate in the restoration of another. Then both can “cast their cares on Him who cares” for us all. So give me your hand. We will go to the Confession Stand together.

Fight Like a Butterfly

Decades ago, while speaking of an upcoming championship bout, Muhammad Ali constructed a poetic couplet of epic proportions. With glitzy words corresponding to his style both in and out of the ring, “The Greatest” claimed he would “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” because his opponent’s “hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”

Few athletes, maybe no others, have matched Ali’s combination of bravado, proficiency, showmanship, and charisma. Rightly and deservedly, he has more than once been declared the most iconic sporting figure of the previous century. And while I’m not one to tug on Superman’s cape, I’d like to slightly amend his most famous of phrases. I believe that before one can “float like a butterfly,” he or she must fight like one.

You might know the familiar story of a little boy who came upon a cocoon in the forest. He knew exactly what it was, so he snapped off the stick to which it was attached, and took it home. Every day he would watch this little pouch, knowing a remarkable metamorphosis was going on inside.

Then one day it happened. A small tear in the chrysalis appeared, and the butterfly began to emerge. But it was such an awful struggle. The slit was so tiny and the butterfly was now so big. The poor thing was desperately fighting and scratching to get out, and the little boy was so worried about his new little friend.

So, the boy decided to help. He took a pair of school scissors and carefully cut the cocoon open to rescue the exhausted, beautiful butterfly. But it wasn’t beautiful; not at all. It was fat and swollen. Its wings were limp and wilted. Further, over time, it never learned to fly. It could only crawl around in a shoebox, a jar, or wherever the boy placed it.

When the boy told his science teacher this gloomy tale, he was taught an invaluable lesson: The butterfly had to struggle. The butterfly had to face oppositional forces. The butterfly’s laborious effort to emerge from its shell was nature’s way of circulating dormant blood and strengthening new wings. The butterfly’s fight to get out of the cocoon was not an impediment. It was preparation, and the boy’s “help” actually turned out to be a hindrance.

Resistance is required to transform a crawling, ugly insect into a magnificent, winged, flying machine. And what is true in nature, is true of human nature too: Some suffering is necessary. We have to struggle – we must – if we will ever gain the strength we need to fly.

This is anathema to our North American ears, however, because we have constructed a society with a monumentally low threshold for pain. Sadly, such pain-aversion isn’t limited to a small subsection of our culture. It is rampant, extending from playrooms to boardrooms, as present in State Houses as in fraternity houses, and manifesting itself in everything from helicopter-parenting to fiscal irresponsibility.

When a person thinks that he or she should never, under any circumstances, suffer deprivation or discomfort, it doesn’t create character; it creates narcissism. So beware of those for whom everything has come easy; those who have never had to scrape their way through hard times. Beware of those who have always had someone else do the heavy lifting for them and protect them from any and all distress. It’s hard for such a person to have any moral strength.

I’m not advocating for self-inflicted violence. I’m only pointing to the consummate spiritual principle: There is no resurrection without a cross, no greatness without grief, and no strength apart from suffering. The struggle is a necessary process in the maturation process.

When we avoid suffering at all costs, we fail to see that such behavior will cost us everything, for if we cannot tolerate anything that hurts or discomforts us now, we will never become people of faith, character, or maturity later. With apologies to Ali, we will never “float like a butterfly” until we have learned to fight like one.

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.

 

 

Gelassenheit: You Will Be Blessed

I’ve made a habit lately of studying the Amish. I use the word “study” loosely as this is not a simple curiosity of mine or some kind of theological experiment. My exploration flows out of a deep respect and admiration for their faith and spirituality. We English (that’s what the Amish call us outside their communities) recognize them because of their familiar beards, horse-drawn buggies, fine woodworking, or barn-raisings, but there’s a lot more to this group than sturdy furniture and firm dispositions. They have a lively, vibrant faith despite their archaic lifestyles.

The Amish (and their cousins the Mennonites, Brethren, and a few other groups) I have come to know are lovers and active makers of peace. They value simplicity above almost any other thing. They love their families and community, and they have a profound trust in God. This trust, employing a good Amish-German word, is called “Gelassenheit.”

“Gelassenheit” is usually translated into English as “submission,” “yield,” or “serenity,” but it is so much more. It is a total letting go of entanglements. It is a relinquishment of the self. It is an exchange of human, personal will for a “thy will be done” kind of life – not a blind, hopeless fatalism, but a defiant and restful faith in God. One Amish farmer summed up “Gelassenheit” like this: “We don’t pray for rain,” he said. “But we are thankful to God when the rain arrives.” This perspective gives the Amish a completely different understanding of “the will of God” than most of the Christian universe.

Many of us have been taught, tacitly or overtly, that “God’s will” is this magic be-all-end-all, which, if discovered, can end all the angst and indecision of life. So we chase after and fret over what God wants us to do, thinking there will be complete and total disaster if we miss the secret plan he has for us. We twist and writhe in the anguish of our decisions, never feeling good about any choice we make.

Finally, we conjure up all the bravado or foolishness we can muster, smile through gritted teeth, and give a direction a whirl. If it all works out, we praise God for his magnificent direction. If it is a belly-flopping disaster we scratch our heads, feel terribly ashamed, and blame God or our weak faith for leading us the wrong way.

The truth is, most Christians really want to do what God wants us to do; we want to do “the will of God.” Equally as true, however, is this: There is no exact formula for finding this will. This does not sound very spiritual, but in my experience, finding God’s will is as much about trial and error as it is about praying and seeking. And yes, sometimes it ends in a big mess. Maybe we can take a cue from the Amish and neutralize the mystery of finding and doing God’s will. Maybe we can learn to simply trust God with our life and our circumstances. Maybe, if we keep hitting the wall, we can stop, listen, and trust for a while. Maybe we can learn to yield our own wills, or at least stop using God’s name to sanction our decisions.

Maybe we can stop putting ourselves through the torturous exercise of chasing after something we can’t even define. Here is the thing the Amish can teach us: Rather than trusting an exact path and direction for your life, just trust God with your life. After all, God is bigger than your plans. God is stronger than your failures, and God never fails to reward those who seek after him. You can find peace by quit trying to figure out what to do for God and simply rely upon God.

Meister Eckhart, an old medieval mystic from Germany who knew a few things about “Gelassenheit” himself, wrote: “God wants no more from you than you letting go of yourself. Then you can let God be God in you.” If that’s not God’s will, then I don’t know what is.

 

A Garden in the Wilderness

More than a decade ago, former Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court installed a massive granite monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama State Judicial Building. Two years later it was removed by court order as a violation of the separation of church and state. Shortly thereafter, Justice Moore was also removed by court order from the Alabama State Judicial Building.

Not long after these events played themselves out across our cable television news shows, Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments monument went on tour. Loaded onto the flatbed of a heavy-duty truck, it went town to town so onlookers could see for themselves this controversial work of stone masonry

I watched the monument make its first stop in Dayton, Tennessee. This was a calculated move for the organizers of the tour. Dayton was home of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, where many feel Christian America was first besieged.

An atheist was there in Dayton (or “Monkey Town” as it’s called) at that first stop, protesting the monument being placed on display. This man barely escaped with his life. Moore’s supporters, about a hundred I guess, were screaming out for the death of this single protestor.

“Shoot him…hang him…put him before a firing squad!” These were all yelled from the crowd. One man speaking of the “godless” protestor said, “I’m glad I didn’t bring my gun. I’d be in jail right now.”

The shady and twisted irony was not lost on me. Here were ardent supporters of the Ten Commandments – they had come out on a rainy day to see a stone rendering of them – wishing to violate those commandments as they called for the killing their enemy.

In spite of the threats like those made in Dayton, Tennessee that day, there has actually been less, not more, religiously motivated violence in United States history than in some other places. This has been due precisely because of court rulings like the one that evicted Moore’s rock pillar from the Alabama State Judicial Building.

Because a commitment which requires government to remain as neutral as possible toward religion and not endorse any particular religious belief – even Christian belief – is the only environment where true faith can grow and flourish.

Roger Williams, theologian, founder of Rhode Island, America’s first Baptist, and champion of religious and civil liberty a hundred years before the United States Constitution was penned, said communities of faith were like vulnerable, flowering gardens. Governments, on the other hand, were what he called the wilderness.

Williams believed that those churches and faith groups that choose to mingle their religion with political power were permitting the wilderness to intrude upon their gardens. As such, they would be manipulated by politicians, policies, and the government, thus compromising on issues of love, justice, and mercy.

Or those same churches would become the manipulators themselves, using political power to force their beliefs on others. Either way, when church and state drank from the same cup, it would be the church that would be poisoned.

Roger Williams’ counsel to the Christian church in his day is lasting: Learn to live in the world, but don’t be a part of it. Or he might say, “You can plant a garden in a wilderness without having the wilderness in the garden.”

As Christians, we have the right, privilege, and freedom to live out, practice, and share our faith in this country we love. But we do not have the right to force our faith on others or demand that society at large, endorse our particular religious view.

When we as Christians do make these kinds of demands, we violate the spirit of Christ. We lay down the instrument of love for the devices of manipulation, coercion, and force. We let the weeds and vines of the wilderness overtake the garden of faith.

I hope we can continue to tolerate a variety of fruits and nuts in our religious garden; even those we have little taste for. It’s the only way we can maintain a garden at all.

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.

 

 

Disappearing Dump Trucks

I once approached my life and work as if I was building a house. Drive a nail here. Lay a block there. Smear a bit of paint in the corner. Cut out a window now and again. Figuratively, this is how I treated my life, and it is a solid, powerful image. It is also an image with plenty of biblical roots.

None other than Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock.” Of course those who ignore his teaching, Jesus said, are like those who build their lives on a sandy foundation with collapse all but imminent.

Paul stuck with the theme as well, and he spoke of the possibility that our lives can be soundly constructed from things that will last like bricks and mortar – gold, silver, and precious jewels he called them. Or, Paul says, we can foolishly build with the combustible and momentary materials of wood, hay, or straw.

It all reminds me of the story of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf: Some things are built to last. Other things blow away about as quickly as they were created, in spite of our brave squeals and the hair of our chinny, chin, chins.

I haven’t given up on this building metaphor completely, but recently I did adopt a new narrative. It’s not about construction, but deconstruction. Last year I visited a housing project in San Salvador that is home to more than a thousand people. With homes, churches, markets, and a school, it is a safe and healthy neighborhood, thus far insulated from so much of the gang violence, extortion, and troubles of the city. It is no utopia, but it is a shining light within a very dangerous section of the city.

The land upon which this neighborhood sits was given to a group of US American volunteers by the city of San Salvador because the city had basically given up on it. It was nothing but a forsaken junkyard, filled with crushed cars, old buses, dilapidated construction equipment, and families: People were living in the junkyard because they had no place else to go.

Ultimately, these people were moved out, new homes were built, and the people moved back in. My favorite part of this venture, and my new narrative, involved a dump truck that was just too big and heavy to move. It sat in the middle of the jobsite untouched, until six eight-year-old boys attacked it.

Every day these little boys, none past third grade, would come to the site with their hacksaw blades, pieces of t-shirts wrapped around the edges for handles, and they would saw away. Then they would take whatever they cut off and sell it for a few pennies at a time on the street, helping to meagerly support their families.

This went on day after day, week after week, and month after month until one day, almost like magic, this huge dump truck weighing tens of thousands of pounds was just gone. Six elementary school-aged children had consumed it, like vultures consuming a carcass.

One of the onsite missionaries told me that when he felt like quitting, that when he thought what he tried to do didn’t matter, or when overwhelming odds made it all hopeless, he would revisit the memory of those little boys confronting their dump truck day after day. They knew, as only children can know, that if they stayed at it long enough, nothing would be impossible. The truck would one day disappear.

Those little boys can help reorient our lives. We may not “build” a whole lot with the few years we have been given, and parts of what we build will get blown away. But with the blessed ignorance of children, we can keep sawing – keep parenting, keep teaching, keep fostering, keep nursing, keep showing up at whatever it is we do – until finally, almost like magic, the dump trucks disappear.