Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

Make Your Home With Me

Lately, one of Jesus’ more cryptic phrases has been making laps inside my head. I came back across his words while reading the Passion accounts in the Gospels, this year quickly speeding toward the Lenten season as it is. These words were spoken on the last night Jesus was with his disciples: “Abide in me, and I will abide in you.”

Abide. That’s not a word we use every day. Personally, the word “abide” reminds me of the old Stamps-Baxter hymns I grew up singing in church. Those hymns were loaded with phrases from the old English, and we were forever singing about abiding, bringing in the sheaves, or that glad reunion day. The word “abide” also conjures up images of Jeff Bridges and Sam Elliot at the conclusion of “The Big Lebowski,” but I think I should stick with Jesus here.

With the invitation to “abide,” Jesus was welcoming his disciples to remain connected with him and to spiritually rely upon him. Jesus was simply saying, “Stay put. Don’t move away. Don’t abandon your relationship with me.” Eugene Peterson gets right to it when he translated Jesus words like this, “Make your home in me just as I do in you.”

Now, that’s not so cryptic after all; we understand home quite well. Home is where each day begins and where each day ends. Home is where we eat, rest, relax, take shelter, play, and love. Home is where we go when there is no other place left, and where we always return.

Home is that glorious place where we can walk around in our socks and underwear, scratch our backsides without worrying about who is looking, and lounge around on the weekend without showering or shaving if we so choose. Home is where we can drop all our burdens, barriers and coping mechanisms.

Home is sweet, it is where the heart is, and it is our castle. It is where we bring the bacon and where we wait for the cows to arrive. Home is like no other place in the world, and no matter where or how far we travel, home is where we always call, well, home. It is where we feel safe, secure, and ultimately, where we can be ourselves. Jesus said, “Make your home” – relax and be yourself – “with me.”

But have you ever had a home that really wasn’t home? Rather, it was a place of conflict, bitter tug-o-wars, fear, or even violence and abuse? Some of us have lived in these exact situations, and realize the liberating implications of Jesus’ invitation. We can quit trying so hard at trying so hard. We don’t have to work to keep the peace, we can simply enjoy it. We can set aside our anxieties and fears, and curl up on the couch and collapse in contentment, at home with Christ.

I believe that a large portion of our personal suffering stems from the fact that we often go looking for “home” in all the wrong places. The wrong career, the wrong person or relationship, the wrong ambitions: We are searching for that comfortable place where we can prop our shoeless feet on the coffee table and be accepted as the real, natural people that we are.

When that no-strings-attached acceptance is not forthcoming, we begin to work, worry, toil and sweat, manipulate and be manipulated, all in an attempt to get others to take us as we are. We end up being strangers to ourselves, living within the artificial structures we have created, but it sure isn’t home sweet home. It’s miserable. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can give ourselves over to Christ, in total dependence, and find rest for our homesick souls.

European mystic, Francois de Fenelon, wrote to one of his students who had finally figured out a bit of this “abiding” business. He said, “Nothing makes me happier than seeing you peaceful and simple. Isn’t it just like paradise?” I don’t know about paradise, but it sure is a lot like coming home.

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.

 

 

Dancing, Not Marching

There is a story about two monks walking along the road when they come to a shallow, muddy river. A beautiful woman in a long white dress is standing there. She can’t figure out how to continue her journey without ruining her outfit.

So one of the monks picks her up in his arms – something he was absolutely forbidden to do, for touching a woman was against his vows – and he carries her across to the other side. Then, all parties continued on their journey.

After a few hours, the second monk was unable to remain silent about this breach of conduct. He blurts out, “How could you pick up that woman when you knew it was against the rules?” The first monk replied, “Are you still carrying her around? I put her down hours ago.”

This is an instructive tale about two different approaches to spirituality. One can view faith as a tightly controlled, carefully managed list of “dos and don’ts,” or one can move with the spirit, so to speak. While the latter is not without its pitfalls, the former is certainly rife with peril. Managing our spiritual lists becomes a heavy, taxing burden.

This point is eloquently driven home by pastor, author, and scholar Eugene Peterson. When he discovered that his congregation was failing to connect with the Bible, he did something radical. He rewrote it. Technically, he paraphrased the original language, crafting a translation for the contemporary context called “The Message.”

Beginning with the book of Galatians, and taking more than a decade to work his way through both Testaments, Peterson “hoped to bring the Scriptures to life for those who hadn’t read the Bible because it seemed too…irrelevant and those who had read the Bible so much that it had become ‘old hat.’”

For me, someone who actually learned to read with the Bible as my English textbook, the Good Book can be over familiar. As such, Peterson’s adaptation forces me to read the text with a new openness, a new curiosity. “The Message” is not without its critics and detractors – there is a slew of them who think the translator has gone too far. But I find Peterson’s words to be absolutely shattering – and invaluable to my devotional life.

Consider the well-worn words of Jesus from Matthew 11: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”

The traditional rendering is beautiful, comforting, and poetic. Eugene, however, is not as concerned with artistry as he is with relevance; with showing the two ways to practice faith. He restates the verses: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. You’ll recover your life…Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

The “unforced rhythms of grace.” I don’t think there is a more incomparable phrase, and nothing any higher to which anyone could aspire: To express the life of faith with freedom, harmony, and lovingkindness. What relief and liberation, and I’m speaking not simply of Peterson’s translation – but the Christ-infused spirit behind the words.

For the way of Jesus is indeed effusive and free-flowing. Nothing about it is coercive, heavy, or manipulative. Jesus does not require the imposition of shame, false guilt, “sacred” extortion, or browbeating to keep people on the path. Maybe that is why “rhythm” is such an appropriate word; because following Jesus is much more like dancing than it is marching.

Do you want to live the free and gracious life? Then partner with Jesus. Move with him. Mimic him. Stay in step with him. When the music of mercy plays, follow his lead, and you’ll find yourself enjoying faith – actually living it – rather than enduring it. Following Jesus leads, invariably, to recovery, not religion; to empowerment, not exhaustion; it leads to the laying done of our burdens. It leads to grace.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. Please visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

The Gospel According to Jesus

While traveling in Central America, I had the opportunity to worship at an international, interdenominational, English-speaking church. The congregation contained Africans, Italians, Spaniards, Latinos, Americans, and Asians. We sang old Irish hymns and modern, Australian worship choruses. The service was a mixture of Lutheran, Reformed, and Pentecostal elements. The welcome was given by a Canadian, a German read the Scripture lesson, and an American did the preaching. It was a wonderful, diverse experience, and for a little while I thought the kingdom of God had come.

This, I thought, is what worship should be: People of various Christian traditions, streaming together from all tribes and nations, gathered in an idyllic setting, worshiping Christ together. Then the sermon began, and things changed. The pastor’s sermon could have been heard in many an evangelical congregation in North America. It was about who was “right” and who was “wrong,” who was “in” and who was “out.” He summed up his sermon, and his philosophy for life, with these words: “Real life is full assurance that you will go to heaven when you die. That is the gospel.” At great risk of being misunderstood, I could not disagree more.

As those words were spoken in that Latino church, the surrounding countryside had just endured its worst flooding in five decades. Gang graffiti clung to the walls and sidewalks just steps from the church’s front door. Thousands of people were trying to survive grinding poverty. To say to all these people and in all these of conditions, that “real life” is checking out of this life for the next one, is a mockery of reality and a refusal to heed the gospel that Jesus actually proclaimed. When Jesus began preaching his gospel in the Galilean hills, his message was clear and singular: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. It is here and now,” he said. “It is today.”

Jesus’ intention, it seems, was not to rescue people from earth, per se, transporting them to a far removed heaven. His intention was to put heaven inside of people. A gospel that ignores this fact – and this current world – because our status in the next world has been properly secured, is a distortion of Jesus’ redeeming message.

Thus, the gospel according to Jesus, is not just about a harp-playing, cloud-riding, hymn-singing, glory-praising, pie-in-the-sky heaven. It is holistic, all-encompassing deliverance, now. I’m not denying the existence of the afterlife; no, not at all. But I do not believe that we have to die to personally experience the life God has for us.

Jesus’ first disciples did not have the benefit of two-thousand years of Christian tradition and theology. All those disciples had were Jesus’ words: “Follow me, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” They had no promises of a big heavenly payoff. No fluttering angels’ wings, no crossing over the River Jordan to the Hallelujah Shore, no promises of golden streets or pearly gates, no “full assurance that you will go to heaven when you die.” All they had was the invitation of Jesus to “Follow me.” For them, that was enough.

This may sound strange – it sounds a bit peculiar to my own ears – but even if there was not a heaven, I would still be a follower of Jesus. Why? Because I believe that how Jesus taught us to live and the life he has to give, is the greatest hope for our world today. He offers redemption, in all its magnificent and diverse manifestations, as more than the blessed hope of heaven. He offers it as the blessed hope for people today.

So the choice before us plain: We can give up on the present, pack our bags, and wait for the paradise rescue from above; or we can join Jesus in bringing some of that not-here-yet of God’s heaven to the here-and-now earth. The choice, I think, is clear for the present – not the future – is the arena in which we follow Christ. Today – not tomorrow – is where we live out the gospel according to Jesus.

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.

 

 

 

Hard of Hearing

A husband and wife had been married for many years when the husband began to fear that his wife was going deaf. He implemented an informal exam. While his wife was in the kitchen cooking dinner, the husband in a normal, conversation tone asked from the den, “Honey, what’s for dinner?” She didn’t answer. So he moved closer to the kitchen and repeated the question; no response.

Then he walked right up to the kitchen door, about ten feet away. “Honey, what’s for dinner?”  he asked. Nothing. Now he placed himself directly behind her: “Honey, what’s for dinner?” The wife whirled around on her heels and shouted, “George, for the hundredth time, I said we are having chicken!” Often, others listen just fine; we are the ones who are hard of hearing.

What a beautiful phrase: Hard of hearing. We don’t say “hard of running,” if someone has an injured knee, or “hard of seeing” if someone wears glasses. We don’t say “hard of chewing” if someone has missing teeth or poorly fitted dentures. But we use “hard of hearing” all the time.

Sometimes the hard of hearing have had an injury, nerve damage, or disease. It’s the result of age or overexposure to loud noises. Yes, the teenager that cannot hear you because his earbuds are turned up to excruciating levels, becomes the middle-aged man who cannot hear you when you tell him what’s for dinner.

Then of course there is the deafness of the Spirit – it’s hard to hear God speak. Maybe God used to move within your heart, he once whispered in your ear, or stirred in your soul – or maybe you have never had such a sensation of God speaking at all. God might speak to others, or you used to know what it was like for God to speak to you, but now, you’re stone deaf.

So you do all the talking; you do all the praying and asking of questions (“What’s for dinner?”). You do all the testing of God’s failing abilities; but it’s not God who is deaf. You might be the one with “eyes that cannot see, ears that cannot hear, and a heart that cannot understand.” You are hard of hearing.

The troubling thing is, when someone’s hearing begins to erode, his or her life gets louder, only magnifying the problem. Haven’t you noticed that? The TV volume is cranked up to the unendurable decibels of a jet fighter. Warning bells and alarms are ignored, so they keep blaring. Communication becomes difficult, a game of escalating voices. Hearing anything becomes impossible.

Bring that scenario into the realm of faith. While we want God to shatter his perceived silence with thunderclaps, earthquakes, and firestorms, why should he speak to us over the noise of our lives? Why would he add to the commotion? His voice will only get lost – and it does – in the dissonance that surrounds us. We have to get quiet to hear his “still, small voice.” We have to “put on our listening caps,” as our elementary school teachers told us, to hear what God has to say.

My friend David Beavers says it impeccably: “Along life’s way, you lose you. Your life gets covered, buried, and numbed out with addictions, distractions, medications, and busyness of all kinds. If you don’t believe what I’m saying, if you don’t think you’ve lost the capacity to feel your own life and to hear God speak, spend the day alone, without a phone, without a book, or a computer. There, listen to and observe the insane, obsessive, cyclical and compulsive chatter that drives you – inside and out. It is nothing more than noise, and noise is the problem.”

So, you might not be hard of hearing at all. It could be the pandemonium within and without; the sound and fury that has been absorbed into your heart, mind, and very soul. We have to turn down the volume around us, not to hear ourselves think, but to hear anything – even the Maker of the Universe – when he gently speaks our name.

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.

The Sound of Silence

It is golden. It is a virtue. It is more musical than any melody, rest for the mind, and sometimes it has the loudest voice. It is often the best possible answer, a friend that never betrays, and it is the subject of a classic Simon and Garfunkel song. And, frankly, I’m not very good at it: Silence. I make a living using words – putting them on paper and screen and ejecting them into the air – so being quiet is, by default, not my specialty (though a few enthusiastic readers beg me to shut up almost every week). My mind suffers from Attention Deficient Disorder, it moves quickly between tasks, and the words constantly spewing from my mouth or keyboard and the busyness of my schedule confirm this diagnosis.

Truly, I wish it was different for me. I have always envied those who are quiet and meditative by nature, those who can eagerly hide in the stillness, and those who can retreat for days at a time into the calmness of contemplation. How I wish I was more like Thomas Merton, the Desert Fathers of old, or the preacher E.M. Bounds who spent four hours a day – every day – in silent prayer. That is my wish, but that is not my reality or my nature.

I’m busy. I’m torn. I’m shooting at multiple targets all the time with little chance of developing into a Henry David Thoreau. I also have three young sons, writing deadlines every week, and a speaking and blogging schedule that sometimes make me wince.

The closest I get to contemplation is sipping my coffee in the early morning. And if I get lucky – really lucky – I might get a moment of spiritual retreat with a walk in the woods, the only sound being the crunching snow beneath my feet and thumping of my pulse filling my ears.

But, we ADD-types need some quiet here and there. We need to subdue our minds and soothe the chorus of voices inside our heads. But how? How can we, who are nothing like, say, Mother Teresa, find the soothing sound of spiritual silence? I can only return to a story involving Jesus and two sisters.

The two sisters were Mary and Martha who hosted Jesus in their home. Mary was a venerable St. Benedict, placid and peaceful, sitting at Jesus’ feet in silence. Meanwhile, Martha was in the kitchen shaking and baking, jumping and jiving, busting her can while the more brooding types breathed the ether of serenity.

Martha’s own ADD mind, being in overdrive as it always was, earned from Jesus an understanding, gentle rebuke. He effectively said (and I am paraphrasing here), “Martha, relax. It’s okay to be busy, dear one, but don’t overdo it. Yes, do the few, important things well; but let the rest of it go.”

This is a prescription written by Jesus’ own hand, for all us Martha-types who need a little less talk and a lot more contemplation: “Chill out. Take a walk. Linger over your coffee a few more minutes each morning”. We are not so damn important that the earth will swing off its hinges if we don’t complete everything on our to-do list.

Yes, we who are the hard-driving, multi-tasking, goal-orienting, noise-making, word-emitting Martha’s of the world would do well to learn the discipline of nothingness. By creating times of vacancy and empty space on our calendars and in our lives, we might not be transformed into spiritual mystics, but we might discover that God is easier to hear, for in the quiet places God will certainly speak.

In the stillness the universe might whisper in our ears. In the calm of morning coffee the divine could be revealed. A simple walk in the woods may well unlock your heart. Sitting softly in the dark for a time of prayer could possibly reorient your life.

None of these things are exceptionally spiritual on their own, but they build a discipline of listening silence, and the sound of silence can be a beautiful sound indeed.

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.

 

Come to the Table

October 5 was World Communion Sunday. It is an annual event, the first Sunday of each October, in which Christians worldwide celebrate our oneness in Christ. There is a unity to the faith, scarcely as it might appear and in spite of our many differences and traditions. Special services will be held around the globe testifying to this fact.

At the center of these worship services will be, aptly enough, Communion. Some call it the Eucharist; the Lord’s Supper; the Love Feast; the Breaking of Bread; the Sacrament of the Altar; or the Last Supper. The terms used by Christians are as varied as the particular groups which use the wine (or grape juice in some traditions) and bread.

At my own Sunday meeting, we gather at the table every week observing “open communion.” A line is formed and individual worshippers wait patiently to dip a piece of bread into a common cup. All are welcome to participate. No one guards or otherwise fences the table.

This is such a nice change of practice for me, because in the tradition of my formative years, the Lord’s Supper was never weekly; we might have appeared to be Catholic, God forbid. No, we took Communion quarterly, and typically we observed the ceremony at the end of a Sunday night service.

We had flat, stale little wafers half the size of a postage stamp, and lukewarm grape juice in tiny, clear plastic cups (never wine). Rarely was this ritual ever explained and never was it central to our worship. It was tacked on as an amendment on a school night when folks seemed to rush through the motions. Of course it needed no explanation either, for only those “in the know” were allowed at the table.

But whether we come to the Lord’s Table each day, each week, or once a year, it’s how we come to the table that is more important, I think. We must be careful with the familiar observance not to lose the wonder and sensation that Christ has given himself for us and the world. And as we are given the symbolic elements of bread and wine, we in turn give ourselves to serve and the love the world just as Jesus did.

I was reminded of this when I recently attended an Episcopal service where a dear friend is the minister. It was a magnificent experience of sights, sounds, and beautifully orchestrated liturgy; so much unlike anything of my own Christian tradition, and infinitely more formal than my freewheeling approach.

It took me a while to catch on and to catch up, as small children in attendance were far better acclimated to their surrounding than I was. I sluggishly stood, always a few seconds behind the crowd, and wound up standing alone, dropping to the pew after everyone else took their seat. I fumbled with the order of worship, never able to find the readings or the songs on time.

By the time for the homily I was a nervous wreck, felt completely out of place, and wishing I had read “Episcopalianism for Dummies” before darkening the door.  After the homily, and a number of other confusions, the invitation was offered to receive Holy Communion. Finally something I understood! But I wondered: “Will I be welcomed?” because churches have tons of rules about who can and can’t participate – even fellow believers. I gladly discovered that the invitation was for all. Even those who felt out of place had a place at the table.

As I knelt at the altar I was joined by a young family; dad, mom, and three small children. The youngest, four or five years old, stood right beside me at the rail, too short to kneel. I looked at him and smiled. He smiled in return, wiped his wet lips with the back of his tiny hand and coarsely whispered, in a voice that could have been heard at the back of the sanctuary, “This is going to be good!”  And it was, because it’s always good to be welcomed to the table.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

“It Must Be Raining”

Months ago a friend handed me a little book entitled “Have A Little Faith,” written by Mitch Albom. Honestly, it sat on my shelf for a long time gathering dust. It’s not that I was uninterested; I was plowing through some dense reading material and figured that Albom’s book was a little too light for what I had my teeth sunk in at the time.

I thought I would turn to it when I needed something lighter, like cleansing your palate after a heavy meal. But what a fantastic surprise! This little book has turned out to be proof that big things indeed arrive in small packages. Mitch says more in a few pages than I can say in writing a year’s worth of columns. Further, ten percent of the profits from the book go to refurbish places of worship that aid the homeless. You really should go buy a copy. You can read Mitch’s words for yourself, and help your neighbor in the process (No, this is not a paid advertisement).

To whet your appetite, the book tells the story of Rabbi Albert Lewis, who asks Mitch to deliver his eulogy when the time comes. It was a strange request, as Mitch had pretty much abandoned faith. But over the last few years of Albert’s life, Albert rekindled Mitch’s faith through deep friendship and the telling of story after beautiful story. One of those stories is called “Salesman.”

Albert told the story like this: “There’s this salesman, see? And he knocks on a door. The man who answers says, ‘I don’t need anything today.’ The next day, the salesman returns. ‘Stay away,’ he is told. The man gets very angry and yells and threatens the salesman.

“On the third day the salesman returns once again. ‘You again!’ the man screams. ‘I warned you!’ He gets so angry, he spits in the salesman’s face. The salesman smiles, wipes the spit off with a handkerchief, then looks to the sky and says, ‘It must be raining.’”

Albert explained to Mitch – to us all – that love is just like that. If they spit in your face, you say, “It must be raining,” and you go back tomorrow. You stay at it. Albert would agree, I think, that such love mimics the endless, relentless love of God. He stays at it.

No, this isn’t warm and fuzzy talk. This isn’t the power of positive thinking. This is the real love and grace of God poured out on us without condition and without end. God’s love for us does not depend upon who we are, the good or bad we have done, or the mistakes we have made. God’s love depends upon his own nature and goodness. Even when we spit in his face, he keeps coming back. That is why the worst of your personal failures, the worst crimes you have committed, your divorce, your drug abuse, your emotional baggage and weakness, your arrest record, your selfishness, your adultery, your addiction, your dishonesty, stupidity, and your bone-headed decisions – fill in the blank – can never separate you from God’s love.

Yes, we have all been guilty of having the “uns” at points in our lives. We have all been unworthy, undeserving, unprepared, unemployable, undone, unnoticed, unthankful, unjust, unfair, uninsurable, uneasy, and unaccepted. We have been unknown, underdogged, unapologetic, unhinged, unraveled, undesirable, unbearable, unclean, unethical, underhanded, uninterested, unkind, and untouchable. We have been unwanted, unlucky, unnerved, unpopular, unpredictable, unqualified, and unstable: But none of us have ever been unloved.

God is not keeping his distance. He arrives at our doorsteps with open hands and an open heart, loving us to the point of infinite sacrifice, doing anything – and has done everything – to make us feel welcome, safe, and able to trust him. So even if we shake our fist at him in rage, spit in his face, and do everything we think possible to spurn his love, God will be back; standing on the porch in the rain of our refusal, eager and ready to love us through our rejection.

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 Pearl of Great Price

John Steinbeck was one of America’s most prolific and insightful novelists. Renowned for his prize-winning works that most of us either enjoyed or endured at some point in our education (depending upon our perspective), one of Steinbeck’s lesser known novellas is my personal favorite. It is a penetrating little book called The Pearl.

Steinbeck’s story begins with a poor Mexican pearl diver named Kino. He happily ekes out a living for his wife and son with a little canoe and a thatch hut on the beach. When Kino’s child is bitten by a scorpion, the wealthy doctor will not see the child, for Kino has no money.

Nor will the priest come to pray for the child, because Kino and his wife aren’t properly married – again, because Kino can’t afford to pay the church for a proper wedding ceremony. But through grace or ill-fated fortune, Kino discovers a pearl as big as his fist: The “Pearl of the World,” the locals call it, the most incredible treasure the village has ever seen.

Now Kino will be rich. He and his wife will be properly married. His son will be healed. The family will get new clothes and a larger house. His life will be transformed. But, things don’t work out as well as Kino had hoped.

Greed takes over in entire village. Thieves attempt to rob him. The pearl traders refuse to barter with him. His friends grow psychotically jealous. Kino begins to spend all his energies hiding and protecting his treasure. His wife, who sees how the new wealth is destroying their family, tries to get rid of the pearl, only to have Kino viciously attack her.

More robbers burn their house down. They are forced to run for their lives while would-be assassins mercilessly stalk the family like prey. Yet, Kino cannot let this pearl go. He cries out in desperation: “What can I do? This pearl has become my soul!”

In the end Kino loses everything: His home, his young child, his little canoe by which he made a living, his respectability in the village, and his ability to escape to a better life. He and his wife stand on the Pacific shoreline and heave the evil pearl back into the ocean.

The treasure he thought he wanted, in the end, breaks him. Thus, Steinbeck’s little story is about far more than a poor Mexican diver. It a tale of human nature; it is about getting what one wants, only to discover that the fulfillment of that desire is one’s undoing.

We all enter this world with empty hands, open hearts, and restless spirits searching for some kind of treasure – something to fill the emptiness. The search is intrinsic, natural, and good. Jesus spoke of this search in a way that Steinbeck later duplicated: We are searching for the “Pearl of Great Price,” Jesus said, that invaluable treasure of the soul that is worth more than all the world. It is an acquisition of the soul – and only the soul – that satisfies our search.

The glitch in all of our pursuits is that many of the things we seek do not actually fulfill us. They are actually detrimental to us and to the world. My guess is that the majority of individual and cosmic suffering is the direct result of our improper and misguided searches.

The itchiness in our hands and in our hearts sends us looking for an emotional and spiritual scratching post, but we entrust ourselves to people and objects that simply cannot deliver the goods. To quote an old country song, we go “looking for love in all the wrong places.” And when we go looking in all the wrong places, we end up with all the wrong outcomes.

But it’s never too late to find the satisfaction we can’t seem to corner. We just have to turn our attention to the true treasure of the soul, the Pearl of Great Price. We just have to search in the right place, and almost magically, we end up with the right results.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

The Opiate Option

I am sometimes suspicious of how we employ our faith. Don’t get me wrong, faith is important to me, and I have given my life to it. But sometimes I treat my faith like it is a medicine cabinet or a pharmaceutical, going to it only when something is wrong, or if I am looking for a quick remedy.

My head hurts,” so I go to the medicine cabinet looking for a pain reliever. “I have a stomach ache,” so I reach in for a spiritual antacid. “I feel so uncertain,” so I explore my therapeutic options. “I’m feeling a bit anxious,” so I look for something that will serve as divine Prozac.

Certainly I am not the only one who does this – it is a common practice – and I’m not the only one to make this observation. Strangely enough (strange because rarely goes a Christian writer reference this man), it was Karl Marx who popularized this view, and this analogy would be incomplete without referring to his legendary quote.

Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the people,” and it appears he understood the medicinal, tranquilizing effects of religious faith fairly well. Now, before you write that letter to the editor or attempt to get your pound of flesh from this simple columnist, understand that I am no Marxist – not even close – I detest anything that smacks of coercion. But that doesn’t mean that some of Marx’s observations about religion were incorrect, even if his means of modification were suspect. Marx felt that religious faith did very little to actually help people. Rather than drilling down to the source of a person’s trouble, he claimed that religion only treated that person’s symptoms. It was a barbiturate that had a numbing influence, instead of resulting in empowerment.

Faith in God, according to Marx, keeps the believer trapped in his or her current state, incapacitated, and prevents him or her from experiencing real, personal, substantial change. In short, Marx criticized the false relief that faith can bring – false because nothing ever really changes – and I find it difficult to argue with his conclusion.

The faith that is peddled by many pulpits today is little more than a sedative. It helps people to forget their pain and suffering, helps them sleep at night, and keeps them hanging on for next week’s dose of tranquility; but it does very little to move people to a place of growing, spiritual health.

Thus, we can easily succeed in converting our faith into a first-aid kit, only turning to it when something hurts, and leaving it in the cabinet otherwise. Yes, when life hurts I want relief. Yet, the real power of faith is not its ability to magically stop our pain or to provide a fix to get us through a rough spot. Faith simply doesn’t remove our troubles and worries, offering bubble-gummed-flavored baby aspirin and cartooned-band-aids.

Rather, faith offers us a new way to live, an opportunity to change our lifestyle. It does more than medicate our boo-boos or make us happy when we have been made sad. On the contrary, faith has the power to transforms us, to shape and fit us for life, making us whole and well.

It would do us and Marx well to hear some of the earliest words of Christian faith, written by the Apostle James. He said to some of the first believers, “My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Faith that does not lead to change is a faith that is dead.”

It is possible to find great inspiration in our faith; to be comforted, reassured, and soothed, that feeling that, yes, we believe all the right things. Yet, if such beliefs do not have transformative power in our lives, then we do not have faith at all. Instead, we are addicted to a spiritual tranquilizer that blinds us to the reality of our world and the renewal God seeks to produce in our lives.

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.

 

 

What is Wrong With the World?

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” goes the French proverb credited to Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It’s not that a society or organization cannot be transformed. But such change is often cosmetic or superficial. Reality isn’t altered at the deeper, more profound levels.

Simply examine today’s news feeds. There is conflict in the Middle East; fresh bloodshed in Iraq; a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Africa; upheaval with Russia; political unrest at home; is it 2014 or 1985 or 1978 or 1959 or 1913? Has nothing changed within these geopolitical situations? Of course, everything has changed.

There have been new regimes, new faces, and new promises; the old guard has passed; generations have come and gone; the young and the restless have replaced the traditional and the settled. But the root issues and causes – things like greed, selfishness, sexism, patriarchy, racism, and tribalism, remain untouched.

Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world; but no one thinks of changing himself.” Everything we see in the larger world – the good, the bad, and the ugly – is a reflection of the individual, human heart. You can’t maintain a sane world when everyone in it is crazy. So we can’t begin with the world. We have to begin with our own hearts.

One of the greatest British writers of the 20th century was G.K. Chesterton. He was great in size – a 300 pound, mountain of a man – and great with his words: Newspaper articles, short stories, essays, novels, theology, and poetry. But my favorite essay of his is a tiny one written to his local newspaper, The London Times.

The editors solicited responses from the paper’s readership by asking this question: “What is wrong with the world?” Hundreds of long, verbose letters poured in. Then eminent authors and leading thinkers of the day were asked to respond to the question. The shortest and most powerful response to “What is wrong with the world?” came from Chesterton.  He wrote: “Dear Sirs, I am.”

If anything about this world is going to change, it will be you (It’s worth re-reading that line), and the change cannot be cosmetic, superficial, or an artificial cover-up. Change must be at the heart, deep within, where our darkness lurks, our transgressions take shelter, and where all our spiritual neurosis is born.

One of Jesus’ more interesting parables is about a person who gets free of an evil spirit. Some time later, the spirit returns and finds the person’s life swept clean and in order. The spirit moves back in with all his malicious friends, and the person’s condition is worse in the end than in the beginning.

It’s plain what Jesus is saying. Cosmetic change doesn’t work. Clean the junk out of your heart. Wash the windows of your soul. Change the drapes and the sheets. Run the vacuum cleaner and replace the litter box. Your life will be as clean and as neat as a pin. But if you don’t allow God’s Spirit to take up transformative residence in that now orderly space you have created – to effect real change – then all the rubbish you sent to the curb will be back in spades. Ask any recovering addict if this isn’t true.

People want to change their lives (at least some people), but they don’t “put the question marks deep enough” in searching for their answers. They don’t dive into the depths of their hearts to open those locked closets and cast light on the shadowy basements. They refuse to do the work of the soul, and thusly, refuse to change.

So while I’m quoting Karr, Tolstoy, Chesterton, and Jesus, I’ll add one more great philosopher to the list. Bob Dylan wrote, “There’s a battle outside and it’s ragin’. It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls, for the times they are a changin’.” True, but the real battle is on the inside, inside each of our hearts; for if the world is going to change, the change must begin right there.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. Please visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.