Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

Count Your Blessings

Johnson Oatman, Jr. was a failed singer. Try as he might, he could not reach the success of his baritone-voiced father who was in high demand by churches all over New England. Largely, he was a failed minister too. An ordained Methodist, he hoped to become the next Francis Asbury or Peter Cartwright – a circuit-riding evangelist – who could turn legions of souls from perdition. He never preached in more than a few local pulpits.

But as Oatman approached his fortieth birthday, his sense of divine calling and vocational ability finally crossed paths. He began writing songs, songs to be sung in church and at the frontier revivals of the late nineteenth century. Over the next twenty years he would author some 3,000 hymns and gospel songs.

If you are part of a church that still uses hymnals or sings hymns you know Oatman’s music, even if you are unfamiliar with his name. “Worthy the Lamb;” “No, Not One;” and “Higher Ground” are a few of his tunes that can be found in almost any denominational songbook. His work with which I am most familiar is a song entitled, “Count Your Blessings.”

In the churches of my youth we sang this song at every Thanksgiving service. In fact, we seemed to sing it every other week or so. I can still recite the first stanza from memory: “When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed; when you are discouraged, thinking all is lost; count your many blessings, name them one by one; and it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.”

A Sunday school teacher once challenged my Primary Bible Class to do exactly as the song implored: “Count your blessings.” She handed out sheets of wide-ruled notebook paper with the red and blue lines, accompanied by fat, yellow, #2 Ticonderoga pencils. A dozen eight-year-olds went to work listing all of our heaven-sent assets, and we finished, of course, by singing Oatman’s hymn.

Have you counted your blessings lately, naming them “one by one?” I know all the “big things” would be on the list. Family, nation, shelter, food, children or grandchildren, employment; for all of these we are thankful. But to list all of our blessings, even the little things, would take a considerable amount of time, longer than a brief Sunday school lesson would allow.

Still, it’s worth taking pause to make such a list. You probably have a few days off, or at least a smidgen of down time with Thanksgiving Day coming. Use some of that time to actually catalog a few of your many practical blessings. Maybe you could start with A and work through the alphabet to Z, concentrating on the little, often assumed, godsends.

I’ll get you started: Air conditioning. Band aids. Coffee. Distilleries (particularly those in Canada). Electricity. Football. Garrison Keillor. Hamburgers. Ireland. Jackson Hole. Krispy Kreme. Live Oak trees. Music. Newspapers. Online banking. Picnics. Quinoa. Refrigeration. Smoked Almonds. Tennis. Urinals (the ones that flush automatically). Vacations. Willie Nelson. X-Rays. Yogurt. Zyrtec.

On and on it goes, and that’s just the first list that rolled off my mind, a stream of consciousness (and obviously I wrote this while hungry)! This list could be reproduced a thousand times over with little thought, just observation, because blessings constantly rain down upon me. God’s ever-present grace surrounds me. Heaven smiles down, if only because I am fortunate enough to live at a time and in a place like this.

It’s not that complicated, not really. Take the time to look around your life and count your blessings – one by little one – if you dare. Give thanks to God for what you have, what you have experienced, for the grace you have received and for the people you have known.

Try to remember that Thanksgiving is more than a holiday, more than a day off, more than a circled date on a calendar. It is a way of life. Remembering this might change your perspective about things. It might change your attitude. And it just might change your life.

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

 

 

 

I Know… Less Than Ever

A few years ago I returned to speak at the church that was my first pastorate. The church was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, and it had been more than a decade since I had stood in their pulpit. They welcomed me back with incredible grace and affection, and I was truly glad for the reunion.

When I first went there as pastor, I was a green, naïve, ignorant child, still in my early twenties, full of piss and vinegar, ready to extinguish hell with a water gun. Equipped with a fresh diploma, a certificate of ordination with the ink still wet, and a new red Bible, I worked hard to justify my position and demonstrate to all that I knew everything there was to know about leading a congregation. Heck, I wanted people to see that I knew everything about everything.

When it was whispered in the gossip parlors of the church Sunday school rooms and in the beauty salons of the greater community that in fact I did not know everything about everything, and that I was far too young for the responsibility now thrust upon me, I worked all the harder to prove my critics wrong and my youthful abilities underestimated.

This hard work paid off, because in the process of proving myself, the membership rolls did indeed grow. The coffers of the church swelled like never before, acres of land were purchased, buildings were built, mission trips were taken, baptisteries were filled, other congregations were planted, the church became a rising sensation, and the critics quieted their murmuring assaults. Yes, by the end of my tenure there, I had gained a great deal of success. But I also lost a few things along the way. I lost my youthful idealism; my religion; my marriage; my way, and almost my mind. Most of all, I lost touch with the very reason I had entered the vocation in the first place: The love of Christ.

See, I became more concerned with growing a bigger church than with the well-being of individual people who needed to know grace. I worked tirelessly to keep the “right” people happy and tithing, and neglected those on the “wrong” side of the tracks, those that Christ sought more than any other. I wanted a prosperous religious career by building the next religious edifice, by impressing the suits at the denomination’s headquarters, and by meticulously managing my public image. Only years later did I realize that Jesus was not very much involved in any of this.

It was a hard lesson to learn, but I take some comfort in the fact that I am not alone in learning it. Another hard-striving, pompous, know-it-all once wrote, “Christ has shown me that what I thought I knew is worthless…Nothing else matters but this: To know Christ and to know that I belong to him” (Philippians 3).

So that’s what I told my first congregation when they invited me back to speak. I told them that I had indeed been too young to be a pastor, that I had done them a disservice by spending too much energy on the trivial and on my own attempted accomplishments, and not enough energy pointing them to the grace and love found in Christ. And I told them that I now know a whole lot less than I once thought I did; I’m even more ignorant than I once was.

Not all of my old friends like this admission. They think I’ve lost my “fire,” or that I’ve gone “theologically soft.” Some think I’ve fallen completely away. This singular emphasis upon Christ and his grace, ironically, makes some Christians uncomfortable. They want “more.” But there is no more if our first and consuming passion is not to reflect the grace and love of Christ.

After all, “if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but I do not have love, it profits me nothing.” I don’t know much, but that much I know.

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.

Truly Satisfied

An old Quaker came to the end of his days as a farmer; no longer did he have the strength to work the soil. So, he placed a sign on his land that read, “This farm will be given to anyone who is truly satisfied.”

A wealthy merchant came riding along and saw the sign framed by the beautiful rolling hills, the rich dark soil, the barns and silos. He thought to himself, “If my friend the Quaker is so eager to part with his land, I might as well claim it. I have all I need – so I qualify.”

He guided his pony to the farmhouse, hopped out of the saddle, and walked to the front porch. The farmer slowly came to the door and offered his leathery hand. The merchant shook his hand and got down to business, explaining why he was there – to claim the land being offered – of course.

“Art thou truly satisfied?” the Quaker asked the merchant. The merchant responded, “I am, indeed. I have everything I need.” The old farmer answered, “My friend, if thou art satisfied with everything ye have, why doth thou need my land?” And with that he closed the door.

It is human nature to want; to search, covet, yearn for and lust even after we have everything we need – more than we need. There is this insatiable desire within us that we can’t seem to satisfy, a hunger we cannot fill. According to Richard Alpert, also known as Ram Dass, he says that desire is precisely the problem. It is the fly in the existential ointment, the one thing that always trips us up (Which in the Christian tradition sounds a lot like “original sin”).

Unmet desire is, as Alpert describes, like eating ice cream. One has to keep eating it, faster and faster, because it is constantly melting; it is always getting away, and never fulfills true hunger. I would only add to this apt description that even if one is able to “eat the whole thing” before it melts, then he or she will only feel sick, nauseous, and guilty when it is over.

So, how does one unhitch from the runaway desire, the sheer hunger of the heart that so often drags us to our undoing? The great G.K. Chesterton once said that there were only two ways to be satisfied. One “is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” But how does one desire less?

There’s no easy answer. Whole religions and extensive spiritual practices have been built around answering that question; and everything from self-flagellation and asceticism to quiet meditation and psychotropic drugs have been tried to free humanity from itself. Yet, the heinous rate of consumption, the constant grabbing and clutching for more, continues with happiness levels as flat as ever.But maybe the presence of desire isn’t the real problem. It’s not that “we want,” but that we want the wrong things. We are all going to desire. After all, desire is simply the search for happiness. What is the object of those desires; what is it that we are after that we think will make us happy? Those might be the better questions.

See, we have been duped. We think that acquisition will satisfy us. We have been fooled into thinking that a shinier car, a bigger house, a younger wife, a better neighborhood, or the newest piece of technology will make us happy. But it’s an evaporating illusion. When you are chasing after what will never ultimately please you, getting more of it won’t get it done.

I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these other things will be added to you.” He was saying, “You’re going to desire, you’re going to want; just point those cravings in the right direction. Go for what counts!” Then you discover that living a satisfying life requires very little. You will discover that the hungry life can be replaced by the happy life.

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

Work it Out

Hanging on many a teacher’s wall or sitting on his or her desk is that little proverb that reads, “Life is a classroom.” Half of my teachers had a variation of this framed-art maxim, right along with their globes of the world and A-B-C wall borders. Uncapping my red pen, I’ll give this saying an “A” for effort, but a big fat “F” for accuracy.

Granted, life is an instructional course; that much is sure. There are teachers who teach, disciplinarians who correct, dunces who distract, subjects that inspire, friends who assist, and bullies who persecute. But life is not a static, clean, orderly classroom. It is a laboratory where we investigate, experiment, and work things out the best we can.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the first generation of Christians with these words, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” This is his prescription for living. Life has to be entered as if we are apprentices in need of personal, practical, hands-on experience. This might make our hands quiver, but there is no other real way to learn than “working it out” as we go.

I remember sitting in an exhausting science class in high school. The instructor droned on as if she were auditioning for the whaa-whaa-whaa voice track of a Charlie Brown cartoon. Chemical reactions, the periodic table, kinetic energy, study questions, pop quizzes, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein: It never ended. We were chained to our desks, automatons taking notes and regurgitating information, learning little.

The next year, however, we had a new science teacher, one who had a “work it out” approach to teaching. On the first day of the school year he moved the class into the lab, a lab we had never been allowed to use previously, because of safety and financial concerns. It was glorious. We were issued safety goggles, rubber gloves, and vinyl lab aprons. We were introduced to the world of Bunsen burners, Petri dishes, test tubes, formaldehyde-drowned specimens, dissection, and the explosive power of certain substances and chemical reactions.

It was only after graduation that I learned that this teacher had spent large amounts of his own money for materials (and raised a good deal of the rest). He had also assumed personal liability for any problematic outcomes, all to open up the lab for the students. He was convinced – and rightfully so – that the best way for someone to learn is to “work it out” and enter the experience and experiment for oneself.

I don’t know whether it was Confucius, Mark Twain, Marie Curie, Aristotle, or some other wise person who said it, but my teacher practiced an alternative proverb to the one, “Life is a classroom.” His proverb was: “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.”

To be sure, we set off the fire alarm a few times in the process of doing. We had to hit the plunger for the emergency eyewash station at least once, when a chlorine experiment didn’t go quite right. But when you are learning – either in life or the laboratory – it’s not always safe and clean. Sometimes the lab of life fills with smoke and the sparks fly in one huge explosion. Sometimes the results we are working toward are much more surprising than we could have ever anticipated. Sometimes our learning is costly and comes with a load of liabilities. But what other option is there?

Given the choice, few of us want to sit still, safe, and stoic and be told about life. We want to actually live life – even if it causes our hands and hearts to shake. We don’t want to be given theories about what may or may not work for our lives. We want to put living into practice.

We don’t want the security of notepads and lectures. We want safety goggles and fire extinguishers in case something goes wrong. Truth told, some things will go wrong; but there is no better way to live and no better way to learn.

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.

Young and Dumb

My adolescent son told me the other day that “teenagers ought to rule the world.” After I stopped guffawing at him, I gave his manifesto some consideration, albeit though brief. Certainly, the mental faculty and emotional stability of your average teen is of some renown, as scientists have proven that the adolescent brain is incapable of logical decision making.

That’s a fact, not a criticism. Simply, not enough physiological development has taken place. Thus, it is impossible for a teenager to always behave or react rationally (To this I can attest – three teenage boys populate my home). But I don’t think today’s teens could do much worse with the world than today’s adults. We seem as immature as our children and grandchildren. Maybe science has figured out why.

Researchers say that no living person, in reality, is very old; because the cellular matter in our bodies is constantly regenerating. For example, the cells that make up the lining of our stomachs are only five days old; our skin cells are less than ten days old; and our livers regenerate completely in about a year (Depending upon one’s martini consumption, I suppose).

Even our “old bones” aren’t that old. In the course of a decade they will be made new, along with most of our muscles and tendons. In fact, only the cells of the heart muscle, cerebral cortex, lens of the eye, and eggs of a woman’s ovaries do not regenerate completely over one’s lifetime. The human body is constructed of some ten trillion cells, and most of those cells are young. Our bodies, no matter one’s birth date, average about 15 years of age…so…we are all teenagers.

Yet, the relative youth of our bodies is no excuse for maintaining emotional and psychological immaturity. We may not be born with the capacity to make healthy, rational decisions, but that is a virtue which can be acquired. Science, once again, has confirmed this fact as well.

In 2009, professors Dilip Jeste and Thomas Meeks published a major paper on their research into human wisdom. Among their discoveries were two obvious but enlightening conclusions. First, they discovered that true wisdom – that is the ability to skillfully apply knowledge and understanding to living life – is extremely rare in the human species. There just aren’t many sages or gurus among us. And second, those who are genuinely wise have the benefit of age and experience on their side – and more often than not, bad experiences.

See, you have to live a while, get kicked in the head a few times, fall on your face more than once, get caught in a self-manufactured disaster or two, and then wisdom – mercifully – begins to take root. Thus, the older you are, the smarter you should be, and the younger you are, the dumber you are! That too, it appears, is a scientific fact (It was Jack Weinberg in the 1960s who said, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” – a marvelous anti-establishment statement. But Jack is now closer to 80 than 30, and I bet he would no longer stand by that statement).

Yes, youth gives us much of what we need: Audacity, vision, zeal, holy rebellion, and a good, healthy dose of revolutionary chaos from time to time. But like a fine wine, only time gives us wisdom.

So I guess it should be no surprise that our world is in its current condition. It is a world that values youth, childish rhetoric, toned bodies, and this month’s fresh face from L.A. or Nashville more than it values reason, understanding, and the invaluable wisdom that comes from age.

It is a culture that sacrifices on the altar of youthful stupidity the wizened experience of its elders; and it does so at its own tragic expense. For a society that will not listen to its grandparents or the voice of history, is a society that is doomed. There is a proverb that goes, “Old age and cunning will always beat youth and exuberance.” Well, for the sake of the world, I hope that’s true.

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

A Dog’s Life

When my wife and I carried our newborn child through the sliding glass doors of the maternity unit, we were not given an instructional manual. No type of handbook accompanied the second or the third child either. Like all parents, we were directed to the exit sign clutching our new wrapped-in-blue bundle, with little more than a slap on the rear end, like a coach sending in his second-string substitutions. We were those kids with plenty of eagerness to play the game, but not a lot of knowledge about the playbook. We simply were not prepared for or coached up on every possible situation that would arise in our family-building career.

Case in point: Our three boys were playing football in the backyard this winter when one of them called to me with words I could have never anticipated. Casually, as if he were making a weather observation, he said, “Dad…the dog is on the roof.” I exploded onto the upper deck to discover that my son was alarmingly correct. Our new little Shih Tzu – Toby – had inexplicably crawled beneath the deck railing and was fifteen feet across a pitched metal roof, two stories off the ground. I was horrified. My dear wife was worse, deranged with panic, and wanted to crawl over the rail to rescue the pup. I understood that if this disaster were not averted, I did not have enough pastoral skill, fatherly wisdom, Valium, or hard liquor to assuage the suffering.

So, with the boys in place below, ready to exercise their burgeoning football catching skills, my hand firming holding my wife by the belt loops at the railing, and aiming every prayer at heaven I could muster, I gently called, “Toby…come here, boy.” He loped over to me as if it were a day at the dog park, and tragedy was dodged (If someone ever writes that parenting handbook please include this nutty story as “Exhibit A” in what can go unpredictably wrong around the house).

But as crazy as this story is, here is the craziest thing of all: While our entire family mobilized to protect and save this precious little dog, Toby was completely, totally, and blissfully unaware of our efforts. Hands were shaking. Tears were forming. Railings were being scaled. Catch nets were being weaved. Meanwhile, he was sniffing leaves, enjoying the view, and inspecting the strange metal floor beneath his feet.

Toby doesn’t understand this, but he doesn’t have to; he simply lives a dog’s life in the loving arms of those who always look out for him. Sometimes I perceive God working the same way. I sense him hanging in the atmosphere around us; ethereal, intangible, but very real just the same. Occasionally, I glimpse him lurking within and brooding over the circumstances of life, sometimes gently calling, but most of the time just ready to catch us when we fall; or to save us from ourselves when we’ve crawled too far out on the ledge.

We are like a baby resting in her mother’s arms, completely incapable of communicating the affection that surrounds us, but just as absolutely aware of it. We are like a teenage son who fights his father at every turn, kicking against every boundary, but deep inside we know that our father loves us no matter what – even when we don’t understand – and we are grateful to have someone on our side. We are like a driver, blissfully driving down the highway, perfectly ignorant of the fact that the red lights that stop us or the wait to get that morning cup of coffee, have actually saved us from danger somewhere else down the road. We are like a dog on the roof, even while our well-being is in jeopardy, we are enfolded by a protecting love.

Yes, I believe there is a mysterious, unseen, hovering God in the universe that we cannot always understand, see, or otherwise tangibly perceive. But we know he is there. His enveloping love for us is very real, and yes, it is very good.

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.

 

Imagine and Implement

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my friend, Charles, and missing him. He was a husband, father, English teacher, social worker, canoeist, bluegrass player, therapist, connoisseur of green-apple moonshine, and a good friend.

He spent the last decade of his life as the Director of Student Services in my hometown school district, on the front lines of advocacy for some of the most vulnerable children in the community. It was a role he relished almost as much as playing Gordon Lightfoot and John Prine songs on his guitar.

Charles died a few years ago, succumbing to leukemia. Friends of his gathered on a scraggly piece of land along the Tallapoosa River in north Georgia for his memorial service. I am certain that we gathered exactly where Charles wanted us. He loved that piece of land and the river that runs through it. He used it as a retreat for his body and soul. It was his sanctuary.

I use the word “sanctuary” intentionally, for Charles wouldn’t enter a church. See, there was always a rebel’s spirit behind Charles’ jolly smile, and he had lost a good deal of faith in politics, education, matrimony – in the human race in general. He seemed to have lost the most faith in religion.

He and I would often speak of religion. At such times I could always count on him to sum up his faith by quoting Emily Dickinson: “Some keep the Sabbath going to church; I keep it staying at home; With a bobolink for a chorister, and an orchard for a dome…God preaches – a noted clergyman – and the sermon is never long; So instead of getting to heaven at last, I’m going all along!”

Yet, for all the lost confidence, Charles never lost his hope for living in a better world. This was, after all, his calling. He wanted life to be better, more just, peaceful, and whole. While often disappointed, he kept wishing – and working – for nothing less than the Kingdom of God (though he disagreed with my terminology).

The “Kingdom of God,” can invoke images of a faraway heaven where we will live in the sweet by-and-by. I don’t think that is accurate, because heaven is just not that far away. Jesus taught that while there is an eternal element to Christianity, having faith is not so much about moving up and out when we die; it is about embracing and fostering the presence of God in this current world.

Imagine (to quote another of Charles’ favorite musicians) a world with “nothing to kill for.” Imagine all people “living life in peace.” Imagine a world where the “lion will live with the lamb, where swords are beaten into plowshares, and justice rolls down like the waters.” But do more than imagine such a future – do more than simply wish for it – work for it. Implement it. Practice it. Live it.

I believe, with all my heart, that one day all of creation will be remade. I believe the universe will be divinely washed clean of all that has gone wrong, and the world will be set right. But I do not believe such faith gives me permission to be a spectator waiting for utopia. Such faith compels me to act, as Charles did, living as God would have this world to be.

So it never troubled me that Charles didn’t go to the “House of God” on Sundays. Rather, it encouraged me that he went to do the work of God every day. I was never bothered by his claims to have no faith. Rather, I was challenged by how he actually practiced his faith. So what if he wanted the church to be “better.” He was making the world better.

Let this be a challenge to us all – especially those of us who enthusiastically gather each Sunday or Sabbath: Not all of God’s work is done within the four walls of the church house. In fact, the lion’s share of it is done outside. And that’s good, because that is where it is needed the most.

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

 

Real Social Networking

I have a couple thousand “friends” on Facebook, and a few days ago I cyber-smacked one of them over the head like an ugly son-in-law. He had made what I thought was a very snarky, malicious comment about one of my awe-inspiring, earth-shattering posts. Such an offense I could not abide. So, in defense of my opinions (more accurately, my ego), I took to the keyboard and let him have it in front of Mark Zuckerberg’s 1.25 billion Facebook users (That’s right, if you haven’t been paying attention, Facebook is now the third largest nation on the planet, exceeded only by the populations of India and China). But a day later I discovered it was a huge misunderstanding.

My friend had not aimed his comment at me; it was directed at someone else. Further, he was being more sarcastic than sinister, more playful than mean-spirited, but it just didn’t communicate across the online superhighway. I apologized – profusely – and retreated to a corner of the World Wide Web with my foot, mouse, and keyboard in my mouth.

This whole incident, as minor as it turned out to be, is reflective of how we communicate and miscommunicate in the 21st century. For years I have noticed how people will say things in e-mails that they would never say to someone else’s face (good and bad), and I often warn my children about this as their thumbs blaze across the QUERTY keypads of their cell phones.

“Social networking” sites greatly magnify the effect, an effect now known as “online dis-inhibition.” We seem to lose our social restraint, our better judgment – sometimes we lose our minds completely – while hiding behind the pseudo-invisibility of the Internet and the digital airways.

A congressperson posts racy pictures to his account and scuttles his career; a middle-aged husband rattles all his marital skeletons online and ends up in divorce court; a high school football star loses his promised scholarship because of his Twitter rantings; a young woman can’t land a job because prospective employers Google her and deem her a liability: These are the realities, virtual and otherwise, of today’s world.

I don’t want to sound like some crazed Luddite who hates technology and pines for the days of the rotary phone or the covered wagon. I love WI-FI, streaming video, GPS, downloadable audio, and satellites. These words you are reading were typed on a laptop computer I cannot live without, and I’ve received a dozen emails in the course of writing this column. No, I’m not ready to give up these things.

But neither am I ready to accept all of these technologies without some critique and discernment. While I now recognize the countless alternative ways we can connect with others, I also recognize that we are lonelier and more disconnected than ever. I can see that we are more aware of the world around us than any previous generation, and yet I see that we may be the most narcissistic generation to ever live in North America.

As “social networking” grows, it appears we must guard against real communication disintegrating, and the constant undermining of real, human connection. Technologies aside, we still need flesh-and-blood relationships, connections that are built upon mutual respect, actual time together, shared interests, and face-to-face conversation.

People of faith may have more at stake in this issue than most, because faith fails in a hyper-individualized, self-centered world. Faith only flourishes in the environs of an authentic, unselfish community, not a virtual imitation where people hide behind their avatars.

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that we cannot share text messages and shotgun blasted e-mails, and call these conversations; we would be better served by sharing a quiet cup of coffee and actually communicating with those around us. I know that if we spent more time looking people in the eyes, rather than through an LED display, the world would be a better place. And I know that we cannot “click” our way to real community, because friendships require actual presence, not page counts.

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 Trick for the Treats

That faint noise you hear is the sound of pint-sized spooks, banshees, and vampires gathering on your lawn. They will soon be knocking at the door plastic pumpkins outstretched. Spare yourself the tricks and go ahead and give up the treats – the unhealthy, sweet, nougat-filled goodies in your cupboard.

Keep your stinking apples, raisins, toothbrushes, and granola bars. Cavity creating sugar; hyper-activism inducing chocolate; gut busting high fructose corn syrup: This is what the ghosts and ghouls want. In a few short years the tykes will have to turn in their costumes, so don’t deprive them of this rite of childhood passage.

This doesn’t mean adults don’t get in on the fun. Americans spend nearly $3 billion each Halloween, not on adorning their children for the festivities, but on themselves. Adults love to play dress-up, it would appear, and not just in October.

We all hide behind masks, masks we have worn for so long, we forget the real person who lurks beneath. We so over-identify with our dress-up characters, that is the roles we play in life, that when the roles change – and they will change – we experience miserable frustration.

How many middle-aged men and women do you know who are in wretched condition because they are no longer the young, athletic, studs and cheerleaders on campus? That used to be their identity, but now it is gone, and they don’t know how to live without it. If you are an athlete, you are not going to be unable to compete forever; what then? If you are an accountant, one day you will lose your mental fortitude; who are you then? If you are a teacher, budget cuts could put you out of job; what is beneath your mask?

On and on it goes. Mother, husband, Methodist, physician, American, artist: We can play any of these roles, healthily and with fulfillment, so long as we remember that they are temporary. These are all just masks we wear. If we are shackled to these masks, mistaking them for the real person beneath, we will be shattered to pieces when the time comes to put them away; or when life inevitably takes them from us.

One year my son dressed as the cartoon spaceman Buzz Lightyear for Halloween. It was fun – “To infinity and beyond!” – and that’s about how long I thought the boy would wear the costume. In his mind, this wasn’t a temporary role he was playing. Buzz Lightyear was who he really was, his identity. That was okay for a while, but it reached unhealthy limits.

“No, you can’t take a bath as Buzz Lightyear. Take the costume off,” I would say. “I’m sorry, you can’t be Buzz Lightyear at school. It will distract the other students,” and he would protest. “No, you can’t wear the Buzz Lightyear costume to Aunt Inez’s funeral!” You get the idea.

Every time he had to lay aside his costume and mask, it was the proverbial end of the world with weeping and gnashing of teeth. It was as if he was losing himself, as if he didn’t know how to live apart from that imaginary facade. Of course the real him was beneath that rayon spacesuit – everybody knew it – except him.

This is a common affliction. We build these dramatic images of ourselves, who we think we are, who we should be, what we should accomplish, and once constructed, they have to be maintained and protected. We have to live up to our own billing, never letting a tear or a crack show in our veneer, and the mask to which we cling slowly becomes a prison. We go through life kicking and screaming every time a perceived threat begins to pull at the hem of our make-believe cape.

Here’s a better way: Fulfill the roles that God, fate, or life has assigned to you. Fulfill them with gusto. But never accept the masks you must wear as a substitute for the person you really are; that’s the trick to a sweet life.

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

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.