Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

Reflexive Spirituality

Five hundred years ago there was a group of Christians living in Europe known as the Anabaptists. These are not to be confused with today’s Baptists, though the groups do share points of common history. The name Anabaptist was not so much a description as it was a condemnation.

The Anabaptists were “anti-baptizers,” scorning infant baptism and a heap of other cherished church doctrines. Because of this, and their refusal to join their faith to the ruling civil powers, they were violently persecuted by governments, Catholics, and Protestants alike.

One such persecution broke out in 1569 in Holland. Yes, there were some fanatics in the Anabaptist tribe, but the simple, compassionate, and innocent Jesus-followers were gobbled up as well, as is always the case. One such innocent was a man named Dirk Willems.

On a winter day a bailiff was sent to arrest Dirk on the charge that he had been holding secret religious meetings in his home and had allowed others to be re-baptized there. Dirk ran for his life with the bailiff right on his heels, throwing himself across a small ice-covered lake.

It held his weight as he ran, and he crossed safely to the other side. But the ice did not hold for his pursuer. The bailiff chasing after Dirk crashed through the ice into the freezing water. Dirk Willems immediately turned back and rescued the struggling man from the ice. For his kindness Dirk was immediately arrested, and after refusing to renounce his faith, was later burned at the stake.

Now, here is the question asked by today’s Anabaptists: “Why did Dirk Willems turn back?” Put yourself in his vulnerable shoes. You are running for your life, the air is so cold it can freeze rivers and lakes, but the sweat is running down the small of your back. Your pursuer is so close to snatching you, you can feel his breath on your neck.

Your heart pounds in your chest and your pulse is deafening in your ears, but from behind you still hear a crack and a splash. There in the icy water is the man who came to take you to your death. What do you do? Do you raise your praise to heaven as God has triumphed over injustice? Do you continue running into the wilderness where eventually your hands will stop shaking and you pray you will see your family again?

Dirk Willems did none of these things. He instinctively, reflexively turned and rescued his enemy, though he knew death would be the price he would pay. In the words of Joseph Liechty, “It was not a rational choice. It was not an ethical decision. It was an intuitive response. No combination of mental calculations could have carried him back across the ice…The only force strong enough to take Dirk back across the ice was an extraordinary outpouring of love, and the only love I know [like that] is the love taught and lived by Jesus.”

Liechty’s phrase “intuitive response” rings in my ears and pulls at my heart. Can we reach a place in our walk with Christ, that when we encounter hate, suffering, injustice, frustration, or tribulation that our immediate and reflexive response will be Christ responding through us; a place where we don’t have to think about it, we don’t have to plan a response, but supernaturally and instinctively, Jesus comes alive in our hearts.

It’s like going to the doctor and sitting on the examination table. He pulls out that little triangular, rubber mallet and strikes the patient on the knee. Automatically, the patient kicks. There is no thinking, planning, or fretting. It is reflexive. It is your natural response.

Dirk Willems acted as he did because he had been so spiritually shaped and formed by the person of Jesus, that his response was the only response he was capable of making. Dirk’s life and identity had been swallowed up in the person of Jesus, and it was Christ who now lived through him. That is why Dirk Willems turned back.

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 Preacher”

I grew up with a lot of religious rules. To violate these rules was to subject oneself to the judgment of God. If you had a fundamentalist upbringing, you may be familiar with some of these restrictions. No drinking, no smoking, no dancing, no playing cards or going to the movies, no mixed-bathing (a prospect that intrigued my teenage mind), no Sabbath-breaking (though we did not actually gather on the Sabbath), and absolutely no questioning of religious authority.

Religious authority was bound up in “The Preacher.” The big Baptist downtown had a pastor. The Methodists had a seminary trained Reverend. The Presbyterians had a collection of elders. The one fledgling Catholic parish on the edge of town had a priest. I didn’t meet a Jew until high school, so I didn’t even know what a rabbi was, but it would not have mattered anyway.

In my narrow ecclesiastical world, we had The Preacher, the Alpha and Omega of religious instruction; the united concoction of fiery prophet, hardened inquisitor, moral policeman, and God’s anointed spokesman. I was certain that he cut his grass in a pinstripe suit and wingtips, didn’t know a single curse word, and all his children were probably adopted because to have sex with his wife was certainly too worldly, too carnal to consider.

See, the world in which the preacher lived was black and white with no shades of gray, no mystery, no ambiguities. There were only hard and fast certainties. You were in or you were out.  If you wanted to know which you were, just ask him.  He would tell you, and he used the pulpit to do exactly that.

On Sundays he became an inferno of Puritan proportions. Animated, wringing with sweat, discarding his suit coat and loosening his tie, he implored and coerced us sinners down the isle to the mourner’s bench. It usually worked. Someone “repented” most every service, even if it took thirty verses of “Just as I Am” to force the issue. Those altar calls were nerve rattling wars of attrition, and sometimes I felt compelled to go forward so the whole thing would mercifully end.

It was The Preacher who arrived at the hospital on a spring afternoon to visit my family. My younger brother was enduring a lengthy hospitalization with a faulty heart valve and a growing laundry list of complications. Not yet a year old, he had already faced more health challenges than most of us will ever see. His life hung by the proverbial thread.

My parents certainly needed emotional and spiritual support, a pastoral presence, but The Preacher was anything but comforting. I heard him say the most horrible thing to my parents. In paraphrase he said, “Surely you have committed some terrible sin for God to visit this kind of judgment on you and your family.” Even as a child I was flabbergasted, and to this day those words still burn my ears.

Is this the God of Christianity? Is this the kind of God behind our faith? Is this vindictive deity even worthy of our worship? I think not. While this might be the god of The Preacher, it is not the God revealed to us in the person of Jesus the Christ. For in Christ we find truth and grace, not this kind of crass judgmentalism. Jesus doesn’t walk into hospital rooms, his gluttonous belly pushing against the buttons of his tailored suit vest, handing out indictments of guilt to the innocent.

No, this Jesus sits down and weeps with the suffering. He opens his arms to the brutalized and confused. And while he doesn’t always provide us with the tidy solutions we long for, he always walks with us in the mystery of life and death.

I never accepted those words spoken in that hospital room. Maybe I’ve spent these decades of my life trying to disprove them. I hope you won’t accept them either. The love of Christ always trumps the hardness of men’s hearts – even those men who claim to have all the answers.

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.

 

 

“I’m Looking for my Missing Piece”

Sheldon “Shel” Silverstein had one of the more extraordinary literary, music, and art careers you will ever read about, though many people will not recognize his name or his face. He was the eccentric combination of Chicago-born Jewish kid who became a country music legend, a composer, a cartoonist, the author of children’s books, and a columnist for Playboy magazine. Quite the resume.

His two most famous works are on opposite ends of the creative spectrum. One is a country music song made famous by Johnny Cash for which Silverstein won a Grammy in 1970, a song entitled “A Boy Named Sue.” The other work is a children’s picture book he published in the 1960s titled “The Giving Tree.” Check it out at your local library.

But my favorite work of his is a little children’s book named “The Missing Piece.” In “The Missing Piece” this rolling circle, that Silverstein has hand-drawn beautifully sloppy, has a huge missing wedge out of itself. It is rolling along through life looking for his missing piece.

All along the broken, sloppy circle sings a little jingle. It goes: “Oh, I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece; I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece; Hi-dee-ho, here I go, lookin’ for my missin’ piece.”

And since the circle has this missing pie-piece, he can’t roll very fast. He travels painfully slow. But his pace allows him to enjoy the scenery around him, to talk to the butterflies, and to look for that piece that will complete him. After many miles, he finally he finds it; a triangle piece along the road and it fits him perfectly.

Now the circle is made whole and he zips along the road at speeds he could only imagine before. But after a while of rolling through life at breakneck speed, the circle realizes that he can’t do the things he used to do.

He can’t enjoy the scenery. He doesn’t move slow enough to sing like he used to. He has no time to enjoy the company of the butterflies. It all moves too fast. So he removes that once missing piece, lays it aside, and goes back to the life he had, a life that was slower, a life where his weaknesses were obvious, but it was the life he lived best.

All of us have these huge gaping holes in our lives. Sometimes they are obvious, and sometimes we hide them well. They may be physical ailments, emotional suffering, our past mistakes, or great failures. We have these missing pieces that force us to shuffle along the road getting no where fast.

But when we are torn to pieces by our mistakes, our loss of people or possessions, or our brokenness, bitterness, failures and weaknesses, it is then God comes to us with his grace. He may not fill in the missing piece, but he will give us himself. In fact, the only receptacle for the grace of God is human emptiness.

When we are weak, he is strong. When we decrease, it is he who increases. When we feel like our life is one huge, colossal malfunction, that is the cry to heaven for God’s grace to pierce our darkness and somehow to give us life. Divine grace is what shows up in the face and space of human disgrace and shame.

We must embrace; we must own; we must take hold of our brokenness and the holes in our hearts, and our own crippledness – and not wear these as shameful scarlet letters, but cling to them as the very places in our life that God will enter and reveal himself. So let us boast about our weaknesses, that the power of God can go to work in those very places.

Meister Eckhart, that old Medieval German theologian, said the only spiritual discipline is emptiness. Claim those empty, broken places. Don’t try to fill them in so no one sees or knows the real you. Those are the doorways and the windows for God’s grace to shine through, so let it. Let it shine through.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. His latest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

Freedom from Fear

In the town of Madison, Florida, you can find the Colin P. Kelly memorial, a striking sculpture of four angels, their wings unfurled in the wind. The memorial was dedicated in 1943 to the name and heroics of a B-17 pilot whose plane was shot down just days after Pearl Harbor.

Pilot Kelly did not survive the crash, but thanks to his courage and skill, all his crew did, jettisoning safely from the plane. After the memorial was dedicated in Madison Square Garden, it was then moved to Kelly’s hometown – Madison – where it remains today. Few people know the angelic statue’s namesake, however. It is better known as the “Four Freedoms Monument.”

The statue is a representation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms that he articulated in his 1941 State of the Union address. Roosevelt said, “We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: Freedom of speech, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.”

As idealistic and as hard as all these freedoms are to achieve in this world, that last one maybe the hardest: The freedom from fear. There is plenty to be afraid of today, everything from terrorist attacks and spiders to economic collapse and newly harvested cantaloupes. Getting free of fear seems to be a pipedream.

I have no political, social, or economic plan to achieve freedom from fear, no one does; not even an esteemed statesman such as Roosevelt. Fear is the currency of the world in which we live, but as citizens and people of a kingdom “not of this world,” we have at our disposal a peace that displaces fear, a peace that “surpasses all human understanding.”

From where does this peace come? Better fiscal policy? More powerful weapons? A hulking stockpile of canned food, bottled water, and ammunition? I doubt it. No, the only source of peace is love. When you know you are perfectly and completely loved, there is nothing left to fear, for perfect love dispels all fear.

The Apostle Paul once asked a rhetorical but significant question: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love?” In other words, will God’s love for us really last? Can we count on it in face of multifarious threats and dangers? When the world seems to be flying off its axis and the fabric of everything we ever trusted is in shreds, will God’s love be there for us in the end?

The answer is an emphatic “yes!” With some of the more magnificent words in the Christian Scriptures, Paul responds to his own question with a comprehensive list of possible dangers: Trouble, calamity, persecution, hunger, destitution, threat of murder, violence, life and death, angels and demons, fears for today and worry for tomorrow, the power of hell, powers above and below – it is as broad and as exhaustive a list as one could construct.

And then he concludes, “Nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing in this life or the life to come; no spiritual powers, good or evil; nothing in the present moment and nothing tomorrow; nothing now, and nothing later; the powers that be – governmental, spiritual, judicial, religious, economic, earthly or otherwise – none of these have the power or ability to take God’s love away.

It is sure. It is strong. It is eternal. It is ageless. It will not wax and wane. It is the one unvarying element in the cosmos, able to overcome everything, including our fears. If the created universe can contain it, God’s love can outlast and defeat it.

This includes the worst of your sufferings, the worst of your personal failures, the worst crimes you have committed, the worst of your decisions, your divorce, drug abuse, emotional baggage, arrest record, selfishness, adultery, rebellion, addiction, dishonesty, stupidity, your bone-headed decisions – fill in the blank – nothing can separate you from God’s love. That will set you free from fear.

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 Man Behind the Curtain

What do Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, have in common? Besides the fact that they are both splendid, waterfront communities, probably not much. Except this: Seventy-five years ago this week, these towns were the first public release points for one of the greatest films ever. “The Wizard of Oz.”

Few movies have had such a prolonged, impactful history. It is consistently voted into the top ten of any “Greatest Movies” list, has been preserved by the Library of Congress and the National Film Registry, and contains some of the most recognized one-liners of any film ever made.

Generations of people have said in times of confusion, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” They have dropped their bags at the front door and collapsed onto their couches with the shibboleth, “There’s no place like home,” falling from their lips. Who has never said, in a moment of being cornered, “There are lions, and tigers, and bears!” And of course, the Wicked Witch has her place in the conversation: “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” still terrifies children (and her cursed flying monkeys still terrify me).

But my favorite line from the film is spoken by the Wizard himself. The scene is iconic; Dorothy and her friends return to Oz’s throne room with the Witch’s broomstick, confirming that their assignment is complete, and the Wicked Witch is indeed, dead. But the Wizard rebuffs them. He is about to break his promise of sending Dorothy home, and about to renege on the handing out of brains, hearts, and courage.

Then, in the midst of booming voices, thunderclaps, and lightning bolts, Toto scurries over to a mystical shower stall and pulls back the curtain where a mere mortal is pulling levers and speaking into an amplifier. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” the Wizard warns. But the game is over. There is no great and powerful Oz. There is only Oscar Zoroaster Diggs from Omaha, Nebraska. It was all, quite literally, smoke and mirrors.

Why do I love this quote, this scene, so much? Because it reveals the truth on so many levels. There is nothing to be afraid of – especially when it comes to God. We have been taught and told that God, the “Wizard” for my purposes, is more terrifying than all the dangers of the world. We have been told that to enter the presence of this “Great and Powerful” is to take our lives into our hands.

Like the Cowardly Lion, we know we need God and all that he offers, but we might as soon throw ourselves out his palace window to escape his terrors than to remain in his presence. Yet, this is all smoke, mirrors, curtains, and megaphones. Jesus has done something even the legendary Toto could not accomplish. He doesn’t just pull the curtain back, he tears it asunder, showing us a God who isn’t playing a game or hiding his true identity.

This God is no imaginary Wizard. He is a compassionate, loving, heart-sick parent who refused to keep his distance from us, who decided he would no longer allow his name or his reputation to be misrepresented, but would represent himself as a mere mortal, that he might enter the sufferings of his creation and undo the chaos of his creation.

The coming of Jesus into the world was the coming of God into the world. And the cross of Jesus, in all of its foolish glory, did not change God – he has always been in love with humanity – it changes us. We begin to see clearly that so much of what we have been told simply isn’t the truth.

With no heavy curtain obscuring our perspective, we see that God is more gracious, more wonderful, more welcoming, and more loving than we previously imagined; there is no reason to be afraid of him. This is not a fanciful measure of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” It is the place we call home, and there’s no place like it.

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.

 

 

Help With The Missing Pieces

I love puzzles. Crosswords, brainteasers, and search-a-words to be sure, but nothing beats an old fashioned jigsaw puzzle with about gazillion pieces spilling out of the box. Right now there is a monster-sized puzzle strewn across our family’s dining room table. I have been persistently working on it for so long that I can’t remember the last evening we ate dinner at the table.

My family has learned not to monkey around with me while I am hip-deep in puzzle solving. Yes, assist me – I’ll take all that I can get – but don’t walk by and offer advice or a litany of critiques unless you are willing to give the pieces a try yourself. Time, patience, and the right kind of help: These are the requirements for solving puzzles, even puzzles of faith.

Sometimes when I lead retreats my love for puzzles spills over into the program. I divide the participants into small groups and give each group a children’s puzzle to complete. The only catch is this: While most puzzles are brand new in the box, I have tampered with one of the puzzles.

The puzzle in question will have a handful of wrong pieces mixed in, or if I am feeling sinister, I will have replaced the puzzle altogether, the pieces not matching the picture on the box at all. The group with the jacked-up puzzle will pour the pieces out, start working the edges, looking at the picture on the box, and after a few minutes, they will be completely bamboozled.

“Everybody else is almost finished,” I hear them say. “What is wrong with us? Why won’t the pieces fit together? How is that we can’t make the puzzle look like the picture?” When I reveal the dirty truth, they wail and protest, complaining that the assignment was unfair. “Ah,” I say. “Such is life and faith. Sometimes the puzzle doesn’t match the box we were given. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit together at all.”

I’ve met a legion of people who begin their walk of faith and everything goes as it “should.” They go to church, learn stuff from the Bible, volunteer, serve, give, and become “productive, committed, faithful, Christians” – whatever that is supposed to mean. But then these good soldiers go through a divorce; or they are mistreated by a religious organization, or lose their career. Maybe their child gets sick or their spouse dies.

The result is much more than the proverbial “crisis of faith” – I have one of those every Monday morning. No, it is much deeper, more life-altering and foundation-shaking than that. The answers they used to rely upon, the faith that formerly sustained them, no longer works. The fitly-paired pieces of the puzzle go scattering in the wind.

Often the only thing others can say in those moments is, “Well, pray longer! Try harder! Read this book I found. Clean up the sin in your life.” Such advice, beyond being asinine, will not work, because once one discovers that the puzzle of life no longer matches the picture they had imagined, it is impossible to pretend otherwise.

What is the answer to these miss-fitted and missing pieces puzzles of life and faith? Time, patience, and a little help. Time and patience to keep working it out and to sift through the prefabricated pictures of what life once promised. Time and patience to ask dangerous questions and to listen for unexpected responses. Time and patience to curse, pray, cry, heal, and hopefully come through on the other side whole – even if a few pieces to the puzzle are never found.

So, if a friend is stuck trying to solve their puzzle, offer the right kind of help. Don’t lend the latest book on puzzle-solving. Don’t shout advice from the other room. Don’t walk by as they stand and sweat over the mystery that is their life and lob out bombs of critique. Rather, quietly sit down with them and dig in. Patiently sort through the pieces, and help put it together, whatever “it” turns out to be.

 

What a Wonderful World

This coming week marks the birthday of a man who Bing Crosby called, “the beginning and the end of music in America.” Born in the sweltering heat of a New Orleans’ August, the grandson of former slaves, and suffering abject poverty, that man was Louis Armstrong.

It was starvation that drove young Louis to the streets where he learned to sing, scat, and play trumpet, all to earn a few pennies each day to feed his hunger and stay alive. From those hardened streets he rose by the sheer weight of his talent, charisma, and personality to play for presidents, popes, and kings. A unifying force in chaotic, divisive times, he was a master.

Most people, even those who could not recognize Armstrong’s face or his contribution to Americana, can still sing along to his most iconic song. Barely two minutes long, a song that fails to showcase his greatest gifts, and recorded long after his musical heyday, it will last for decades, if not centuries to come.

The lyrics go: “I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom, for me and you…I see skies of blue, and clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself, ‘What a wonderful world.’”

Louis recorded and released “What a Wonderful World” in 1967. Certainly, he looked out at the utopia of that year and time period and concluded that, “Yes, it was indeed a wonderful world.” Do you know what was going on in 1967? The southern states were fighting desegregation, and the U.S. Army was fighting in Southeast Asia. The Apollo 1 spacecraft was burning on the Launchpad, and the Cold War was burning in Eastern Europe.

The Israelis were at war with their Arab neighbors, and police departments were at war with African Americans in Detroit, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, and DC. JFK was already dead, and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. would both be assassinated the following year. Yes, that was such a jolly good time for everyone, wasn’t it?

How could Louis Armstrong sing this song about rainbows and unicorns when the world looked like it was going to hell in a hand basket; when the world looked so un-wonderful (as it still does today)? Armstrong answers that question. He said, “It seems to me it ain’t the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it. All I’m saying is: See what a wonderful world it would be, if only we’d give it a chance.”

That conclusion hints of Scripture. God created this wonderful world and called it “good.” That word gets extensive use, not only in English, but in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament. It can mean “attractive” or “pleasing.” It can mean what is “honest” or “right.” But the use of the word in the creation accounts means that everything is exactly as it should be. It is whole, it is wonderfully complete. “Good” is a state of excellence.

So what went wrong? We did. As crowning achievements of his creative project, humanity was to serve as the steward and curator of God’s world. It was – it is – and it will always remain – humanity’s role to be creation’s executor and protector; to maintain the goodness of God’s world. We have largely shirked that responsibility.

Yet, this blue ball hanging in the vast expanse of space that miraculously incubates all that is, must mean something to God, because God wants it to be wonderfully “good.” And he has given us a meaningful, leading role in his artistic masterpiece, so we are compelled, as people of faith, to participate in the stewardship of creation.

We throw ourselves into the fray of this fractured world – healing the sick, making peace among enemies, feeding the hungry, working for justice, protecting and sustaining resources, creating harmony – because we believe “it ain’t the world that’s so bad, but what we’re doing to it.” God’s intent and Armstrong’s words are tuned to the same melody: Let’s give the Wonderful World a chance.

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.

 

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.