Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

Let The Water Settle

waterA desperate executive sought the counsel of an old guru who lived in a mountain cave. The executive was living a harried and hurried life. He was frustrated, his prayers were powerless, and his soul was tired. The holy man listened to his guest for a while, then retreated deep into his cave, returning shortly with a basin.

He scooped water from the muddy little stream passing by the mouth of the cave and offered it to the executive to drink. Of course, the executive rejected it, even though he was very thirsty from his journey. The water was far too dirty.

After a while he offered the water again, but this time, all the silt had settled to the bottom of the basin and the water was clear and pristine. The man readily drank it. The wise man then asked, “What did you do to make the water clean?” The man answered, “I didn’t do anything.”

“Exactly!” said the old monk. “Your life is dark and troubled; it is disturbed and muddy because you are always allowing the water to become agitated. Only when it is calm will you have peace. So do nothing. Be still and let the water settle.”

Be still. That’s harder than it sounds, no doubt, but it is one of the best things for the health of our souls. Learn to turn down the noise (and stop contributing to the noise). Learn to cultivate some distance from this clamorous world, because distance is a good thing when it comes to things and people who are harmful. Learn, by healthy boundaries to keep the raucous environment that is contemporary society at arm and ear’s length, and you might begin to let the water of your own soul peacefully settle.

I don’t have to work very hard to convince you that this world is a noisy place, do I? Talking heads, radio and viewpoint shows, 24-hour news, analysis on every hand, opinions like armpits: Court is always being held, comments are always being made, and there is a constant eagerness to share the oh-so-correct perspective. There’s always someone babbling about something, and the air becomes so saturated with pandemonium, it seeps into our souls.

Jesus understood this. He once instructed his disciples, “When you pray, close the door and pray to your Father who is unseen…do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them.” What a stark and necessary correction. Even in prayer, the “fewer the words the better,” it seems.

“Do not be like them,” Jesus says. That is, “Don’t be like this ear-splitting world that thinks loud opinions will actually be heard. Don’t put on a show with your yammering, bloviated prattle. Shut up. Be still. Get quiet.” It’s good for you, not to mention how everyone else will appreciate is as well.

It’s not unlike the familiar story from Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration as told by Skip Heitzig. Once, at a special dinner, Johnson was hosting a few members of his staff, and he called upon one of the men to say grace. The man, named Jim, began to pray and President Johnson, in his brash, demanding way interrupted. He said, “Speak up, Jim, I can’t hear you.” Jim answered, “With all due respect, Mr. President, I wasn’t talking to you.”

Oh, that’s exactly what Jesus is teaching his disciples. Too often, far too often, public prayer (much of religious instruction, actually) is not an invitation to stillness and humility before God. It is an invitation to commotion. It is “babble,” or “vain repetition” as the King James Version translates Jesus’ instructions. It is foolish rambling, tedious chattering, words that continue to stack up, but never really mean anything.

I have a friend who noted recently the the words “”listen” and “silent” are spelled with exactly the same letters and mean the same thing. And I think stillness is the quickest way to hear God, to “let the water settle,” and find true peace.

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. You can also watch his Sunday talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.

 

 

Like a Good Neighbor

goodneighborA man was going from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Louisville, Kentucky, when along the way he had a flat tire. Stranded on the side of the road, he was robbed, his car was stripped, he was shot, and left for dead. A Baptist pastor, on his way home from the annual meeting of his denomination, saw the man. But he had a report to deliver to his congregation about the virtuous resolutions passed at the meeting he had just attended and an important sermon to preach about our culture’s deteriorating family values. Besides that, his children were in the car, and he refused to traumatize them with this carnage. So he never took his foot off the accelerator.

A few minutes later, a Bishop of the Methodist church came driving by. A successful woman, she sat on the board of Focus on the Family, the National Association of Evangelicals, and Concerned Women for America. Considering the scene before her, she concluded that her work in these organizations must continue. It was the only way to stop such meaningless acts of violence; violence most likely perpetrated by dangerous gangs of teenagers who were the products of broken homes and without the proper Judeo-Christian guidance. She was a mile past the scene of the crime before she called 911.

Then a third traveler came upon the victim: A cocaine dealer and cartel member. A man who was in the country illegally, who had booze on his breath and marijuana in his bloodstream, and who hadn’t been to Mass since he was a child. He saw the shooting victim and somehow his heart was broken with compassion. He steered his car to the side of the road and jumped out with a first aid kit and a bottle of water. He triaged the wounded man the best he could, loaded him into the back seat of his car, and drove him to the hospital.

There, this good neighbor checked his rescued friend into the Emergency Room. He arranged for the transport of what was left of the victim’s car, and he then went to the hospital administrator with a pile of cash, saying “I don’t know if this man has health insurance, but I will stand good for the bill regardless.” Now I ask you, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

Of course this question is not mine and neither is the story. It is a question and story that belongs to Jesus. It is a retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus framed as radical a possibility conceivable by the community of his day – far more drastic than anything I have said here. He took a known pariah, a well-established outcast and no-gooder, and turned him into a moral and spiritual hero – all at the expense of the upright church-goers.

Jesus told such a story, not to define the boundaries of neighborly behavior, but to define what it means to love. Graphically, he showed his listeners that those who do not fit into our religious boxes, our precise doctrinal categories of right and wrong, and our church systems are sometimes more capable of acting like God than we professionals who pride ourselves in saying we know who God is.

After all, to act like God is simply to love. And to love, it is not necessary to have perfect doctrinal integrity, to get the details of church “right,” or to be as religiously and moralistically pure as possible. No, to love like God is to dirty our hands by helping our neighbors – “to do to others what we would have done” for ourselves.

Clucking our tongues, shedding a few tears, and simply observing the pain of our world while keeping a religious and respectable distance from the suffering is no substitute for binding wounds, wiping tears, and embracing those in need. We might just need such an embrace ourselves one day – even if that embrace comes from the most unlikely of neighbors.

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.
 

Simplify, Simplify

thoreauLast summer an unfortunate woman was found dead in the basement of her Connecticut home, found eventually, that is. It took rescuers several days to retrieve her body as the first floor of her house had collapsed on her, apparently under the weight of all the stuff she had accumulated over the years.

Her possessions, stacked to the ceiling with only a narrow, labyrinth-like pathway through it all, quite literally smothered her. Her death certificate said so officially with the cause of death declared as “Accidental Traumatic Asphyxia.” This is a dramatic example, of course, but accumulating those things that fall outside the realm of the necessary, will take your life just as certainly.

Jesus said it like this: “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. But store your treasures in heaven. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else.” These words are directed at every packrat, collector, hoarder, attic squirrel, and garage-gatherer among us. If you aren’t using it – you don’t need it. Hang on to it, and it will take your life from you.

I’ve often said that the most deeply spiritual thing that some of us could do is have a garage sale; or sell a property, or dump a portfolio, or write a big check to the homeless shelter down the street. Because our spiritual lethargy has nothing to do with a poor prayer life, the lack of reading the Scriptures, or any failure with other disciplines: We are carrying too much baggage, trying to manage too much stuff. We have too many possessions, too many obligations, and it’s a recipe for misery.

The path to contentment is by way of less, not more. When we simplify, we are doing much more than getting rid of the weight of physical possessions. We are making space to breathe, to thrive, to live. By giving up some of the things we carry or hoard, we aren’t losing, we are gaining; gaining freedom to pursue life.

This was Henry David Thoreau’s motivation when he left his teaching career and retreated to the woods of Walden Pond. He lived there for two years in simpleness, wrestling with the question, “How much is enough?” and more importantly, “How much does it actually cost a person to obtain his or her possessions?”

His theory of personal economics came down to this: The cost of a thing is not the financial price tag attached to it. It is the amount of one’s life it takes to get it. For example, if one wants a particular house, the sale price is not as important as the years it takes to pay for it. If one wants a car, a computer, a new iPhone, or designer label clothing; then the calculation involves more than the payments.

Calculate how much time and life it will cost to acquire these things. That’s the real price tag. Quoting Thoreau directly, he said, “If your trade is with the Celestial Empire” (which apparently is his description for what Jesus called the Kingdom of God), “then very little is actually needed to live well and to be free.

“A modest home should be enough…plain clothes will do…instead of a hundred dishes, why not five; and reduce other things in proportion…Keep your accounts on your thumbnail…simplify, simplify…and once you have secured the necessaries of life, then you can confront the true problems of life with freedom.”

And there Thoreau brings us to the universal human ambition: We all just want to be free and happy. It’s all a search for satisfaction. Is a “spirituality of satisfaction” too shallow, too frivolous? No, not if one is seeking genuine, soul-sustaining fulfillment with one’s self and life.

But getting more won’t get it done, because more and more of what is not good for you will only smother you. As Thoreau concluded, “There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living.”

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

 

Redemption?

cableDaryl showed up at my friend’s home carrying about thirty extra pounds and the weight of the world on his shoulders. Daryl was there to fix the malfunctioning cable. As he huff-and-puffed his way through the crooks and crannies of attics and crawl spaces, the mid-life tire roll he was wearing was obvious. The other weight – the real weight – took a bit longer to recognize.

When Daryl finished his work he said to my friend, “I noticed the Christian books in your office. Are you a minister?” And barely waiting for the answer, Daryl began unloading his weight pound by pound. My friend listened as Daryl spoke of his father’s death, his financial struggles, and the eviction notice nailed to his apartment door.

Daryl finally unloaded his real baggage with the admission that he too was a pastor; at least that was what he used to be. An extramarital affair had ended that career posthaste, and he had been recently expelled from the church and lost his marriage. When Daryl finished, he gathered his burdens and moved on to the next service call.

My friend shared that story with me a few days ago, and when our conversation ended I flipped on my own cable box, Daryl’s heaviness still hanging in the air. Greeting me on my flickering screen was a politician, explaining his most recent legalities and apologizing profusely for a laundry list of well-publicized immoralities.

Daryl the Cable Guy and the politician had a lot in common, and it was more than a bit ironic that I heard their stories within seconds of each other. Both fouled up in a very public way. Both violated the trust that good people had placed in them. Both weaved their webs of deceit, harming those closest to them. And both stand in need of redemption.

That’s a remarkable word, redemption. The Christian books on my own shelves tell me that redemption means “to buy.” The word carries the idea of freeing a person who has been enslaved; cutting the chains that bind; lifting away the weights that one carries. Thus, anything – or anyone – worthy of redemption is exactly that: Worthy and worth the price.

All human beings, even those with abysmal moral records of failure, have worth. To God. To the greater community. To those they will come to love and love them. They can (and should) be redeemed because they have intrinsic value.

The objections at this point are obvious. Philandering preachers? Vile and despicable acts by national politicians? Redemption? You can’t be serious! Well, people exactly like this seem to have been Jesus’ best pals. Let it never be forgotten that the accusation the religious community always hurled against Jesus was that he “was a friend to sinners.”

Prostitutes, tax collectors (easily substituted today with words like mafia or extortionists), Zealots (political radicals), lepers (the untouchables), oddballs, weirdoes, outsiders, and all manner of “notorious sinners” found a home in the presence of Christ. Can this same sordid bunch find a home in the congregations that carry Christ’s name? After all, if these can’t come to Jesus’ house of love and grace, where else are they going to go?

I concede that redemption doesn’t necessarily mean putting Daryl the Cable Guy back in a pulpit. The intoxicating authority found in such a position may be no good for him. The apologizing politician will likely never hold public office again – and that’s probably a good thing for him – such offices are often more poisonous than profitable anyway. But this does not change the fact that all of us sinners need safe, accessible communities of faith that will challenge our selfishness, point us to a hope-filled contrition, teach us what it means to love others and be loved by God, and yes, redeem us.

It is impossible to know the hearts of others, but Jesus thought that those considered the worst transgressors were worth having an open heart toward. Maybe his church will think so as well.

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.

 

 

Good All The Time

revolver1A.W. Tozer once wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” I can hardly disagree. For people of faith, those who believe in God as the pervading force and presence of the universe, and who base their moral and spiritual lives on this belief, Tozer must be correct. And if Tozer is correct, our perception of God shapes our character and actions like little else.

So it’s no wonder that some faithful people are the way they are: Loving, helpful, sacrificial, kind, and giving. They think of God this way. But on the other hand, some religious people are angry, suspicious, unforgiving, and even murderous. These folks, in turn, think of God in these terms as well, and it shows.

Personally, this is why Christ is so important to my faith. He offered a revolutionary vision of God, a new way to think about who God is, and how God relates to creation. Jesus showed us a God best described as an affectionate parent. This God really does love, accept, treasure, and cherish us – as a “Father has compassion on his children.” This was the driving force behind all Jesus said and did.

It becomes clear, when diving into the words of Christ, that he came not to change God’s thinking about us – that is absolutely preposterous – he came to change our thinking about God. In light of Jesus, we must let go of all understandings of God that are less than loving or less than gracious. This will reorient our entire lives and correct so many of the misguided and misrepresented divine images that have been put before us.

By way of example, I have a friend whose theology – that is, her understanding of God – is a bit, frankly, sadistic. God, for her, is Father, but he wins no “Parent of the Year” awards, for he is always lurking as an unpredictable bogeyman who must be continually appeased. He is enraged, vicious, and eager to rub out a groveling sinner (or an entire city) if it befits him.

Thus, she lives in abject terror of God and inflicts this terror on others; her theological angst splatters on all who get close to her. Recently, however, I connected the dots between her thinking about God and the relationship she had with her own father, when in an unguarded moment she told a forbidding story from her childhood.

She was twelve years old or so and her father had come home drunk, as usual. In his stupor he pulled a revolver from his chair-side table and called his daughter, my friend, over to his lap. He cuddled her in his arms for a few moments and then placed the cold steel of the revolver against the back of her head.

“Did you know I could blow your brains out right now?” he asked her in a menacing whisper. Then he put the gun aside and held her close again, only to return to the gun and repeat the question again and again over the space of the evening. One moment he was tender and loving, and the next he had a gun barrel pushed against her skull with the hammer pulled back.

This is a horrible story. More so, it is a horrible experience for anyone to live through, and it has caused her all types of emotional disturbances over her lifetime, not the least of which is her thinking about God. For her, and I understand why she feels this way, God is just like her drunken father.

The moral and spiritual authority for her life is an erratic, cold-hearted bastard whose words of love are nothing more than an invitation to terror. Her God calls out for his children, takes them into his arms, and then threatens them with violence. Such a God is unworthy of worship, incapable of being trusted, and impossible to love. Thankfully, such a God doesn’t exist, for Jesus has shown us that God is good, and he’s good all the time.

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

Sacred Cows

Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, neither pastors nor theologians. As someone who writes on issues of faith, these men are about as far from the pulpit or seminary as one could get. Yet, I have found their insights to be invaluable.

In their book, The Starfish and the Spider, these two take a detailed look at the native Apache tribe of what is now the Southwestern United States. The Spanish were unsuccessful in subduing this wild band. The Mexicans likewise failed. At first, the Americans fared no better. For hundreds of years the Apache maintained their independence against all would-be colonizers, threatening American power right up to the turn of the twentieth century.

Adaptable, decentralized, as fluid as the wind that blew across their deserts, the Apache would not yield. Then, the American government gave the Apache tribal leaders cows. And everything changed. Once in possession of this rare resource, and with the buffalo population hunted to extinction, wealth in the form of walking, bawling bovines became the virus that ate away Apache society from the inside out.

The tribal leaders used the cow as a form of reward and punishment to control rather than lead their society. Flexibility was replaced by centralized accountability and rigidity. The eagerness to travel, and thus remain outside the American Empire’s control, was abandoned for the white man’s farm. To be an Apache no longer meant being a part of the land, being owned by creation. Now the Apache had wealth – ownership of things – cows – and according to Brafman and Beckstrom, it broke their society.

Wealth is not inherently evil, but it is dangerous; especially for the tribe known as the church. Wealth blinds us to the distress of others as we work to amass our own possessions and protect our ecclesiastical fortunes, trading in a generous, service-directed way of life for bigger profits, softer lifestyles, sacred cows and strategies we proudly call “faithfulness.”

Whenever I hear the phrase, “We are called to be good stewards,” I take it as a code word for self-preservation that is breaking us. Consider this: Americans give more to churches and religious organizations than any other charitable vehicle. Eighty-five cents out of every dollar given to churches is spent internally and only 2% – two cents out of every dollar put in the offering – ever makes it out of our country.

If American churches reallocated the dollars they spend on building construction and maintenance to food and education programs (about $19 billion a year), global starvation and malnutrition would be eliminated in less than a decade. American churches could provide clean drinking water and sanitation to every person on the planet with only 15% of their annual corporate income.

May our eyes be ripped from their sockets to see that 1 billion people are living in wretched poverty; 700 million live in slums and substandard housing; 500 million are on the verge of starvation; and 2.5 billion people are thirsty for clean water – all while we have the resources to do something about it.

Our wealth must be pushed away from us and out into the world where it can serve God and not our profit-loss statements or our monthly financial reports read in the church business meeting. For neither the Christian nor the church are ends unto themselves – spiritually or materially – but we are called, as the people of God and imitators of Jesus Christ, to bless and serve the world.

It will be in serving others that the church will save itself from becoming nothing more than a spiritualized 501c3 not-for-profit, self-centered corporation, organized for the benefit of donor tax exemption and protecting sacred cows.

Because in the economy of Jesus, only those who serve will be served, only those who choose to be last shall be made first, and only those who humble themselves as servants will be exalted. Serving others – and serve others we must – will remind us of our identity and call us out from this self-absorbed, selfish world to be people of genuine faith.

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.

Stay Close to the Source

John Savely bought his daughter, Debbie, a Bible for her seventh birthday. Before she graduated from high school, her father had died. That Bible became a revered keepsake, but she lost it in 1974, while attending Tennessee’s Volunteer State Community College.

Yet, last year, that Bible made its way back into Debbie’s possession. A college officer from Volunteer State found the Bible in a box of debris from a 2006 tornado that almost destroyed the college’s campus. The winds that splintered buildings uncovered the lost Scriptures.

With Debbie Savely’s name inscribed within, that college officer went to work trying to find her; and by way of relentless pursuit and the marvel of the internet, John Savely’s gift was returned to his daughter forty years after it was lost. She and her nearly ninety-year-old mother were jubilant beyond measure.

What makes this story so remarkable is not that a Bible was salvaged. If the book had been a copy of “Green Eggs and Ham,” it would hardy have been any less miraculous. Besides, I doubt that Debbie needed a Bible. She, like all of us, had access to millions of Bibles to read, still the best-selling book in the world.

What made this particular copy of the Bible special was its source. It had been given to her by her father. Her attachment to it was as sentimental as it was spiritual. So it wasn’t as if she had recovered the original stone tablets of Sinai or the Dead Sea Scrolls. She had something more important: She had a link to one who truly loved her.

What if we learned to approach our own Bibles with the same heartfelt sentiment? What if we concerned ourselves less with the “miraculous” nature of how the Bible arrived in our hands, and focused more on the link the book is to One who truly loves us? What if we stopped deifying the Bible (worshipping “God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Bible” as it were), and embraced it as a pointer aiming us in a more Jesus-like direction?

How do we do this? By being Christians, not Biblicists. A Biblicist is one who reads the Bible, “flat;” that is, every word is given the same weight and significance, because “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” So, “He that curseth his father or mother shall surely be put to death,” is given the same credibility as, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (A drastic but accurate example).

Yet, Christians might be better served to see the Scriptures with a bit more texture. Our faith and practice would be healthier if our interpretive lens was Jesus Christ. He, as the living Word and Source, is the peak of revelation. So, we look to him as we read, using his words to hold ourselves to his way, and, dare I say it, to hold the Bible accountable as well. Refusing to do this, schizophrenically puts the Bible and Jesus at odds with each other.

Maybe this is what Kurt Eichenwald was trying to get at in his recent Newsweek diatribe, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” He railed against biblical abuses, ignorance that impedes science, the foolishness of uniting church with state, and the suffering inflicted on this world by those who misapply the Bible. My response was, “Amen! Preach it, brother!”

He couldn’t hear my agreement, though, because his words were so thunderously angry; as were the vitriolic words of his critics. And while I believe Eichenwald was largely telling the truth, nothing will change about this state of affairs until Bible-reading, Bible-loving, Bible-believing people stop treating the Bible like it is God. It’s not, no more than that storm-torn Tennessee testament was Deb Savely’s father.

I love the Bible, but not because every passage can be reconciled with Christianity. I love it because it helps me stay connected to the Source, to Jesus. After all, he is the foundation of my faith, and even as the Good Book says, there is no other.

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

Put Out the Fire

fire

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar was a holy man and scholar born in the 1100s whose ancient travels sound as contemporary as today’s news feeds. He was born in what is now Afghanistan; he was the descendant of immigrating Iraqis; he lived and died in Pakistan; and his shrine was constructed by donations from the Iranian royalty.

Maybe the only thing more extraordinary than Lal Shahbaz’s wide-reaching travels and popularity are the many mythological stories that have been attached to him over the centuries. In one story, recorded by William Dalrymple, Lal Shabaz was wandering through the desert wth a friend as evening began to fall. The desert was terribly cold, so the two pilgrims began to gather wood for a fire.

With their pyre neatly constructed, they realized they had no way of igniting it. Lal Shahbaz’s friend suggested that he transform himself into a great bird (the meaning of “Shahbaz”) and fly down into hell to collect coals for a fire. Lal Shahbaz considered this a wise suggestion and flew away.

After many cold hours Lal Shahbaz returned to his friend empty-handed. Puzzled, he asked why he had not returned with fire to keep them warm. Lal Shahbaz replied, “There is no fire in hell. Everyone who goes there brings their own fire, their own pain, from this world.”

There is a great deal of truth in this story. If we think of hell as a self-imposed prison or a self-ignited blaze, then Lal Shahbaz is correct: Anyone suffering from the results of their own hard-hearted decisions or their own hand is truly suffering hell. They have not been cast away by God; they have kindled their own fire. They have hurt themselves, and nothing hurts worse than a self-inflicted wound.

By Jesus’ definition, the most “burning torture to bear” is the scorching heat of resentment and unforgiveness. When we refuse to forgive others, we sentence ourselves and our world to hellish suffering. Our future – and today’s well-being – depends upon our willingness to extinguish the burning inferno in our souls by forgiving those who have harmed us.

Granted, we don’t naturally respond to injustice with this kind of Christ-infused grace. If you hit me, I will hit you harder. Maim my brother, and I will kill your father. Set off a bomb in my marketplace, and I will wipe out your entire village. Firebomb my hospital, and I will bomb your capital.

It’s human nature to retaliate, not with equity, but with greater force than what was first inflicted. It is a hellacious, vicious cycle; and the only thing that can shut down the scorching cycles of suffering is forgiveness.

Dr. Fred Luskin offers this hopeful counsel: “To forgive is to give up all hope for a better past…Forgiveness allows you a fresh start…It’s like a rain coming to a polluted environment. It clears things. At some point, you can say that this awful thing happened to me. It hurt like hell, yet I’m not going to allow it to take over my life.” Forgiveness forges a firebreak and says, “It ends here!”

So when we hear the names of Auschwitz and Ravensbruck, we answer with the names of Maximilian Kolbe, Corrie Ten Boom, and Bernard Lichtenberg – people who were not overcome by evil, but overcame evil with good.

When someone speaks of the past or current hatefulness in South Africa, Darfur, Armenia, Sand Creek, Selma, or Croatia we speak the names of Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Miroslav Volf, Dirk Willems, and the Amish of Nickel Mines – those who lived (and some died) for the sake of grace.

The only way to stop the continual and rampant hate in this world is to make peace. The only way to make peace is to forgive. The only way to forgive is through the unrelenting love and forgiveness of God. We can become the instruments of that peace, tools of God’s forgiveness, and the images of God’s love. That love will extinguish the fires of hell. That love will indeed change the world.

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.

Will Practice Make Perfect?

In the coming week the nation will gather at Gobbler’s Knob, Pennsylvania for a uniquely American observance. The event is Groundhog Day, of course, as with bated breath we watch Punxsutawney Phil materialize from his cozy burrow. If he sees his shadow, as the legend goes, there will be six more weeks of winter weather. If he emerges shadowless, then it is the harbinger of an early spring.

Given how winters goes, I imagine there will be many more days of cold weather regardless of what Phil experiences on Monday morning. Besides, since 1886 old Phil and his successors have only been correct half the time. That’s about as good as human meteorologists, though, so they all get to keep their jobs I guess, shadows or not.

For me Groundhog Day makes me think, not of plump rodents and top-hat-wearing old men, but of Bill Murray. It was more than twenty years ago that he starred in the now classic comedy film, “Groundhog Day.” He plays weatherman Phil Connors, given the assignment of covering the Gobbler’s Knob festivities. He hates it, and he is hateful; an arrogant, pompous, and spiteful man.

Somehow he gets caught in a time warp and must relive Groundhog Day over and over again. At first, he indulges in all types of fun and debauchery, but eventually he just wants all the repetition to end. He grows so desperate that he attempts to off himself, even kidnapping Punxsutawney Phil in the process, thinking this will stop the agonizing time loop.

Internet nerds, who apparently have more time on their hands than the average person, have watched this movie thousands of times, and painfully parsing all the events and dialogue have calculated that weatherman Phil Connors stays trapped on Groundhog Day for almost forty years. Why? What is the point?

The point seems to be personal transformation. The comic gods decide that Connors must remain where he is until he is a changed man. There is no going forward until that work is done. He has to learn a few lessons, about himself and about life, and only then can he get off the merry-go-round that is the last four decades of his life.

Forty years seems to be the magic number, for that is exactly the amount of time spent by the Children of Israel in the wilderness. You may know the story: Moses is commissioned by God to save his people from Pharaoh’s slavery. Plagues commence. Miracles ensue. Deliverance arrives (this would make a great movie, by the way).

But the former slaves don’t know how to live as a free people. They complain, revolt, start worshipping inanimate objects, commit mutiny against Moses, and foolishly long for the false security of their chains over the constant vigilance of their freedom. They are as trapped as when they were building pyramids in Egypt. And they remain as such, trapped for forty years.

It was a massive, repetitive Groundhog Day, unbroken until the “stiff-necked,” stubborn, and contrary generation had been replaced by those who were ready to be free. The Scriptures say, “These things happened as a warning and example to us.” It’s not a simple retelling of history; it’s an opportunity for us to learn. And the quicker we learn our lessons, the quicker we can be liberated.

If we review the trajectory of our lives we are likely to find a few common denominators in all we have experienced. That’s because there’s probably one or two major lessons that God is trying to teach us, a couple of persistent chains he is attempting to break. God allows life to repeat itself, over and over, until we do the hard, inner work of the soul.

Wandering the desert is a necessity and repeating difficult lessons is required, as there are some things that can only be learned in the hard places. But how long we replay and relive the same day is more or less up to us. There comes a time to get it, and to get on with it.

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

 

The Kudzu Conspiracy

“The kingdom of God is like kudzu planted in a field.” Would Jesus have ever said such a thing? Yes, I think so. You see, he once compared God’s work in this world to a growing “mustard seed” and like “yeast mixed in with the dough.” Making the jump from mustard and yeast to kudzu is not as far a leap as you might think.

The mustard of first century Palestine overgrew and consumed everything around it. A farmer who planted mustard in her garden could not turn her back on it for very long. If she did, it would overrun every other vegetable or herb in the field. Yeast worked the same way. Mysteriously, inexplicably to those living before the understandings of microscopic science, yeast took over the bland, tasteless flour and transformed it.

Illustrated in the mustard seed and the yeast, Jesus makes clear that God can overwhelm and transform the very nature of this world with a steady, unstoppable, persistent, invasive force. Honestly, I don’t know much about mustard seeds or yeast fungi; but as a native of Georgia, I do know a little bit about kudzu.

Kudzu was introduced to North America on the United States’ hundredth birthday. The Asian plant was quickly loved by gardeners, what with its large green leaves and purple blooms, and nurseries began selling seedlings through the mail.

But it was the Dust Bowl years that really rooted kudzu in the American soil and psyche. The US government was seeking an effective way to conserve soil, and kudzu fit the bill perfectly. The vine was touted as a “wonder plant,” and the USDA used the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s to distribute and plant the seeds everywhere – especially the South.

They thought, once the soil was healthfully restored, that farmers could just plow over it and return to planting cotton, soybean, or corn. Little did anyone know that the Southeastern United States was the perfect environment for kudzu to grow, and grow and grow and grow. Kudzu has now climbed, coiled, and slithered its way all over the Southeast, changing the landscape while becoming a central characteristic of Southern culture.

Kudzu overtakes the environments into which it is introduced. It transforms the landscape in which it is planted. From just a few little seedlings, a few sprouting vines, it explodes and cannot be stopped. Such is the kingdom of God and the rule of Christ in today’s world.

Let it have its start – in people’s hearts, in people’s lives, in the midst of this planet’s pain and suffering – and the world will in fact, change. It will be redeemed, as slowly and steadily the God Movement invades this world with the love of Christ.

Certainly we understand that people are still hungry. Wars are still fought. Injustice is still tolerated. There is suffering, anxiety, evil, and grief. But we believe that the kingdom is growing, inch by inch and foot by foot. This causes us to throw ourselves into a fractured world, not only because we care, but because we believe God isn’t finished with this world yet. He is making it new, making everything right, and he has chosen to do this through you and through me as we share his love.

No, we can’t take in every single orphan, but we could all take in one. Your Bible Study class can’t drill wells for every person dying for water in this world, but it could drill a well for one village. Your mission team can’t treat every AIDS patient in Africa, but it could provide medicine for a few of them. Your church can’t build a house for every homeless person, but it could go build at least one house. We can’t rescue every refugee or child of prostitution, but we can – we must – save some of them.

All these acts – and a million more just like them – make a real difference because we are not only helping people, but in Jesus’ name, we are joining God’s divine plot to revolutionize a society.

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.