Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

“I Know It When I See It”

corrie-ten-boom2Some concepts are almost impossible to define; words like hope, love, happiness, or faith. And while these are terms we are all familiar with – we use these words every day – we sometimes struggle to say what they really mean. They are simply too intangible and abstract to communicate properly.

It is easy to find ourselves in the shoes of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. Fifty years ago Justice Stewart famously said of pornography: “I could never succeed in defining it, but I know it when I see it.” Such a characterization applies to much more than obscenity.

Take another word as an example: Forgiveness. It is far more than an idea, more than a theoretical concept or a definition inside a dictionary. It is nothing less than a miracle best understood by seeing and experiencing it, not simply talking about it.

I first “saw” forgiveness in a woman named Corrie Ten Boom. No, I never met her, but as a child I heard about her at least once a month in my Sunday School class. She and her family were Dutch Christians who hid Jews in their home during the Second World War. Corrie’s memoir, The Hiding Place, records those events.

Eventually the Nazis discovered the Ten Boom’s secret and the family was arrested. Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to Ravensbruck. By the end of the war, only Corrie had survived. Corrie came out of that awful experience saying, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still” and “God will give us the love to be able to forgive our enemies.”  Those words were put to the test a few years later.

After the war Corrie Ten Boom began traveling around Europe speaking to faith groups about her experience. She was in a Munich church sharing her message of forgiveness when she recognized a man in the crowd. He was a balding heavy-set German in a gray overcoat, clutching a brown felt hat in his hands. Corrie knew immediately that this man had been a guard at the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

The man walked up to Corrie and admitted his past sins and his past vocation. He said, “I have become a Christian and know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.” He extended an open hand and asked Ten Boom: “Will you forgive me?”

Here is where words fail, for in that moment, Corrie could not forgive. In her memoir she wrote, “Betsie had died in that place; could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? While only seconds, it seemed like hours passed as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do…the coldness clutching my heart. ‘Jesus, help me!’ I prayed silently.

“So woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place…This healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, my brother!’ I cried. For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love as intensely as I did then.”

What Corrie Tem Boom did that day cannot be found, explained, or otherwise described in a dictionary. It can only be witnessed, marveled at, and experienced. When one suffers an incalculable loss and is able to respond with compassion and grace (there’s another indescribable word) rather than revenge or resentment, it is a miracle performed by God himself.

Thus, such forgiveness is not achieved by trying harder, studying more, or understanding the whole notion a little better. It’s achieved by God – sometimes in spite of us – when we simply extend our empty hands and let God’s mercy flow through to others. No, I can’t explain it. I don’t have words for such an experience. I can’t always understand it; but I certainly know it when I see it.

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

 

Now, That’s a Different Story

buberThe Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber told the tale of a Jewish grandfather who was a master storyteller. Though limited physically, confined to his wheelchair, this did not constrict his mind or his imagination. One day the old man’s grandchildren gathered eagerly around his chair and asked him to tell a story about his life.

Happy to oblige, the grandfather began telling a story from his childhood, how his rabbi would leap and dance during his recitation of the Psalms at the synagogue. The more into it the old man got, the more he seemed to incarnate his rabbi, until unexpectedly the grandfather jumped from his wheelchair!

In telling the story – and acting it out – it gave new life to the old man, and his grandchildren needed no further explanation. Martin Buber concludes his tale by saying: “Now, that’s the way to tell a story!” And, I would add, that’s how to live a life, particularly a life of faith.

People of faith, and I include myself in this assessment, often fall back on hardened dogma or cascading Scripture references to explain our way of life. This is fine for as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Frozen facts and biblical sound bites do very little to inspire life or to invite others to explore faith. These do even less to heal a fractured world.

But if we become so immersed in the story of a gracious God, so connected to his powerful narrative of redemption, so skilled in incarnating Christ that we are animated and enlivened by it, then others just might be attracted to it. It just might do some good in the world. Faith just might become a story worth telling; a story worth believing; and a story worth living.

The Apostle Paul said it like this in 2 Corinthians: “Your very lives are a letter that anyone can read by just looking at you. Christ himself wrote it – not with ink, but with God’s living Spirit; not chiseled into stone, but carved into human lives!”

This is what the famed British evangelist Gipsy Smith meant when he spoke of “A Fifth Gospel.” He said, “There are five Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Christian – but most people never read the first four.” It’s also what Malcolm Muggeridge was saying with the use of the phrase, “A Third Testament.” There is the Old, the New, and you. As is often said, “The only Bible some people will read is you.”

See, we don’t need more Bible thumping, or the hurling of theological conclusions at all people who disagree with us, or using our faith as a weapon against our opponents. And no, we don’t need to quote words about Jesus as much as we need surrender to the way of Jesus, following his trajectory, becoming more like him, by properly telling and living his story.

What does his story look and sound like? Like him. He was meek and lowly, humble and compassionate; full of grace and truth; the epitome of sacrificial love; forgiving toward all, welcoming to the most repugnant among us; filled with the Spirit that gives love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If our reading and living of the Bible isn’t making us more like that – more like Jesus – then, simply, we are doing something wrong. If, in reciting our favorite verses, and memorizing the text, and proclaiming the truth, we only get more angry; more suspicious of others; more judgmental and fixed in our self-righteousness; more indifferent and apathetic toward the world; more greedy and egocentric – then we might know some religious quotes, but we haven’t yet learned to tell the story.

Thus, the real challenge for people of faith is not defending a holy book or a “biblical worldview” against those who don’t believe it. The challenge is to become like Christ and live his story. When we become what Christ was saying, rather than offer trite, formulaic answers, then no further explanation is required. And that, friends, is another story altogether.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.

 

 

 

Hollywood Revival

hollyWhen I was a young college student I had the opportunity to go with a friend to a “revival” in the town of Hollywood, Georgia. That’s right, there is such a place: Hollywood, Georgia. “On a clear night you can see all the stars,” the locals say (Go ahead and groan). In reality, Hollywood is more of a county crossroads than a mecca for the rich and famous. It has a diner, a church, and not much else.

In the South a “revival” has at least two very different things. First, it is a spiritual awakening, a holy renewal where those who have wandered from the straight and narrow return to the fold. Second, it is a church event, a scheduled series of meetings. So a “revival” can be something deeply spiritual that people pray for, and it is a traditional ceremony placed on the congregational calendar. Whether or not the two different meanings of this word cross paths is always up for debate.

This revival was the typical affair. It was a week-long gathering when people of the community crammed their families into the pews to sing rousing gospel songs, to hear the pleadings, exhortations, and condemnations of the best visiting evangelist the church could afford, and for everyone to have an annual time of repentance whether they needed it or not.

As I made my way to the front door I passed by a long line of Harley Davidson motorcycles. These were not the Baby Boomer playthings so many graying men and women ride today as a hobby or youthful escape. No, these were hardcore, gang-style cycles.

And just inside the church, occupying the back pew, lo and behold, there sat the gang. Leather, studs, rippling arms, ponytails, tattoos: It was the complete Hell’s Angels package, sitting in a Baptist church in Hollywood, Georgia. Being a young, eager revivalist myself, I said to my friend, “Good. Maybe these heathen will get saved tonight.” And I meant it.

I sat several pews away from them and found myself piously praying for their salvation because I just knew they were seconds from splitting hell wide open. After the service got started, the pastor called on one of the deacons of the church to come forward and offer a prayer and word of introduction. One of those wicked bikers rose from his seat and started down the aisle.

At first I thought the call of his bladder had merely coincided with the pastor’s invitation. And being a biker and all, I was certain he was short on manners and he did not know that prayer time was an inappropriate moment to visit the latrine. When the big mountain of a man turned for the pulpit, my pulse quickened as I thought he was going forward to cause a disturbance.

He caused a disturbance alright, but not like I thought. This chaps-wearing biker with a beard to his waist was the aforementioned deacon. I found out later that this biker-deacon was a self-financed missionary to the road houses, biker bars, strip clubs, and truck stops of America.

Up and down the highways with his fellow laborers – his motorcycle gang – he rode his horse of steel and entered places that good Christian people would never be caught, not even to share the gospel. He went to places where people drank too much, showed too much skin, engaged in too much sensuality, and waged too much violence. But there he shared Jesus, led Bible studies, prayed for those who thought they didn’t have a prayer left, and even baptized a few souls in the truck stop showers when necessary.

I left that Hollywood church thinking that it would have been better to give the revival budget to this biker’s ministry rather than spending it on some flamboyant evangelist with a bouffant hair-do and expensive cuff links. And certainly I left with a lesson scorched deep in my conscience: Never point a finger or a prayer at those you consider sinners. They may be more holy than you can imagine.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by visiting his YouTube channel.

A Day to Celebrate

easterbaby_fotorOn this weekend twelve years ago, what proved to be last of the McBrayer children was born. He entered the world as most babies do; wrinkled, wailing, and gravely disturbed at being expelled from the safest place he will ever inhabit. He was born just days before Easter, giving us a new appreciation for life, so symbolized by Resurrection Sunday.

Now, as he approaches his teen years, our son will finally get something he’s wanted: His birthday to fall on Easter. He’s always thought it would be grand to share the day with Jesus, what with all the egg hunts, feasting, festivities, and snazzy clothes. I hope he enjoys it, because it will be more than a decade before he has another Easter birthday.

As you know, Easter is not a “fixed” holiday like Christmas, falling on the same date every year. Neither is it as routine as “the fourth Thursday in November,” like Thanksgiving. No, its annual date moves with the phase of the moon. So, in one of the more difficult astronomical calculations for me to remember, it goes something like this:

Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon that occurs on or after the Spring Equinox. Consequently, Easter can fall on any date between March 22 and April 25 (and on those rare occasions, even on my son’s birthday). However, this only applies to churches of the Western tradition that use the Gregorian calendar. The Eastern churches typically use the Julian calendar, and have a different window of time altogether.

And for good measure, why not throw in the lunar calculations for the Jewish observance of Passover (the precursor of the Christian celebration) which begins on the 15th day of the first Hebrew month of Nisan? Do that, and before long you’ll be on hold waiting for Pope Francis or Neil deGrasse Tyson to answer the line so someone can explain the Council of Nicea or astrophysics.

Mercifully, I didn’t share all of this with my prepubescent birthday boy, of course. I just told him that if he is lucky, he’ll get to celebrate his birthday alongside the resurrection of Jesus four times in his lifetime. And if he’s very lucky – and as sturdy as his great-grandmother Artie was – he might even get five such celebrations.

But the truth of the matter is we get to celebrate every day – all of us – not just those with a birthday, and not just on Easter Sunday. Celebration, in fact, is the Christian vocation. Because Easter is not so much a holiday about the past as it is a way of joyful, hopeful living; living for today, not tomorrow or reserved for after we die.

Adding to all the explanations of Easter’s dating and its various meanings are the usual sermons and songs about Easter as the doorway to heaven, an escape hatch from the troubles of this earth or a coping mechanism for what lies beyond the grave. That’s all fine for as far as it goes, but that’s not the main point the early church made in its proclamation about Jesus’ resurrection.

Rather, the point made by the first Christians was that because of Easter, everything about life has changed – life today – in the here and now. Quoting the late Marcus Borg who was straightforward on the matter: “Easter is not for the sake of heaven, later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now…It is about the transformation of this world. Jesus was killed because of his passion for a different kind of world. Easter is about God’s ‘Yes’ to what we see in Jesus. Easter is not about believing in a spectacular long ago event, but about participating in what we see in Jesus.”

God’s “Yes” to what we see in Jesus: That is the exactly what Easter, indeed, what all of Christianity is about; “getting in on” Jesus’ powerful, life-giving way, so much so, that we experience life, full and running over, transforming us and the world. That’s reason to celebrate every day.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.

 

That Dark Thursday Night: A Dramatic Reading for Maundy Thursday

READING ONE: The Upper Room

upper-room-e1426690624176It was just before the Passover, and I thought Jesus would stay back in Bethany for the Feast. But, he insisted that we return to Jerusalem. “Go into the city,” he said. “A friend of mine will show you are large, upper room, furnished and ready.” Strange. Peter and I rounded a corner and there, coming out of a narrow alley was a man we didn’t know, but he looked at us as if we were expected. He gave us the key and told us to “Help ourselves,” so we made preparation for the Seder meal.

Peter went to the market to get the herbs, the matza, and the wine. Herbs to remind us of the bitter slavery of our ancestors in Egypt. Matza bread – not given time to rise – as our forefathers hurried away from their chains. And the wine, red wine, like the blood of the little lambs that marked the door frames of the Exodus, like the blood placed on the altar, reminding us that freedom is not without sacrifice. It was the same meal as every other year of my life. With my parents and grandparents, and for these last few years with Jesus. I roasted the lamb myself this time – Peter is no good at such things – he barely got all that was needed from the market; he was too busy arguing over the price of olive oil with the merchants to pay attention to his list.

Jesus and the rest of the brothers arrived right on time – for a change. The sun was setting as they came through the door and the smell of the fresh spring evening was only outdone by the smell of the lamb on the fire – if I do say so myself. Everyone was their rowdy, regular selves. Simon was arguing politics with Nathaniel. Thomas was on some philosophical rant about what can be known or not known. Judas was dark and brooding, maybe more than usual, come to think about it. James came over to sniff at the lamb, convinced that I had ruined it. He took a taste and gave me a smile – the proud smile he flashed when we were kids – and he tussled my hair like the time I finally mastered the throwing of the net from the bow of our father’s boat. And Jesus, Jesus was uncharacteristically solemn. Oh, that mysterious, dancing light was in his eyes to be sure, but he seemed so…burdened.

When we gathered around the table to eat, I understood why. He began with the kiddush: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who chose us from all the nations, and…gave us, with love, Sabbaths for rest, festivals for happiness, holidays for joy, and this day of Passover for our freedom.” He stopped, and I thought he would cry. Then he spoke, barely a whisper: “I tell you the truth. One of you will betray me.” The entire table went to pieces, as you might imagine, and Jesus did little to explain or to comfort us until he took a slab of bread in his hand. He broke it into pieces and handed it to us and said, “This is my body. Eat it, and remember me.” The bread was still stuck in my throat and questions i my mind when he raised the chalice and said much the same: “This is my blood which is poured out for many. Drink it, and remember me.” The red wine: Like the blood of the little lambs that marked the door frames of the Exodus, the blood placed on the altar, reminding us that freedom is not without sacrifice.

For the longest time we just sat around staring at each other, confused. The munching of bread and our own pounding pulses were the only sounds that filled our ears. Finally, Jesus broke the silence, cutting the tension as he began singing “L’Shana haba’ah bi’ Yerushalayim”: “Next year in Jerusalem!” We all joined in the singing though none of us knew at the time that for Jesus, there wouldn’t be another year in Jerusalem. There wouldn’t be another day. And for the rest of us, no day or year would ever be the same again.

READING TWO: Gethsemane

gehsemane-e1426690553179We followed Jesus from the Upper Room to Gethsemane. It wasn’t far, a mile or so. It would have been closer had we crossed the Temple grounds, but Jesus seemed to want nothing more to do with the Temple. So we twisted our way through the Upper City, an alley here, a sidewalk there, until we made our way into that blessed olive grove. The rabbis say the trees in Gethsemane are as old as Abraham. I don’t know – how could anything be that ancient? I do know that Jesus loved that place. We went there often. To pray. To listen to his stories. To get away from the crowds.

On that night, that dark Thursday night, Gethsemane smelled grassy, like summer, though only the blooms were first budding on the old trees. The men settled in a comfortable spot while Peter, my little brother John, and myself pressed deeper into the canopy with Jesus. He was driven on this night, as serious as I have ever seen him. He turned to me once and said, “James, my soul is drowning in grief! Please, please, pray for me and keep watch!” But “keep watch” for what, I thought? There was so much I didn’t understand. Finally, he pulled further away from us and seemed to collapse at the trunk of one of those primordial trees, his body twisting like its branches, in agony. I tell you, I was terrified for him.

But stronger than my confusion and fear was my exhaustion. Peter and little John fell fast asleep as soon as we knelt “to pray.” I can’t blame them. They had awakened early, gone ahead to Jerusalem, and prepared the Passover meal for the rest of us. So I know they were tired. I finally dozed myself. All that red wine, the heavy conversation, the night as thick and dark as the grave; what can I say, I feel asleep. Jesus came and gave us all a swift kick where we napped: “Could you not keep watch for just one hour?” he asked. There was such pain in his voice, stronger than disappointment. The man was…desperate. He returned to his prayers and I could hear him speak of God’s will and suffering and betrayal. It caused me to return to his words from the dinner table: “One of you will betray me.”

Who? Not we three. Not Andrew. He was the most thoughtful man of the bunch. Philip? Of course not. Matthew? Maybe. He did work for the Romans for a season, but he seemed so happy to be free of them now. Then it struck me: Where was Judas? He had been in the Upper Room, I was sure of it. He sat right there at Jesus’ side, but I couldn’t remember him on our walk to the garden. Was he in the back of the line? Had he lost his way in the dark? Maybe he paused to count the coins as he was so prone to do. It was then that I heard his voice in the distance: “This way…Just a bit further…Almost there!” he was saying. And there were other voices, many voices. As I turned to wake Peter and John, there Jesus stood, his sorrow now replaced with a steely determination that was as frightening to me as my confusion had been.

Judas arrived leading a company of angry men. They had arrest warrants, stamped with the seal of the High Priest. They were armed with swords, spears, and torches, dressed as a conquering army going to battle. We huddled behind Jesus like frightened sheep, waiting for him to strike them down. Judas stepped forward, his face illuminated by a flickering torch, and the suspense only heightened. “Rabbi!” he said, and he kissed Jesus on the cheek. Jesus, with a haunting, knowing gaze, fixed Judas in his sights and with the look of pity or compassion or distress said gently…“My friend, do what you must do.” Chaos descended. Those men fell on Jesus like predators on prey. All the disciples scattered like spooked birds. And yes, I ran. I ran as hard as these old legs could carry me all the way back to Bethany. I didn’t know what happened until morning, but by morning, it was too late.

READING THREE: Denial

denial-e1426690507286It was the darkest night of my life, and believe me, I’ve seen some bad nights. There was that trip to Capernaum, a trip filled with too much wine and not near enough fishing. I was drunk for a week and felt dead for another. In Tiberius I spent an awful night in jail for fighting with the local magistrate; heavens what a disaster. And of course, there was that night after I met Jesus, on the Sea of Galilee. I’ve plied those waters since I was a lad – more than 40 years – and never had I seen such a storm. It descended on us double quick, and try as we might, I knew we were doomed – all twelve of us. Then, a phantom, or so it seemed, came walking across the water. I thought it was Hades come to take me for my sins, I did. But…it was Jesus.

I didn’t believe it at first. Who could believe such a thing? So I called out to the spirit: “If it is you, then bid me come to you on the water?” He answered, “Come on, then!” I threw a leg over the starboard side to go to him. Almighty, I knew it was crazy, but better to try your hand, or your foot, at walking on water than to go down without a fight, I say! Andy, my brother, he grabbed fast to my shirt tale, speaking of home and our mother and begging me not to play the fool. Well, I’ve been a fool my whole life, that’s nothing new, so I started across the water to Jesus. He saved me in that storm. He saved us all. And that’s what made that dark Thursday the darkest night of my life. I believed in this man. I loved him. Like nothing else I have ever wanted, I wanted to stand with him when he needed me the most – and I told him so. I told everyone!

“Peter, Peter,” was his reply. “The Devil will grind you into dust tonight. Before the morrow – before the rooster crows – you will deny that you even know me.” I couldn’t believe he would say such a thing – and he’s said some sharp things to me over the years! But this? And in front of everyone? Not me! Let everyone else sink with the ship; haven’t I proven that I will go further than anyone! Haven’t I proven that I will go to the wall, to death, if necessary? No sir, Simon Peter does not go gently into that dark night…But I did. God help me, I did. After Judas handed Jesus over, I resisted. I pulled my sword and starting swinging with all my might…and…Jesus told me to put the sword away. He said it with such force, I just dropped the thing, never went back for it and…I ran away. Yet, I found my courage and hurried to the home of the High Priest where I knew they would take him. I huddled outside. Waiting. Listening. Watching.

Then they bottled me up, my comrades around the courtyard fire. “Hey, you! Yes, you are with the Nazarene! I’ve seen you with him!” a servant girl said, the nosy little nebby. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I barked, before I even thought. Then another: “Yes, I’m certain you are with this Jesus! You too are from Galilee; your accent gives it away!” I was terrified of being arrested so I was even more forceful this time: “Heavens no!” I said. “I would never be caught with such a fool as that silly carpenter.” But it wasn’t enough. They ganged up on me, interrogated me, cornered me, until finally I thundered, “Damn you all and damn this Jesus! I tell you, I’ve never even met the man!”

Jesus was just inside the courtyard door. I could see him, standing there. The accused. Shackles on his wrists like he was some kind of insurrectionist. Just as the rooster crowed, he turned and looked at me; not unlike he had gazed upon Judas in the garden… Whether or not he heard my cursing or that bloody chicken cry, it was of no matter. He knew. So did I. As fast as I could, I’m ashamed to say, I left that place. I’d like to say I cried myself to sleep that night. I wept many tears, that much is sure, but no sleep came that night. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to sleep again. It was, indeed, the darkest night of my life.

READING FOUR: The Trial

mary-e1426690597951James and few of the others crashed through the door, it must have been after midnight. They were trembling with fear. Breathless. Unable to speak. Never had I seen men so shaken. Lazarus and I did our best to calm them while Martha put a pot of sachlav on the fire to warm their bones. It took several minutes for them to be able to explain what had happened, and even then, it was too unbelievable to accept. Jesus…arrested? Judas…a traitor? The disciples…scattered and on the run? That’s when I knew I too had to run: All the way to Jerusalem to see things for myself. I grabbed my coat and headed for the door when Martha stopped me. “Mary, please don’t go,” she said as loving as a mother. “The night is late and the roads are filled with dangerous men.” I gave her a smile, the kind of smile that said what needed not be said; I had spent more than one late night with dangerous men. And now, the one man who had shown me how to live differently, the man who had changed my heart and my life was in trouble. I would not sit idly by if there was something – anything – I could do. So I covered the miles from Bethany to Jerusalem along the same road the fleeing disciples had just taken, as fast as I could run.

Along the way I thought of a few of our times with Jesus; Martha, Lazarus, and me. There was that dinner party years ago that began my conversion. Oh, Martha was slaving away in the kitchen – she’s always been the good daughter – and I know I should have helped more, what with the dishes running onto the floor and the soufflé threatening to burn. But I couldn’t pull myself away from Jesus. He knew things. He knew God. He understood people. He understood me. And he showed me that I could know and be loved by God. Then there was the time…Lazarus died. It started out as a cold – or so we thought – but the poor boy was gone in a week. Jesus came, too late to heal him, and we couldn’t understand why. Yet, it all became crystal clear when he had the body exhumed and brought Lazarus back to life!

Then there was yesterday. Just yesterday. Another dinner party with Martha cooking and Lazarus laughing at the table as full of living as ever. I was moved with such gratitude for it all that I retrieved that bottle of oil from my room and anointed Jesus with it. That’s when I knew I had changed, because that bottle was my escape hatch, you see. I acquired it with the money I made over all those years in the brothels and down by the sea. Oh, it cost me much more than money. I was going to sell it and start a new life somewhere else – in Cairo or Alexandria or even Rome. But Jesus gave me a new life right here, so I thought he should have it.

I arrived at the High Priest’s house, and met Peter running away from the courtyard. I tried to stop him and talk to him, but he bulldozed along, heaving with tears. I walked quietly to a back door where I knew I could peek inside without being detected. I…knew the way…and I knew that door…I had been to this home before with my previous occupation, though no one living there would ever admit it. Looking inside, I had to stifle a shriek that rose in my throat, though it’s doubtful I would have been heard. The Sanhedrin and priests were howling in blood-thirst. “Take him to Pilate!” they were screaming. “He is a blasphemer and doesn’t deserve to live!” They spit on him. They slapped him and kicked him to the ground. They dragged him around the floor by the hair of his head. I wept.

As the Temple guards took Jesus away I saw his blood splattered on the floor. Strangely, it looked exactly like the blood of the little lambs that marked the door frames of the Exodus, like the blood placed on the altar, reminding us that freedom is not without sacrifice.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by visiting his YouTube channel.

More Than a Change of Scenery

rv“Repent” is a religious word I’ve heard most of my life, and to this day, it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand with fright. As a child, I heard the call to repent burst from the lips of many a revival preacher.

With the evangelist’s bulging carotids, burning eyes, and angry finger pointing, I could feel the fires of hell licking at my heels. With “turn or burn, get right or get left,” as a vital piece of my spirituality, I repented every chance I got (whether I needed it or not).

But for most, this kind of intensity is reserved for the sandwich-board-prophets of our time; those walking the streets with the declaration that “The End Is Near.” Or sometimes you find a wild-eyed television evangelist furiously condemning immorality.

Many proponents of organized religion are very angry, and sometimes ruthlessly so, taking real pleasure in pounding the pulpit, and they can hardly wait for God’s consuming wrath to fall on the ungodly. Repentance is thrown out there as a lifeline, but secretly, I don’t know if they really want anyone to actually escape. How could some religionists be happy for all eternity if they knew that all the sinners, heretics, and reprobates weren’t actually burning in hell somewhere?

Still, we should not let the fuming fundamentalists of the world rob us of a good word: Repent. Yes, we must repent. But what does that mean? It means we must change our minds or turn around. It means the direction we are heading is a dead end, so we start over.

It means the thoughts we are constructing are destructive. It means we recognize that the way we are living is not life at all. Sure, we preachers like to use the word in the context of lying, cheating, stealing, and such, but I don’t think it is that simplistic.

True repentance is to completely forsake one way of life and take up another. Repentance means our hardness of heart is replaced by compassion; vengeance is replaced by forgiveness; those we despised because of their race or color or gender are now accepted; and where there was greed, now is found generosity.

A couple of years ago a friend of mine decided he wanted to do more camping, to get out and experience the great outdoors. He went out and bought this huge, grotesque recreational vehicle that was a rolling luxury home. Satellite television; queen-sized bed; stainless steel appliances; Berber carpet; surround sound. This vehicle was a technological masterpiece, and I was scandalized.

If you’re going to go camping, go camping. Strap on a backpack. Hike a few hills and feel the burn in your thighs and in your lungs. Eat out of a can. Sit around a camp fire. Sleep in a tent with a stream lulling you to sleep. Swat bugs. Count the blisters on your feet every night. That’s camping.

RVs are great, but don’t roll around the countryside in such a limousine and call it “camping.” So I said to my friend, “Russ, you can go to the woods and never leave home!” He answered, “That’s the idea.”

We live our lives the same way. Yes, we need to change some things – our attitudes, our priorities, our biases – we need to repent. Instead, we often just rearrange the furniture, change our surroundings a bit, or adjust the landscape. But our way of life remains the same.

Do you have relationship troubles? Well, just change partners. Is your career in the toilet? Change jobs. Have you grown tired of the troubles at home? Change houses. You can do all of these things and succeed in only taking your dysfunction down the road with you, never experiencing anything that resembles transformation.

Repentance is not about saying a prayer or complying with the wishes of some wild-eyed preacher. It is about conversion. It is about a fundamental change in who you are, not just a change of scenery. Ultimately, it is about becoming who you were always made to be.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.

 

Hatin’ the Haters

stopthehate_largeSeveral years ago, on the courthouse steps of the town in which I lived, there was a rally.  A gay couple in our community was seeking to become foster parents. You can imagine the kickback that erupted in a small Southern town. But it wasn’t just the members of our community who were most vocal in protest. Gathered on the courthouse steps of our fair city were representatives of a religious group from Washington D.C. and points beyond, to speak out in holy fury.

I strolled up the street to check it out, and what I found there was horrifying. Laced with scripture quotations and shaking the abysmally familiar “God Hates Fags” signs, speaker after speaker raged with some of the most vicious and hateful words I have ever heard. I could not believe how angry and poisonous it was.

One of the police officers watching over the proceedings walked up and asked me, “What do think about this, preacher?” I knew this officer. He was a good man but did not consider himself a Christian. So, I turned his question around and asked him what he thought about it. He answered, “This is why you all ought to keep your church and Bible to yourself.”

Dorothy Sayers was fond of saying that Jesus endured three great humiliations: The Incarnation, the cross, and the church. Jesus has subjected himself to a spastic, debilitated, malfunctioning body; a body called the church. And rather than communicating clearly the love and grace of God, we obscure and twist the message so that it cannot be heard correctly.

That is what I felt most strongly as I stood near the court house steps on that afternoon. These people, exercising their freedom of speech for which I am so very thankful and for which I would go to the wall, were attaching hateful words and spiteful talk to the name of Christ. Somehow, in the convulsive twisting of the body of Jesus, the message was twisted. I felt ashamed.

The following Sunday I fumed from my own church pulpit about how we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves – even the people we just positively know that God condemns. Love your neighbor with a love that goes beyond feeding their dog or keeping an eye on their home while they are out of town. No, to love your neighbor as you love yourself, I rightfully said that Sunday, is to love whoever you come across, whoever is in need, no matter who they are.

If they live across the street or on another continent; if they are black or white; if they are straight or gay; if they are Latino or Anglo; if they are of my political persuasion or not; if they are Christian or Muslim; if they are my buddy on the bar stool beside me or someone I would never shake hands with, they are my neighbor. As a follower of Christ my responsibility is to love them and not condemn.

Oh, it was a virtuous, unfettered, holy tirade; and I felt so very good after it was delivered. But over the course of the next few days all my good feelings ebbed away. These feelings were replaced by genuine conviction of heart.

I realized that what had made me feel so “good,” and what eventually disturbed me about myself was this: I hated the people who were hateful. I did not love them – as my neighbors – instead, I loved condemning them. My actions were nothing more than a variation of the words and behavior I found so repugnant.

Street preachers railed against and hated gays, abortionists, teenagers with tattoos and piercings, and the like. In my righteous indignation, I fumed against and condemned them. We were all wrong.

Opinions, conviction, beliefs: We all have them and we all have the freedom to express them. But the moment our beliefs are used as motivation and means to hate others, we have left the path of Christ who taught us that the greatest commandment is to love.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.

“He Who Has Ears”

doctorOne autumn afternoon my twin sister and I were ripping up the soil in my grandmother’s fallow garden. We were only five-years-old, and my sister, in her clod-crushing zeal, miscalculated the distance at which I was standing from her. I was summarily whacked on top of the head with a garden hoe.

Two distinct memories fill my mind about that moment: First, the warm, oozing of blood running into my left ear; and second, the sight of my Medicare-receiving, apron-wearing grandmother running, yes, running, from the house to scoop me into her arms.

There were no ambulances in my hometown. There was no real emergency room. There was no 911 service. Even if these things had been readily available, it wouldn’t have mattered. My grandmother didn’t own a phone or drive a car.

My aunt, who lived next door, called my parents at work. They arrived in record time and whisked me away to the office of Dr. Jerry Barron, one of only three doctors in town. Dr. Barron, sadly, was a community acknowledged quack, but on this afternoon he was the only option. See, Dr. Thompson did not work on Wednesdays, and nobody really visited Doc Hill anymore, not unless it was a matter of life and death.

Young mothers had lost all confidence in Doc Hill after he allegedly reported to his clinic early one morning to deliver a new born baby boy, drunk as the proverbial skunk. The delivery was without complication, but the subsequent circumcision was a disaster.

So it was with great trepidation that I was passed with a gushing head wound into the hands of Dr. Barron, the silver-haired idiot. I was dragged to an examination room where Dr. Barron separated me from my parents, asking them to remain in his clinic lobby. He, his two nurses, and an office receptionist held me down to place a dozen stitches in my scalp.

I twisted and turned, convulsed and screamed, begging someone – anyone – to explain what was happening. They continued their work, never saying a word to me. Finally, I screamed at the top of my lungs, “Will someone please talk to me!”

Apparently that was the magic phrase. Dr. Barron and his team of tormentors actually stopped what they were doing. He looked me in the eyes, finally explained what they were trying to do, how long it would take, and how much it would or would not hurt. I then lay perfectly still, the doctor only moving my head occasionally, until the procedure was complete. I only needed someone to listen to me.

Listening is largely a lost art. Medical professionals run us through their offices like cattle through a chute. Politicians stubbornly ignore our voices. Our children discount our counsel. Our spouses cannot recall the conversation we had just this morning. Trusted friends won’t lift a gaze from their glowing capacitive screens to look us in the eyes.

As I get older I understand more and more why Jesus often said, “He who has ears let him hear,” before uttering some mind-blowing instruction. Because for the most part, we do not use those two fleshy instruments attached to the sides of our heads.

At no time in human history has there been more opportunity or more tools to communicate; we’ve come a long way from beating drums and smoke signals. Still, most of our advances have been on the speaking side, rather than the listening side.

I wonder what would happen in our homes, office cubicles, classrooms, doctor’s offices, church sanctuaries, and houses of legislation if we who have ears took the time to actually use them. We just might begin to appreciate, rather than vilify, those on the other side of the aisle. We just might find that the world would grow a little quieter, a bit more peaceful.

We just might find that those we have long ignored actually have something worth saying. We just might discover the greatest advancement in the history of human communication – the ability to not say a single word.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.

Round-A-Bout

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs a child I rode my bicycle without a helmet or elbow pads. I would leave home on that same bicycle on summer mornings and not return until dinner, never once checking in by cell phone. It was fun – and acceptable – to jump on a trampoline, talk to strangers, climb trees far too flimsy to support my weight, play in the street, light fire crackers without adult supervision, to go all day without using hand sanitizer, and yes, it was fun to run with a sharp stick in my hand.

But today, everything has to be safe. Safety scissors, safety vests, safety glass, safety cones, safety seats, safety ladders. It’s all about safe drinking water, safe food, safe toys, safe surfing, safe sex, and safe schools: Most of these extremely good things, I admit, but sometimes safety can go too far.

I took my sons to the park a few days ago to enjoy a new playground installed by the city fathers, apparently with the help of a team of safety experts and a host of litigation-preventing-attorneys. Everything is right about this new playground and everything is wrong. There is no dirt, mud, or gravel at this playground. These dangers have been replaced by synthetic, rubbery surfaces to cushion falls.

Gone is the sharp-edged chain link fence, traded in for a short polymer-slotted wall. Even the equipment has changed. There are no monkey bars from which to hang upside down; no metal slides that grow hot enough in the summer sun to strip the hide from the back of your legs; no rocket-shaped-climby-thing, not even a seesaw. There were a few swings but you guessed it – they have safety belts – so for the most part, the new playground is just an overgrown baby bed. And I hear those aren’t as safe as they should be.

There was one piece of missing playground equipment that, for all my safety-raging, I am glad was removed: The merry-go-round, or as some call them, the round-a-bout. I haven’t been on one of these things since I was ten-years-old and with good reason. It is basically a circular, metal whirling dervish of death.

The game we played was simple, and dangerously unsafe. About a thousand pounds of elementary-aged children would climb aboard while an adult (or someone’s older brother) started spinning the thing with the G-force of a fighter jet. This resulted in half the kids immediately flying off or getting sucked beneath the thing, breaking arms and noses.

Those who remained stuck to the handlebars usually began to spew their lunches like shaken cola cans, and the one who didn’t get sick, suffer a compound fracture, or could walk the straightest line when the spinning stopped was naturally the winner. I never won and I have the scars to prove it.

The truth is no one ever wins on the round-a-bout, and we all have the scars to prove it. The round-a-bout I am speaking of is the always spinning cycle of human anger. The eye-for-an-eye, tit-for-tat rotation that leaves everyone flattened on the ground, barely holding on, or staggering about, dazed and broken.

Is there a way to stay safe and “win” this dangerous game? Jesus says there is: Don’t play the game at all. Jesus said it like this in the Sermon on the Mount: “If you remember that someone has something against you, go settle your differences quickly.” The solution, according to Jesus, was not to assault your enemies with a preemptive strike or to dig in further by strengthening your grip on the rails. The solution is early intervention by defusing anger and retaliation before it even gets started.

You see, before the first blow is ever struck, before a trigger is ever pulled, or before the revenge scheme is ever hatched, emotions have already been weaponized and the round-a-bout is already on its not-so-merry-go-round way. Jesus understood that the only way to stop accelerating anger was to graciously neutralize it as soon as possible. That’s the only real way to stay in the game.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, blogger, pastor, and author of multiple books. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net and listen to his talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.

Electricity in the Air

staticMy uncle Joe was a pastor. I would stay with him and my aunt from time to time, where they lived in a tiny church parsonage. Today, churches have gotten out of the parsonage business for the most part, and that’s a good thing. No one wants to live with the ghosts of all those dead preachers in an old house that notoriously lacks maintenance anyway.

Uncle Joe’s parsonage fit that bill perfectly. It had low ceilings, matted, yellow, shag carpet as deep as a wheat field, and in the center of the living area – the only heat for the entire house – an upright gas heater with the little blue flames dancing behind a ceramic grate. The combination of these things (the low ceiling, shag carpet, ghosts of former pastors, and dry gas heat) caused the house to be so sufficiently charged with static, it could set off an electroscope.

I would walk around the house in my tube socks, sliding like I was wearing snowshoes, building up an electrical charge. Then I would wait for my sister or brother to walk by. Unknown to them, not only was I ready for discharge, but I had a paperclip from my uncle’s study that I had unwound so that it was a long thin, metal conductor.

As they unwittingly walked by, if I was stealthy enough, I could just touch the bottom of their earlobe with my homemade electrical probe. It was like reaching out and taking hold of the hem of Jesus’ garment. The power surged through with three inches of blue flame.

This made for especially interesting gatherings at dinner time. Uncle Joe always had us stand around the table and say grace. Most of the time we held hands or even held on to one another, grabbing arms and shoulders, hugging the whole time; I remember once he even shed a tear because there was “so much love in the room.”

It wasn’t love. It was electricity. My siblings and I were constantly touching one another to ground ourselves, afraid of being shocked by the other and even more afraid of picking up a spoon with the static still attached to our sleeve.

I wish church was more like that. No, I’m not talking about the mischievousness of children, though some of the more stoic congregations I have encountered could stand a good dose of mischievousness. Nor am I talking about yellow shag carpet. A few congregations need to be told that “Harvest Gold” went out of style more than three decades ago.

I’m talking about the spark; the sense and knowledge that there is a power in the room, a power that animates, moves, and stirs us. It is something far more than emotionalism, histrionics, or religious sentiment. It is a desire for the living Presence that will not allow us to sit still or remain where we are.

It is no wonder why some people won’t go to church; it is because they have already been to church, and have found it to be as lifeless and dead as a dodo. There is no passion in the pew or in the pulpit; the liturgies and songs are without spirit; and it often appears as if the leaders and participants don’t believe – not remotely – in what they are saying or doing. Worshippers are left to snooze at their leisure with hardly a spark to wake them.

Annie Dillard, that exquisite wordsmith, recognized the same. She said of those of us who casually enter our church sanctuaries each week, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?

“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews…For the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” To this, I say “Amen,” and let the awaking begin.

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 and listen to his talks by clicking on his YouTube channel.