Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

For a Ride

I tried to stay out of this, but like the proverbial moth drawn to the flame, I couldn’t: Oh Creflo, say it ain’t so! The Creflo of whom I speak is Creflo A. Dollar, pastor of the World Changers Church near Atlanta, Georgia, a church of some 30,000 members with a worldwide TV broadcast.

First, I have to say that Creflo has the best name for a televangelist in the history of the genre. Dollar! And dollars, it appears, is what Brother Creflo is most concerned with. His net worth exceeds $25 million; he owns an $8 million home in Atlanta; a $2.5 million Manhattan Apartment, and various real estate holdings around the world; and he has a posh Rolls Royce or two in his driveway.

Now, I don’t begrudge the man for being successful. Nor do I take issue with him because he was arrested last year. The charges were later dropped, but he allegedly assaulted his teenage daughter during an argument. I understand. With teenagers of my own, you could be reading about my booking at the local jail any day now, so I have no stones to throw.

No, what draws me to the scorching flame is his most recent fundraising effort, an effort that has broken the internet and a few pocketbooks this summer. He needed a new airplane so he asked his followers to assist him with the purchase of a Gulfstream G650, a $65 million technical marvel that is “the fastest plane in the history of civilian aviation.”

If the man thinks he needs a $65 million jet, well, get the bit between your teeth and run with it over glory hill, brother, I don’t care (so long as I’m not the one paying the monthly operational costs). But for me, this is a problem: Creflo says that “faith” makes his success possible, and if you had faith like him, you could have everything he has and more, too. Yet, coercion has more to do with his financial success than faith.

Here is what Creflo said back in 2011 (when he was slumming around on a Gulfstream III that only had a seven figure price tag attached to it). Preaching about what he would do – if he could – to those who did not put their tithes in the offering plate, he said: “Red and blue lights would start going, the siren would go off, and a voice would go out throughout the entire building, ‘Crook, crook, crook, crook!’

“Security would go and apprehend them, and once we got them all together, we’d line them up in the front and pass out Uzis by the ushers and point our Uzis right at all those non-tithing members…and at the count of three ‘Jesus-es’ we’d shoot them all dead. And then we’d take them out the side door there, have a big hole, bury them, and then go ahead and have church…if we were not under the Blood of Jesus, I would certainly try it.”

At the end of all this recent tomfoolery, like the Second Coming of Flip Wilson, Creflo blamed the controversy on the Devil. He said, “The devil is [trying to] discredit me because I’m showing people, Jesus.” This one really stuck me in the heart (as if the Uzi-wielding firing squad did not).

Because this is the Jesus who “had no place to lay his head;” who said, “Do not store up treasures here on earth;” who once told a rich man, “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven;” the Jesus who said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Regardless, Creflo ended up with his new jet. Well, eventually he will, as its assembly is backlogged until around 2018. Maybe, if Jesus comes back by then, Creflo will take the Lord for a ride in it, because he’s already taken everyone else for one.

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

 

The Illusion of Control

controlControl is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac.” So said Nicole Kidman to Tom Cruise in the movie, “Days of Thunder.” It was a fictional scene, of course, but I’m sure it’s a mantra she repeated often over the course of their decade-long marriage.

That digression aside, the quote itself is absolutely the truth. Control – over others’ behavior, personal circumstances, world events, the universe – is a fantasy. It was Dr. Ellen Langer who wrote the book on the subject. Her work is titled,“The Illusion of Control.” She believes, and her research backs this up, that human beings have a delusional sense that they can influence the outcomes of certain events, even those events over which they have no command.

Summarizing one of her experiments, she gave a group of subjects lottery tickets with a chance to win big money. Some tickets were random “quick-picks” and some were numbers chosen by the participants. Once in hand, all participants were told that they could trade their tickets for other ones that had a higher chance of winning.

Those who had quick-picks traded almost immediately. Those who had chosen their own numbers, far and away, did not. They had more faith in the numbers they controlled, than in the tickets that actually improved their odds.

In another gambling example, Dr. Langer discovered that when a person rolling dice needed higher numbers, as in the game of craps, he or she would throw the dice with greater force, thinking, almost unconsciously, that the greater effort would produce higher numbers. Likewise, those rolling for lower numbers invariably threw the dice softly, as if that could change the outcome.

And finally, Langer’s research reveals that drivers feel that they are much less likely to be in an accident when they are driving versus sitting in the passenger’s seat. No surprise there, as we have all beat the floorboards out of the passenger side of the car when someone else is driving.

But here is where things get interesting: Move that front seat passenger to the back of the automobile, and that individual’s feelings of anxiety completely skyrocket! In fact, the further removed from the driver’s seat he or she was moved, the more the test subject felt an accident was inevitable. Why? He or she was not the one in control of the situation.

This is one reason why I recoil from the banality of the bumper sticker, “God Is My Co-Pilot.” Oh, for heaven’s sake. Can any phrase in the human lexicon be more descriptive of our neurotic need to be in control, and yet tip our hat to The Maker in case we get into a situation that is just a bit too much for us? Even then, we want to remain firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat; we want to remain the gods of our own universe.

Critics of faith often argue that belief in God is an irrational mindset at best, or serious derangement at worst, as God’s existence defies logic and evidence. God cannot be “proven,” goes the reasoning, so ceding command of life to such a hypothetical being is simply foolish.

Philosophically, I understand and appreciate this argument. Yet, I counter that we all – atheists, theists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics – have confidence in something, in some foundational truth or principle that guides our lives. It’s plainly impossible to be human and not to believe in something.

That much said, and without diving into some empirical argument, I discover that belief in God – a Higher Power as my friends in AA call it – is a far safer bet than trusting humanity. Not because I believe God will steer the cosmos in my direction, but because I have little confidence in our ability to control anything.

No, you might not find faith in God to be easy, even logical. I respect that. But surrendering the management of the universe to Someone else makes a lot of sense when there is so little we can personally control. After all, control is an illusion, and the evidence on that matter is irrefutable.

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

When There Is No Meaning

ameIn many ways, clergy play the role of “meaning-makers” for their congregations. Their vocational role is to interpret this sometimes senseless world so that it has some kind of purpose. After all, we are not, to summarize Jerome Bruner, simply “information-processors,” because information alone is not enough.

What we see, hear, feel, and experience has to be arranged and interpreted in such a way that life doesn’t devolve into meaninglessness or hopelessness. Faith, thus, is not an emotional crutch – as some critics would argue – it functions as a meaning-making exercise.

Yet, all explanations fail when forced to interpret the horror of what happened at Emanuel AME Church just days ago. We, the meaning-makers, we who are charged with producing tidy, digestible solutions to all of life’s problems, well, we just can’t do it. The tragedy simply doesn’t compute.

In an iconic photo taken outside of Emanuel last week, a group of church members were mourning, and one of them was holding a giant sign with one word on it: “Why?” That’s the word that says and asks it all.

We might be tempted to direct that question toward those who continue to rebuff common sense measures related to America’s “gun culture:” Why won’t you lead this country toward greater responsibility? We could ask it of the hateful racists who terrorize people of color a full century and a half after their Emancipation: Why do you perpetuate thuggish bigotry toward people simply because of their God-given epidermis?

We could put it to South Carolina: Why did you continue to fly a battle flag that represents an army that warred to enslave a whole race of people? We should direct the question to ourselves, our neighbors, friends, and families: Why will we not change this society that is violent to its deepest innards; violence that seems to be glorified on every screen, in every movie, game, sport, and “heroic” tale we tell?

And we place it at the feet of God. Who among us has never pelted heaven with our questions and doubts: “Why does God sit idly by? Why doesn’t God intervene? Why would God allow such injustice? Why doesn’t God do something about the suffering in our lives and our world?”

Of course, there are no answers to these questions, not in this lifetime. We don’t know why God allows or tolerates the evil that invades our lives or why he offers so little explanation for suffering. But we do know that God goes with us through it all – we know this – because his Son, Jesus, when he was dying on the cross, aimed this exact question at God: “Why?”

As Christians, we believe this Jesus was the anointed one of God, and even with such a privileged position, he was found in the fashion of a man and subjected himself to injustice. He did not avoid it, but embraced it, and brought redemption from it. God may not always rescue us, may never explain things to us, but he always identifies with us and goes with us, for in Jesus he knows what it is like to be haunted by the question of “Why?”

On the first Sunday after the Mother Emanuel shooting I read the words of William Sloane Coffin to my own congregation. Back in 1983, Coffin delivered a sermon entitled “Eulogy for Alex” to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York just days after the death of his son. A single line from that sermon rings in my head over and over again. Coffin said: “My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners. You gave me what God gives all of us: Minimum protection, maximum support.”

Faith in God is not an insulator from tragedy or injustice. Following Christ or holding to faith does not guarantee a trouble-free life. Nor will having “more faith” lead to less difficulty in this unfair world or meaningful explanation for every sorrow. Faith is minimum protection from suffering, but thank God, it is maximum support.

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

Where Love Begins

loveAccording to the Pew Research Center’s recently released report, a full one-fifth of Americans are now unattached to religion, and the Protestant majority is no longer that; Protestant Christians now make up less than 50% of the population. News agencies reported this news as statistical facts with maybe a raised eyebrow of curiosity while some agnostics celebrated the dawn of a new secularism. Meanwhile, fretful pulpiteers wrung their sweaty hands as they thundered to their shrinking congregations about the end of Christianity, threats against morality, and this trend that confirms that the apocalypse is upon us.

The illustrious Garrison Keillor had the cleverest response of all. If the statistics are true, he mused, then it means the death of the some of the world’s finest cuisine: The end of church potluck dinners. While some mourned over the condition of souls, he crooned with tongue deeply in cheek, his concern was the future of Lutheran casseroles.

Well, it seems the statistics are correct, and those of us who spend time in the church know it, and know it is no laughing matter. We don’t need an exhaustive study to confirm that the church is dwindling. A growing population is indeed unengaged with organized religion. They aren’t necessarily atheistic, nor are they antagonistic toward faith. They are simply uninvolved. Why?

Some of it is demographic, related to the age of our transitioning generations. Some of it is the natural evolvement of a Western society, and the result of an increasingly diverse nation. But frankly, and this cannot be ignored, the church has earned this decline all by its institutional self.

The Pew Report confirms that the religiously unaffiliated think that religious organizations are “too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics.” As one deeply committed to the Christian faith, I could not more heartily agree; I say, “Amen.” Combine this study with the respected statistics of the Barna Research Group (which is an evangelical think tank), and the situation becomes clearer still. According to Barna, those unaffiliated with religion use several primary words to describe Christianity, words that include: “Anti-gay, judgmental, hypocritical, and insensitive.”

I know not every Christian behaves harshly toward others. The most gracious, caring, and welcoming people I have ever met are Christians, fixed firmly within the institution. But I admit that the most obnoxious, hateful, and critical individuals I have ever met are also religious people. This has to change.

“Change,” you ask? “Are you saying we should change our beliefs just to salvage our fleeting market share?” No. Market share has nothing to do with it, but how we treat others has everything to do with it. How can we who follow the loving, open-hearted, redemptive Christ be anything but loving, open-hearted, and redemptive people?

The longer I do this kind of work, and the longer I see these kinds of recent statistics, the more strongly I feel that the last thing most communities need is just another religious institution: An institution that pounds the pulpit and its parishioners with unyielding dogma; that points fingers, condemns, and excludes others from the love of God; that can never confess its shortcomings, admit when it has been wrong, or meet people where they are rather than demanding that people come to it.

No, communities don’t need more hardened, inflexible places like these; but every community needs simple, uncomplicated, receptive places. Every community needs launch pads of empowerment and liberation. Every community needs a communion of friendship, freedom, and faith that will build bridges of grace to the world, not boundaries of separation and marginalization. Simply, every community needs a place of radical hospitality and attraction that welcomes all to know a loving God.

I call these places “church.” Yes, I know, some churches are far better at being judgmental religious institutions than being living bodies of service and compassion, but my hope endures. My hope endures because where hardened institutionalism ends, love can begin, and the love of God is the most attractive force in the universe.

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.net.

 

 

Safer Among the Christian Savages

rogerwilliamsThe Barna Group is a long-tenured research organization that tracks “spiritual indicators” and the role of faith within American culture. Barna maintains massive databases on everything from Americans’ TV-viewing habits to weekly church attendance, and its data is used extensively.

A recent Barna study, commissioned by the American Bible Society, sought to determine the level of “Bible-Mindedness” in this country’s largest cities. The rubric for the study was simple: Participants who claimed to read the Bible weekly and who strongly asserted the “Bible to be accurate in the principles it teaches” were considered “Bible-Minded.” Those who did not meet this standard were deemed to be unbiblical.

The major cities in the South “engaged and esteemed the Christian scriptures” with the greatest fervency, per Barna. Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee, along with Shreveport, Louisiana, led the way with the majority of these residents being “Bible-Minded.” On the other end of the analysis were major cities from New England, not one of which could score above 20%, meaning the overwhelming majority of these people demonstrate “resistance to the Bible,” again, per the Barna study.

But far and away, the most “unbiblical” city in America is Providence, Rhode Island. There, only 9% of survey participants regularly read and adhere to the Bible. This should come as no surprise, given Rhode Island’s history. The state began as a haven for those who had been mistreated by strict biblicists – “Bible-Minded” people – who embraced the letter of the law, not the spirit of grace.

So you could conclude, historically speaking, that Islanders have a bad taste in their mouth when it comes to religion, and it began with Rhode Island’s founder, a hero of mine, Roger Williams. When Williams arrived in Massachusetts more than a century before the American Revolution, he was part of the Puritan effort to build that famed “City on a Hill,” a divinely instituted nation where everyone would be “Bible-minded.”

He settled into his new role as pastor of the church in Salem, and in short order became the most controversial figure on the continent. How so? Williams relentlessly preached liberty of conscience and freedom from state-driven religious conformity, espousing a revolutionary idea that there should be a separation between church and state.

Vexed to the point of murder, the authorities finally made plans to kidnap Williams and deport him to England where he would be executed. But warned just hours before the authorities arrived to arrest him, Williams escaped into the wilderness where he eventually purchased from the Narrangansetts, the land that would become Rhode Island.

And it was exactly that: An island, a sanctuary for all kinds of religious dissidents in the earliest years of the American colonies, surrounded by the stormy waters of zealous extremism. Jews. Quakers. Baptists. Catholics. Atheists. They came in manifold and variegated expressions, and Roger Williams, this nation’s first Founding Father of toleration and liberty, welcomed them all, in spite of being viciously hated by New England’s religious establishment.

Meanwhile, back at Salem, an awful scar was soon slashed into America’s early history: The abominable witchcraft trials where twenty people were executed. An addition thirteen died in their prison cells, and hundreds more were ensnared in the inquisition. All this was carried out by by professing Christians who had rejected Roger Williams’ appeal for religious toleration.

It was no wonder, then, when Massachusetts Governor, John Winthrop, asked Roger to recant of his beliefs, leave the natives of the wilderness and come home, Roger responded, “I cannot; for I feel safer among the Christian savages, than I do among savage Christians.”

Ironically, Roger Williams never lost his Christian faith, and to the end of his life, he was definitely a “Bible-minded” man. Maybe, if he were alive today, he would wish that more of his neighbors “engaged the Christian scriptures,” but he would never force them to do so. He would say as he said: “Men’s consciences ought never to be violated…for a religion that must be upheld by violence, is a religion that cannot be true.”

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

Some Things Are Better Left Alone

rattlesnakeThere is an ancient story from the Cherokee Nation that was used to illustrate the danger of getting too close to something dangerous. I first heard it as a child, though variations of the tale are found in most all of the world’s tribal societies.

A young boy, who was soon to be initiated into manhood, was making a journey through the forest when he came across a rattlesnake. The rattlesnake was very old, yet, there was enough life left in the serpent to speak to the young Cherokee: “Please,” he said, “take me to the top of the mountain. I hope to see the sunset one last time before I die.”

The Cherokee highly respected the rattlesnake, and great care was taken never to offend this chief of the snake tribe. So the young brave responded cautiously: “Mr. Rattlesnake, this I cannot do. If I pick you up, you will bite me and it will be me who will die.” The rattlesnake answered: “No, I promise I will not bite you. Just take me up to the top of the mountain as I do not have the strength to travel there myself. I must see the sun set a final time.”

The young man relented and carefully picked up the old rattlesnake. After a while, he was able to hold the snake confidently to his chest as he carried it up to the top of the mountain. There they watched the sun set together. Afterward the rattlesnake turned to the young man and said, “Take me home. I am very tired, and very old.”

The young Cherokee carefully picked up the rattlesnake once again and took it to his chest, tightly and safely. He came all the way down the mountain now accepting the snake as his friend. But just before he laid the rattlesnake down, the snake turned and bit the boy in the chest. The boy cried out in shock and pain, staggering backward to the ground.

“Mr. Rattlesnake, what have you done? You promised not to harm me! Now I will surely die!” he cried. The rattlesnake could only offer a sly grin with this slithering answer: “Ah, but you knew what I was when you first picked me up.” The lesson is obvious: Some things are best resisted by leaving them alone.

There is something dreadfully dangerous that the Christian church has been picking up for centuries now, something it can hardly resist. That something is power. It is a hoped for unification with Empire, and the deadly idea that the church can use the state’s influence to accomplish its own mission without being bitten. Regrettably, it is not a new idea.

Not many decades after the first followers of Jesus died, someone decided it would be a good idea to join forces with the powers that be. After all, imagine how many people could be converted, helped, enrolled, and evangelized if the church was more powerful, more organized, and more efficient (such thoughts arise often). So the church went for power and won it in spades.

The coffers ran over with gold, people of influence (including the Emperor) began to seek the ministers’ approval on policy, the pews were full every Sunday, and as Vernard Eller observed, “When trying to move all the names from the ‘Pagan’ column to the ‘Christian’ column, they realized it was easier to switch the headings.” The Empire gained another tool of domination without changing a thing, and the church lost its unique identity and authenticity.

Thankfully, a growing number of Christians have begun to recognize that there is something suspicious about attaching a national flag to the way of Christ. In fact, it’s more than suspicious; it’s downright slithery.

For a follower of Jesus to come to such a conclusion does not mean a loss of love for one’s nation, but it means these followers will not marginalize the Lordship of Jesus. It is an acknowledgment that the Kingdom of God cannot be brought to earth by the poisonous powers of 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.net.

Living Unafraid

blackbartIn August of 1871 a man sent a letter to his wife claiming that he had been swindled by the Wells Fargo Company. He vowed his revenge. So, he began burglarizing the Fargo stage coaches in northern California. Over the next decade he succeeded in almost thirty robberies.

He would wait for the coach at a narrow pass, and at just the right moment would emerge dressed in black with a hood over his head and carrying a long, double-barreled shotgun. He was never seen arriving – he simply materialized out of nowhere.

To match his appearance, he had a deep baritone voice. He would point his gun at the driver and kindly say, “Sir, will you please throw down your treasure box?” This terrifying gentleman bandit was nicknamed “Black Bart.”

As you can imagine, Wells Fargo didn’t like Black Bart. They hired detectives to hunt him down. Laboriously these detectives tracked Black Bart to an extravagant apartment in San Francisco. But when they arrived they couldn’t believe what they found beneath the dark, menacing hood.

“Black Bart” was actually a man named Charles Boles. He was not seven feet tall like some of the witnesses had claimed. He wasn’t even six feet tall. He was not young and rugged, but instead nearing his sixtieth birthday. He wasn’t a bloodthirsty bandit at all. He was a handsome, well-educated man who had once made a living as a druggist and transportation clerk, occupations that didn’t pay as well as he would have liked.

And since Charles Boles liked to live the high life, stay in fine hotels, eat in the best restaurants, and wear the finest clothes, he discovered stagecoach robbing was not only good revenge, but bankrolled his lavish lifestyle. Further, he did not appear on horseback at his robberies because he was afraid of the animals, and Bart never fired a single shot or hurt the first person in his robberies because he never even loaded his gun.

Black Bart used the most crippling weapon in his arsenal: Fear. Through menacing intimidation, he made a good living at taking from others. But when unmasked, he was nothing people said he was. He was just an unarmed, deep, shadowy voice in a dark empty suit.

I’m not naive; the world around us is dangerous. I know that. But the living Christ has shown this world for what it is: Powerless against those who are in him. This doesn’t mean the world will not hurt us. It does not mean that some of the things we fear won’t take place. It simply means that nothing in this world can finally or completely destroy us.

Imagine that your life is a chess match or a football game, if you like. There comes a point in any such game, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, where the decisive move is made. In chess, maybe the rook takes the queen; or in football that pivotal first down is made in the last five minutes so that time will expire. These are turning points, where yes, the game continues, but it might as well be over. The final outcome has been determined, and for all practical purposes the jig is up.

The decisive move in this game of God’s universe came at the cross and resurrection of Jesus. The final outcome, at that moment, was determined. Yes, life goes on. We struggle. We suffer loss. Pieces still move on the table. There is still time on the clock. We wrestle with our phobias and try to keep our fears at bay. But we have hope – not fantasies that the world isn’t the way it actually is – but assurance that Christ has overcome the world leaving so much that would terrify us as an empty threat.

In these perilous times we do not have to lose our heads or our confidence. The power we have been given and the love we have been shown flows from the Providence who is larger than our fears, and when we live in Him, we can live unafraid.

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

In the Arms of Love

Pyramid of Kukulkan ca. 987

Pyramid of Kukulkan ca. 987

While in Central America earlier this year, I visited the Mayan ruins at Tazumal, El Salvador. Tazumal is one of the best preserved ruins in that country, and I learned from my guide, that it was a central religious site. Tazumal was a place where the ancients gathered to ceremonially soothe their cruel, bloodthirsty deities.

If a severe drought struck the region, then the gods were angry; shed some blood. If the rainy season was monsoonal, the gods were perturbed; shed some blood. If the spring corn crop refused to grow, the gods were against the people; shed some blood. Sickness, plague, earthquakes, tidal waves, floods, or accidents; these all had the same explanation. The fickle and nefarious gods had to be appeased.

All ancient religions were built on a similar foundation: God is angry and humanity stands in constant danger, thus someone has to pay. Much of current religion is anchored to this mooring as well. Is it no wonder then, that the world is filled with hate, bloodshed, panic, and terror when religious people, the vast majority of the world’s population, expect the same from their gods?

Regrettably, faith has failed to mature or evolve beyond its most elementary and primitive beginnings; and when Christianity succumbs to this type of fear-driven hysteria, it is especially disconcerting. That God is an unpredictable executioner with an itchy, twitchy trigger finger that must somehow be pacified is a gross misrepresentation of our faith, because it is a gross misrepresentation of Jesus Christ, his person, and his mission.

We who are Christian believe that Jesus “is the visible image of the invisible God,” as the Apostle Paul wrote. Paul continued, “And through Christ, God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth.”

Put simply, the Advent of Jesus, his coming into the world that we celebrate during this season, was not to save us from God, but to show us what and who God is really like. And what is he like? He is at peace with us. He has reconciled all things. There is no anger to placate and no blood to shed, only his love to receive, explore, and share.

God loves us, not because we are good; not because we are loveable; not because of what we can do for him or for others; and not because of the way we make him feel. He loves us because he is actually, truly, really that good. And what we and our world need more than anything – a world up to its collective ears in fear and bloodshed – is that kind of real, unconditional, healing love.

I enjoy how Father Richard Rohr explains this. He tells a story about eating dinner with a family from his parish. They had a wonderful meal and the whole time the toddler in the family, who had just learned to walk, was running about everywhere. The little guy could really move, but he had a problem stopping.

He ran to the top of a set of stairs but could not find his “brakes” in time to stop. He toppled, over the edge, banging and careening his way downward. No one at the table moved; they all held their breath in dread. Four, five, six, seconds passed. The father finally jumped up and ran to the stairwell. There the youngster was at the bottom of the steps, only bruised a bit, but lying in shock, his eyes bugged out over what had just happened to him. Only when his dad got to him and picked him up did he start crying.

Father Rohr made this appropriate observation: “We can never acknowledge our pain and let the healing begin, until we are taken up in the arms of love. Love allows the crying and the mending to begin.” God wants to take up the hurt and injured into his arms to love and mend, not destroy. So let the mending begin in each us, and we might discover that the mending will begin in our 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.net.

Paying For Your Raising

checkHave you heard the phrase: “Paying for your raising”? Do something stupid as a child or teenager so that your mother or father becomes infuriated. They punish you, ground you, lecture you, and then, to exhaust their frustrations they say something to the effect, “One day you’re going to pay for your raising.”

Or, you are an adult talking with your parents about your own children. You tell them some dramatic story about how evil and morally bankrupt their grandchildren are, how they have committed some great sin, and of the pain it is now causing you. What do your parents do? They make light of your sufferings, and with evil in their eyes say, “I guess you’re paying for your raising.”

This is the parental cycle of karma, I think. All the sins of your youth and all the ways you hurt your parents, come home to roost in your own children. So you suffer, as this saying goes, as your parents suffered. My father told me regularly that I was going to “pay for my raising.” I didn’t believe him then, and now as the father of three teenagers, I still don’t believe him.

Why? Well, I read recently that a child born into a middle-income family this year, excluding the cost of college, will cost his or her parents nearly $250,000 to get that child to high school graduation. Armed with that information, if you think you can go to your adult parents’ home, and with one fell swoop stroke them a check for a quarter of million dollars and call it even, then you are a moron of epic proportions.

Even? Impossible, for you can’t pump the serotonin you burned up back inside their brains. You can’t undo all their gray hair, heartburn, crow’s feet, and high blood pressure that you caused. Because of you they had weight gain, extensive counseling sessions, hormone therapy, and sleepless nights. You imposed upon them impossible decisions, private fights, monetary sacrifice, countless tears.

As your parents they experienced existential guilt, law enforcement interventions, miserable teacher conferences, and gastroesophageal reflux disease: You did this to your parents! We all did – your kids will do it to you – and there’s no way to repay any of it. But joy and relief, there’s no expectation to do so, because most of us would endure all these heartaches again and again for the sake of those to whom we gave life.

How else can you explain why perfectly sane, highly functioning adults keep having children? It isn’t craziness, it is love (though, if you have ever been in love, you know how close it appears to madness).

Such love has a name. It is the Hebrew word, “Chesed,” usually associated with God’s fatherly love for his children, and a word for which there is no easy English equivalent. Some call it grace, mercy, or kindness, but these attempts fail. “Chesed” is all of these things and more, the central Hebrew virtue to which all acts of charity and goodness are attached.

Dr. Ralph Davis writes, “‘Chesed’ is where love, strength, and steadfastness interact with each other, not merely kindness, but dependable kindness; not merely affection, but affection that has committed itself.” And I will add that such a commitment is always there – whether it is deserved, earned, justifiable or otherwise.

One rabbi, explaining so plainly, says, “When a person works for an employer, and then he gets paid, that pay is really a recycling of his own deeds. It isn’t love. It isn’t kindness. It is earned. But an act of ‘chesed’ cannot be recycled. It is something given or granted without cause.”

Parenthood is based on this kind of unfailing, non-recyclable love. It is an act of steady, secure, unshakable, unearned, uncaused, and sometimes unappreciated love. That’s nothing that you or anyone else can pay back, even if you wrote your dad a big fat check for Father’s Day this weekend. He could use the money, I’m sure, but he would do it all over again for the sake of love.

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

For the Long Haul

longnowfoundationFor those who grew up in the revivalistic tradition, we heard the same basic sermon every Sunday: “You are a sinner. Repent or you’re going to hell. And you better get to it, because Jesus could return at any second and catch you unprepared.”

I can’t tell you how many times I heard a preacher say something like, “The Lord Jesus could return at any moment! He could return before I finish preaching this morning!” And then the speaker would preach for so long, I thought that’s exactly what he was trying to achieve: Preach till Jesus got there.

I didn’t like this sort of exhortation. I was, after all, a teenager being told how big a sinner I was, but didn’t feel like I had gotten to sin very much yet. I hadn’t got to do much of anything! I hadn’t traveled, hadn’t earned my driver’s license, hadn’t had sex, hadn’t turned twenty-one or really even lived. If Jesus was content waiting all these centuries before returning to earth, just to show up at this particular blip in history to interrupt my simple little plans, then I concluded it would be a raw deal.

My feelings about so much of the “Second Coming” preaching I hear still makes me cranky (but for a different reason than when I was a teenager). We are so absolutely convinced that we are living in the final chapter of human history – on the last page, if not within the last sentence – that we are in danger of giving away the future.

Growing up in a tradition where the impending, imminent return of Christ was a pillar of our faith, the question was always asked, “What if Jesus came back today?” That’s a good question, no doubt. But here is a question that might be better: “What if he doesn’t?”

What if Jesus does not come back today…or tomorrow…or next year…or next decade…or next century? What kind of world do we want to leave for our descendants? What kind of world will we have then? If we aren’t prepared for the long haul, prepared to persevere into a distant future, then have we not given up on actually living the faith we profess?

We who are Christian could take a lesson from the not-for-profit organization, “The Long Now Foundation.” It has been around since 1996, and it hopes to be around much, much longer. The Long Now Foundation has one essential goal: To reverse the trend in our culture of short-term thinking.

The founders believe that our “accelerating technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, and the distractions of personal multi-tasking” have given us “a pathologically short attention span.” They want to provide some sort of corrective balance to our short-sightedness, and encourage “the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured” in centuries, not months or years.

Illustrating this long-term thinking, Long Now is building a massive clock – a 21st century version of Stonehenge – that will tick for the next 10,000 years. Eventually the clock will be placed in a cave in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. The point of the clock is not to mark time; it is to rekindle our hope in the future.

The church, allegedly the most hopeful community in the world, could use some of that thinking, because Jesus will probably not return before you finish reading this article. He’ll probably not return today, and likely not return in your lifetime (If he does, I will happily apologize to each and every one of you publicly, along with an exhaustive list of all I have been/am wrong about).

No, “God is not slow about keeping his promises,” but we must know that God works on a timetable that is all his own. And yes, maybe Jesus will return tomorrow or next year. But it might be next millennium. Regardless, if it’s sooner or later, we have to be more than prepared. We have to be prepared to faithfully persevere no matter how long the wait.

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.net.

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