Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

The Kudzu Conspiracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.

Money – What It’s Good For

There is a single word that has overtaken contemporary US society, one concept that defines life in 21st century America: Security. Before you complete your online purchase, please establish a “secure” connection. Buy this alarm system or firearm to keep your loved ones “secure.” Our borders are porous and must be “secured.”

Terrorists are planning horrendous acts, thus, everyone has to go through “security.” Buy this software; it will keep your passwords, personal identity, and banking information safe and “secure.” This election vote for the President, Senator, Congressman, or Dogcatcher that will keep the nation “secure.”

So much for the days when there was “nothing to fear but fear itself.” Now there is everything to fear. Thus cars, computers, houses, politicians, pharmaceuticals, and wars are all marketed with fear as the motivating factor. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to economics.

But to tell you the truth, if you are trusting your money to keep you “secure,” you probably should be afraid; it will never give you peace of mind. Don’t get me wrong. We all need a few dollars to keep food on the table, a roof over our heads, and pay the bills. Even a handful of investments, mutual funds, and IRAs are good for as far as they go. They just can’t go far enough.

Why? Because once you have a little pile of dough you have to go on guard duty. You go into perpetual protection mode, always on the wall, always peering out at the economic boogeymen, always defending, hedging, and hoarding. This produces mind-racing, palm-sweating, turf-defending worry, something about as far from contentment as one can get.

It’s as elemental as this: Our level of peace will depend upon what we depend upon, no more and no less. If the source of our security and well-being is this world’s economic promises, we should hire better money managers, take more medication, and stuff more gold coins under our mattresses. But if our subsistence is Christ, then no, life will not be easy, but the source of his strength is endless and the peace he offers surpasses all understanding.

Now, this doesn’t mean we build a bunker, stack canned goods, and buy an arsenal. That’s nothing but fear and anxiety run amok. No, we joyfully live in this world, but recognize it for how fragile it is. We see that ultimately it cannot meet our deepest needs.

That responsibility belongs to God, because it’s not a matter of “if” our stockpiles will fail us, it’s a matter of “when.” That’s not fear mongering, it’s simply stating that trusting Christ to give us what we need and sustain us is not near as dangerous as trusting a system that is bound to collapse.

To that end, a late friend of mine was a Word War II veteran who fought for General Patton. He helped liberate a number of concentration camps, was in Germany when the unconditional surrender was tendered in 1945, and on those rare moments when he spoke of the war, he told mind bending stories.

One such story involved his tank unit, late in the war, after it had crossed the Rhine River and was deep into Germany. Patton was moving at blazing speed, as was his style, so US forces had to forage from the land around them, as they were often without basic supplies. One severe shortage was paper goods, and war or not, this was a crisis.

So the servicemen began using German Reichsmarks, the German currency, as toilet paper. twenties, fifties, thousands – it didn’t matter the denomination – it was just paper. The currency that had driven the finances of Europe, that had financed the effort for world domination was now worthless, useful only for the latrines and as kindling to start fires.

My old friend would tell that story, belly laugh at the memory of it, but would then make the same point each and every time: “Money, in the end, ain’t worth much, ‘cept for wipin’ your end.” I think he was right.

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

 

You are Welcome

I have heard some Mennonites use the term “non-violent evangelism.” It is a way of sharing faith that does not harm those with whom they share. It is built on mutual respect, love for others, and a commitment to the other person’s freedom. People are treated as seekers, not potential converts, without pressure, arm-twisting or coercion; and no manipulation of words or emotions.

Seekers are not vilified, targeted, pursued, or argued with. They are simply invited into radical hospitality where questions and exploration are not only tolerated, but encouraged and expected. These non-violent evangelists share their faith with a “come and see” attitude, opening their arms and hearts to others, leaving the rest to God.

The church could learn a lot from these quiet souls. Many of us, overtly and subtly, have taken a very militant approach in sharing our faith with others. We corner people. We demand immediate decisions. We use emotionally charged environments to wrangle decisions. We are sometimes disrespectful. We say, “Follow Christ and we will let you in.” But maybe we need to learn to say, “Come on in, and learn what it means to follow Christ.”

Here is an example: My friend Sabrina, and her husband Blake, live in a Christian community on a working farm. By “Christian community” I mean a group of people who are attempting to live out the way of Jesus while sharing life, space, and the same values. It’s not a commune – Sabrina, Blake and the other two dozen folks living there are definite individuals – it is a community: A group of people helping the world and welcoming others.

Welcome, in fact, is what brought Sabrina to the farm. She wasn’t a Christian when she arrived. Actually, she was rather hostile toward faith. But she loved the earth, she was trying to stay sober, and she and Blake wanted to give self-sustaining, organic farming a try while they were still young enough to pull it off.

Through a series of inexplicable events, but mostly because of the dramatic welcome others at the farm gave them, this couple found themselves moving out of the city and into the cornfields. Sabrina was going to farm with gusto, but she had no intention of getting involved with what she called, “the Jesus stuff.” And her co-farmers respected that.

But one day, after being surrounded by all this grace and love, and having begun to pray again and study the way of Jesus, she woke up in half panic, in half celebration, and all surprise: “Oh, my God, I think I’m a Christian!” It was a beautiful conversion; one made possible by giving plenty of margin, not plenty of manipulation.

Maybe it is because I hang around with too many Mennonites now, because I long ago defied my own coercive religious upbringing, or because of precious people like Sabrina, but I have come to the core conclusion that we need to give people some space. Should we share and live our faith? Absolutely! But I believe every person is capable of relating directly to God without coercion or interference by others.

In the words of that old Baptist from Oklahoma, Herschel Hobbs: “The Church cannot fasten its iron grip upon anyone’s soul…This is the worst of all tyrannies. And it is made worse by its claim to be in the name of God who created men and women to be free.”

Thus, every person should be given the right of free choice in his or her relationship with God (or without God). Every individual should be given the dignity as image-bearing creations of God to arrive at their own spiritual conclusions, choosing to be Catholic or Coptic, a Methodist or a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Baptist, a Jew or a Jainist, an Anglican or an atheist, without heavy-handedness of any kind.

No, not everyone will “convert” to our way of thinking or adopt our ideas about faith. But faith isn’t about force; it is about being set free. God entrusted people with that freedom. Let’s do the same.

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.

Extremist for Love

When it comes to the late Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s almost impossible to determine which speech, letter, or sermon of his is the most impactful. Where does one begin? His “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” sermon delivered in Memphis, just hours before his assassination? Is it the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial? What about his comments upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, saying that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word?”

It could be the provocative “Beyond Vietnam” talk given at Riverside Church in New York in 1967, a talk that illustrates his expanding vision to combat the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism…as a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” The corpus of his work is extensive and staggering.

But for my money, it’s hard to supplant King’s 1963 defense of his nonviolent strategies, a document entitled, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Like an imprisoned apostle writing in chains, MLK used his jail cell to take his detractors to task, specifically a group of Alabama ministers, who had taken umbrage with his tactics.

Those ministers – who represented Catholics, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Jews – crafted a document entitled, “A Call for Unity,” imploring King to use “proper channels” for his protests and to cease his “extreme measures” of boycotts and demonstrations.  After it was printed in the local newspaper, King drafted “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as his spirited response.

In it he accepted the sincerity and goodwill of the “Unity’s” authors, but fiercely attacked the false peace that they paternalistically peddled. It was false because they wanted rights-deprived African Americans to continue to wait for a more “convenient season.” Dr. King made clear that such waiting was an unjust reinforcement of the status quo. What was required for lasting peace and justice was to first “bring to the surface the hidden tension…bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”

It was King’s goal, always through nonviolent means, to foster this social crisis of inequality until it could no longer be ignored. Then, and only then, was systematic change possible. Only then could justice be achieved. Only then would there be peace, peace for all who were willing to have it.

Was this approach, “extreme?” Absolutely, as King penned the words that may supersede anything else written in his substantial library: “Was not Jesus an extremist for love…Was not Amos an extremist for justice…Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel…So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

“In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. The nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

When I read those words I can’t help but be captured by King as a spiritual guide, a mentor, a prophet whose words, passion, and creative, loving extremism can point us to a better future. And I say this as a man who was born years after his death; a man with no claim on MLK’s legacy; a man with a Deep South lineage where my grandfather still spoke of “The War of Northern Aggression.”

In the end, I have to agree with Tavis Smiley who says, “King is the greatest single individual this country has ever produced.” May he continue to produce fruit in all of us – black, white, Latino, or Asian – because we need extremists more than ever, extremists in love.

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

 

 

Sometimes Heroes Need a Hero

Auguste Deter was a forty-something-year-old woman living in Kassel, Germany. She had a pleasant life with her husband and their only daughter; nothing extraordinary, but she was irreplaceable to her family and her to them. So it was especially hard when Auguste began to show signs of “old age” well before her time. Her memory began to fail. She started suffering from delusions, confusion, and anxiety.

The family did the best they could, but finally Auguste was hospitalized. She was diagnosed with the “Disease of Forgetfulness” by the pioneering German doctor, Dr. Alois Alzheimer. The “Disease of Forgetfulness” now bears that doctor’s name, of course, and we have all learned that mental failure is not the result of growing old. It is often a disease of the brain, and it sometimes strikes people who are far too young.

Case in point: The magnificent Pat Summitt. A few years ago, when she announced she was stepping down as head coach of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers, it was the end of what Summitt called “a great ride.” For those of us who watched her coach these past four decades, pacing courtside like a coiled tiger and staring down players with that icy, piercing gaze, it was the final touch on a gold-gilded treasure.

Her accolades are voluminous: The all-time winningest coach in NCAA basketball history; 16 conference titles; 18 Final Four appearances; 8 national championships; a silver Olympic medalist as a player and a gold medalist as a coach; never a coaching season with a losing record; and, maybe the most remarkable accomplishment, every one of her players who completed eligibility at the University of Tennessee graduated – every young woman.

Though Pat Summitt’s coaching career has ended, certainly her life has not. She remains a hero (now more than ever) and will go on with grace and strength, but she will have to do so with some help from her friends and family. From all appearances, those friends and family will be there loving, helping, and supporting her every step of the way.

Many heroic people – not as well-known as Pat Summitt, but just as accomplished in their own way – are ambushed by this hellacious illness. In the fray that follows, those playing supportive roles emerge with equal heroics of their own.

Like my friend Betty; for 50 years she has been a church pianist. As Alzheimer’s tightens its grip on her mind she still dresses in her choir robe on Sundays, sits close to her grand piano, and when she gets her cue, she goes to the bench and plays Bach as surely and confidently as she did decades earlier. Her church could afford a new pianist, but they love Betty. They want her to play as long as she can, and at times they graciously order their entire worship service to accommodate her.

There is one of my personal heroes and mentors, Dr. Ron, who recently died from dementia. As his vigorous mind began to unravel, hundreds stepped forward to assist his wife and family – an entire community. We all had been helped, inspired, directed, and changed by his life. How could we not lend a bit of help in his most difficult days?

And there is my own father-in-law who has embarked on his own journey into the “Disease of Forgetfulness.” The family will journey with him, at times smiling as he forgets a name or suddenly behaves as a child; at other times weeping over how his past memories have been stolen from him; and sometimes buckling beneath the near unbearable weight of caring for one who was once capable of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

But what other choice is there? When one has given his or her life to us, how can we not give a little of our life in return? Yes, some of our heroes will forget almost everything: Their accomplishments, the lives they once lived, and maybe our very names; but love will not let us forget them, especially when they need us most.

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.

 

No Fixing a Fool

Zen Buddhists use a descriptive phrase that we who are Christian should adopt as our own. The phrase is “Idiot’s Compassion.” It was first used by Chogyam Trungpa, a provocative and controversial Tibetan who helped bring Buddhism to the West in the 1970s. According to Trungpa, “Idiot’s Compassion” is this intense desire to help someone who is in need, but this benevolent desire blinds the do-gooder from seeing reality.

The classic example of such behavior is the relationship between the addict and the enabler. Suppose an alcoholic friend comes to you in much suffering. Her body is racked by convulsions and tremors. She is financially used up. She is tormented by her disease. She begs you for a drink. You are persuaded to offer her a drink – just one drink – to alleviate her immediate pain. You do this, in your own mind, out of mercy. Yet, this act is far from merciful.

In providing the addict another drink, another high, or another hit, you have actually given her more of the poison that will ultimately take her life. This is not mercy. It is foolish cruelty. It is “Idiot’s Compassion.” The Hebrew sages had a word for one who could not be helped. They called such a person a “fool.”

There was a time when a fool was merely an entertainer. Fools were common in the palaces of kings and queens, court jesters who made the monarchy laugh. It was not the most secure job, as the fool could easily be beheaded or disemboweled for a bad joke. Thus, a fool was someone who not only had the job of being laughed at, but over time became anyone idiotic enough to even take such a job.

As the word and its use have evolved over time, a fool is someone who simply “lacks good judgment.” Maybe it is immaturity. Maybe it is ignorance. Maybe it is inexperience or a lack of education. It’s a person not capable of making good choices. The book of Proverbs goes further. In that ancient book of Hebrew wisdom, a fool is described a hundred or so times. The word means “fat,” “heavy,” or “thick.”

It is someone who is immovable, stuck, unyielding, and stubborn. It is the person who refuses to “get it,” who refuses to learn, and refuses to accept correction or critique. This person cannot be taught – not by people and not by his or her circumstances. In the words of Hebrew scholar William Wilson, “The fool has a weak mind but confident expectations,” so it’s damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, and nothing you say or do will make a bit of difference with such a person.

If you don’t believe me, go into business with a fool, marry a fool, move in with a fool, work for a fool, hire a fool, and you will discover it to be one of the most maddening experiences of your life. The better part of wisdom is to keep some distance, for a fool is as dangerous and toxic as poison, and will suck you into a never-ending death dance.

Now, I know this can be hard wisdom to accept, especially for those of us who are engineered to “help” others. We want to solve their problems, be a listening friend, or offer a little support while they are down on their luck. In most cases, this is gracious and appropriate intervention, but when it comes to the fool, there is no fixing them. You might as well try to rescue a drowning man who is still fighting the water. Both the savior and saved will drown in the struggle.

No, I’m not advocating a lack of compassion for those who need some help along life’s way. I’m only calling attention to the fact that, in the words of the old Greek proverb, “Talking sense to a fool only makes you foolish.” For once you are tangled up with one who refuses to learn or listen, he has a way of making you look and behave like an idiot as well.

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

 

 

The Discovery of Forgiveness

Four-hundred and ninety times. That was Jesus’ answer to the question, “How many times should I forgive someone who has offended me.” I don’t think Jesus was being literal; how I wish he were!. Then there would at least be a boundary. Jesus was saying, however, “Stop keeping score. There is no limit to how many times you grant forgiveness to others.”

I can understand turning the other cheek (until you run out of cheeks). I can understand walking the second mile and “doing good to those who persecute you.” But to forgive every single time you are hurt, harmed, offended, cheated on, ripped off, mistreated, abused, wrongly accused, verbally assaulted – every time – this is lunacy. Why would Jesus say such a thing?

Here is an answer: When we forgive others without limit, we are treating others as God treats the world. God loves and forgives without restraint or limitation. So when Jesus teaches us to forgive without limit, he is calling us to bear the loving image of God in the world. We forgive because that’s what God does.

I don’t think profound, God-like forgiveness is something we humans can accomplish on our own or within our own power. I don’t think it is something we conjure up with gritted teeth and by trying harder. No, if forgiveness flows out of us to others, it is because God is doing it and not us ourselves.

Certainly forgiveness does not ignore the terrible transgressions committed against us. Unfaithfulness by a spouse, betrayal by a business partner, abuse by parents, mistreatment by a priest or pastor, the drunk driver who harmed or killed our family member: The offense and hurt we feel is legitimate, and we must confess that wrongdoing is indeed, wrong.

But rather than responding to these wrongs with the hellfire of revenge or resentment, we respond with compassion and grace; grace that comes from God, grace that we pass on to others. Our only responsibility in this process is to be a conduit, a passage through which God’s love can flow; and the better we understand God’s love, the more that love will spill out to others.

Consequently, forgiveness is not so much something we do, as it is something we discover.  It is the discovery of God’s inexhaustible, inconceivable, insuppressible grace – for ourselves – and for those who have hurt us. An example: There is a television show on the A&E Network called “Storage Wars.”

Storage units that have been abandoned or defaulted upon by the renters are opened, and bidders show up to bid competitively for the contents of the unit. An anonymous man in San Jose bought the contents of a storage unit from Dan and Laura Dotson, the hosts of “Storage Wars,” for $1,100. Inside the unit were nearly 2,000 gold and silver Spanish coins – literally a pirate’s treasure trove – worth more than $500,000.

Forgiveness, I suppose, works like that: We begin sorting through the baggage and the storage units of our life. We start unpacking all our pain and injustice, rummaging through it while betting and hoping for something. As we busily sort, shuffle, and restack the cardboard and Rubbermaid boxes of our past hurts, lo and behold, we stumble across a treasure.

Simply, there it is, and it has been there all along, right in the midst of all our rubbish: The unexpected, glorious discovery of God’s unlimited grace. He really loves us. He loves us so much, that his love is enough to forgive those who have hurt us. His forgiveness is so invaluable that no matter what life has cost us, it will pay the price, and then some. It is this discovery of forgiveness that can change us, and can change the world.

If we don’t believe that, if we do not believe that forgiveness can change the world, and give the world a future, then as clearly as I know how to say it, we do not believe the gospel. Forgiveness has given us a future – it can do the same for everyone else.

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.

 

Nothing to Prove

Nikos Kazantzakis was a Greek writer and philosopher who penned the fabled book, “Zorba the Greek,” which would later become a treasured film starring Anthony Quinn. A second book of his was also adapted by Hollywood: “The Last Temptation of Christ,” a Scorsese flick that got Christians all over North America up in arms (Not to mention that the original book got poor Nikos excommunicated from his beloved Greek Orthodox Church).

The controversy surrounding Kazantzakis has more than ostracized him in faith circles, and that is tragic, for he was an incredibly astute, wise man with much to offer, even in death. You’ll find his grave on the island of Crete in his ancestral village. It’s a simple, plain site with a wooden cross and a capstone with ten Greek words. Translated into English it reads, “I want nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

This is timeless wisdom, for the things we desire, the things we want, the things we think we need, and the things we chase imprison us. The pursuit, the game of acquisition – and we’re usually chasing emotional rather than material things – actually steals our happiness. The pursuit is a dead-end, and only when we have given up, given out, and given over, can we ever be happy and free.

Now, if a Greek philosopher’s epitaph is too highbrow for your tastes, then maybe you will be better served by the words of Kris Kristofferson as sung by Janiis Joplin: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” And usually the last thing we lose is our wretched insecurity that has us forever chasing after fool’s gold, playing for the fickle crowd’s applause, or trying to climb some unsurmountable mountain to showcase our strength.

No, there’s nothing wrong with ambition, for it has its place. There’s no shame in having God-given abilities; be thankful for them. The problem is when we go scrambling for accolades and approval, when we become something of stage actors trying to obtain that elusive appreciation, recognition, and validation. The problem is when we feel we have something to prove to others – that we are capable or lovable. Then, we have imprisoned ourselves.

The imprisoned soul may appear to be a person of great drive and focus. He or she may be sacrificial and benevolent, but as Helen Shucman said, this person is “affected by everything.” There is so sense of identity or grounding, no internal peace, no satisfaction. They are shaky, hungry, feel inadequate, insecure, and afraid.

Thus, they go hustling for love and try to shake down approval from every person and situation they encounter; here and there, trying this and trying that, reaching high and reaching low, straining for everything. They are trapped. Only when the striving ends will such poor souls be free.

The good news is, this can happen. We can quit doing and saying things we don’t mean, clutching to approval we don’t need, wasting time and energy we don’t have. We can be free from the merciless crowd, free from our own pride and insecurities, free to become people who no longer need the flattery of others; others who are as fractured as we are, others who give their approval which lasts for about five minutes, and then the exhausting, self-caging exercise must begin again.

Simply, you can’t kiss every pretty girl or boy. You can’t win every game. You can’t make every person love you (or even like you). You can’t react to every sound in the cacophony of voices that call to you. You can’t prove to every person you meet how lovable, capable, smart, sexy, accomplished, and worthy you are.

Try to do all of this, and you will be an ego-driven, self-centered maniac; or you will be as fragile as glass, a needy little imp that never experiences a single moment of rest. Either way, you will never be free. It’s only when you have let everything go, when you have nothing left to prove, that you will have something truly to live for.

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

 

The Puzzles of the Past

It was on Christmas morning 1980 that I discovered a Hungarian professor’s maddening invention beneath the holiday tree. It was Erno Rubik’s magic puzzle, brought to America: The Rubik’s Cube. With a few twists I was hooked, but I never figured the thing out.

The Rubik’s Cube is still the most popular toy ever produced, all these decades later, and theoretically, it is easily solved. No matter its configuration, it can be tidied up in twenty turns or less. And in practice, this is confirmed. Dutchman Mats Valk has solved a Cube in less than six seconds. But I suspect that of the 350 million cubes sold over the years, most of them are in the same condition as the one I received – unsolved.

I worked on mine for a year, and despite my best efforts, I could only solve three sides at once. Finally, I gave up and did what my friends were doing with their Cubes. I peeled off those colorful stickers and reapplied them in the correct location. If I hadn’t given up, I might still be wasting my time, twisting and turning that infernal piece of plastic, attempting to sort out what could not be sorted.

There are some puzzles that cannot be solved. We don’t have the ability, and there is no cheating; no “peel-and-reapply” solutions. Death. Unjustified suffering. A silent heaven when we pray. Who hasn’t twisted and turned these things over in their mind, losing sleep and years in the process, trying to navigate such “swamplands of the soul” (as James Hollis describes these things)?

Most of these conundrums are captured in a single word: Yesterday. For every person wrestling with what is happening today; for every person anxious about what might happen tomorrow, there are a dozen people stuck in what happened yesterday. We take our past experiences and we work them over and over and over again, getting bogged down, wasting life, and we can’t seem to let the past go.

We are always peering over our shoulders; always trying to re-envision a happier past; always staring into the rearview mirror. So it should be no wonder why we can’t keep our lives on track, why we keep crashing into the metaphorical ditch. What else could happen when we maneuver through life while looking backwards?

Yet, we are all moving forward. That is where life is lived. That is where God is leading, and the road he is creating, as with the beautiful prose of the prophet Isaiah, more than apropos as a new year begins: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing…I am making a way in the wilderness.”

We can’t keep working through the past, attempting to solve what can no longer be solved, and live a free and peaceful life today. We have to let go of yesterday and move further down the road. Does this sound like “quitting” or like “giving up?”

Well, return to Rubik’s Cube. This is almost impossible to believe, but according Erno Rubik himself, there are 43 quintillion ways to scramble a Cube. So if you turned the Cube one turn every second, it would take you nearly 1500 trillion years to go through every permutation!

When viewed from this perspective, it makes perfect sense to give up on solving some of our problems, for we don’t have the time to obsess with unending analysis of how our lives could have been different. We don’t have the years to navel gaze at our pain and our problems.

Simply, there comes a day when we must put down our puzzles; a day to quit working so hard on what we cannot fix; a day to lift our heads and see the God-given road that leads to life; a day to give up “all hope of a better past,” and start living again. We are granted only so many days among the living, so we had better spend those days, living, not scrutinizing every twist and turn of our past.

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

Oh, What a Web We Weave!

Here I am, twisted up in the same desperate situation again this year. It’s not my fault – I swear it’s not. Anticipating this jumbled mess, and having been stuck in it many times before, I planned carefully to avoid it. A year ago I employed a deliberate strategy to prevent this very disaster, and I put in painstaking efforts to manage my risk. But now I see that my preemptive planning was an obvious failure. Forces beyond my control have conspired against me to deceive and weave a tangled web. My dilemma? The annual hanging of the Christmas lights.

When I put these lights away in the attic last January they were in perfect arranged order. I had rolled and packed them so carefully, I just knew the strings of blinking colors would burst from their boxes unfettered. Instead, every strand – every single strand I tell you – looks like a giant bird’s nest.

How did this happen? Do the electrical cords naturally convulse like this? Is this how Santa’s elves keep themselves busy in the summer months – sneaking into our attics, basements, and storage units to twist and kink our well-organized Christmas decorations? “Bah, humbug” to it all, I say.

I doubt that Joseph had any holiday lights to string up on the first Christmas, but he had to feel like a big tangled mess had just landed in his lap. One day everything made sense. The next day nothing did. One moment he had a well-conceived plan. The next moment he had a mess on his hands. In January his life was in order, boxed nicely for the future. In December, that same life had devolved into chaos.

One day Joseph was driving nails, building furniture, and doing what carpenters do, and the next he was in the middle of a divine conspiracy. One day he was single, planning a wedding to the fair and beautiful Mary, and the next he was married, preparing to rear a child that was definitely not his. One day Joseph was at home in Nazareth in blissful, warm familiarity, and the next he was fighting off the midnight cold in a strange Bethlehem stable as a new child was born into the world. Forces beyond his control were definitely at work.

What did Joseph do with this tangled web? He went to work untangling every twisted strand of it. He took on the responsibility that had found him. Buoyed by his faith, he believed this child birthed by Mary was the miraculous, chosen One of God – the Messiah. Joseph chose to play the role of father to a child that was not his. He bore the scandalous stares and the hushed small-town gossip about his wife and his adopted son. He kept driving nails, kept building furniture, and kept doing what carpenters do, unraveling each stubborn strand as he went.

I’m sure there were a few knots that never came undone for Joseph. Like: How can God take the form of a helpless, human baby? Why did God choose Mary to bring this child into the world? Why did God pick him to be the child’s surrogate father? There were no answers to such questions; at least no easy answers. And for us, there are often not enough answers to go around either, just twisting questions and more impossible knots. What do we do? We sit down on the floor with whatever life, God, Providence, or destiny has dealt to us and we untangle as much as we can.

We live. We take on the responsibility that has found us. We keep doing whatever it is we do; we stay after it. And why? Because if we are going to live life, it will mean persisting through the confusion; there’s no other choice. So when your well-ordered, well-kept life explodes into a tangled mess – and it will – what are you going to do? You can point fingers, blame others, curse the Fates, ask a million unanswerable questions, or you can get on with untangling things as you go.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.me.  His newest book is “The Gospel According to Waffle House.” If you’d like to have a look, visit Ronnie’s page at Amazon.