Author Archives: Ronnie McBrayer

Good All the Time

goodI heard humorist Jack Handey say that you should never criticize someone until you walk a mile in his or her shoes. Then, when you do criticize them, “You are a mile away and have their shoes.” That’s not bad advice, especially when it comes to telling others how to parent their children. If you want to kick over that notorious hornet’s nest, do it from miles away, or at least make sure those shoes on your feet are running shoes.

While this is one of the quickest ways to get into serious trouble, this doesn’t stop the practice from being all the rage these days, however. Websites, blogs, reality shows, that crazy old blue-haired lady at the park, the priest who has never had the experience of being an actual father, your grouchy neighbor whose own children are now on Social Security themselves: Everyone has an opinion – and words of instruction – for what to do and not do with your children.

Personally, I don’t appreciate very much of this unsolicited counsel (I don’t know many who do). Yes, when we need advice we should seek it, and we should all bend listening ears to those people we genuinely trust and respect. But armchair parenting? No thanks.

That’s why I couldn’t believe that I became one of “those people,” one who stuck his big nose into someone else’s parental business. It happened so quickly, so impulsively, that I have gained a new understanding for those who sometimes rush in with uninvited guidance.

I was sitting at my son’s mid-week football practice, watching with a group of other parents when a mother stood to leave and called to her young lad: “It’s time to leave; we have to go to church.” Her son, not more than five-years-old, had been busy playing with his friends. He was not happy with the interruption. He popped off, “No! I don’t want to go to church!”

His mother answered, “Well, then God will send you to hell with the devil and his angels if you don’t go to church.” And that is where I stopped being an observer and became an interfering, meddlesome busybody. “Don’t you ever say that to your child again!” I snapped, not realizing at the time how loud my voice had become.

For her part, the mother I chided looked as if she could have stuffed me and my little fold-up lounge chair into the trunk of my car. I don’t blame her, for I had interfered at too close a distance and had embarrassed her publicly. Yet, I just couldn’t let her comment pass, because it was horribly wrong.

My outburst arose from the fact that I had been subjected to just such religious threats as a child myself. Church was not always something warm and welcoming, a place of community, peace, and learning. It was often a hard place with legalistic pressure, spiritual intimidation, and such high attendance requirements that I was never allowed to play in community sports programs as a child. My participation would prevent me from attending the midweek prayer meetings.

Church was a difficult place, I logically concluded, because God was difficult. I was resentful and distrustful of him; a God whom I actually believed was eager to send a child to “hell with the devil and his angels” for missing the occasional Sunday school class. When you believe this about God, it’s hard to be enthusiastic about going to the building that bears his name.

Ironically, I have remained a church person my entire adult life, being in a pew or a pulpit most every Sunday. But I am no longer part of a rigid, hostile, fear-mongering faith because I no longer believe in a rigid, hostile, fear-mongering God. This doesn’t make me an enlightened expert sitting in my fold-up chair. I simply have learned that God is not one to be wary of or to be resented, because God is not a threat. The childhood prayer is correct: “God is good,” and he is good all the time.

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.

 

Grace Fills the Empty Spaces

chairIn her book Gravity and Grace, the late Simone Weil wrote, “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it.” With those words she emphasizes a spirituality which for the most part has been only a minority report in the Christian church. It is the spirituality of weakness and emptiness.

It is no wonder that Jesus said, “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him.” He said this, not to glorify poverty, but to show that the only receptacle for God’s grace is a vacant human heart. We all must become poor, in one way or another, to receive what God has to give.

Somewhere along the line we simply lost our Way, that being the Way of Jesus. He always taught and modeled an inverted power, personal capability turned on its head. He never used coercion, strong-arm tactics, or dirty ladder climbing to the top. Rather, he descended to the bottom choosing the way of sacrifice, service, and humility.

Yet, we who are Christian often march forth to clutch for power and accomplishments as quickly as all others. Our good old Protestant work ethic (Catholics work just as hard, by the way) with a  strong dose of entrepreneurship drives us to amass everything from fortunes and followers to perfect attendance pins and pats-on-the-back. We can become so full of ourselves that there is no room left for anything else, not even the grace God longs to give.

Personal achievement should be rightly celebrated, but it cannot be forgotten that egotism, pride, and ambition are the real enemies of the gospel. Why? Because when our hands, heads, and hearts are full, we are simply unable to accept what God offers. “Grace fills empty spaces!” Or in the words of Leo Tolstoy, “Even the strongest current of water cannot add a drop to a cup which is already full.”

I remember the telling of an old story about a scholar who climbed the mountain to meet the Zen Master face to face and to learn from him. This scholar had an extensive academic background. He had read and studied all the important texts and was a wealth of knowledge and experience.

After making all the customary bows and introductions, the two sat together and the scholar began talking about all he had done and all he had studied. He talked about all his endeavors and all he hoped to achieve in the future. The Master listened carefully and patiently and began to brew tea for the two to share.

When the tea was ready, the Master brought it over and began pouring it in the scholar’s cup; and he kept pouring, pouring, and pouring. It filled the cup, ran over into the saucer, into the scholar’s lap and onto the floor! The scholar jumped up shouting, “Stop! Stop! The cup is full and running over! You can’t get any more in there!”

The Master stopped pouring and said: “You are just like this cup. You are so full of yourself that nothing else can get in! You come here asking to be taught, but I can teach you nothing until your cup is empty.”

None of us will receive God’s good grace or experience genuine transformation so long as we remain full of ourselves. The gospel is completely unappealing – it is downright repulsive – to those of us who feel that we can manage our lives with our own abilities, resources, accomplishments, or on own terms. As long as this self-reliance reigns supreme, the reign of God cannot take hold in our lives.

No, it’s not what we’re often told, but emptiness is not curse; it is the cure. Insufficiency is not the end; it is the beginning. Admitting that our hands hold nothing is not a liability; it is receptivity. And when we acknowledge that we have nothing left, it is then we have found the most important thing of all: The capacity and space to accept grace when it is offered to us.

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

Minimum Protection, Maximum Support

mickeyWalt Disney hates your mother, and the evidence is shockingly conclusive. Exhibit A: Bambi. Before the poor boy can celebrate his first birthday, his mother, who Walt Disney didn’t even name because he knew she wasn’t going to last long, is shot and killed.

Exhibit B: Dumbo. This big-eared elephant is delivered to Mrs. Jumbo and out of love she seeks to protect him from the jeering crowds because of those massive ears. Ultimately, she loses her cool while defending her son, and is locked away.

Exhibit C: Cinderella. Her mother is dead, obviously. So to assuage the pain of her missing mother, Cinderella’s father remarries, creating a blended family that is nothing short of dysfunctional. And while the story ends well – with glass slippers and all – she must suffer terrible humiliation at the hands of her wicked stepmother and her repulsive stepsisters.

Exhibit D: Snow White, a variation of the theme, but further proof of Walt’s war on women. Here is this naïve, beautiful teenager – “the fairest of them all” – at the mercy of who? Her wicked stepmother. Her mom is as dead as a hammer, and Snowy’s behavior proves as much.

She runs away to the woods, not a safe place first of all, and once there moves into a fraternity house with seven men, their sweet and innocent sounding names notwithstanding. Then, she takes candy from a stranger and finally she runs off with the first man who kisses her. If she had a mother providing appropriate instruction, none of this would have happened.

Mowgli. Tarzan. Lilo. Nemo. On and on I could go. If Walt Disney were alive today he would need a mental health intervention, and though he’s been dead now for half a century, his studio continues his long campaign to eradicate mothers as if the species were some horrible disease.

Some have tried to explain his films by stating that Walt Disney, who had a marvelous mother from all accounts, is trying to show that a traditional family (whatever that might mean to whoever is defining “traditional”) is not necessary for happiness. Families come in all shapes and sizes and the individual can thrive in the worst of home situations.

Going further, people like feminist Amy Richards believe that the elimination of the mother figure in so many Disney films is simply for dramatic effect. If Cinderella, Snow White, Bambi and Mowgli had loving, involved, present moms in their lives, there wouldn’t be much of a plot left would there?

So, by this logic, Walt Disney isn’t trying to push your mother off Space Mountain, but in his own way, he is providing instruction for raising resilient, adaptable, successful children. People need to struggle to become strong, and protecting our kids from all adversity is not an act of kindness. It is a crime against their futures.

Case in point, observe the parent who is over-involved in his or her child’s life. These parents have good intentions (they want to safeguard and nurture their child), but they cross all boundaries with their micromanaging and uber-protecting ways. They hover, physically and emotionally, robbing their children of the maturity to live in this world.

Hence, when parents make a child feel that he or she should never suffer pain, rejection, or be deprived of anything asked or demanded, it doesn’t create maturity, it creates monsters. So beware of those for whom everything has come easy. Beware of those who have never suffered or struggled, who have always had someone else clean up their messes. It’s hard for such people to develop any depth of character.

To succeed, yes, we need instruction and guidance, but not so much that it ruins us. The key is “minimum protection and maximum support,” to quote the late William Sloane Coffin, and I think Walt Disney understood this. He knew that when one must wrestle against the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” this does more than make great movies. This makes for a great life. Do not take that away from your children.

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

A Revolution is Required

revolutionKim Il-Sung began his military and political career when he was a young man living on the Korean Peninsula. A decade later, he was the despot over North Korea. The “Great Leader,” as he was named, succeeded in holding power for the next fifty years. He also succeeded in creating one of the most oppressive governments in recent decades, and one of the more closed and oppressive societies in world history.

It did not have to be this way, however, for Il-Sung was not raised as a God-hating, church-destroying, human-rights-violating tyrant. He was raised in a Christian family. His grandfather was a pastor and his father a church elder. But in the misery of his world, Kim Il-Sung turned not to the faith of his fathers; he turned away. Why?

The “Great Leader” answered that question with these words: “Many people believed that they would go to Heaven…and Jesus would save them from their misery on Earth; faith in Christ would give them a better life…I thought Christian doctrines were too far off the mark to suit our misery and problems.”

Certainly the words of one of the darkest figures of the twentieth century his words are nuanced, and there are multiple reasons for his turning away from the Christian faith, but this fact remains: He experienced a disconnection between the actual message of the Christian gospel and the sufferings of the world.

Thus, the gospel was judged as too anemic to address life’s evils. The result in that country is now evil upon evil, and suffering upon suffering; much of it unnecessarily so, as the trajectory set by Kim Il-Sung could have been much different.

The gospel that Kim Il-Sung heard, and rejected, was a gospel of escapism: “We cannot do anything about the sufferings and injustices of today. Therefore, we will press along until God delivers us by taking us to heaven. Jesus is good for my soul, but he doesn’t really concern himself with the things of this world.”

Such a gospel should be rejected because it is inaccurate. But sadly, to hear the faith peddled from many pulpits and seen practiced in many churches today, one finds that Christianity has been neutered of its revolutionary power. It has become a faith that offers people a chance to forget their current pain and suffering (and the suffering of others) for a little while.

It has become in some circles, a help for believers to sleep at night and reminds them that there are just “a few more weary days before we take our heavenly flight,” but it does very little to inspire and move people to join God’s redeeming mission in the world today. It focuses all of the faithful’s attention and energy on the sweet-by-and-by, and leaves only the leftovers for those in this world who cannot afford to wait until tomorrow.

This world can bear much longer a Christian faith that sleeps soundly in the confidence that the faithful will soon be evacuated, for the suffering of this world is too great. There is little time left to bask in the knowledge of our personal salvation when the urgent misery of our world calls out to us.

We cannot rest in our pews, lulled into a catatonic state, while there are nearly 50 million refugees dispersed over this planet; 145 million orphaned children who go to bed each night without a parent; 25,000 who die every day due simply to contaminated water; while 100 million of earth’s residents live without a home or permanent shelter; and a million children are trapped in prostitution and sex-slavery.

The love of Christ surely compels us to address these conditions with more than promises of a better eternity; it compels us to serve others today, transforming our society. For living the “Christian life” is nothing short of participating in divine transformation.

It is connecting with the world-redeeming, evil-conquering, status-reversing, personal-transforming presence of heaven brought to earth today. It is joining a revolution of love that will change the world – right here, right now – today.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author. You can read more at www.ronniemcbrayer.net.

You Are Stuck With You

stuckRecently, on a visit to my hometown, I took the time to drive by the house that had been my childhood home. It was the first time I had seen it in nearly two decades. It was largely unchanged except that it seemed so much smaller. Surely, the house, and what I thought had been a sprawling front yard, had shrunk over the years.

How else could Shane, Michael, Zane, Tammy, Connie, Angie, Sarah, Elvis (yes, there was a kid named Elvis in the neighborhood), Jeff, Cotton, Jamie, Richie and myself have all fit in it to play baseball every summer evening? Now, the front yard looked like a meditation garden it was so small.

Not everything, however, was small and nostalgic. The neighborhood itself had gone to seed. Homes were completely abandoned. Once beautiful yards were overgrown. Everywhere I looked I saw the same thing: Dilapidated, deteriorating, run-down homes.

So what happened? It was a failure of vigilance more than anything else. Everyone moved out or moved on, and homes that aren’t lived in break down. The same can be said for our hearts. By “heart,” of course I’m not speaking of the cardiovascular system, but the mysterious, inner person.

Almost all ancient languages refer to the heart as the core or essence of a person. Thus, we have the admonition from the Hebrew sage: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” The writer wasn’t referring to elevated concentrations of LDL cholesterol or high triglycerides (though one should be cautious of these, for sure).

He was addressing the spiritual center of the person, for the heart can become as overrun as an abandoned home, as fallen into disrepair as a forsaken neighborhood if one doesn’t stay with it. And I mean exactly that: You have to occupy that space, living at the center of who God has made you.

It’s tempting to run away from who you are, moving out and moving on, but at the end of the day (literally and metaphorically) you have to come home to yourself. And home will not be a very pleasant place if you haven’t taken care of the space, if you have no center – no core – if you haven’t taken care of where you live.

Put bluntly, you are stuck with you; and if you have let your heart go to seed, how can you ever be happy occupying a place like that? If your heart has been given over to the wilderness, if the dust and mold are a foot deep inside, and if cockroaches, critters, and cobwebs have taken over the joint, why would anyone else want to share that space with you?

Chris Hurst, a young songwriter from Nashville, asks this question: “How do you break a heart?” He answers, “You abandon it. Slip out in a moment of weakness and vulnerability; when it has turned its back. Leave it lonely. A heart cannot be crushed. It cannot be pierced. It cannot be gagged. It must be neglected. Then and only then will it break.”

I dare say that most of the heartbreak and heartache we suffer is not the result of what others have done to us, but what we have done to ourselves, the result of our own spiritual indifference. Yet, the forgotten and abandoned heart can be revived. It will take some time and hard work, mind you, but time and hard work will get it done.

Trim the hedgerows with prayer or meditation. Cut the grass, that is, keep bitterness and unforgiveness nipped in the bud. Repair those broken places of the past, long ignored. This kind of sweat equity will clear the cobwebs and clean the windows, allowing the light to shine in, and you’ll begin to feel safe and sheltered.

Guard your heart and you just might learn to love the person God has made you to be and the life he has given you to live. Give your heart the attention it deserves, and you just might discover a wonderful place to call home.

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

Doctor, Doctor

doctorIt was that time of year once again, time for my annual physical; and I had been dreading it as badly as one can dread anything. But my dread was for reasons beyond the obvious. You know, those backless gowns, horrible vinyl examination tables, and being put into positions – literally – that rob you of all dignity (When I complain about these things to my wife she says that only after I have had a mammogram and my ankles in the stirrups will she begin to feel sorry for me; she makes a valid point).

No, I hate going to the doctor because I hate feeling so exposed, and I’m not talking about the physical nakedness. When put under the stethoscope-bearing, X-ray-shooting, blood-sucking, prescription-writing interrogation of a skilled physician, your life has a way of telling on you. You can no better hide your secrets than you can hide your rear end while wearing one of those tie-behind frocks.

Having you been smoking? It will surely show up in the blood tests. Have you been boozing? Your liver will rat you out. Are you under too much stress or exercising too little? Your blood pressure reading will tell the tale. Have you been stretched out on the sofa eating cheesy puffs every day? Then your LDL cholesterol will backstab you quicker than you can scarf down a Ho-Ho cake.

The examination, the lab results, the endless questionnaires, the rubber-gloved poking and prodding: These all have a way of pointing to the truth of how the patient has lived his or her life. And this is exactly why I hate going to the doctor. I prefer – like all of us – to keep my secrets, secret. I am a believer in the old Delphian maxim: “Know Thyself.” I just don’t like others to know me as well as I do; but this is what my doctor cannot abide. He wants everything bare and in the open.

Honestly, I should appreciate my physician’s nosy persistence, because he runs me through the ringer each year with my overall health in mind. He wants me to enjoy the best well-being possible. Thus, his goal is not to punish, embarrass, or shame me. His goal is that I be well, free from disease, and make any necessary changes to maintain a fitness for life.

My doctor’s annual assault against my privacy each year is simply a part of this process. He is holding me accountable and working to accomplish one of the most difficult things imaginable with a human being: Forcing me to face the truth about myself and how I live my life.

That is the same point made by the writer of Hebrews when he speaks of the Scriptures as “Sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it reveals the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The Bible isn’t a giant stick used to bash in the brains of those who do not believe or behave as we wish they would. It’s not an instrument of shame whereby violators of our interpretations are exposed and left hanging in the breeze (though some practitioners use the Bible exactly in this fashion).

No, it is a powerful, spiritual tool of personal examination. It opens up our hearts, spirits, and minds revealing how we have lived our lives. And when necessary, the Scriptures give us the required intervention – the ability to change our lives if we wish to change – and improve our health and well-being. No, the Bible is not like an unskilled, bone-sawing quack that does more harm than good. It is a benevolent, healing physician that encourages us to get and be better.

Complaining aside, my annual physical did reveal a little trouble. Nothing life-threatening (not yet any way); but to stay away from bigger problems I’m going to need some additional medication, healthier habits, and a few lifestyle modifications. See, my future health requires that I change; and change requires that I be honest with who and where I am today.

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

 

 

To Die Trying

paul-rusesabaginaA religious leader once asked Jesus a question. “If loving God and loving my neighbor is all that religion requires, then tell me, who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with a parable, a parable that is one of his most well-known stories: The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

This story turns up everywhere in our culture, even in places where people do not know what a Samaritan is or that it was Jesus who first told the story. With such familiarity, we typically think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a story about being a good neighbor. Yet, this is not Jesus’ point at all. Jesus does not even attempt to define the word “neighbor,” though that is what the religious questioner wanted.

Jesus takes another course altogether. He defines, instead, what it means to “love your neighbor.” He speaks of a love that involves itself in unexpected, revolutionary, boundary-breaking ways. Of course, the only way to explain such a love as this is with a story:

Paul Rusesabagina is the former hotel manager who inspired the movie Hotel Rwanda. Beginning in April of 1994 (has it really been more than two decades?), over the course of a hundred days, an estimated one million Rwandans were killed after extremists in the majority Hutu population turned on the Tutsi minority.

Fifteen percent of the population was annihilated. For perspective, that would be the percentage equivalent of a genocide wiping out nearly fifty million Americans, the total combined population of the greater Southeastern United States: Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee – every human being living in those states, gone in three months.

Hotel Rwanda focuses on the seventy-six days in which Mr. Rusesabagina transformed the luxury hotel over which he was responsible, into a refuge for the terrified. On the first day of violence, twenty-six people came to Paul’s home for shelter. They knew he was a person of influence with high connections and that he could help them. That is why they came, of course, but they also knew he was a person of compassion.

They bet their lives on him, and it was a bet that paid off. At the end of that three month massacre, Paul Rusesabagina had saved 1,268 people in his hotel. Somehow, Paul kept corn and beans in the kitchen; he rationed the water in the pool for drinking when militia cut the utilities; and he took all the room numbers off the doors and burned the registration records, so the roving bands of machete-wielding killers would not know the identities of those under his protection.

At one point, Paul and his family were given the opportunity to leave Rwanda. He packed his bags to depart. It was then the residents of his hotel came to him and begged him to stay. “Paul,” they said, “we know you are going to be leaving this place tomorrow. But please, if you are really leaving, tell us, because we will go to the roof of the hotel and jump. A better death would be to jump and die immediately.”

Paul said, “By that afternoon I had made the toughest decision of my life. I said to myself, ‘If you leave, and these people are killed, you will never be a free man. You will be a prisoner of your own conscience.’ I then decided to remain behind…and if I was to die, I would die helping my neighbor.”

So, who is your neighbor? That question is incidental, really, as anyone you meet along life’s way fits the definition. “Will you love your neighbor?” – that is the primary question, and one we have the opportunity to answer daily.

Will we be called upon to love with the fearsome intensity of Paul Rusesabagina? It’s not likely, but I hope that when the time comes for us to leave this world, we die trying; we leave knowing we have helped and loved our neighbors. This is so much more than a story. It’s the way we save and heal the world.

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

 

God Smiles

ebolaOver the last two years the world has combated the largest Ebola epidemic in history. And the current upsurge, beginning in West Africa in 2013, continues even though it has fallen off the front pages of our newspapers.

Ebola is a fearful disease. There are multiple strains, a dreadful mortality rate, and scientists know precious little about it, as Ebola is relatively new to the medical community. The first outbreak was less than 40 years ago, so unlike the flu, the mumps, or polio, generational knowledge of the disease is lacking.

To that point, scientists don’t know exactly how the virus leaves the animal population and crosses over to humans. They don’t know where the natural reservoir, that is the primal source, for the disease is located. They don’t know how Ebola will evolve and mutate going forward – there is just so much we do not know.

Yet, what we do know is this: Health workers have been at the forefront of combating this disease, unselfishly submitting themselves to incredible risk in the process. They remind me of Christ who would walk among the diseased and infected, unafraid to touch, to heal, and to love.

I heard one of these workers, a nurse, interviewed via radio late last year when the Ebola hysteria was at its peak. The interviewer asked a good question: “What materials or supplies do you need to improve your work?” I waited to hear her speak of more money, more hospital beds, more IVs, or what not – all were definitely needed.

But the nurse gave a surprising, most beautiful answer. She said, “What we need are new biohazard suits; ones with full, clear screens so the patients can see our faces.” She went on to describe their current outfits: Bulky, hot, with only eye holes to peer out of, or cumbersome goggles.

Then she spoke of how patients were scared, sick with this gruesome disease, afraid of dying, isolated from their family and friends, and were being cared for by “foreigners” who didn’t necessarily speak their language. She concluded: “We need the new suits so they can see our faces…so they can see us smile at them, and be less afraid.”

This nurse is a skilled caregiver, regardless of her technical proficiency, for she understands that the healing process requires kindness, warmth, and clarity as much as it requires antibiotics and oxygen tanks. “So they can see our faces,” is simply, good medicine.

Her words reminded me of the great Aaronic blessing from the Hebrew Bible. It goes something like this: “May God bless you and protect you. May God smile on you and show you grace. May God look you full in the face and give you peace.” It’s all that anyone could ask for, good medicine for sure: To have a life that flourishes, for God to grant peace and grace, and for Providence to smile in our direction – that is good medicine indeed.

And it is medicine so badly needed. I don’t have to work very hard to convince you or anyone that this world is a difficult place to live. Ebola. Disappearing airplanes. Ferguson. War in the Ukraine and the Middle East. The Islamic State. Boko Haram. Extremism at every turn. Oh, and don’t forget the garden variety troubles we all have: Illness, divorce, the deaths of those we love, too many bills and not enough paycheck, so on and so forth.

Any one of these, much less enduring the entire lot, is enough to blind us, isolate us, and make us afraid. Yet, through it all, God is smiling. That is, he is caring, loving, and healing, showing his face to those who will see it. Yes, that face is sometimes masked by religion’s camouflage or some creed’s bulky, cumbersome language.

This doesn’t mean God is not present and that God does not care. I believe he cares – immensely. And when we catch his smile, even for the briefest moment, it lets us know that he is here and that he is working to heal our hearts and our world.

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

 

“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.

 

 

 

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