Category Archives: Featured Columns

Stay in School

The Buddha said, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Well, ready or not kids, your teachers are showing up in classrooms everywhere. It’s time to crack open the books, slip the surly bonds of summer, and head back to school.

In the coming days, and in some regions the academic year is well under way already, this country’s 130,000 public and private schools will be firing on all cylinders, spending $600 billion on the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic; employing some four million teachers, and educating more than 60 million children. Of course many who have completed their secondary education will now proceed to college, technical school, or university.

My counsel is to go back to school every autumn as long as the administration will allow it – not to avoid the employment line or devour your parents’ purse mind you – but to learn all you can. And more so, to learn to become a learner: For when you stop learning, the proverb goes, you’ve stopped living.

This applies even to those who have the parchment hanging on the wall, those in well-established careers, and to those who haven’t set foot onto a school yard in decades. We are always in school, or at least we should be, and those who feel they have matriculated to the point of knowing all they ever need to know have given up on a large part of living.

Review your own education. You began with phonetics and pronunciation, the beginnings of how to read. You learned about numbers and basic mathematics. You were taught elementary history. You got to finger paint or draw pictures in art class.

As you progressed, you repeated the same lessons, the same subjects, and the same material but always with increasing breadth and greater depth. What began as basic pronunciation eventually became ability to read Shakespeare and Dickinson. Simple mathematics became the building blocks for geometric calculations and a career in engineering.

You began with George Washington and Paul Revere and then moved to post-Enlightenment studies, geo-political globalization, and macroeconomics. You move from finger painting to creating magnificent portraits or composing musical scores. You learned the same lessons over and over again – but each time you went further.

So, if we reach a point in our studies – in life or faith – where we think we know it all, or at least we know enough, we haven’t graduated. We have quit. We have run aground. When we refuse to learn anything more, we become fixated, immature masters of minutia, nothing more, and life grows incredibly small – looking like old men and women stuffed into preschoolers’ chairs.

Mystery is murdered, discoveries dry up, and gone is the joy and excitement of new, daily revelation. How many treasures are forfeited by those who “know that they know that they know,” but they have learned nothing new in decades? Their minds and hearts as closed as a freshman’s Algebra book. In the words of Russian giant Leo Tolstoy, an author that every student should aspire to read, “Even the strongest current of water cannot add a drop to a cup which is already full.”

Maybe the always returning school year is a reflection of how God lets life bring each of us back to the classroom. It is an act of redemption, really, for we get another chance to learn our lessons; to take the same course, again and again if necessary, so we can get it right; to pick up the material that we have not yet mastered or refused to heed, and to go deeper.

Still, I suppose that every student, from the Kindergartener learning to read to the old man once again attempting to kick his addiction, feels like he is being crushed by the repetition of the classroom. But God’s classroom isn’t a form of punishment. The lessons must be learned for our own maturation and well-being, and the Teacher knows this. Therefore, he is infinitely patient with his instruction, giving us every opportunity to succeed – if only we will.

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.

 

 

Lessons in Life

My youngest son started middle school this year. On the first day of classes, climbing on the bus with all his Number Two pencils and three-ring binders, he also carried with them enough anxiety to fill a mama’s boy’s backpack. It wasn’t just the reality of a new school that put them on edge; it was middle school, and that is scary enough all on its own.

For the record, I wouldn’t go back and repeat those few years of middle school (we called it “junior high” back in the day) even if you promised me a war pension. It was, without a doubt, one of the more miserable seasons of my life. My body was awkward and out of control, hair began growing in strange places, my hormones and emotions were stampeding like angry cattle, and my face broke out like a pimpled topography map.

To make matters and passions worse, as my twin sister and I began climbing the escalating mountains of puberty, my mother entered the refining fires of menopause (It was no wonder my father was working 80 hours a week!). I fear the same thing is now happening in my own home, but I digress.

Yes, middle school is hard – very hard – and not just because of growth spurts and new experiences. It is hard because at this age children become acutely aware of their social status and standing. They will do most anything to “fit in” or to win the coveted prize of acceptance from their classmates. Acceptance is a good and healthy thing. It is incredibly validating to be welcomed by a group of people or to gain the respect and admiration of your peers. But it doesn’t take long for this normal and valid need for acceptance to slide into some very dark territory. I so readily recognize this tendency in my children because I recognize this in myself.

Adults, not just pimpled pre-teens, want the approval of others. In short, they/we desperately want to be loved, and will do anything to get it. That’s what makes forty-year-olds behave as adolescents. You can have a house in the burbs, a nearly four-figure car payment, three kids in soccer and still act like a child trying to make it with the “in” crowd.

Splintered, needy, and anxious, we spend the lion’s share of our energy and years of our lives chasing after the validation of others, a validation that we think will make us whole. We become slaves to the expectations of others while simultaneously manipulating those expectations to get what we feel we need. It is exhausting, for we do and say things we don’t mean, to hold on to approval we don’t need, wasting time and energy we don’t have.

And for what? A few emotional strokes, the fleeting approval of someone who is as fractured as we are, approval that lasts for about five minutes, and then the grueling exercise must begin all over again. Here’s some good news, good news for my children and for the rest of us: When you are deeply, madly, unconditionally, and fiercely loved – as God loves us – you can let the foolish exercise of chasing the approval of others go.

If we could get it through our thick skulls, our variegated defense mechanisms, and down into the basement of our hearts that we are always loved; that that our sins and failures cannot change God’s untiring affection for us; that our acne scars and awkwardness do not forfeit his acceptance, then we might enjoy a degree of confidence and freedom that we never thought possible.

We can – yes we really can – reach that point in life where we no longer need the love and validation of people, because we have come to know and experience the unconditional love of God. Then we can be free from the ruthless, unmerciful demands of uncertain and provisional affections. Now that is a lesson for middle school and for life.

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.

Keep it Simple

The Old Testament Law contains 613 individual commandments. The majority of these are negative: “Thou shalt not” do such or so. These commandments prohibit activities ranging from coveting your neighbor’s cow to wearing pants made from two different materials. The remaining commandments are positive: “Thou shalt.” These order adherents to perform in determined ways and means.

Such a corpus of legal code is incredibly lengthy. Yet, it’s just the beginning. The oral tradition that supplements the Law (acting as commentary and explanation) is also extensive. Translated into English, it is a multi-volume set of more than seven thousand pages. For perspective, the largest dictionary at the local library has only – only – about fifteen hundred pages.

So it’s no surprise that Jesus was once asked this pertinent question: “Which is the most important commandment in the Law?” The questioner was looking for Jesus to throw him a bone. With so much material to sift through, where should obedience begin?

Jesus’ answer was legendary: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind,” he said. “This is the first and greatest commandment.” He then added, “The second most important is similar: Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” This caused Augustine to say later, “Love God and do whatever you please. For the soul trained in love will do nothing to offend the Beloved.” If only practical faith could stay on this level of holy simplicity.

Christians are a verbose group. We always have something to say, prove, defend, attack, clarify, protect, or explain. As if the massive religious codex that came before us is not enough; as if centuries of creeds, confessions, and commentaries haven’t rounded out the picture, yet; as if elaborate statements of faith will improve upon our Founder’s humble words.

In the practice of our faith, complication and baggage just seem to naturally collect like barnacles attaching themselves to a ship. It requires vigilance – the closest and most careful attention – to keep faith concentrated along the lines of which Jesus spoke. To do otherwise, to let faith go where it will, seems to lead to more words, more demands and commands, and more impediments to actually practicing the way of Christ.

The writer of Hebrews understood how complication accumulates. He said: “Let us strip off anything that slows us down or holds us back, especially those things that wrap themselves so tightly around our feet and trip us up; and fixing our eyes on Jesus, let us run with patience the particular race set before us.”

I like the personal story told by Jim Wallis when he was a teenager. Young Jim picked up a girlfriend to take to a movie, an act strictly forbidden in the church culture of his youth. See, he was reared as a Plymouth Brethren (They make Lutherans look like Unitarians, by the way). Everything was wrong – everything. If something was the least bit stimulating or did not directly and sufficiently honor Jesus, it was considered a sin, and movie-going was one of their many prohibitions.

As Jim and his date prepared to leave the house, the girl’s father stood in the doorway blocking their exit. He said to the couple, tears in his eyes, “If you go to this film, you’ll be trampling on everything that we’ve taught you to believe.” While the Plymouth Brethren shaming was over the top, the man’s conviction is honorable, in a curious sort of way. He was begging those he loved to stay true to the path.

I have similar convictions when it comes to simplicity. Thus, I have lost count of the times over the years when people wanted “more” – more words, more dogma, more doctrine, more rules, more command and control. At such times, I firmly grip the doorframe and say, “No, let’s keep it simple.”

If we can learn to love God and love our neighbors (No easy task), it will be enough. It will be more than enough; for “shattering and disarming simplicity,” said the great C.S. Lewis, “is the real answer.”

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.

 

 

Belief, Not Belligerency

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” These are the words of Simon Peter, one of Jesus’ first disciples, written to some of the first and earliest Christians. And like most words put down on paper, these instructions have not always honored the intent of the author.

Peter wrote this during a time when Christianity was new, unheard of in most places, and very often viewed with suspicion. Thus, a graceful and thoughtful explanation “for the hope that you have” was absolutely required. Thousands of years later, Christianity is still handled with suspicion by many. Not because it is a novel invention, but because a large core of its adherents have misapplied Simon Peter’s good words.

Having a “prepared answer” – that is a ready opportunity to interact, dialogue, and discuss beliefs with others – has been replaced with defensiveness, anger, and out-and-out hostility toward those who see things differently. Many have forgotten to read the second half of old St. Pete’s instructions: “But do this in a gentle and respectful way,” he said.

Yes, I am a follower of Jesus. Yes, I consider myself a Christian (on most days). Yes, there are a number of essential beliefs important to me and to which I hold. Yes, some of these beliefs are in conflict with the beliefs of others, and these conflicts are not easily dismissed. But my beliefs, as important as they may be, do not give me the right to be belligerent toward others who do not share my beliefs.

I will allow that Christians aren’t the only ones who behave this way. Devotees to other faiths, politicians of all parties and persuasions, soccer fans, college alumni, and those with all manner of competing opinions will attack, degrade, and smear those they consider their opponents. The intent, it seems, is clear: Win the argument at all costs.

This cutthroat way of life is consuming every facet of our society, resulting in a complete collapse of common civility – that’s a column unto itself – and there is no relief on the near horizon. Anywhere there is an “us” versus “them” attitude there will be nothing but antagonism and disappointment until “them/they” are somehow rehabilitated or totally vanquished in favor of “us/we.”

In other words, peace will only come when all our adversaries are destroyed. This may be the way the world works, but it is not the way of Christ. For Christians, if Jesus is who this thing is about, then things should be different. Just because we have some assurance of our faith and beliefs, we forfeit the ability to share that assurance when we behave badly.

Our beliefs need not – should not – cannot – must not – be used to hurt or harm others. Consistently, and this should rend our hearts to pieces, Christians are characterized as mean-spirited, judgmental, critical, and inflexible (You don’t need research statistics to confirm this conclusion. Simply do an informal interview on any street corner.).

This is a reputation we have largely earned, because we have been more concerned with proving we are right, than we have been proving God’s profound love and grace. We have been more concerned with providing answers than we have with providing gentleness and respect.

Personally, I don’t think Jesus came to create an “in” group, an assembly of elitists who have truth held down under lock and key. I believe he came to create a “come on in” group, a crowd of fellow-journeyers who come to know God, experience grace, live life, and serve others together. But why would anyone want to come in to such a group if its representatives are constantly rude, arrogant, and unyielding.

Even if such a group had all the answers to all the questions in the world (and humility should caution anyone from making such a claim), it would be impossible to hear what they had to say, because it is simply impossible to hear the truth when it is communicated from a hard heart.

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.

Wise Up

When a mother giraffe gives birth, she will do so while standing up. So her calf’s first act is to fall six feet to the ground, crash landing on his face. Then, as if such an arrival wasn’t harsh enough, the youngling’s mother will continually knock him down when he attempts to stand. Only when completely exhausted will she allow him to stagger to his feet.

This isn’t cruelty. It is the youngster’s first and most necessary lesson, a tough lesson for an even tougher world: If you are going to stay alive in a world of apex predators, you better learn to stand on your own feet. You better wise up as quickly as possible.

Yes, this is a dangerous, predatory world. If we are going to survive, we need to learn our lessons well. And since none of our mothers hatched us in the Serengeti, immediately kicked us in the head, or thumped us like a drum in the hospital nursery, we can’t rely upon nature’s classroom. We have to find a different way. That way is wisdom.

Wisdom is more than intelligence. One can have incredible brain power and be essentially clueless to how the world works. It’s not knowledge. Being “in the know” is not the same as knowing how to live rightly. And wisdom is not just experience. Some people have all the experience in the world – they have fallen on their faces over and over – and they never get any smarter.

Wisdom, at its most basic, is the skillful application of knowledge. It is skillful use of experience. Some native peoples of North America put it this way: One has become wise when he or she can, 1) Understand what needs to be done, 2) He or she can do it successfully, and 3) He or she can do it without being told when to do it.

If this is indeed wisdom, then maybe no greater commodity is more needed in today’s world. In all aspects of society – business, family, government, economics, education, and religion – there is a dearth of those who seem to have any understanding and discernment whatsoever. Twenty years ago Philip Howard wrote a book entitled, “The Death of Common Sense.” If it was dead two decades ago, then by now, it has seized up with rigor mortis.

But beyond dropping all the idiots of the world on their heads and kicking them around for a while (A nice image I like to daydream about, but an image spoiled once I realize that I’m as big a moron as the people I criticize), what can we do on a planet with so little wisdom? Well, as simplistic as it sounds, we can pray.

The Apostle James said it like so: “If you need wisdom,” and heaven knows we do, “ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver.”

Wisdom, by all practical appearances, is there for the taking – at least for the asking. God will give those who request it, the insight and understanding that they need. He will grant common sense in living life; skill in dealing with people, perception about yourself and with situations. He can teach us to integrate our experience, knowledge, intuition, and know-how.

God can save us from foolish and reckless living, if – and this is a colossal “if” – we will trust him for these things and not ourselves. And that’s the rub, the very definition of our absurdity: We do not trust God to show us the way of wisdom. We waver, follow our own hearts, and then fall victim to our own lunacy. By trusting ourselves, we land in the dust over and over again. Yes, I know it’s hard to “let go and let God,” show us the way. But his way is the only path to true wisdom, and it’s a path far less painful than constantly falling on your face.

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.

 

 

“The Preacher”

I grew up with a lot of religious rules. To violate these rules was to subject oneself to the judgment of God. If you had a fundamentalist upbringing, you may be familiar with some of these restrictions. No drinking, no smoking, no dancing, no playing cards or going to the movies, no mixed-bathing (a prospect that intrigued my teenage mind), no Sabbath-breaking (though we did not actually gather on the Sabbath), and absolutely no questioning of religious authority.

Religious authority was bound up in “The Preacher.” The big Baptist downtown had a pastor. The Methodists had a seminary trained Reverend. The Presbyterians had a collection of elders. The one fledgling Catholic parish on the edge of town had a priest. I didn’t meet a Jew until high school, so I didn’t even know what a rabbi was, but it would not have mattered anyway.

In my narrow ecclesiastical world, we had The Preacher, the Alpha and Omega of religious instruction; the united concoction of fiery prophet, hardened inquisitor, moral policeman, and God’s anointed spokesman. I was certain that he cut his grass in a pinstripe suit and wingtips, didn’t know a single curse word, and all his children were probably adopted because to have sex with his wife was certainly too worldly, too carnal to consider.

See, the world in which the preacher lived was black and white with no shades of gray, no mystery, no ambiguities. There were only hard and fast certainties. You were in or you were out. If you wanted to know which you were, just ask him. He would tell you, and he used the pulpit to do exactly that.

On Sundays he became an inferno of Puritan proportions. Animated, wringing with sweat, discarding his suit coat and loosening his tie, he implored and coerced us sinners down the isle to the mourner’s bench. It usually worked. Someone “repented” most every service, even if it took thirty verses of “Just as I Am” to force the issue. Those altar calls were nerve rattling wars of attrition, and sometimes I felt compelled to go forward so the whole thing would mercifully end.

It was The Preacher who arrived at the hospital on a spring afternoon to visit my family. My younger brother was enduring a lengthy hospitalization with a faulty heart valve and a growing laundry list of complications. Not yet a year old, he had already faced more health challenges than most of us will ever see. His life hung by the proverbial thread.

My parents certainly needed emotional and spiritual support, a pastoral presence, but The Preacher was anything but comforting. I heard him say the most horrible thing to my parents. In paraphrase he said, “Surely you have committed some terrible sin for God to visit this kind of judgment on you and your family.” Even as a child I was flabbergasted, and to this day those words still burn my ears.

Is this the God of Christianity? Is this the kind of God behind our faith? Is this vindictive deity even worthy of our worship? I think not. While this might be the god of The Preacher, it is not the God revealed to us in the person of Jesus the Christ. For in Christ we find truth and grace, not this kind of crass judgmentalism. Jesus doesn’t walk into hospital rooms, his gluttonous belly pushing against the buttons of his tailored suit vest, handing out indictments of guilt to the innocent.

No, this Jesus sits down and weeps with the suffering. He opens his arms to the brutalized and confused. And while he doesn’t always provide us with the tidy solutions we long for, he always walks with us in the mystery of life and death.

I never accepted those words spoken in that hospital room. Maybe I’ve spent these decades of my life trying to disprove them. I hope you won’t accept them either. The love of Christ always trumps the hardness of men’s hearts – even those men who claim to have all the answers.

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.

 

 

Reflexive Spirituality

Five hundred years ago there was a group of Christians living in Europe known as the Anabaptists. These are not to be confused with today’s Baptists, though the groups do share points of common history. The name Anabaptist was not so much a description as it was a condemnation.

The Anabaptists were “anti-baptizers,” scorning infant baptism and a heap of other cherished church doctrines. Because of this, and their refusal to join their faith to the ruling civil powers, they were violently persecuted by governments, Catholics, and Protestants alike.

One such persecution broke out in 1569 in Holland. Yes, there were some fanatics in the Anabaptist tribe, but the simple, compassionate, and innocent Jesus-followers were gobbled up as well, as is always the case. One such innocent was a man named Dirk Willems.

On a winter day a bailiff was sent to arrest Dirk on the charge that he had been holding secret religious meetings in his home and had allowed others to be re-baptized there. Dirk ran for his life with the bailiff right on his heels, throwing himself across a small ice-covered lake.

It held his weight as he ran, and he crossed safely to the other side. But the ice did not hold for his pursuer. The bailiff chasing after Dirk crashed through the ice into the freezing water. Dirk Willems immediately turned back and rescued the struggling man from the ice. For his kindness Dirk was immediately arrested, and after refusing to renounce his faith, was later burned at the stake.

Now, here is the question asked by today’s Anabaptists: “Why did Dirk Willems turn back?” Put yourself in his vulnerable shoes. You are running for your life, the air is so cold it can freeze rivers and lakes, but the sweat is running down the small of your back. Your pursuer is so close to snatching you, you can feel his breath on your neck.

Your heart pounds in your chest and your pulse is deafening in your ears, but from behind you still hear a crack and a splash. There in the icy water is the man who came to take you to your death. What do you do? Do you raise your praise to heaven as God has triumphed over injustice? Do you continue running into the wilderness where eventually your hands will stop shaking and you pray you will see your family again?

Dirk Willems did none of these things. He instinctively, reflexively turned and rescued his enemy, though he knew death would be the price he would pay. In the words of Joseph Liechty, “It was not a rational choice. It was not an ethical decision. It was an intuitive response. No combination of mental calculations could have carried him back across the ice…The only force strong enough to take Dirk back across the ice was an extraordinary outpouring of love, and the only love I know [like that] is the love taught and lived by Jesus.”

Liechty’s phrase “intuitive response” rings in my ears and pulls at my heart. Can we reach a place in our walk with Christ, that when we encounter hate, suffering, injustice, frustration, or tribulation that our immediate and reflexive response will be Christ responding through us; a place where we don’t have to think about it, we don’t have to plan a response, but supernaturally and instinctively, Jesus comes alive in our hearts.

It’s like going to the doctor and sitting on the examination table. He pulls out that little triangular, rubber mallet and strikes the patient on the knee. Automatically, the patient kicks. There is no thinking, planning, or fretting. It is reflexive. It is your natural response.

Dirk Willems acted as he did because he had been so spiritually shaped and formed by the person of Jesus, that his response was the only response he was capable of making. Dirk’s life and identity had been swallowed up in the person of Jesus, and it was Christ who now lived through him. That is why Dirk Willems turned back.

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.

 

Freedom from Fear

In the town of Madison, Florida, you can find the Colin P. Kelly memorial, a striking sculpture of four angels, their wings unfurled in the wind. The memorial was dedicated in 1943 to the name and heroics of a B-17 pilot whose plane was shot down just days after Pearl Harbor.

Pilot Kelly did not survive the crash, but thanks to his courage and skill, all his crew did, jettisoning safely from the plane. After the memorial was dedicated in Madison Square Garden, it was then moved to Kelly’s hometown – Madison – where it remains today. Few people know the angelic statue’s namesake, however. It is better known as the “Four Freedoms Monument.”

The statue is a representation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms that he articulated in his 1941 State of the Union address. Roosevelt said, “We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: Freedom of speech, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.”

As idealistic and as hard as all these freedoms are to achieve in this world, that last one maybe the hardest: The freedom from fear. There is plenty to be afraid of today, everything from terrorist attacks and spiders to economic collapse and newly harvested cantaloupes. Getting free of fear seems to be a pipedream.

I have no political, social, or economic plan to achieve freedom from fear, no one does; not even an esteemed statesman such as Roosevelt. Fear is the currency of the world in which we live, but as citizens and people of a kingdom “not of this world,” we have at our disposal a peace that displaces fear, a peace that “surpasses all human understanding.”

From where does this peace come? Better fiscal policy? More powerful weapons? A hulking stockpile of canned food, bottled water, and ammunition? I doubt it. No, the only source of peace is love. When you know you are perfectly and completely loved, there is nothing left to fear, for perfect love dispels all fear.

The Apostle Paul once asked a rhetorical but significant question: “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love?” In other words, will God’s love for us really last? Can we count on it in face of multifarious threats and dangers? When the world seems to be flying off its axis and the fabric of everything we ever trusted is in shreds, will God’s love be there for us in the end?

The answer is an emphatic “yes!” With some of the more magnificent words in the Christian Scriptures, Paul responds to his own question with a comprehensive list of possible dangers: Trouble, calamity, persecution, hunger, destitution, threat of murder, violence, life and death, angels and demons, fears for today and worry for tomorrow, the power of hell, powers above and below – it is as broad and as exhaustive a list as one could construct.

And then he concludes, “Nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing in this life or the life to come; no spiritual powers, good or evil; nothing in the present moment and nothing tomorrow; nothing now, and nothing later; the powers that be – governmental, spiritual, judicial, religious, economic, earthly or otherwise – none of these have the power or ability to take God’s love away.

It is sure. It is strong. It is eternal. It is ageless. It will not wax and wane. It is the one unvarying element in the cosmos, able to overcome everything, including our fears. If the created universe can contain it, God’s love can outlast and defeat it.

This includes the worst of your sufferings, the worst of your personal failures, the worst crimes you have committed, the worst of your decisions, your divorce, drug abuse, emotional baggage, arrest record, selfishness, adultery, rebellion, addiction, dishonesty, stupidity, your bone-headed decisions – fill in the blank – nothing can separate you from God’s love. That will set you free from fear.

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.

The Man Behind the Curtain

What do Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, have in common? Besides the fact that they are both splendid, waterfront communities, probably not much. Except this: Seventy-five years ago this week, these towns were the first public release points for one of the greatest films ever. “The Wizard of Oz.”

Few movies have had such a prolonged, impactful history. It is consistently voted into the top ten of any “Greatest Movies” list, has been preserved by the Library of Congress and the National Film Registry, and contains some of the most recognized one-liners of any film ever made.

Generations of people have said in times of confusion, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” They have dropped their bags at the front door and collapsed onto their couches with the shibboleth, “There’s no place like home,” falling from their lips. Who has never said, in a moment of being cornered, “There are lions, and tigers, and bears!” And of course, the Wicked Witch has her place in the conversation: “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” still terrifies children (and her cursed flying monkeys still terrify me).

But my favorite line from the film is spoken by the Wizard himself. The scene is iconic; Dorothy and her friends return to Oz’s throne room with the Witch’s broomstick, confirming that their assignment is complete, and the Wicked Witch is indeed, dead. But the Wizard rebuffs them. He is about to break his promise of sending Dorothy home, and about to renege on the handing out of brains, hearts, and courage.

Then, in the midst of booming voices, thunderclaps, and lightning bolts, Toto scurries over to a mystical shower stall and pulls back the curtain where a mere mortal is pulling levers and speaking into an amplifier. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” the Wizard warns. But the game is over. There is no great and powerful Oz. There is only Oscar Zoroaster Diggs from Omaha, Nebraska. It was all, quite literally, smoke and mirrors.

Why do I love this quote, this scene, so much? Because it reveals the truth on so many levels. There is nothing to be afraid of – especially when it comes to God. We have been taught and told that God, the “Wizard” for my purposes, is more terrifying than all the dangers of the world. We have been told that to enter the presence of this “Great and Powerful” is to take our lives into our hands.

Like the Cowardly Lion, we know we need God and all that he offers, but we might as soon throw ourselves out his palace window to escape his terrors than to remain in his presence. Yet, this is all smoke, mirrors, curtains, and megaphones. Jesus has done something even the legendary Toto could not accomplish. He doesn’t just pull the curtain back, he tears it asunder, showing us a God who isn’t playing a game or hiding his true identity.

This God is no imaginary Wizard. He is a compassionate, loving, heart-sick parent who refused to keep his distance from us, who decided he would no longer allow his name or his reputation to be misrepresented, but would represent himself as a mere mortal, that he might enter the sufferings of his creation and undo the chaos of his creation.

The coming of Jesus into the world was the coming of God into the world. And the cross of Jesus, in all of its foolish glory, did not change God – he has always been in love with humanity – it changes us. We begin to see clearly that so much of what we have been told simply isn’t the truth.

With no heavy curtain obscuring our perspective, we see that God is more gracious, more wonderful, more welcoming, and more loving than we previously imagined; there is no reason to be afraid of him. This is not a fanciful measure of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” It is the place we call home, and there’s no place like it.

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.

 

 

Help With The Missing Pieces

I love puzzles. Crosswords, brainteasers, and search-a-words to be sure, but nothing beats an old fashioned jigsaw puzzle with about gazillion pieces spilling out of the box. Right now there is a monster-sized puzzle strewn across our family’s dining room table. I have been persistently working on it for so long that I can’t remember the last evening we ate dinner at the table.

My family has learned not to monkey around with me while I am hip-deep in puzzle solving. Yes, assist me – I’ll take all that I can get – but don’t walk by and offer advice or a litany of critiques unless you are willing to give the pieces a try yourself. Time, patience, and the right kind of help: These are the requirements for solving puzzles, even puzzles of faith.

Sometimes when I lead retreats my love for puzzles spills over into the program. I divide the participants into small groups and give each group a children’s puzzle to complete. The only catch is this: While most puzzles are brand new in the box, I have tampered with one of the puzzles.

The puzzle in question will have a handful of wrong pieces mixed in, or if I am feeling sinister, I will have replaced the puzzle altogether, the pieces not matching the picture on the box at all. The group with the jacked-up puzzle will pour the pieces out, start working the edges, looking at the picture on the box, and after a few minutes, they will be completely bamboozled.

“Everybody else is almost finished,” I hear them say. “What is wrong with us? Why won’t the pieces fit together? How is that we can’t make the puzzle look like the picture?” When I reveal the dirty truth, they wail and protest, complaining that the assignment was unfair. “Ah,” I say. “Such is life and faith. Sometimes the puzzle doesn’t match the box we were given. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit together at all.”

I’ve met a legion of people who begin their walk of faith and everything goes as it “should.” They go to church, learn stuff from the Bible, volunteer, serve, give, and become “productive, committed, faithful, Christians” – whatever that is supposed to mean. But then these good soldiers go through a divorce; or they are mistreated by a religious organization, or lose their career. Maybe their child gets sick or their spouse dies.

The result is much more than the proverbial “crisis of faith” – I have one of those every Monday morning. No, it is much deeper, more life-altering and foundation-shaking than that. The answers they used to rely upon, the faith that formerly sustained them, no longer works. The fitly-paired pieces of the puzzle go scattering in the wind.

Often the only thing others can say in those moments is, “Well, pray longer! Try harder! Read this book I found. Clean up the sin in your life.” Such advice, beyond being asinine, will not work, because once one discovers that the puzzle of life no longer matches the picture they had imagined, it is impossible to pretend otherwise.

What is the answer to these miss-fitted and missing pieces puzzles of life and faith? Time, patience, and a little help. Time and patience to keep working it out and to sift through the prefabricated pictures of what life once promised. Time and patience to ask dangerous questions and to listen for unexpected responses. Time and patience to curse, pray, cry, heal, and hopefully come through on the other side whole – even if a few pieces to the puzzle are never found.

So, if a friend is stuck trying to solve their puzzle, offer the right kind of help. Don’t lend the latest book on puzzle-solving. Don’t shout advice from the other room. Don’t walk by as they stand and sweat over the mystery that is their life and lob out bombs of critique. Rather, quietly sit down with them and dig in. Patiently sort through the pieces, and help put it together, whatever “it” turns out to be.

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.