East Valley Tribune: Spiritual Life

Spiritual Life

Thursday 07/10/2014
Keeping the Faith: You Will Be Blessed

I’ve made a habit lately of studying the Amish. I use the word “study” loosely as this is not a simple curiosity of mine or some kind of theological experiment. My exploration flows out of a deep respect and admiration for their faith and spirituality. We English (that’s what the Amish call us outside their communities) recognize them because of their familiar beards, horse-drawn buggies, fine woodworking, or barn-raisings, but there’s a lot more to this group than sturdy furniture and firm dispositions. They have a lively, vibrant faith despite their archaic lifestyles.

The Amish (and their cousins the Mennonites, Brethren, and a few other groups) I have come to know are lovers and active makers of peace. They value simplicity above almost any other thing. They love their families and community, and they have a profound trust in God. This trust, employing a good Amish-German word, is called “Gelassenheit.”

“Gelassenheit” is usually translated into English as “submission,” "yield," or "serenity," but it is so much more. It is a total letting go of entanglements. It is a relinquishment of the self. It is an exchange of human, personal will for a “thy will be done” kind of life — not a blind, hopeless fatalism, but a defiant and restful faith in God. One Amish farmer summed up “Gelassenheit” like this: “We don’t pray for rain,” he said. “But we are thankful to God when the rain arrives.” This perspective gives the Amish a completely different understanding of “the will of God” than most of the Christian universe.

Many of us have been taught, tacitly or overtly, that “God’s will” is this magic be-all-end-all, which, if discovered, can end all the angst and indecision of life. So we chase after and fret over what God wants us to do, thinking there will be complete and total disaster if we miss the secret plan he has for us. We twist and writhe in the anguish of our decisions, never feeling good about any choice we make.

Finally, we conjure up all the bravado or foolishness we can muster, smile through gritted teeth, and give a direction a whirl. If it all works out, we praise God for his magnificent direction. If it is a belly-flopping disaster we scratch our heads, feel terribly ashamed, and blame God or our weak faith for leading us the wrong way.

The truth is, most Christians really want to do what God wants us to do; we want to do “the will of God.” Equally as true, however, is this: There is no exact formula for finding this will. This does not sound very spiritual, but in my experience, finding God’s will is as much about trial and error as it is about praying and seeking. And yes, sometimes it ends in a big mess. Maybe we can take a cue from the Amish and neutralize the mystery of finding and doing God’s will. Maybe we can learn to simply trust God with our life and our circumstances. Maybe, if we keep hitting the wall, we can stop, listen, and trust for a while. Maybe we can learn to yield our own wills, or at least stop using God’s name to sanction our decisions.

Maybe we can stop putting ourselves through the torturous exercise of chasing after something we can’t even define. Here is the thing the Amish can teach us: Rather than trusting an exact path and direction for your life, just trust God with your life. After all, God is bigger than your plans. God is stronger than your failures, and God never fails to reward those who seek after him. You can find peace by quit trying to figure out what to do for God and simply rely upon God.

Meister Eckhart, an old medieval mystic from Germany who knew a few things about “Gelassenheit” himself, wrote: “God wants no more from you than you letting go of yourself. Then you can let God be God in you.” If that’s not God’s will, then I don’t know what is.

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.

Posted in Spiritual life, East valley voices, Columnists, Faith spirituality, Blogs, Columns, Life, Local, Opinion on Thursday, July 10, 2014 10:45 am. | Tags: Amish , Religion In The United States , Christianity In The United States , Mennonite , God , German Diaspora , Simple Living , Pennsylvania , Meister Eckhart , Waffle House , Keeping The Faith , Germany , Amish Farmer , Amazon , Christianity , Ronnie Mcbrayer

Friday 05/30/2014
Keep your shirt on … God will speak

Last week my son asked me a profound theological question: “Why did God make stinging bugs?” Stumped, I told him to talk directly to God about it. Pausing for just a moment to consider my inadequate answer, he countered, “You know I can’t talk to God; I’m not even dead yet!” In my son’s literal but complex 8-year-old mind, prayer does not qualify as “talking to God.” Thus, his many and variegated questions about the mysteries of the universe, the meaning of life, and the purpose of wasps and biting flies, will have to wait.

Truth be told, my son’s conclusion about “talking to God,” and more pertinent, God talking to us, is the conclusion most of us have. God doesn’t really talk to people, does he? And those mystical types who routinely say things like, “God spoke to me” or “I heard God say,” are we to take them seriously, or should they be scheduled for a mental health examination?

I remember a bizarre story from two decades ago about a Texas pastor who crashed his car while attempting to elude police. It was a bizarre story, first, because all twenty of the pastor’s parishioners were with him in his vehicle — 15 adults and five children — in a single Pontiac. Second, and stranger by the details, the congregants were all naked. It seems the devil had cursed their clothing, God had told them, so the voodooed garments were cast off per divine instruction. And finally, the police were chasing the naked and mobile congregation because they had attempted to forcibly procure a parked RV — an RV that God said now belonged to them.

God gets blamed for a whole lot of the kookiness in this world, and stories like this one make me appreciate my son’s conclusion. If this is how God speaks, I’ll be happy to wait till I’m dead for such divine instruction. And let’s be honest; sometimes the stories are more tragic than comical. Some of history’s greatest atrocities have been committed because someone “heard God speak” to them.

Absurdity aside, I still believe God speaks. Now, I don’t believe God’s instructions ever include harming others, stealing their property, or committing violence. Such voices are patently inconsistent with the way and person of Christ. And no, I don’t think God’s voice arrives in our inboxes as an unalterable blueprint for life. Further, it’s not likely that many of us will find God standing at the foot of our bed some early morning with a heavenly telegram in his hand. Besides, if God did speak that clearly (and maybe he does), most of us would miss it anyway (maybe we have), for it seems God prefers communicating through quiet and stillness rather than through the pyrotechnics of signs, wonders, and naked-RV-stealing-hijinks. “God didn’t speak through the whirlwind, the earthquake, or the fire,” the prophet of old tells us. Instead, God spoke “in a still, small voice.”

It’s summed up by Dan Rather’s magnificent interview of Mother Teresa more than twenty years ago. Paraphrasing, he famously asked her, “What do you say to God when you pray?” She offered him a simple answer, “I don’t say anything. I just listen.” Rather then asked the obvious follow-up question: “Well, what does God say?” Mother Teresa gave Rather that crooked little smile of hers, and said, “God doesn’t say anything either. He just listens.”

Does such a wordless “conversation” sound as bizarre as a Pontiac filled with naked Pentecostals? Hardly. In a relationship of love and trust, being together is enough, and more is understood in the silence than when using all the words in the world. A great deal of religion, I fear, is built upon the desire for divine fireworks, megaphoned and crystal clear answers, God showing himself in flamboyant and undeniable style. Yet, God only requires the quiet and silent heart to quietly and silently speak. In other words, keep your shirt on. Getting quiet will do more to sharpen one’s perception of God than all the religious gymnastics in the world.

Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, pastor, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.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.

Posted in Spiritual life, East valley voices, Faith spirituality, Columnists, Blogs, Columns, Life, Opinion on Friday, May 30, 2014 8:45 am. Updated: 9:15 am. | Tags: God , Punctuation , Christ , Dan Rather , Waffle House , Pontiac , Teresa , Pentecostalism , Ronnie Mcbrayer , Syndicated Columnist

Wednesday 05/28/2014
McBrayer: Practice Love

There are some people who, quite frankly, are impossible to love. You can’t dig deep enough, can’t try hard enough, can’t believe enough, and can’t go far enough to make it happen. And I’m not talking about the likes of Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson, either. If only a few such sinister creatures existed, then the world could sing together one great chorus of “Kumbaya,” and move on to the Promised Land.

No, the unlovable are everywhere, and they are fairly normal people, not sinister monsters who challenge our capacity to love. Bosses, coworkers, in-laws; your rival on the field, in the boardroom, or in the marketplace; your ex-spouse. The guy who cut you off in traffic. The obnoxious mother at your kid’s Little League game. There are some real jerks in the world, and they aren’t too interested in becoming kinder, gentler, more loving people.

The irony in all of this lack of love is that your personal ability to love others has nothing to do with them. And it has nothing to do with you. See, you can’t make yourself love other people, and you can’t make them more loveable.

Real love, if it is love, comes from God. So, if the unlovable people we encounter are going to be objects of any level of affection — and I’m not talking about hot, fiery emotion but genuine, gracious concern — then love is something that God must do through us, to us, and for us — and for others. It’s not something we can produce on our own.

Instead, we must get to know God better; be more receptive to the Divine; become more trusting of who God is and what God can do, and less confident in our own limited abilities. The more this relationship deepens, the more of God’s love we experience; and the more of God’s love we experience, then the more loving we become.

So if we start with the source of love, rather than starting at a hoped for outcome and work backwards, we get what we really need, and we are empowered to become people who are patient, kind, and unselfish. We become the kind of people who, as the ancient Church Father Clement of Alexandria put it, “practice being God,” for “God is love” (as the Apostle John put it), and those who know God best love the deepest.

But doesn’t that seem counterintuitive to much of what we witness in the world of faith? Those who know God best love the deepest? This would appear not to be the case. To hear the tale told, those who know God best are those who are the most doctrinally entrenched, the most committed to their particular dogma, denominationalism, or neo-Puritanism.

Those who claim to know God the best are often the most inflexible, stubborn, and most difficult with which to work. Those who are the most “spiritual” can simultaneously be the most ungracious and unloving. Yet, this is a horrible oxymoron, inconsistent with a genuine relationship with God.

I interact with people all the time who think the solution to Christianity’s contemporary troubles is “more.” We need “more doctrinal statements; more declarations of what we believe, more clarification of right and wrong, more lines to determine who is in and who is out.” I would agree that the answer is “more,” for sure. But it is more God, resulting in more love, and that will make the difference.

The objections to such conclusions I hear all the time as well: “If we only focus on love, we’ll wander into all manner of error and heresy,” some will say. Maybe. But we cannot ignore the fact that the greatest act of sacrilege has nothing to do with doctrine. The greatest act of sacrilege is the failure to love one another.

We might have all of our doctrinal “T’s” crossed and our authoritative “I’s” dotted, but if we aren’t allowing the love of God to flow through us to others, then we have a lot of practice still to do.

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.

Posted in Spiritual life, East valley voices, Faith spirituality, Columnists, Blogs, Columns, Life, Opinion on Wednesday, May 28, 2014 4:15 pm. | Tags: God , Apostrophe , Ronnie Mcbrayer , Orthography , Linguistics , Adolf Hitler , Charles Manson , Waffle House , Little League , Church Fathers , Christianity , Apostle John , Jesus , Author

Thursday 05/22/2014
Keeping the Faith: Born to be Wild

When primitive Christianity first began to take root, it wasn’t known as “Christianity.” That was more or less a term coined by onlookers. The first Christians referred to their movement as “The Way.” The earliest disciples saw themselves, not as part of new religion, but as travelers on and in the Way of Jesus.

This “Way,” consequently, was something active and dynamic, bound to the living Christ. It was not some dead religion seized with rigor mortis. The passing of the centuries, however, has seriously muted this fact. The years have suppressed the wild and dangerous roots of the Christian faith, and in some cases, have beaten the living daylights out of it. This has not been lost on a large and growing number of believers.

According to researcher William Hendricks, more than a million Christian adults leave the church each and every year. Many do so “not because the church is too spiritual,” he says, “but because the church is not spiritual enough.” Large swathes of official Christianity have traded the untamed vitality of its Founder for something far more domesticated. Somewhere deep within us, we know this is a tragedy. We don’t need researchers or statistics to confirm the obvious: Our spiritual instincts tell us that there is something more, something deeper, more radical and more alive than the safe, sterile, status quo of the religious institution. We know (with apologies to Steppenwolf) we were born to be wild.

An example: Last autumn I was fortunate enough to visit Jackson, Wyoming, the Grand Tetons, and the Yellowstone area. No pictures can do the region justice. It is landscape that must be seen and savored firsthand. Yet, the highlight of my trip was not the dramatic scenery. It was what happened on a cold, snowy day in the National Elk Refuge. The National Elk Refuge is a 25,000 acre plot of land that in the fall and winter becomes home to thousands of migrating elk. The elk come down out of the mountains to harbor there, but it is not a completely safe harbor. The administrators of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service have a policy that allows hunting on the Refuge, a policy not without controversy. I saw a bit of this hunting up close and personal.

While on a wildlife expedition I observed a party of hunters stalking several hundred elk. These animals circled and panicked like proverbial fish in a barrel as the hunters closed in on them. It didn’t seem very gaming to me, and I braced myself for the slaughter. It was then that one of the big bulls in the herd decided that he had had enough. So, nearly a ton of wild, thundering animals-on-hooves stampeded toward the hunters. At the last minute, the bull shot between two of the would-be-trophy-takers, the space no wider than a sidewalk. And when he did, the entire herd followed.

Hundreds and hundreds of animals ran for daylight, and in a matter of minutes, the herd had not only escaped their predators — who looked at one another with a mixture of awe and shame – they had completely disappeared into the Wyoming woods. Not a single animal could be seen. These beautiful animals have lost a good deal of their habitat, but they have not lost their instincts. They still heed the wild and wonderful call of the wilderness, forsaking the false safety of the “refuge” for life with fewer fences. Granted, life in the wild is full of predatory dangers as well; but at least it is life outside of a man-made cage.

Jesus, it appears to me, wants us to have this kind of freedom, for he did not come to start a religion. He came to start a spiritual revolution. Jesus did not come to show us how to build cathedrals or ecclesiastical refuges. He came to show us how to live. Jesus did not come to fence us in, but to set us wildly and wonderfully free. We were never born for captivity. We were born to be wild.

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.

Posted in Spiritual life, East valley voices, Faith spirituality, Columnists, Blogs, Columns, Life, Opinion on Thursday, May 22, 2014 2:30 pm. | Tags: Jesus , Hunting , Elk , Christianity , William Hendricks , Zoology , Biology , Wyoming , Born To Be Wild , Christ , Researcher , Yellowstone , United States Fish And Wildlife Service , Religion And Spirituality , Ronnie Mcbrayer

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