Keeping The Faith

Keeping The Faith

Answering the Call

posted by ronniemcbrayer

When my friend Scott was young, he began to experience a stirring deep in his heart that some Christians refer to as “a divine calling.” How could Scott ignore such a thing, conditioned as he had been to hear God’s quiet voice?

Scott, in the words of Feroll Sams, had been “Raised Right” in the Baptist tradition, which meant he “was not only Saved but had spent a large part of his formative years in the House of the Lord…and while Methodists probably could be Saved, there was a question whether any of them really had been Raised Right.”

Scott did not run away from this calling. He embraced it, and after college, marrying Karen (who also had been “Raised Right” and possessed this same “calling”), and a few years in seminary, this couple found themselves working for one of the largest missions organizations in the world.

Mexico, Central America, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf: Scotty and Karen traversed the globe for nearly twenty years in faithful service, raising their children, aiding indigenous people groups, and living out the love and witness of Christ. It all came to a grinding halt, however, when the mission organization for which they worked deemed their medical mission financially unsustainable, but completely for reasons other than shrinking dollars and cents.

Simply, not enough people were becoming Christians. Conversions. Baptisms. Increasing numbers of those who have “prayed the sinner’s prayer.” Public professions of faith. Churches being planted and cross-topped buildings being constructed. These were the outcomes that were required by the mission executives. When these outcomes were not forthcoming, the organization refused to keep pouring dollars into such an “unreceptive region.”

Scott and Karen pleaded with the mission’s executives to reconsider this decision. Their medical facility was serving an entire region of needy people, treating tens of thousands of patients a year. A part of the world that had been antagonistic was finding it increasingly difficult to hate those who were loving, medicating, and saving their children and elders.

A mission executive responded to the pleas of Scott, Karen, and the medical staff with these words: “We have no obligation to the bodies of those whose souls are going to hell.” The facility was defunded, dollars were reallocated to more “productive areas,” and the missions’ staff, including Scott and Karen, was recalled to the States. To this day, their hearts are still broken.

Is this really the gospel, having “no obligation to the bodies of those whose souls are going to hell?” Is it “Good News” when we reduce the love of God to simple statistics or counting the numbers who pray a specific, mechanical prayer? Can we, with any integrity, disregard the crushing misery of people today, if those needs are not spiritual in nature, and say we are following the way of Jesus? The answer to all these questions is an emphatic “No.”

The “Good News,” as Jesus proclaimed it, is not an evacuation plan to rescue people from earth, or an insurance policy for the afterlife. Rather, it is a revolutionary strategy to redeem the sufferings of this world by putting the rule and reign of heaven inside people, something Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Thus, any sharing of the gospel that ignores the needs of this current world is a distortion of the gospel. Any profession of faith that focuses only on enjoying and living in a future heaven, rather than sacrificing for and serving people on today’s earth, is not Christian faith. And those who follow a Jesus who concerns himself only with the hereafter, and not bringing holistic change to the here-and-now, are not living out the transforming message of Jesus at all.

We have the chance, if we will take it, to become catalysts and conduits of the very real kingdom of God in today’s world, because the present – not the future – is where we follow Jesus. Today – not tomorrow – “is the day of salvation,” and the prayer “thy kingdom come” is more than words. It is our divine calling.

Decisions, Decisions: A Guide

posted by ronniemcbrayer

A farmer hired a man to work for him. He told him his first task would be to paint the barn and said it should take him about three days to finish. But the hired man worked very fast, and was finished in just one day. The farmer then instructed his hired hand to cut wood, telling him it would require about four days. The hired man, again completed the task quickly, and was finished in a day and a half, to the farmer’s amazement.

The next task was to sort a large pile of potatoes. The farmer instructed the hired man to arrange the potatoes into three piles: 1) seed potatoes, 2) Food for the hogs, and 3) Potatoes that were good enough to sell at market. The farmer said it was a small job and judging by the speed at which he had completed the other assignments, shouldn’t take long. At the end of the day the farmer came back and found the hired man had barely started. The potatoes were still, mostly in one large pile. “What’s the matter? Why aren’t you finished?” the farmer asked. And the hired man replied: “I’m sorry. I can work hard, but I can’t make decisions!”

Do you have a hard time deciding? What color are you going to paint the kitchen? Which gift will you pick for your significant other for his or her birthday? What will be your major when you head off to school next year? Should you have wheat or sour dough toast with your scrambled or over medium eggs? It never ends. And all the information now available at our finger tips just makes it worse for some people. More information is just more to think about and more to convolute the whole process.

Here is some advice then: Don’t think too long about things.  As Clint Eastwood once said, “If you don’t know where you want to go, then you shouldn’t be here. Don’t screw things up by thinking about it.”

We get paralyzed at the crossroads of decision because we are afraid of the consequences, or we fear disappointing someone who is counting on us, or the decision requires we set aside what we had hoped would come true, or a hundred other reasons. We know we won’t get a second take with some things. And then as Christians, we get this added pressure of “God’s will.” We want to do God’s will, what God wants us to do, and we think there will be a complete and total disaster if we miss the secret plan he has for us, so we twist and writhe in the anguish of our decision, never feeling good about any direction we choose.

I don’t think there is an exact formula for finding God’s will. And every situation is so personal, no formula would hold up any way. Besides, the hang-up for most of us is not in the making of a decision. More times than not, it is answering this question: Do we have the courage, faith and resolve to do what we know we should and could do?

We may not always feel as confident as we would like when we set out to do what we sense to be right. We may struggle with doubts and fears and second guesses; these all mingling with our faith in a kind of gumbo.  Still, faith is more about the choice we make, rather than the emotion we feel. So get started. Don’t screw things up by thinking about it too long.

Check Your Own Pockets First

posted by ronniemcbrayer

In these days when it seems everything has become angry polarization, it’s not uncommon to hear someone in the heat of an argument invoke the familiar words of Jesus: “Judge not, so that you are not judged.” These words are probably misapplied as much as anything Jesus ever said.

Jesus’ prohibition against judging has less to do with our academic arguments than it does with how we treat people. The better translation of his words is, “Do not condemn others.” This changes the whole equation, as Jesus doesn’t ban “judgment” in the sense of discernment, making honorable choices, or being an informed person. Rather, Jesus is precluding the use of condemnation against others.

Yet, if you turn to the media, read much of what is printed by Christian publishers, listen to what is repeated in church pulpits, or spend time perusing the Christian blogosphere, it seems the only voice we Christians have is that of a crotchety old man, angry that the neighborhood kids won’t stay off our lawn.

Yes, some of what we say is healthy, principled dissent; but too much of it is an exhaustive collection of condemnation and angry finger-pointing, incensed as we are, at what everyone else is doing wrong. But by Jesus’ own word, the church is not permitted to become this type of condemnation-meting society. We are not called to operate a business of inflicting punishment on others. In fact, we aren’t called to mind others’ business at all.

In my vocation I often come across those who are hostile toward the Christian faith. I try to engage such individuals and learn something from them. What I have learned from people such as these, more often than not, is their exasperation over how we Christians frequently come across as a kind of moral SWAT team.

We intrude into the lives of others filling the air with the ammunition of “ought, should, and must” when we would be better served by turning our energies and attention to our own hearts and examine our own lives, not the lives of others. Dietrich Bonehoeffer said it like this, “Jesus is the only standard by which disciples should live, but he is not a standard we can apply to others. He is a standard we can only apply to ourselves.”

So, when we as Christians get blisteringly angry with those who sin differently than we do, we should remember to mind our business. That business is to love, not to condemn. That business is to begin with the self, for beginning there will keep us busy for a lifetime.

To that end, there is a wonderful story from famed Rabbi Mendel Futerfas, who survived years in the Soviet Gulags of Siberia. In the Gulag, one of the many activities that was prohibited and dealt with harshly was playing cards. Still, some of the inmates managed to smuggle in a deck of cards, and they would play for hours without the guards knowing.

Finally, however, an informant sold the card-playing prisoners out. The guards would storm in with surprise inspections looking for the cards, but could never find them. They checked every inch of the barracks including strip searches of the inmates, but the result was always the same: Nothing. Yet, as soon as the guards left, the cards would reappear and the games continued.

Rabbi Mendel couldn’t understand how this happened, but eventually the card players let him in on their secret. “You see,” they said, “we are professional pickpockets. As soon as the guards enter the barracks, we slip the cards into their pockets. Right before they leave, we slip them back out again. It never occurs to the guards to check their own pockets.”

“Judging” does not prevent us from having and sharing opinions. It doesn’t mean we can’t give a verbal witness to our faith. But it does mean we refuse – absolutely refuse – to condemn others. We leave “room in our hearts for God’s grace,” and that room is made possible by looking in and emptying our own pockets first.

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